The maze of bustling alleys and the bazaris (shopkeepers) that fill them make a fascinating, if somewhat daunting, place to explore. Traders have been hawking their wares on this site for nearly 1000 years, but most of what you see today is less than 200 years old and is no architectural jewel. The bazaris are a conservative bunch and there will be far more chadors than bleached hair here.
The bazaar’s covered stores line more than 10km of lanes and there are several entrances, but it’s worth using the main entrance, in a square opposite Bank Melli. The warren of people and goods is a city within a city and includes guesthouses, banks, a church, a fire station and several mosques, most notably the big, busy but relatively unadorned Imam Khomeini Mosque , which is a good place to quietly watch Islam in action. Most lanes specialise in a particular commodity: copper, paper, gold, spices and carpets, among others.
You’ll also find tobacconists, shoemakers, tailors, broadcloth sellers, bookbinders, flag sellers, haberdashers, saddlers, tinsmiths, knife-makers and carpenters. The carpet, nut and spice bazaars might be the most photogenic, but the lane of stores selling fake designer labels (literally labels, not clothes) also catches the eye.
In our experience there are two ways to visit the bazaar, a place that cartographers seem never to have fully conquered. One is to simply wander the labyrinth of streets and alleys, taking whichever direction you fancy and just going with the flow. You’ll almost certainly get lost but will soon enough be found by a helpful local; remember to walk uphill to the main exit.
The other is to allow yourself to be befriended by one of the carpet salesmen. Tell them what sections of the bazaar you’d like to see (the gold bazaar, spices bazaar, the mosque etc), and they will lead you. When you’re done, they will expect you to visit their carpet shop, drink some tea and view a few rugs – which in itself is quite fun (carpet prices here are probably the best in Iran).
Try and visit in the morning, when business is brisk but not yet frantic, as it becomes at lunchtime when the chance of being run over by a piece of fast-moving haulage equipment is high.