Tehran is the capital and largest city in Iran. And it’s the place where most travellers to Iran start their trips. It’s a bustling modern capital city.
Persia has a long history. And the capital of Iran has a dizzying array of museums, galleries and tourist attractions. I’ve only covered the basics in this article.
There are so many museums no holiday maker could possibly see them all in a single trip. With that said, here’s some of what I saw in Tehran. And some ideas for where tourists thinking of visiting Iran should start.
Tehran | Background
Tehran is the 32nd national capital of Persia. Shah Abbas I of the Safavid dynasty moved the capital to Isfahan. And Karim Khan of the Zand dynasty moved the capital from Isfahan to Shiraz.
During the early Qajar dynasty around 1786 the capital was once again relocated. This time to Tehran.
Mass migration to Tehran began around the early 20th century. And for the last couple of decades Tehran has periodically appeared in the top 10 lists of fastest growing cities.
Getting around Tehran
Tehran is often portrayed in movies as a type of Middle Eastern backwater. And yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. Tehran is a bustling modern capital city.
Tehran is home to almost 9 million people. Bringing Tehran close to mega-city status. And with Tehran’s size comes all of the infrastructure and amenities of a modern capital city.
Tehran has international and domestic airports, a central railway station, rapid transit systems and a large bus network. It even has ‘Snapp‘ with a large network of private ride sharing drivers as an alternative to ‘Uber’ which doesn’t work in Iran. And ‘Snapp’ is quick, convenient, easy and cheap to use.
Getting around Tehran we used ‘Snapp’ for almost all our trips. Including to and from the inordinate number of modern western style shopping malls that are all over Tehran.
Anyone expecting difficulties flagging down cabs on dirt roads to reach local tent markets will be in for a shock. They’ll find themselves using smart phone apps with fast data to arrange transport in modern vehicles, on well maintained roads to ritzy shopping malls with car parks full of BMW, Porsche, Citroën and Peugeot.
Decades of US sanctions have had little to no noticeable effect on the pace of Iran’s modernisation. Likely due to Iran’s close relations with China and its highly educated populations ingenuity. It’s not uncommon to meet highly educated professionals everywhere in Tehran.
Take a ‘Snapp’ in Tehran and your driver likely has at least one Masters degree and perhaps a Phd. Doctors, engineers, lawyers, scientists and philosophers abound. But unlike say, Cuba, which also claims a highly educated population, I would actually trust an Iranian trained doctors medical advice.
Beyond an abundance of highly educated individuals among its resident population, Iranians in general and residents of Tehran in particular, are upwardly mobile. Large numbers of the people I met in Tehran had lived, worked and studied overseas. And this gives Tehran a large international city feel, with a uniquely Persian flavour.
Tehran | Tourist Attractions
There are more tourist attractions in Tehran than I could see in a single trip. With several millennia of history and with a highly educated population, there are more museums in Tehran than anyone could hope to visit in a single trip.
And these museums aren’t small. Each museum I visited would take a couple of hours to go through properly. Factoring in transport time to and from a museum, time going through the museum and a stop for food or coffee, you’re looking at least half a day per attraction.
Visit a palace complex and its the same. As there are always more than one building and many rooms and displays. The Cinema Museum and Ferdows Garden was probably the shortest visit we had. And it still took a couple of hours.
Be sure to take plenty of warm clothes as Iran’s weather can get quite cold. And wear shoes that are comfortable, easily removed and stable on uneven ground. Some areas have cobblestone type surfaces and you’ll need stability and grip. Plus a number of museums will have you remove your shoes or cover them with disposable slip on booties.
Golestan Palace | کاخ گلستان
The first thing that needs to be said about Golestan Palace is that it’s more than one building. It’s more of a palace complex around a large square. It consists of 17 structures that were built or renovated from older structures during the Qajar period.
Golestan Palace is a patchwork of over 400 years of building and renovation. It’s listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Of the many structures and rooms, four in particular stood out to me. The first two were somewhat outdoors and these were the Karim Khani Nook which was the favourite resting spot of Nasser ed Din Shah and now houses his tomb inside a glass case. And the second was the Marble Throne and terrace which played host to coronations of the Qajar kings and formal court ceremonies.
Moving inside the various buildings, many of the halls each stood out for different reasons. Among my favourites were the Ivory Hall, Containers Hall, Brilliant Hall and the Mirror Hall. With the Containers Hall housing gifts from monarchs all over the world including Napoleon, Nicolas I of Russia and Wilhelm II of Germany.
Going down into the basements of one structure there was the Photographic Archive (bottom right photo). Camera’s were supposedly common in the palace, even among the Shah’s wives and staff. And the archive holds a vast collection of photographs taken in the palace.
Niavaran Palace Complex | مجموعه کاخ نیاوران
The last Persian monarch to be coronated at Golestan Palace was Reza Shah. And Reza Shah built the Niavaran Palace Complex as his own modern palace. He was also responsible for ordering the demolition of portions of the Golestan Palace.
The complex at Niavaran was quite modern, even by today’s standards. The main palace roof at Niavaran is on rollers and can be retracted by motors opening the internal hall to the sky.
As an Australian I found the Chrysoprase stone table in the Shah’s former library quite interesting. It was presented to Reza Pahlavi in 1974 by Australian Governor-General John Kerr. Likely during the Shah’s visit to Australia when he toured NSW, VIC, QLD and the ACT.
