Azerbaijan is a country of contradictions. Wedged in the beautifully scenic Caucasus mountains, between the semi-desert and the Caspian sea, Azerbaijan is still carrying the memories of a difficult 20th century. Yet now awash with new optimism, Azerbaijan is buoyed by its newly minted status as a major player in oil.
The flashy capital, Baku, boasts architecture that even the Emiratis in Dubai would cast a jealous eye over. However, just an hour or so drive away remains the Azerbaijan of old, offering a fascinating insight to life before its new found wealth.
Although Azerbaijan could keep a tourist enthralled for a few weeks, a three day trip allows you to scratch the surface of this fascinating country.
Baku is where it all starts. Spending two days in a city, which boasts arguably the world’s most awe-inspiring skyscrapers alongside a UNESCO listed old city, is a great introduction to the contrasts that Azerbaijan holds.
After a late local breakfast of Azeri cheese and bread on the city’s waterfront promenade, head by foot to the old town and immerse yourself in what Baku used to be. The walled fortress will steal your lazy afternoon in a beautiful haze of cobbled, winding alleys and medieval architecture. Be sure to spend some time in the sandstone Palace of the Shirvanshahs, home to the Azeri dynasties who led during the middle ages.
Baku Old City
Next up is the imposing 29m Maiden’s Tower, the icon of Baku’s old town and well worth the knee-jerking climb for unparalleled views of Baku Bay and the old town.
Maiden’s Tower, Baku Old City
Once you’ve had your fill of culture, venture back to the waterfront where you can stroll along the Bulvar, sampling all the national drinks ranging from the wonderful Azeri sherbert (a home-grown fruit juice with a generous helping of sugar and a touch of rose water) to the flavorful local teas.
Wake yourself up with a wonderful local coffee at one of the endless coffee shops west of Fountain Sq. Then move on to the venue that Azerbaijan hoped would be their introduction to the Western world – the Crystal Hall. Built exclusively for the 2012 Eurovision song contest, the hall never fails to impress. Shining like a diamond snowflake on Baku bay, the venue truly is a sight to behold. The Crystal Hall spared no expense; the project (controversially) cost millions and is as lavish as it is expensive. The hall was built entirely on recaptured land from the Caspian Sea and basks in the glory of the world’s second tallest flag pole. It’s another site that is worth getting up close and personal with in its own right.
After lunch by the hall, venture to the rickety funicular railway and take the free ride all the way to the top of Martyrs’ Alley. The somber graveyard pays tributes to those who fell in World War II. After paying your respects you’re rewarded with the most breathtaking views of the entire city. Spin around and you’ll see Baku’s and Azerbaijan’s newest icons in all their glory – the Flame Towers.
The Flame Towers, Baku
After strolling back down to the city, pulling on your glad rags, it’s time to party in the Caucasus’ most cosmopolitan city. With both expats bars and local hangouts aplenty, everyone is spoiled for choice when wanting to cut loose in Baku.
Jump in a taxi and head out for two of the best half-day trips Azerbaijan has to offer. The Petroglyphs at Gobustan are another UNESCO listed site and date back as far as 12TH century BCE. The museum attached to the rock carvings will whet your appetite just enough before you go searching for the carvings. As you walk around the barren, semi-desert landscape of Gobustan you’ll be catapulted back in time amongst the cave paintings themselves, a true highlight of any trip to Azerbaijan.
Just another 10km or so beyond Qobustan is one of the more obscure destinations to be found in Azerbaijan, or the surrounding region. The mud volcanoes are definitely worth adding to your itinerary. The ugly 10 foot tall mounds aggressively spout thick mud 24 hours a day, just don’t get too close or you’ll be wearing a nice little reminder of your time here (like the author). The volcanoes can be tricky to locate, so make sure your driver either knows the route personally or chat to some locals at Qobustan to get the lowdown on how to find them. And be prepared to tip a few extra dollars at the end, he may be required to do some minor off-roading!
Three days in Azerbaijan is a wonderful introduction to a country many struggle to place on a map. You’ll be mesmerized by the blend of old and new, warmed by the hospitality shown to strangers and have added a few more travel bragging rights to boot. Happy travels!
Johnny Ward is the founder of the leading travel blog Onestep4ward.com, the digital media company Step4wardmedia.com and partner in the Hong Kong based education start up findatutor.com.hk. With over 100 countries under his belt before 30 including stints in Somalia, North Korea and Iran, he’s on a mission to visit every country in the world before 35 and inspire others to follow their dreams on the way!