Azerbaijan is full of hidden gems, and Sheki is one of them. You seldom find a small town with enough activities to pique your interest for more than a few days. Sheki was small, yet it had so much to offer that I stayed there for almost a week. The Sheki we know of today is indeed a small town, but it held its status as one of the largest and strongest cities in the region from the 1st to the 17th century. The power and glory that Sheki once had is now translated into a flavourful culture of food, art and architecture.
Ask anyone in Azerbaijan where is the best place to taste Azeri food. Without doubt, Sheki is the first place on their list. Sheki boasts an amazing culinary scene: it is the capital of sweets and the birthplace of the amazing piti (more on piti below).
Walk along the main street of Sheki and you will find dozens of sweet shops. Pop into any and you will be invited to try the Sheki halva, the most famous sweet of Sheki. Halva is a masterpiece of rice flour, various types of nuts, butter and of course, honey and it is made in a huge round dish. Every shop’s halva tastes slightly different, and no one knows the exact ingredients except the family themselves. You might be put off by its look of sugar overload, but the intricate combination of ingredients makes halva so irresistible. Apart from halva, the sweet shops will also display shelves of brightly coloured sweets. Now you have to decide which ones you will try!
Piti is a clay pot of absolute goodness. It is made from mutton, tomatoes, potatoes and chickpeas. Finally, a lump of fat seals the entire concoction before it is baked. Before you skip this paragraph because of the fat, it definitely looks and tastes better than it sounds. First, you tear lumps of bread onto a bowl and pour the aromatic soup over it. Once you have finished the soup, tear more lumps of bread onto the same bowl and empty the ingredients onto it. The mutton is so soft that it melts in your mouth. I am already hungry just typing this!
If you love stained glass art, you will be enamoured by how beautiful it is in Sheki. Known as shebeke, this type of stained glass is exclusive to Azerbaijan. The stained glass in the palaces in Sheki is made without the use of glue nor nails. Every piece of stained glass is carved precisely into place until the entire frame is complete.
Visit the Sheki Khan’s Palace in the late afternoon, when the sun shines into the palace. The stained glass windows colourfully light every room and the resulting effect is stunning. I spent minutes just standing in position and staring at the colourful light penetrating into the dark rooms. The art, the colours and the light were just so breath taking that you have to see it for yourself. Sadly, photos are forbidden so you can only do it discreetly!
Apart from the Sheki Khan’s Palace, you can also visit the Winter Palace, which is mostly left out of the tourist trail. For those who cannot get enough of the stained glass art, the winter palace boasts more of a different art style. Again, visit the palace during the late afternoon as the warmer hues of the sun bring out the magic of the stained glass art.
The palace architecture in Sheki is simply gorgeous. Every wooden piece is intricately carved to create the windows, roofs and doors. There is also a heavy use of colourful tiles to form designs on the façade of the palaces. You can easily spend an hour just walking around the palace and adoring the beautiful designs on the walls.
Apart from the Islamic architecture, there is also an abundance of Albanian Christian architecture. The Albanian church of Kish is located about 5km north of Sheki, and was built more than 800 years ago. Unlike the palaces of Sheki, the Albanian church was carved out of stone. Although the church was small, the carvings were stunning and well worth a trip out of Sheki.
Thinking of tea? There are many places in Sheki where you can grab a cup of authentic Azeri black tea. Why not do it in the beautiful caravanserai of Sheki? Built in the 19th century, it hosted traders who crossed from Asia to Europe. Today, it is partly a hotel and a space for boutiques, restaurants and cafes. The atmosphere within the caravanserai is special. While you sip on your tea, imagine what it was like passing through the caravanserai centuries ago. Bustling and full of trade, people and life.
When in Sheki, do not forget to visit the always-crowded bazaar. The bazaar is busiest on Sundays, when every family joins in the fun. The bazaar is huge. There are rows of neatly stacked fruits and vegetables, more rows of cheese and also of meat. Turn around the corner and you will see sellers peddling daily necessities. There is even a row of Sheki sweets (as if we did not have enough already)! While you stroll through the bazaar, there are many sellers peddling street food as well. Grab some Azeri qutab (thinly rolled dough with various fillings) and enjoy the vibes. This is as local as it can get!
Sheki is an amazing place to discover. There is so much history in Sheki, so much to see and eat. Most people come to Sheki to visit the palaces and buy sweets, but there is definitely much more that you can do. Wander and lose yourself in the alleys. Say hi to the little boy running along the street. Grab a coffee and enjoy the views of the Caucasus mountains in the background. Sheki is a great place to slow down your pace of life, relax and enjoy the simple things it has to offer.
Have you heard of Sheki? Drop me a comment in the comments below! Also, if you like this article, do share it with your friends. Sheki is definitely a place that I adore, and would love to go back just for more sweets, piti and history!