Planning a trip to the Caucasus and trying to decide whether to go to Tbilisi or Baku? Here are reasons why you should choose Tbilisi or Baku based on your travel style and interests, plus things that both cities have in common. At the bottom, I have some resources for you to help plan your trip whether you choose Baku or Tbilisi.
Choose Tbilisi if…
If you care the most about these four things, then you should choose Tbilisi over Baku.
…You Want to Do a Bit of Red Tourism
While both Georgia and Azerbaijan are former Soviet republics, they have very different relationships with the USSR. Since Stalin was a Georgian from Gori (outside of Tbilisi), there are a lot of sites in Tbilisi and Gori to explore communist history. There are communist sites in Azerbaijan as well, but far fewer and they’re mostly not in Baku any longer. If you want to do some red tourism, pick Tbilisi.
…You Travel For Food
Okay, yes, that’s a picture of ramen. I am actually not a huge fan of Georgian food, though I hear that foodies absolutely love it. (Weirdly, I actually prefer Georgian food when I’m in Georgian restaurants Ukraine or Turkey. I think they use more sauces). But if you are a foodie, then I believe Tbilisi is a more exciting destination for traditional Georgian food.
I actually like Azeri food more than Georgian food, but the single best meal I ate anywhere in the caucuses was the ramen at Shio Ramen in Tbilisi. And my single meal, I mean eight meals in twelve days. Best ramen outside of East/Southeast Asia.
…You Love Orthodox Monasteries
Georgia is famous for its beautiful Orthodox monasteries, and you can visit many of these as an easy day trip from Tbilisi. However, you can get your fill of Orthodox monasteries without even the city. A visit to Lurji Monastery is a quiet retreat, off the tourist path, with an impressive history and art (and no crowds).
…You Want to Explore Lakes & Rivers
While the river cruise in Tbilisi wasn’t the highlight of my trip, it’s wonderful to walk along its banks, visiting the Dry Bridge Market and enjoying the amazing river views of the churches across the banks. A trip out to Turtle Lake is a great way to spend an afternoon if you love lakes. You can circumnavigate it in about forty minutes, or you can stay and swim and soak up the sun.
Choose Baku if…
If the choice is Tbilisi versus Baku, here’s how you know you should pick Baku.
…You Love Modern Architecture
There are lots of examples of modern architecture in Baku (and yes there’s some in Tbilisi, too), but the Heydar Aliyev Center is my absolute favorite. I love it so much I can to visit twice so I could photograph it in a different light and from different angles. Plus, I had to go inside!
…You’re a Pyromaniac at Heart
The Ateshgah Fire Temple in the suburbs of Baku was an important religious site in Zoroastrianism, but it’s not Baku’s only fire connection. Yanar Dag is another fire site, where an actual fire has been going for almost seventy years due to natural gas. In fact, Azerbaijan’s history is so tied up with fires, both religious and accidental, that its nickname is “the Land of Fire.”
…You Want to Experience a Secular Islamic Country
Even though over 95% of Azeris are Muslims, the nation is fiercely proud of its secular Islamic tradition. If you want to visit an Islamic country for the first time, but you’re worried about how to make sure you fit in, Azerbaijan is a great place to start. You can explore Islamic sites and visit mosques, but day to day life in the city is just like any other major city in the world. Things don’t shut down on Fridays, and there’s no dress code or modesty laws to worry about unless you visit a mosque.
…You Want Coastal Views
While Tbilisi has its river and lake, Baku is right on the Caspian Sea. You can walk along the water downtown, or go out to one of the nearby resort towns if you want to enjoy the beach.
Choose Both for…
While the two cities are very different, they do have a few things in common.
While Azerbaijan has a lot more mosques than Georgia, if you’re only going to be in the cities, you can visit beautiful mosques in each. The styles are very different. In Azerbaijan, mosque architecture looks more like what you’d see in Iran, while in Georgia the mosque there blends more into the overall Georgian city. However, the main mosques in both cities are beautiful and worth visiting.
…the Joys of the Marshrutka
You can avoid marshrutkas in either city by paying a bit more for taxis or renting a car, but if you must, then you can experience the joys (read: carsickness) of being crammed in the back of a marshrutka to get to your next destination. Luckily, the costs of these rides are extremely low for how far you can get.
…UNESCO World Heritage Sites
If you love visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites, both cities have access to them. The Walled City of Baku is the historic district of Baku, and you can see a second one if you go out to the Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape (which we visited by renting a car and driving from Baku).
In Tbilisi, you can take a day trip to visit the UNESCO site of the Historical Monuments of Mtskheta, which is a series of important Orthodox monasteries.
…Starting a Caucasus Backpacking Trip
If you want to get out and explore the Caucasus, both cities make great starting points. If you want to see all three countries, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, then it’s kind of an annoying process. You cannot travel directly between Armenia and Azerbaijan because they don’t have diplomatic relations. So if you start in Azerbaijan, you can go Azerbaijan -> Georgia -> Armenia. If you start in Tbilisi, you can go to either another country, but you’ll have to come back to Georgia before heading to the next one (that’s what we did).
Backpacking in the Caucasus has a lot of unwritten rules that have to be followed, and some of these make travel more complicated than it needs to be. But it always makes for a great story when you’re done.
5 Things to Pack for Baku or Tbilisi
Whichever city you decide, there are some common items you’ll want to bring to either Tbilisi or Baku.
- The Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan which is available as a paper copy or in a Kindle edition. (While you all know I’m a Rick Steves stan, he doesn’t have a guide to the Caucasus).
- A good day bag that has some built-in anti-theft features. I personally use the Pacsafe Citysafe, but they also have a Slim Crossbody if you want something smaller. If you’re a guy and think these are too feminine, they have more masculine backpacks with the same safety features.
- An unlocked smartphone so you can get a local sim card. My trip to the Caucasus was my first trip with my new Samsung8, which I loved. Data coverage in both cities is great.
- A Backup Charging Bank so you can keep your cell phone charged for long day trips without access to an electrical outlet.
- This amazing Full Sized Travel Towel if you’ll be staying in any shared rooms or hostels.
Tbilisi Travel Resources
Interested in visiting Tbilisi? Here are resources to help you plan your trip!
Start with my Georgia Packing List and my guide to Tbilisi’s Dry Bridge Market. If you want to get out and explore the city and beyond, here are guides to getting a sim card in Georgia so you can stay connected as you explore the city.
I have more Georgia resources (plus more on the way!) so bookmark my Georgia page so you can find all my current and new posts for your trip.
Baku Travel Resources
Interested in visiting Baku? Here are resources to help you plan your trip!
I have more Azerbaijan resources (and more is in the works) so bookmark my Azerbaijan page so you can find all my current and new posts for your trip.
Finally, Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Whichever city you choose, make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging out in cities where tourists can be the victims of pickpockets.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for two years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.
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