An Ultimate Guide to Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan (6) – Silk Road Travel – A Central Asia Overland Trip – A World to Travel

If you’re searching for an exciting, lesser-known destination for your next trip, Azerbaijan is an excellent choice. It’s not overrun by tourists, which means you’ll get to explore its unique charms without the crowds. This hidden gem offers a blend of East and West, with rich cultural heritage, stunning landscapes, and a warm, welcoming spirit.

Azerbaijan: A Comprehensive Travel Guide for the First-Timers

Planning a trip to Azerbaijan? You’re in for a great time! This journey might just be one of the best you’ll ever have. To make it even better, I’ve put together a travel guide to Azerbaijan based on my own experiences. This guide will make it easy for you to discover all the wonderful places and experiences this country has to offer.

Azerbaijan: First Impressions

Azerbaijan is often called the Land of Fire, a name that comes from its unusual natural fires. In this country, you’ll find an amazing mix of the old and the new.

The capital city, Baku, epitomizes this mix. The city is very modern with tall, impressive buildings that make it feel like you’re stepping into the future.

But Baku also has a historic side, called Icherisheher. This old part of the city stands in beautiful contrast to the new buildings, showing off Baku’s rich history and its modern ambitions side by side.

Additionally, the country’s oil wealth is evident, adding a layer of prosperity and development to its urban landscape, which further enhances its unique character.

Outside of Baku, Azerbaijan has many small, quiet old villages that seem like they haven’t changed for centuries. These villages, my friend, are a treasure trove of rich cultural heritage and traditional ways of life.

What’s really special about Azerbaijan is how it mixes European and Asian cultures. You can see this in the food, the buildings, and the way people live. It’s like a bridge between two continents.

Plus, the country is home to the stunning Caucasus mountains, adding to its natural beauty.

This unique combination of city life, ancient villages, and beautiful landscapes makes Azerbaijan a fascinating place to visit.

Where is Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan, situated in Southwestern Asia, is a country without a coastline except for its border along the Caspian Sea.

It’s nestled among several countries: Russia and Georgia to the north, Armenia to the west, Iran to the south, and it also shares a small border with Turkey.

How Many Days in Azerbaijan

Your perfect length of stay in Azerbaijan really depends on what you like – history, nature, or culture. Usually, people visit for about 5 to 10 days.

If you’ve got 5 to 7 days, that’s great for a quick trip. You can spend a few days in Baku to see the old and new parts of the city. Plus, you can take short trips to places like Gobustan National Park and the Ateshgah Fire Temple. Also, you can visit a beautiful area like Sheki, Quba, or Gabala for a day or two.

If you have 10 days or even more, you can explore more of the country. After seeing Baku, you can travel to different towns and villages, enjoy the Caspian Sea beaches, check out the mud volcanoes, and maybe travel to far-off places like Nakhchivan. With more time, you can really get to know each place better and take your time exploring.

How to Get to Azerbaijan

The most common and easiest way to travel to Azerbaijan is by flying. Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku is the primary airport for international flights. Various major airlines have flights to Baku from cities worldwide, and if there’s no direct flight from your location, you might transit through key hubs like Istanbul, Dubai, or Moscow.

For those already in nearby countries such as Georgia, Russia, or Iran, overland options like train or bus services, including the overnight train and minibus (marshrutka) from Tbilisi, Georgia, to Baku, are usually available.

If you prefer the freedom of driving, traveling by car (whether rented or your own) from Georgia offers a picturesque journey.

An alternative way to reach Azerbaijan is by taking a ferry across the Caspian Sea, with services available from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Important Note: At the moment of writing this, Azerbaijan’s land and sea borders are closed to tourists, meaning entry is only possible by air. The closure of these borders is expected to continue at least until January 2, 2024. As a result, for now, flying is the only option for entering Azerbaijan.

How to Get Around Azerbaijan

In Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, getting around is easy with its modern metro system. It’s cheap and connects major areas.

Buses are everywhere in the cities and good for longer trips too. Baku’s buses go all over the city and comfortable buses link big towns and places tourists like to visit.

Marshrutkas, or minibusses, are a quick, cheap way to get between cities. They’re smaller and faster than buses but might not be as comfy. Indeed, even for travelers accustomed to using budget public transport, these minibusses can be quite uncomfortable.

Taxis are easy to find in Baku and other cities. Just make sure to use official taxis and agree on the price first. 

There’s also a train network, not as efficient, in Azerbaijan. It links Baku with cities like Ganja and Sheki.

I wouldn’t recommend self-driving in Azerbaijan because the road conditions, combined with local drivers not following the rules and often driving rashly, can make it quite challenging and potentially unsafe, especially for those not familiar with such driving environments. Instead, opt to rent a car with a driver from a well-known tour company.

We hired a car with a driver, instructing him to follow the traffic rules, which was a real time-saver and made things easier. However, we did face some communication challenges, as the driver didn’t understand much English. Thankfully, Google Translate was a big help in overcoming this communication hurdle!

