Billing itself as the 'Land of Fire', Azerbaijan (Azərbaycan) is a tangle of contradictions and contrasts. Neither Europe nor Asia, it's a nexus of ancient historical empires, but also a ‘new’ nation which has undergone an extraordinary transformation from the war-ravaged post-Soviet 1990s to an oil-enriched host of Formula 1 and Europa League football.
The cosmopolitan capital, Baku, rings a Unesco-listed ancient core with dazzling 21st-century architecture and sits on a balmy bay of the Caspian Sea. In the surrounding semi-desert are mud volcanoes and curious fire phenomena. Yet barely three hours’ drive away, timeless rural villages lie amid lush orchards backed by the soaring Great Caucasus Mountains.
Come quickly. Having long been overlooked by visitors, Azerbaijan's new easy visas, bargain-value hotels and close-packed range of beautiful landscapes are starting to attract significant flows of tourists, though as yet few of them from Western countries.
BEST TIME TO VISIT AZERBAIJAN
The best time to visit Azerbaijan is April to June and September to October, which will let you avoid the 40°C summers and sub zero winters - particularly in the mountains. You can also participate in the Novruz Bayrami celebrations each March, which mark the Persian New Year. You won't want to miss out on the craft shopping in Azerbaijan - save space in your suitcase for silk, silver and maybe a carpet.
Although many of us associate it with Russia, Azerbaijan does not get as cold as one might imagine. The Caucasus Mountains do get snow in winter, with temps as low as -20°C, but they also protect the rest of the country from full on Arctic conditions. Similarly, the Caspian Sea keeps summer manageable, but it can hit 40°C. So for hiking and culture, the best time to visit Azerbaijan is April-June and Sep-Oct. The mountains turn into a wildflower frenzy when snows melt and, at the same time spring brings the biggest holiday: Novruz Bayrami, around third week March. It also celebrates Persian New Year.
GETTING TO AZERBAIJAN
The international airport of Baku has many connections to Europe and many other countries in Asia and the Middle East.
By plane - The primary international gateway is Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku, with additional international airports (whose international routes are basically some Russian cities, Istanbul and Tehran) found in Nakhchivan City, Ganja & Lankaran.
By train - Trains connect Azerbaijan with Georgia and Russia. There is an overnight train connecting Tbilisi, Georgia and Baku.
By bus - There are buses that run daily from Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Russia to Azerbaijan.
GETTING AROUND AZERBAIJAN
Public Transportation – Public transportation prices will vary by city, but expect to pay around 0.20 AZN (€0.10 EUR) for a standard adult ticket for the bus. If you need to take a taxi, prices start around 1.89 AZN (€0.94 EUR) and cost around 0.60 AZN (€0.30 EUR) for every kilometer. Baku has a subway system that costs 0.30 AZN (€0.15 EUR) per ride, and you’ll need a prepaid smart card to access the metro.
Bus – Buses and minibuses (marshrutkas) are the most common options for intercity travel. All prices are fixed and very affordable — expect to pay about 1 AZN (€0.50 EUR) for a 50-mile (80-kilometer) trip. You’ll likely pay the bus driver directly.
Trains – Trains in Azerbaijan are a lot slower and less frequent than buses; however, if you’re not in a rush, night trains can be an excellent option to save on a night’s accommodation.
Car Rental – If you’re driving, make sure to buy an International Driving Permit (IDP) as you’ll need one for any car rental! It costs about 34 AZN (€16.92 EUR) and is valid for one year after the date of issue (plus it’s valid in 150 countries). Car rentals can sometimes be as low as 60 AZN (€29.85 EUR) per day.
