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AzerbaijAn Odyssey

Azerbaijan is the Instant Noodles equivalent of International Vacations. Easy to reach ( 3.5 hours from India) , easy on the pocket ( luxury accommodation for affordable prices) and easy to plan.

You can do a 5 day mini version covering the glittering capital city of Baku and the charming old town of Sheki with a pitstop in Qabala, to admire lavender fields or alternately split your time between Baku and Shahdag, which is a ski-town. If you have more time to spare, consider driving to Naftalan- home to several health resorts where you can indulge in a crude oil bath ( yes you read that right. Crude oil is believed to have healing properties).

You can combine a holiday in Azerbaijan with Georgia. Check out our Georgia Itinerary for suggestions on what to do in Georgia!

Baku - Azerbaijan's capital city

Oil is the central figure in Azerbaijan’s development. One of the world’s oldest mechanical oil rigs was constructed right outside Baku and can be seen still standing today in the Bibi-Heybat. Today, a significant portion of the country’s GDP is driven by oil revenue, and the prosperity it fuels is visible in the lavish public buildings and spaces in the capital city.

Baku’s vibe is a cross between European charm and Middle Eastern opulence. You need about 3 days to see the city at a leisurely pace.

Old City Baku

Day 1: Start with a walk around  Inner city or Old City – Icherisheher – the historical core of Baku. The region is believed to have been inhabited from the Bronze age.  Icherisheher is a beautiful contradiction, narrow undulating streets and medieval buildings stand in the middle of sparkling, new sky-high glass buildings. There are a several points of interests within old town, and the detailed, clear signage will help you navigate the zone.

Your first stop is the beautiful Philharmonic Garden and fountain.

From here it’s a short walk to Shirvanshah Place complex. Dating back to the 15th century, the magnificent palace complex houses mausoleums, a mosque and a hammam in addition to the royal palace halls.

Make a pit-stop at the miniature book museum. This delightful, often overlooked gem in Baku is made up of private collections of miniature books, cutting across different languages and genres. You will spot the complete works of Dickens, Russian children’s books, and several religious tomes.

Another significant point of interest is the Maiden Tower – believed to have once been a Zoroastrian temple, its location serves as a useful landmark.

Restaurant Recommendations for Baku

Old Baku has a number of fabulous little cafés and restaurants. Our top three are: Qaynana, Mugam Club , and Ichariseher Bookhouse Cafe.

New Baku

Baku’s architecture is fascinating. Check out Crescent Bay on the waterfront.  This project involves a pair of complementary commercial buildings, one that resembles a full moon, the other shaped like a crescent.  Then there is mesmerizing flame of Baku. This set of three towers, delicately rises up like the tongues of a fire. The light show on the tower in the evening makes the building come alive.

While the skyline is undoubtedly stunning, it appears a shade more ornamental, rather than value-adding. Some of our new local friends freely shared that they would rather see the money spent on healthcare, education in a country with great economic inequality, rather than on tourism-centric symbolism.

Museums of Baku

Day 2 : Visit to Baku’s two most iconic museums – The Carpet Museum and Hyder Aliyev Cultural Center.  

Hyder Aliyev Cultural Center is a fluid, dancing, blindingly bright Museum of Museums. The unique design boasts of having zero straight lines or angles. Tickets can be purchased on the premises, and give you access to most of the halls.

Some of the exhibitions are permanent displays – I was particularly thrilled by a small section in the museum dedicated to Azeri history and culture. The section in question is dedicated to musical instruments, and when you step closer to examine one, it will play a small recorded piece for you. The museum has a special car museum in the basement, that is packed with gorgeous specimens right from beautiful old American classics to rare race cars. The best part is you’re allowed to take as many pictures as you want in this museum.  You will need about half a day to absorb everything on display, keep in mind that there is not too much place to rest on the premises except a small café on the ground floor with its uncomfortable seats.

Next up is the Carpet Museum. Its marvelously shaped like a rolled-up carpet and has a vibrant display of different weaving techniques, describing motifs and methods that are particular to different regions in Azerbaijan.

You will also see live carpet weaving a craftsman on a traditional loom, working in a hypnotic rhythm that brings different colored thread together into beautiful patterns and stories

After the Carpet Museum, you will be just in time to catch a panaromic view of the city at twilight. Take the funicular opposite the museum and ride it up to Highland Park. You will see stairs leading away from the landing platform, follow them to reach one of the most beautiful public terraces, that overlooks the city.

