Azerbaijan Travel Guide
The sort of places that plays a bit part mafia lare in a James Bond movie, Azerbaijan lies at the Eurasian border and marks the gateway between Eastern and Western cultures. It’s oil that defines the ‘dirty’ fortunes of this former Soviet republic, but its location has given it a very diverse culture that continues to evolve today. Ancient mosques mingle with Soviet monuments, streets are shared by the poor and the wealthy, and people of all races live in it. Azerbaijan has a lot to offer its visitors, from historic sites to postmodern public parks, although terrorist threats and a rising crime rate have crushed much of its tourist appeal. Still, visitors continue to be charmed by its little quirks, warm, accommodating locals, pleasant climate, and an overall positive vibe. All the same few people had ever heard about Azerbaijan until their Gary Kasparov stormed the world chess Grand Master boards.
When to Go
Azerbaijan is mostly arid, with hot summers and mild winters. Temperatures vary by area, but the coldest regions are the mountain ranges in the north and east. Rainfall is average, and peaks in the spring and autumn. The fringe seasons, September and October or April and May are the most comfortable weather-wise.
Getting There & Away
Visitors usually arrive at the Baku Airport. The main carriers are Azerbaijan Airlines and Turkish Airlines. Air safety is unknown, as local airlines may not meet international standards. To get around or visit neighboring countries, it may be safer to drive or take the railway service. You can drive around with any EU license or an International Driving License. Avoid driving at night though; the roads are poorly lit and that makes easy bait for muggers.
Trains and buses run regularly to and from Turkmenistan. Railway stations are usually busy and crowded – secure your valuables or leave them in a safe place when traveling., and a ferry service provides travel to
Health & Safety
Personal health is a major concern for Azerbaijan visitors. There are limited medical facilities in Baku, and serious cases are often evacuated to Turkey or countries in Western Europe. Some local bars serve contaminated wines, and tap water may not be safe to drink. Outbreaks of malaria, rabies and avian flu have occurred recently. Don’t leave home without your medical and travel insurance.
There is significant terrorist threat in the Caucasus area, and many of the attacks have been on civilians and occurred in popular tourist spots. Taxis have been used as a modus operandi by muggers; avoid commuting at night or hire a personally known driver.
Food & Hospitality
There are a few high-end hotels for those who prefer a little luxury, but most are considered budget hotels. Most hotels offer good service, hygiene and catering, and now offer comfortable accommodation at competitive prices. The locals are friendly and their hospitality has been aptly described as “legendary.” Majority of the population is Muslim and have stringent behavioral standards; dress appropriately to avoid disapproving looks from the locals.
There is no official “national food,” chances are people would likely refer to any local food as their national dish. Bread is a staple, however, and is eaten with most meals. Specialties include kofta (meatballs), kebabs, eggplant-wrapped meat, cabbage, and grape leaves.
Two days in Icheri Sheher
One day touring the Baku temples
Two days in Apsheron
One to two days in Xinaliq
Icheri Sheher: A medieval walled city with a relaxed Middle Eastern atmosphere, Icheri Sheher boasts beautiful stone buildings, quaint tea-houses, and several historic sites. Among these are the Synyk Kalah Minaret, the oldest tower in the country, the Maiden’s Tower from the 12th century, and many lavish houses built in the early 19th century.
Mosques and temples: Baku, the capital, hosts a mix of religious homes. The Dzhuma and Shamakha mosques are some of the more popular. Also check out the temples of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions, also located in the capital. Dress appropriately to avoid being forceably removed by religious zealots.
Xinaliq: this city is home to the Tats, an Iranian ethnic group with a dwindling population of about 1,000 but some interesting cultural preserves.
Apsheron Peninsula: overlooking the Caspian Sea, this coastal town is known for its well-preserved castles dating back to the 14th century. Some of the more popular are the fortresses at Ramana, Nardaran and Mardakan.
Carpet weaving and shopping: Check out the carpet-weaving demonstrations in Shamakha and learn traditional techniques, or simply shop for carpets and local goods in the caravanserai, the old Baku and once a stopover for the historic Silk Road.
Chess: try your hand against the locals, there are several outdoor chess areas, where some of the Azerbaijani grand masters, including Gary Kasparov, are said to have trained.
Maiden’s Tower: climb the multiple spiral staircase in the tower and be treated to a vantage view of the Caspian Sea, the old city center, and the rest of Baku.
Beaches: The scenic Apsheron coastline is great for spending a lazy day alone, away from the busy capital.