I first travelled to Iran in 1993 to open up new markets for my business. At the time the Ayatollah Khamenei was in power and I had to cover myself from head to toe — all in black, except for the area from hairline to jaw line. I was also not allowed adornment of any kind: no makeup and no jewellery.
These days, while Khamenei is still the supreme leader of Iran, President Hassan Rouhani is more relaxed about women’s dress code. A headscarf, a long loose top, and long pants are fine to wear. This new arrangement is much better for travelling, especially in summer when temperatures are high. Men wear long-sleeved, collared shirts and long pants.
As I often travel by myself, my hotel of choice is the Azadi Hotel in the more affluent northern part of Tehran, where the locals do not frown upon lone women travellers. The views over the city and the Alborz Mountains are spectacular! The Azadi has a good restaurant outside the front entrance, arranged around a lovely water feature. This is especially pleasant in the excruciating summer months. The the tempreatures cool down a bit in the evening and to sit outside sipping on fresh juice or iced tea is a treat. Bice, the Italian franchise, has a restaurant at the Azadi, and offers delicious Italian food.
For a more low-key hotel, I would recommend the Laleh International Hotel. It is well located, to the north of Park-e Laleh, which has lovely gardens and is the best place to escape the city noise. In the park, you will also find the must-see Carpet Museum of Iran. Look out for the shop on the corner opposite the Laleh Hotel: it sells good quality, delicious nuts.
Also opposite the Laleh is a beautiful coffee shop, Panah Café, where the more affluent locals and tourists hang out. Not only does it have a great ’80s playlist and serve a variety of “Western coffee shop” food, such as pasta and pizza, but the cappuccinos are also great, and smoking is permitted.
Panah is also where I often see locals that have been for nose jobs catching up with their friends. While most Westerners have cosmetic surgery done on the quiet, in Iran any procedure is a status symbol. In fact, it is a source of such pride that some Iranians wear plasters on their noses to look as if they have just had a nose job.
Until recently, there were no international brands to be bought in Iran. Nowadays, there are some lesser-known German and French brands — but still no US brands. It remains strange to walk into a shop and not to recognise a single name.
The Tehran Bazaar is a wonderful and busy must-see. It is the main place for souvenir hunting, and if you can’t find what you are looking for, ask the carpet salesmen. They can normally speak a bit of English, and they will gladly help you — and, of course, try to sell you a carpet or kelim while they are at it! If you are not adept at negotiating, you will overpay considerably.
Around the bazaar, you will find a number of cheap kabab shops, cafés, and tea houses, where you can experience some typical Iranian cuisine. To sample the best of traditional Persian cuisine, try the Divan or Gilane restaurants or the famous Alborz restaurant that’s been going since 1967. The best thing on the menu at the Alborz is the delicious kebab and saffron rice. Otherwise, Fesenjan is a lovely meat dish made with a marinade of ground walnuts and pomegranate reduction, and Dizi is a lamb stew that is also worth a try.
To experience some real Persian culture — and to stay in a true Persian-style hotel — travel 200km south to the city of Kashan. Here you will find the Saraye Ameriha Boutique Hotel: a 200-year-old beauty showcasing classic, hand-restored Persian architecture. It is an oasis of history and beauty in the Iranian desert. @herattrading