Ganja, the second-largest city in Azerbaijan, is in the northwestern part of the country. Because it’s a little out of the way from the typical Caucuses backpacking trail, I didn’t see any obviously western tourists during my time in the city.
It’s the kind of place that is perfect for tourists with solid tourism infrastructure and a plethora of interesting sites with a little something for everyone. From staying in an old Soviet hotel to visiting an important Islamic pilgrimage site, there are many places to see and things to do in Ganja, Azerbaijan.
In addition, I’ve added a short travel guide with places to stay in Ganja, where we ate (and loved), plus transportation and Ganja travel tips. (Note: Ganja is also spelled Gance and Gandjah)
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Places to See and Things to Do in Ganja, Azerbaijan
Heydar Aliyev Square
Since our hotel was direct across from Heydar Aliyev Square, I spent a long time looking at the beautiful city square. During the Soviet Era, it was adorned with a giant statue of Vladimir Lenin. Renamed Heydar Aliyev Square after former President Heydar Aliyev, this square is still flanked with obviously Soviet buildings along with a statue of Aliyev. This square is a great place to start a self-guided walking tour of the city.
Ganja City Hall
The main building on Heydar Aliyev Square, this building is an example of Socialist Classicism, also known as Stalinist Empire architecture. The façade is composed of beautiful arches and grand doorways. Look closely at the details on the doorways. You can tell that Soviet symbols have been removed and replaced with Azerbaijani national symbols, but there are many Soviet motifs left. There is a twin of this building in Tbilisi.
Shah Abbas Mosque (The Juma Mosque)
The city’s central mosque, also known as the Friday Mosque, is a red brick and stained glass named after Shah Abbas the Great. Originally built in 1606, the minarets were added in 1776 and they underwent reconstruction projects in 1910 and 2008. We visited the mosque on a Friday during Ramadan, so we did not go inside. However, we were told that the interior is stunning, and it would be worth going inside if it is open during your visit.
Chokak Baths (Turkish Bath House)
Traditionally this served as a Turkish bath on Shah Abbas square across from the mosque. Now it is an artisan shop since the plumbing was damaged during the Soviet era. I enjoyed walking around the building taking photographs, but I didn’t go inside.
Javad Khan Mausoleum
Javad Khan was the last of the rules of the Ganja Khanate who served from 1786 to 1804. He died in battle fighting the Russians during the Russo-Persian war, and he is considered a national hero of Azerbaijan. His grave was accidentally rediscovered during a Soviet-era construction project and the current mausoleum was built in 2005. It was locked while we were there, but you can see the tomb inside through the stained-glass windows.
One of the newest additions to Ganja, current President Ilham Aliyev inaugurated the building in late 2017. Although new, I was completely captivated by its grandiose and delicate architecture, with its green roofs and golden decorations. I didn’t realize it wasn’t from the 19th century until I researched more about it back at my hotel room after visiting. Since it sits on Shah Abbas square, it is impossible to miss.
Shah Abbas Caravanserai
One of the oldest examples of Islamic architecture, the 17th-century Caravanserai was where visitors stayed when they came to the city. Across the street from Heydar Aliyev square and the Ganja hotel, it’s tucked next door to Epikur Bagi. It was under reconstruction while we were there, but it’s worth a walk by to understand the layout of the city in the early 1600s.
Alexander Nevsky Church
Readers of this website know I’m obsessed with visiting houses of worship in general, and Orthodox monasteries and churches in particular. This Russian Orthodox Church was built in 1887 during Russia’s occupation of Azerbaijan. During the early part of the USSR, the church was closed down and turned into various secular institutions, but it was reopened as a church in 1946.
Important to Note: While I absolutely loved seeing it, this was the first Orthodox church I’ve visited that seemed to actively discourage tourists. The etiquette for visiting Orthodox churches varies widely depending on where you are, but this one was the strictest I’ve seen to date.
For example, I’ve visited dozens of Orthodox churches, and this was only the second time I’ve been asked to cover my head when entering one. However, unlike when I visited Rudi Monastery and was lent a headscarf at the front gate, Alexander Nevsky does not have scarves to borrow. Either BYOS or you can’t go inside.
Also, when we walked up to the church, a woman came outside and locked the gate to the yard to keep us out, and while we were inside the church she came up to me to yell at me about the headscarf (which I hadn’t realized was a rule there).
She then physically pulled me over to the rules list at the front of the church, pointed to each individually, and then took me back outside. I’m not sure what her role at the church was since we spoke no common languages and this conversation was entirely in Azeri and body language.
I still believe that it’s a gorgeous church and one should walk the block over from Heydar Aliyev square to see it. Just make sure to have a scarf on you and check the rules by the door when you enter.
