Tehran is the city travellers love to hate, with many avoiding a stay here altogether en route to Iran’s more popular tourist destinations. But as Mike Milotte discovers, the capital’s gorgeous galleries, sociable locals and exhilarating pace give it a beautiful side too.
Iranian friends and our guide/interpreter alike think we’re mad, but we persist with our plan to spend 10 days of our month-long visit to Iran in the polluted and architecturally unattractive capital, Tehran.
For my part, eleven museums, six art galleries and three bazaars later – not to mention two mountain trips, one cinema visit and a memorable night at home with a Tehrani family – I’m glad we persevered.
The plaza outside the main bazaar is a great spot for people-watching. The streets are teeming, not with mullahs or gun-toting police as I had anticipated, but with seemingly carefree shoppers, armed with mobile phones. There are lots of head-to-toe black chadors, but just as many women wear cheerful loose-fitting headscarves, tight jeans and dramatic makeup.
Meeting Tehranis is remarkably easy and richly rewarding. As we try to buy saffron, piled high at the very un-touristy Tajrish bazaar, a young woman asks in broken English if we need help. We get talking. ‘N’ is an artist, and one of her friends has an exhibition at the renowned Seyhoun art gallery. We’re invited along, and are soon chatting to half a dozen of the city’s brightest young painters, N’s friends, who excitedly show us their work on smart phones and tablets. We adjourn to a working studio, home to illicit life drawing classes, where we drink tea and leave with a fabulous landscape painting that will grace our living room.
Next day, in the unpeopled galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art, a staff member tells us 3,000 works by western painters like Picasso, Van Gogh, Bacon, etc – all deemed degenerate – languish in the basement while ‘safe’ Iranian art bedecks the walls. ‘That’s why no-one bothers coming,’ our informant asserts. Later, in the Carpet Museum next door, an attendant eagerly points out some 18th century Persian rugs depicting erotic imagery where more than female heads are laid bare. ‘How come they’re still on show?’ I ask. He just smiles back.
As the only foreigners in most of the places we visit, we are an endless source of interest to shyly curious Tehranis. One such encounter, during a lung-reviving mountain walk at Darband, ends with an invitation to dinner in the family home. The women all wear party dresses and have their heads and arms uncovered, illegal, even at home, when a male stranger is present. French wine and Russian vodka, smuggled from Iraq, are offered, and after an unforgettable meal of lamb with walnuts and pomegranate, we settle down to watch television.
Zigzagging back to our hotel in a bone-shaking taxi without seatbelts, our driver, a talkatively wise man with reasonable English, points out ranks of enormous SUVs – gleaming Porsches, Mercs, BMWs and Audis – waiting for their owners to spill out of fashionable and expensive eateries in Tehran’s northside. ‘Sanctions’, he says, ‘have made a small number of businessmen with political friends fantastically rich.’
Am I imagining it, or is it beginning to feel more and more like home here?
A young couple admire the view of Tehran at dusk. Image by Amos Chapple / Lonely Planet Images / Getty
Glass and Ceramics Museum
Stunning artefacts from the 2nd millennium BC onwards, beautifully displayed and annotated. We were the only visitors which meant we could ooh and aah without embarrassment.
A display at Tehran’s Glass and Ceramics Museum. Image by Mike Milotte / Lonely Planet
Reza Abbasi Museum
The exhibits, starting from around 2000BC, are without exception quite exquisite – especially the gold work – and as few people seem to visit, you might have it entirely to yourself.
A massive Asian flea market staged on Fridays only, when the main bazaar is closed. Come prepared to buy stuff you neither need nor want but will treasure for ever. Increase the pleasure by haggling hard.
Carpet Museum of Iran
Look out for two enormous carpets depicting (among others) Napoleon, and see if you can spot the difference in how he’s depicted. The carpets are beautiful but unlike its Turkish equivalent in Istanbul, this museum’s signage isn’t great.
Colourful detail in the Carpet Museum of Iran. Image by Mike Milotte / Lonely Planet
Taxi ride across town
You’ll probably survive it, and you’ll certainly never forget it. Tehran traffic seems chaotic yet it flows smoothly. The secret is in the weaving and dodging performed by drivers who appear mad but who never lose their tempers, let alone their bumpers.
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