Day trips from Baku - Mud Volcanoes and Gobustan National Park

Day 3 : Take a half day tour to visit Gobustan and spend the rest of the evening in Baku.

Gobustan has two highlights, the National Park and the Mud Volcanoes. Even though its just an hour away from Baku,  it is best to book a half day trip with a tour operator, so you get a guided tour of the Park; moreover, taxis cannot approach the actual site of the Mud Volcanoes.

The National Park is famous for its petroglyphs - ancient rock carvings that are tens of thousands years old. Its an absolute wonder to observe scenes of hunting, dancing and various rituals of daily life, almost like peeking through a window in time right into the living quarters of our ancestors from centuries ago.

It is incredible how well preserved they are, despite being out in the open - clearly patroned by a stream of responsible visitors who have never felt the need to etch Laila loves Majnu, or RCB 4eva onto the rocks.

The Mud Volcanoes are close to the National Park – your tour car will pull up to stop at a meeting point, where you will be greeted by what look like colourful, rattling, tin boxes. The cars are Lada – your soviet era saviour for riding out the last km to the Volcanoes on dusty, rocky roads, barely existent roads.

Around 350 volcanoes, half of all the world’s volcanoes are in Azerbaijan. The mud cones range from a few cms to a few metres and bubbling away at the mouth with a cement-coloured mud, methane and other gases. The mud is surprisingly cool to touch, and good for your skin!

Wind up Day 3 with a visit to Nizami Street, a 3 km stretch of beautiful buildings, big brands,  outdoor cafes that becomes extremely lively in the evenings.

Offbeat Baku

If you have more time ( and energy), consider some off-beat, local Baku sights.  Head to Yashil Market early in the morning, to feast your eyes on fresh produce – vegetables, fruits, and fresh catch from the Caspian Sea. Pencil in a visit to Fire Temple or Ateshgah – a beautiful monument that is of significance to Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Sikhs, or to Bibi-Heybat mosque, that holds a beautiful poignant story, and the nearby traditional mechanical oil rigs.

I’ve left out Yanar Dag from the itinerary on purpose. One of the most popular attractions in Azerbaijan, is this Burning Mountain. Owing to the bountiful reserves of oil and natural gas in the region, a small fire has been continuously burning at the foot of the mountain since it was accidentally alighted in the 50s. While it is a remarkable manifestation in theory, seeing it is a bit underwhelming – the flames are about 1.5 ft high, and in my (very personal) opinion not worth the long drive

Sheki - Old Town charm in Azerbaijan

Sheki is a quaint town on the old Silk Route, that promoted trade between Asia and Europe.  All that remains of the prestige it commanded in its heyday, are the Caravanserais dating back to the 1700s. Caravanserais are rest houses meant for traders accompanied by their horses or camels laden with wares. Today the upper Caravan Serai has been restored, partly to use as a hotel and partly for tourists to explore.

Explore the Sheki Palace – built in the 18th century, this lesser known architectural marvel is a beautiful testament to mirror and glass lattice work. Large, ordinary looking wooden windows conceal a stunning explosion of coloured glass, visible only on the inside. Unfortunately, photography inside the palace is prohibited.

Old town Sheki wears a despondent look, cracked windows in empty houses, permanent shutters drawn on stores, and tired souvenir stores that valiantly sell dusty wares. Nonetheless Sheki is a very friendly town, and makes for peaceful, down-time complete with a merry little stream running right through main road, herds of flowering trees and the most gloriously red sunsets.

Tips to explore Azerbaijan like a Pro!

  1. When walking around Baku, carry wet tissues, you WILL eat a lot of Baklava and end up with Sticky fingers

  2. The Funicular in Baku has no specific timings, it runs when filled up. If you want to catch a fickle sunset, keep time in hand

  3. You have to download Uber AZ – regular Uber doesn’t work

  4. Baku is the City of Winds (and Azerbaijan the Land of Fire, go figure!) – keep a scarf handy if you’re prone to get chilly

  5. Load up on pomegranate juice. Azerbaijan is known for its cultivation of Pomegranate- it is considered the King of Fruits, because of the little crown it wears

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