When visitors are asked about their favorite things to do in Boulder, the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse inevitably makes the list of top attractions to see. This architecturally dazzling Persian teahouse was a gift from a sister city in Tajikistan. Keep reading to discover the unlikely story of how the teahouse came to Boulder.
The tale of the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse is one that spans the entire Cold War and many years after. In 1983, a group of Boulderites led by Sophia Stoller and Mary Axe, set out to establish a sister-city relationship with a community in the then Soviet Union, hoping that it would increase international understanding and peace. This went against the political grain of the time, but the group persisted in their endeavor. A match was eventually made with Dushanbe, Tajikistan, with the two cities sharing a number of commonalities: both are university towns, centers for scientific study, surrounded by mountains and at the same latitude.
Sister City Gift
In 1987, on a visit to Boulder, Dushanbe’s mayor announced his plan to present Boulder with a Tajik chaikhona, a place to sip tea (chai), meet up with friends, play chess and enjoy light snacks. Over the next several years, a group of 40 Tajik artisans constructed, carved and painted a 1,700-square-foot teahouse in Dushanbe that, when finished, was valued at $750,000.
The Journey Begins
Local Boulder architect Vern Seieroe traveled to Dushanbe and collaborated with teahouse architect Lado Shanidze to enclose the originally open-air structure while still preserving the integrity of the Tajik design. And in 1990, the teahouse was disassembled, packed into 200 shipping containers and sent on the long journey by train, ship and tractor trailer to Boulder.
Then, the magnificent gift languished away in storage for years.
Why? Well, Boulder residents had some concerns to hash out. Where would the structure be installed? How would the city fund its assemblage? Who would operate it once open, and how — as a museum, teahouse or restaurant? The discussions took time, but eventually, thanks to a few stalwart champions of the project, the project came together at last.
Open at Last
Sara and Lenny Martinelli were selected by the city to operate the teahouse as a restaurant and café. The city of Dushanbe sent a small crew to Boulder to help assemble the teahouse. The Boulder-Dushanbe Teahouse finally opened to the general public in May 1998. And once locals could see its intricate and colorful beauty on display, any lingering concerns turned to praise.
For deeper insights into the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse’s history, we highly recommend “The Dushanbe Teahouse’s long, strange trip” by Juliet Wittman.
There are over 100 teas on the menu, from the exotic to the familiar. Lenny Martinelli has traveled far and wide to research teas, and Sara Martinelli is a skilled herbalist who understands the health benefits of plants. The famous Teahouse Chai is a must-taste!
In the center of the teahouse dining room is the Fountain of Seven Beauties, where seven female figures evoke a famous poem by the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. Bring a book or your journal and let the soothing sounds relax you as you sip tea.
In a Persian tradition dating back some 2,000 years, the Boulder teahouse uses nature motifs, recurring patterns and lavish decoration and color. The longer you sit admiring the carvings, paintings and handiwork, the more details you notice.
An internationally influenced menu is available for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and brunch on the weekends). Let your taste buds dance to the tune of a Moroccan Harisa chicken dish, a fragrant Tajikistan plov (rice dish) or a plate of spicy Indonesian peanut noodles.
If you’re visiting in summer, try to nab a seat on the front patio, which flourishes with 45 aromatic varieties of roses. With the creek running by the south side of the patio, it’s a delightful escape.
Visit the tea counter in the back of the restaurant to purchase one of Boulder’s best souvenirs: A set of tea tins with designs that resemble the colorful motifs of the teahouse — filled with your favorite tea. The bottled Teahouse Chai concentrate is another great item to take home.
• The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse hosts a popular Children's Tea Party each year. Check their calendar for dates, and book well in advance, as this sells out quickly.
• Afternoon tea is a special treat the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse. Enjoy white linens, tiers of sweet and savory pastries and a pot of premium tea. Reservations required 24 hours in advance.
• Because this is a municipal building, it is open to the public, so you may pop in to admire the building without dining here. However, please be considerate of those enjoying their tea and meals in such a peaceful setting.
• From November to late January, 275,000 lights illuminate Boulder’s Central Park. The lights come on at 4 pm daily.
• On Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons, the Boulder Farmers Market happens right in front of the teahouse. Make a day of it! Take in the sights and smells of the market, have tea or lunch at the teahouse and visit the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA) next door.