Azerbaijan, the ultimate Caucasian country and, probably, one of the least visited places in both Europe and Asia, is a fascinating and unique country, as it is the place where East literally meets West. A real blend of Europe, Middle East and the Soviet Union, for years, people have struggled in trying to figure out where does is it actually belong to:
Is it part of Asia or, perhaps, Europe?
Well, the truth is that you really can’t tell, because the imaginary line that separates Europe from Asia goes through the middle of Azerbaijan. This this imaginary partition is not only geographic but it has also defined the cultural lifestyle of the many Azerbaijanis who, due to their geographic location and history, have adopted customs from both continents.
I spent more than three weeks backpacking in Azerbaijan and got to see the main highlights the country has to offer. However, I was traveling quite slowly, so I think that doing my itinerary in just two weeks is perfectly possible.
Before you go backpacking in Azerbaijan, you need to know
Travel Insurance – Do you have insurance for Azerbaijan? I strongly recommend World Nomads
Police registration – Important! – If you plan to backpack in Azerbaijan for more than 10 days, you must register at the police station. You can register online here. What will happen if you don’t register? Basically, you will be forced to pay a 200USD fee upon your exit. If you refuse to pay, you’ll be deported and banned from entering the country for a year but you will save 200USD. It actually happened to me. When you register (link provided before), you have to fill in your address in Azerbaijan. Once the authorities check your address, then you can apply for your longer stay. At the end, you will receive an email which tells you that you can stay as long as your visa lasts.
Visa for Azerbaijan – Applying for an Azerbaijani visa used to be a difficult process but, since January 2017, the Government has liberalized its visa regime. Now, most nationalities (81 countries) can apply for an e-visa, valid for 30 days. For more information, read Caravanistan article.
Best time to go – Winters are cold and snowy. I think that the best time to go would be late spring – summer – early autumn. I went there at the end of October and it was already too cold!
Language – Azerbaijani (similar to Turkish) is the official language. However, Russian is also widely spoken. It would be a good idea to learn some words in Russian or Azerbaijani as barely anyone speaks English.
Costs – Azerbaijan is one of the cheapest countries I’ve ever been. Check out this post: How much does it cost backpacking in Azerbaijan?
Backpacking in Azerbaijan: A two weeks travel itinerary
Day 1, 2, 3: Baku
Once the top world oil producer, today Baku is a modern metropolis which will leave the visitor more than surprised. Despite being a Muslim capital, it has only a small number of mosques, which means that Baku is mostly secular, hence its level of social life is comparable to any European city. From a pretty, historical, old city, to the most extravagant luxury buildings and all sort of pubs, bars and restaurants, Baku has it all: I would recommend staying two or three days.
How to get from the airport to Baku city center
Taxis from the airport to the center of the city cost around 25AZN ($14). Going by bus will cost you only 1.5AZN (+ 2AZN for the metro card, which can be used afterward).
Things to see and do in Baku
Old City – A Unesco-listed site, the Old City of Baku is, definitely, the highlight of any trip to Baku. This walled Old City is composed of fancy and narrow alleys which are home to stone minarets and old mosques which date back centuries. The Maiden’s Tower (2AZN), a 29-meter stone tower is, probably, the most iconic building in the city. You also can’t miss the Palace of Shirvanshahs (5AZN), a palace made of sandstone where the ruling dynasty of Azerbaijan lived during the Middle Ages.
Central Baku – Baku Downtown is the place that holds all the luxury stores, the fanciest cars and where the most social life goes on. For those travelers who don’t know much about Azerbaijan, this is the face of Azerbaijan that will definitely surprise you. Besides all the shopping streets, boulevards and museums (the Historical Museum is the most popular), Fountains Square is a great place for chilling and people sightseeing. At night, the streets of Baku are filled with crowds who meet up for drinking at the endless pubs or eating at any of the many restaurants.
The Marina – During day time, the Marina of Baku is a great place to walk around while savoring a couple of beers next to the shore. There is also a king size chess board!
Flame Towers – These are the most modern and impressive buildings in the entire city. Up to January 17, only one out of the three towers was operating, which is basically a hotel. The old mosque, which is located right next to the towers, provides the traveler with a combination of tradition and modernity. By the way, from there, you also get pretty nice views of the entire city.
