16 Day The jewels of the Northwest

Best season: Spring & Summer
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Expedition Summary In sixteen days, you’ll be exposed to the jewels of the Northwest and diverse history, culture and landscapes. To summarize, you will visit:
  • A modern industrialized city with signs of an old civilization of 2,500 years old
  • The UNESCO World Heritage site ” St Stepanos” church
  • Magnificent of man-made cave homes that are still inhabited
  • The Shrine of Sheikh Safi, an eminent leader of the Islamic Sufi
  • An exceptional ensemble of royal architecture of Persia’s Sassanid dynasty, and the spiritual center for Zoroastrians
  • Taq-e Bostan, a 1,700 years old bas-relief masterpiece and an excellent example of the Sassanid art at the heart of Zagros Mountains
  • The most important and most famous ancient bas-relief , the Bisotun Inscription
  • A Cave belongs to second Jurassic period
  • The UNESCO World Heritage Soltaniyeh.
Itinerary Details:

Day 1. Arrival in Tabriz

Upon arrival in Tabriz, you will be welcomed at the airport and transferred to your hotel. Depending on the time of your arrival, you can spend the day touring the beautiful and diverse city of Tabriz, or spend the evening at a traditional restaurant for a delicious Persian cuisine.
You’ll stay overnight at your hotel in Tabriz. (L/D)

Day 2. Tabriz, the gate of Paradise!

Wouldn’t it be nice to find the actual location of the real Garden of Eden? Well, you asked for it and we’ll make it happen, a modern industrialized city with signs of an old civilization of 2,500 years old. After many years of examining numerous documents, biblical references, and various holy texts, some archaeologists believe that all signs pointed toward the city of Tabriz being the actual Garden of Eden.
Having some of Iran’s most famous museums, holding some of the cultural events and harboring a couple of most prestigious Iranian universities, the city is considered a major hub for science and culture in Iran. The monuments that we see now in Tabriz are mostly dating back to the Ilkhanid, the Safavid, and the Qajar dynasties. Some of the monuments are unrivaled masterpieces of architecture, which we will spend ample time exploring. We will start at Kabud (Blue) Mosque tiled with superb blue ceramic and then head to Municipal Hall with its iconic Saat (Clock) Tower. It was used as the central office of the city municipality. Nowadays it is the site for Municipality Museum. For lunch, we will head to Nobar Hammam (bath) which was used as a public bath until 1994, and nowadays is turned into an amazing traditional restaurant.
In the afternoon, we will have a short visit of the Ark-e-Alishah (Ark Citadel), a 28-meter wall that is the remnants of Tabriz city citadel and city wall. We will then head to your hotel. When you are ready to head out for a walk, we will walk to El-Goli, a grand park with a big rectangular artificial lake in the middle of the Park. In the middle of the lake, there is a palace that used to be a summer residence for the Iranian royal families during the time that Tabriz was the capital of the state. After the sunset, we will head back to the hotel to have dinner and relax. (B/L/D)

Day 3. Jolfa, home to the Armenian Monastic Ensembles of Iran.

Today we will drive to Jolfa to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site, the “Armenian Monastic Ensembles of Iran” which consists of three monastic ensembles of the Armenian Christian faith: St Thaddeus and St Stepanos and the Chapel of Dzordzor. These are examples of outstanding universal value of the Armenian architectural and decorative traditions. They bear testimony to very important interchanges with the other regional cultures, in particular the Byzantine, Orthodox and Persian. Situated on the south-eastern fringe of the main zone of the Armenian cultural space, the monasteries constituted a major centre for the dissemination of that culture in the region. They are the last regional remains of this culture that are still in a satisfactory state of integrity and authenticity. Furthermore, as places of pilgrimage, the monastic ensembles are living witnesses of Armenian religious traditions through the centuries.
There is some scent of Zoroastrianism in the air as well. It is mentioned in the Avesta (Zoroastrians holy book) that prophet Zoroaster was born by the Aras River and wrote his book in the Sabalan Mountains, near Ardabil.
After our visit to the Monastic Ensembles, we will enjoy the scenic drive through the beautiful Aras River valley towards Tabriz. We will stay another night in our hotel in Tabriz. (B/L/D)
Total drive for the day: 265 km

