Tehran, Iran: the Unexpectedly Awesome City

I know what you might be thinking about Tehran. I can assure you, you’re probably wrong.

Tehran, Iran – a city that conjures up so many images in the minds of different people. Many in the West think of Tehran as the epicenter of all that is base and troublesome in the Middle East. Others see it as the city that will be a springboard for political activism and reform in modern Iran. Politics aside, Tehran is an enigma for many including those who actually live there. What is certain is that anyone who really wants to understand what modern Iran is about must at least spend some time in Tehran to get a glimpse of where the country has been as well as where it’s heading.

Hopefully this guide will help star us on such a journey.

Brief History of Tehran

In a sense, Iran’s capital city of Tehran doesn’t really have a long history. What was once barely a village 150 years ago has transformed into a sprawling and, relatively speaking, cosmopolitan metropolis somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 million people.

The early history of Tehran is tied to the ancient city of Rey (a.k.a. Ray), now ironically a suburb of the capital and believed to be the oldest settlement in today’s Tehran province. In fact, Rey is a historically significant city as many ancient Persian and Zoroastrian myths and legends took place within it’s vicinity (it is mentioned in Avesta texts and perhaps even in old Achaemenian archives as a Median city which the Romans later called Rhaga). 1 Even after the Arab conquest, Rey was still an important center of Persian culture and learning until it was all but obliterated by the Mongols in the 13th century. As Rey declined in population and importance, Tehran began to take off as a little more than a trading village.

Old photo of Tehran’s Qazvin gate
What was then the village of Tehran came to prominence in 1795 when Mohammad Khan Qajar of Iran’s newly formed Qajar Dynasty made it his capital due to its mild weather and close location to Iran’s Caucasus possessions of Georgia, Azerbaijan, parts of Armenia and Dagestan. Let’s not also forget that the spectacular view of the towering Alborz Mountains of northern Iran could also have played a part in his decision to make this backwater village the capital of his empire. Tehran however lacked any sort of infrastructure or even semblance of the capital city of a powerful nation and thus in 1867, the extravagant Qajar monarch Shah Nasser al-Din went on a building spree and hired a French military officer and amateur urban planner to tear down Tehran’s old city walls and build broad new boulevards like those of Paris. Nasser al-Din’s goal was to make Tehran a city as great as St. Petersburg or Vienna.

In the mid 19th century, the city’s population was just under 100,000 souls; by 1920 it had grown to around 200,000 citizens. Today the city is believed to have at least 15 million people, meaning that roughly one in every six Iranians lives within the greater Tehran metropolitan area. Such rapid urbanization has also completely transformed the landscape of this once pristine village. Replacing the 50 or so royal horse-drawn carriages of yesterday are an estimated three million pollution-pumping cars. 2 With all of the smog that this has created, one would be lucky to catch a glimpse of the Alborz Mountains now.

Tehran Today

Tehran is a dynamic city like any other major metropolis in the world. There are many parts of Tehran, especially in the north, that are on par with the great western urban centers in terms of modernity and culture. While the Islamic government prohibits bars and western-style lounges, one can find many posh restaurants and chic cafes throughout the city and many American-style shopping malls carrying the latest (sometimes illegally imported) goods and electronics from all over the world. In fact if you just stay in the northern suburbs of Tehran, you may think that you’re in parts of Switzerland or Austria, the only real difference being fewer blondes and all of the women wearing some sort of head covering.

Of course the northern parts of Tehran are only part of the city. As is the case with the rest of Iran, Tehran is a place of many contrasts and contradictions. In some places you’ll swear that with the exception of the light headscarfs that some of the women are barely wearing, you could be in a trendy suburb of Rome or Amsterdam. Most other places though the women will wear the traditional and all-ecompassng chador. Some parks are wonderful places to go with families while others are known to be filled with drug addicts. The further south you go down Tehran’s main avenue of Vali Asr (nearly 20 km from one end to the other), the more poverty and dilapidated buildings you’ll start to see that remind you that you are not in Geneva but indeed a developing, Middle Eastern country.

Tehran though is a great place for anyone to learn about modern Iran and the challenges that the country and people face. In this author’s opinion, the extremely friendly and hospitable people are the city’s main attraction. Aside from that though, many of the following things to see and do are also worth the visit to Iran’s capital.

