We had a couple of weeks free in between speaking at the World Tourism Forum and exploring Israel, so we decided to visit a few other nearby countries, including Azerbaijan.
Home to countless architectural and historical icons, this cosmopolitan city winding along the edge of the Caspian Sea is rapidly increasing in tourism and it’s not hard to see why. Like nearby Istanbul, it is a city of great contrast being neither truly Asian nor European and has been home to many historical empires during its rich history. Being rich in both oil and ancient heritage the buzz of this destination will be noticeable immediately, and although a Muslim country it is an incredibly open and metropolitan place, we felt so at home here strolling through the pedestrianized streets lined with trees and experiencing such welcoming hospitality from everyone we met!
Here’s our Guide to a Quick Trip to Baku, Azerbaijan and we hope your trip is as amazing as ours was!
When to Travel to Baku, Azerbaijan?
Summer (April to October) offers the warmest weather, with highs of 30 degrees Celsius in July & August, however, the city is great for winter breaks too. We visited in February and experienced temperatures almost up to 10 degrees which were perfect for exploring the old city.
How to get the Visa to Baku, Azerbaijan?
My personal experience: The visa rules in Azerbaijan are quite different compared to the other 2 Caucasus countries (Armenia and Georgia), there are two options on getting the visa – from the Embassy or from the accredited inbound tourist agency! We chose the latter; I had to contact the company via email and Skype – sent them our passport copies and paid $55 money via western union. I was a bit hesitant at the beginning, but that’s how they work, I finally got a 10-day single entry visa which was sent electronically. The cost of the visa would depend on the processing period; we chose the 8- 9 days waiting time, you can get an urgent visa for up to $200! Oops!
For others: Citizens (and their family members) of the following countries are able to enter Azerbaijan visa-free: Albania, Austria, Argentine, Belarus, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Hong Kong, Columbia, Croatia, Cuba, Estonia, France, Georgia, Hungary, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Kuwait, Libya, Lithuania, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Rumania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Republic of Korea, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, UAE, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Uruguay with any type of valid passport are entitled to diplomatic, service, (official/special) and ordinary visa-free travel for a maximum of 90 days.
Documents required for Visa Application in Baku, Azerbaijan?
- 1 application form;
- 2 colour photos (3×4 cm on a white background);
- Passport of a foreigner or relevant ID document of a stateless person;
- Invitation of the receiving party or, in case of a foreigner applying for a visa for tourist purposes, a tourist voucher or other information confirming the tourist nature of the visit;
- Receipt confirming payment of the state duty.
Unfortunately, neither of our nationalities (UK and Philippines) offers us visa-free entry so we used an agency and each paid $55, receiving our visas 9 days after application, but for more information on this process, you can also read my very detailed visa guide here.
How to get Online in Baku, Azerbaijan?
Azerbaijan is among the leaders in internet speed and coverage for former-Soviet countries. As such, regional telecommunications infrastructure is highly developed, particularly with their Public Wi-Fi Project allowing users to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot in different public places. However, to encrypt your connection and access content from home, you should connect using a VPN with servers in the Philippines.
How to get around Baku, Azerbaijan?
The local taxi cabs are a minimum of $2 per ride (AZN3 local currency). Coming to and from the airport you can use a pre-booked taxi which will cost between AZN15-18, but if taking an un-booked cab this will be closer to AZN30.
On most of the city buses you can pay in cash (20q per journey) however newer services will only accept a prepaid card, this system is called BakiKart and can be bought & topped up at metro stations and a few bus stops. Tourists have the option of paying AZN2 for a reusable card or paying AZN1 for a disposable card valid for 4 journeys. To find your bus routes visit www.gomap.az and click ‘Avtobuslar’ on the left-hand side but most hotel reception staff will be happy to help you plan your routes around the city. If taking the bus to and from the airport the journey is roughly 45 minutes from the airport to the train station, services depart every half an hour between 7 am and 11 pm and costs AZN1.30.
The city also has a metro system which links the train station to the Old City and also takes you further out to more suburban areas. The fare is also 20q per trip and can be paid using the BakiKart.
Where to Eat? What to Eat in Baku, Azerbaijan?
The key elements of Azeri cuisine are meat (predominantly lamb) cheese and pomegranate, the nation’s emblem. 5 really typical dishes you should look out for are:
Govurma: a stew of lamb with onions and pomegranate
Lyula Kebab: pieces of lamb or mutton skewered with lavash
Plov: an Azeri-style pilaf rice dish
Saj Ichi: a combination of meat and vegetables cooked together in a cast-iron pot
Levenghi: chicken or fish with a walnut stuffing, traditionally served for special occasions
To get the best, most authentic food at a fair price we suggest looking for places where the locals eat, but be aware that smoking indoors is completely acceptable and very common in restaurants so non-smokers should request a non-smoking table. For a snack, while exploring the town Jihad Falafel (at 40e Qogol Street) has great wraps, while the Kempinski Hotel’s speciality Levenghi is the best we tried!
Where to Stay in Baku, Azerbaijan?
The Kempinski Hotel, Baku is an impressive resort style hotel about 5 minutes drive from the center of town. With a shuttle service putting the city on your doorstep, the hotel offers a huge variety of room types with no compromise on comfort, and impressive spa, pool and entertainment facilities. For us the most memorable part of our 3-night stay here was the wonderful service we received from all members of staff, from the friendly and knowledgeable reception staff to the skilled therapists in the spa who perform traditional massage treatments, leaving you completely relaxed and stress-free to explore this wonderful city.
