By Jenna Jolie
Azerbaijan, in the Caucuses region, is a country that straddles both Eastern Europe and Western Asia, so expect a clash of east meets west and you will find a lot to enjoy here. Located on the Caspian Sea, there are quaint subtropical seaside resorts, or you can embrace Azerbaijan’s name as the Land of Fire with a trip to a flaming mountain or a mud volcano. There are hillside towns that hide ancient mosques and minarets, as well as some of the most impressive modern architecture in the world in the form of the Flame Towers in Baku, so whatever your agenda and time restrictions, Azerbaijan has much to offer visitors at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Here’s our roundup of the best places to visit in Azerbaijan
Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, lies along the Caspian Sea, and is a somewhat curious mix of the old walled city of Icheri Seher, and a modern building craze that has led a boom in skyscrapers, many of which are studded with LCD screens. Of all of these, make sure that you don’t miss the Flame Towers, three towers built to resemble fire that cast a bronzed glow over the city at night. The city also embraces the modern at the Museum of the Contemporary Art that has over 900 artworks that feature up and coming artists from the region, and is well worth a visit for those interested in modern culture. You can also try the local produce with a visit to Teze Bazaar, a market famous for its cheeses and spices, or grab a kebab, a local delicacy at one of the numerous open restaurants found all over the city.
2. Icheri Seher
Known as “Old City” and “Fortress”, Icheri Seher is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the centre of Baku, and you will find amazing architectural feats all over this protected quarter of the city. These include Maiden Tower that dates from the 12th century and was part of the ancient walled city of Baku, as well as Shirvanshah Palace that was constructed in the 13th century. Come here not just for the architecture but also for the handicrafts, such as ceramics, as well as textiles like carpets and traditional Azerbaijan national clothes. There are a wealth of shops located in Icheri Seher that are perfect if you want a leisurely stroll around the historic centre of the city and the chance to pick up some souvenirs.
3. Absheron National Park
Sitting in the Azizbeyov region of the city of Baku, Absheron National Park spans 783 hectares of protected land and is the perfect place to come to witness the stunning flora and fauna of Azerbaijan. The national park has a whole host of local wildlife such as gazelles, birds, jackals, badgers, and Caspian seals. The land here is mostly dry steppe, which lends itself to romantic rolling sand dunes and reed like grass that sways in the wind. The waters here are also known to be crystal clear and teaming with wildlife including the occasional sea snake. If you want to catch sight of the famed Caspian seals, you need to aim to visit from September onwards.
4. Garasu Volcano
Many visitors to Azerbaijan may not know that the country has the highest number of mud volcanoes in the world. 350 to be exact! One of the best known is Garasu Volcano, that has been known to spew mud over 1,000 metres into the air. The volcanoes are caused when gases under the earth build up and push the mud high into the air as a release. The first mud volcanoes are said to have erupted in Azerbaijan 25 million years ago, and visitors to Garasu often say that it looks like the surface of the moon!
5. Naftalan Oil Resort
Naftalan resort is famous due to the Naftalan crude oil found here that is said to have healing properties, and has sparked a boom in medical tourism to the region. The resort is located in the Naftalan oil fields in the town of Naftalan, and visitors come here to bathe in the oil or to undergo a range of oil based treatments that are said to help with pain relief and anti-inflammatory healing. Whether or not visitors travel here for health reasons, or just to indulge is this unusual practice, you can still enjoy bathing in the oil in the resort and experience a range of relaxing or stimulating oil treatments at the onsite spa.
Gobustan National Park
Gobustan is often referred to as the Azerbaijan version of Stonehenge in the United Kingdom, as it features a prehistoric cromlech (a circle of stones that have been positioned vertically). It doesn’t end there however, as Gobustan is an archaeological reserve that lies to the south of Baku and offers a fascinating insight into ancient civilizations due to over 6,000 rock drawings that span over 537 hectares. The findings in Gobustan point to evidence of habitation dating back from the Stone Age, and aside from the cave and rock drawings, there is also evidence of human settlements, and even ancient tombstones.
7. The Caspian Sea
Something of a misnomer, the Caspian Sea is actually the largest lake in the world, and measures a whopping 371,000 square kilometres. The Caspian Sea is sits on what looks like an ocean bed, and the water here is indeed salty, although the saline content is lower than that of other seas and oceans, meaning that it is the perfect place for swimming as it is less likely to cause irritation. Popular activities on the Caspian Sea include bot cruises, diving opportunities, and fishing.