Things to See and Do in Tehran, Iran

Azadi Tower in Tehran, Iran

Most of the postcards that you’ll see of Tehran will contain the Azadi, or “freedom” Tower on them. Standing at 45 meters tall, the Azadi structure was actually built in 1971 and commissioned by the country’s last monarch Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to commemorate 2500 years of monarchy in Iran. The structure has an interesting blend of motifs and designs from pre-Islamic Achaemenian and Sassanian eras as well as the Islamic Timurid and Seljuk periods. At one time there were two small museums at the base of the monument but these at time of writing were closed. You can walk to the monument from the Azadi street bus terminal but be careful! In order to do so, you’ll have to cross six lanes of Tehran traffic which is some of the most anarchic in the world. 3

Milad Tower

Milad Tower
Completed in 2007, the 435 meter Milad Tower was built in part to help improve Tehran’s image as a modern, cosmopolitan city. The tower is the sixth-largest of its kind in the world and contains 12 floors in its upper pod with offices and some restaurants. The best parts of the tower are the observation decks that allow for some pretty striking views of Tehran and the Alborz Mountains in the distance. The Milad Tower is part of the Tehran International Trade and Convention Centre that also includes a upscale shopping areas at its base.

The Palaces of Tehran

As a royal capital for nearly two centuries, Tehran obviously has palaces that once housed their monarchs, both Qajar and Pahlavi. Though beautiful beyond belief, they are also reminders of the opulence and excess and well, the totally different world that these sovereigns occupied in comparison with most Iranians, both back then and today. These places though are probably the highlight of any trip to Tehran.

Golestan Palace

Ivan-e Takht-e Marmar

Built during the Qajar dynasty’s rule when they moved the capital to Tehran, what today has become known as Golestan Palace really is a massive complex made up of a series of buildings, many of which are today separate museums (meaning that you’ll have to pay admission separately for each one). Originally a Safavid citadel and then the Tehran residence of another one of Iran’s kings, Karim Khan Zand, the current palace was commissioned by Nasser al-Din Shah in the late 1800s and called “Golestan,” meaning rose garden. The palatial complex was expanded several times to build more lavish audience halls and extended personal chambers for members of the royal family. However during the Pahlavi Dynasty that followed the Qajars, several of the original buildings were torn down to make room for the new Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Roads and the offices of Iran’s national bank.

Hall of Mirrors, Golestan Palace – Tehran, Iran

One of the main parts of the palace that you’ll probably venture into is the Ivan-e Takht-e Marmar, which is a large mirrored and marble audience hall with a grand throne. Built by the Qajar King Fath Ali Shah, the throne is supported by several carved figures and made of alabaster that was mined in and around the region of Yazd, Iran. This particular hall was used for lavish royal occasions including the coronation of Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1925. 4

One of the great feuds of Iranian royal politics was between the Qajars and the Zands, the dynasty which preceded them. When the Qajars came to Tehran and chose the grounds that became Golestan palace to become their home, there was already a residence which had belonged to the late Karim Khan Zand on the site. The Qajar monarchs tore down what was left of the Zand structure and brought the bones of deceased Karim Khan Zand from the city of Shiraz to the new palatial complex for burial. This was not done out of any reverence or respect for Karim Khan but was rather meant as an insult; over the newly-placed remains of Karim Khan, Qajar Shah Agha Mohammad built a throughway for all who entered the palace to walk over his hated (and dead) rival. All that is left of Karim’s home is the Khalvat-i Karim Khani, or “Karim’s corner” where Nasser al-Din Shah used to laze around and smoke.

Other parts of the Golestan complex worth seeing are the Versailles-inspired Hall of Mirrors and several of the art galleries with both Persian and European-style paintings.

These of course are just the highlights. There is plenty more to see at Golestan Palace and so it’s probably best to dedicate at least 3-4 hours here, if not more.

Sa’dabad Palace

Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran
The last of Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was often accused of being out of touch and extremely distant from his people. If you take a look at his opulent residence at Sa’dabad (also spelled Saadabad) in northern Tehran, it’s not hard to see how this could have been. This palatial complex of 18 buildings that was built by his father, Reza Shah, is sprawled over 100 hectares with amazing views of the Alborz mountains in the background. It was the Shah’s private kingdom within a kingdom. Today though most of these buildings have been converted into museums that are open to the public.

