The capital city of Iran stunned, shocked, and disgusted me at the same time. On my first trip to Iran, Tehran was my port of entry and I found the airport as well as the immigration staff of Imam Khomeini International Airport to be one of the most helpful in the world. The city, however, was a totally different experience, and it pushed my limits of tolerance to the extreme. Incidentally, Iran was also my first destination as a solo traveler and Tehran had severely tried my patience leaving me emotionally jangled. Owing to my “first time in Iran” traveler status, I underwent the draining experience of being scammed and swindled, and there was a brief encounter with the Iranian moral police too. So, overall, for a newbie traveler, Tehran was extremely overwhelming and the gorgeous city left me with a serious bitter aftertaste.

My first day in Tehran

Tehran empowered me as a solo traveler

On the other hand, it also empowered me a lot. Tehran made me realize that I have a strong scamster detection intuition and when my back is against the wall, I have the ability to protect myself by bringing the push to a shove. Having been born and brought in a protected family environment, my inherent independent life skills had not flourished previously and I remember returning home from Iran, feeling very empowered. I guess, every traveler has a similar story to share and it is this feeling of finding power in ourselves, that makes solo traveling so addictive. Of course, the destination matters too, and Tehran is an extremely beautiful and culturally rich city.  Full of museums filled with exquisite Persian treasures, beautiful gardens, monuments, palaces, and mind-blowing street art, Tehran was a very impressive experience. However, I believe that the city like most capital cities needs a seasoned, aware traveler to enjoy it to the fullest and it was my bad, that I could not indulge in Tehran’s beauty completely.

My jolly, friendly Tehran taxi driver and guide. Next time, I will bargain with him.

Getting scammed once and again

My first human contact outside the Tehran International airport left me short of 200 USD in 2 days and at that time, it was a princely sum to be spent in Iran for that duration. The gorgeous Middle Eastern country, which is now touted as one of 2015’s hottest new destinations, had been and still is, one of the cheapest countries to travel and its lovely capital city is always buzzing with life (and controversies). However, on my last visit, previous unpleasant travel memories made me give Tehran a cold shoulder and that made me miss out a lot. All these contemplative thoughts and more came tumbling back to me as I rushed to the airport for my return flight and I wistfully bade one of my favourite countries in the world a long goodbye.

Leaving Iran is never easy for me

Bargain hard and politely

Tehran city is catered by two airports, namely Imam Khomeini International Airport for international flights and Mehrabad airport for domestic connections. The Mehrabad airport is located closer to the city and it is a little, a hodgepodge of a place. The sterile-looking international terminal, on the other hand, is situated quite far. Both, are nearly 15 kilometers away from the city center and the airport taxis charge exorbitant fares. However, skillful bargaining makes commuting much easier and in Iran (just like in India) best prices are achieved by sharp, yet exquisitely polite haggling. Bargaining, unfortunately, was never one of my skills and thus, it was no wonder that an overwhelmed me, got scammed immediately upon landing. Exhausted, nervous, and extremely disoriented, I fell for the welcoming smile of one of the airport taxi drivers and not only ended up paying a senselessly expensive fare but also stayed at a really bad hotel, which was recommended by him.

Summer heat, bed bugs, and a closet-sized hotel room

It was called the Paradise Green hotel and the property was neither green nor remotely resembled a paradise. Rundown and poorly maintained, it was infested with bugs and I spent more time in the bathroom there than on my itchy bed. Ironically, the bathroom was the largest room, big enough for 4 people, in the studio apartment, while the tiny closet bedroom had space enough for a washbasin, a hard bed, and a shelf for a pair of shoes. My bag needed to be pushed inside the bathroom and I found sleep impossible on the narrow bed. The room overlooked a busy noisy street and during the daytime, it always turned it into a noisy hell. Owing to my lack of awareness, my visit was badly timed during the month of May and Tehran was reeling under the blistering heat.

