Azerbaijan: Panda’s picture-perfect weekend away
I had zero expectations about visiting Azerbaijan. I knew no one who had been, and I didn’t know much about the country itself. What I did know is that it was close proximity to Dubai and offered a very easy eVisa which meant it automatically shot up to the top of my list. (Yes I go where I feel wanted). I needed to provide my partner- Expat Polar- with a birthday gift and I decided what better than a trip away to a country which we both know nothing about that I will have to plan all by myself? I’m a crazy panda, I know! But had a blast as you see in Polar’s video below:
Perhaps this is why I enjoyed Azerbaijan so much- I had no idea what to expect and my social media hadn’t been saturated with images from this country like so many other destinations (I really don’t want to see another photo of anyone on a gondola in Venice or hanging out of a Sri Lankan train).
However I will make the bold statement that Baku was one of the most instgrammable cities I have visited. Maybe I felt this way because I hadn’t seen many pictures of it before. But goodness, it really didn’t disappoint with the gorgeous views. I had to consciously stop myself taking photos at some point and just enjoy the experience.
Honestly Azerbaijan has become one of the prettiest and easiest weekend trips I’ve ever done from Dubai. If you have a chance to visit this country- do it. You could see a lot in a weekend or also couple it with visits to neighbouring Georgia and Armenia as well. The city of Baku has been modified to accommodate tourists as seen from the 5 star airport to the English translations on public transportation maps. I was impressed… how are more people not traveling here?
Before we go any further, let’s have a quick PPG- Panda’s Progressive Geography lesson.
Located in Asia, Azerbaijan is bordered by four countries – Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran. The east of the country is bordered by the Caspian Sea.
In parts of Azerbaijan, including just outside the capital city of Baku, the land is dotted with oil and gas reserves. These are areas where oil and gas can be extracted from the earth and used as fuel. Oil money can be clearly seen as you walk around Baku in the affluent neighbourhoods that would put areas in Dubai to shame.
Azerbaijan has a fortuitous location both with ports on the Caspian Sea and trade routes between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. As a result, it was bitterly fought over by major empires including the Ottoman Empire, Russia, and the Persian Empire. While originally formed by the Arabs, in 1828, the Russians and the Persians split up Azerbaijan.
Up until WWI and the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, Azerbaijan was ruled by Russia and Iran and was valued because of its oil resources. There was a short period of time between 1918 and 1920 where the country was independent, however, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) marched into the country in 1920 and Azerbaijan was sucked into the Soviet Union. It would remain as a republic of the Soviet Union until 1991 when it declared independence. Every single one of these empires’ influence in Azerbaijan making it a fascinating destination as you will be able to point out the influences in the food, language, architecture, cars and people’s facial features! Over 90% of the country is Muslim and the currency is called the Azerbaijani Manat.
Here are a few reasons about why I rate Azerbaijan as one of the most picturesque quick trips I have done… and of course I have given you the essential info you need to plan your trip too!
I’ve never seen the kind of structures that I saw in Baku. And that’s saying something considering I live in Dubai.
Heydar Aliyev Museum
An amazing structure with NO EDGES. It looks like something out of a science fiction movie and is exceptionally instagrammable. Go early to avoid crowds (10am should be fine) and walk around the building taking photos of the curves. Walk down to this sign and then take more photos as you come back up trying to include the snails and bunnies in your shot. Everything here is well designed for photo opportunities.
The inside is a museum that I didn’t visit. Be aware of people in police uniforms who insist that you MUST do a tour with them- you don’t have to listen to them.
Cost: Free to visit the exterior
How to get there: Take the metro to Nariman Narimanov station and walk for about 10 minutes using Google Maps.
The Palace of the Shirvanshahs
The Shirvanshahs ruled the area now known as Azerbaijan for almost 700 years, building and developing the region. The palce built by them was officially announced a museum in 1964 and from that date it has been preserved by the government. This place is a good place to start if you like old castles and learning about history. It offers some impressive views of the city and has some cool architecture. I would skip if I was pressed for time though.
Cost: 12 manat per person
How to get there: Take the metro to Icherisheher station and walk for about 2 minutes using Google Maps (I’ve anglicised the spelling).
Walking around this district will lead you to many restaurants, food vendors and souvenir stores. This is a good place to walk to Nizami Literature Museum.