The Bottle House
Near Alexander Nevsky, this house is a work of art and a huge point of pride for Ganja residents. It’s also a touching memorial. The artist, Ibrahim Jaffarov, decorated the house with nearly 50,000 glass bottles. Under the eaves of the house, he included a portrait of his brother Yussif, a Red Army soldier who never returned from World War II:
Yusif never returned from WWII. He didn’t die as the family received a mysterious letter from him in 1957 but have received no word since. The prominently painted word ‘Zhdem’ means ‘we wait for you’.
Visiting reminded me a lot of visiting Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. We went twice, once on foot and another time because our taxi driver wanted to make sure we saw it. Both times there were about a dozen other tourists and locals walking by to see it. We also got to meet one of the owners of the house. Even though we could only tell her we thought it was “very good” in our poor Russian, it was still fun meeting her and seeing the pride she has in owning this amazing work of folk art.
While there, if there’s a souvenir stand open on the porch, take the opportunity to make a small purchase. It was not open while we were there, but the profits from this stand go to keeping the house up and doing some much-needed repairs.
Javad Khan Street
Javad Khan Street is lined with buildings from the Russian Empire era of Ganja history. A pedestrian shopping street, it’s a focal point of the city. I didn’t visit myself, but my friend went to London café and walked the street. She said it was lovely, and I would have visited if my laptop had been charged. Alas, it was dead, so I skipped the café to work from my hotel.
Khan Baghi Park (Khan’s Garden / Khan Bagi)
A lush park in the middle of the city near the other major landmarks, this city was initially created as a garden during the Ganja Khanate, and it was kept up during the Russian empire and known as Sadar’s Garden. It’s a great place to unwind and appreciate green space in the city. There is a piece of the Ganja Fortress near the entrance.
Azerbaijan has famous ancient mausoleums seemingly everywhere, but Nizami’s Mausoleum is a modern one built of granite. Its current version was built in 1991, replacing a Soviet-era one from 1947, which in turn replaced a mausoleum that had been continually rebuilt and re-imagined since the 1300s. While it’s needed rebuilding and refurbishing, it’s remained an important place of pilgrimage for Azeris, who come to pay homage to the legacy of Azerbaijan’s most famous poet, Nizami Ganjavi.
After seeing historic mausoleums in Nakhchivan, it was great to see a modern take on the architectural form. From the outside, the building is more imposing than its ancient cousins, and inside it is decorated with traditional Azeri stained-glass artwork in a minimalist design. The park has fountains and statues depicting scenes from Nizami’s poetry. Located outside of the city, we visited on our way back from Lake Goygol, but if you want to come from the city center, I suggest combining it with a visit to Heydar Aliyev Park.
Nizami Ganjavi Museum
This museum is across the street from the Nizami Mausoleum. We skipped a visit since we were running short on time, but there are specific areas for tourists to relax. It opened in 2014 to help tourists learn about Nizami while they visit, and it also includes a research wing and a library.
This place took me completely by surprise. It wasn’t high on my priority list before getting to Ganja, but I honestly can’t recommend someone come to the country without paying a visit here. I love visiting mosques and other Islamic sites because I think it’s a huge benefit of traveling and learning about an important culture that I didn’t grow up around.
My entire life, news, and culture in the USA twisted and perverted images and news from the Islamic world. Whenever I can see how life and religion are for Muslims around the world, it puts another crack in the brainwashing that I grew up with as a fact of life in America.
The original mausoleum dates back to the sixth century, but the current complex is mostly from the nineteenth century. The mausoleum has several names:
“The mausoleum is also known under the names of: “Gei-imam”, meaning the blue color of its dome, and “Imam-zade” – the traditional name of the mausoleums where descendants of prophet Ali (literally “sons of the prophet”) were buried. Imam-zade Mausoleum is a Muslim relic and annually receives crowds of pilgrims. The Mausoleum complex hosts a cemetery, small mosques, a caravanserai and other structures.”
The Imamzadeh, located 7km north of Ganja, is easily reachable by taxi. See the section on day trips from Ganja for costs on how we broke down our trip to the places on the outskirts of town.
Heydar Aliyev Park
The largest park in the Caucuses, Heydar Aliyev Park is a grand space with monumental architecture. This park is capped with its Arch of Triumph inspired by the Arc de Triomphe and the triumphal arches of ancient Rome. When we visited it was lively, with young families and couples coming to enjoy the snack stands and walk up and down the procession way. While I didn’t have the opportunity to visit at night, it is a great place for night photography and the pics I have seen of it at nighttime are stunning.
Museum of Local History
I didn’t have the opportunity to check out this museum myself; however, locals told me that it’s a good one for introducing travelers to the many-layered history of the city.
