9 Essential Experiences to Have in Azerbaijan

9 Essential Experiences to Have in Azerbaijan

If you want to visit a destination off the beaten track and untouched by modern tourism, consider Azerbaijan. Here are some things to do in Azerbaijan to get you inspired.

Azerbaijan is a country far off the beaten path as far as travel goes. While I was there for twenty days this summer, almost all of the foreigners I saw were expatriates, interns or volunteers. Thus, if you enjoy visiting places still relatively untouched by modern tourism, Azerbaijan is certainly the place to go.

To help shed more light on this little-known country, here are 9 essentials experiences to have while you are in Azerbaijan:

1. Soak in the shimmering skyline of downtown Baku by night

Flush with revenue from the country’s ample petroleum deposits, the Azerbaijani government has spruced up the downtown area of its capital, Baku, at considerable expense.

Of the many glistening towers of glass and steel sprouting all over Baku, the Flame Towers are probably the most distinctive. The nightly visual projections on its façade are best appreciated while walking along Baku’s waterfront promenade at dusk.

For an expansive panorama of Baku’s downtown skyline, walk up—or take the free funicular—to the viewing points at the base of the Flame Towers. Stay for sunset and watch the waterfront come alive in a shimmering array of lights and colours as day turns into night.

2. Take a public bus passing by the many creaking oil derricks outside Baku

No sojourn in Baku is complete without checking out the many old and creaking oil derricks outside Baku. Some of them are still working, pumping out the black gold that has been a defining part of Baku’s history over the past century.  

Bus 204 that leaves from the Koroğlu metro station and goes to the Ramana Fortress will bring you up close to some of these oil derricks. As the rickety bus hobbles over the bumpy gravel roads in the outskirts of Baku, you can try to spot which oil derricks are still working in the seemingly endless fields of rusting mechanical levers and towers.

3. Come face to face with the bubbling mud volcanoes of Qobustan

Azerbaijan is home to a dazzling number of mud volcanoes. Constantly spewing out mud and sulphuric gases, these unusual geological formations offer a fascinating sensory experience.

The gurgling sounds of the mud are a delight to listen to, while the cold mud itself leaves a refreshing sensation when applied on your skin, especially in the dry heat of the Azerbaijani summer. Due to its mineral content, the mud is believed to have curative properties.

Most tours leaving from Baku to the petroglyphs of Qobustan will include a visit to the nearby mud volcanoes.

4. Relax and unwind at the only surviving commune in Azerbaijan

Around three to four hours from Baku lies the town of Ivanovka, home to the last surviving kolkhoz (Soviet-style collective farm) in Azerbaijan. Most of the towns’ inhabitants are not ethnic Azerbaijanis, but Russian-speaking Molokans, members of a Christian sect that were exiled to the periphery of the Russian Empire during the 19th century.

Complement your visit to Ivanovka with a stay at the comfortable and cosy Ivanovka Guesthouse, run by John and Tanya, a British-Azerbaijani couple. John has plenty of stories to share starting from his days as a sailor in the Royal Navy, while Tanya’s cooking is simply superb.

Note that if you are expecting to nurse your nostalgia for some sort of Soviet communist utopia, prepare to be disappointed. Life is far from a bed of roses in Ivanovka. According to John, some of the workers earn as little as 40 manats (US$25) per month, and he has heard of cases where they had to steal food from the commune to survive.

5. Be awash in colours inside the palaces of Sheki

The city of Sheki was home to a khanate in the second half of the 18th century, two of whose palace buildings can still be visited today.

The Khan’s Palace (Xan sarayı) is the main attraction at Sheki, which features colourful stained-glass windows known as shabaka (şəbəkə) and intricately-furnished interiors. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the Khan’s Palace.

However, if you still want to capture on camera the kaleidoscopic interior of a palace building in Sheki, head over to the little-known House of the Sheki Khans (Şekixanlarının evi) where photography is permitted for an extra 2 manats (US$1.20). Said to be the khans’ winter residence, it features shabaka windows similar to those of the Khan’s Palace.

6. Learn about the ancient Caucasian Albanians at Kish

The Caucasian Albanians were Christians who lived in what is today northern Azerbaijan before the advent of Islam in 8th century AD. You can learn more about this ancient community from the wordy trilingual information panels within the restored Kish Albanian Church (Kiş alban məbədi).

The church is located in the sleepy, cobble-stoned village of Kish, a short, bumpy marshrutka ride away from Sheki. Even if the ethnographic details of the Caucasian Albanians do not appeal to you, Kish is still worth visiting just for a glimpse of village life in Azerbaijan.

7. Explore the dramatic mountain setting around Khinalug

Surrounded by majestic mountains, the village of Khinalug offers one of the most dramatic natural landscapes in Azerbaijan.

things to do in azerbaijan

It is worthwhile to spend a day hiking the hills around the village where you will get ample opportunities for panoramic views and postcard-perfect photos of Khinalug set against the mountains.

things to do in azerbaijan

When you are done with all the walking, rest and spend the night in the village at one of its many rustic homestays. Live as the villagers do in one of their homes, and listen to them speak ketsch, a unique language that is native to nowhere else.  

8. Retrace the legacy of the Siemens brothers around Gedabey

Gani, the man behind the Azerbaijan Traveller website, single-handedly unearthed the history of the famous Siemens brothers in the town of Gedabey while working as a translator there. He now offers a two-day hiking tour to Gedabey where you can learn about what the brothers did and see the buildings they left behind.

The highlight of the tour is undoubtedly walking the old railway route between the copper refining plant in the nearby town of Galakent and the copper mine in Gedabey. Retracing the route is a full-day affair that will take you through a number of villages and meadows with scenic views of the surrounding mountains.

Although the railway tracks are now gone, many of the arch-bridges still survive. Most are decrepit, but a select few continue to command awe.  

things to do in azerbaijan

Also read: 5 Personal Experiences that Prove Travelling is Best Done Without a Plan

9. Get lost in the forests around Zaqatala

With the forested foothills of the Caucasus Mountains as its backdrop, the city of Zaqatala presents many untapped opportunities for hiking and camping in wild nature. Information about possible trails is scarce, however. A local contact or guide is advisable if you wish to do any extended hikes deep into the mountains.

things to do in azerbaijan

I was lucky to have found the only active Couchsurfing host in Zaqatala before she left her hometown for university. With her and her friends, we spent a memorable day getting our feet wet while traversing a rocky creek that begins from the nearby village of Car.

About Author

Eugene Ang
Eugene Ang

A self-declared connoisseur of Turkish culture, Eugene has a soft spot for anything connected to Turkey and the now-defunct Ottoman Empire. While he has travelled extensively to a number of what we call emerging economies, he now spends most of his time in a cubicle in Singapore earning his keep. Check out his travel photos on Instagram.