Nizami Literature Museum
I loved the exterior of this museum and came here early in the morning (10am) to take photos of Polar & I without a ton of people. I didn’t go inside so can’t tell you much else about it.
Cost: Free to visit exterior
How to get there: Walk from Icherisheher Metro Station or take the bus to Nizami Park.
There is a well-known legend about this beautiful and ancient Tower. According to the legend, once upon a time a king wanted to marry his own daughter. His daughter, ashamed of her father’s intention, asks him to build a tower and agrees to marry as soon as it will be completed. Upon completion the girls commits suicide by jumping from the top of the tower.
Since no real purpose of the building has been found I can’t discuss the authenticity in that theory. One of the attractions on this list which is only for the extremely mobile as you have to climb 123 stairs to reach the top. The view, while stunning, is obstructed by tall glass panels so take a selfie stick or some such device which can propel your camera upwards. This was the part where it helped to have a tall partner. This is THE SUNSET spot in Baku but get there with plenty of time as it closes around 6pm. (If you’re the last to leave the kind security guy will take photos of you).
Cost: 15 manat per person
How to get there: Walk from Icherisheher Metro Station for around 8 minutes. You can also take the bus to the Puppet Theatre stop and walk for around 5 minutes.
Flame Towers, Marty’s Alley and the Funicular
The funicular is a cool cart that takes you up a steep hill. The experience is really memorable and it drops you off in front of the flame towers. There isn’t anything to see or do at the actual towers (it’s a Fairmont Hotel) so you need to walk away from it in order to take nice photos. As you walk you will see a memorial site dedicated to those who found against soviet rule in 1990. The best viewpoint of the Flame Towers is with these gravestones lining the lane OR walking left towards the sea where you will be rewarded with this view.
It can get very windy up here during winter so be prepared. I recommend this as another sunset viewpoint in Baku.
Cost: The funicular costs 1 manat per person. It is free to visit Martyrs Alley and the Flame Towers.
How to get there: You can take a bus to Azneftt Sqaure and walk for a minute to the funicular site. You could also walk from the Icharishahar metro stop. If you want to skip the funicular, you can take a bus to Central Clinic Hospital Stop and walk for about 5 minutes towards Martyrs Alley passing the Flame Towers on your right.
These are the sites you can visit via public transportation within Baku city Center. You can use taxis and Uber (it’s VERY cheap) to get around but there is generally a lot of traffic in the city center and I found that buses had right of way which got me to places quicker. Each bus & metro ride costs 0.30AZN which is real value for money!
The following places require driving and I highly recommend hiring a driver and car and NOT driving yourself.
Gobustan Mud Volcanoes
If you do nothing else in Azerbaijan, do NOT miss these. As I recommended, join a tour or hire a private driver. You shouldn’t pay more than 200AZN to hire a driver for the day and joining a tour may be slightly cheaper. The driver will drive you for around 45 minutes to Gobustan. You’ll then transfer to a Lada- Russian car- which is one of the only cars that can handle the terrain leading to the mud volcanoes. I can’t stress enough how you should not be a hero and try to drive yourself. I saw many cars abandoned along the route as they couldn’t make it in the hilly, muddy and rough ground leading to the volcanoes. Also, there is NO signage leading there so you will get lost!
The volcanoes are pretty amazing and you can take bottles to collect the mud which is apparently great for skin. We went at 11:30 and had the place to ourselves except for a television film crew filming a drama. The whole experience of driving around in this Russian relic as well as visiting these natural wonders is well worth it.
Cost: Free to visit the volcanoes
There is a museum nearby but we didn’t visit it.
Bibi Heybat Mosque
I had heard that mosque was as beautiful as some of the mosques in Iran so I was very curious to test out this theory. However we ended up there on the wrong day (Friday) at the wrong time (midday) when it was full of worshipers so I couldn’t photograph anything of the interior (which was gorgeous). Plan your trip so you visit between 9-11am or 2-4pm. Anyone can visit the mosque as long as you’re appropriately dressed and don’t have hair exposed.
Cost: Free to visit mosque
We tried to visit Yanar Dag (the eternal fire) but it was closed for construction. We also didn’t get a chance to visit Love Park which is a cute park which is made for photos.