Across the street from the Philharmonic and the Shah Abbas Mosque, the Ganja Mall is a new complex that is great for both locals and tourists who want to relax and do a bit of mall shopping. Or mall drinking, which is my personal preference.
German Lutheran Church
Ganja had a large German population of settlers who came to the city in the nineteenth century. While it might be hard to understand how German and Azerbaijan history are intertwined like this, it’s easier when you visit the German Lutheran Church and see the most prominent remnant of these German settlers. The Soviets changed the church into a theater in the early twentieth century.
Day Trips from Ganja
The most famous of the eight large lakes near Ganja, Lake Göygöl’s name literally means “The Blue Lake.” Located at the foot of Mount Murovag, it’s a picturesque lake high up in the mountains. It’s the perfect spot to take in some nature, see how locals enjoy their recreation time, and get a bit out into the countryside. It’s protected as part of Goy Gol National Park.
We took a taxi out to the lake as part of a large day trip. We were quoted 50 Manat (about 25 Euros) for just visiting the lake by itself. When we combined the lake with visiting Imamzadeh, Heydar Aliyev Park, and Nizami’s Mausoleum, we paid 85 Manat total for two people for a taxi for the day. (This is about 43 euros).
We didn’t have anything to compare it to, and we bargained this price down from 100 Manat. I have no idea if this is a good or bad rate for the area but use this as a benchmark and don’t pay more if planning a similar trip. Visiting all four places took five hours, although we could have spent more time at the lake if we’d chosen. To just visit the lake, the drive is about an hour and a half each way. We spent about forty-five minutes at the lake itself.
Lake Maralgol or Maral-gol is another of the large lakes in the mountains near Ganja. Connected to Lake Goygol by the Akhsu River, this lake is on Mount Murovag and is another popular spot for tourists who want to spend some time in nature.
Naftalan Clinic is a unique health spa, but its history is storied. The earliest references to the healing properties of the oil in Naftalan are from Marco Polo’s travelogues. Today, you can bathe in crude oil. Like Duzdag in Nakhchivan, Naftalan isn’t fancy, but rather is a Soviet-style sanatorium designed for maximum health benefits with minimal luxury.
Most people visit Sheki on their own and not as part of a day trip. However, it’s only two and a half hours from Ganja. If you are only interested in seeing the highlights of Sheki, you can accomplish most of the Sheki sites as a day trip from Ganja.
Ganja Travel Guide
While we were only there for four days and three nights, there is very little practical information online about visiting Ganja, so I want to pass on anything that I can from my visit to help you with your trip.
Suggested Ganja Itinerary
I’m including options for 1, 2, and 3-day itineraries for Ganja. Obviously, if you have an opportunity to stay longer, there is enough to do in the area to enjoy staying for additional days. If you will be there for a week or more, I would add in more day trips and more time at the lakes, in addition to slowing down and seeing each of the main Ganja sites more in-depth. Whatever you ultimately settle on for your Ganja itinerary, I expect you’ll have a great time.
Suggested One Day in Ganja Itinerary
If you only have one day in the city, you can see almost everything on this list of Ganja activities except the day trips. Skip the lakes and Naftalan, but you logistically can get to everything else since it’s a very compact city.
Suggestions for Two Days in Ganja
If you have two days, split this list of Ganja activities into the core of the city and the outskirts. You can see everything on the list in one day, and save the Lakes, Heydar Aliyev Park, Imamzadeh, and Nizami’s Mausoleum for a long day trip on day two. You can pick just one lake or you can see both (we just say Lake Goygol, but Maralgol looks awesome, too). We did everything on this day trip without Maralgol in five hours, so add another hour to an hour and a half if you want to add another lake.
Suggestions for Three Days in Ganja
You can do what we did, and spend a day in Ganja relaxing and people watching without needing to get to sites every single day. Otherwise, if you have a third day and you’d like to see more, take a day trip to Naftalan. Alternatively, if Sheki isn’t on your Azerbaijan itinerary, you can also do a day trip to Sheki.
Where to Stay
There are not too many places to stay in Ganja, but a few options are ranging from the old Soviet hotel to a brand new hotel and a few guesthouses.
The Ganja Hotel
The Ganja Hotel, while renovated, has an interesting history. It served the city as the Soviet hotel, which is still evident in its Soviet classical architecture.
The renovations have made it comfortable if a bit basic. However, we thoroughly enjoyed our time there, found the wifi to be in good condition, and the staff was more than accommodating.
Like anywhere in Ganja, you won’t find many English speakers; however, the staff spoke enough English to help us with what we needed.
Where to Eat in Ganja
Ganja has many local cafes and restaurants. I found two that I particularly enjoyed – one for international cuisine and one for delicious Azeri dishes. If you’ve been to the city and have any other places to add, please comment below so we can keep a running list of the best restaurants in Ganja.