Best Time to Visit Azerbaijan

The best time to visit Azerbaijan is during the spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) months. During these periods, the weather is mild and pleasant, ideal for exploring the country’s diverse landscapes, and fewer tourists provide a more relaxed experience.

For culture enthusiasts, March is an excellent time to visit Azerbaijan, coinciding with the vibrant Novruz Bayrami celebrations. This traditional holiday marks the Persian New Year and the arrival of spring, and it’s filled with rich cultural events, traditional music, dance, and a variety of local delicacies. It’s a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in Azerbaijani customs and festivities.

Unmissable Experiences in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan offers quite a few captivating experiences that showcase its unique culture, history, and natural beauty. Let me share with you some of the top experiences you shouldn’t miss:

  • Explore the Ancient & Modern Wonders of Baku

Exploring Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is an amazing adventure. This city has a mix of old and new things. When you walk around the Old City, called Icherisheher, a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s like going back in time. The narrow streets and old buildings there are just magical.

Then, as you leave the old part of the city, you’ll see a completely different side of Baku. The city is famous for its ultra-modern architecture. The Flame Towers, three tall skyscrapers, really stand out. At night, they light up with LED lights that look like flickering flames – it’s an amazing sight.

Don’t miss the Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by the famous architect Zaha Hadid. Its smooth, futuristic look is a total contrast to the historic buildings in the Old City and shows just how diverse Baku is.

Baku isn’t just about its buildings, though. The city’s culture is a lively mix of the traditional and the modern. You can enjoy classic Azerbaijani music and dance, and then relax in a stylish cafe or fancy restaurant. This blend of the old and the new is what makes Baku’s charm really special.

  • Experience the Silk Road Legacy in Azerbaijan

Discovering Azerbaijan’s Silk Road legacy is a truly enriching experience for any traveler. This journey takes you deep into the country’s history as a key crossroads on the ancient Silk Road.

Azerbaijan sits where East meets West, playing a vital role in this historic trade and cultural route. This rich past is best seen in its caravanserais – ancient inns where Silk Road travelers and merchants would rest.

In Baku, the Multani Caravanserai, dating back to the 15th century, is one of the most striking examples. Walking through its arched doorways and exploring its stone corridors, you can almost hear the whispers of ancient traders and the clatter of caravans.

Another notable caravanserai is the 14th-century Bukhara Caravanserai, also located in Baku.

Beyond Baku, places like Sheki and Ganja also hold significant remnants of the Silk Road. The Sheki Caravanserai, with its magnificent façade and intricate design, highlights Sheki’s role in historic trade and craftsmanship.

Azerbaijan’s bazaars also reflect the Silk Road’s influence. Bustling markets filled with spices and colorful goods give you a taste of what ancient trade was like.

In Nakhchivan, an autonomous part of Azerbaijan, you can further explore the Silk Road’s impact. It was a crucial stop on this ancient trading route, connecting Europe and Asia. Here, you can see old places, special buildings, and customs that remind us of the Silk Road days. 

Embarking on this journey through Azerbaijan’s Silk Road history connects you with the stories and people of a land that was a central hub in this famous trade network.

  • Discover the Historical Castles and Fortresses of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is filled with historic castles and fortresses, each telling a unique story of the country’s past.

In Baku, you shouldn’t miss the Maiden Tower, a mysterious and ancient tower with amazing views of the city and sea. Also in Baku is the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a beautiful 15th-century palace that shows how important the Shirvan Empire was.

Out in the countryside, you’ll find old fortresses on hills and valleys, reminding us of times when they protected the land. The Sheki Fortress in the scenic town of Sheki is a great example, showing the area’s medieval history and its ties to the Silk Road.

For something unique, visit Alinja Castle, sometimes called Azerbaijan’s “Machu Picchu.” It’s high up on a mountain and was once a very strong fortress. The views from the top are incredible.

There’s also the Gulistan Fortress, an old but important stronghold that has seen many historical events. It gives a great look at the region’s past military strategies.

These fortresses, along with others scattered across Azerbaijan, are not merely relics of the past. They are enduring symbols of Azerbaijani resilience and architectural ingenuity.

  • Tour the Ancient Villages of Azerbaijan

The quaint, peaceful, tiny villages of Azerbaijan are like time capsules, preserving centuries-old traditions, architecture, and ways of life.

Exploring these villages is like walking in a living museum, where every alleyway, every craft, and every local custom speaks volumes about the country’s fascinating past and enduring spirit.

To get into the skin of the country’s culture, you must explore its villages.

Khinalug, high in the Caucasus Mountains, is incredibly old and remote. Life here hasn’t changed much in over a thousand years. The people still speak their language and live in traditional houses on the mountainside.

In Lahij, known for its stone streets and copper work, you’ll feel like you’re in the Middle Ages. This mountain village is famous for keeping old crafts alive. The sound of copper smiths mixes with the village’s old-world feel, showing off Azerbaijan’s craft heritage.