Sa’dabad Palace Complex | مجموعه سعدآباد
The Sa’dabad Palace Complex is massive. It’s spread over 300 hectares. It’s so large in fact that we had to visit it on two separate occasions as it was not possible to see it in a day.
For me it was the ‘Green Palace’, Royal Cars Museum and the Royal Weapons Museum that were most interesting. And walking around the large gardens of the complex which has a river running through the middle.
There was also a smaller building toward the center of the complex that had a large selection of calligraphy. It doesn’t seem to appear on the ticket or in any of the online reviews. Yet it was most definitely worth seeing. The gentleman running this building at the time walked us through the premises and explained the history of different script and calligraphic styles.
National Museum of Iran | موزهٔ ملی ایران
The National Museum of Iran was fascinating. Beyond helping to better explain what we saw at Persepolis it held artefacts from all over the Persian empire and different civilisations.
Among the museums collections were some Persian Mastiff statues taken from the Apadana Palace at Persepolis. Also in the museums collections were a sequence of Sassanid and Elamite mummies found in salt mines. And the ‘Lady of Tehran’ found during excavations in the city who’s said to be one of the oldest mummies.
Cinema Museum of Iran | BAGH FERDOWS | Ferdows Garden | باغ فردوس
The mansion and garden date from the Qajar period (1800-1850). And the mansion now houses the Cinema Museum of Iran.
I enjoyed the coffee shop in the garden that also functions as a book shop. And walking around the garden there were lots of the flowers of the sort in the picture below, that look like colourful lettuce. I haven’t seen these flowers anywhere but Iran.
The Cinema Museum had a host of posters, photos and other Iranian movie memorabilia. As I’d never seen Iranian film I was a bit out of my depth in this museum. The one thing I will say is that I was completely surprised by the depth and volume of Iranian films. I honestly didn’t know there was Iranian cinema until I visited this museum.
Chitgar Lake | دریاچه چیتگر
Chitgar Lake is a huge man-made lake in Northwest Tehran. The 250 hectare site has modern boardwalks, coffee shops, malls and resorts.
The lake is even stocked with fish and you can rent fishing gear and fish in the lake. It was absolutely freezing in this area when we went in early December. Yet all the coffee shops had outdoor seating with blankets and strong gas heating. Making it a great place for a late night coffee or snack.
Tabiat Bridge | پل طبیعت
The Tabi’at Bridge is a large pedestrian bridge linking two parks. And ‘tabiat’ means nature in farsi. So it’s literally ‘nature bridge’ linking two green spaces and it had gardens built into it. And there were also cafes on the bridge.
The view it provides of the Alborz Mountains and the walking trails in the surrounding parks make the Tabiat Bridge a destination to visit. I enjoyed grabbing a coffee and going for a walk in the area.
Azadi Tower | برج آزادی
Unfortunately it was cold, raining and sleeting when we were trying to visit the Azadi Tower. So we didn’t get out and instead just drove around the outside a few times.
While there is a museum inside the Azadi Tower, most people visit just to see the tower as opposed to visiting the museum. And that’s what we were trying to do when we were foiled by the weather. If you’re taking any domestic flights from Tehran, the Azadi Tower is nearby to the domestic airport and you can combine trips.
Milad Tower | برج میلاد
The Milad Tower is Tehran’s sky needle. It’s the worlds 6th tallest tower and the 24th tallest freestanding structure in the world.
From the observation decks on the top floor, at a height of about 320 meters it provides a stunning view of surrounding Tehran. On the top floor of the tower there are wax displays of famous individuals, a cafe and multiple viewing areas to look out over different parts of the cityscape.
Definitely visit the Milad Tower at night. The air in Tehran can make for poor visibility. But at night the lights make for a great view out over Tehran. Definitely take a lot of warm clothing as its freezing up that high in Tehran at night.
The Tochal Telecabin is a cable car system running from just above Velenjak to the top of Tochal Mountain in the Alborz. There’s ski resorts from the 5th station up.
It’s one of the worlds longest gondola lift systems at over 7500 meters and it rises to altitudes above 3750 meters. It was built in 1974 and is one of the most popular recreational centres in Tehran.
For the more adventurous types there are even walking and climbing trails to the 5th station so you can walk up and gondola down or gondola up and walk down. The 5th station is at an altitude of 3000 meters so you’d have to be pretty adventurous to try it.
We settled for the coffee shops and took the telecabin both ways. If you’re not a fan of heights watch out with this attraction. As it’s set up over some seriously high cliffs and can develop a sketchy swaying motion in high winds.
Tehran | Conclusion
I absolutely loved Tehran. It reminded me a lot of Buenos Aires in Argentina. But Tehran was nicer and with more parks, gardens and museums. I could have spent months in Tehran just visiting museums.
The ever present backdrop of the Alborz Mountain range rising up behind Tehran like a huge wall makes for stunning scenery. And for those who enjoy walking trails and snow sports its the perfect city.
Just hop on the Tochal Telecabin and you’re in the snow in under an hour. Hop back on the Telecabin after a day of snowboarding and your back in the bustling metropolis of Tehran in an hour.
And for those spending longer in Tehran and looking for a getaway, you can even consider a trip to Mazandaran Province on the Caspian Sea.
Tehran has an abundance of things to do, see, eat and places to stay. While I didn’t check for an airbnb in Iran, with or without airbnb you won’t be short of cheap accommodation.
The exchange rate favours foreign currency in euro or USD brought into the county in cash. Meaning you won’t run out of things to do or cash to do things with.
Liked this article? Subscribe to the blog below and check out our other travel articles on Iran.