WHERE TO STAY IN AZERBAIJAN
Shahdag & Spa Hotel is located in the picturesque and calm place in the mountains, 230 km north of Baku. It features a spa area with an indoor swimming pool, a gym, a sauna and a Turkish steam bath. Free Wi-Fi and free parking are provided. All classic-style rooms come with air conditioning, flat-screen TV, a safety deposit box and a minibar. Free toiletries and a hairdryer are available in the bathroom. The on-site restaurant offers various Azerbaijan and European dishes. A buffet breakfast is served every morning, and guests can have a drink at the elegant bar. Guests can go cycling, horse riding and hiking. The hotel offers its own skiing school and provides convenient access to the slopes. Also it is possible to order massage services, and there is a children’s playground on site. The nearest airport is Heydar Aliyev International Airport, 230 km away.
Featuring a spa centre, an outdoor and indoor swimming pools and free Wi-Fi, this resort is located on the Damiraparan riverbank in Gabala town. It offers air-conditioned rooms and cottages with mountain view. Every elegant room and cottage at Qafqaz Riverside Hotel includes a flat-screen TV and minibar. Bathrooms are fitted with free toiletries, slippers and bathrobes. Local and European cuisine is served at À la carte Brasserie Restaurant, while cocktails are offered at Fireplace Bar and Shisha Bar. Activities at Qafqaz Resort include snooker, tabletop and board games, table tennis and children’s playground. Guests can also relax in the steam bath or on the sun terrace by the pool. Gabala town centre is 4 km and Gabala Airport is 25 km away from Qafqaz Riverside Resort Hotel.
Featuring a bar, River-Inn Resort & SPA is set in Nabran and also provides a garden and a terrace. Among the facilities of this property are a restaurant, a 24-hour front desk and room service, along with free WiFi throughout the property. The property features a hammam, evening entertainment and a kids' club. All units are equipped with air conditioning, a flat-screen TV with satellite channels, a fridge, a kettle, a shower, a hairdryer and a desk. At the resort every room comes with a wardrobe and a private bathroom. An Italian breakfast is available daily at River-Inn Resort & SPA. The accommodation offers a sauna. The area is popular for cycling, and bike hire is available at River-Inn Resort & SPA.
Offering indoor and outdoor pools and a restaurant, Sakit Gol - Silent Lake Hotel is located in Şamaxı. Free WiFi access is available in this resort. The rooms will provide you with a TV and air conditioning. There is also an electric kettle. Featuring a bathtub or a shower, private bathroom also comes with a hairdryer and a bidet. You can enjoy lake view from the room. At Sakit Gol - Silent Lake Hotel you will find a a tennis court and a fitness centre. An array of activities can be enjoyed on site or in the surroundings, including water sport, cycling, fishing and hiking. The property offers free public parking on site.
Riva Hill Resort Lankaran in Lankaran features a fitness centre and a bar. The property has a garden, as well as a terrace. The air-conditioned rooms provide pool view and come with a wardrobe and free WiFi. Guest rooms at the resort come with a seating area. All units feature a flat-screen TV with satellite channels. Guests at Riva Hill Resort Lankaran can enjoy a continental breakfast. Speaking English and Russian at the 24-hour front desk, staff are ready to help around the clock.
Macara Village Resort features a restaurant, bar, a shared lounge and garden in Quba. Among the facilities at this property are a 24-hour front desk and room service, along with free WiFi throughout the property. The resort has family rooms. The units in the resort are equipped with a flat-screen TV with satellite channels. At Macara Village Resort all rooms come with air conditioning and a private bathroom. The accommodation offers a buffet or American breakfast. Macara Village Resort offers a children's playground. You can play table tennis at the resort, and the area is popular for horse riding and fishing.
Overlooking the Caspian Sea, this modern 5-star hotel in Baku features an indoor pool, fitness centre and a large spa. Rooms at Golden Coast offer free Wi-Fi and elegant interiors. Regional specialities and international cuisine are served in the Golden Coast’s restaurant, where weekly live music performances also take place. A wide selection of drinks can be enjoyed at the bar, or outside on the terrace. Air-conditioned rooms are spacious and decorated in a classic style. Comforts include satellite TV, a seating area and a private bathroom with slippers. Guests can relax in the spa, which comes complete with a sauna, steam room and massage facilities. Golden Coast is 3.5 km from the Old Town district, while National Flag Square is just 550 m away. Baku International Airport is 30 km from the hotel.