Brace yourself if you plan (and you should) on seeing the wonders of this place. There are so many things to see here that it is possible to spend the entire day touring the palace grounds. The must sees though are some of the following:

White Palace

Known commonly as the White Palace, this building was the summer home of the last two Pahlavi kings and their families. There once was a large bronze statue of Reza Shah in front which was torn down during the country’s Islamic revolution in the late 70s, but the 54 rooms that make up the palace remain largely intact. Many of these rooms still include priceless works of art from the Shah’s personal collection. In the Ceremony Hall is a 143-square-meter carpet believed to be the largest ever woven in Iran. In the basement of the palace is the Nation’s Art Museum.

Shahvand (Green) Palace

Shahvand Palace, a.k.a. the Green Palace due to the greenish marble interior of parts of the building, is another one of Saadabad’s grand structures. The palace was actually built by the Qajars but later remodeled by the Pahlavis into what it is now. The palace features wall-to-wall mirrors which after leaving you in awe may cause vertigo if you keep turning around to view them. I’m kidding (not really).

As mentioned earlier, many of the 18 or so buildings have been converted into museums that include the Museum of Fine Arts, the Royal Automobile Museum (Shahs love their cars), the Military Museum and the Royal Dishware Museum. Yes, this is a museum dedicated to showing the public the opulent objects on which the Shah and his family used to eat on.

As mentioned earlier, there is a lot to do here so make sure that you allow at least half a day if not a full one to really get a feel for this majestic marvel.

One interesting and ironic fact is that though the Shah used to live here, the current President of Iran also now resides within the Saadabad complex. I suppose the revolutionaries may have hated the Shah and all that he stood for but not luxurious living quarters.

Niyavaran Palace

Also in northern Tehran is Niyavaran Palace, where the last Shah and his family spent the majority of their time, especially during the last 10 years before their exile from Iran. Though smaller than Saadabad and Golestan (see above), Niyavaran is no less opulent and offers a unique glimpse into the world of the last Iranian royals. The palace of Sahebqaranieh was where Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi lived and worked and is more or less been kept just the same as when he left. Connected to Sahebqaranieh is the Jahan-Nama Museum which features the personal art collection of Iran’s last Queen, Farah Diba. With works by Picasso, Warhol and ancient archaeological artifacts, it really is an art collection fit for a queen.

The main palace at Niyavaran (conveniently called Niyavaran Palace) is probably the most modern and stylish of all of the buildings here. I mean, how many other palaces have a retractable roof that opens up so that you can directly gaze at the stars and night time sky? Along with the normal opulence that is typical of Persian palaces, Niyavaran contains one really cool carpet depicting Iranian kings dating back to the Achaemenids. You can also see Mohammad Reza Shah’s many uniforms and Queen Farah Diba’s collection of party gowns.

The other must see thing at Niyavaran is the Ahmad Shahi Pavilion, the former home of the last Qajar Shah of Iran. It is also where the last crown prince, Reza, lived with his odd collection of objects including model planes, a moon rock that was given to him by Richard Nixon and other personal objects of a young and future king.

Museums of Tehran

One of Tehran’s strong points are the fine museums that are scattered throughout the city, the best of which are listed below.

National Museum of Iran

National Museum of Iran

The National Museum of Iran (Muze ye Melli ye Irān) is the country’s prime archaeological and history museum. Designed and later curated by French archaeologist and architect André Godard, the museum houses a wide collection of artifacts from Iran’s past as far back as at least the 4th millennium BCE. Highlights include a wide collection of statues, pottery, stone carvings and countless archaelogical treasures from the ancient Persian heartland and fabled cities of Persepolis, Pasargadae, Susa, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan), Rey, Qazvin and other areas of Iran.

The façade of the building was designed to look like the legendary Sassanian audience hall at Ctesiphon, now in modern Iraq. The rest of the building employs a mix of styles including ancient Achaemenid and Islamic designs and motifs.

The more famous artifacts include the (headless) statue of Darius that was made in Egypt but found at Susa, the statue of a Parthian prince or noble, a lion statue from the apanda at the Achaemenid capital of Persepolis and four cuneiform tablets. One should also visit the “Salt Man,” supposedly a 4th century miner from Iran’s Zanjan province whose body, beard and some personal belongings have been remarkably preserved due to the salt in which he was found in. Other notable artifacts include probably the best collection of bronze weapons and figurines from 8th century BCE Lorestan and colorful pottery shards from all over the country.

Museum of the Islamic Period

This museum is actually joined to the National Museum of Iran (see above) and houses objects mostly from the post-Arab conquest of the country. Objects and artifacts include mostly Qur’ans with exquisite calligraphy, Persian-style miniature paintings, tiles, ceramics, coins and some textiles.

