The Highlights Tour
10 days and 9 nights,
including UNESCO World Heritage sites
This tour begins and ends in Shiraz; it does not include Tehran. But you’ll get to see the highlights of a beautiful country, including several UNESCO World Heritage sites. You can customize any tour, but the Highlights tour picks out several important must-see stops in Iran. This tour includes one domestic flight.
Our Highlights Tour of Iran is for travelers who want to visit the most memorable sites in Iran in a relatively short period of time. The tour provides a small taste of this ancient land while delivering on value, history and culture.
Itinerary Highlights of the Highlights Tour
- Day 1— Arrive in Shiraz: acclimate, relax and some sightseeing (overnight in Shiraz)
- Day 2— Excursion to Persepolis, Pasargadae and Naghsh-e-Rostam (overnight in Shiraz)
- Day 3— Shiraz City for Karim Khan and Eram Gardens, then fly to Kerman (overnight in Kerman)
- Day 4— Kerman for Rayen Castle, Mahan, Shahzadeh Garden and Bam (overnight in Kerman)
- Day 5— Kerman to Yazd for Jameh Mosque (overnight in Yazd)
- Day 6— Yazd for Towers of Silence and Zurkhane (overnight in Yazd)
- Day 7— Yazd to Na’in and on to Isfahan (overnight in Isfahan)
- Day 8 & 9— Isfahan for Meidan Emam, Masjed-e Jameh and Vank Cathedral (overnight in Isfahan)
- Day 10— Isfahan to Shiraz for sightseeing and your departure
Detailed Itinerary of the Highlights Tour
The tour of Iran covers 10 days and 9 nights.
Day 1: Arrive in Shiraz.
Your guide will meet you at baggage claim. Your driver will be outside to take you to your hotel. Most flights arrive late at night or early in the morning, so you will probably be ready for some rest.
Shiraz will be your base for visiting three famous UNESCO World Heritage sites: Persepolis, Pasargadae and Naghsh-e- Rostam. All three of these sites are within easy driving distance of Shiraz and the day-long tour to explore them will be the major activity for tomorrow (Day 2).
Overnight Shiraz at either the 5-star Chamran hotel or the 5-star Shiraz Hotel.
Day 2: Shiraz — Excursion to Persepolis
After a good buffet breakfast, prepare for your excursion to Persepolis. This day-long tour will encompass three major sites around Shiraz.
Persepolis is probably the most famous single historical site in lran and a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well. When it was founded by Darius III in 518 BC, Persepolis was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire, where the king of kings created an impressive palace complex inspired by Mesopotamian models. The importance and quality of the monumental ruins make it a unique archaeological site.
Persepolis was the example par excellence of the dynastic city, the symbol of the Achaemenid dynasty, which is why it was burned by the Greeks of Alexander the Great in 330 BC. According to Plutarch, they carried away its treasures on 20,000 mules and 5,000 camels.
What remains today, dominating the city, is the immense stone terrace (530 m by 330 m), half-natural, half-artificial, backed against the mountains. . As in Mesopotamia, the principal building material was sun-dried brick; much of which, has happily survived the vicissitudes of time.
Pasargadae was the first dynastic capital of the Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus II the Great in the 6th century BC.
Its palaces, gardens and the mausoleum of Cyrus are outstanding examples of the first phase of royal Achaemenid art and architecture and exceptional testimonies of Persian civilization.
Particularly noteworthy vestiges include: the Mausoleum of Cyrus II; Tall-e Takht, a fortified terrace; and a royal ensemble of gatehouse, audience hall, residential palace and gardens.
Pasargadae was the capital of the first great multicultural empire in Western Asia. Spanning the Eastern Mediterranean and Egypt to the Hindus River, it is considered to be the first empire that respected the cultural diversity of its different peoples. This was reflected in Achaemenid architecture, a synthetic representation of different cultures.
This is one of our favorite sites in Iran. You will see four tombs belonging to Achaemenid kings carved out of the rock face at a considerable height above the ground. They are somewhat reminiscent of Petra in Jordan, but much, much easier to get to.
