Tehran holidays, Iran

Most journeys to Iran begin in the capital Tehran, the country’s most liberal, secular city. Here, top notch museums, modern cafes, concrete high rises and a cacophony of traffic live alongside traditional tea houses, peaceful gardens and elegant remnants of the city’s past lives, including the exquisite Golestan Palace and the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar. The city is backed by the dramatic, snow tipped Alborz Mountains, a stunning and ever present spectacle that hints at natural wonders to come.
Starting life as a village in the 11th century, Tehran grew into a prosperous trading centre by the mid-13th century and was a full blown walled city full of towers, vineyards and gardens by the 1700s – leading to its nomination as the country’s capital in 1786 by Qajar King Agha Mohammad Khan. By the 20th century it had become one of the largest and most influential cities in the region, and the site of plenty of political turmoil.

What to see in Tehran

Golestan Palace

This lavish palace complex and its gardens provide welcome respite from the noise and bustle of the surrounding city streets. Originally built in the south of Tehran during the Safavid dynasty, its most famous features were added in the 19th century, when the Qajar ruling family chose it as their royal residence, combining traditional Persian architecture with 18th century European influences.

There are several palaces and museums in the complex, featuring striking archways, mirrored halls and ceilings and intricate decorative tiles. Seven of them are open to the public, including the Ethnographic Museum, the mirrored Ivan-e Takht-e Marmar audience hall and the Negar Khane Art Gallery, which features both Qajar era and modern art. You should also make time for a stroll in the gardens, which feature beautiful floral displays, marble courtyards and tiled ponds.

Grand Bazaar

The name ‘Grand Bazaar’ may conjure up images of ancient alleyways, but it only dates back to the 19th century and the Qajar dynasty. The simple brick architecture isn’t as dazzling as the city’s other gems, but you don’t come here for the architecture; rather for the chance to explore over 10km of bustling lanes and the shops and stalls that fill them. The bazaar is divided into sections so it’s easier to find what you want. Need fresh saffron? Head for the spice bazaar. A new watch? The gold bazaar would be your best bet. As well as a bewildering amount of shop and stalls, you’ll also find banks, restaurants a fire station and several mosques.

National Jewellery Museum

Housed inside the Islamic Republic’s Central Bank, with suitably tight security to match, the National Jewellery Museum hosts an astounding amount of bling – from gargantuan single gems to jewel encrusted furniture – amassed by the monarchs of the Safavid, Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties. Highlights include the Darya-ye-Nur, which at 182 carats is the largest uncut diamond in the world; a Globe studded with 51,363 pieces of precious stones, including rubies and emeralds; and the Pahlavi crown, used by Shah Mohammad Reza and weighing in at over 2kg, thanks to the almost 4,000 diamonds embedded in its surface.

National Museum of Iran

While the building and its layout could do with some modernisation, the National Museum is still the place to come of you want to get to grips with Iran’s colourful history. It’s home to around 300,000 treasures taken from archeological explorations, including sculptures, textiles, rare books, pottery and ceramics. The cavernous 20,000 sq metre space is divided into two sections: the Museum of Ancient Iran and the Museum of the Islamic Era.

Darband

Just north of the city, Darband is a mountainous area accessed by chairlift, by foot or by donkey, and the jumping off point for longer hikes up to the flanks of Mount Tochal (3,933 m). The view, whilst often quite hazy, is impressive nevertheless, with the vast Tehran sprawl spread out below you. In the Darband foothills is the 110 hectare Sa’d Abad Museum Complex. Once a summer home to royals from the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties, it holds 18 separate palaces and other buildings offering insight into the glamorous lives of the shahs.

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Best time to visit Tehran

April and May, and September to early November, are the best times to go to Tehran. The weather is relatively mild, so it’s a good time for sightseeing or walking in the nearby hills. Summer is hot and can be very humid, and while winter isn’t as cold as some other places in the country, air pollution tends to be at its worst during December and January.

During the two-week Nowruz (Iranian New Year) the city’s streets are pleasantly empty and the traffic reduces dramatically as people pour out of the city to head home for the holiday. While many shops and businesses are shut, most museums and other cultural attractions remain open to the public.

How to get to Tehran

Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKIA) is where most international flights land. There are direct flights from several cities including, Vienna, Frankfurt or Istanbul, so you may need to transfer. You might also arrive overland in Tehran via an overland tour, following the legendary Silk Road, on a small group adventure through not only Iran but also Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and possibly China and Turkey too.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mahdiar Mahmoodi] [Top box: Ninara] [Grand Bazaar: Diego Delso] [Darband: hassan jafari] [How to get there: Ninara]
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