Day 4. Kandovan, The Magnificence of Civilization in Depths of Grounds

After a refreshing breakfast, we will hit the road to explore the incredible village of Kandovan. This village is a magnificent example of man-made cave homes that are still inhabited. Existing for more than 800 years, this remarkable place offers scenic beauty for its travellers. Built out of volcanic ash and debris spewed during an eruption of nearby Mount Sahand, the rocky cone-shaped structures of Kandovan were compressed and shaped by natural forces into cone-shaped pillars containing pockets. The cave homes, excavated from volcanic rocks and tuffs are comparable to the dwellings in the Turkish region of Cappadocia. They are called “Karan” in the local Turkic dialect, a word that translates as the plural of the word “beehive”. Today, we will walk through the scenic village to admire this marvelous structure. We will also visit some of the houses to get a deeper knowledge of the cave-living lifestyle that Kandovan people enjoy and flourish. We will also try the local honey and cheese that have a pleasant hint of wild plants and flowers of the region.
After exploring the village, you will check-in to the astonishing Laleh Kandovan International Rocky Hotel. Your luxurious room is carved out of rocks, with top-notch amenities like a relaxing Jacuzzi to ease your nerves, and delicious Azari cuisine served in its top-class traditional restaurant. (B/L/D)
Total drive for the day: 55 km

Day 5. Ardabil, the holy city of Sufism

Today we need to start early for a four-hour drive towards our next destination, the city of Ardabil. It is home to the UNESCO World Heritage site, the magnificent Sheikh Safi al-din Khānegāh and Shrine Ensemble which we will visit today. Sheikh Safi, an eminent leader of the Islamic Sufi order established by the Safavids, was born in Ardabil where this complex is located. The ensemble comprises several monuments like the mausoleums of Sheikh Safi and Shah Ismail I, Chini Khaneh (house of chinaware), a mosque, Jannat Sara (house of paradise), Khānegāh (the house of Dervishes), Cheragh Khaneh (the house of lamps), Shahid Khaneh (the house of martyrs) and Chelleh Khaneh (the place where devotees shut themselves up during the forty days of Lent). The ensemble includes well-preserved and richly ornamented facades and interiors, with a remarkable collection of antique artifacts. It constitutes a rare ensemble of elements of medieval Islamic architecture.
The shrine was the home to the two “Ardabil Carpets”, the world’s oldest dated carpets and two of the most beautiful and historically significant in the world. Unfortunately, both of the carpets are now far from their home, the larger one in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the other one in Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
After exploring the shrine, we will have a late lunch in the wonderful 640-year-old former Hammam beautifully renovated to become the Ebrahimabad Sofrekhane (traditional restaurant) for local traditional cuisine and tea.
After lunch, we will drive to the close-by city of Sarein, the top Spa destination in Iran. Eleven major hot springs and spas have attracted tourists to Sarein for years. Each hot spring has its distinct health and healing power that is used to cure certain diseases. You will go to one of the best spas in Sarein to have a relaxing afternoon. We will head back to Ardabil at night for dinner. (B/L/D)
Total drive for the day: 350 km

Day 6. Takht-e Soleymān, the principal Zoroastrian sanctuary

Today we will drive out of Ardebil to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Takht-e Soleymān, the remains of an exceptional ensemble of royal architecture of Persia’s Sassanid dynasty, and the spiritual center for Zoroastrians. It is one of the most fascinating and mysterious sacred sites in Iran and the world.
The historic citadel is consisted of a 14 m high oval-shaped outer wall with 38 defence towers. The wall houses the remains of several monuments such as Azargoshnasb Fire Temple and Anahita (angle of water) Temple. An important centrepiece of the site is the crater lake, around 112 m deep which is fed by an underground spring. Fire of the temples was provided using a natural volcanic gas brought using ceramic pipes to sustain an eternal flame in the Fire Temple. It is written in the ancient literature that this fire has been burning for more than 700 years. In Takht-e Soleymān, Zoroastrians had showcased the magic harmony of the four astrology elements, Earth, Wind, Water and Fire.
If weather permits, we’ll camp overnight beside the majestic citadel. Otherwise, we will drive to the nearby city of Takab for our overnight accommodation. (B/L/D)
Total drive for the day: 360 km

