⦁    Iran’s vibrant, chaotic capital
⦁    city has clear north-south divide
⦁    more prosperous north; poorer south
⦁    more than 14m inhabitants
⦁    some of the country’s most important museums and palaces
⦁    shop for bargains in Tehran’s bazaars
⦁    home to the unmissable National Museum of Tehran
For better or for worse, Tehran is the political, economic and cultural capital of Iran. Clogged with traffic and choked with smog, it’s not the most immediately inviting of Iran’s cities – no spellbinding mosques, rose gardens or ancient ruins – but visitors will find more on offer the closer they look.
From ancient artefacts to modern art, Qurans to carpets, Tehran is home to the best of Iran’s museums and galleries. And though it doesn’t have the long, illustrious history of Isfahan or Shiraz, Tehran is where to discover more about Iran’s 20th century upheavals, from the tarnished grandeur of the Pahlavi palaces to the countless fading murals in praise of Khomeini and the Iraq War martyrs.
But history also demands that life goes on. As Tehran’s wealthy increasingly look west for cultural leads, ever-widening cultural divisions make walking the city streets a study in social distinctions.
Western brands stamp their mark on the wealthy north of the city with increasing swagger, while, in the south, the impressive, labyrinthine Bazar-e Bozorg (Big Bazaar) continues to heave in and dish out vast quantities of gold, silver, spices, carpets, textiles and Chinese-made consumer goods of dubious quality. Uptown girls let their headscarves drift back over boutique hairdos – a petty but pertinent sign that Islamic restrictions are not to everyone’s taste. At the same time chador-wearing women make their own unmistakable statement.
Be sure though to take a Friday walk in Tehran’s northern suburbs, where paths leading into the mountains are trod by one and all. In Darakeh, the sense of relief is tangible as Tehranis kick off their shoes to cool hiked-out feet in the cold mountain stream. At Tochal the cable car takes skiers to pistes no more than 30 minutes away from the centre of town.