Located in Novxanı, Spring Hotel features a bar, shared lounge, water sports facilities, and free WiFi throughout the property. Featuring a 24-hour front desk, this property also welcomes guests with a restaurant, a water park and a seasonal outdoor pool. The resort provides an indoor pool, fitness centre, evening entertainment and room service. All units are equipped with air conditioning, a flat-screen TV with cable channels, a fridge, a kettle, a shower, a hairdryer and a wardrobe. Guests at the resort can enjoy a continental breakfast. Guests can enjoy the spa and wellness centre, have a game of table tennis, organise trips at the tour desk, or rent a car to explore the surroundings. Spring Hotel also provides a business centre and free private parking. Baku is 27 km from the accommodation.
9 QARDAŞ is situated in Lerik and features a garden. Boasting a 24-hour front desk, this property also has a restaurant and a terrace. There is free private parking and the property features free airport shuttle service. The rooms at the resort are fitted with a seating area. At 9 QARDAŞ rooms include a wardrobe, a flat-screen TV and a private bathroom. Guests at the accommodation can enjoy an Asian breakfast.
Located in the picturesque area, Quba Palace Hotel features a spa and wellness centre, indoor and outdoor pools, sauna, hammam and fitness centre. Free parking is available on site. The rooms offer air conditioning, a seating area, fridge and flat-screen TV with satellite channels. The bathrooms provide a hairdryer and bathrobes. Guests can dine in 1 of the 3 on-site restaurants, serving national, international and European cuisine, or use property’s barbecue facilities. There is also a bar in the hotel. Room service and breakfasts in the room are provided upon request. An array of activities can be enjoyed on site or in the surroundings, including tennis, table tennis, golf and mini football. A Bus Station is 9 km from the hotel, and shuttle service is provided at surcharge. Baku Train Station is 164 km away, and Heydar Aliyev International Airport is 191 km from Quba Palace Hotel .
PLACES TO VISIT & THINGS TO DO IN AZERBAIJAN
From getting lost in the UNESCO-listed Old City to visiting mud volcanoes and enjoying a sunset from the Maiden Tower, Azerbaijan has no shortage of activities to help visitors create a diverse and fascinating itinerary.
Azerbaijan is home to nearly a third of the world’s mud volcanoes, which form when pockets of underground gas force their way to the surface. They’re like geysers, but with mud, and since they’re not made from magma, the mud is usually icy (just above freezing temperature). The ones at Gobustan National Park are the most popular to visit from Baku on a day tour (it’s possible to take a bus to the park’s entrance but finding the volcanoes isn’t easy). Tours start from about 60 AZN (€29.86 EUR).
The Sheki Khan’s Palace was built in 1797 and was once the summer residence for the Khans. Located in Sheki, it is one of the most ornate and iconic buildings in South Caucasus. Its shebeke windows (incredibly delicate stained glass with geometric patterns, made specifically by Azerbaijan masters) casts brilliant rays of colored light across the entire interior. The palace opens daily from 10am-6pm and costs 2 AZN (€1 EUR).
Within Baku’s walled Inner City is the sandstone Palace of the Shirvanshahs. The palace was built in the 15th century and included a mosque, bathhouse, and mausoleum, as well the famous Maiden Tower with its panoramic views of the city. (Fun fact: They still have no idea what this tower was built for.) The Palace is open daily from 10am until 6pm and admission is 2 AZN (€ EUR) or 6 AZN (€3 EUR) for a guided tour.
During the summer months, the residents of Baku migrate to their country houses (known as dachas) on the Absheron Peninsula to escape the city heat. In recent years, thanks to the resorts popping up along the coast, tourists are following suit. To get there, you can take a taxi or a public bus. The public beaches at Mardakan or Buzovna are two popular choices for sunbathing and swimming in the warm waters of the Caspian Sea.