Stick to the dress code in Iran

My excitement at being able to visit my dream destination, however, was so high that even the burning afternoon sun did not stop me from exploring Tehran. The excitement, however, was short-lived as a brush with the city’s moral police put me off Tehran for a long time. Being a complete travel greenhorn, I had misunderstood Iran’s dress code for women travelers and wore clothes that were frowned upon by the city’s moral police. Women travelers to Iran are required to follow the country’s strict dress code and only long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and headscarves are permitted. Body-hugging, transparent, and cut-out clothes are strictly not allowed and on my first day, excitement made me overlook the details. Thus I went out to explore Tehran, feeling absolutely gorgeous in my favourite snug blue jeans, white shirt, and scarf. Little had I known, that I was committing a cultural offense and it was my foreigner status that saved me from punishment.

The culprit ‘blue jeans’ of Tehran

Tehran city walk

The beginning of my city walk was deceptively nice and Tehran intoxicated me with its exotic charms. The city was very pretty in most parts and lovely boulevards, flower-decked streets, and bustling markets left me bedazzled. One of the three largest cities in the Middle East (along with Cairo and Istanbul), Tehran is Iran’s political, industrial, and financial nerve center and the city pulsated with life. Dating back to nearly 7,000 years, Tehran evolved from a small village called Rey and it was curiously dotted with fragments of its multi-cultural past. Thus, the city still bore remnants of synagogues, fire temples, and churches and several Iranian royal dynasties called it home. Tehran’s weather too was extreme (just like the city) and while its summers were unbearably hot, winters saw the city being blanketed with heavy snow. Pollution had been a major Tehran problem and every winter, the city remains entombed in a deadly toxic gas box.

A city of fabulous street art

Due to its proximity to the Alborz Mountains in the north, several ski excellent resorts are located near the city and the dry central desert in the south had created perfect getaways from Tehran’s cold winters. The planned city has many modern structures like the Milad Tower, Azadi Tower making up its unique skyline and vivacious street art decorates many of the city’s prominent buildings. Much to my surprise, I discovered that Tehran is one of the world’s street art hotspots and although, graffiti is technically illegal in Iran, works of many established artists like Mehdi Ghadyanloo are carefully curated by the government. All these and more were a far cry from the image portrayed by the Western media and I explored Tehran with open-mouthed astonishment. My rude shock to reality came near the gorgeous Golestan Palace and they were in form of hungry male eyes.

Tehran is a city of beauty and controversies..thorns amidst flowers

Tehran moral police harassment

Filled with lovely wall murals and flower pot-filled niches, the area around Golestan Palace is very atmospheric and I enjoyed walking around it. However, for some time, I noticed quite a few angry male eyes following me and while I tried to put on a nonchalant face, it made me extremely uncomfortable. The stares were blatant and the look in them ranged from curiosity, lewdness, lasciviousness, and explosive anger. Even though I come from India, where the male stare is a persistent problem, I have never before felt more naked or exposed in my life. My familiar (read confusing Asian) Indian sub-continent looks made matters worse and it led to the confusion of being identified as an Iranian. The situation, however, took an ugly turn when a furious policeman took me into custody, and he, along with his colleagues screamed, shook their fists, and ranted nonstop in angry Farsi. This persecution went on for what seemed like forever inside a cold, sterile-looking police building, and it took some time before they realized my foreign woman traveler status. Finally, I was let go after getting my blue jeans being named as the culprit and I remember walking out of the building with weak rubbery knees.

The Golestan Palace of Tehran

The experience was extremely harrowing and even today, I shudder to think of my fate, had I been an Iranian woman. But it was a valuable lesson learned, albeit in a hard way, and after that, I never truly felt safe in the capital city of Iran. Having said that, I have to admit that Tehran truly is a gorgeous city. The lovely Golestan Palace was my favorite place in Tehran and its quiet gardens were like oases in the middle of a vast bustling city. Built during the Safavid dynasty, Golestan came into prominence with the powerful Qajar rulers and the stunning complex of palaces is a UNESCO world heritage site. Beautifully landscaped gardens, tinkling fountains, and exquisite museums complete its expansive grounds and the Golestan Palace is a masterpiece of Persian art. Many artistic influences can be found inside the complex and Golestan bears rich testimony of synthesized European and Persian styles.

