Azerbaijan, an exotic country in Eurasia, rich with historical, cultural and natural heritage is the kind of place that will make you wonder why more people don’t visit it. And it’ll work out great for those who like to take “the road less travelled by”. The architecture, people, fashion, food and culture are a perfect blend of East and West and the mix of Persian, Turkish, and Soviet heritage makes it a place like no other.
So now that I’ve been there and done that, I can list some reasons why you should visit Azerbaijan.
1. Its untouched nature
Azerbaijan is worth visiting during winter as well as summer and spring. Lovers of mountains must add this place to their lists because mind blowing sights are everywhere in the majestic Caucasus ranges. In winter, they’re white and brown, and beautiful in a rugged way. And among those mighty mountains are frozen waterfalls and streams which are hidden but worth a trek. And frozen lakes like the one in Gabala are incredible.
In spring, they transform into a lush green and will steal your breath away.
For those of you who don’t want to go on hiking trips or expeditions alone, you can find groups to team up with on facebook.com and couchsurfing.com.
2. Ski Resorts
Shahdag is perfect for a short ski-cation, that much is guaranteed. Think about an actual winter wonderland, less crowded, cheaper than the most popular ski resorts in the world and a great option no matter how old you are or who you are travelling with. That is Shahdag.
The main resorts there are Shahdag Hotel and Spa, Zirve Hotel, Park Chalet, and Pik Palace. They are perfect for skiing, relaxing, exploring the Caucasus Mountains and taking rides on many ski lifts with different views.
It’s a good idea to reserve rooms through booking.com or similar sites in advance.
It’s true what they say about Baku being the “Paris of the Caucasus”. The capital city which is also known as Baki and “City of Winds” has boulevards lined with Beaux Arts buildings, and a walkway along the Caspian Sea which is perfect if you like to go for long strolls.
When you’re in Baku, make sure you visit Nizami Street (especially at night), Icheri Sheher (old city), Fountains Square, and Maiden Tower (UNESCO Heritage Site), and the Flame Towers. It also has notable contemporary landmarks like the Heydar Aliyev Center designed by Zaha Hadid, and the Flame Towers.
Also, there is a continuously burning natural gas fire called Yanar Dag on a hillside north of Baku which explains why the nation is called “Land of Fire”. Ancient Zoroastrians there used to worship fire.
Sheki is a small city on the slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. It’s rich in Islamic architecture, Silk Road history, and delicious food. Not visiting this quiet, magical and charming town is a mistake most travellers make.
Some places to check out in Sheki are the caravanserai, the Palace of Sheki Khans (Khan saray), and local sweet shops. Also, while you’re there, try out “piti”, a soup with lamb and chickpeas, from a local restaurant, and simply stroll the streets.
Remote villages in Azerbaijan are truly beautiful and only the most determined travelers can actually get there which makes them even better. Their inhabitants may not speak English but they’re some of the most hospitable people you’ll ever meet.
Some people in villages like Xinaliq (pronounced as Khinaliq) also make a living out of hosting travelers and giving them a room to stay in their own houses including food and tours of their village. Their other sources of income are animals and farming. Always say yes to the food they offer like potatoes, cheese, milk and bread(especially the potatoes because they are absolutely delicious) because it’s all organic and healthy.
6. The People
Yes, the people again. They’re hospitable, friendly, curious to know about where tourists are from and always happy to meet travelers.
Most of them don’t speak English but a lot of them speak Russian. The most admirable thing is that even though communication is hard, they try to help you in whatever way they can.
7. Hot Wine
This non-alcoholic, sweet and sour drink is the best option in winter. If you’re planning to stay at a ski resort, you can get it in the cafés nearby and enjoy it with the view of the pure white mountains.
Apart from being an oil-producing nation and the Land of Fire, Azerbaijan is also land of wine with a long history of wine production. Archeologists have even found remains of wines from the second millennium BC.
8. It’s not “touristy”
Tourism is on the rise in the country but Azerbaijan is not annoyingly crowded yet, especially the places away from Baku. Backpackers are a rare sights and most tourists are Arabs or families who limit their trips to less adventurous stays in Baku and Shahdag.
This is great news for those of you who aim at going off the path. It means more opportunities to explore in peace, experience and study their culture.
Out of 800 mud volcanoes in the world, Azerbaijan has 350. Gross? Not really. They’re pretty fascinating to watch. Mud volcanoes can spew out a lot of mud and hydrocarbon gases. They also act as exploration wells and help learn about the formation of oil and gas. And the best thing is they are in Gobustan, which is not far from Baku.
This place is also known for prehistoric carvings or petroglyphs, a must add on the itineraries of history lovers. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has more than 6000 rock engravings from between 5000-40000 years ago.
10. The Cuisine
Azerbaijan’s rich cuisine will not disappoint you. So don’t miss out on authentic food when you’re there. Some dishes you must try are;
- Piti: It is a soup stewed with lamb and chickpeas. This popular dish, especially in Sheki, can also contain chestnuts and potatoes.
- Kebabs: Made with different kinds of marinated and minced meat, chicken, fish and vegetables like tomato, onion and mushroom, kebabs are propular all over the world. But when you’re in Azerbaijan, it would be a shame to miss out on their version.
- Dolma: This dish is popular in the Middle East as well but the Azerbaijani version tastes different. Cabbages leaves or vine leaves are filled with minced meat, rice, and herbs.
- Plov or pilaf: Rich with saffron, cinnamon and other herbs, friend meat or chicken and vegetables, this dish is simply delicious.
- Lavangi: This is another mouthwatering dish consisting of chicken stuffed with herbs and walnuts. Hungry yet?
- Pakhlava: Who doesn’t like dessert? Azerbaijani pakhlava which is layers of dough with nuts and honey is an absolute treat
You Should Visit Azerbaijan; It’s Affordable
There are not many places that are both exotic and affordable. Azerbaijan is a good option for regular people as well.
There’s an amazing feeling that comes with experiencing the authentic culture of a strange land which is why it is so much better to be a traveler and not just another tourist.
There is no denying that there are so many charming destinations that have turned into crowded tourist hubs and still manage to stay charming but sometimes what we need is a one-way ticket, a country or a city our friends haven’t heard of or no fixed plans.
Written By: Zainab Niaz