Explore ancient Persia and modern Iran on this one-of-a-kind trip with Atlas Obscura. On the overland route from Tehran to Shiraz, we’ll experience some of the oldest sites of civilization, tap into local secrets, and explore the myriad influences that have shaped Iran into one of the most friendly and fascinating nations on the planet. (And yes, most Americans can currently get visas—details below.)
Iran, home to some of the world’s greatest bygone empires, remains somewhat unknown to many travelers. But with expert guidance and local insight, you’re in for the trip of a lifetime, as we set out on a journey spanning 12 days and many millennia.
Our time in Iran includes an incredible array of historical sites and contemporary neighborhoods, woven together with great deserts and mountains. We’ll slowly soak in Iran’s most celebrated destinations, but we’ll also wander off the trodden path to investigate lesser-known marvels. Hosted by a team of experienced Iranian and Western guides, in the company of a small group of Atlas Obscura explorers, you’ll soon feel at home in what surely among the most fascinating regions in the world.
This trip is limited to a small group of 15 travelers.
- Architectural marvels, past and present: From the magnificent columns of ancient Persepolis to Tehran’s sleek and modern Azadi Tower, and from the Pink Mosque in Shiraz to the soaring windcatchers of Yazd, witness an awe-inspiring array of man-made structures.
- Caravanserai of the old Silk Road: Spend the night in a centuries-old hotel, stargazing in the same courtyard where Silk Road traders once plied their wares.
- Grand bazaars and remote villages: Experience the hustle and bustle of the country’s busiest marketplace, as well as the quiet traditions of its oldest village.
A $500 deposit is required to secure your spot. This deposit is nonrefundable after three days. We have limited capacity and expect the trip to fill quickly. The trip will cost $4,685—the $500 deposit plus $4,185 final payment—which covers all fixed costs, including accommodations, and all the meals and activities listed below.
NOTE ON VISAS
As part of your trip, we will obtain your Iranian “Visa Grant Notice” (commonly known as a “Letter of Invitation”). This process will begin three months prior to the beginning of the trip, by which time you will need to have completed an online visa application form. From there, we will work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As a rough timeline, U.S. citizens can expect to receive their Visa Grant Notice about one month prior to the trip start; U.K. and Canadian citizens about two months prior; and all other nationalities generally within one week of application, though the process may be slowed since we apply as a group. Wherever you're coming from, you should receive your visa within plenty of time.
However, based on changing factors outside our control, there is always the small chance that visas may not be approved. We require that you purchase travel insurance as early as possible to protect the cost of your trip and any travel-related expenses in the unlikely case that any issues arise.
Additionally, please note that your Iranian visa application will be denied if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport. People with a high public profile, applicants who have backgrounds in media or politics, or who have been employed by the government, may also receive additional scrutiny during the visa process. If you have any questions or concerns about the visa process, please don't hesitate to contact us.
Vahid Negahbanfard was born and lives in Shiraz, Iran, and has led over 300 groups through the most famous sites all over Iran. As a qualified architect and avid researcher, Vahid has unique insight and knowledge on both historical Persia and contemporary Iran. Recognized as one of the leading guides in Iran, Vahid is a sought-after guide, speaker, and mentor, and also leads tours through Russia, Turkey, Mauritius, Spain, Hungary, and Italy.
Nate Robert is an Australian travel writer and photographer who spends half his year in Iran. Since 2014, he has been leading tours through Iran, specializing in both classical and lesser known sites. Locals and foreigners alike have recognized the creativity of his Iran explorations, carving out new routes, and introducing travelers to Iran in a way that wasn't previously possible. Nate is consulting with local Iranian tourism organizations and service providers, and when not in Iran, can be found in Eastern Europe, guiding Atlas Obscura tours through Chernobyl, Ukraine, and Bessararabia.
Phillipa Jane is a New Zealand photographer and extensive full-time traveller, visiting over 70 countries so far. Having organized logistics and guided over 20 tours through Iran, she also has extensive experience in tours through Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine. An Iran specialist, Phillipa spends months in Iran each year, exploring remote locations, developing cultural knowledge, and creating unique journeys for travelers from around the world.
Welcome to Iran!
- Arrive in Tehran by midday and check into our hotel, in the center of the bustling capital and conveniently close to most of the sights we’ll be exploring.
