x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Peaks and other high points

A weekend guide While Tehran may not be the most beautiful city in the world, it has a soulfulness and a multitude of attractions that more than compensate.

The Tehran bazaar has a whole section devoted to traditional Persian rugs.
The Tehran bazaar has a whole section devoted to traditional Persian rugs.

While Tehran may not be the most beautiful city in the world, it has a soulfulness and a multitude of attractions that more than compensate. The people are warm and friendly, the cafes and restaurants are lively, and there are dozens of interesting things to see, including gorgeous palaces, historical sites, museums, galleries and natural beauty spots. This densely populated young city of eight million is a cosmopolitan place, home to a number of religious communities including Muslims, Christians, Jews, Baha'is and Zoroastrians spread out among a multitude of ethnicities. It buzzes during the day, not least because of the crazy driving - watch out for the motorbikes zipping along the pavements - and a simple stroll can be an adventure in itself.

When night falls, things quieten down considerably, outside at least. Because there are no bars or nightclubs, nightlife takes place in people's houses - and is a lot of fun. The social and political capital of Iran was once a prettier place, architecturally taking off first under the Islamic Safavid dynasty in the 16th century and then the Qajars - under whom it became the capital. They left behind ornately decorated palaces and colourfully tiled mosques. But the "modernisation" policies of the Shah during the 1950s and 60s resulted in the levelling of many historical buildings, only to be followed by the equally poor architectural choices of the Islamic Republic, which oversaw the building of stacks of grey high-rise apartment blocks to accommodate the waves of immigrants from the countryside. That said, the tree-lined boulevards of north Tehran are pleasant, as are the many parks dotted around the city, while the beautiful snow-capped Alborz mountains are ever visible in the background.

Highly recommended is an early morning hike in the Alborz mountains, only a 25-minute drive from downtown - traffic obliging. The walk offers fantastic views over the city and there are plenty of rest stops and cafes on the way up selling tea, soup and the surprisingly delicious Iranian non-alcoholic beers. There is the option of taking a ski lift to the summit, where there are hotels and a ski resort. Tehran is a popular skiing and snowboarding destination.

More central is the beautiful, if ostentatious, Golestan Palace (www.golestanpalace.ir), near Khomeini Square in the downtown area. The 16th-century Safavid palace comprises a clutch of large, richly-decorated buildings surrounding a pristine flower garden, and guided tours take visitors clockwise through each of them. The art and ornament displays and the layered history are among the palace's main attractions, but as much as anything, the grounds are an ideal escape from the snarl of Tehran's midday traffic, especially in the warmer months.

Just down the road is the labyrinthine Tehran bazaar, a 200-year-old maze of alleyways, home to all manner of craftsmen including carpenters, tailors and goldsmiths, and shops selling everything from metals and jewellery to spices and tobacco; a whole section is dedicated to traditional Persian rugs. Adjoining the bazaar is the enormous Imam Khomeini Mosque, which is more impressive for its size and the number of worshippers that frequent it than its architecture. Also well worth a visit is the National Museum of Iran (www.nationalmuseumofiran.ir) close to Imam Khomeini Square. The museum's collections give a thorough run-through of Iran's history from prehistoric times through the Persian empire, the Islamic dynasties and up to the recent past.

Budget Hotel Naderi in the downtown area is antiquated and not exactly spotless but has a quaint charm and friendly management. More of a hostel than a hotel, things here are old, from the bedsheets, plumbing and furniture to the 60-year-old switchboard and telephones in reception. It is on a main road, so to be sure of getting some sleep it is a good idea to get a room at the back of the hotel, not overlooking the street. Despite its shortcomings Naderi is a great spot to meet fellow travellers as well as Tehran's bohemian contingent who frequent the hotel's atmospheric, if smoky, cafe. Double rooms start from $35 (Dh185) per night.

Jomhuri-ye Eslami Avenue, Ferdosi Square area (00 98 21 6670 1872). Mid-range The Escan Hotel offers clean, comfortable en-suite rooms with satellite television at a reasonable price and in a central location. The hotel has a café and a restaurant that both serve quality food, western and Iranian, and with high-speed wireless internet. A buffet breakfast is included in the room rate. The staff are friendly and will provide information on tourist attractions and call taxis for guests, though they are easy to find on the street outside. Just up the road is the Den of Spies, the former US embassy that was taken over by Islamist students in 1979 and which now serves as a base for the Islamic Basij militia. Double rooms start from $120 (Dh445) per night.

Mousavi Street, off Enghelab Avenue, downtown area (www.escanhotel.com; 00 98 21 8883 7106). Luxury Nestled in the leafy suburbs of north Tehran is the opulent Melal Apartment Hotel. Rooms, as the hotel's name suggests, are apartments, fitted with at least one bedroom, kitchen, living room and large bathroom. There are indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a gym and Jacuzzi. The hotel and cafe serve extensive menus until late into the evening. High-speed wireless internet is available in rooms and throughout the hotel. The Melal is also one of the few establishments in Iran that will accept western credit cards. Double rooms start from $290 (Dh1,070) per night. 24 Naseri Street, off Valiasr Avenue, north Tehran (www.melal.com; 00 98 21 2224 5090/5).

Breakfast Cafe Hafta-do Hasht, or Cafe 78, a bohemian-style hangout near Valiasr Square, is one of the better places for coffee in Tehran and thus a natural choice for breakfast. The food is good too, with a variety of crêpes, soups, salads, fried and scrambled eggs all for around $4 (Dh15). The regulars are mostly artists, students and intellectuals, and the atmosphere is convivial.

Lunch Khayyam Traditional Restaurant (00 98 21 5580 0760) is a great spot for lunch not far from the bazaar. Originally part of a 300-year-old mosque, the interior was restored in 2002 and is decorated in the colourful, traditional Persian style, with an intimate atmosphere and the option of cushioned seating around low tables. It serves typical Iranian fare - tasty and simple chicken and beef kebabs and fish (all around $7; Dh25), salads from $3 (Dh5) and dates, fresh fruits and honey-drenched pastries for dessert also $3 (Dh5). The restaurant draws a wide variety of customers, from large families to businessmen to groups of rowdy teenagers. The jovial manager is also a great source of local knowledge.

Dinner Bistango restaurant (www.bistangorestaurant.com; 00 98 21 8855 4409) in the Raamtin Hotel on Valiasr Street is widely regarded as the city's best restaurant, using the finest of local and imported produce to make a wide range of haute-cuisine Iranian and international dishes. Head chef Saman Jilanchi spent 18 years abroad learning his trade before returning to Iran to apply his knowledge. Tehranis seem to appreciate it as the restaurant is always fully booked, so it is necessary to reserve a table at least a day in advance. The grilled lamb chops with herb crust, Dijon and mushroom risotto ($21; Dh77) is a good bet, as is the grilled hammour with herb lemon risotto, cucumber salsa and roasted red pepper purée ($15; Dh55).

Etihad Airways (www. etihadairways.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Tehran three times a week. A return trip costs from $516 (Dh1,895), including taxes. Before making travel arrangements, check visa requirements with the Iranian Embassy.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is an engaging account of professor Azar Nafisi's struggle to keep her reading group afloat in the face of arrests, intimidation and physical violence from a regime hostile to the group's ways and reading materials. jspollen@thenational.ae