75 Epic Reasons You Need to Travel Azerbaijan

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Before I got to Azerbaijan, I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought for sure I wouldn’t like it. I’ve never booked a ticket to a country and then been so down on the idea of actually going there, but I was fully prepared to hate my visit to Azerbaijan and then move on to the rest of the Caucasus. I was tired from traveling too much this year already, so the ticket I had nabbed in January all of a sudden felt more like an obligation than a cool trip. Thus no one was more shocked than I was to discover that not only did I absolutely love my time in the country, but I firmly believe that anyone stuck in a travel funk like I was should head to Baku and travel Azerbaijan.

 

Now that I’m a full-on Azerbaijan evangelist, here is my list of epic reasons you, too, should travel Azerbaijan.

 

Read: What to Pack for Azerbaijan: an Azerbaijan Packing List for Women and Men

 

Baku is a Modern Architecture Paradise

The Flame Towers, the Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku Crystal Hall, the Olympic Stadium, even Heydar Aliyev Airport…everywhere you look in Baku you can see evidence that the city understands how to integrate its historic corps with its new modern architecture in a way that feels exciting and new. While in some cities, modern buildings can seem like they come out of nowhere, in Baku, the modern architecture enhances what was there before while still allowing statement buildings to shine.

 

Azerbaijan - Baku - Heydar Aliyev Center
One of the many amazing angles of the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku

 

Although Its History Stretches Back to the Stone Ages

People arrived in the area of Baku in the stone ages, and you can see rock art from the bronze age if you visit Gobustan outside of the city. These early men and women left over six thousand rock carvings, everything from drawings of mountain goats to portraits of each other, and they serve as a testament to 40,000 years of human history.

 

Azerbaijan - Gobustan Rock Art - A Mountain Goat
Rock art of a mountain goat in Gobustan.

 

Azerbaijan Loves Talking about its Ancient History

During the first century AD, Roman troops made it all the way to Baku on two separate campaigns. Although most sites you see in Azerbaijan are either earlier or later than the time we think of as “ancient history,” you will learn a ton about this period by visiting the National Museum of History of Azerbaijan in Baku.

 

Azerbaijan - Nakhchivan - Noah's Tomb
Azerbaijan proudly claims the burial spot of Noah

 

Its Medieval Castles

There are Azeri castles, fortresses, and palaces all over Azerbaijan. Alinja in Nakhchivan is the most famous, lovingly referred to as the “Machu Picchu of Azerbaijan.” Built from the seventh to the eleventh centuries, it’s a the mountain-topped jewel of the country.  However, the medieval architecture doesn’t stop there. Check out Maiden’s Tower in Baku (twelfth century), the Quadrangular Castle of Markudan (thirteenth century), and Ramana Tower (twelfth century).

 

Azerbaijan - Gobustan Rock Art - A Mountain Goat
Alinja Fortress, high above Nakhchivan, is often referred to as the “Machu Picchu of Azerbaijan”

 

And its Grand Palaces

Baku’s Walled City includes the fifteenth-century Shirvanshah’s Palace, and tourists flock to Sheki to appreciate the stunning interiors of the Xan Sarayı, also known as the Palace of the Shaki Khans. However, my favorite palace in Azerbaijan was the Winter Palace in Sheki, which was delightfully free of tourists.

 

Azerbaijan - Sheki - Palace of the Shaki Khans
Instagrammers Flock to See Sheki’s Beautiful Summer Palace, the Palace of the Shaki Khans

 

And While Its Status as a Former Soviet State is Complicated, You Can See it Under the Surface

Look closely at any crescent moon adorning a building in Azerbaijan, and you’ll probably see the outline of a different shape beneath it. All across the country, the hammer and sickle of the USSR have been replaced with the crescent moon and star of Islam. But these decorations generally adorn buildings crafted in Soviet Classical style, and for every giant Heydar Aliyev statue you see, know there was most likely a Vladimir Lenin one standing there until the early nineties. Azerbaijan didn’t want to be a part of Imperial Russia or the subsequent Soviet Union, so you won’t see any USSR nostalgia here. But it’s hard to erase hundreds of years of occupation in just three decades, and the evidence hasn’t been erased completely.

 

The Heydar Aliyev Palace in Baku, a theater venue, was known as the Lenin Palace during the Soviet Era

 

Especially When You Stumble on a World War II Memorial

Nowhere are you more likely to see USSR insignia than on the country’s many World War II memorials and monuments. Nearly every city and town has one, and their respect for the fallen soldiers has won over their inclination to get rid of the trappings of the USSR.