- After our welcome and orientation, we’ll spend the afternoon visiting Azadi Tower (“Freedom Tower”). Curvaceous and clad in cut marble, this epitome of Iranian modernist architecture served as the gathering place for the 1979 revolution.
- Later, we’ll stroll over Tabiat Bridge, an elegant, hypermodern, multilevel connection, designed by a young Iranian female architect, between two parks in the city. The surrounding area is full of picnickers and diners from nearby eateries, and we’ll begin to understand why Iranians are so known for being friendly. We’ll settle in for dinner at a traditional restaurant and begin getting to know each other.
Getting to Know Tehran
- We’ll begin the day at Golestan Palace, in the middle of old Tehran. The palace is a complex of buildings and gardens of varying styles, and highlights include the extraordinary cut-mirror ceiling of Talar e Brelian, and a covered terrace with a marble throne designed for the relaxation of the former kings.
- Next we’ll head to a location steeped in history and controversy: the former U.S. Embassy, known today as the “Nest of Spies.” We’ll tour the site of the the longest hostage crisis in history, when Iranian students took over the embassy for 444 days.
- We’ll grab lunch in the Grand Bazaar, the heart of Tehran's commerce. The largest in Iran, the sprawling city-within-a-city can get hectic, but we’ll duck into a restaurant that serves thousands of enormous portions of homestyle Persian food each day.
- Afterward, we’ll walk off the hearty food in Tajrish, one of Tehran’s oldest and most famous neighborhoods.
- We’ll end our first full day in Darband, the “Door of the Mountain,” a neighborhood that leads right into the foothills. We’ll wrap up our lively day with a casual dinner beside the babbling stream flowing from the towering Alborz Mountains.
From Tehran to Kashan
- Upon leaving our Tehran hotel, we’ll head to Qom, one of the holiest cities in Iran, and a perfect stop on the way to Kashan. We’ll be guided through the spectacular Fatimah Musemeh Shrine, an exquisite, centuries-old monument and pilgrimage site. It’s also where Ayatollah Khomeini led his opposition to the Shah of Iran, so it is often considered the birthplace of the revolution.
- We’ll then continue to the ancient city of Kashan, where the tilework of the Aminoddole Caravanserai, a Silk Road outpost, glitters like a kaleidoscopic movie set. The mesmerizing bazaar is still active in the carpet trade.
- In the afternoon, we’ll stroll through Fin Garden, considered the epitome of the Persian garden, and is also the oldest. Quiet and lush, Fin is filled with captivating fountains that function without pumps or electricity—a mystery that our guides will be happy to explain. They’ll also discuss the assassination that took place here and forever changed the history of Persia.
- Our evening in Kashan will be spent in a beautiful, traditional Persian hotel in the city's quiet, winding backstreets, the building’s plain exterior gives no hint to the serenity and comfort within.
Into the Mountains to Abyaneh
- Kashan boasts an array of lavish historical buildings and homes, and we’ll visit the bewitching Tabatabaei House and nearby Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse. Both built in the 1880s, these buildings illustrate the plush Persian lifestyle for which Kashan was once famous.
- We’ll then leave the city for the mountains for lunch, and a stroll through Abyaneh, one of the oldest villages in the country. Today, its inhabitants are predominately elderly, and the door knockers on homes are still gender-specific. Those up for a short hike, will ascend to a decaying fortress from the Sassanid era (A.D. 224–651) that offers an amazing panoramic view.
- After leaving the mountains, we’ll drive past the gates of the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, the source of a number of rumors and tales (no photos, in case you were wondering).
- By early evening we’ll arrive in Isfahan, widely considered the most beautiful city in Iran. We’ll have dinner and settle into our hotel for the night.
Isfahan, Half the World
- Isfahan has long attracted the country’s finest artisans, designers, and architects, and Naqsh-e Jahan Square, a perfect example of Iran's ancient city planning, is flanked by stunning mosques, the pinnacle of Persian art and construction. We’ll begin with a visit to a palace, Ali Qapu, and continue to the two most pristine mosques (one for the public, the other for royalty). We're likely to be pleasantly delayed by the square’s many friendly passersby.
- After lunch at a traditional Persian restaurant, we’ll take a walking tour through the Isfahan Grand Bazaar, and discover some of the tea houses, ancient structures, and secrets deep within.