National Jewels Museum

From National Jewel Museum

This is one museum that really lives up to the hype. Inside, one will find some of the most exquisite and expensive (priceless really) jewels mostly from the Safavid, Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties. So grand is this collection that much of it was transferred to the Central Bank of Iran in the 1930s as a reserve for the country’s currency. Some of the most interesting exhibits include Fath Ali Shah’s Kiani crown, the world’s largest pink diamond (known as the Darya-i Nur, or “Sea of Light.”) and Nasser al-Din’s Globe of Jewels, made from over 50,000 precious stones.

Museum of Contemporary Art

This museum was to be the Shah of Iran’s answer to the MOMA and the Guggenheim. Designed by Queen Farah Diba’s cousin, the museum houses a collection of works reportedly to be worth in the range of $2-5 billion. The collection includes works by Dalí, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and many more of the West’s most famous artists. Some conservative clerics deemed the museum to be a sort of cultural threat to Iran’s culture and values that during the term of hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the museum was actually closed due to it being symbolic of “Western liberalism.” 5 However today the museum should be open to public visitors.

Reza Abbasi Museum

Calligraphy of Mir Emad Hassani
Reza Abbasi was one of the greatest artists of the Safavid period in Iran. Though it includes some of his work, the museum that bears his name is really a tribute to all of Iran. There are many exhibits containing the art and artifacts from many periods in Iran’s history. There are many decorative objects dating from the Achaemenid-era, priceless calligraphic works of art and many old illustrated manuscripts from classic Persian works of literature including Firdowsi’s Shahnameh and the Gulestan of Sa’adi. It is probably one of the best museums depicting the large range of Persian art to be found in Iran.
Reza Abbasi Museum
More information can be found on the museum’s web site, also in English.

Carpet Museum

The Tehran carpet museum houses over 100 carpets dating from ancient times until the modern era. Persian carpets are amongst the most intricate and have the best variety of styles and designs in the world. This museum plays tribute to their long history both in Iran and beyond.

Tehran Ceramics and Glass Museum

The building that today is known as the Ceramics and Glass Museum was built by a wealthy Persian family before becoming the former embassy of Egypt. There are hundreds of neatly organized exhibits from all over Iran including Nishapur, Rey and Kashan, all areas that are known for their fine ceramic and glasswork.

Iranian Film Museum

This old mansion is the home of Iran’s first movie theatre. Here you will find posters, photos and of course, films and screenings from Iran’s century-old film industry. It’s actually a really interesting place where you’ll see a lot of young and trendy people hanging out.

Former US Embassy (Den of Spies)

Probably nothing has hindered US-Iran relations from resuming to a some sense of normalacy than the hostage crisis from November 4, 1979 – January 20, 1981. It at this site that US diplomats and embassy personnel were held for 444 days during the early days of the newly-formed Islamic Republic of Iran. Though well over three decades ago, images of those blind-folded Americans still linger in memories of many Americans and Iranians alike. Today the place is a museum that is rarely open (I’ve heard only for a week or two in February) where visitors, if lucky enough to be allowed to enter, can see remnants of what was at the time one of the largest US in the world. However it’s the revolutionary murals painted on the outside of the building that are the most interesting facet of the former embassy.

You can see more photos of the former US embassy here.

Shohada Museum

This is a museum dedicated to the soldiers and victims of the 8-year long Iran-Iraq war. It’s also conveniently located next to the former American Embassy.

Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge

Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge
Though images on TV and in the media might show the opposite, the Iranian capital of Tehran in many ways is a very modern place. You can see examples of this with newly constructed buildings and civic projects such as the Milad Tower and the new the Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge. Designed by Iranian architect Leila Araghian, the bridge is more than just a means to cross from one side to another: it’s an urban oasis in a sea of cars and concrete.

Parks in Tehran

Though modern Tehran is known to be one of the most polluted and congested cities on earth, it does have its areas of respite and relaxation. Two of the more popular parks for recreation that are amongst the best places in Tehran for people-watching are Park-i Mellat and Park-i Laleh.

Laleh Park

Centered around a small lake, Park-i Mellat is the place where Tehranis, especially younger ones, go to get some respite from day-to-day life and social restrictions of the Islamic Republic. Though dating is not officially allowed, many young couples and adults come here for as much romance as they can get in a public space. The other well-known park is Park-i Laleh, an oasis in the urban sea of traffic and confusion that at times is Tehran.

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