 

Azerbaijan - Ordubad - The World War II Memorial
It’s easy to spot the Soviet monuments, like this World War II Memorial

 

The Adults are Excited to Meet You

Azerbaijan gets a lot of tourists, they just typically aren’t from North America or Western Europe. Popular with Russians, Ukrainians, Georgia, and other Eurasian countries, western tourism is relatively new. So while they won’t bat an eye when a tourist walks into their business, they will be extra curious about why you chose to come from so far away. They will almost always ask where you’re from exactly and what brought you to Azerbaijan. If they’re feeling extra talkative, they may even ask if you if you know their friend who moved to Montana or proudly talk about their cousin who just bought a house in Alberta.

 

Azerbaijan - Nakhchivan - Market

 

But Kids are Cooler than You

The adults will be happy to get to know you a bit, but that won’t extend to the younger set. Every single day, I was blown away by how cool the kids are. Stylish, posh, sophisticated, whatever adjective you choose to utilize, it’s undeniable that every kid in Azerbaijan would sit at the cool table in any school in America.

 

Azerbaijan - Baku - Cool Kid
Every kid in Azerbaijan looks like they’re trying to escape the Paparazzi

 

Azerbaijan is The Land of Fire…that’s Literally on Fire

The same natural gas and oil that has made the country wealthy have also informed its folklore and traditions. Known as the land of fire, this has trickled down to its flag, its architecture (the Flame Towers, ahem), and its landscape. There are eternal fires on mountains and in temples, thanks to seeping natural gas. One place where you can see these near-permanent flames at work is Yanar Dag outside of Baku. Literally translated as “Fire Mountain,” it was in this spot about seventy years ago that a shepherd lit a cigarette and the mountain where he flicked it has literally been on fire ever since.

 

Azerbaijan - Yanar Dag
Yanar Dag (Fire Mountain) is a natural gas fire that has been burning continuously for over 70 years! It’s a thirty-minute drive from Baku.

 

Where Religions have Mixed for Millenia

The second largest population of Shia Muslims after Iran, the largest Jewish town outside of Israel, ancient Albanian and modern Armenian Christians, Orthodox Russians, German Lutherans, Zoroastrians, and atheists have all left a mark on the majority-Muslim but the multi-religious nation.

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - Alexander Nevsky Church
Visiting the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Church in Ganja

 

With the Country Proud of its Zoroastrian Temples

Zoroastrianism, which inspired the Red Priests in Game of Thrones, is one of the oldest religions in the world. It was the state religion of pre-Islamic Persia. The Sassanid dynasty brought it to the Caucasus, where it was especially popular in Azerbaijan. Learn more about ancient Zoroastrianism and its modern-day practitioners with a visit to the Ateşgah (Ateshgah) of Baku, a fire temple that has been turned into a museum. However, the fires still burn there every day.

 

Azerbaijan - Baku - Ateshgah of Baku Fire Temple
The Ateshgah fire temple outside of Baku

 

And Ancient Christian Churches

The current building of the Church of Kish, outside of Sheki, dates the twelfth or thirteenth century; however, it’s believed that the spot has been used as a Christian church since St. Elishe visited the area in the first century, making it a contender for the oldest church in the world.

 

Azerbaijan -Sheki - The Church of Kish
This Church in the village of Kish is a candidate for the oldest Christian church in the world

 

And While Its Mosques are Stunning

During my time in Azerbaijan, I got to visit seven different mosques. Some were brand new, some were quiet places for locals, and some were mosques attached to ancient pilgrimage sites, but each of the mosques was beautiful in its own way. If you’ve never visited a mosque, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a great way to see how western media and politics have twisted what Islam is really about. And beyond getting to see what Islam looks like in practice, I love getting to see Islamic artwork and design up close and personal.

 

Azerbaijan - Ordubad - Mosque
The interior of the mosque in Ordubad is beautiful and full of light.

 

 

Read:  33 of the Most Beautiful Mosques in the World and the Pictures to Prove It

 

…and the Pilgrimage Sites are Everywhere…

Imamzadeh in Ganja is the second most important pilgrimage site in Shia Islam. Noah’s Mausoleum on the outskirts of Nakhchivan City is another important pilgrimage site and is part of why Nakhchivan was named a 2018 Capital of Islamic Culture. The country also hosts caves that were mentioned in the Q’uran and a number of other important mausoleum and burial sites. It’s impossible to come to Azerbaijan and not notice how many Islamic sites have observant and secular Muslims alike lining up to see them.

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - Imamzadeh
Immamzadeh is the second most important pilgrimage site in Shia Islam

 

It’s the Oldest Secular Islamic Country in the World

When Azerbaijan declared independence in 1918, it did so as a secular Muslim-majority country. They might have been forced into the Soviet Union, but that didn’t squash their desire to stay both independent and secular. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the country finally got to revert to the nation it had wanted to be. The country takes extreme pride in its past as a home for people from different faiths and backgrounds. Freedom of Religion is inscribed in the constitution in Article 48, while Article 18 ensures that the government will remain secular. And while the country is proud of its faith traditions, the majority of Azeris are nonpracticing Muslims who aren’t in a hurry to make the country more conservative. They like things just as open and secular as they currently are. During my visit, this was the first time I was in a majority-Muslim country for Ramadan, but other than a few calls to prayer, most of the Islamic sites felt like places for history travelers as opposed to current believers.

