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Azerbaijan is one of those destinations that makes you wonder why you didn’t visit sooner. It’s at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, Russia and the Middle East, with the flavors of all four (but especially Europe) blended into its architecture, cuisine, handicrafts and traditions.

Also: 3 perfect days in Budapest

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Baku

Baku, the capital city, has been called the “Paris of the Caucusus” for its broad boulevards lined with Beaux Arts buildings and fountains, and mile-long walkway along the Caspian Sea which is as popular for strolling as the Seine. The country’s vast oil and gas reserves have made it an important international trading capital for more than a century, and oil and gas are fueling modern architecture, as well.

Baku’s skyline is dominated by the Flame Towers, a trio of curved office and residential towers lit at night with a neon display of flames and other kaleidoscopic patterns. One of the best places to watch is from the terrace of the Palace of Shirvanshah, which dates from the 15th century.

This limestone Palace is part of Baku’s ancient Walled City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of thelargestwalled cities in the world. About half the palace’s 47 rooms and vestibules are open for touring. The Throne Room has magnificent ancient furnishings and a tile-domed ceiling. The furniture and carpeting are real, but the intricately patterned tiles are via high-tech virtual reality imaging.

Also within the old city walls is The Maiden Tower, worth climbing for its picture postcard view of the city and Caspian Sea. It’s also called the Virgin Tower, in honor of the daughter of the 12th century king who built it. She threw herself off rather than marry the man her father chose for her.

Baku was a stop along the ancient spice trading route, and the old Caravansari was where camel caravans rested and refreshed. The outdoor courtyard now houses restaurants and cafes, and the surrounding rooms are shops. Mangal, at Boyk Gala 17 in the Old City, has a traditional restaurant on one side, and a modern one on the other. Women bakeflatbread on griddles, while men handle the open-fire grills, for both.

The National Museum of History is in an 1883 Renaissance-style mansion, the former home of an oil baron. Displays include Stone Age pottery and tools, medieval chain mail, mannequins in a variety of traditional regional dress, and a section showcasing Azerbaijan’s Jewish history, including an 1852 Torah from the Ukraine (despite being more than 90 percent Muslim, this secular nation has strong Christian and Jewish communities).

The National Carpet Museum looks like a rolled-up carpet outside. Inside, hundreds of finely made carpets in complicated patterns line the curved walls over two floors, along with samples of incredibly detailed cloth embroidery. Artisans also work on looms to show visitors how it’s done.

The undulating and dramatic all-white Heydar Aliyev Center, named for the founderof modern Azerbaijan, includes an exhibit on the country’s history, art galleries and a concert and conference hall. It was designed by the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid with one glass-walled side that catches sunlight to illuminate the galleries with natural light.

Martyr’s Avenue is a monument to the slaughter of nearly 150 civilians by Soviet troops in 1990, demonstrating against a territorial invasion. It wasn’t the first time Russia has claimed Azerbaijan. The Bolsheviks seized it in 1917, and the country did not regain independence from the Soviet Union until 1998. Independence Day, October 18, is celebrated nationally with traditional music and dance festivals.

Azeri cuisine

Food here isinfluenced by all its geographic neighbors and history, including Persian, Ottoman and Greek, and since the country grows nearly all its own food, everything is literally farm-to-table. Restaurant meals are nearly always served family style, with huge platters to share.

Lamb kabobs and kofta (lamb burgers) are on every menu, along with miniature rice-stuffed grape leaves. Be sure to try plov, a rice pilaf dotted with bits of plums, apricots, raisins, cashews and lamb.

Day trips beyond Baku

Azerbaijan means “land of fire” in the Azeri language. The country likely was named for Yanar Dagh, or Burning Mountain, 20 miles northeast of Baku. There are constant flames from gas escaping from fissures in the earth. But unlike a fiery volcano, there’s no spewing rocks or flowing magma.

If you want volcanoes, the Azerbaijan version is all mud. Nearly half the world’s mud volcanoes are a few miles south of Gobustan National Park, an hour’s drive from Baku. Nearly 400 bubbling mud pots have formed a grey moonscape that looks like it was created by a mad potter throwing giant blobs of clay.

Gobustan petroglyphs

Gobustan petroglyphs | Flickr CC: Luigi Guarimmo

Gobustan is famous for its petroglyphs, or rock art drawings, dating back some 40,000 years, with figures depicting dancing, hunting and animals. The rocky landscape will be familiar to James Bond fans: it was the location for one of the chase scenes in Once is Not Enough. There’s also a small museum in the park.

More than 50 grape varieties are grown in Azerbaijan, with dozens of small, family-owned vineyards in the foothills southeast of Baku. Some have been producing wines since the 16th century, founded by the Shirvanshah ruling dynasty. You might want to spend more than a day here, because the closest area is 100 miles from Baku. There are two wine routes, the northern one ending at Balakan skirts the Russian border.

Azerbaijan requires a visa, which can be applied for electronically.

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Evelyn Kanter

Evelyn Kanter

Evelyn is an NYC-based travel writer who would rather ride a chairlift, river raft or zipline than the subway. She's a regular contributor to major publications, including airline inflights, and has written more than a dozen travel guidebooks. Evelyn's website is www.ecoxplorer.com
Evelyn Kanter

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9 thoughts on “Azerbaijan is the coolest country you’ve never heard of”

  1. Conveniently forget to mention that it’s an authoritarian dictatorship that imprisons its own civilians and rattles sabres at its neighbors. You’re much better off going to next door Georgia or Armenia. Better food, more to see, friendlier people.

    1. Every post-Soviet country has dictatorship, in case you didn’t know. Azerbaijan has always lived better that the other countries in the Caucausus, even during the Soviet years. The situation with corruption and freedom of speech is improving as well. I love how some foreigners that have never been here themselves, are so quick to showcase Azerbaijan in a bad light, it’s hilarious! We’ve been established as a free country for a little over 20 years only, Rome wasn’t built in a day, you feel me? For the first time in centuries, we are our own boss, with no Iran, Russia etc. to exploit us, so it’s honestly not surprising at all that certain.. Individuals, are still salty about that. 😀 Their attempts to make bashing Azerbaijan a trend is failing, sadly. 🙁 Because they can’t hide the truth forever. One day we are called corrupted, the next religiously intolerant (which is complete bs), then rasist (wut?) etc. etc. When all that failed, they became worried about us, how sweet! ^_^ We can tell that your concern for us is 100% geniune~! It’s not like you’re trying to find another reason to ‘expose’ bad, bad Baku. Anyways, to make this short, come see the country yourself, we’ve got nothing to hide. This poorly concealed envy won’t help ya. I’m trying not assume that you are a jealous Armenian patriot, although it sure looks that way. Have a nice day. 😉

      P.S Judging by the vast amounts of people fleeing Armenia every single year, and the tearful interviews with the citizens that are fed up with their president and his thieves, they are the ones that need this type of exposure. And yet I never see these types of comments under blog post about Armenia. Huh. Curious… Very curious…

      P.P.S Georgia is pretty cool, too!

    2. Every Azerbaijani related article should have some fool trying to defame the country, so Armenia is not authoritarian dictatorship? it is basically an enclave of Russia! What is to see in Armenia the old Soviet decaying buildings or oligarchs villa on top of the mountain? my friends did a tour of Caucasus last year and have been to all three cities and Yerevan is a standard old rugged decaying Soviet City nothing more and nothing less!

    3. Are u sure you visited Baku? The things you wrote sound funny for everyone who ever visited that city)))) better food, more to c and friendlier people in the neighborhood??? That’s completely unfair description I would say. Probably you live in one of those countries, that could explain a lot)

    4. It is quite sad to see a comment like this, especially when the information provided by this user is not entirely accurate. I agree that its an authoritarian regime, however saying that Armenia or Georgia are any different is quite ignorant. In fact Azerbaijan practices a wider freedom of press and expression than any of the neighbouring countries in the last few years, and I say it as a person who has lived in both Azerbaijan and Georgia. The only difference is that Azerbaijan is becoming more prominent in global politics which shines the spotlight on them a lot more than any of their neighbours.

      In reality, as a tourist, you will enjoy the highest level of hospitality from the local population as well as the local attractions. It is a country with the best tourism infrastructure in the region and after all, when visiting a developing country, this is what you should be looking at, not the political regimes. If you are looking for a holiday where you get to experience a real fusion of western and eastern cultures with a higher level of comfort, Azerbaijan would be up there on the list of places to visit.

      Additionally, Baku has a lot to offer besides the routine tourist attractions such as historical sites and museums, nicely described in this blog post. It is a vibrant city, especially in the summer months, bringing together many different cultures and customs. Offering a great variety of bustling restaurants and cafes as well as traditional and western lounges and clubs, a person of any age and interest can find something to fill their time with when visiting this city.

    5. Armenians being friendly? Kick all non armenians out of the country and became the only monoethnic country in the most ethnically diversed region. I dont see anything friendly in it

  2. Thank You Evelyn. Baku is actually a hidden gem for the world. After the Eurovision -2012 and the 1st European Games in 2015, as well as Formula1 European Gran Prix held in Baku a month ago, most europeans discover that Azerbaijan is much more developed, safe and interesting than they thought. Despite the agression it faced in the east part of country (Russian supported Armenia invaded 20 % of territory, more than 1 million Azeri refugees displaced and UN gave 4 resolution on immediate withdrawal of the troops from Azerbaijani territory, not a country recognized armenian terrorist regime in Karabakh) the capital city Baku and cities like Gabala, Sheki, Nakhcivan etc just amazing.Tourists visiting all 3 capitals in the Caucasus, could hardly even discuss, or think whether any city could worth to compare. No doubts, today Baku – a must see destination, having kinda a spirit of Istanbul, Dubai, Vienna, Paris and Neapol ! it is not a monoethnic country where everbody except locals left like Armenia. Jewish, Christian and Muslim live here in a peace like very kind, and has their synagogs, churchs, mosques neighbouring. Have a look https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFV4pkG_QSg

  3. I am about to go live in azerbajian and am liking your comments before I was scared but with what I read on this blog and you guys comments …am beginning to like the place ……..am a footballer and a D.J……feel free eliting me more

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