- At sunset we’ll head to Khaju Bridge and Si-o-se Pol, majestic stone bridges built in the 1600s that stretch across the now-often-dry Zayandeh River. Today they are the most popular meeting spot in the city. You're likely to hear both laughter and old songs of love and sadness.
Through the Desert
- Before leaving, we’ll make one last stop for a final view of Isfahan from “Pigeon Tower,” one of hundreds of beautifully symmetrical structures that dot the landscape of central Iran and are key to its farming communities.
- The drive will take us through dramatic desert and stunning mountains. For lunch we’ll stop in Kharanaq, a millennia-old village that has since been mostly abandoned due to lack of water. There are no restaurants, but we’ll have food specially prepared and will eat inside a restored caravanserai: a 500-year-old hotel for Silk Road traders—the world’s original motel.
- By evening we’ll arrive in Yazd, a true desert city. In a neighborhood recently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we’ll get a brief overview of the city and stop for a bite in a rooftop restaurant. Then we’ll settle into our accommodation, a traditional “museum” hotel with a spacious and beautifully restored courtyard that will transport us to the days of old Persia.
The Only Way Is Up
- We’ll explore the sights, sounds, and textures of Yazd. In the city's fascinating urban labyrinth, unchanged for centuries, you’ll find shops, schools, artisan workshops, and restaurants.
- On the outskirts of Yazd stand the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, two otherworldly hilltop complexes. Until recently, the towers were used by practitioners of the Zoroastrian religion to offer the bodies of the dead to the birds so they could be returned to nature. We will get an overview of their history before we hike to the top of one (or both) of them.
- How does a desert city survive and thrive for thousands of years with little rainfall? We’ll visit a “Water Museum” to understand of the techniques that have kept Yazd alive.
- In the evening, we’ll watch a traditional Persian martial arts workout, set to live drumming—and you can join in if you’re feeling up to the challenge.
- Finally, Yazd is famous for its rooftops, and we’ve booked a table atop a traditional building where we can enjoy the city's increasingly recognized cuisine. Soak in the views of the windtowers, also called windcatchers—ancient air conditioners that have kept Yazd residents cool for centuries.
Yazd and Caravanserai
- This morning is yours to sleep in, relax, or go for a gentle stroll through the surrounding historic neighborhood.
- We’ll reconvene for our last lunch in Yazd and then, head out to explore Sar Yazd, the tiniest village we’ll encounter. The highlight of this visit will be the remains of the largest treasury of ancient Persia, a multilevel fortified structure. We'll also enjoying wood-fired tea in this incredibly historic and largely overlooked town.
- In the evening, we’ll tuck into one of the oldest caravanserai on the Silk Road, preserved in its original state. We invite you to lounge and stargaze in the same courtyard where traders and their camels once rested before traveling on.
Persepolis: Entering the Gates of Time
- A ceremonial city, Persepolis dates back two-and-a-half millennia. An incredible collection of the ancient city’s columns, walls, tombs, reliefs, and other structures have survived mostly intact. This morning we will wander through this awe-inspiring site, accompanied by an expert guide to help us put history in perspective.
- Persepolis holds a vast number of stories—from its destruction at the hands of Alexander the Great around 300 B.C. to the 1970s, when it hosted Persia’s 2,500th birthday party. If you look closely, you might spot some 19th-century graffiti.
- After absorbing a few thousand years of history in a few hours, take the rest of the afternoon to explore at your own pace. Our accommodation for the evening is just a short walk from the ancient Gates of All Nations, right in the shadow of history.
The Necropolis and Shiraz
- This morning we’ll wake up around 500 B.C. and visit the ancient necropolis of Naqsh-e Rustam, home to the tombs of four Persian kings, carved high into the side of a stone cliff. Some of the area’s stone carvings date even further back, to before the Achaemenid Empire (550–330 B.C.).
- For lunch we’ll be in Shiraz, known for being the friendliest and most laid-back of all Iranian cities. We’ll sip coffee, tea, or traditional local drinks as we dine in the Vakil Bazaar downtown.
- The afternoon will be an ideal time to explore the heart of Shiraz, and perhaps buy carpets or souvenirs.
- The country's cultural capital, Shiraz has a long and complex history involving both poets and writers, and emperors and kings. We’ll dedicate the day to seeing the best of the best among its countless historical sites. But we’ll do it at the local pace, so we can really take everything in.
