Hugging the lower slopes of the magnificent, snowcapped Alborz Mountains, Tehran is Iran’s most secular and liberal city. Spend time here – as you should – and you’ll soon realise that the city is so much more than a chaotic jumble of concrete and crazy traffic blanketed by a miasma of air pollution. This is the nation’s dynamic beating heart and the place to get a handle on modern Iran and what its future will likely be.
Exploring this fascinating metropolis will transport you on a journey through more than 250 years of Iranian history – from the glittering Golestan Palace and the adjacent Grand Bazaar to the beautiful Azadi Tower and the notorious former US embassy. Then there are the city’s many excellent museums and serene gardens. In such places, as well as in contemporary cafes, traditional teahouses and on the walking trails in the mountains, you can relax and enjoy all that’s good about Tehran.
The glories and excesses of the Qajar rulers are played out across this complex of grand buildings decorated with beautifully painted tiles and set around an elegant garden that's worth visiting in its own right. There are separate tickets for nine different sections, which you need to buy at the gate: the ones worth paying extra for are the Main Halls, which includes the spectacular Mirror Hall, and the Negar Khaneh (Iranian Painting Gallery).
Sprawling across the foothills of Darband, this estate was a summer home to royals since the Qajar dynasty, although it was the Pahlavis who expanded it to the site you see today. Covering 110 hectares and comprising 18 separate buildings, it will take you a good three hours to see everything. For a glimpse into the luxurious life of the shahs, don't miss the extravagant 54-room White Palace, built in the 1930s. The more classical-looking Green Palace dates from the end of the Qajar era
The maze of bustling alleys and the bazaris (shopkeepers) that fill them make this a fascinating, if somewhat daunting, place to explore. Despite being known as the Grand Bazaar, most of the architecture is less than 200 years old and pedestrian, although there are some gems to be found. Visit in the morning, when business is brisk but not yet frantic – later in the day the chance of being run over by a piece of fast-moving haulage equipment is high.
In the Alborz foothills is the palace where Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his family spent most of the last 10 years of royal rule. It’s set in 5 hectares of landscaped gardens and has six separate museums, the best of which is the elegant 1960s Niyavaran Palace, with its clean lines, opulent interior and sublime carpets. Tickets must be bought before entering at the main gate. There's also a pleasant cafe with outdoor seating.
This epic-scale museum, on a landscaped site of 21 hectares, is dedicated to the Iran–Iraq War, a bloody eight-year conflict that claimed a million lives. The main building consists of seven halls that commemorate the war's martyrs and run you through the history of the conflict in forensic detail. It may sound harrowing, but it is, in fact, a fascinating and imaginative response to a deeply scarring episode in modern Iranian history.
The inverted-Y-shaped Azadi Tower, built in 1971 to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the first Persian empire, is one of Tehran's visual icons. Designed by Hossein Amanat, it ingeniously combines modern architecture with traditional Iranian influences, most notably the iwan-style of the arch, which is clad in 8000 pieces of white marble. It's worth going inside to see the complex structural engineering that forms the bones of the design and for the view from the gallery at the top.
Owned by the Central Bank and accessed through its front doors, the cavernous vault that houses what is commonly known as the ‘Jewels Museum’ is not to be missed. The Safavid, Qajar and Pahlavi monarchs adorned themselves and their belongings with an astounding range of priceless gems and precious metals, making this collection of bling quite literally jaw-dropping. Star pieces include the Globe of Jewels and the
Next door to the National Museum, and part of the same complex, this museum offers a stunning collection of arts and antiquities from throughout the Islamic period, including calligraphy, carpets, ceramics, woodcarving, sculpture, miniatures, brickwork and textiles. The collection includes silks and stucco-work from Rey, portraits from the Mongol period, a collection of Sassanian coins, and gorgeous 14th-century wooden doors and windows.
This imaginative sculpture park and museum occupies two former prisons, one for criminals and one for political prisoners, and the grounds surrounding them. The architects Experimental Branch of Architecture have done a cracking job on working with the historic site, placing quirky, contemporary artworks in cells and around the landscaped gardens, which include two pleasant cafes and a mosque.