Day 7. Sanandaj, the jewel of Kurdistan

Today, our expedition takes us to the Kurdish city of Sanandaj situated in a fertile valley of the Zagros Mountains. It is a very friendly city with super-hospitable people. Although it is fairly a young city compared to other historical-places in Iran, it houses a number of important monuments from Qajar dynasty. In our first day in Sanandaj, we will visit the Khan Hamam (bath) with beautiful Persian bath architecture and detailed tile work, Divan-e Asef (mansion) and its museum of Kurdish life and crafts. In the evening, we will drive up into the slopes of the Abidar Mountain to get a beautiful panoramic view of the city and stroll among its beautiful parks.
In the evening, we’ll have dinner at a traditional restaurant and head to your hotel to relax. (B/L/D)
Total drive for the day: 275 km

Day 8. More of the beautiful Sanandaj

In our second day in Sanandaj, we will visit the iconic Divan-e Moshir mansion with beautiful Persian architecture and garden. We will also visit the Masjed-e Jameh (Jameh Mosque) with its two minarets and 32 beautifully decorated interior domes. Masjed-e Jameh has an incredible story behind its construction which to leave you surprised and shocked for a while!
After a late lunch, we will drive past the fertile and green hills and mountains of Kurdistan to Bijar known internationally for its elegant and ancient carpet and rug designs. Bijar carpets are world renowned for their superb artistry, craftsmanship, and excellent material. In Bijar, we will visit one of the rug weaving workshops, and you will be able to have a close look at how magnificent Persian Bijar carpets are woven by hand.
If you are into skiing or interested in learning it, we can go to Nesar Ski Piste tomorrow before we leave Bijar. Depending on the time of the year you are travelling, the piste can be covered with snow, or grass, both letting you enjoy skiing in the most accessible ski piste in Iran.
Stay overnight in your camper trailer, and call the day after a nice Persian barbecue dinner. (B/L/D)
Total drive for the day: 160 km

Day 9. Taq-e Bostan, figure of the King of Kings

Then, we’ll hit the road for a short drive to visit Taq-e Bostan, a 1,700 years old bas-relief masterpiece and an excellent example of the Sassanid art at the heart of Zagros Mountains. Taq-e Bostan is a site with a series of large rock carvings from the era of Sassanid, the Iranian dynasty which ruled western Asia from 226 to 650 AD, are some of the finest and best-preserved examples of Persian sculpture under the Sassanids. The carvings include representations of the investitures of the Sassanid “King of Kings” of Iran.
We will then have lunch at a traditional restaurant in Kermanshah (You might be a bit late for lunch in Kermanshah)to try some of the famous local cuisines like Khoresht-e Khalal (almonds and lamb stew) and Dandeh Kabab (massive grilled lamb rib kebab). After a heavy lunch, we need to take it easy for the rest of the day! So, we’ll head to your hotel for an afternoon break. When you are ready to wander in the city, we’ll visit the Tekyeh Moaven-ol-Molk. Tekyeh in Iran is a shrine and a mourning place used for religious acts and ceremonies.
Tekyeh Moaven-ol-Molk, built during Qajar dynasty, is the finest example of them in Kermanshah with beautiful paintings and tile work. It consists of three buildings, the Abbasieh, Hosseinieh and Zeinabieh. Also, there is an ethnology museum of in the Tekyeh, putting on display local costumes, tools and utensils.
We will spend the rest of the day wandering in Kermanshah Bazaar, the biggest roofed bazaar in the Middle East. We will also try the special local cookies like Nan Berenji Kaak and Naan Khormaei, which are the famous souvenirs of Kermanshah. We’ll call the day off by having dinner at a nice Persian restaurant, and head back to the hotel to get ready for a day full of sightseeing tomorrow (B/L/D).
Total drive for the day: 130 km