Head north by bus to the mountain town of Quba for a cooler climate, old mosques, and traditional carpets in beautiful alpine surroundings. There’s a lot of hiking here, and many people also visit Tenghi Canyon. You can also stop in Khinalig, a major Zoroastrian center, or Krasnaya Sloboda, the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel, populated by the Juhuro, or Mountain Jews. Although you can travel here and hike independently, you will also find many companies offering organized day tours to the region starting from around 38 AZN (€18.91 EUD).
Azerbaijan may not be known internationally for its skiing, but it does have two developing winter resorts that offer an “off-the-beaten-path” winter experiences: Shahdag Mountain Resort, and Tufandag Mountain Resort. The ski season is very short, lasting just two months, from mid-December to late February. To buy a ski pass for the day will cost about 20 AZN (€9.95 EUD), and expect to pay 34 AZN (€16.92 EUR) for a lesson.
Head north by bus to the mountain town of Quba for a cooler climate, old mosques, and traditional carpets in beautiful alpine surroundings. There’s a lot of hiking here, too, and many people also visit Tenghi Canyon. You can also stop in Khinalig, a major Zoroastrian center, or Krasnaya Sloboda, the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel, populated by the Juhuro, or Mountain Jews.
Once strategically located along the middle of the Silk Road, this dusty, old, not-so-small town now houses several ancient monuments, including a thousand-year-old defense tower, a 13th-century mosque, and a mausoleum. Take an early bus from Sheki and spend the night here. All the attractions are close together, so you can easily see the town in a day.
Azerbaijan’s second biggest city dates back to the sixth century. There’s an attractive square near another caravanserai (similar to the one in Sheki), some traditional churches, a very odd house made from bottles, and the Tomb of Nizami Ganjavi, the country’s most famous 12th-century poet (he’s kind of a national hero). It’s a good stopover on the way south.
Before heading back to Baku, go south visit this sleepy resort town on the Caspian Sea. See the Old Prison and Lighthouse (Stalin was a prisoner here for a while), visit the ancient bazaar, the 18th-century fortress, and the 19th-century mosque. You can spend a good day sightseeing here and then another on the beaches further south in Kenaramesha. If you have more time, take a day trip to the Ghizil-Agaj State Reserve, which is home to about 250 bird species. You can take organized tours from town.
Yanar Dag is a natural gas fire that blazes continuously on a hillside just outside Baku. Marco Polo once described the land in this area as being on fire because of phenomena like this, but this is the only fire left. It’s really small, so I wouldn’t make the journey specifically to see this, but it’s included in most tours anyway.
FOOD TO EAT IN AZERBAIJAN
The food in Azerbaijan blends regional influences from Iran, Turkey and the Mediterranean. Dishes tend to be meat-based, especially mutton, with recipes passed down generations to give distinct flavours. If you’re visiting Azerbaijan, sample some of these traditional meals.
Plov, or Pilaf, is a traditional food in Azerbaijan as well as other places in Asia and Eastern Europe. Azerbaijani pilaf uses saffron-flavoured rice cooked with aromatic herbs, fried meat and vegetables. Different restaurants have their own styles, meaning you won’t get the same taste twice. Most restaurants serve Plov. Consider sampling it in Baku.
Kebab is a favourite of Azerbaijan cuisine, having similarities to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Various kinds of seasoned meat and vegetables are skewered and barbequed. If you go for a meal with a local, more likely than not, you’ll have a kebab. Lyulya Kebab is a particular type of kebab that consists of mouth-watering barbequed minced lamb on skewers.
If you have travelled around Eastern Europe and the Middle East, you’ve probably tasted halva. Azerbaijan's version is different and is produced only in the mountainous region of Sheki. Few people know the secret recipe for this sugary confectionery, making it somewhat unique to the area.
Large meatballs boiled into a delicious broth with potatoes, peas and mutton bones make Kufta Bozbash one of the national soups of Azerbaijan. Depending on the region, chefs add different types of ingredients and spices to the broth, and sometimes include a dried plum.
