- Day 1: Tehran
Welcome to Iran. A Tehran airport arrival transfer is included, so please provide your flight details at the time of booking, or no later than 14 days prior to travel. Once you have provided your details a transfer representative will be booked to meet you and transfer you to your hotel (approximately 1 hour). This is simply an arrival day so you may arrive in Tehran at any time, though please note that hotel rooms are generally only available after midday. There will be a tour briefing at 6pm; please refer to your hotel noticeboard or talk to reception for more details. Until then the rest of your day is free to explore your new surroundings. Iran's capital is exciting, noisy and chaotic. Home to 15 million people, Tehran is the country's beating heart and where its true national identity is found. Expect to see women wearing full-length chadors competing for space with young and hip girls in figure-hugging manteau and headscarves. Also expect to be stopped by friendly locals who love nothing more than to chat with you about anything and everything. This evening perhaps take a seat at a city coffee shop for some people watching.
- Day 2: Tehran
Begin your discovery of Tehran with a full day tour, focusing on the sprawling Sa'd Abad Palace and Museum complex. This 104-hectare park is home to 18 palaces, most of them converted into museums, and it is stunningly back-dropped by towering mountains. The site was used as a royal summer residence during the Pahlavi period (from 1925-1979), before the monarchy was overthrown in the revolution. Aside from the artefacts contained within, the palaces offer a fascinating glimpse into the opulent lifestyle of the shah and his guests, and their decoration was the height of fashion for the day. Don't miss the bronze boots of Reza Shah outside the White Palace, all that remains of a massive statue that was 'cut down to size' during the revolution. The interior of the 54-room palace is filled with extravagant furnishing, from tiger pelts to the biggest carpet in the country. The Abgineh Museum exhibits three collections of porcelains, glass works and crystals from the 18th & 19th century's BC, while the other museum exhibits range from royal automobiles to royal dishware, miniature paintings and anthropological displays. Tonight, a welcome dinner is your first opportunity to experience traditional Persian cuisine and the legendary hospitality of the Iranians.
- Day 3: Hamadan
Today you will drive west from Tehran to Hamadan (approximately 4.5 hours). Known to classical scholars as Ecbatana, the city has a history that can be traced back to the 8th century BC when it was the capital of the ancient Medes people. It’s thought to be one of the oldest cities in the world, possible dating back as far as 1100 BC, and its fortunes rose and fell in the successive centuries, seeing King Cyrus, Alexander the Great, the Mongols and Turkic conqueror Timur come and go. The city today has a contemporary feel, having been totally redesigned in 1929 by the German engineer Karl Frisch. You will explore the city on a tour, including the tomb of Avicenna (also known as Abu Ali Ibn Sina), one of the greatest medieval scholars; a philosopher, physicist and poet widely considered to be one of the founders of modern medicine. The delightful museum houses local artefacts, historical medical instruments and manuscripts. Stop by the Lion Stone, one remaining part of the Lions Gate that was once the old entrance to the city. It’s thought the lion and its twin counterpart were constructed by Alexander the Great to commemorate the death of his close friend Hephaestion, who died unexpectedly in the city. The Jewish community in Hamadan used to be one of the largest in Iran, and it remains an important Jewish pilgrimage site due to the fascinating Esther and Mordecai tomb. Though most likely medieval in date, local custom dictated that the tomb marks the resting place of the Old Testament's Esther, who won royal permission for the Jews to return from exile. Spend the night in Hamadan.
- Day 4: Kermanshah
You will continue heading west towards Kermanshah (approximately 200 kilometres, 3 hours) today, but will stop at many interesting sights en route. Begin with the cuneiform rock carvings of Ganjnameh. These panels, whose name translates to ‘Book of Treasures’, are caved into the rock and date from the 5th Century BC. They list the victories of Achaemenid king Darius the Great and his son Xerxes I, and contain messages of thanks to the Zoroastrian god Ahuramazda. You will also have time to visit the stunning rock carvings of Taghe Bostan. Among other things, these Sassanid Empire reliefs show the crowing of Ardashir II, and housed inside a large grotto is impressive carving of Khosrau II on his favourite horse. Continue the drive to Kangavar to visit the 2300-year-old Anahita Temple. Though little remains of what was once a major place of worship, the skill and scale involved in this temple is clearly visible. The major attraction of the day comes at Bisotun, a UNESCO-protected cliff area with bas-relief carving and inscriptions which dominates the skyline. The most impressive of these honours Darius and his generals, who stand victorious over the rebel Gaumata and accept the submission of regional governors. Although you can walk a short way to the base of the cliff face, the carvings are some way up and quite detailed, so you may like to use a zoom lens or binoculars here to inspect them more closely. Continuing on to Kermanshah, you will arrive in the late afternoon and spend the night here.