Petrol Extractors – One of the coolest places off the beaten track in Baku is the petrol extractors. After the Flame Towers, continue walking towards the television tower. Once you reach it, keep walking until you are at the top of the hill, where actual petrol extractors are placed without any surveillance and with the most amazing city views in the background.
Where to stay in Baku
Budget – Baku Sports Hostel – The cheapest option in town. The staff of this hostel don’t speak English at all but, occasionally, here you will find the most budget backpackers. It’s only 15 minutes to city center by metro. Dorms from 7AZN ($4).
Mid-Range – Main Street Hostel – Located in downtown, Main Street is a higher quality hostel. It offers both individual rooms and dorms. Dorms from 20AZN ($11).
Mid-Range – Old Town Guest House – If you are not into hostels and you would like to stay in the Old City of Baku, this is one of the best-rated guest houses. From 35AZN ($20)
Day 4 – Qobustan
Located just 50km south from Baku, Qobustan is one of the country’s top tourist sites for having some of the most ancient petroglyphs ever found, but also, this is the place where you will discover the real ex-Soviet Azerbaijan.
Things to see and do in Qobustan
Petroglyphs – During the Stone Age, around 12,000-15,000 years ago, when the Caspian coast was richer and more fertile, a big group of hunters settled down in a set of caves in which they carved more than 600 petroglyphs (from the Greek words petros meaning “stone” and glyphein meaning “to carve”). Today, many of these stone carvings still remain and, the Qobustan Petroglyph Reserve has become a UNESCO-listed Heritage Site.
Mud volcanoes – Azerbaijan has the largest mud volcanoes in the world, which are formations created by geo-exuded mud
For further information (history, how to get there, etc.), I recommend you read my article: Qobustan: Petroglyphs and Sovietism
Day 5, 6, 7 – Quba (Xinaliq & Laza)
A region with an immense historical importance, the Greater Caucasus has some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe and, in Azerbaijan, Quba is one of its main gateways. Located 180km north of Baku, Quba is a small city which has not much to offer to the traveler but it’s a great base for exploring the Caucasian villages around it.
How to get from Baku to Quba
You need to take the metro to Avtogavzal, which is the main bus station. The buses to Quba cost 4AZN and the journey takes 3 to 4 hours.
Where to stay in Quba
Budget – Xinaliq Hotel – Located right at the Quba’s main bazaar. This hotel is run by a local family who don’t speak English at all but they will try to make you feel at home. There is wifi. Online booking is not available. These are the coordinates: 41.3604281,48.5260764. From 14AZN ($8)
Mid-Range – Shane Hotel – Recommended by Lonely Planet, this is one the of the few proper affordable hotels in the city. Rooms from 60AZN ($35).
Xinaliq is a lovely Caucasian village located at 2,350 meters above sea level which, if you count it as part of Europe, would be the highest village in the continent. Xinaliq is not only surrounded by the most striking scenery in the country but also, its inhabitants belong to a different ethnicity and speak a distinct language. Hiking around the village of Xinaliq is, definitely, one of the highlights of the journey but, unfortunately, since this village is very close to the Russian border, you are not allowed to go too far.
How to get there – There’s no public transport. Only shared taxis go there but they only run during high season (summer). I was there in early November, so I had to get a private taxi on my own. I paid 30AZN for a round trip.
Where to stay – You can go to Xinaliq on a day trip from Quba but, in the village, there’s also a guest house which I heard is great. It’s called Xinaliq Guest House and rooms start at 38AZN ($23).
The most popular ski resort in the country, during summer, this is the best place for hiking among cliffs, colorful meadows and waterfalls. You can go there by from Quba on a day trip.
How to get there – Taxis cost 15AZN (one way). If you want to go by public transport, you first need to take a bus to Gorus. (1AZN, 20 minutes). From Gorus, you have two options: either take a direct taxi to Laza (10AZN) or catch the noon bus to Kozam. You should let the driver know that you are going to Laza, so he will tell you where to get off. From there, you have to walk up the road for around four to five kilometers. I know, it’s quite a journey. By the way, when I went there in November, the only place that was selling food was an expensive 5-star hotel.
Day 8, 9, 10 – Ivanovka
This is one of the strangest places I have ever been. If you are interested in history, you are going to absolutely love this place. Why is that? Two centuries ago, during the Russian Empire, the Russian Orthodox Church kicked Christian Protestants out of Russia and, for some reason, they all ended up in a village called Ivanovka. This is the real reason people in Ivanovka speak Russian, and are blonde with blue eyes.