The tombs are known locally as the ‘Persian crosses,’ after the shape of the facades of the tombs. In addition, there are seven over-life-sized rock reliefs at the site, depicting monarchs of the Sassanid period. It is believed that they were created to celebrate a great victory of ancient times.
Overnight in Shiraz.
Day 3: Tour Shiraz + Flight to Kerman
In the morning, before your flight to Kerman, you will have time to visit some of the interesting places within Shiraz itself.
The number of places you visit will probably depend on how early a start you decide to make. Among the places to see are Karim Khan complex, resembling a medieval fortress; the mausoleum of the 8th-century poet Hafez and the main bazaar.
You will also take the opportunity to visit the Eram Garden. Established in the 11th century, the Eram Garden is a series of historic Persian gardens and as a whole, have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Then you will head to the airport for a short flight to Kerman.
NOTE: Although the short flight from Shiraz to Kerman is usually very reliable, it is possible that on a specific day it may not be available and that it will be necessary to cover that route by road — a comfortable yet 7-hour drive by car.
Overnight in Kerman at 5-star Pars Hotel.
Day 4: Kerman — Rayen — Mahan — Bam
This day will include visits to Rayen and Mahan. It will also be possible to visit Bam, a famous medieval city that was severely damaged by an earthquake in 2003. Prior to this quake, there would be no question that you would visit Bam.
But even after reconstruction work, Bam is no longer what it had been before 2003. You can discuss with your guide whether you want to make effort to visit Bam. It can certainly be included if you decide to go.
Meanwhile, there will be a visit to Rayen. The medieval mud brick city of Rayen displays all the architectural elements of a deserted citadel. Rayen castle has been well preserved, considering the numerous natural disasters that have been destroying similar structures nearby.
Arg-e-Rayen was inhabited until 150 years ago and although believed to be at least 1,000 years old, may in fact have foundations from the pre-Islamic Sassanid. (1500 years ago).
From Rayen, move on to Mahan and the Shahzadeh Garden. This is one of the finest examples of a Persian garden, which, as a group, have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Mahan is well known for the tomb of the great Sufi leader Shah Ne’emat ollah-e-Vali, which dates from the l5th century.
Within Kerman itself is the Ganjali Khan a Safavid-era building complex, located in the old center of city. The complex is composed of a school, a square, a caravanserai, a bathhouse, an Ab Anbar (water reservoir), a mint, a mosque and a bazaar and it dates back to the early 1600s.
Overnight at Pars Hotel in Kerman.
Day 5: Kerman — Yazd
After breakfast, drive to Yazd, around 4 hours away. Upon arrival, check in to your hotel, which will be either the Moshir Hotel or the Hotel Dad. Each of these hotels is a converted caravanserai, which are now fully modern hotels. Your guide will be able to tell you all about the fascinating history of Persian caravanserais.
Yazd is a very interesting city to visit. Among the first things you notice are the many wind-catchers (badgirs) perched on the rooftops of many buildings. The wind catchers were an ancient form of air conditioning and Yazd is famous for having so many examples of them. Your guide will explain how they work.
You will also visit the great Jaameh Mosque, dating back to the 12th Century and still in use today. After a visit to the Mosque, you may take a stroll through the old city of Yazd, made up of a labyrinth of narrow, winding alleys, where, without a guide, it might be easy to get lost. This neighborhood is also a good place to stop for tea or a cold drink.
Overnight Yazd at either the hotel Moshir or the Hotel Dad .
Day 6: Yazd
Yazd was known as a center of Zoroastrianism (there are still around 150,000 Zoroastrians living in lran today). The Towers of Silence, on the edge of the city, were used to expose bodies to the elements until the 1960s, when the practice was banned by the Shah.
Yazd is also a place where you can learn about the fascinating ‘qanat’ water system, an ancient method of supplying water to cities and farms by means of underground channels. There is even a qanat museum.
One of the most exciting things you can do in Yazd is to see the body-building men who show up twice an evening at the Zurkhane or House of strength.