The charming Saadabad Palace

The quaint Saadabad Palace was another of my Tehran favourites. Located at the foot of the Alborz mountains, it was the summer palace of Qajar rulers. Nowadays, it is surrounded by the fashionable Shemiran area of Tehran and is a place where young people go to see and be seen. The Saadabad Palace was built by the Pahlavi dynasty and although smaller in comparison to Golestan, I found it to be equally beautiful. Filled with stunning museums, palaces and parks, Saadabad is a treasure trove of Persia’s glorious past. Used until the 1970s by Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, it was converted into a museum after the Iranian revolution. Complete with pretty chandeliers, a fantastic world art collection, European furniture, and fairy tale parks it is one of the prettiest places in Tehran.

The stunning jewel display at the Treasury

Being an art lover I visited the Glass and Ceramics museum along with the Treasury of National Jewels. While the ceramic museum was a forgettable experience, the treasury was absolutely bedazzling. Iran, unlike India,  possessed most of her treasures and those were proudly displayed at the Treasury. Heavily guarded, the building’s underbelly contained treasures worth many kings’ ransom with the dazzling precious stone studded 200 years old throne, gem-encrusted globe, and world’s largest pink diamond as the collection highlights. My first Iranian evening concluded at the pretty Darband in Tehran and it was there, that I contemplated over my first Iran – read Tehran – travel experience, my life’s first major cultural shock.

Treasury of National Jewels in Tehran Photo Credit – Iran Route

Pradas, puppy and kebab sellers of Darband

I was hot from being all covered during the burning summer heat, itchy from keeping my head covered constantly and my confidence was badly shaken by the moral police. I sought solace at one of Darband’s stylish sidewalk cafes and took in the local sights and sounds. Darband had a very mood uplifting vibe and its young crowd made me feel less alone. Located a bit far from the central business district of Tehran, it was the home of the city’s rich and powerful. The area attracted the hip and the stylish and it was a traffic nightmare. With its rows of interesting restaurants and shops, the moneyed crowd of Tehran mingled there, and Darband was full of extremely beautiful people. It was equal parts fashionable and atmospheric and charming ladies in Prada and Gucci viciously bargained with street vendors selling kebabs, preserves, honey, and flowers. Darbaand was also a shopper’s paradise and mouthwatering aromas of street food mingled with the evening air while the traffic noise dulled the cries of the man selling puppies. Needless to say, it was a photographer’s delight and I stayed there for a long time until dim stars popped out on a hazy, bright Tehran night sky.

Chill out at the luxurious Persian Azadi Hotel

Bitterness from my previous travel experience made me ignore Tehran’s charm on my last visit. I was also exhausted from my long cross-Iran road trip and wanted to stay put in one place for some time. Plus, I decided to compensate for my previous bad hotel experiences by staying at the super comfortable Persian Azadi hotel. Oozing quintessential Persian opulence from every niche, the Persian Azadi Hotel was modern and cozy. I luxuriated my tired body and impression-filled mind in my beautiful mini-suite and spent hours relaxing in the sun by the pool. I even had a marble bathtub in my bathroom and suddenly, Tehran did not seem so bad. Although taking a break in Tehran was perhaps the best possible thing to do at that stage of my travels, I must confess that I felt a bit guilty at having given the exciting city amiss.

Panzdah-e-Khordad Street in Tehran Photo Credit – Omid Armin on Unsplash

Azadi Tower in Tehran

Work by Graffiti artist Hoshvar in Tehran Photo Credit – Streetartutopia

Street art in Valiasr Street in Tehran

Tehran is a city of beautiful people. Photo Credit – Iman Samady Arvanaghy on Lensculture

Tehran…need I say more?

Check out this post on Tehran travel tips and things to do

Follow the rest of the Iran series