Tehran is a Mid-eastern jewel, the biggest city in Iran and one of the largest cities in the Middle East. Good climate, clear blue skies, its proximity to the mountains, its numerous parks and gardens with colorful blossoms throughout the year, and the sumptuous cuisine, all of this combines with many other factors to make this city a great place to visit.
At the time of the Zand dynasty, it was almost an insignificantly small town. The first of the Qajar kings, Agha Mohammed Khan, named it the country's capital in 1778, and it has remained so ever since.
Over half of Iran's industry is based in Tehran and it is also a leading center for the sale of carpets and furniture, and an oil refinery nearby is an added incentive to the city’s economy.
The Alborz range separates the central plateau front the lush Caspian littoral, the only part of the country where the rainfall is plentiful. With an immense network of highways, it is also the hub of the country's railway network.
The highest peak in the country, Mount Damavand, is an extinct volcano covered in snow. In the winter months, the mountain chalets and ski-clubs at Shemshak, Shahrestanak and Dizine are overwhelmed with visitors—local as well as from abroad. Some skiers consider the snow quality here to be one of the best in the world.
Small houses with zinc roofs nestle among the bushes. Some are private dwellings, but many are coffee-houses with mountain streams running alongside and customers seated in the ancient-style comfort of low divans covered with old carpets. It’s a picture-perfect scene of tranquility.
There are various theories about the origin of the name Tehran. Some say that Tehran comes from the Persian words ‘tah’ meaning ‘bottom’ and ‘ran’ meaning ‘slope’—bottom of the mountain slope which pertains to the city’s geographic position at the bottom of the slope of the Alborz Mountains. Others believe that it is derived from Tiran, which means ‘the abode of Tir’ (the Zoroastrian deity).
Human settlement in the region dates back from Neolithic times, and the development of Tehran has been quite gradual. Excavations reveal the existence of settlements in Tehran as far back as 6000 BC.
In the 13th century, following the destruction of Rages—the major urban centre in Persia at the time—by Mongols, many of its inhabitants fled to Tehran. Tehran began to develop in its place and soon replaced it by becoming as, if not more, prominent.
The city became the residence of the Safavid rulers in the 17th century. Tahmasp I built a bazaar and a wall around the city. In the early 18th century, Karim Khan Zand ordered a palace, a harem, and a government office to be built in Tehran. In 1789, Agha Mohammad Khan declared Tehran the capital of Persia.
In 1925 Reza Shah Pahlavi seized control of Iran. The Shah believed that ancient buildings did not belong in a modern city so he ordered some of the city’s most treasured architectural marvels to be systematically destroyed and were replaced by modern buildings. The Tehran bazaar was divided and many historical buildings were razed to the ground in order to build wide straight avenues in the capital. Many excellent examples of Persian Gardens also had to make way for new construction projects.
In 1979, the city was at the center of uprisings that toppled the shah. The capital was also the target of numerous Iraqi strikes during the Iran-Iraq War. During the World War II, British and Soviet troops entered the city, and it was also the site of the Teheran Conference in 1943.
Only very little examples of the classical architecture of the city survive today, of which the Grand Bazaar and the Golestan Palace are the best examples.
The Golestan Palace (the Rose Garden palace) was the Qajars' royal residence and stands as a monument to the excesses of the Qajar shahs. The palace compounds include several buildings that are open to the public. You can wander around the gardens and admire the painted tile work. The garden has a pavilion that shelters one of the best organized museums in Tehran. It showcases everything that makes up the basic originality of Iranian life in the various provinces of the country. The main building too houses a museum with items from the Qajar period.
The Ivan-e Takht-e Marmar (Marble Throne Verandah), is a ceremonial hall containing an imposing alabaster throne. The Marble Throne is a 250 year old royal throne kept in the Golestan Palace today. It was built 1751 for Karim Khan Zand. The throne's supports are carved in the shape of men, women, fairies, and demons.
The Niavaran Palace Complex consists of several buildings and a museum. The Sahebqraniyeh Palace of Qajar dynasty is also inside this complex. This palace was the primary residence of the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Some other museums that are worth a visit are the Negar Khane that has a gallery with a fine collection of Qajar artworks; and the many-mirrored Shams-Al Emarat (Edifice of the Sun), once the tallest building in Tehran. The National Museum of Iran has ceramics, stone figures and carvings from as far back as the 5th century BC. The Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini is an enormous shrine-cum-shopping center. The Glass and Ceramic Museum is one of the most impressive in Iran—noted for the exhibits as much as for the building itself which is from the Qajar period. Founded in 1976, the Carpet Museum presents a variety of Persian carpets from all over Iran, some dating from 18th century. The exhibition hall spans 3,400 sq m and its library contains 7,000 books.