This is an ancient martial arts ritual, accompanied by music and lasting an hour, that is open to the public. It is in the same building that houses an ancient reservoir. The men easily twirl 20-kilo pins as part of their exercises.
Day 7: Yazd — Na’in — Isfahan
After breakfast, set out for Na’in (155 km), en route to Isfahan. Na’in is an ancient town in the desert and a good place to break up the trip. In Na’in, you will stop to see the Jame Mosque, one of the oldest in Iran, dating back to the 9th century.
Then continue on to Isfahan, another 145 km along the desert road. Approaching Isfahan, the road starts to climb and the scenery becomes more interesting.
For many tourists Isfahan is the high point of the trip. It can be called the tourist center of Iran and you are likely to run into many foreign groups there.
After arriving in Isfahan and checking into your hotel, it will be time to start seeing some of the many sights of the city. Isfahan is justly famous for its 11 bridges spanning the Zayandeh River (although the presence of water in the river is seasonal).
These bridges are beautiful architectural feats, each one being distinctive and impressive in its own right. We will be able to visit several of these unique bridges and can walk across some of them.
Overnight in Isfahan at a 5-star hotel.
Day 8 and Day 9: Isfahan
The next two days of the tour are completely devoted to exploring the many sights of Isfahan. Some visitors may want to spend more time shopping in the huge bazaar. Others may want to visit as many mosques as possible.
Isfahan boasts two UNESCO World Heritage sites. You may have already seen photos of the Meidan Emam. The Meidan was built by Shah Abbas I the Great at the beginning of the 17th century, and it’s bordered on all sides by monumental buildings linked by a series of two-story arcades.
The site is known for the Royal Mosque, the Mosque of Sheykh Lotfollah, the magnificent Portico of Qaysariyyeh and the 1Sth-century Timurid palace. They are an impressive testimony to the level of social and cultural life in Persia during the Safavid era.
There will be plenty of time to walk around the square, visit some of the adjoining buildings and the great mosque and explore the nearby bazaar. The bazaar itself is huge and you may well find some things to purchase, even carpets (see Q. & A. on buying carpets in Iran).
The second UNESCO site is the Jameh Mosque. Located in the historic center of Isfahan, the Masjed-e Jim (‘Friday mosque’) can be seen as a stunning illustration of the evolution of mosque architecture over twelve centuries, starting in ad 841.
It is the oldest preserved edifice of its type in Iran and a prototype for later mosque designs throughout Central Asia. The complex, covering more than 20,000 m, is also the first Islamic building that adapted the four courtyard layout of Sassanid palaces to Islamic religious architecture. Its double-shelled ribbed domes represent an architectural innovation that inspired builders throughout the region.
The site also features remarkable decorative details representative of stylistic developments over more than a thousand years of Islamic art.
It may even be possible for you to meet with some Muslim clerics who speak English and are interested in discussions with Americans. You may not always agree with what they have to say, but it is guaranteed to be an interesting discussion.
Another place well worth visiting in Isfahan is the Vank Cathedral, established by Armenian immigrants after the Ottoman War of 1603–1605. The church has beautifully detailed wall paintings which retell Biblical stories.
There is also an Armenian museum at the site. The neighborhood around the Vank Cathedral has become somewhat “trendy” and is an interesting area to walk around and have dinner.
These are only some of the highlights of Isfahan. There is a lot more to see and how much you see depends on how early a start you get in the morning. Your guide and driver will leave as early as you like and together you can decide on your day’s itinerary.
Day 10: Isfahan — Shiraz
This is your scheduled day of departure. Since most international flights leave at night, there should be plenty of time to get to the Shiraz airport for your departure.
You will probably have enough time to do a little more exploring of Isfahan, but at some point it will be time to set out on the 5 to 6 hours drive back to Shiraz and your flight home.
Whenever your flight departs from Shiraz, your guide and driver will make sure that you get to the airport in plenty of time.
Major Points of Interest on an Iran Map
The map below highlights the most famous historic sites and points of interest in Iran covered by the Highlights Tour package.