Iran is one of my favourite countries to travel and Tehran is the capital where you can find an incredible mix of people and culture. It’s a very safe city with extremely friendly locals, many of which are desperate to escape the rule of the Islamic regime but don’t want to leave their beloved Iran. I spent 4 weeks backpacking across Iran after entering from Armenia and then travelling onto Iraq.
- The hospitality of the Iranian people
- Darband village on the outskirts of Tehran
- The architecture
- Learning about the Islamic revolution
- The prices – travelling in Iran is extremely cheap
After travelling across Iran it was clear that Tehran was the most liberal city and one that has many people desperate to be freed from the oppressive Islamic Regime. Why is it referred to as an oppressive regime? Dancing and dog ownership is illegal, women must wear hijabs, Iranians need a special permit to leave the country, the list can go on.
Getting to Tehran
Tehran is a fairly well connected city with regular flights from the Middle East, Asia, Europe and over to their friends in Venezuela. As it’s the capital city there are also busses running from all across the country to Tehran. I arrived in Tehran on a 9 hour bus from Tabriz which cost 550,000IRR. The intercity buses across Iran are clean, quick, comfortable and cheap so travelling by bus across the country is the best option.
Internet in Tehran
I had previously bought a local sim card in Tabriz with the help of my Couchsurfing host but as long as you take your passport you can easily buy a sim card in Tehran. While the internet is relatively cheap it is limiting as most social media platforms are banned in Iran. If you want to use any banned websites or apps you’ll need to first download a VPN (many locals do this). Before arriving in Iran I’d used Couchsurfing and Tinder to meet locals, both are banned in Iran but I was contacted by people on both apps so had started chatting to them before arriving.
When to Travel to Iran
The best time to travel to Iran is in March when temperatures are cooler than summer but not as cold as winter (occasionally it snows in Tehran). March is also the month of Nowruz which is the beginning of the new year according to the Solar Hijri calendar used in Iran. There are many celebrations across Iran including some underground parties with alcohol, which if you chose to visit, be very careful as any police presence will almost certainly result in your arrest. I’m not condoning breaking the rules but just saying you decide the level of risk you want to take while travelling.
I travelled through Iran in September which is the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar and one which is considered holier than others. Ashura is the 10th day of Muharram and a very religious day where events are held across the country where men will sing, chant and whip themselves to share the torture endured by Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. I attended a few Ashura events but the most dramatic was in the city of Yazd which was an amazing experience and one I will write about soon.
In some ways, Tehran reminded me of when I first travelled to Colombia in 2010 where locals seem to make an extra effort to be nice to foreigners in order to change the outside worlds negative perception of the country….but in both cases the hospitality is genuine. Any negative preconceptions you have against Iran should be reassessed and as always, recognise the difference between the people and those in power. Tehran is a city full of wonderful people that are forcefully trapped under a regime which many don’t support.
The Islamic Revolution
I find revolutions that change countries fascinating, they all seem to spur from a genuine need for change. Often due to a greedy ruling class disproportionately benefiting from the countries wealth. But often once the dust has settled, the revolutionaries are just as greedy or oppressive as their predecessors and in the end it’s the general public that suffer the most and often don’t benefit from the revolution and its original purpose. Iran, Cuba, Venezuela all fall into this category and it’s been heartbreaking seeing people currently trapped in a society that seems to differ from the original purpose of the revolution. Strangely, these countries have been some of my favourite places to travel.
Where to Stay in Tehran
I stayed at Heritage Hostel which has a typical hostel feel but without the alcohol. The hostel has dorm rooms, private rooms and is a great place to meet other backpackers. A bed in a dorm room costs under $10 and it’s still one of the highest rated hostels in Tehran. I met a few other backpackers in the hostel that were heading south so we ended up spending the next 10 days travelling across Iran together.
Did you know that Iran, and Tehran in particular, has the highest percentage of rhinoplasty in the world? It’s very common to see women, and men, walking around the capital with bandages on their nose.
Tinder in Tehran
This section is published with the permission of Rahil.
The two apps I used to meet locals in Tehran, Couchsurfing and Tinder both seemed to be widely used. Back when I was single I used Tinder while travelling to meet locals, particularly before I arrived so I could arrange some things to do while visiting. Before arriving in Tehran I’d been chatting to Rahil who I’d met on Tinder and when I arrived she invited me to her house one evening. It’s illegal for an unmarried woman to be in the presence of a man at their home but I decided to go anyway. I guess a lot of people wouldn’t have gone to a strangers house they met on Tinder in Iran but I’m so glad I did.
I arrived at the apartment building and Rahil came downstairs to greet me and let me in. She was at home with her sister and told me her parents were away. It was a great chance for me to get to know one side of Iran behind closed doors. In her home, neither of them wore their hijabs and were with a single man they didn’t know. They told me what it was like growing up in Iran under the Islamic regime and how different it was to the stories their parents told them of the times before the revolution. Both Rahil and her sister love Iran but have considered leaving the country if things don’t change.