Located next to the Shah Abbas Caravanserai and across the street from City Hall Square, Epikur Bagi is a great restaurant with a mix of international and local dishes. The décor is lovely, all whites and florals, and the staff was very attentive. We found the sushi to be adequate (would be great if it had been a while since you’d had good sushi but skip it if you have regular access to great sushi). However, the pasta dishes, salads, and the fried mozzarella sticks with sweet chili sauce all hit the spot. We kept going back for lunch every day, as each time we figured out our orders a little better until by the end we knew exactly what combination of dishes we preferred. I could seriously eat their fried mozzarella sticks every week.
The Ganja Restaurant, located on the first floor of the Ganja Hotel across from City Hall Square, serves local dishes in a grand, tall dining room. Like all my experiences eating Azerbaijani food, the soups were the highlight of both dinners we ate here. While they did not have menus in English, the staff kindly explained what was on offer both nights. The food was seasoned nicely, and the meats were done incredibly well.
How to Get to Ganja
There are three main ways to get to Ganja: bus, marshrutka (mini-bus), and train. You can also fly from Baku to Ganja, which has an airport. Despite websites that say there are direct flights from Nakhchivan to Ganja, those flights are no longer operating.
We went from Baku to Ganja by bus. It took about four and a half hours, and cost seven Manat (about 3.5 euros). When we left, we went from Ganja to Sheki by marshrutka. It cost four Manat per person (about two euros) and it took two and a half hours. We also felt constantly like we were going to die. I would not recommend going by marshrutka if a bus, train, or taxi is available and reasonable.
How to Get Around Ganja and Transportation Tips
The easiest form of public transportation for a tourist is to use taxis. We paid 5 Manat (about 2.5 euros) to get dropped off at our hotel from where the buses dropped us off, and we paid 10 Manat (about 5 euros) to get to the bus station on the edge of town. It was always hard to tell what prices for taxis should be since there were no good travel guides online with this kind of pricing that I could find.
There are also many buses in the town, so if you can find someone who knows the public transportation system in town and if you two have a common language, this will be cheaper than a taxi.
For seeing the main sites in town, we walked from the centrally located Ganja Hotel. To get to Lake Goygol and the spots on the outskirts of town (Heydar Aliyev Park, Imamzadeh, and Nizami’s Mausoleum) we went by taxi. This day trip cost us 85 Manat, which we bargained down from 100 Manat.
Important Ganja Travel Tips
Ganja is an important city in Azerbaijan, so it’s more cosmopolitan than you might think before you get there. However, because they have very few western tourists, English isn’t as common as you might expect, and it’s a little more difficult to travel than Baku. However, some common sense and a bit of grit, and you can really do anything you need to in Ganja. I found it a relatively easy place to travel.
Learn a Bit of Russian
Like many parts of Azerbaijan outside of Baku, knowing a little bit of Russian will go a long way. Be able to read Cyrillic and know a few key phrases to help with small glitches in communication or for when you can’t find someone who speaks enough English to assist you.
Cash is King
We found this to be the hardest place to use our credit cards. If you have trouble finding a bank, there’s an ATM in the lobby of the Ganja Hotel.
Make Sure to Get a Sim Card
Having internet access at all times is key when you find yourself far from anyone who speaks the same language as you. I got my Azerbaijan sim card in Baku, but I refilled it at the Azercell near Heydar Aliyev Square in the center of town. Read this post about the arduous process of buying a travel sim card in Azerbaijan and make sure you bring your passport with you when you go to buy it.
More about Azerbaijan Travel
- 75 Epic Reasons You Need to Travel Azerbaijan
- What to Pack for Azerbaijan: an Azerbaijan Packing List for Women and Men
- 21 Things to Know Before You Rent a Car in Baku, Azerbaijan
- How to Get an Azerbaijan Sim Card in Baku without Losing Your Effing Mind
- How to Get from Ganja to Sheki and Vice Versa
- How to Get from Sheki to Tbilisi
More about Traveling the Caucasus
Many people who travel Azerbaijan combine it with a trip to Armenia and Georgia:
Armenia Travel Resources
- Armenia Packing List: Everything You Need to Pack for Armenia for Women and Men
- How to Get an Armenian Sim Card
- How to Visit Geghard Monastery
Georgia Travel Resources
- The Dry Bridge Market: the Funky Tbilisi Flea Market with History on Display
- How to Get from Sheki to Tbilisi and Vice Versa
- What to Pack for Georgia: The Ultimate Georgia Packing List for Women and Men
- How to Buy a Georgia Sim Card During Your Adventure in the Caucasus