 

Azerbaijan - Baku - Flag
Azerbaijan is proud of its Secular traditions and its freedom of speech.

 

Traveling to Azerbaijan is Getting Easier Every Day

I booked my ticket to Baku when Buta Airlines announced they would have budget flights from Sofia. Budget flights are no longer just a Southeast Asia and Europe phenomenon, and it’s never been cheaper to book a flight to Baku. From there, you can explore the capital, or book a separate connecting flight to Nakhchivan.

 

Azerbaijan - Baku - Flag
The view from the plane landing in Nakhchivan

 

But it Still Rewards those Who Travel Off the Beaten Path

Just because it’s easy to get there, doesn’t mean that it’s full of tourists. Azerbaijan still caters to Eurasian tourists, and their efforts to increase tourism are focused on India and East Asia. This means that you can go for days without running into another American or Westerner, especially if you stay away from Baku and Sheki. We met one other American in Nakhchivan, and we met none in Ganja. In one museum, they told me that they’d recently had visitors from the country of Colombia, but no Americans in quite a while. Once you step foot outside of the Absheron peninsula, expect to be (blissfully) free of the type of sneaker-clad, khaki shorts wearing ugly American types that seem to have invaded every corner of Europe.

 

Azerbaijan - Nakhchivan - Mountains and Highway
Nakhchivan is full of wide-open spaces

 

With Hidden Pockets

The whole country of Azerbaijan might be considered “off the beaten path,” but it’s possible to get even further off the path with just a bit of effort. And for those that do, you’ll be heartily rewarded with the kinds of travel experiences that you couldn’t plan if you tried.

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - Drive to Lake Goygol
Getting off-off-off-the path in Azerbaijan

 

Cities Void of Tourists

In 2016, only there were only about 12,000 American tourists in all of Azerbaijan. Most of these stuck to Baku, with some venturing to Sheki. My guess is that Ganja, the second largest city in Azerbaijan, saw almost none of these. When we visited Ganja this year, we saw groups of tourists at Imamzadeh and a few at Nizami’s Mausoleum. Other than that, we spent four days in the city and didn’t see anyone else who was obviously traveling to the city. Most people we saw were locals. I can’t think of another major city where it’s this easy to stay away from tourists, and it made the major sites just sites instead of “tourist traps.” It was incredible.

Read: 21 Things to Do in Ganja, Azerbaijan Plus Bonus Ganja Travel Guide

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - Heyday Aliyev Park
At the major tourist sites in Ganja – sans other tourists

 

And You’ll have the Entire Enclave of Nakhchivan to Yourself

Nakhchivan is a part of Azerbaijan that’s cut off from the rest of the country by Armenia. This means that to get there you need to either fly from Baku (or Istanbul) or cross by land from Turkey or Iran. Flights are fixed at about 35 euros each way (including luggage!). Despite its affordability, few western tourists venture out this far. Which is a shame, because it’s absolutely gorgeous. Our initial plans were to stay two nights, but we loved it so much we kept extending, ultimately staying five days and four nights. With beautiful mountains, tons of history, and interesting cultural sites, you will find there’s always more to do in this autonomous republic.

 

Hanging out at the most important sites in Nakhchivan…alone

Nature Lovers Can Relax at Azerbaijan’s Stunning Lakes

Lake Batabat is a blue mountain lake with a small peat island in the middle, giving it the nickname of “the Earth’s Blue Eye.” Located an hour and a half outside of Nakhchivan City, the green lake surrounded by Alpine mountains will be etched in my dreams for the rest of my life. And while Lake Goygol outside of Ganja is famous, this region of Azerbaijan is actually home to eight large mountain lakes. It’s impossible to deny that Azerbaijan is for lake lovers.

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - Lake Goygol
Lake Goygol, a stunning mountain lake outside of Ganja

 

And its Gorgeous Mountains

It shouldn’t shock anyone that a country in the Caucasus, the namesake of the Caucasus Mountains, would be flush with gorgeous mountains. Yet, it really hadn’t occurred to me before I got there. Staring out the window as we landed in Nakhchivan, I gasped. The landscape was dotted with striking green and sand-colored mountains, still capped with snow in the middle of May. We also found gorgeous mountains near Lake Goygol and even more near the town of Sheki. It seemed like wherever we went outside of Baku we were never far from picturesque mountains.

 

Azerbaijan - Sheki - Misty Mountains
Enjoying the misty mountains in Sheki

 

While City Lovers Can Enjoy Thriving Baku

Don’t worry, if you’re not a nature lover, or if you simply want to mix it up, the major cities are fully urban centers.  Baku has a population of two million people, which is about the same number of people as Houston, Texas. Like its Texas counterpart, oil money has brought in international travelers, and Baku has become a cosmopolitan city with the stores, nightlife, and art scene to prove it.