- Among those sights is an incredible, early morning spectacle of light. At Nasir al-Mulk, the “Pink Mosque,” we’ll get to see the first rays of light dance across the building's expansive and ornate facade of colored glass.
- Afterward, we’ll take a walking tour of Shiraz, including the Arg of Karim Khan and other historic sites—as well as, needless to say, local delicacies along the way. The afternoon is at your leisure, and our local guides will be happy to give some tips on what to explore.
- Before sunset we’ll visit the Tomb of Hafez, a memorial to the most celebrated of all Persian poets. We’ll then head to one of Iran’s best restaurants for a traditional Persian dinner—with a twist. We’ll look back on a spectacular trip, and raise our glasses to the great beauty and history that we’ll have been lucky enough to experience.
Shiraz Departure and Farewell
- After a final group breakfast, we’ll head to the airport for our flights home, and bid farewell (or "see you soon!") to Iran and the new friends we've made. If you choose to extend your time in Iran, our guides will be happy to offer additional tips and recommendations.
- Until the next adventure!
YOUR ATLAS OBSCURA TRIP TO IRAN INCLUDES
- All lodging in modern, well-equipped hotels throughout the trip. (Private rooms are available for a single supplement of $875. Otherwise we’ll work to place singles of the same sex together.)
- Daily breakfast and lunch, as well as the first and final dinner.
- A small team of experienced guides throughout the trip, in addition to special guests all along the way.
- Admission to all proposed activities, sites, and events.
- A great group of fellow Atlas Obscura fans, excited to explore all that this region has to offer!
IRAN TRAVEL ADVISORY
Please note that the U.S. Department of State currently has a “Level 4” travel advisory in place for Iran which warns of the risk of arbitrary detention, particularly for U.S.-Iranian dual nationals. The advisory goes on to list types of travelers who have been detained, namely “students, journalists, business travelers, and academics.” While we feel it’s important that anyone considering the trip be informed about the advisory, and that each traveler must make their own decision about whether they’re comfortable joining, we feel very comfortable and confident offering the trip. By working with trusted, experienced trip leaders, and receiving regular updates from expert third-party security advisors, we’re prepared to update plans for the trip in the unlikely event that becomes necessary. That said, the Iranian government openly welcomes and encourages American tourists, and most visitors are struck by the exceptionally warm welcome they receive from the people they meet in Iran. While we can’t predict with certainty how the political situation might change between now and the time of the trip, we have every expectation of being able to proceed with it — and expect it to be a fun and fascinating experience!
NOTE ON FLIGHTS
All international flights land at Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA). We recommend you arrive by 12 p.m. on Sunday, October 13, and depart anytime in the morning on Thursday, October 24. While the group itinerary ends in Shiraz, you'll likely get the best value by booking roundtrip flights in and out of Tehran, and allowing our local contacts to book your domestic flight from Shiraz to Tehran. There are many daily flights from Shiraz to Tehran, and if booked locally, the cost is typically about $125.
If you decide to extend your stay before or after the tour dates, we are happy to book extra hotel nights for you; however, keep in mind that citizens from the U.S., U.K., and Canada will need to arrange a private guide if staying beyond the 24-hour arrival/departure window.
NOTE ON ITINERARY
Itineraries are subject to change. This particular tour has been designed with specific activities and events in mind, whose schedules and availabilities may change in coming months. If any activity or attraction that is advertised is missed or not available, then we will always replace it with another activity or location of significant interest and value.
NOTE ON PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
Travelers should be reasonably fit and feel comfortable walking three to six miles each day, and remaining on their feet for long periods of time. We’ll be spending a good amount of time outside and in rural areas, walking up and down stairs, and on dirt paths.
You will be charged a nonrefundable $500 deposit to hold your space. The final payment of $4,185 will be due by July 13, 2019. All reservations will be final after this date and subject to our cancellation policy. By submitting your deposit, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. For travelers wishing to have single accommodations during the trip, an additional $875 will be included in the final balance due.
TRAVELERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR
- Flights or other transportation to and from Tehran, Iran.
- Visa application and payment (our team will guide you through the process).
- Travel insurance (required).
- Food and drink outside of Atlas Obscura offerings, including dinners most nights.
- Personal expenses.