Where to stay in Baku:
After a lot of research, I chose to stay at Boutique 19 Hotel. I personally love boutique hotels for the attention to detail service with the homely atmosphere. The location was ideal (close to the metro and bus stops) but also walkable to many restaurants, shops and attractions. The hotel itself is part of the UNESCO world heritage site and is extremely charming. I thought their breakfast was better than most fancier hotels I’ve stayed at in the past. This was a splurge hotel in Baku (but it was 100% worth it) and there are cheaper (as well as more expensive) options. Most hotels are located within the same area anyway so getting around won’t be a problem.
Panda’s recommendations of where to eat in Baku:
A beautiful restaurant filled with national patterns, paintings, exclusive carpets and other traditional elements. If you are looking for an authentic place in the heart of Baku, with reasonable prices – Firuze is THE place to go.
Mugham Club is a historic two-storey roadside inn that has been around for decades since the inception of the Silk Route. It boasts a covered courtyard complete with leafy, dense fig trees and a central fountain, where diners sit at carpet-decked benches protected from the elements by a transparent ‘roof’.
The area around the Shah Palace Hotel has a few vendors selling yummy treats from baklava to cheese filled pastries and the yummiest hot chocolate I have ever had from a streetside vendor. Ask for “patata’ which is a potato fritter. Also, if you take the metro to Nariman Narimanov Station, there are heaps of cheap and yummy doner kebab places!
Upon arrival at Baku Airport passport control, every page in my passport was examined with magnifying glass- like device. I am not kidding. As every other Caucasian person sailed through immigration (including my white skinned Polar Bear) I was asked to provide proof of my South African citizenship and UAE residency… that didn’t include my passport. Um… ok. Then I was asked if it was really my passport. Still not kidding. It dampened my excitement to be treated like an identity theft criminal upon arrival in a gorgeous airport.
Upon departure Polar and I were the only two non-citizens in the security control line. We were singled out, made to go down two floors all to get a cabin baggage tag. No one else’s cabin baggage had this tag that they claimed was necessary. They declared there was an issue with Polar’s face not matching the photo in his passport. Then our mobile boarding passes were checked around 5 times all while just going through security. This wasn’t happening to anyone else. While I didn’t experience this treatment ANYWHERE else in Baku, if Azerbaijan REALLY wants to attract a diversity of travelers, they need to treat people better upon arrival and departure because it can set the tone for or ruin the entire vibe of a trip.
I found Baku to be a more expensive weekend away destination than it’s neighbour, Georgia and other neighbour Iran. That doesn’t mean things were outrageously priced (accommodation was much cheaper than Dubai and so was transportation) but food was relatively the same price as Dubai.
Ultimately, Baku is one of the most up and coming tourist destinations and is an exhilarating mix of oil-driven progress and ancient Asian cultures. The city offers a fantastic mix of old and new with futuristic skyscrapers set against the ancient architecture of local mosques and other landmarks.
Baku is the ultimate undiscovered tourist destination and there are so many things you can do there, from sampling the local food to exploring medieval palaces or going on a city stroll to admire the more contemporary architecture. Do not make the mistake of missing this must-see destination.
-Is Azerbaijan worth a trip on its own?
Oh absolutely. I would’ve loved to stay in Baku for a few more days and head to other regions like Quba and Ganja. I felt like I only scratched the surface and would love to go back.
-How long should I go for?
A minimum of 3 days would be ideal if you just want to explore Baku.
-Did you apply for a visa beforehand?
I did apply for the eVisa from the official government website which can be found here. It took 12 minutes to fill out the form and I got my visa within 24 hours. The cost is 23 US dollars and MOST nationalities can obtain the eVisa painlessly including South African passport holders.
Note: UAE residents are entitled to visa on arrival which costs 26 US dollars provided you can show proof of valid residency in your passport. I just prefer to spend as little time as possible in airports and this eVisa was probably the easiest I have ever applied for.
Does everyone speak English? Did you have difficulty communicating with anyone?
Since I used public transportation for most of my trip, I didn’t really have to bargain with taxi drivers. I had no problem communicating with people at the restaurants mentioned above or at my hotel. Since Baku opened itself to tourism I do believe that they have employed bilingual people to cater to travellers. You might probably have problems further out of Baku but if I survived Tunisia with little Arabic and no French, you’ll probably be fine.
Have you ever been to Azerbaijan? What was your experience like? OR is Azerbaijan on your wish list? Let me know in the comments below!