 

Azerbaijan - Baku - Flame Towers
City lovers will find Baku offers a ton to do

 

…and Vibrant Ganja

The second largest city, Ganja, has a population of a little over 320,000, making it slightly bigger than Pittsburgh. Like Pittsburgh, you’ll find an industrial city of bricks, but you’ll also find monumental architecture, Soviet war memorials, and some of the quirkiest folk art installations in the country.

 

Read: 21 Things to Do in Ganja, Azerbaijan Plus Bonus Ganja Travel Guide

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - The Bottle House
The Bottle House in Ganja is both a tribute to a missing family member in World War II and a giant folk art project.

 

But You Can Also Visit Small Towns Like Sheki

Sheki is a town full of tourists, but it’s easy to wander its back streets and get a feel for real small town Azeri life. Visit the town’s highlights-they are definitely worth seeing-but try and get away from the touristic sites and see what the rest of Sheki is like.

 

Azerbaijan - Sheki - Ilgar's House
Hanging out at Ilgar’s House, our sweet guest house in Sheki

 

…and Villages like Kurmuk and Xinaliq

We didn’t have time for a homestay in a village, although I know many tourists rave about them. However, we did get to stop in some of the smaller villages. My favorite was seeing Kurmuk, with its church perched on a mountain. Kish, near Sheki, is another option for seeing a small village. Do more than just see the church there and take a half hour to walk through the village and see how people live outside of the immediate tourist zone.

 

Azerbaijan - Kurmuk - Church
The mountaintop church in Kurmuk near the Georgian border

 

You Can Travel Azerbaijan on a Shoestring

The Caucasus have a reputation as being budget destinations for a reason. It’s one of the easiest places in the world to watch your budget since a decent hotel room runs about $20 and a bed in a hostel starts around $7. Transportation between major cities is under $5, a meal in a restaurant can be as low as $5 if you watch what you order, and there’s an abundance of free things to do wherever you are. Even major attractions like the Palace of the Shaki Khans was less than $2 to get in. We saved even more by traveling on a national holiday when we had an entire day of free museum admissions.

 

Azerbaijan - Baku - Heydar Aliyev
Seeing the outside of the Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku’s most famous site, is completely free.

 

Or You Can Spring for a Bit of Well-Priced Luxury

If you need to travel on a very strict budget, you can. But if you want to spend a tiny bit more (closer to $50 a day), you can live like a king. Azerbaijan’s modern amenities and penchant for nice things haven’t affected their price too much, so you can enjoy a little bit of the finer life on just a slightly higher budget.

 

Azerbaijan - Baku - Bebe Heybat Mosque
We opted for Uber over public transit in Baku and were rewarded with a visit to this stunning mosque on the edge of town for less than $3

 

Like Getting a Massage at a Turkish Bath for 25 euros

One of my favorite things to do while traveling is test out the local spas and other relaxation spots. We were able to get an hour-long massage for 25 euros, and we could enjoy the Turkish spas at two of our hotels that were available to all customers.

 

Azerbaijan - Nakhchivan - Turkish Bath at the Hotel Tabriz
The Turkish Bath in our hotel was extra lovely

 

Or Spend the 40 Euros to Stay at a 5 Star Hotel

Not every hotel in Azerbaijan comes with a Turkish spa, obviously. But ours did, and that’s a huge reason why we chose it. We stayed at the Tabriz Hotel in Nakchivan for about forty euros per night. While I wouldn’t usually stay somewhere that cost double what other options cost when it comes with a bit of extra luxury and great views, I’m in.

 

Azerbaijan - Nakhchivan - Hammam
View of the old hammam from the dining room of our hotel

 

Or Take 5 Euros and Charter Your Own Train!

Where else in the world can you charter your own train! The hotel offers a daily city tour, but there’s a minimum of ten participants. We asked how much it would cost to do it if we covered all ten tickets, and the response was ten manat – roughly five euros. Yes, we could have just done the trip by taxi for the same price, but will we ever get another chance to say we hired a train for a private city train tour?

 

Azerbaijan - Nakhchivan - Train
A train ride just for us?

 

You Can Feel Like a Queen (or King) and Hire a Driver for the Day

In Baku, it’s easy to go on a tour of the best day trip sites outside the city. However, in Ganja, Nakhchivan, and Sheki, we found it was much easier to get a taxi for the day and make our own itineraries. That’s how we ended up being able to see everything we wanted to in each region, and the prices translate to about fifteen to twenty manat per hour (about seven to ten Euros). There were minor variations in prices in each region, but everywhere we went my friend and I were able to see everything we wanted to for about five euros per hour each (or less). And since most sites we saw in Azerbaijan have no entrance fees, we only paid for transportation and food in most places. A huge added bonus was that our drivers were always showing us cool places we didn’t even know about beforehand, so we always got more than we asked for.