8. Shirvan National Park
Shirvan National Park
Shirvan National Park, formally established as a protected area in 2003, used to be located under the Caspian Sea, and now spans over 54,000 hectares to the south of Baku. This protected area is made up largely of semi-desert landscape meaning that you will find ambling sand dunes that are the perfect hideaway for the gazelles found here, and nature lovers may also spot a diverse array of species including turtles, hedgehogs, jungle cats, and jackals. For those more interested in bird life, you will find swans and even flamingos in the park, which tend to congregate around the aptly named Flamingo Lake. Mud volcanoes are also commonly found in the park, the most famous being Bandovan Mountain, which is well worth a visit to take in this amazing natural phenomenon. For those who want to spend time taking in all the natural attractions here, there is accommodation available in the form of quaint bungalows, or, for more adventurous visitors, camping on the northern beach of the park is permitted with a permit
Nabran is a village that has turned into something of a resort zone in Azerbaijan and is found approximately 3 hours outside of Baku, to the northeast. Nabran lies on the banks of the Caspian Sea, and one of the great attractions here is the climate which provides plenty of sunshine in the summer months. As such, Nabran has a plethora of water based activities that make the most of the ambient weather, including an aqua park and a variety of swimming pools all over the area. In the evening, there are bars, restaurants, and nightclubs for those who want to experience some of the nightlife in Azerbaijan.
10. Sheki City
Found to the west of Baku, this is famed as one of the oldest human settlements in all of the Caucasus and is said to date back 2500 years. Sheki City was a stop off on the Silk Road and was famous for exquisite silks and other textiles. This tradition is still very much alive in Sheki City today, and visitors here will find ornate embroidery and other local handicrafts on offer. In addition to the arts and crafts found in this city, there are also castles, mosques, and even ancient bathhouses, as well as the Palace of Seki Khans that has stood since the 18th Century. This is even more impressive as an architectural wonder when you consider that the palace was built in its entirety without the use of nails. Make sure to check out the beautiful wall paintings and carved windows when you visit.
Yanar Dag – Flaming Hillside
Come to Yanardag to see what are known as burning flame outlets. Yarnadag can be translated as “burning mountain” and the hills here appear to be permanently ablaze due to the gas deposits under the surface of the sandstone found here. Visitors flock to this impressive natural phenomenon at dusk when the flames are most clearly visible, and the area is also studded with quaint teashops where you can sit in comfort and watch the spectacle as you sip a local beverage. Yanardag is different from the mud volcanoes also found in Azerbaijan as there are no deposits of lava or mud that erupt from the hills, and the region is also one of great religious significance. The fires are said to have inspired fire worship in the Zoroastrianism.
12. Baku Seaside Park
Baku Seaside Park and Boulevard is the place to come for those visiting the country’s capital, and you will find a wealth of activities here, including old fashioned tea shops and cafes that are perfect for whiling away the hours or indulging in a classic seaside treat like locally produced ice cream. The boulevard stretches over 5 kilometres along the coastline from National Flag Square to the International Baku Port, and is a great place to take in the seaside attractions on offer in Azerbaijan. There are amusement arcades that provide fun for all the family, and there are museums such as the Carpet Museum of Azerbaijan for those who want to learn more about the rich history of the textile industry in Azerbaijan. Visitors will also find Baku Crystal Hall, that is famous for hosting the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, and there are regular concerts, musical programs, and art exhibitions hosted in the venue.
Ateshgah Fire Temple
Azerbaijan has long been known as the Land of Fire, due the burning of natural oil and gases under the earth,said to have inspired the fire worshippers who later founded the Zoroastrian faith. In the days of old these burning gas outlets were thought to contain evidence of a divine being, and ancient temples were built upon the sites. One of these temples is Ateshgah, located in the suburb of Surakhany in just outside of Baku. Ateshgah is said to date from the 17th century, and the temple complex is built in the shape of a hexagon. There is a fire alter in the centre, although the natural gases that led to the original construction of the temple have now been exhausted and the fire is produced via a gas pipeline from Baku.
14. Yanar Bulag
If you want see burning water then you can’t miss a trip to Yanar Bulag, a curious natural phenomenon that is located on the road between the towns of Astara and Lankaran. The water is pumped out of a pipe and can be set alight due to the levels of natural methane contained within, making the oxymoron of flaming water a reality. Locals in Azerbaijan believe that the water here has healing properties and much of it collected as drinking water to cure a whole host of ills.
The city of Astara, in the Astara Rayon district of Azerbaijan, is found just across from the border with Astara in neighbouring Iran. Famed for being one of the most beautiful areas of the country, surrounded by forest and mountains, the city of Astara itself has picturesque cafes and local restaurants, as well as a museum. The museum is dedicated to archaeological finds in the region. These include coins and stone work such as statues of human figures and animals that are said to be over 2,000 years old. If you venture just outside of Astara, you will find charming mountain villages that feature ancient mosques, towers, bathhouses and mausoleums.