What to do and Where to go to Baku, Azerbaijan?
In & around the Old City:
Stroll along the Bulvar
Just next to the city’s shoreline is a lovely boulevard or ‘Bulvar’. Stretching many kilometers along the Caspian coastline its tree-lined walkway provides the perfect atmosphere to take in the sights, sounds and smells of this oceanfront city. You can easily walk away hours exploring the cactus garden and its many tropical specimens, shopping arcades, and cafes and even a puppet theatre to entertain little ones.
Palace of the Shirvanshahs
Built on a hill, this sandstone palace has incredible views of the city. Built during the 15th century it was home to the ruling dynasty of Azerbaijan during the Middle Ages but more recently has been restored to welcome tourists. A fascinating experience for all visitors to the area to understand its complex history, entrance is just $2 but for just $5 you can receive a guided tour in English, highly recommended!
Possibly the most iconic landmark of Azerbaijan, it’s impossible to miss this unique architectural gem, thought to have been built as early as the 7th-6th centuries BC. It has since served many functions from a place of worship, defense, observatory and now museum and viewpoint; it’s a great experience to climb the many central stairs visiting each level with appointed guides to learn its history. There is a small charge to enter but definitely worthwhile!
National Museum of Azerbaijan Literature
Conveniently located between the Fountain Square and the Old City the entrance to this stunning Literary Museum is not obvious to tourists, you will need to knock on the door beside the main entrance to enter. Once inside you can receive a tour in English of Azeri, Turkish, Arabic & Persian authors from the 9th to the 20th century, particularly the most well-known Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi.
Azerbaijan Carpet Museum
While the Old City offers a maze of galleries and carpet stores, the most exquisite pieces can be found in the State Carpet Museum. Only recently opened in 2014 the building itself is eye-catching, to say the least, built to resemble a rolled-up carpet! Inside you can find more than 2000 artefacts, spread across three levels; each represents a different era guiding you through the workmanship, skill & technique required. A great place to pick up an authentic souvenir from the region!
The funicular train
Firstly this novel attraction is free! It’s a great way to avoid climbing the steps up to Martyr’s Park, the Blue Mosque, the Flame Towers and the Parliament building and also providing romantic views across the city below. Although specific times are not listed it supposedly runs every 30 mins.
Museum of Modern art
Opened in 2009, this Jean Nouvel designed Museum hosts a small collection of works by Picasso and Dali as well as a large representation of Azerbaijani Art from the 1980´s onwards. The museum also includes a gallery of contemporary works for sale as well as a bookshop, café and reading hall, a perfect resting point to reflect on this cultural experience.
Once you have taken in the sights of the city, venture the 60km out to Qobustan to see this magnificent landscape and its fascinating petroglyphs (images carved and drawn into the rock). The site begins with a really informative and interactive museum which children will love, before heading out by car to see the main artefacts in their original locations. The trip can be made by bus but it’s absolutely worth it to hire a car (about AZN70 for the day) to combine the trip with the below activities outside the city.
Mud ‘volcanoes’ & James Bond oil fields
The first stop on the drive back from Qobustan will be the weird and wonderful mud volcanos reaching only a few feet high and spilling out lukewarm mud. The site is completely unguarded leaving you free to explore this moon-like novelty to your heart’s content! On the way back to the city James Bond fans may recognize the familiar oil-fields used in the 1999 film “The World Is Not Enough” although the area is in the process of a clean-up operation so may not be recognizable much longer.
Ateşgah Fire Temple on the Abseron Peninsula
Try to make it back to the final stop of the day by early evening to watch the sunset from this intriguing historical site of pilgrimage. Here you can learn about the pre-Islamic religion Zoroastrianism and the subsequent religions who occupied the space using the area’s natural gases for fire worship.
Where to Party in Baku, Azerbaijan?
Azerbaijan is typically known for its love of Jazz and no trip to Baku would be complete without a visit to the Baku Jazz Center or the fancier Alov Jazz Bar in the Fairmont Hotel. Alternatively, take in the nighttime view of the city over drinks at the Skybar in the Landmark Hotel and Opera Sky. Other popular places to enjoy the city’s nightlife, mainly due to the expat community, are found southeast of the Old Town like Room and Otto’s.
Where to go shopping:
A highlight of our trip was wandering through the Taza Bazaar, with many overwhelming sounds and smells you can find all sorts of fruits, vegetables, nuts and spices and most importantly the nation’s emblem, delicious pomegranates! Be sure to stop for tea in this authentic market before continuing your souvenir shopping. The old city is another great place to get lost in the narrow streets of many shops selling local craft items.
Customs and Rules you need to know before going to Azerbaijan:
Currency: Due to the drop in oil prices the local currency has devalued to about 1 USD to 1.5 manat, meaning for many tourists this is the best time to make your trip!
Photography: Should be avoided on the metro and of official buildings.
Jaywalking: Fines are AZN20 and are often charged so better not to take the risk.
Smoking: Is still legal in public places but by the end of 2016 the country plans to put into place a law banning smoking at airports, seaports, railway and bus stations, and in all forms of public transport, including taxis. It is currently still legal to smoke in restaurants but we recommend you double-check on arrival depending when you make your trip.
Safety Issue: is it safe to travel in Azerbaijan?
The country is known for its low crime rate but usual caution when travelling should be applied, for example when taking taxis to be sure to take the officially marked purple taxis which have seatbelts.
Basic Language to Learn before travelling there:
The Azerbaijani language (Azeri) features a different alphabet making simple phrases difficult to learn through reading, to learn these, and their pronunciation.