We spent the evening chatting and dancing before I took a taxi back to the hostel. They kindly offered to show me around the next day so we met in the morning to see Sa’dabad Palace before spending the afternoon in Darband. The next day they were both wearing hijabs and had long sleeves and long pants. Rahil had told me she was arrested when she was 11 years old for not dressing appropriately when she was wearing three-quarter pants that didn’t cover her ankles. The morality police thought she was older so she was taken to the police station with her older sister before her father came to explain that she was 11 and not yet required to cover completely.
Rahil and I still keep in contact I’m sure we’ll meet again.
Best Sites to See in Tehran
Darband is one of my favourite places in Tehran. It’s a picturesque mountain village located on the outskirts of Tehran where there are hiking trails, picnic areas, restaurants, and cafes. You can take a cable car to the top and then make your way down the ravine stopping at shops and restaurants often built over the flowing water. I went there with Rahil and her sister and we spent the afternoon drinking tea in a beautiful restaurant on a small wooden podium covered in Persian rugs above the stream of water below.
The Golestan Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tehran. The Palace was built in the 16th century and includes a number of buildings, gardens, museums, various rooms and halls decorated with intricate paintings and incredible mosaics. Inside the palace you can also see the mirror hall which is a room completely covered in mirrors in a mosaic style.
National Museum of Iran
The National Museum of Iran is one of the largest museums in the world and houses an extensive collection of artefacts and artwork from the country’s rich history. The museum is located in Tehran’s central district and is a great place to learn about Iran’s culture, heritage and traditional arts like carpet-weaving and pottery.
Sa’dabad Palace is a vast complex that was once home to the Iranian royal family. The palace grounds include a number of buildings, gardens, museums, and libraries, and is now open to the public as a museum. Visitors can explore the various rooms of the palace, which are filled with furniture, paintings, and other objects from Iran’s imperial past. The amount of wealth on display is impressive and makes you realise why some people were against the ruling family prior to the revolution.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest markets in the Middle East and a great place to find souvenirs and gifts. The bazaar is divided into several sections, each selling different goods, such as carpets, spices, jewellery, and clothing. The bazaar is located in Tehran’s central district and is has over 5,000 shops.
To get a complete 360 degree view over Tehran you can head to the Milad Tower which is the tallest in Iran. If it’s a clear day you can get stunning views over the city from the observation deck. There’s also a few restaurants, cafes, and shops.
Park-e Laleh is one of Tehran’s largest parks and is a great place to relax or take a walk. The park has a number of ponds, gardens, and walking trails, and is also home to a number of cafes and restaurants.
Azadi Tower is one of Tehran’s most iconic landmarks and was built to commemorate the country’s 2,500th anniversary. The tower stands at almost 50 meters tall and also has an observation deck. While the Milad Tower is much taller the Azadi tower is more impressive in my opinion.
Normally I wouldn’t put a shopping centre on the list of things to do while travelling but…the Iran Mall is the largest in the world, twice as large as the second biggest (IOI City Mall in Sepang, Malaysia). The huge structure was built in 2018 and has expanded since its first opening. At almost 2 million square metres the shopping centre has almost everything you’ve seen in any other shopping centre. It’s design attempts to create a traditional bazaar feel, mimicking historic markets from cities likie Tabriz, Isfahan and Shiraz.
The prison turned museum was once home to one of the Shah’s secret police forces, the SAVAK, where hundreds of political prisoners were incarcerated and many subject to severe torture. Once the Islamic Revolution took place in 1979 the prison was controlled by the Islamic Regime who renamed it Towhid prison and many report it being used as a prison where the regime tortured its enemies. The prison was eventually shut down in 2000 due to a human rights investigation.
Dogs in Tehran
One thing you’ll notice in Tehran is that there are hardly any dogs, although still a lot more than in other Iranian cities. This is because dog ownership is heavily discouraged and walking your dog or driving with a dog in your car is illegal. The Islamic regime believe that dogs are a dirty aspect of western-society which needs to be banned in Iran. Some politicians have said that people cannot pray where a dog has walked and many people wish to pray in parks.
Go To Tehran!
Everywhere you go you will feel welcomed by the Iranian people and they’ll be keen to hear your story and tell you a little about theirs. Many will invite you into their homes and want to share some time with you even if there is a huge communication barrier. My advice is to take (almost) all opportunities that come your way. However, although you may feel relaxed after travelling in Iran for a couple of weeks always keep in mind that you need to respect the local customs. There are lots of cases of foreigners being detained in Iran either rightfully or wrongfully, either way, always have your wits about you and you’ll be fine.
The Iranian hospitality extends beyond their borders. I left Iran by walking across the border to Iraq and after walking around like a lost tourist, it was an Iranian truck driver who approached me to offer me a lift. His first stop? to buy us some beers for the journey which you can’t get in Iran.