On our first night in Iran, a local woman with a chirpy voice told us about a great restaurant in the Tehran Bazaar. We lost the map with her handwriting in Farsi, so we had no idea what the restaurant’s name was or where it was located exactly. We only remembered it was in the great bazaar. After 2 weeks travelling south all the way to Shiraz, we were now back in the capital city. It was 2pm, we needed some food for lunch.

We first smelled grilled meat, and then we saw the long queue. It must be the restaurant we were looking for. As we were inching closer and closer to the door, we realized everyone around us had a number on their hand. We had none. But the locals told us we did not need it, so we just kept moving. The downstairs space was tiny. A food lift moved up and down non-stop. Dozens of colorful bags changed hands. Numbers were called out. Where is the restaurant? Then we realized the queue in front of us was not getting into that take-away counter, they were getting into a hole in the wall, literally. The stairs up Sharaf El Islam Restaurant had the width of one door frame, and were jam-packed with customers. Two lines moving in opposite directions at a constant pace gave it the resemblance of working ants leaving and returning to their colony.

Once we landed our feet on the first floor, it instantly dawned on us it would be quite a challenge to get a meal here. About a hundred people were sitting on long tables in a space of no more than ~40m2, shoulders to shoulders. Once someone stood up, there would be someone else sitting down immediately. The turnover rate was incredible. So was the noise. Foods were served in a suffocating atmosphere and dizzying cacophony of staff shouting orders, customers chatting, plates clattering, and cutlery rattling. But the foods looked damned good, and came in big portions.

This eatery, although popular with locals, is not for the faint-hearted, and definitely not for mainstream tourists. We must have really stood out that day, with our Asian faces and colorful headscarves. We were probably the only tourists in the restaurant, and the locals quickly spotted that. An English-speaking staff at the counter helped us with the orders. While we were still totally clueless about how to get a table, a family about to leave waved us in, and gave us their seats. It took us a long time to get our foods as our order seemed to go missing and half of the staff on the floor were somehow involved in tracking it down. When we wanted to order some extra stewed beef but did not know the name of the dish in Farsi, everyone at our table tried to help. Even an old janitor standing in the corner came out to make sure that we could place this extra order and get all the change back from the counter. This incredible show of hospitality perfectly demonstrated Persian traditions of being great hosts and treating their guests better than their own family. When we left at around 4pm, the lines going up and down the stairs were still moving, and the queue outside still stretched out to the main street…

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In 2 short weeks in Iran, we could only see a fraction of the vast kaleidoscope of its culture, history, architecture, science, arts and crafts. I wished we had spent more time with Sayed, the black turbaned mullah in Qom to learn about Shiite Islam. I wished we had met Mohammad and Mr. Handsome in Kashan earlier so that we could hang out more with them. I wished we could have visited Hussein’s class to meet his super cute students. I wished we had had more opportunities to talk to Mr. Bekhradi, our architect host in Isfahan. I wished we had got an extra day or two to visit Bahman’s parents up in the mountains in Shiraz. I wished we could have had some more time to discover contemporary Tehran, and to meet Leila, the teacher who helped us get the visa code without asking for any deposit. But it does not matter that we did not see everything and met everyone. Because we knew these two short weeks were enough to change our perception of Iran forever. In hindsight, I felt we were lucky that we did not learn much about Iran before the trip. It made the experience so much more pleasantly surprising, special, and memorable. We kept our itinerary flexible and our heart open, and Iran came to us in its most beautiful forms and colors. I may sound like a broken record here, but again, if you are thinking of visiting Iran, do it now while the rest of the world still knows so little about this wonderful country.

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Somehow Tehran streets reminds me of  Paris 🙂 So weird, I know

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Street foods – Roasted beets and fava beans

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Petrol stations in Tehran

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School girls visiting the Mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomeini. This huge structure is architecturally stunning, but no photo is allowed inside.

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The Mausoleum is still under construction

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A public park

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Gollestan Palace, Tehran

The place was under renovation, so the most beautiful rooms were closed to the public

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Tehran Bazaar

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An exhibition of the Islamic Revolution

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The streets around the Bazaar were jam packed

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The main artery of the bazaar – also jam packed with shoppers

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The tiny entrance of Sharaf El Islam Restaurant

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It was crazy inside

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We did not expected to find Cola Cola in Iran

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My travelling mates pulled faces for a selfie inside this super crowded restaurant

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