Quba, another old village, has a charm of its own. Famous for apples and carpets, Quba is a mix of colors and traditions. It’s not just pretty, with its old-style buildings, but also full of life, from busy markets to green scenery.

  • Uncover the Breathtaking Natural Wonders of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is a land of many contrasts, with unique mud volcanoes, eternal flames, peaceful lakes, beautiful waterfalls, the grand Caucasus mountains, and the calm Caspian Sea coast.

The country is known for its over 300 mud volcanoes, some of the most active worldwide. These natural wonders are spread across Azerbaijan, with the most famous one in Gobustan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Gobustan is not only known for its mud volcanoes but also for ancient rock carvings.

Yanar Dag, or Burning Mountain, is where natural gas fires burn continuously, creating a magical scene, especially at night. This is why Azerbaijan is nicknamed the “Land of Fire.”

Near Baku is the Ateshgah Fire Temple, a historic site for fire-worshippers, built over a natural gas vent. The eternal flame here is a unique feature of Azerbaijan.

For nature lovers, Azerbaijan has lovely lakes like Lake Nohur, Rose Lake (known for its pink waters), and Lake Goygol.

The Caucasus Mountains, stretching across northern Azerbaijan, are perfect for adventures. They offer stunning views, hiking paths, and a chance to see diverse wildlife. Mountain villages show centuries-old traditional lifestyles.

The Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water, boasts beautiful beaches in Azerbaijan, with the backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains. Some of the best beaches in Azerbaijan that I would recommend are Bilgah Beach, Dalga Beach, and Amburan Beach.

The Caspian Sea is also a hotspot for unique wildlife and is popular with birdwatchers, especially during bird migration seasons.

Where to Stay in Azerbaijan

In Azerbaijan, Baku has many luxury and boutique hotels, plus big international brands. Staying on Nizami Street in Baku is great for a top-notch experience. It’s lively, full of shops and restaurants, and close to many attractions.

Outside Baku, in places like Sheki, Lahij, and Quba, you can stay in traditional guesthouses. These are cozy and show off the local style. They’re usually run by families, so you get a warm, homely feel. You can also try delicious home-cooked Azerbaijani food there.

If you’re in rural or remote areas, consider a homestay. You’ll live with a local family, which is a great way to understand Azerbaijani life and culture.

For nature lovers, regions like Gabala and Guba offer mountain retreats and lodges. These are in beautiful spots with great views of mountains and forests. They come in different styles and prices, from simple to luxurious.

Things to Consider While Traveling to Azerbaijan

  1. Before your trip to Azerbaijan, it’s important to verify whether you require a visa. Many travelers can obtain an e-visa through the ASAN Visa system, which is a straightforward online application process.
  2. For stays exceeding 15 days, you must register with the State Migration Service within 15 days after arriving in Azerbaijan.
  3. Azerbaijan’s geography means it has multiple climate zones. Pack accordingly, especially if you’re planning to visit both the mountains and the coast
  4. Dress modestly, especially in rural areas and at religious places. In cities like Baku, you can dress more casually like in European cities. Remember to bring a scarf for visiting religious sites.
  5. Whether exploring Baku’s cityscape or venturing into rural areas, comfortable shoes are a must.
  6. Not many locals speak English, so knowing some Azerbaijani phrases is useful. Also, keep the Google Translate app handy – it’s a big help! There are other important travel apps you should consider downloading before your trip.
  7. The currency in Azerbaijan is the Azerbaijani Manat (AZN). While credit cards are commonly used, it’s a good idea to have cash on hand for visits to rural areas.
  8. Don’t miss out on local dishes like plov, kebabs, and dolma.
  9. While Baku is a must-visit, Azerbaijan’s true charm lies in its diverse regions, from the Caucasus Mountains to the Caspian Sea. So, explore beyond Baku!
  10. If you’re traveling to Azerbaijan in winter, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Shahdag Mountain Resort and Tufandag Mountain Resort, both offering excellent skiing experiences.
  11. Exchange money at trustworthy banks or exchange offices and steer clear of street dealers to avoid bad rates or fake currency.

That’s it for my Azerbaijan guide! I hope it helps you plan an amazing trip. Azerbaijan really left a big impact on me, and I think it’ll do the same for you. My unexpected trip there turned into an adventure I’ll never forget.

I’m already thinking about going back. Next time, I want to see more places I didn’t get to before. There’s so much to see in Azerbaijan, and one trip isn’t enough to see it all. I’m looking forward to returning and exploring even more of its culture and beautiful scenery.

Happy travels, and may your journey be as colorful and inspiring as a sunset over the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan awaits you!

Anjali from Travel Melodies, who has recently explored Azerbaijan, generously shared her top tips to help you fully enjoy your time there. She’s put together this Azerbaijan guide just for you.

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