However, if you want to get a taste of truly excessive wealth, make a trip to the Treasury of the National Jewels. If you only visit one museum in Tehran, this should be it. Here you'll get to see a collection of some of the most expensive jewels in the world—rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and pearls set onto everything from crowns and scepters to cloaks, jewel boxes and swords. Its most treasured possessions include the world's largest uncut ruby, the world's largest pink diamond (the Sea of Light) and a free standing golden globe made from 34 kg of gold with rubies forming the countries and emeralds the oceans, and the famous Peacock Throne.
The best feature of the city is the magnificent snow-covered Alborz mountain range. From the city, you can easily to escape to the countryside and visit towns such as Lavasan and Fasham located over the mountains. Three major ski pistes, Shemshak, Dizin and Darbandsar are just two hour drive from the capital. There are hotels and chalets that are open for visitors all throughout the year.
The highest peak in the country, Mount Damavand (5,678 m), is an extinct volcano and has for centuries, attracted mountaineers, nomads and legends to its snow-covered slopes. The epic hero Feraydun wrestled and defeated the evil giant Zahhak, chaining him to a cave on the mountain peak. On a clear day, the 18,550 foot cone is visible from Tehran, fifty miles away.
The Azadi Tower is the first landmark visitors encounter while driving into the city from the Mehrabad International Airport. This 50 m high tower forms the main part of the museum. An audio-video hall has been developed in the complex that displays the regional characteristics of Iran, its culture, life style, and religious and historical monuments. The Diorama hall with 12 chambers displays activities in agriculture, handicrafts, and modern industry.
The Milad Complex or the Tehran International Trade and Conventions Center is one of the largest structures in Iranian architecture. It has the world's 4th highest tower which houses several restaurants, a hotel, convention center, a world trade center, and an IT park.
The US Den of Espionage is what remains of the US embassy in which American citizens were held hostage for over a year. A bookshop nearby sells copies of shredded documents found at the embassy—documents outlining coup plots, CIA agent covers and other secrets, laboriously glued back together.
Wander around Tehran's massive bazaar and explore the labyrinth of stalls and shops that were once Imam Khomeini's greatest sources of conservative, pro-Revolution support. The Grand bazaar has played host to banks and financiers, mosques and guest houses. Its many corridors total over 10 km in length.
What to Eat
The staple diet here consists of meat kebabs, rice and bread. In most restaurants though, single males have to sit in a separate section.
Some of the local delicacies in this part of the world are osh (a thick barley stew with yoghurt), qormeh sabsi (dish containing spinach, beans, meat and lemon), abgousht (a meat and vegetable stew), fesenjan (chicken in pomegranate and walnut sauce), and shirin polo (chicken breast with, rice and sliced almonds). However, the most popular dish by far is chelo kabab (marinated charcoal-grilled lamb served over rice).
Spend some time in a tea house sipping tea and try out dizi or abgusht, a soup-stew combination which you can also partially prepare yourself at the table. And don’t forget to stock up on dried nuts and fruit from the many shops here.
Tehran's Mehrabad airport is in the process of being replaced by the new Imam Khomeini International Airport.
It is a three-day train from Istanbul to Tehran and you need to change trains in between.
Almost every city in the country has bus services to Tehran. The city has four major bus terminals: The Western bus terminal is the biggest, busiest and best equipped of Tehran's terminals. The other three are the Eastern bus terminal, Southern bus terminal and the Central bus terminal.
Tehran has an extensive network of busses but it can be confusing for visitors since the bus numbers, route descriptions and other information are all in Persian, but if you ask, a local will surely stop to help.
Tehran's new metro system has three lines that will take you from one end of the city to the other minus the noise, pollution and chaos of the city’s traffic. All station names are printed in English as well, but announcements are only in Persian. The metro is segregated, with two women-only carriages at one end of the train.
The roads are congested, the traffic situation is bad and pollution levels are high, but you could still opt for taxi cabs if you have the patience to brave these factors. You can choose between private and shared taxis, although flagging down a shared taxi can be more difficult amid the traffic and chaos. Motorcycle taxis are another option and offer a way to weave quickly through the city's traffic-clogged streets.
The best times to visit the city are during mid-April to early June and then from late September to early November. It is best to avoid coming here during the Iranian New Year (around the end of March). Many restaurants close between dawn and dusk during the month of Ramadan.
Persian is the official language, but Kurdish and Azeri are also spoken
Iranian Rial (IR). Most ATM's in Iran do not accept non-Iranian cards so bring all the money you might need in cash. Prices here are quoted in tomans, a thousand tomans is equivalent to ten thousand rials.