- Day 5: Ahvaz
Your desert journey continues today as you travel via Shush to Ahvaz (approximately 500 kilometres, 6 hours). Once as grand and important as Persepolis, Shush today is a pleasant small town with several places of historical interest. You will visit remains of the ancient city, like the citadel and the Palace of Darius. Also here is the Tomb of Daniel, a pilgrimage site for Muslims, Christians, and the Jewish community alike, which brought great wealth to the local townspeople thanks to the sheer number of pilgrims. Tradition states that the relics here belong to the same Daniel who fell foul of the lions' den in the Old Testament. Though extensively damaged during the Iran-Iraq conflict, the tomb has been carefully restored. Your next stop is at Choga Zanbil, where the splendid Elamite-era brick ziggurat (a shrine-topped pyramid-like structure) has earned World Heritage status, and the astounding condition of the bricks belies their great age. Continue on to Ahvaz for the night.
- Day 6: Shiraz
Today is a long travel day as we drive from Ahwaz to Shiraz (approximately 8 hours). The journey is approximately 543km however the roads are not great so we will need to take our time. Along the way, stop and visit Bishapour, which is a historic Sassanid site with some fascinating ancient ruins to explore. Once in Shiraz this evening, settle in and enjoy some free time. Valerian, the only Roman emperor to have ever been a prisoner of war, lived out his last days in captivity here circa AD 260. Many of the ruins date from this period. Over the next few days you will have a chance to discover this Pearl of Persia whose very name evokes tranquil gardens, lavish palaces, philosophers, and artists. The city has managed to retain its relaxed provincial atmosphere and is lovely to walk around. In the bazaar you might spot the members of nomad groups who come to the city to stock up on provisions.
- Day 7: Shiraz
Take a city tour that covers the highlights of this celebrated historical city. You will visit the lovely, vast garden complex of Eram Garden, also known as the ‘Garden of Paradise’ (Bagh-e Eram). Wander the grounds, filled with young Shirazis, where artificial rivers run through an impressive collection of cypress trees and pool in front of a colourful palace. Following this, visit the tombs of Hafez and Sa'di. Hafez was a Persian poet who was born in Shiraz around 1310, travelled the world and returned to pass away in Shiraz, where he is regarded as a literary giant and folk hero. Look out for how the cupola resembles the hat of a dervish (of Whirling Dervish fame). Sa'di, another great poet and writer from Shiraz, was more of a scholar. His tomb is also set in a garden, beside a fishpond. Appreciate the intricate artwork of their tombs and understand their continued relevance and importance in Iranian society. In the centre of town is the Arg-e Karim Khan, a mud-brick citadel from the 18th century, when the whole of Persia was ruled by Karim Khan from Shiraz. Don't miss the room exhibiting historic photos from the 19th and 20th centuries, and the legendary tales depicted on the tiles at the entrance gate. Nearby is the Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh, a beautiful mausoleum of one of Imam Reza's brothers and the holiest site in Shiraz; the forecourt is usually packed with Shiite pilgrims. You will finish by exploring the nearby Bazar-e Vakil, regarded as one of the finest and most evocative bazaars in the country, and specialising in fine carpets, handicrafts, textiles, and spice. The rest of the day is free.
- Day 8: Yazd
Today is another busy day with a lot of ground to cover and sights to see. Take a morning excursion to the remains of Persepolis (approximately 1 hour drive away), once the centre of the Persian Empire and one of the great cities of the ancient world. The Takhte Jamshid complex of palaces, considered the historic marvel of the country, was constructed in the reign of Darius I as the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, and took about 150 years to complete. The imposing gateways, exquisite relief carvings, tombs cut into mountainsides, the grand staircases and towering columns will leave you in no doubt that this was once the centre of the known world. In 330 BC invading armies led by Macedonian Alexander the Great set fire to the city, destroying it and in turn symbolising the destruction of the Persian Empire. While today only the small ruins remain from those once-magnificent edifices, the grandeur is still impressive. You will then visit Naqsh-e-Rostam, a cave-tomb containing the bodies of several Achaemenid kings. There are seven reliefs dating back to Sassanid era, each of which depicts a battle that glorifies a Sassanid king. At one time a Zoroastrian religious centre, perhaps the most important in the world, was located here. Continue on to Naqsh-e-Rajab, the site of four limestone rockface inscriptions and bas-reliefs that date to the early Sassanid era. After lunch you will visit Pasargadae, an ancient city build by Cyrus the Great and which precedes Persepolis. It is not as well preserved as the latter, but still reflects the architectural genius of the Achaemenids, the beauty of simplicity and balance. Continue north to Yazd (approximately 4 hours). Tonight you will stay at our 'feature stay' hotel, an old renovated caravanserai that dates back to nearly a century ago. Stay in the comfortable rooms and relax and enjoy the beautiful courtyard and ambience.
