I’ve heard so many words used to describe Tehran – bustling, cosmopolitan, smoggy, traffic-clogged, dangerous – but after spending about a week in the city one word sums it up best for me: cool.
I’m not even sure what it was about Tehran, but looking around at the people, the buildings, even the boxy cars and motorbikes, everything had a cool edge – I almost felt like I had wandered onto the set of a hip 80s movie.
Of course a city that has been repeatedly wracked with turmoil, from the 1979 revolution to the violent student uprisings after the 2009 election, is going to be overflowing with character and substance. I wish that Tehran had had an easier history, but its troubled past (and present) does make it an incredibly interesting city to visit.
On my third day in Tehran I met Mina, a 23 year-old student who contacted me through Couchsurfing (you can sign up here) to join her for lunch. She took me to a tiny basement restaurant that she said is popular with art students, and we chatted about our favorite Kafka stories, French music, clothing and boys.
From that point on my experience became one of Mina’s Tehran, and I couldn’t imagine a better guide to this fascinating city.
After lunch we visited the House of Artists together to wander through its art galleries, though eventually we decided to abandon culture in favor of something a little more tasty: coffee!
Mina has a serious weakness for coffee shops, and I think among Tehran’s students and intellectuals, she’s not a bit alone. Tehran’s coffe shops are popular hangouts where the city’s youth can escape the watchful eyes of their families for a quiet date or feel free to openly smoke cigarettes and discuss politics.
Mina explained that the best coffee shops are the ones that are slightly hidden from the street and dimly lit, with her favorites being Café Un and Café Lorca, which are both near Valiasr Square.
Of course as meeting points for Tehran’s intellectuals, students, and activists, these coffee shops haven’t escaped the notice of government authorities (in fact most are technically registered as “ice cream shops,” as coffee shops will be denied licenses!).
Mina lamented not being able to take me to Tehran’s best coffee shop, Café Prague, as it had to close down last year when the owners refused to set up security cameras and turn over all footage to the government.
Government closure of coffee shops has been a reoccurring event in Tehran since the revolution, when the government cracked down on coffee shops as showing “anti-Islamic morals” and “too much Western influence,” despite a coffeehouse culture in Iran dating back centuries.
On its last day in business, Café Prague bid farewell on their Facebook page saying,
“As much as it pains us and as much as we will miss our friends and all of you who stood by our side in the past four years, we take comfort in knowing that we at least didn’t let Big Brother’s glass eyes scan and record our every step, minute and memory from dawn till dusk.”
I didn’t have a chance to visit Café Prague while in Tehran, but I did take a look through this beautiful gallery of photos from its last night.
Or if you prefer, here are some poorly shot photos from Café Un and Café Lorca, which I took with my iPod because I was too shy to pull out my big tourist camera in such cool hangouts.
My stay in Tehran was far too short and left much of the city unexplored, but I did leave with an overwhelming crush on a city so full of life and passion.
Shopkeepers greeted me with warmth (if also a degree of surprise), and the discussions I had with people there were always filled with genuine interest and reflection. And spending as much time as I did with Mina in Tehran’s coffee shops left me with an impression of a city filled with deep meaning – histories to remember, questions to deliberate, hopes to safeguard, and futures to discover.
Next up: Mina and I take a weekend trip to Esfahan!
What to wear as a female traveler in Tehran
You do have to dress conservatively as a woman in Iran, but you can still wear colorful, pretty clothes! Just make sure that your tops and/or jackets that you wear outside hit around your mid-thigh and aren’t low cut. And a normal scarf will work fine for covering your head – use a lightweight one in the summer and heavier scarf in the winter (and if, like me, you struggle with keeping it on your head, use bobby pins!).
Here are some of my favorite appropriate things to wear in Iran: