Azerbaijan is a weird, fascinating country.
Located on the border between Asia and Europe, Azerbaijan has one of those cultures which is particularly difficult to define, as it is a Caucasian country with a large Turkish and Iranian influence, that used to be part of the Soviet Union, so the end result is such a strange mix of opposed cultures that leaves the traveler very confused.
I traveled in Azerbaijan it in 2016 and then two years later, in 2018.
During this period of time, they introduced an e-visa system so, in only two years, tourism has grown exponentially and the country has started to get significant international exposure.
The weirdness of Azerbaijan is what makes it a particularly interesting country, so if you like this sort of off the beaten track place, this may be the destination for you and, in this guide, I have compiled everything you need to know for traveling to Azerbaijan.
This guide contains all the practical information. For places to visit, don’t forget to check my complete Azerbaijan travel itinerary
Useful tips for traveling to Azerbaijan – Everything you need to know
In this Azerbaijan travel guide you will find:
Visa for Azerbaijan
When to travel to Azerbaijan
Travel insurance for Azerbaijan
Books for traveling to Azerbaijan
The country, the people and culture
Is Azerbaijan an off the beaten track country?
How to get in
Food and alcohol
Internet & SIM Card
Visa for traveling to Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan e-visa is available – Since January 2017, you can apply for an e-visa to travel to Azerbaijan and this is the official Governmental portal. It costs 23USD and takes 3 working days to proceed. If you want an urgent visa, it costs 50USD.
Who can apply? – All countries from this list, which include all Western nationalities and many more.
Some visa rules – There is no double entry visa and the single visa is valid for 30 days within a 90 days window.
Registration in Azerbaijan – If you are traveling in Azerbaijan for more than 15 days, you will need to register. You can do it in your hotel, at the police station or by filling in a form. For more information, I recommend you read this article from Caravanistan.
Important – Registration is no joke! In 2016, I skipped this registration (at that time, there was not much information about it and the limit was 10 days), so when the police found out, they made me choose between paying a $300 fine or being deported and banned from entering Azerbaijan within 1 year. After 11 months, I tried to apply for the e-visa and it got instantly rejected. In 2018, after two years, I managed to get in without any problem.
Best time to travel to Azerbaijan
In Azerbaijan, you find 9 out of the 11 climate zones.
From glaciers to vast, hot deserts, the landscape in Azerbaijan is full of contrasts. This means that the climate is also very varied so, depending on where you want to go, Azerbaijan can be a year-round destination.
For example, the mountains are good to visit from April to October but, if you want to do some trekking, summer would be the ideal season.
The region around Baku has a continental climate, which means that summer is extremely hot and winter very cold, but it can be visited all year round.
However, I would say that mid-spring and mid-autumn would be the ideal time to travel to Azerbaijan.
Travel Insurance for Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan is an adventurous destination, so go there with the proper travel insurance.
I recommend World Nomads for the following reasons:
- It is the only company that covers you with an unlimited budget
- It covers the largest number of adventurous activities, something really useful in this kind of country
- You can apply while on the road (many companies don’t allow that)
If you want to know more options, read: how to find the right backpacking travel insurance
A book for traveling to Azerbaijan
Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan travel guide by Lonely Planet – There is no guidebook focusing exclusively on Azerbaijan, not even from Bradt, but you need to get the LP guide to the region.
The country, the people and the culture
Azerbaijan today – Azerbaijan is a former Soviet Republic that got its independence in 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since 1993, it has been ruled by a political party named the New Azerbaijan Party, a party founded by Heydar Aliyev, who ruled from 1993 to 2003. After his death, his son Ilham Aliyev took over and he still rules today.
It is said that this political party doesn’t really have an ideology but it is based on nationalism and a personality cult centered on Heydar Aliyev, who is believed to be the first person to make Azerbaijan great and whose name is seen in numerous streets, museums, and places around the country.
On the other hand, Azerbaijan is one of those fake democracies where the ruling party has been accused of several human rights abuses and authoritarianism but it seems their citizens don’t complain much about it.
When you arrive in Baku, you will feel that you are in an extremely developed country, as the majesty of its impeccable streets is perfectly comparable to many European cities.
Traveling to Georgia? Here’s my ultimate guide to travel to Georgia!
However, as soon as you step out of the capital, things change and you will suddenly find yourself in a third world country. This huge contrast is explained by the fact that Baku is what it is thanks to the petrol and, due to obvious corruption, this growth has been exclusively focused on the capital.
This kind of fake development is also explained by the fact that, whereas Baku feels much more developed than Tbilisi for example, the capital of Georgia is much more socially developed than Baku, a city where sometimes it is even difficult to see mixed groups of men and women.
Religion – Azerbaijan is a supposedly Islamic country, 85% of the population being Shia Muslims and the rest Sunni. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan was the first Islamic country to ever declare itself a democratic and secular Republic (in 1918).
This means that many people in the country are atheist, similar to their brothers and sisters from Central Asia, so religion isn’t really a big deal here, especially in Baku. In fact, there are very few functional mosques.
The personal story of my local friend
During my journey, I met a local, young guy from Baku who turned out to be very religious. In fact, he has a Muslim beard and his wife wears a hijab, something not very commonly seen in Azerbaijan. Anyways, he told me that her wife got a job in a public TV channel but they told her that she had to remove her hijab to come to the office. She obviously refused to do so and, apparently, it was not an option, so she couldn’t get the job in the end. Probably, this is the only Muslim country where these things happen.
The Azerbaijanis – Physically, most Azerbaijanis look kind of Iranian but a bit different. From a cultural point of view, like I said in the beginning, it is difficult to define them as a single culture. Definitely, they have similarities with their neighbors from Georgia, even Armenia, but they also have many customs from the Iranians.
For example, they are heavy drinkers of tea, and they drink it in the same way Iranians do, using the same sort of glasses and the same amount of sugar. However, you are likely to see them drinking a shot of vodka right after the tea and, when you go to the rural areas, it really feels like you are in Georgia, as people look kind of the same and the houses have a very similar architecture. To make it even more surreal, they speak Turkish and you can still see great Russian influence.
It’s just weird and, no matter how hard you try, you can’t really define their culture as a whole.
Hospitality – Azerbaijanis are hospitable, not as much as my friends from Iran obviously, but they were all right, perhaps more than in other Caucasian countries. Is it because they are Muslim? I don’t know, maybe. In my case, random tea invitations were common and I still keep in touch with 1 or 2 friends who never allowed me to pay for a meal.
Check out my off-beat guide to Tbilisi
Language – Azerbaijani is the official language in the country, which is a Turkish dialect. Out of all the Turkic spoken languages, from Kyrgyzstan to Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani is the closest one to Turkish. Most people will also speak Russian but, apparently, not as well as their Central Asian neighbors. As for English, in Baku, some young people can speak it but that’s it.
Is Azerbaijan an off the beaten track destination?
Glad you asked.
Like I said in the beginning, after introducing the e-visa system in January 2017, tourism has grown exponentially.
You will see that today, Baku is actually filled with loads of backpacker hostels and tour groups abound. Destinations such as Sheki or Lahic also see a fair amount of tourists and, in remote villages such as Xinaliq, you can already find a wide range of official homestays.
Nevertheless, Azerbaijan is still an emerging tourist destination, and the number of tourists is not even comparable to any country in Europe. In fact, outside of the main touristic towns, you are likely to be the only tourist hanging around.
Places like the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan, Ivanovka and the towns and villages around Ganja are really unspoiled destinations, which you don’t want to miss.
If you want to experience the real Azerbaijan, I strongly encourage you to check those destinations out. In my Azerbaijan itinerary, you can find more information about these places.
How to get to Azerbaijan
Traveling to Azerbaijan is very easy.
Travel to Azerbaijan by air
The international airport of Baku has many connections to Europe and many other countries in Asia and the Middle East.
Travel to Azerbaijan by land
Georgia – There are two very friendly open borders with Georgia, one linking Zaqatala with Sighnaghi and other one linking Ganja with Tbilisi. The second one can be crossed by train and, in fact, there is a direct night train from Tbilisi to Baku.
Iran – The border with Iran is also open and very friendly but remember that, if you are going to Iran, you will need to be in possession of an Iranian visa.
I also recommend you read my 80 Tips for traveling to Iran.
Russia – This border is currently closed to foreigners.
What happens with Armenia?
Armenia and Azerbaijan are technically at war, mainly due to the dispute of Nagorno-Karabakh, so the border with Armenia is definitely closed.
Nevertheless, you should know that having an Armenian visa on your passport does not ban you from traveling to Azerbaijan (and vice-versa), so you should not worry at all about that, other than getting some standard questioning.
However, if there is any evidence that you have traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh, which is only accessible from Armenia, you will be banned from entering Azerbaijan for the rest of your life. Please note that for entering Nagorno-Karabakh you get a different passport stamp but, apparently, nowadays you can ask them to stamp it on a separate piece of paper.
Travel to Azerbaijan by sea
Kazakhstan – You can travel to Azerbaijan by boat over the Caspian Sea from a Kazakh city named Aktau. It takes 24 hours and you need a dose of patience because it departs every few days, randomly.
I also recommend you read my 35 Useful tips for traveling to Kazakhstan.
Turkmenistan – If you are lucky to be in possession of a Turkmen visa, you can also take the boat from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan.
Money in Azerbaijan
In Azerbaijan, they use the Azerbaijani Manat and, approximately, 1 Manat = 0.50€
ATM and credit cards – In Baku, you can use your credit card pretty much anywhere and ATMs abound. However, once you leave the capital, it is better to bring cash with you. You may find some ATMs in smaller towns but you can’t really pay by card.
Money exchange – There many exchange offices around the country.
How much does it cost to travel to Azerbaijan?
