The tourist who arrives for the first time in Tehran hoping to catch a glimpse of the splendour of ancient Persia will quickly be disappointed: Tehran has been a capital for only two centuries and has undergone constant reconstruction during that time. As a result, the only traces of the long and tumultuous history of the country are hidden behind the walls of the museums. The modern city is a huge, polluted agglomeration, hot and dusty in summer and beset with seemingly insurmountable traffic problems. It has brought together nearly 20 per cent of the entire population of Iran and has expanded chaotically and too fast. Nevertheless, it is well worth spending a couple of days in Tehran, if only to see some of the priceless treasures that are on show in its museums. For while Esfahan or Persepolis has a convincing case for being the soul of Iran, Tehran is indisputably its big, ugly chaotic and dynamic beating heart.
Packed onto the lower slopes of the Alborz Mountains, this is Iran's most secular and liberal city and it attracts students from across the country. Expect relatively bold fashion statements, a range of ethnic and international restaurants, chic cafes and plenty of art galleries. While Tehran lacks history, it makes up for it with impressive museums; but to get inside the real Tehran you need to get beyond the museums and into the cafes and teahouses and onto the walking trails. That's where you will connect with Tehranis.
In addition to being the political, economic and intellectual centre of Iran, Tehran is also a provincial capital. The province of Tehran extends from the southern slopes of the Alborz Mountains into the Dasht-e Kavir desert and includes several mountain resorts popular with the Tehranis, who are eager to escape the heat and pollution of downtown Tehran. Karaj, 42 kilometres west of Tehran, has become popular for its watersports since the building of a dam nearby. To the east of Tehran, looms the unmistakable shape of Mount Damavand (5,671 metres / 18,600 feet), an extinct volcano which provides good skiing, mountain climbing and walking. The road, which skirts round the eastern flank of the volcano, following the upper Haraz Valley, from Ab-Ali through the villages of Polur and Reyneh and on to Amol and the coast, offers particularly good views of the mountain. It is from these villages that climbers usually set out for the summit.
Time to visit
The best time to visit Tehran is during the two-week Nowruz (Iranian New Year) holiday from March 21. Given more than 60% of Tehranis come from somewhere else and head for home for the holiday, the usual traffic chaos is replaced by relative calm. During April, May and September to early November the weather is relatively mild. Summer is hot and can be very humid, and while winter isn't as cold as some places, air pollution tends to be at its worst during December and January.
Tehran is vast and many neighbourhoods are never visited by other Tehranis, let alone foreign travellers. Most sights and hotels are found either side of Valiasr Ave, the 17km-long street that runs from Tehran train station in the south to Tajrish in the foothills of the Alborz Mountains.
As you move around, the huge social and economic gaps between northern and southern Tehran are plain to see. The south is older, poorer, more congested and generally less appealing. However, as it was the centre of the city until the mid-XX century, the area south of Jomhuri-ye Eslami Ave is home to many of Tehran's best museums, including the National Museum of Iran and the glittering National Jewels Museum, as well as the Golestan Palace complex and Tehran Bazar. A little north of here is the area loosely referred to as central Tehran, on the edge of which is Park-e Laleh - home to the Carpet Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Most locals think of anywhere north of Valiasr Sq as northern Tehran. Much of this area was semirural until about 1970, but frenetic expansion has spread apartment buildings further into the Alborz foothills, engulfing the last shah's opulent Sa'd-Abad and Niyavaran palaces in the process.
Most streets have signs in English but getting lost is still easy. It's worth remembering the Alborz Mountains are known locally as the North Star of Tehran. And as the whole city slopes down from these mountains, if you are walking uphill that usually means you are going north.