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - Taxi to Lake Goygol
Taking a taxi to Lake Goygol outside of Ganja

 

Or You Can Save Money and Take a Speedy Bus

When you don’t need a custom itinerary, Azerbaijan’s bus system is reliable, cheap, and efficient. I took a bus from Baku to Ganja, and it was one of the most pleasant inter-city bus rides I’ve taken in a long time. The air conditioning worked, the bathroom break was well-timed, and the ticket cost seven manat (a little under four euros). It was everything I needed it to be, without any extra frills.

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - Bus from Baku to Ganja
I give Azerbaijan’s buses a solid B+

 

But If You Want to Take a Mashrutka, You’ve Been Warned

The mini-buses in Azerbaijan knows as marshrutkas were efficient. They were also cheap. But unlike the regular sized buses, riding in one was pretty unpleasant. I’ve done minibusses in dozens of countries including other post-Soviet countries, and I have to say that the one I took in Azerbaijan was more terrifying and less efficient than others. From constantly switching lanes to packing in three extra people and turning it into a flying death-trap, I was not a fan of the Azerbaijan marshrutka scene.

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - Mashrutka to Sheki
I’d Rather Walk than Get in Another Mashrutka

 

And the Country is Flooded with Oil Money, so Infrastructure is Getting Better Every Day

Of course, the marshrutka rides could get better. It seems like everywhere we went, Azerbaijan was making investments in infrastructure, focusing on making their future more connected and efficient.

 

 

With Highways Improving Yearly

Wikitravel estimates haven’t kept up with the country’s improving roads, as the estimates for travel times were constantly hours off. The main roads have been almost all redone in the past few years, cutting travel time nearly in half.

 

 

 

And Village Roads Being Replaced

When we were in Sheki, it seemed like every single street was being redone all at once. While this was frustrating for locals and for the current tourists, future tourists will be welcomed to this historic city with even better tourism infrastructure and brand new roads and sidewalks.

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - Lake Goygol
Roads all across Azerbaijan are being redone for faster transportation

 

And Renting a Car is Affordable

We were able to rent a car in Baku and see many of the sites outside of the city in a single day. This was an affordable alternative to booking two tour tickets since my friend and I were able to split the cost. While I don’t think Azerbaijan is the first foreign country someone should rent a car in, for seasoned drivers who’ve already driven away from home, it’s a great alternative to tours and taxis.

 

Read: 21 Things to Know Before You Rent a Car in Baku, Azerbaijan

 

Azerbaijan - Baku - Petrol Station
Petrol (gas) is cheap and cars are easy to rent at the airport in Baku.

 

Although Azeris Drive Like Maniacs

Though not as famous or crazy as the drivers in Russia or neighboring Georgia, Azeri drives love to split lanes, hate using signals, and will be annoyed if you drive anything close to the speed limit. Go twenty km above or they’ll honk.

 

Also, watch out for pesky one-way streets. Azeris may be driving the other way.

 

It’s True that Getting a Sim Card is Frustrating

How can I describe how annoying it is to get a sim card in Baku? I’ll say this, I’d rather hit up an American DMV for a couple hours or donate plasma than have to buy a new sim card there. Alas, I’m sure I’ll get to start the process all over again next time I’m in Baku.

 

Azerbaijan - Baku - Azercell
Ninety minutes just to get a sim card!

 

But the Data Coverage is Fantastic

I knew it would be annoying to get an Azerbaijan sim card, but once the arduous process was complete, I was super impressed with the coverage. We got great internet all over Azerbaijan, even in rural Nakhchivan and high up in the mountains. And refilling the data once I’d run out was a thousand times easier than getting the card in the first place.

 

Read: How to Get an Azerbaijan Sim Card in Baku without Losing Your Effing Mind

 

Happy to have data great data, even at the top of a mountain next to a cave in an enclave.

 

….and the Wifi is Solid

It’s well known in the travel world that the countries with the best internet are almost all in Eastern Europe. While Greece and France are notorious for slow internet, Bulgaria and Romania’s speeds are blazing. I’d put Azerbaijan closer to Bulgaria in terms of wifi speed and availability. Almost every restaurant and cafe had their own router, hotels had consistently good download speeds, and it was almost always up and running. My only complaint was upload speeds. As someone who uploads hour-long audio files and thousands of pictures weekly, I can tell that the uploads speed there were heavily throttled. I’d give Azerbaijan’s wifi a solid B-. So a hundred millions times better than Greek wifi.

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - Epikur Bagi
Wifi is pretty easy to come by in restaurants and cafes.

 

Prepare for Amazing Picnics since Azeri’s Love Eating in Nature

There are many places in the world with an outdoor eating culture, but in Azerbaijan, it seemed like the best restaurants were basically carved out of the forest. In Batabat, Goygol, and Sheki, I felt like Alice in Wonderland happening upon a delightful party in the woods wherever we went.

