Azer-WHAT?! If you’re checking the map to see where Azerbaijan is or Googling how to correctly pronounce it – it’s “as-er-by-john” by the way – you are not alone. Let me help you!
Azerbaijan is a country in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, bordering Russia to the north, Iran to the south, the Caspian Sea to the east, and Armenia and Georgia to the west.
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Once a wealthy country because of its prominent location along the Silk Road, these days it’s remembered mostly for being in the Soviet Union from 1920 to 1991.
After the USSR breakup and even more recently, the Azerbaijani government has poured tremendous amounts of money and resources into tourism to attract visitors and revitalize the economy.
The investments are paying off, as Formula 1 and Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) now regularly host major events there, bringing with them a plethora of guests. The country had the world’s fastest-developing travel and tourism economy (a 46.1 percent increase) in 2017.
Now that the geography, spelling, and history lessons are through, let’s talk about why you should visit:
It’s very cheap, unique, the food is delicious, and it offers something for everyone! From the Old City in Baku to the snow-covered mountains to the Caspian Sea to ancient settlements, “The Land of Fire” does not disappoint.
Is Azerbaijan Safe?
Yes, Azerbaijan is safe.
There are some safety misconceptions, perhaps because the country ends in “an” like the “stans”, it has ties to the Soviet Union, it borders with Iran, and because it’s a relatively unknown travel destination.
Whatever the reasons, these are, in fact, misconceptions. It is very safe to visit, and I never experienced anything that made me think otherwise while traveling there. Remember to be respectful of the culture, as you would in any country you visit, you’ll be fine.
It can be tedious getting around at times because English and other European languages are not widely spoken. Azerbaijani, a cousin of Turkish, is the main language spoken followed by Russian. If you’re lost or need some assistance in English or another language, I recommend looking for a hostel, hotel, public transportation station or travel agency as most workers speak several languages.
How to Get to Azerbaijan
One way to get to Azerbaijan is to fly directly into Baku International Airport. Flights into Baku from major cities in the West are sparse, as the airport serves more regional locations such as Istanbul, Tehran, Doha, etc. Occasionally, you can find flights from a major European hub like Frankfurt or London.
Related: Strategies for Finding Cheap Flights
A different and more popular alternative is to fly into the more airline-friendly Tbilisi International Airport in neighboring Georgia, then take an overnight train from Tbilisi to Baku.
This is the route I chose. I can confirm the train ride is convenient, comfortable and safe. It’s also a great way to meet fellow travelers! The train leaves every night at 8:35pm, arriving in Baku at 8:41am. The train has first class 2-bed sleepers, second class 4-bed sleepers, and third class 6-bed sleepers. First class costs $30, second class costs $19, and third class is $12.
I recommend this option, as the train takes you right into the city, unlike the airport, which lies outside Baku. Taking this route also gives you the chance to visit Tbilisi, which is special in its own right.
What to do in Azerbaijan
Nature lovers rejoice, Azerbaijan is home to nine beautiful national parks, including Shirvan National Park and Zagata Reserve. Within these parks are many opportunities to enjoy stunning views and hikes.
1. Go Skiing or Hiking
An alternative to the more famous (and more expensive) European Alps, check out the skiing in Azerbaijan. Three mountain ranges, Upper Caucus, Lower Caucus, and the Talysh Mountains cover approximately 60 percent of Azerbaijan, which means plenty of opportunity for fun. The two most popular ski resorts are the Shahdag and Tufandag resorts, which boast wonderful slopes, shopping, spas and more. These areas are also open in summer, offering incredible hiking paths.
2. Visit the Burning Mountain
Make a point to stop at the lit mountain (literally). To see it, take a short trip about 15 miles north of Baku to see the “Burning Mountain” known as Yanar Dag. The mountain, which is more of a hillside, is constantly burning due to the natural gas deposits under the sandstone. These fires have been well documented in history, even by Marco Polo during a visit in the 13th century.
3. Explore Gobustan National Park
Head south to Gobustan National Park to see ancient carvings, mud volcanoes, and gas-stones.
4. Get on the Water
If water is more of your thing, you are also in the right place. Azerbaijan has 430 miles of shoreline on the Caspian Sea. When the weather is right, it’s time to get on the water. Sumgait, Baku, and Lankaran are coastal cities with aquatic options.
5. Visit Historical Sites
History nerds will enjoy Baku’s Old City that dates back to the 12th century and includes Maiden Tower and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. Other historical points of interest include Gobustan (Azerbaijani Stonehenge) or the ancient city of Sheki City in the north.
Even with all these great options, Baku – the capital of Azerbaijan – remains the main attraction.
Things to do in Baku
Along the shores of the Caspian Sea lies the pride of Azerbaijan: Baku. Baku is a unique city, combining the rich history of the past and Azerbaijan’s reemergence.
Start in the oldest part of the city, the windy streets of the Old City. Go back in time and learn about Baku’s rich, unique history that includes the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and Maiden Tower. There are also some wonderful food options here.
Take a stroll along the Caspian Sea at Baku Seaside Park. Three miles of beautiful walking paths, fountains, and gardens next to the sea including National Flag Square and Mini-Venice.
The city is also filled with museums such as the Baku Museum of Modern Art, the Heydar Aliyev Center Museum, National Museum of History, the State Museum of Art or the Museum of Miniature Books.
Additionally, you can just spend time getting lost in the city and you’ll surely end up at the Flame Towers or one of the many beautiful, green parks.
Last, but certainly not least, food! Taste traditional meals like Plov (rice and meat dish), Baliq (fish), or Kebabs for about $3. Top it off with some Pahklava and a cup of black tea for dessert. There are many “hipster” coffee shops near the old city serving pastries, warm drinks, and great vibes.
Where to Stay in Baku
It is incredible how affordable accommodations are in Baku. Airbnb offers a wide array of options including single beds, rooms or entire apartments. Starting prices for all three begin around $10-$15 a night. There are some fancier options as well if your budget allows. Click here to save $55 on your first Airbnb stay.
Hostel dorm beds start at about $2-5 a night, some even include breakfast.
Related: Why I’m 30 and Still Stay at Hostels
Hotel rooms start at around $15 per night. A three-star hotel can easily be found for less than $30 per night.
How to Obtain an Azerbaijan e-Visa
Before you can enjoy all of this and more, you have to get a visa. But don’t worry! It’s easy.
The Azerbaijani government has an extremely simple and convenient online system that takes just a few minutes for you to obtain an e-visa.
You can receive an e-visa from anywhere with an internet connection. It saves time that you would otherwise spend on visa applications at Azerbaijani foreign representations or at the ports of entry into Azerbaijan. Here’s the process:
- Go to the e-visa website.
- Fill out the application as instructed with the help boxes.
- Pay $24 USD.
- Wait three business days.
- Receive e-visa via email.
- Print e-visa.
- Don’t forget to bring it with you.
That’s it! The e-visa should be presented with your passport at a border checkpoint. They also have an emergency e-visa option that takes one business day to receive in case something goes awry, because we all know travel is unpredictable.
Are Azerbaijan and Baku worth visiting?
Yes! This country was on my list for a long time, and it did not disappoint. I met some really great people, saw some amazing sites, ate super well, and didn’t break the bank. It was special being in what was once the center of the world. It’s a well-kept secret in a unique region. My trip was unforgettable, and I know yours will be too.
For more information and inspiration about Azerbaijan, the tourism website is a great resource.
by Chris Corbaz