x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Tehran: Iran's hall of diamonds

My kind of place The Iranian capital may have its problems, but its food and surprisingly trendy atmosphere impress Shiva Hosseinzadeh.

Visitors enjoy the view of northern Tehran from Mount Tochal, a ski resort at an elevation of 3,964 metres.
Visitors enjoy the view of northern Tehran from Mount Tochal, a ski resort at an elevation of 3,964 metres.

As with most capital cities, Tehran's main features at first glance are smog, traffic, overcrowded streets and questionable driving habits - but you needn't look very hard to see a very different face . The Qajar dynasty established Tehran as the capital in 1795, after Shiraz, Esfahan and Tabriz had all carried the title. Its legacy is in the many beautiful shrines and mosques that dot the city. The illustrated manuscripts in the Reza Abbasi museum, glass vessels dating back to the second millennium BC at the Glass and Ceramics Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Carpet Museum and the Film Museum of Iran all build on this.

With the smell of cooked beetroot, a favourite local snack, and the sound of artisans beating metal in the handicraft workshops, the bazaar is full of life. However, it's in the more nouveau chic modern cafes or the traditional tea houses, known as chaykuneh, decorated with classical Iranian paintings, where you can get up close and personal with Tehranis, who are some of the friendliest, trendiest and most welcoming people you'll ever meet.

Accommodation in Tehran is cheapest in the south of the city becoming more expensive as you head north. Both of the Arian hotels (www.arianhotels.com) are a popular choice with visiting journalists and investment bankers: Zafar on Dastgerdi Avenue (00 98 21 887761727) is located in the busy financial district, bordered by two noisy boulevards, whereas the Arian can be found in a quieter location, in the heart of the northern hills. In one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods and not far from many international companies and embassies, it offers beautiful views of the Alborz mountains (24 Jafar Abad Avenue, Tajrish Square; 00 98 21 2270 95456). Double rooms cost from US$276 (Dh1,014) including taxes and breakfast. The Melal Hotel Group (www.melal.com; 00 98 21 2224 5080) offers apartment hotels in five different locations across the city. Prices range from $223 (Dh819) for a studio to $421 (Dh1,546) for a two-bedroom apartment.

For those who prefer to rough it, there are many mosaferkhunes, or travellers' houses, around the city which offer basic hostel-style rooms for as little as $4 (Dh15) a day. For a more expensive choice there is the Mosaferkhune Amol Mazandaran (www.amolmazandaran.com; 00 98 21 3394 1630) located close to the noisy Amir Kabir Street. Rooms are simple but clean and cost from IR60,000 (Dh22) to IR120,000 (Dh44).

The Tehran Metro has five lines that cover much of the city between 6am to 10.30pm, with tickets costing IR1,000 (Dh0.5) per journey. Hop on the red line, which runs from Haram-e Mothar (Imam Khomeini's tomb) in the south to Mirdamad in the north to visit Niavaran, home to the last shah, or Sa'ad Abad, a 19th-century palace complex belonging to the Qajar royal family.

Shuttle taxis have a minimum fare of IR5,000 (Dh2) for one or two meydans (blocks) and private taxis can be hired for an hour to visit several sites and should cost about IR50,000 (Dh18), which is worth haggling for. When it's time to pay, taxi drivers will often say "ghabeli nadareh" which means "be my guest". This shouldn't be taken literally - the ride isn't free, as the taxi meter will tell you. The expression is simply part of the culture of ta'arof, or formalised politeness. However in other instances, such as an offer to treat you to tea, the ta'arof is most likely to be sincere.

Whether discussing philosophy or contemporary music among Tehran's cafe society - women are always welcomed in mixed company - or having tea and qalyan (shisha) with the older men of the bazaar, visitors will find Iranians engaging and open to strangers. The north has many expensive, trendy cafes such as cafe Hafta-do Hasht, a favourite of young intellectuals and artists, located in Shahid Azodi street, that offers a variety of teas and snacks for around $5 (Dh18).

There are also traditional chaykunehs, such as Ghaem Teahouse on the south-eastern corner of Tajrish Square which also serves food for around IR40,000 (Dh15). Football is a favourite topic of conversation, so expect to hear football fans arguing over the country's two biggest clubs, Esteghal and Persepolis.

Iranian cuisine is famous for its chelo kabob and there is no shortage of restaurants serving the national dish with excellent quality lamb and a generous serving of steamed rice with butter. For a more upmarket yet equally authentic meal, head to the Sofre-Khaneh Sonatee Ali Ghapoom in Gandhi avenue and try abgusht, served by waiters in traditional Iranian dress. Also known as dizi, this is a lamb stew made with chickpeas, potatoes and tomato paste, served with bread.

The Tehran Bazaar is as much an experience as a shopping trip. Covering more than 10 square kilometres, the domed ceilings with intricate surface ornamentation and sky lights are very high and give a spacious feel to the bazaar. Amongst other things, you will come across handicrafts, spices, carpets with complex floral patterns, gold, eye-catching turquoise, and even fake designer labels. It opens from 7am to 5pm during weekdays and till noon on weekends. Haggling is a must and with a little gusto can help cut a big chunk off the prices as Iranian shopkeepers are good-tempered and are open to bargaining. The bazaar crowd is somewhat conservative while the shopping malls are frequented by the younger more hip Tehranis. You'll see women with highlighted hair poking out from under their coloured headscarves wearing the latest manteau (coat) while the young men sport hairstyles ranging from mullets to buzz cuts.

A run-in with the police. Women are required to wear headscarves and dress conservatively. Generally, the police are not very strict with tourists but wearing tight, revealing clothing and exposing all your hair will get you arrested, and alcohol is strictly prohibited. Life has largely returned to normal since the riots following the election results in 2009; however, tourists should stay away from public demonstrations. Summer in Tehran is not for the faint-hearted. Temperatures of up to 42 degrees centigrade are all the more brutal because air conditioning is not reliable. The best time to visit is in the spring when the cool weather coincides with the Iranian new year, Nowruz, on March 21 and the streets are decorated with lights.

Once the residence of Qajar royalty, Golestan palace was first built in 1524, with later renovations in 1750. Located at Arq Square, this monument is made up of several grand structures set around a garden, and is decorated with tile work, marble carvings and intricate lattice windows. The names of the palatial rooms - hall of diamonds, edifice of the sun, marble throne, hall of brilliance - are nearly as opulent as the decoration itself. Each of the 10 palaces has its own admission fee, from IR3,000 (Dh1) per ticket (www.golestanpalace.ir).

The National Jewels Museum on Ferdosi Street (0098 21 6646 3785), with the 18th century Peacock Throne covered with 26,733 precious gems sitting by the entrance, gives visitors an idea of the extravagance of the ancient Persian kings. Admission costs IR30,000 (Dh10). travel@thenational.ae