Azerbaijan is really cheap. In fact, leaving the fancy Baku aside, this is one of the cheapest countries I have ever been to. These are the costs of the most typical things:
- Backpacker hostels – 7 to 15AZN (3.50€ to 7€)
- Budget guest houses – 30 to 40AZN (15 to 20€)
- Mid-range hotels – 60 to 80AZN (30 to 40€)
- Fast food (Doner kebab, sandwich, etc.) – Around 2AZN (1€)
- Local eateries (a meal) – 2 to 5AZN (1 to 2.50€)
- Mid-Range restaurants (Normally, only available in Baku) – 8 to 15AZN (4 to 7.50€)
- Supermarket (beer can) – 0.50 to 1AZN (0.25 to 0.50€)
- Budget bars or happy hour (local draft beer) – 1AZN to 2AZN (0.50 to 1€)
- Night bars (local draft beer) – 2 to 5AZN (1 to 2.50€)
- Short taxi ride in Baku – 2 to 3AZN (1€ – 1.50€)
- Metro ride in Baku – 0.30AZN (0.15€)
Bus from Baku to Quba – 6AZN (3€) and the journey takes 3 to 4 hours.
Backpacking Budget for Azerbaijan
I strongly think that budget backpackers can travel in Azerbaijan for 20€ a day
Food in Azerbaijan
Like its people, the food of Azerbaijan is a real blend of cultures and flavors, with influences from all over the region, from Turkey to Russia, Iran and even Greece.
From plenty of kebabs to the tzatziki Greek yogurt, Uzbek plov, Turkish dolma, and Iranian dizi, during my journey, I tasted something different every day.
The majority of Azerbaijanis have never left their country, so they will always tell you that those dishes are originally from Azerbaijan and, depending on the way you look at it, they may be right, as all their dishes are local variations on the original dish.
My favorite dishes of Azerbaijan
Piti – One of the most typical dishes consists of vegetables, lamb and chickpeas, all cooked in a clay pot and covered by lamb fat. Once served, you smash it like if they were mashed potatoes. You can also find a variation of this dish in Iran called dizi.
Yarpak Xangal – It consists of layers of pasta, meat, caramelized onion and yogurt. A very heavy dish. In Central Asia, there is a similar thing called beshbarmak.
Dushbara – A dumpling soup typical of the northern-western part of the country. You can also find it in Kazakhstan and it is called pelmeni.
Azerbaijan travel tip – Baku is definitely more expensive than the rest of the country but, from Monday to Friday, most restaurants have a lunch deal in which, for only 2 or 3€, you will get a full set menu.
Alcohol – As in other beloved ex-Soviet Muslim country, alcohol is not really haram (things which are forbidden in Islam), so beer and vodka are available all over the country, even in small villages. Actually, many cafés in rural areas do have a barrel of draft beer but it is really, really bad, as it has little gas and is really badly served.
Drinking vodka with locals – If you are lucky, you may be able to drink vodka with some Azerbaijanis but remember that, if you agree to it, you need to finish the whole bottle. When I was in Nakhchivan, I went for dinner with my host’s family and, when we ordered drinks, his father asked me if I wanted to drink some vodka.
I said OK, thinking that everybody in the table would drink, so we would have 1 or 2 shots per person. However, apparently, everybody said no but me, so his father forced me to drink half of the bottle before even finishing my food. I was the drunkest person in the restaurant and the next day I felt so embarrassed but, fortunately, in Soviet countries, they are used to people being drunk, so everybody just laughed on the day after.
Just be aware that, if you aren’t really into drinking, it is better to say no from the very beginning. Otherwise, if you have just one or two shots you will be considered a pussy.
Beer snacks – If you are having beers with Azerbaijani people, you will see that they always need to order something called beer snacks, which range from smoked cheese to fried meat balls. If you want to do what the locals do, order them whenever you get a beer in a bar.
Transportation – How to move around Azerbaijan
Metro in Baku – In Baku, there is a pretty cool metro and one single ride costs 0.30AZN. You need, however, to buy a 4AZN metro card first.
Yandex or Uber – Get either of these 2 Apps to move around Baku by taxi.
For more information on transportation in Baku, read my Baku city guide
Marshrutka – Locals move around the country by marshrutkas, which is what public mini-vans are called in the former Soviet Republics. They are really cheap, leave once they are full and they are connected to pretty much any town and city in the country.
Train – The train goes from Baku to Ganja and then continues until Tbilisi. However, it doesn’t follow the main touristic trail, so you will have to rely on marshrutkas.
Domestic flights – I took a domestic flight from Baku to the exclave of Nakhchivan, which is the only way to get there. I flew with Azerbaijan Airlines.
There is a wide range of accommodation all over the country, from hostels to guesthouses, homestays and regular hotels, including plenty of 5-star hotels in Baku.
In my Azerbaijan itinerary, I recommend several hotels in each city.
Internet & SIM Card
Wi-Fi – It works surprisingly well all over the country.
SIM Card – I recommend Azercell. You can buy a SIM Card in many mobile stores but you should go to the official store of Azercell, as you will be charged the real price. There is a big one in Fountain Square and, for a couple of manats, you get loads of data.
More information for traveling in Azerbaijan
Don’t forget to check my 3-week Azerbaijan itinerary
And here you can see all my articles and guides to Azerbaijan
Going to Georgia? Here you can find all my travel tips for Georgia
And here my offbeat guide to Tbilisi
And here you can find all my content on Central Asia