- Day 9: Yazd
The ancient desert city of Yazd was a major stop on the caravan routes to Central Asia and India during the Silk Road period – Marco Polo visited the city on his way to China – and it retains a rustic feel. It's also the heart of the Zoroastrian religion. This morning you visit the Jameh Mosque, notable for its fine mosaics and twin minarets that tower above the city. From here you are ideally placed to explore the old part of the city, one of the oldest on earth according to UNESCO. Visit the Dolat Abad Garden and Amir Chakmaq complex. Walk the narrow kuches (lanes), past simple courtyards and the ornate doors of the mud brick buildings. One of the most distinctive features of Yazd are the wind towers (‘badgirs’) that capture even the softest of breezes and send to the buildings below to cool them in a forerunner of modern air-con. You will also visit the Fire Temple and Towers of Silence, both vestiges of the city’s Zoroastrian heritage. This religion, which dates back over 4,000 years, was the state religion of Iran before the arrival of Islam. In the Zoroastrian religion, fire and water are agents of ritual purity, and the fire in the Atashkadeh Fire Temple is said to have been continuously burning since 470 AD. The intriguing Towers of Silence are part of the Zoroastrian tradition of raised circular structures where the dead are laid out to be picked clean by scavenger birds.
- Day 10: Esfahan
Leave Yzad and drive to Esfahan (approximately 320 kilometres, 4.5 hours), stopping en route in the quiet town of Na’in. This settlement on the edge of the Central Desert is a place of old clay houses on top of underground aqueducts that bring water from the mountains to the plains; a place that has retained its traditional charm and is very well known for its Persian rugs. You will visit the 10th century Jameh Mosque, which is one of the oldest in Iran, as well as the Kavir Museum and the old part of town. From here it is a three-hour drive to Esfahan, the jewel in the crown of Persia and undoubtedly one of the highlights of your trip. Arrive mid afternoon, check-in to you hotel and have some time to rest. This evening, take a stroll down to the Zayandeh River and have a look at its historic bridges, which seem to have come straight from a fairytale. See the stunning Si-o-she Pol (bridge of 33 arches) lit up at night in Esfahan. Sit on the bridge or on the banks of the Zayandeh or at a local tea house. At several of the bridges local people gather to talk, drink tea and sing beautiful folk songs. This is truly a magical place to while away some time, and one of the most atmospheric places in all of Iran.
- Day 11: Esfahan
You’ll have two days to soak up the sights and atmosphere of what’s considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The city reached its peak during the reign of Shah Abbas I in 1587, when it became the capital of Persia. Even though the capital was moved to Shiraz and then Tehran, the city still retains much of its past glory. Today, you start the tour at the immense Imam Square (formerly Naqsh-e Jahan Square); covering an area of 82,500 square meters it’s the second largest in the world. The square is surrounded by many grand buildings such as the Ali Qapu Palace, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Qeysarieh Portal and the majestic Imam Mosque. It’s truly a remarkable sight. In the Safavid era, this square was a place for parades, military reviews, polo games and festivals. Today it’s popular for local families to meander around and picnic at in the early evenings. Located in the west of Imam Square, the Ali Qapu Palace covers six floors and was originally built as the main palace of Shah Abbas, who used it to receive guests and foreign ambassadors. Its plaster works and paintings are considered masterpieces of the Safavid era. You will also see Esfahan's Jameh Mosque, a fine expression of the heights of classical Persian architecture from the 11th to the 15th century. The rest of the day is free for you to soak up the visual appeal of the city and discovering the many beautiful secrets it holds.
- Day 12: Esfahan
Continue your guided exploration of Esfahan this morning with a visit to Vank Cathedral. This church is located in Jolfa, the Armenian quarter of the city, and the interior is most striking with its gilded ceilings, walls and paintings. The stunning, delicate artwork of the dome depicts the Biblical story of Genesis, from the creation to man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. There is a museum in this church that contains some very historic manuscripts. Armenian Christians were originally brought there by Shah Abbas I, who valued their skills as artists and merchants. They have been allowed to practice their religion in peace, but are confined to this one area in town. Esfahan also has a wonderful bazaar; walk the covered lanes of this sprawling marketplace, where shafts of light filter through celling and lattice, and browse for fabrics, spices, jewellery and other treasures. Tucked away near the bazaar mosques is a lovely teahouse, the perfect place to rest tired feet and refresh your spirit. Tonight there will be an enjoyable dinner at Shahrzad Restaurant, one of Isfahan's oldest restaurants set in an opulently decorated Qajar-styled building.
- Day 13: Tehran
This morning you will drive on to Kashan, a merchant town know for its high quality ceramics, silks, carpets, and fine houses. You’ll visit the lush Fin Garden (Bagh-e Tarikhi-ye Fin), a historic and classical Persian garden that contains Kashan's Fin Bath. This is where Amir Kabir, the Qajarid chancellor and a nationalist hero, was murdered under the orders of King Nadir al-Din in 1852. You will also stop by Borujerdi House (Khan-e Borujerdi), which was built in the 1840s for the affluent Tabatabaei family. Here exceptional attention was paid to all minute architectural details demanded by the geographical and climatic conditions of the area. It’s fascinating place to visit, and enables you to see a traditional (albeit exquisite) Persian residential home, which contains features such as a biruni (where visitors and guests are entertained) and an andaruni (the private part only open to family members). You will then continue your journey back to Tehran (approximately 450 kilometres, 6 hours). You should arrive by approximately 5pm this evening depending on traffic.
- Day 14: Tehran
Your adventure in Iran will come to an end today after breakfast.