I believe that very few tourists have ever visited Ivanovka, meaning that this is a real off the beaten track place within Azerbaijan.
How to get from Quba to Ivanovka
Quba and Ivanovka are separated by a huge mountain range so, unfortunately, you’ll have to travel early in the morning back to Baku (3-4h) and, from there, take another bus to a city called Ismayilli (5AZN). From Ismayilli to Ivanovka there are only one or two buses a day. If you don’t catch it, a taxi there costs 6AZN.
Things to see and do in Ivanovka
Collective farms – To make it even more surreal, this is one of the very few places in the world where Soviet collective farms still exist. And what is a collective farm? It’s basically a farm which, during Soviet times, was controlled by the Soviet government, meaning that they were like public companies where the farmers were just employees. Visiting these farms is possible but you really need to be careful where you go. Some locals don’t like any visitors to see their farms, as they are in very poor condition. They are dirty, and there’s old, rusty, machinery all over the place. You might get kicked out of a few of them.
Nature, relax – Ivanovka is surrounded by a very pretty landscape composed of beautiful, green meadows. That’s what people say. I went there in November and, unfortunately, it was raining and extremely foggy, every single day. Nevertheless, Ivanovka has the best cheese and freshest food in the country, so after some hectic travels, this was my best place to just relax.
Where to stay in Ivanovka
Budget – John and Tanya Guest House – The only place to stay in Ivanovka. This is seriously, the best guest house I found when backpacking in Azerbaijan. The owner is a young local guy from Baku (son of Tanya). The rooms are spacious, cozy, have a high-speed internet and hot water. Rooms are $10 per night and for just $10 more, you also get three meals a day.
Day 11, 12, 13 – Sheki (& Kish)
Also situated in the heart of the Caucasus, Sheki is, by far, the most tourist-friendly destination in Azerbaijan, as it’s home to a large cultural heritage, defining almost 3,000 years of Azerbaijani history. Sheki was an important market place on the Silk Road, linking the Caucasus with Russia. Awesome day hikes, the best local food and beautiful architecture which reminds one of Europe, make Sheki a must place to visit.
How to get from Ivanovka to Sheki
From Ivanovka, you must go back to Ismayilli and get off at the exact same place where the bus coming from Baku dropped you off. Simply, wait there for any local bus going to Qabala. From Qabala, you should take a second bus to Sheki.
Things to see and do in Sheki
Fortress and Palace of Shaki Khans – Most cultural heritage can be found inside Sheki’s fortress. The Palace of Shaki Khans, which used to be the Khan’s administrative building, is claimed to be the most iconic building in South Caucasus and, also, a UNESCO-listed site.
Around 10 kilometers from Sheki, Kish is a lovely village with tile-roofed houses and stone pavements, located in a valley that looks towards high-altitude snowy peaks. Kish can be easily visited on a day trip from Sheki. I went there walking and took me around two hours, with frequent stops.
The village has a beautiful cemetery from you get to see an interesting perspective of the valley. The most iconic building in Kish is an Albanian church, which was built by the commonly called mysterious Caucasian Albanians, a Christian nation that once lived in the northern part of Azerbaijan.
Where to stay in Sheki
Budget – Ilqar’s Guest House – The most charming place in town. Ilqar is a knowledgeable, local guy who speaks awesome English. He has a couple of double rooms which can be shared with other backpackers. Breakfast and wifi are included. From 13AZN ($8). I stayed here.
Mid-Range – Karavansaray Hotel – One of the most remarkable buildings in the city, Karavansaray is also a hotel with a beautiful old architecture that characterizes Sheki. It’s the most popular hotel in the city and Lonely Planet’s top choice. From 35AZN ($20). A travel couple I met stayed here.
Day 14, 15 – Back to Baku or continue to Georgia
The journey from Sheki to Baku might take around 8 hours, so take this into consideration before deciding when to go back there. If you are continuing your trip in Georgia, from Shaki, you should take a bus to Zaqatala.
If you have time, you should definitely spend some time in Zaqatala and try dushbara (a local dumplings soup), my favorite Azerbaijani dish and the place where it’s originally from. From here, take another bus to Balakan, a town from where you’ll have to take a cab towards Georgia. It shouldn’t cost you more than 10AZN.