 

Azerbaijan - Batabat - Forrest Feast
Showing up at Batabat Restaurant and preparing for a Forest Feast

 

And their Soups are To Die For

I wasn’t a big fan of Azeri plovs, but I fell hard for their soups. I could eat dovga, khamrashi, and lentil soups for days. There was not a single meal out where I didn’t get a soup, and by my last night in the country, I ordered double soup. The waiter thought I was nuts, but I wasn’t leaving Azerbaijan without a final dovga and a final lentil soup, no sir!

 

Azerbaijan - Batabat - Batabat Restaurant
Dovga Soup is TO DIE FOR

 

But BYOS…Bring Your Own Seasoning!

I found most Azeri food to be solid, but a bit blander than I typically prefer. This all turned around when we got our hands on a secret stash of chili powder. Once we seasoned it a bit, it was easier for our American pallets to handle. So if you like food that has a lot of different textures or flavors, you might want to bring your own spices and heat it up a bit.

 

Azerbaijan - Sheki - Soup
The soup in Sheki was delicious…but it was even better with our own BYOS chill flakes

 

And Save Room for a Tea Party

Like neighboring Turkey, tea is a near-constant of daily life. My favorite was Azerchai, which I liked so much I picked some up to take home as a souvenir. I found Azeri tea to be flavorful, but way more mellow than other teas. By the end of the trip, I was drinking tea every day. We even had a tea party in the Winter Palace gardens with the woman who lives next door. She brought her homemade rose jam and told me never to drink my Coke Zero in her presence.

 

Azerbaijan - Sheki - Tea
Having a tea party in the garden of the winter palace.

 

And Bring Your Sweet Tooth

Desserts in Azerbaijan are extra, extra sweet. And since they are eaten alongside sugar-sweetened tea, these aren’t for those who are afraid of a little sweet stuff. Paklava, like its Turkish and middle eastern counterpart Baklava, is a sweet pastry with nuts and honey, and bamya looks like a Mexican churro got fried in an extra layer of honey. Delicious? Yes. However, when you’re being force-fed them by an Azeri grandmother who won’t give you access to water, they’re a bit sweet.

 

Azerbaijan - Sheki - Dessert
Store bought Pavlaka and homemade Bamya

 

While the Azeri Food is Delicious, You Can Find Good International Food When You Need It

Baku has decent sushi. Nakhchivan has passible fajitas. Sheki has great fettucini. And Ganja has the best goddamn mozzarella sticks and sweet chili sauce outside of a Sonic Drive Thru. It might not be like where you’re from, but if you look hard enough you can find a touch of home or at least get a break from Azeri food. I’m all for eating local, but when you travel as much as I do you have to take a break or you’ll go insane.

 

Azerbaijan - Baku - Hamburgers
Baku has Seriously Good Truffle Burgers

 

Travel Industry Professionals Tend to Speak English

Most restaurants where we went had at least one staff member who spoke enough English to help us. Most hotels had at least one manager who could assist. And nearly everyone spoke exactly enough English to help us through the most basic task. No, English still isn’t the second most common language in Azerbaijan, but wherever we went we could muddle through together. And of course, some places had staffs with amazing English, even outside of Baku. The one area where we really never met anyone with a lot of English was among the taxi drivers, but they always just phoned back to the hotel and had us speak with the front desk to communicate back and forth. A general rule, like elsewhere when traveling behind the Iron Curtain, is young people know English, while older people speak Russian.

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - The Ganja Hotel
The Staff at the Ganja Hotel spoke enough English to help us with everything we needed…but just little enough that we got to use our Russian, too.

But Get Ready to Use Your Turkish and Cyrillic Alphabet Knowledge

While it’s not surprising to run into someone who speaks English, it is surprising to run into a sign that is written in English. Most signs are in Azerbaijanian and some are also in Russian. Azerbaijanian uses a version of the Latin Alphabet very similar to Turkish, and the Russian is all in Cyrillic. In instances where there’s no English translation, there might be a Russian one. So if you’re not familiar with the Azerbaijanian alphabet, you can rely on your Cyrillic.

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - Javad Khan Mausoleum
That Azerbaijan/Turkish “C” is pronounced like an English “J” and the “X” is like an English “K”

 

…and a Little Russian Goes a Long Way

You’ll encounter far more spoken Russian than written, and I heard far more Russian than Azeri. It helps tremendously to know how to say basic things like “I don’t understand what you’re saying to me,” “my sim card does not work,” and “I speak a little bit of Russian, but not much so go slowly.”

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - The Bottle House
Speaking a bit of broken Russian with one of the owners of Ganja’s Bottle House

 

Although it Never Hurst to have Your Turkish Handy, Too!

