Azerbaijan, is the land of fire, home of one of the oldest civilisations and also a largely misunderstood nation. Admit it, before you knew about this country, you might have thought it was somewhere in the Middle East. I too believed it was somewhere along the borders of Saudi Arabia. When I first met friends from Azerbaijan, I honestly asked them if they had Arabic roots. To my surprise, Azerbaijan is nowhere near Saudi Arabia. In fact, it is one of the three countries in the Caucasus region (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan).
I do not blame you for your ignorance (and mine). Azerbaijan was relatively closed to tourism in the past. Ask a friend who visited the country and he would have an interesting story of how hard it was to attain a tourist visa. In January 2017, Azerbaijan opened its doors to tourism by introducing a simple e-visa system. Getting a visa is now a lot easier and only a few clicks away. This created many opportunities for tourism in the country and led to a rapid sprout of hotels, hostels and tour agencies.
The discovery of oil in Azerbaijan led to its rapid growth and development. Baku, the capital city, looks like a posh, architecturally pleasing European city. The excess oil money also encouraged the construction of fancy skyscrapers and out-of-the-world museums and exhibition spaces. There is a beautiful, extensive waterfront promenade and policemen drive in extravagant BMWs.
Yet the Azeris still retain a great part of their traditions and culture. The old city in Baku radiates an antique vibe and there are many ancient temples and mosques in the area. As you walk around the city, you will constantly feel like you are in a time machine. On one street you will find old, traditional buildings and on the next, fancy European-styled facades. Walk a little more and you will see extremely modern buildings, with full LED facades. Baku definitely plays the old-meets-new concept very well.
I was indeed surprised by the splendor in Baku. However, once you leave the capital city, a more realistic image of Azerbaijan comes into view. No longer do you find the modern buildings, fancy cars and posh cafes. Instead, things become more similar to what you find in the region. Small, dusty towns with their unique charms, villages with the Caucasus mountains as a backdrop, and old men sitting outside their houses drinking tea. I think this is what best represent Azerbaijan.
Visit Baku for its grandeur, but also take time to visit the small villages at the foot of the Caucasus mountains. Quba is famous for its beautiful landscape and hiking routes among the mountains. Sheki is well known for its sweets and culinary decadence. Get ready to eat a stew of lamb brewed in lamb fat, known as piti, and finish your meal with a sugar-doused portion of halva. It might not sound very appetising but it sure tastes like heaven.
The map below marks the places that I have visited in Azerbaijan. Hover over them to see the names of these places. Soon, you will be able to click on them to discover what exactly these places are!
Check out my articles about what you can do in Azerbaijan below: