Don’t think for a moment that because Iran is largely closed off to the world by sanctions that the people aren’t connected with what’s going on. This isn’t North Korea.

Mustache Cafe in Esfahan

The Mustache Cafe serves good espresso

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you will have noticed the ‘hipster’ wandering around the world; the hirsute man with gelled hair, wearing a checked shirt and jeans too tight for the future wellbeing of his manhood. Often found making coffee and riding fixed gear bicycles.

If you visit Iran, especially Tehran and Esfahan, you see them in abundance, but that also means good espresso coffee.

For me it is also representative of how young the Iranian population is (over 60 per cent is under 30), and how modern and stylish Iran really is.

I can’t count the number of times I felt less than glamorous in the presence of young Iranian women.

Arriving in Esfahan the first thing I noticed was not the hipsters, but how green the city is! What a difference tall trees make to the heat. I wandered down Chahar Bagh Abassi Street (the big street in the middle of town) and ended up in Naqsh-e-Jahan Sqaure filled with evening picnickers and lovers trying to sneak a moment together.

I wandered in and out of bookstores along the way, peered through windows at the miniatures and antiques and passed shops for safes, a shop for tripods and trundle wheels, a shop for scales, a shop for drinking fountains and a shop for supermarket trolleys and shelves, an individual shop for everything it seems.

Beryani served with bread and basil

Beryani may not look all that appetising, but trust me, it is

My first meal in Esfahan was kebab (not something I ate a lot of in Iran, though all others seemed to be able to find). I found a place on the busy Takthi Junction not far from my hotel and wandered in. No English was spoken, but through the use of sign language and the generic word ‘kebab’ I ended up with two kebab, a large piece of flat bread, a grilled tomato and plate of basil. I sat and ate in the hole wall shop as the couple indiscreetly talked about me (looking at me as they were talking was a dead give away), and as the TV was flicked to the Qu’ran channel I became very conscious of my slipping hijab. I finished, bid the couple farewell and left.

Esfahan is such an easy place to walk around, it’s flat and is laid out roughly on a grid system. Running across the middle is the not so mighty Zayandeh River, not so mighty because six months of the year it is dammed leaving it completely dry in Esfahan. It’s an apparent effort to conserve water, but the blatant waste of water elsewhere in the city (and the country) drives me mad. I watched gardeners watering the leaves of large tress in the middle of the day and saw many large hoses left on to flood garden beds.

So the Si-o-Seh bridge with its vaulted arches loses just a little bit of its grandeur for much of the year. Once upon a time, it was filled with teahouses, but the government has now closed them all; apparently because unmarried men and women were using them to spend time together.

Crossing the bridge takes one to Jolfa and the Armenian Quarter. The famous Vank Cathedral could be mistaken for a mosque due to its shape and the mosaic covering parts of it. But the cross on the top is of course a dead giveaway. The south bank of the river is lined with parks, people (men and women together) practicing volleyball, minus a net. And come dusk the bridge is filled with people out for an evening stroll to catch the sunset.

Amongst all the sightseeing, I found time for more random adventures with Iranians, Iranian hipsters to be more precise.

Dry riverbed with boat

The not so mighty Zayandeh River

The Mustache Cafe is just down the road from Naqsh-e-Jahan Square, a small hole in the wall cafe serving wonderful espresso coffee, all served by suitably hirsute men. I was drinking my double espresso on my second visit there and a young guy started talking to me, wanting to practice his English. Ehsan and I chatted for a bit and before I knew it he was offering to walk to me through to the bazaar to the Jameh Mosque, and then back to the carpet shop he was working in for the summer, owned by his friend who owns the cafe.

One minute I’m sitting amongst the beautiful carpets, the next I’m eating lunch with the hipsters on the floor of their upstairs office.

The day after my hipster carpet shop lunch, I was walking past a miniatures shop when Ehsan stuck his head out. It turns out another of his friends own a miniatures shop, so two purchases later, Ehsan took me to a beryani cafe filled to the brim with Esfahanis devouring their local dish – ground meat with seasoning scooped up with flat bread and eaten with onion and herbs. It neither looks, nor necessarily sounds that appetising, but it is. Try it.

Woman sitting in arches of bridge

Watching the sun set from the Sio-seh Pol

I imagine many would be cringing at the idea of me a single foreign female traveller eating in a shop with strange men; trusting a stranger to lead me around a city. But there is a point where you have to trust that the majority of people in the world don’t want to harm you. Sure, situations can change on a dime, but being open to new experiences while trusting your gut instinct will usually bring you out rewarded.

New friendships pop up and you discover the everyday life of a place. You discover Iranian hipsters (and many other Iranians) are highly educated, worldly people who want to learn and explore just like you. They’re interested in music and fashion, good food and coffee, they have plenty of thoughts on their government even if they don’t necessarily share them.

For many of the 60 plus per cent under 30 who have known nothing but an Islamic state, they can only imagine an Iran without the Ayatollahs in power. They picture a future without the compulsory hijab, where unmarried men and women can walk down the street holding hands, where they are free.

Privately the laws are flouted every day. Publicly there are protests, a push towards change, and a government that can open the country to the world again. A government that doesn’t impose harsh restrictions on its people.

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