Purpose: The purpose of this study was to understand the subsurface thermal behaviour of a tissue phantom embedded with large blood vessels (LBVs) when exposed to near-infrared (NIR) radiation. The effect of the addition of nanoparticles to irradiated tissue on the thermal sink behaviour of LBVs was also studied. Materials and methods: Experiments were performed on a tissue phantom embedded with a simulated blood vessel of 2.2 mm outer diameter (OD)/1.6 mm inner diameter (ID) with a blood flow rate of 10 mL/min. Type I collagen from bovine tendon and agar gel were used as tissue. Two different nanoparticles, gold mesoflowers (AuMS) and graphene nanostructures, were synthesised and characterised. Energy equations incorporating a laser source term based on multiple scattering theories were solved using finite element-based commercial software. Results: The rise in temperature upon NIR irradiation was seen to vary according to the position of the blood vessel and presence of nanoparticles. While the maximum rise in temperature was about 10 °C for bare tissue, it was 19 °C for tissue embedded with gold nanostructures and 38 °C for graphene-embedded tissues. The axial temperature distribution predicted by computational simulation matched the experimental observations. Conclusions: A different subsurface temperature distribution has been obtained for different tissue vascular network models. The position of LBVs must be known in order to achieve optimal tissue necrosis. The simulation described here helps in predicting subsurface temperature distributions within tissues during plasmonic photo-thermal therapy so that the risks of damage and complications associated with in vivo experiments and therapy may be avoided. © 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.