Tehran. Ugly, sprawling and polluted. But to miss out Tehran from an Iranian itinerary would be to miss out a window into the living, breathing, and vibrant world of modern Iran. Take a taxi north into the foothills of the magestic Alborz mountains. The air is cooler and far cleaner here, and even through the smoggy haze, the views are spectacular. Beside this, the Alborz foothills are home to two of Tehran's highlights: Darband, and the Palaces of Niavaran.
A narrow valley cut deep into the sides of the Alborz mountains, with a single road leading up beside a noisy brook overhung with trees, Darband is barely even a village. This pretty scattering of buildings among nature is a completely different world from the megalopolis that lies just minutes away, and walks in the surrounding area offer fresh air, great scenery and a chance to get away from the bustle. If you don't feel so physically inclined head for one of Darband's teahouses - one is spectacularly perched like a beautifully clichéd image of the middle east. Deliciously sugary pastries and wonderful teas in luxuriant surroundings are still cheap for the western tourist.
The get a taste of how the Shahs used to live in the Niavaran Palaces. Beautiful buildings drawing on Persian and western architectural traditions are scattered through lush parkland with the city's best panoramas.
In the foothills of the Alborz mountains to the north of Tehran, taxi drivers can take you there from all over the city. Buses run up Val-e-Asr avenue from downtown to the leafy northern suburb of Tajrish, from where taxis are cheaper or a walk is perhaps contemplatable.
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