Tehran is a city most cyclists could easily skip. It’s expensive, the traffic is a nightmare, air pollution is high and there aren’t many attractions compared with the treasures of other cities like Esfahan, Shiraz and Yazd. Still, many long-distance cycle tourists spend at least a few days here as they apply for visas for Central Asia or Pakistan.
It’s not impossible to cycle into the city, however the best idea is to leave your bike at a hotel in Yazd or Esfahan while you visit Tehran. A bicycle could arguably be useful for getting to some embassies in the far north of the city but it’s far more efficient to use taxis to get you up the steep hills.
Public Transport: Assuming you’ve left your bike behind, you’ll want to make use of Tehran’s extensive public transport system.
The Tehran Metro is cheap, quick and the three lines cover a good chunk of the city. The most common ticket costs 2,000 Rials and gives you two rides. Watch out during rush hour. Tehrani commuters outclass even their counterparts in London when it comes to squeezing into already packed carriages. Women may feel more comfortable in the women-only sections but it’s no problem to board anywhere.
Buses are dreadfully slow but they may be a straightforward option in places not covered by the metro. Ask the driver or fellow passengers to find the bus you need. There are two types: those that take tickets (200 Rials each) and some that charge 1,000 Rials per ride. The buses that want cash have the price of 100 Tomans written in yellow just above the driver’s head on the inside of the bus.
Shared taxis are a favourite of Tehranis but you’ll need to have some understanding of the city layout before you can use them. Flag them down by standing at a corner and shouting out your destination until a driver stops. Usually you choose the next major square and then change for another taxi going in the direction you need. Private taxis are also available. There are no meters so always bargain. Even the most feeble of attempts usually knocks 25% off the opening offer.
Sleeping: We used Couchsurfing to find a place to stay in Tehran and came away with two wonderful new friends and more offers from other welcoming Tehranis to spend the night than we could accept. In addition to our new friendships, our hosts gave great advice on how to get around the city using public transport and helped us experience the real Tehran beyond the tourist sights. More than anywhere else in Iran, we recommend you also try Couchsurfing or a similar service for your stay in Tehran. (More about Couchsurfing)
If your heart is set on a hotel, we heard glowing reviews of Firouzeh Hotel. Travellers are drawn by the incredibly helpful manager and guestbooks full of advice. Unfortunately, two guestbooks were stolen in 2007 but they’ve been replaced so go add your entry and help fill them again.
Mashhad Hotel, just a short walk away from Imam Khomeini metro station on Amir Kabir Street, offers beds in a sparkling clean and bright dorm for 40,000 Rials and there’s internet in-house for 10,000 Rials an hour. Staff were welcoming when we arrived to visit a friend.
Another option is Hotel Naderi on Jomhuri-ye Eslami, almost directly opposite the British Embassy. We swung by this hotel, drawn by the reputation of its cafe for serving good coffee. Unfortunately the cafe disappointed but the reception area was well kept and the staff spoke good English. Room rates were listed as 150,000 Rials for a single and 230,000 Rials for a double room.
Eating out: Tehran is like the rest of Iran in that fast-food rules the streets. If you want a quick bite, restaurants serving pizzas and burgers (usually starting at about 20,000 Rials) are everywhere. Boof is one of the most famous burger chains – Iran’s version of McDonalds – but we found the buns stale and service slow. Sometimes you’ll see street sellers making falafel sandwiches, a nice change and definitely a good budget option.
The Iranian Artists’ Forum run a vegetarian restaurant, with some tables set in a pleasant conservatory overlooking the park that surrounds the eatery. The menu features a variety of pizzas, lasagna, calzone and a few meat-free takes on traditional Iranian dishes. Prices are reasonable, between 25,000-35,000 Rials for a main dish including a drink and salad. An espresso cup of French coffee (decaffinated only) is 14,000 Rials. It’s about a ten minute walk from either Hafte Tir metro station or the Armenian cathedral. (Baghe Honarmandan, Moosavie St, Taleghani Avenue 021 8831 0462)
Craving something exotic, we wandered off to the Indian Tandoor Restaurant (Ardalan Street, just off Mofatteh Avenue) one lunchtime. It’s located in the basement of Hotel Safir. The curries are excellent and service is attentive but you’ll pay for the privilege. A sparse meal for two (curry and rice but no starters and water to drink) will run about 200,000 Rials.
Getting a European-style coffee in Tehran is possible but pricey. Expect to pay as much as 20,000 Rials for a bonafide cappuccino. You’ll have the best chance of finding one in Tehran’s fashionable northern neighbourhoods. Until quite recently, there were a few famous cafes in central Tehran but many were closed after a government crackdown. There are still some around but they can be hard to find.
With the help of friends, we were taken to one we particularly enjoyed in Hotel Morvarid, just north of Hafte-Tir metro station (walk under a huge pedestrian bridge that hangs over the road and it’s on a small side street on your left). The atmosphere was great and the coffees were top notch. They also do nice fruit milkshakes.(0919 2121424)
If you’re willing to settle for instant coffee, there are a couple options in the south, near to the British Embassy and the Jewel Museum. Our favourite was a small bakery on Jomhuri-ye-Eslami, just a few shops along on the right as you take the western exit from Saadi metro station and walk towards the intersection with Ferdowsi Street. A cup of Nescafe and a slice of cake runs about 5,000 Rials.
Continuing down Jomhuri-ye-Eslami, just opposite the British Embassy, you’ll find Coffee House Naderi on Sheybani Alley. This isn’t the famous cafe associated with Hotel Naderi but it may be the closest Tehran comes to a greasy spoon and a great place to have breakfast. Omelettes both plain and fried with sausage or tomatoes start from 10,000 Rials. Bread with cheese, butter and jam is 7,000 Rials. You can also get Turkish coffee or instant coffee. The chatty owner, who’s spent many years abroad, speaks English, Japanese, Mandarin and Korean.
The legendary cafe attached to Hotel Naderi left us underwhelmed, to be honest. The coffee was weak, the service lacking and the atmosphere was flat.
What to see: Tehran is noticeably light on sights. Nonetheless, there are a few things worth a visit.
- The National Jewel Museum is set in a tiny well-alarmed room in the basement vault of Bank Melli on Ferdowsi Street and packed full with an endless string of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, opals, pearls and more. Visitors flock to see the world globe with rubies for the continents and emeralds for the oceans as well as jewel-encrusted crowns, swords and trinket boxes. The entrance fee is accordingly luxurious at 30,000 Rials. It’s only open from 2pm-5pm, Saturday to Wednesday.
- In the north of Tehran, the park which was once the Shah’s summer home now houses the Saad Abad Museum Complex. Several museums are set within the grounds and each one has a separate entrance fee of 3,000-5,000 Rials. Of particular interest for travellers may be the museum detailing the adventures of the Omidvar Brothers, two Iranians who went around the world on motorbikes and in a Citroen car.
Staying connected: Internet is expensive in Tehran. We’ve been asked for as much as 20,000 Rials an hour.
One of the best Coffee Nets we found was Pars Internet, which has heaps of termials, a good connection and allows USB use. They also serve instant coffee, which may be a first for any Coffee Net in Iran! It’s at 369 Ferdowsi Street, opposite the British Embassy.