Day 10. Bisotun, a story told by Darius the Great

Today we will drive to the nearby city of Bisotun to visit the most important and most famous ancient bas-relief that has survived from the Persian Empire, the Bisotun Inscription. The carving was ordered by Darius the Great when he rose to the throne of the Persian Empire in 521 BC and is a listed in UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is approximately 15 m high by 25 m wide and is carved around 100 m up in a limestone cliff. The inscription is written over around 1,200 lines in 3 languages: Elamite, Babylonian and Old Persian.
The bas-relief depicts Darius holding a bow as a sign of kingship, with his left foot on the on the chest of a figure who is reputed to be Gaumata, the pretender to the throne. Darius is accompanied to his left by two servants and is facing nine shorter figures standing to his right representing conquered peoples.
The inscriptions are authored by Darius the Great himself, in which he begins with a brief autobiography of himself, including his ancestry and lineage. He then tells the story of the battles he had with the governors who attempted to take apart the Empire founded by Cyrus.
After visiting Bisotun, we will drive to our next destination, the historic city of Hamedan. On our way, we will visit Kangavar to visit the remains of an ancient Anahita Temple, believed to be constructed around 200 BC. This great sanctuary was built to the mother goddess Anahita who was worshipped in ancient Persia along with Ahura Mazda and Mithras. Anahita (or Nahid in modern Persian), whose name means “unstained” or “immaculate”, was an ancient Persian goddess who seems to have been worshipped by the Medes and Persians before they adopted Zoroastrianism.
After visiting the temple, we will continue towards Hamedan. We will have a relaxed evening tonight, having a short stroll within the city for dinner and then head to our hotel. We will explore the rich heritage of the city tomorrow (B/L/D).
Total drive for the day: 190 km

Day 11. Hamadan, from the Dawn of Iranian history

Hamedan’s history dates back to around 1,100 BC, making it one of the oldest cities in Iran and the world. The historic city of Hegmataneh or Ecbatana (as called in Greek documents) which was the capital of the first Iranian dynastic empire, the Medes (728-550 BC) is located within the boundaries of Hamedan. Hegmataneh was also a capital city during Achaemenides dynasty and was the royal summer palace of the king Cyrus the Great.
In the morning, we will first visit the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai, which is one of the two locations believed to house the remains of the biblical Queen Esther and her uncle, Mordechai. According to the biblical book named after her, Esther was a beautiful young Jewish woman who caught the eye of the Persian King Ahasuerus, became queen, and with the assistance of Mordecai, saved Jews throughout the Persian Empire from annihilation. Every year, on the holiday of Purim, Jews around the world celebrate this miraculous salvation by reading the Book of Esther, dressing in costumes, and eating delicacies. Iranian Jews similarly mark the holiday, but for centuries have also made a pilgrimage–throughout the year, but especially on Purim–to the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai.
The next stop is the Hegmataneh Ensemble to visit the valuable archeological site of the ruins of the historic city of Hegmataneh. The old city is a complex collection of congested urban constructions including towers, passageways, military forts and blockhouses, and central courtyards with circular rooms and warehouses. We will also visit the museum adjacent to the site, showing a collection of ancient elements excavated from the site.
After lunch, we will visit Ganj Nameh, a lengthy inscription in cuneiform script carved on the face of two rocks of some two meters in height. Similar to the bas-relief of Bisotun, these twenty line inscriptions are also given in three languages, old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. The inscriptions belong to Darius and Xerxes and consist of a genealogical account of the Achaemenian monarchs and the adoration of Ahuramazda.
We will wrap up today with a visit to the tomb of the great Iranian scientist, Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Avicenna was a Persian physician and philosopher who profoundly influenced medieval Islamic and Christian philosophers. He is thought to create over 400 works on a variety of topics but only about 250 have survived. His most famous works are The Book of Healing – a philosophical and scientific encyclopedia, and The Canon of Medicine – a medical encyclopedia that became a standard medical text at many medieval universities.
After a day full of sight-seeing and a delicious dinner, we will head back to our hotel, to get ready to hit the road again tomorrow. (B/L/D)

Day 12. Ali-Sadr, a unique Water Cave in the world

Today, we will leave Hamedan heading to the city of Zanjan, but on our route, there is a water wonderland we cannot miss! The Ali-Sadr Cave belongs to second Jurassic period (130-190 million years ago). A river with crystal-clear water is flowing through the enormous chambers of colorful stalactites and stalagmites, creating a captivating cave boating and trekking experience for the visitors. The main chamber of the cave is 100 meters by 50 meters and 40 meters high. A recent survey suggested the cave to be 11 kilometers long with 2.4 kilometers of cave boating passages that make it the biggest cave in the world from this respect.
We will tour the cave riding boats and walking through the magnificent water chambers and massive atriums that will take us around two to three hours. After visiting the cave and having lunch, we will continue our drive towards Zanjan. The drive is around four hours. Therefore, we will have a relaxed evening when we arrive in Zanjan before having dinner and going to hotel. We will visit the cultural and historic sites of the city tomorrow. (B/L/D)
Total drive for the day: 330 km