Walk around the streets of Baku and you’ll probably pass a few shops barbequing and roasting chicken. Roast chicken costs a few dollars and is wrapped in thin sheets of bread with a handful of raw onions. Locals take away and eat at home.
Sheki's Signature dish, piti, provides a hearty meal for local workers. The lamb stew cooked with vegetables comes in a traditional clay pot, and fills stomachs for hours.
Minced lamb meat and rice infused with herbs and spices wrapped in either cabbage or vine leaves make Azeri Dolma. This type of Azeri food has more than 25 varieties depending on the region and the season. Dolma uses vine leaves in the winter and spring, eggplants and peppers during the summer and cabbage leaves in autumn.
Azerbaijan’s version of dumplings, dushbara, are small balls of stuffed dough served in a lamb broth. Typical fillings include minced meat, tomatoes and onions served with dried mint, wine vinegar and garlic.
The Caspian Sea provides an almost endless supply of fresh fish. Grilled fish, or baliq, on a skewer is a favourite food in Azerbaijan and is eaten with a sour plum sauce.
Dovga, a traditional Azeri dish, is a type of yoghurt soup with rice, chickpeas and herbs. Locals eat it either warm or cold.
Buckwheat makes a great alternative to grains and rice. The heavy, carbohydrate-rich food can be eaten for breakfast or served in a large bowl in the centre of the table.
This is another type of traditional soup using minced meat, boiled beans and noodles.
Qutab is a type of pancake filled with either meat, cheese or spinach. Forget sugary syrup–Azeri pancakes are savoury and eaten with a yoghurt sauce.
WHERE TO SHOP IN AZERBAIJAN
In a newly restored 19th-century building, this centre is predominantly a community project to support local potters in their craft. You can watch artisans at work and peruse a selection of ceramics, glassware and mini-carpets. In the yard there's an 18th-century anbar (stairway to underground water source).
For two decades, Çiraq has been Baku's leading English-language bookshop. It has a decent range of classics, bestsellers, travel guides and locally relevant titles, plus a good souvenir section.
The big, bustling bazaar sells everything from pottery, metalwork and carpets to masses of fresh food. Saffron comes in a wide variety of qualities, the cheapest just AZN1 a cupful.
A marvel in this age of closing bookstores, this impressive palace of reading opened in 2018 and holds regular book signings and exhibitions.
Cars to get you noticed. The showroom, shared with Mini, is in one of Baku's most elegant examples of 'oil boom' architecture, originally built in 1901 for Gorodskoi Bank. In the classic novel Ali and Nino (Kurban Said, 1937) the same building was home to the Fillifpojanz Coffee Shop where the plot's hero reflects upon the rebuffing of his marriage proposal.
Although the wide range of knick-knacks is mostly fairly corny tourist tat, this two-storey complex also includes a couple of genuine craft artists' workshops. It is worth perusing en route to the tourist office, which is upstairs in the same historic brick building.
Şəki is famed for its super-sweet, syrup-soaked halva, which is actually more like a form of paxlava (baklava). There are dozens of local brands but Yəhyə is particularly famous, having received a 2015 shopping visit from the president and his wife with President Erdoğan of Turkey in tow.
Opened in 2010, Park Bulvar was Baku's first international-style shopping mall. It remains one of the most popular, though some residents complain that it should never have been built on the green bayfront promenade – an area which is technically a national park.Opened in 2010, Park Bulvar was Baku's first international-style shopping mall. It remains one of the most popular, though some residents complain that it should never have been built on the green bayfront promenade – an area which is technically a national park.
Locals remain entranced by what is Azerbaijan's fanciest mall outside Baku, but despite the soaring glass-roofed atrium, the place is full of 'could be anywhere' shops and fast-food chains.
While the majority of the wares on sale here are a little tacky, it's worth taking a quick look inside if only to admire the architecture of one of Baku's most photogenic caravanserais.
The Tom Ford men's couture store occupies a classic Baku mansion that once hosted Charles de Gaulle during a secret 1944 stopover en route to Moscow.