Whatever words you know from Turkish, bring them. Especially if they’re related to ordering water, which no one ever understood us when we asked for it in English or Russian. Or when we pointed at the bottle and said in Russian, “another.” Or when we physically pointed at the item on the menu. Basically just always bring your own water, and you’ll be fine.

 

Azerbaijan - Sheki - Corner Store
Using a bit of Turkish at the Market in Sheki

 

All Will Help You When You Need to Negotiate a Price

There will be times you need to negotiate, like when you want to get a fixed rate on a taxi. Whether this is from the airport or from your hotel for the day, it always helps to negotiate. And it helps more if you randomly intersperse correct Russian throughout your negotiations. It works every time.

 

Azerbaijan - Baku - The Circus
Russian was extra helpful whenever we need to bargain for the price of a taxi.

 

Or End Up with an Azeri-and-Russian-only Menu

Of course, speaking some Russian and some Turkish is all fun and games until you end up in a restaurant where no one speaks English and the only menu is in Azerbaijanian and Russian. Then you’re grateful for every single vocabulary word that your Russian T.A. drilled into your head in 2003.

 

Azerbaijan - Sheki - Caravanasi Restaurant

 

The Men are Respectful

I’ve had other people report back differently, so I know this varies tremendously across different people’s perspectives. But on a scale of 0 street harassment (Southeast Asia) to level 10 street harassment (Central America), I’d rank Azerbaijan at between a 1-2. We never personally had any sexual harassment on the street, just a couple guys who awkwardly wanted to talk for too long before we extricated ourselves and a taxi driver who told my friend that her freckles were beautiful and kept mentioning the sun.

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - Lada
We didn’t run into any street harassment, just the odd awkward compliment.

 

…and They’re Also Gorgeous

I know this one hundred and ten percent isn’t a thing I’m supposed to say, but the men in Azerbaijan were beautiful. The guy at the car rental place looked like an Azeri version of Drake. Every dude looked like he was about to get a modeling contract. And they all had eyelashes for days. My single friend felt like a kid in a candy store.

 

Azerbaijan - Batabat - Azeri Waiter
Half of our waiters looked like they were preparing to be models.

 

Also, They Take Candy Stores Really Seriously

Every grocery store we went into had a candy section with like two hundred options. Madness.

 

Azerbaijan - Ganja - Candy
If you’re ever in Azerbaijan, don’t worry about finding some candy.

 

If You Love UNESCO World Heritage Sites, You’ll Love Visting Azerbaijan

You don’t have to get far outside the airport to find both of Azerbaijan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the tourism infrastructure surrounding both of them makes them easy and pleasant to visit.

 

 

Because The Walled City of Baku is an Intact Medieval City

The city of Baku has medieval structures built from the seventh to the sixteenth century, including Shirvanshah’s Palace and the Maiden Tower. A highlight for me in Baku was climbing the eight floors to the top of the tower and taking in the beautiful coastal views.

 

Azerbaijan - Baku - The Maiden Tower
The medieval Maiden Tower is part of the Walled City of Baku UNESCO World Heritage Site

 

But the Gobustan Rock Art is Just a Short Drive Outside the City

Most tourist head to Gobustan to check out the rad Mud Volcanoes, but we went first and foremost for the UNESCO World Heritage Protected prehistoric Rock Art. We got to check out the amazing landscapes on the way, too.

 

Azerbaijan - Gobustan - UNESCO Site
Go to Gobustan for the Rock Art, stay for the beautiful landscapes.

 

But Check the UNESCO Tentative List, Because Azerbaijan has 10 Tentative Sites

A lot of people check out the UNESCO World Heritage list when making their travel itinerary for any trip, but when traveling to Azerbaijan, don’t skip the tentative list! You can see the sites that Azerbaijan has submitted over the years and the ones that have the potential to become full World Heritage Sites down the road.

 

 

Including the Mausoleum of Nakhchivan

When you want to visit this site, ask your driver or hotel to arrange a visit to Qarabağlar. The site, currently under reconstruction, is one of the most important historic mausolea in a country that is full of them.

 

Azerbaijan - Nakchivan - Qarabağlar
Qarabağlar is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Tentative Site

 

Sheki, the Khans Palace

This beautiful palace is not a “hidden gem,” but it certainly is a can’t-miss site in Azerbaijan for history lovers who want to learn about the former rulers of the regions. Just prepare to be chided if you try to take photos inside and they catch you on their security cameras.

 

Azerbaijan - Sheki - Palace of the Sheki Khans
The Palace of the Shaki Khans in Sheki

 

…and the historic town of Ordubad

Nakhchivan is lucky to have two tentative sites, including the historic center of Ordubad. A visit to the mosque is a must, but also check out the great museum across the street that is located inside the former hammam. When visiting the mosque, take off your shoes. If you’re a lady, take one of the headscarves at the front door to cover your head, or you can always bring your own.

