48 Hours In: Tehran, Iran

It might not be an obvious destination, but the Iranian capital is the heart of Persian civilisation and has plenty of treasures to discover


WHY GO NOW?

Tehran is the big, buzzing, beating heart of one of the world's friendliest, most beautiful and misunderstood nations. Autumn weather is ideal for exploring Iran's dynamic capital.

TOUCH DOWN

British Mediterranean flies daily from Heathrow to Tehran on behalf of British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). Iran Air (020-7409 0971; www.iranair.com) also offers non-stop flights three times a week from Heathrow. From Birmingham, you can fly twice a week on Mahan Air (0121 554 1555; www.mahanairlines.com). Connections are available in a wide range of cities, including Amsterdam, Istanbul and Dubai. Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) flies via the latter from Gatwick, Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.

Flights coming from or via the Gulf states land at the new Imam Khomeini International Airport (Ikia), 35km south of Tehran; a taxi into town costs about IR90,000 (£5.50). Flights from Europe arrive at Mehrabad Airport and taxis from here cost about IR40,000 (£2.50). From October 2 all international flights are supposed to land at Ikia, but you should check with your airline before you leave. Recent liberalisation of immigration means that many travellers can get a seven-day visa on arrival - but unfortunately this does not include British passport holders, who should check www.iran-embassy.org.uk for details of red tape. Women are required to wear a headscarf in any public place, including the airport.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Tehran sprawls across the southern slopes of the Alborz Mountains and follows a loose north-south grid. Southern Tehran is older and poorer, but is also home to many of the sights and hotels. Valiasr Avenue runs 17km from the train station in the south to the clearer air of Tajrish in the north. It's lined by shops virtually the whole way, with brand-laden boutiques more prevalent the further north you go. The slowly expanding Tehran Metro ( www.tehranmetro.com) is useful, though taxis are cheap and easier. Incredibly for a city of 14 million, there is no tourist information office.

CHECK IN

The Laleh International Hotel (1) on Dr Hossein Fatemi Avenue (00 98 21 8896 5021; www.lalehhotel.com) overlooks central Laleh Park and has doubles for $152 (£85). More fun is the Hotel Naderi (2) on Jomhuri-ye Eslami Avenue (00 98 21 6670 1872), where for $30 (£18) a large double room comes complete with bakelite telephones and 1950s-era furniture. Light sleepers should get a room at the back, however. Downstairs, the Cafe Naderi is a meeting place of artists and intellectuals. For budget travellers, the welcoming Firouzeh Hotel (3) on Dolat Abadi Alley, just off Amir Kabir Street (00 98 21 311 3508; www.firouzeh hotel.com), is the best choice with spotless doubles for IR120,000 (£7).

TAKE A HIKE

Begin at Tajrish Square (4) and walk up to Darband, a village on the side of the mountain that has in recent years been swallowed by the spread of the city. Tehranis love the teahouses and trails that spread out from Darband, and hiking for a couple of hours on a Friday afternoon before stopping for tea and qalyan (water pipe) is the quintessential Tehran experience.

TAKE A RIDE

Take the Tehran Metro to Behesht-e Zahra (5), the vast cemetery where tens of thousands of soldiers "martyred" in the Iran-Iraq War are buried. Wandering through the graves, each topped with a glass box containing photos and mementoes, is quite sobering. From here, walk over to the gargantuan Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini (6), which is still under construction 16 years after the ayatollah died.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Tehran Bazaar is the largest market in Iran and while there aren't many windows, the 10km of covered alleys are home to just about every consumer item you can imagine. The various commodities are grouped together, with alleys dedicated to spices, goldsmiths, cobblers, tailors, tobacconists and, of course, Persian carpet merchants. Forget about navigating, just walk through the main entrance (7) at 15 Khordad Avenue and wander. If it's carpets you seek, never fear - the vendors will find you.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

For a quick meal it's hard to beat dizi, a delicious soup-stew combination of lamb, chickpeas and flat bread cooked and served in a stone jar. You'll find it in any chaykhuneh (teahouse), though the Azari Traditional Restaurant (8) on Valiasr Avenue (00 98 21 5537 6702) and Agha Bozorg (9) at 28 Keshavarz Blvd (00 98 21 8890 0522) are good options.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Start at the National Museum of Iran (10) on Si Tir Street (00 98 21 6670 2061) where remarkable exhibits from the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis include a bull-headed stone capital, a cuneiform inscription immodestly describing Xerxes closeness to the gods, and a magnificent frieze of glazed tiles from the Apadana Palace. It's open 9am-4.45pm daily except Monday, admission IR10,000 (60p). From the museum, head south a couple of blocks to the Golestan Palace (11 ), just off Ark Square. The numerous palaces were built by the Qajar shahs (1779-1926), who helped pay for these and other excesses by selling state assets. The palace (00 98 21 3311 3335; www.golestanpalace.org) opens 9am-3pm daily except Sunday and Thursday, admission IR4,000 (25p) per building.

AN APERITIF

Alcohol is not entirely banned in Iran. If you must have a drink, then head to the Armenian Club (12 ) at 68 Khark Street (00 98 21 6670 0521). In this somewhat surreal place, Tehran's Armenian Christian community and non-Muslim visitors are permitted to drink (in moderation, of course) with their meals - and, if you are a woman, you may take off your headscarf.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Khayyam Traditional Restaurant (13 ) on Khayyam Street (00 98 21 5580 0760) in southern Tehran serves a good range of Persian classics in a wonderfully restored, 300-year-old building. More local is Khoshbin Restaurant (14 ) on Sa'di Street (00 98 21 3390 2194), which specialises in mouthwatering Caspian cuisine and the heavenly mirza ghasemi. There's no sign in English; look for fish in the window.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

The Armenian Christian community attends mass at Sarkis Cathedral (15 ) on Karim Khan-e Zand Street. The 1960s cathedral is no Notre Dame, but worshippers are welcome on Sundays.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Jaam-e Jam Food Court (16 ) on the corner of Valiasr Avenue and Taheri Street doesn't sound that exciting, but Iran's first food court is ideal for people-watching. Sit with coffee and pastry and watch heavily made-up women make eyes at eligible young men.

A WALK IN THE PARK

With no pubs, Tehranis love hanging out in parks in the afternoons and evenings. One of the busiest is Mellat Park (17 ), off Valiasr Avenue, where young couples hone their flirting skills over tea, ice-cream and, for the more energetic, paddleboats.

ICING ON THE CAKE

If you like the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, you're going to love the National Jewels Museum (18 ) on Ferdosi Street (00 98 21 6446 3785). Here in an underground vault are displayed the pick of the diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls and gold amassed by various dynasties of Persian rulers. Highlights include the 182-carat Sea of Light diamond; the 34kg Globe of Jewels, with its 51,366 precious stones; and the Peacock Throne (though it's not the one stolen from India). The museum keeps short hours - 2-4.30pm Saturday to Tuesday, admission IR30,000 (£2) - so time your run.

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