Day 13. Zanjan, the Imperial city of Moguls

Zanjan’s name translates as “the Imperial”, and it used to be the capital of Mongol Ilkhanid rulers of Persia in the 14th century. Zanjan is home to several historic monuments including the UNESCO World Heritage Soltaniyeh. The city is also known for its beautiful handicrafts such as knives, traditional sandals called Charoogh, and a handcraft made with silver wires called Malileh.
After breakfast, we will visit the remarkable monuments inside the city. We will start with Rakhtshoor Khaneh, a public laundry that was used by local women to wash their clothes. It consists an underground hall with unique dome and column architecture and waterways fed from a nearby Qanat. Then, we will head to the old bazaar complex that is one of the most important historical complexes in Iran due to its cultural, economic and religious significance. We will visit several historic mosques and caravanserais including the Dokhtar Caravanserai, Jameh and Khanoom (Women’s) Mosques. Zanjan bazaar comprises 940 shops and is a fantastic place to see and learn about different handicrafts produced in the region.
In the evening, we will have dinner at a local traditional restaurant, and head to your hotel to finish another day full of sight-seeing and exploration. (B/L/D)
Total drive for the day: 270 km

Day 14. Soltaniyeh, masterpiece of the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty

Today we will visit one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites and a multi-record breaker from the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty. The mausoleum of Oljaytu was constructed in 1310s in the city of Soltaniyeh, the capital of the Ilkhanid dynasty. Soltaniyeh is one of the outstanding examples of the achievements of Persian architecture and a key monument in the development of its Islamic architecture. The principal feature of Soltaniyeh’s several ruins is the Dome of Soltaniyeh. The octagonal building is crowned with a 50 m tall dome covered in blue-green faience and surrounded by eight slender minarets. The dome is the earliest existing example and the biggest of the double-shelled dome in Iran and is the third largest dome in the world after Santa Maria and Hagia Sophia. Many believe that the construction of the Soltaniyeh has paved the way to other Mongol architectures, so much that scholars such as A.U. Pope have described the building as ‘anticipating the Taj Mahal’.
After visiting the Soltaniyeh, we will drive back to Zanjan and spend a leisurely evening walking through the city and having a delicious dinner before heading to our hotel. (B/L/D)

Day 15. Qazvin, the city of Cisterns

It is now time to head towards our next destination, Qazvin. Qazvin was the ancient capital of the Persian Empire during Safavid dynasty and has been an important cultural center throughout history. Thus, it offers excellent examples of Iranian architecture from various ages, which we will spend the next two days exploring.
After arriving at Qazvin, we will have lunch and head to your hotel for a short break. In the afternoon, we will visit Chehel Sotun, the majestic Safavid royal palace with a beautiful pool and garden. Nowadays, Qazvin is known as the Calligraphy capital of Iran as many of the masters of Persian calligraphy are coming from Qazvin. And Chehel Sotun houses the Iran’s Calligraphy Museum, which displays some of the masterpieces of this authentic and brilliant art in Iran.
We will then head to fascinating Bazaar to visit the Sara-ye Vazir caravanserai, and it’s old carpets. In Bazaar, we will also visit the Mogul style Nabi Masque with its expansive and impressive courtyard.
After down, we will head back to Chehel Sotun to see it glowing beautifully under the floodlights and its back-lit coloured glass windows. We will then head to a traditional restaurant for a delicious dinner before we go back to the hotel.

Day 16. “Bedrood”, va “Be Omid-e Didar”

Today is the last day of your tour, and we will drive back to Tehran. After arriving in Tehran, depending on your departure time, we can have short walks in the city, spend some time shopping “Soghati” (souvenir), visit a museum or whatever else you wish. We’ll take you to the airport for your departure, and start missing you already! We never like saying “Bedrood” (goodbye), so we say “Be Omid-e Didar” (hope to see you again). (B)

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