 

Azerbaijan - Ordubad - Mosque
Visiting the Mosque in Ordubad, part of the Tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site there

Azeri’s Love Health and Wellness

You might not know it, but Azerbaijan is a top 5 health and medical tourism destination as voted by National Geographic. The country’s oil has been considered to have special healing properties, and it was a proper stop on the Silk Road for travelers who needed special attention.

 

 

You can Visit a Salt Sanitarium

The salt mines at Duzdag in Nakhchivan are both a tourism destination and also home to a clinic. We spent about thirty minutes there breathing in that great salty air, but you can actually spend the night if you have a note from your doctor!

 

Azerbaijan - Duzdag - Salt
Spending time in a salt cave is like a spa for your nose.

 

Or Bathe in Crude Oil

Naftalan is a famous Soviet sanatarium where you bathe in crude oil. I didn’t have a chance to check it out myself, but for the curious, you can visit as a day trip from Ganja.

 

Although the Country has a Reputation of Being Hard to Visit

Between rejected visas, complications with traveling to Armenia and Azerbaijan back-to-back, and famously jailing travelers who flout their visa laws, Azerbaijan has developed a reputation of being difficult to get into and being scary while you’re there. The best way to combat this is to use common sense about traveling there, and always make sure you follow their laws. If your visa gets rejected, you can apply again or you can appeal directly to the nearest Azerbaijani embassy.

 

The Visa System is Changing

The eVisa system is expanding, and I found my application got approved within three business days. Just make sure to use the real government system, and not the scam company charging three times more than the official one.

 

 

And Their Rules about The Third Country is Rooted in Hard History

The biggest misconception about travel to Azerbaijan is that you can’t go if you’ve been to Armenia. You can visit Azerbaijan after a trip to Armenia, but not if you’ve been to the region called Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as being Azerbaijan territory that Armenia illegally controls. However you feel about the conflict and the current cold war between the two countries, it’s impossible to deny that Azerbaijan’s perspective is rooted in real tragedy.

 

Azerbaijan - Ordubad - Grave from the Nagorno Karabakh War
The graves of local soldiers who died in the Nagorno-Karabakh War

 

And, Yes, Registering Seems Frustrating

Other than the visa issues and misconceptions surrounding travel through Armenia, the final hurdle to many travelers is knowing they have to register within ten days of arrival. We actually found this so off-putting that we originally planned to stay in the country only nine days to avoid having to register at all. However, once we arrived we kept finding new things we wanted to do and adding extra nights in each city. But we still didn’t want to deal with registering and kept putting it off. We successfully avoided it until day nine, which is the last possible day to register because the process seemed so byzantine. However, we asked our hotel to register for us (which most are glad to do) they did it quickly. They needed a copy of our eVisas and our passports, and we got confirmation back from them within twenty-four hours.

 

 

But Azerbaijan Actually Asks for Your Feedback When You Leave

Yes, getting an eVisa ahead of time and having to register once there were both super annoying, even if they actually ended up being pretty easy to do. However, one really sweet thing was getting a survey after I left asking how my trip was and how Azerbaijan could be a better place for tourists. I gave them good marks, but of course, I asked for better international food in Nakhchivan. If they could just manage a sushi and a taco place, I could live there forever.  Keep your fingers crossed for me!

 

Azerbaijan - eVisa
Azerbaijan was my 62nd country…but the first that asked me to give them a review.

And As Soon as You Cross the Border, You’ll Wish You Could Turn Around and Go Right Back

Walking across the border into Georgia, I couldn’t help but feel like I was leaving a place that had really gotten under my skin. And since our first few hours in Georgia were kind of hellacious (more on that to come), leaving felt like more of a mistake than just heading to the next spot on my trip itinerary.

 

Azerbaijan - Georgia Border
Crossing the Border into Georgia but Not Ready to Leave

Because it’s a Country that Defies Both Definitions and Expectations

No matter how much I read about travel in Azerbaijan before I got there, I wasn’ prepared for what awaited me. Azerbaijan continually blew me away with places seemingly untouched by Western tourists, historic spots that reached back to eras and khanates I didn’t know existed, pilgrimage sites for devout hearts, and a proudly secular Islamic society that the West barely acknowledges exists. If you are ever lucky enough to travel Azerbaijan, I hope it blows you away too.

 

 

You Might Also Enjoy these Posts about Traveling to Azerbaijan

 

More about Traveling the Caucasus

Many people who travel Azerbaijan combine it with a trip to Armenia and Georgia:

 

Armenia Travel Resources

 

Georgia Travel Resources

 

Are you Planning to Travel Azerbaijan or have You Visited in the Past? Share your best Azerbaijan Travel Tips and any Questions below!

 

 

Pin this Article for Your Visit to Azerbaijan

 

75 EPIC REASONS TO TRAVEL AZERBAIJAN
75 EPIC REASONS TO TRAVEL AZERBAIJAN

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