Last Updated: 2/24/23 | February 24th, 2023
I don’t remember the first time I heard about Azerbaijan, but it’s always held an exotic allure to me. Azerbaijan — even the name sounds exotic — a place of…well, I didn’t know what. It just sounded intriguing and off the beaten path. I knew two things about Azerbaijan before I visited: it once won the Eurovision Song Contest and has a lot of oil money.
It was only in the last few years that I began to think in earnest about visiting.
Sometimes that’s all it takes to end up somewhere.
Azerbaijan matched my expectations: Baku was a modern city steeped in oil money with a recently built subway, fast Wi-Fi, and tons of Parisian-style and futuristic buildings, while the rest of the country was incredibly rural with small towns surrounded by gorgeous mountains and farmland. In tiny villages, old men with canes sat in town squares gazing at passersby. Old babushkas with their backs bent and heads covered with scarves wandered past with groceries, off to make dishes for the family.
To help you make the most of your trip, here are two itineraries to ensure you see the highlights, save money, and get off the beaten path!
What to See and Do in Azerbaijan: One-Week Itinerary
Day 1 – Baku
Before the discovery of oil, Baku was a sleepy little town passed over by the world. After oil was discovered in 1846, the city grew: large boulevards and buildings were built to emulate Paris, as the nouveaux riches loved all things French. The city grew well into the early 20th century before subsequent world wars and Soviet rule pushed it off the world stage. Now, thanks in part to Eurovision and lots of oil money, Baku is a mix of its ancient core, the surrounding 19th-century Parisian-style neighborhoods, and the sprawling modern city with its futuristic buildings, expanding outward.
On your first day here, wander around the old city. The Old Town is surrounded by a towering medieval stone wall, and, within this part of the city, you’ll find narrow winding streets and plenty of historic monuments to explore. Visit the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, which was built in the 15th century and includes a mosque, bathhouse, and mausoleum. Inside you’ll be able to see all kinds of relics and artifacts that have been discovered around Baku.
You’ll also find the ancient Muhammad Mosque within Old Town which dates back to the 11th century. Don’t skip the famous Maiden Tower with its great views of the city. The oldest parts of Maiden Tower are believed to have been constructed between the 4th and 6th century CE while the newer parts are from the 12th century. (Fun fact: They still have no idea what this tower was built for, but many believe it was originally used as a Zoroastrian temple, and various mysterious legends surround the site. )
Book lovers will be enchanted when visiting the Museum of Miniature books, which is located in the Old Town. The museum is part of a personal collection and features thousands of teeny-tiny books. The oldest tiny book is a copy of the Quran from the 17th century and the smallest book is a copy of “The Most Miraculous Thing” that can only be read with a magnifying glass and measures 6mm x 9mm (less than one inch!)
Afterward, go on a free walking tour with Baku Free Tour and then take in the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum (the country is famous for carpet making and the museum itself is actually shaped like a carpet) and the National Museum of History, which will give you a decent understanding of the history of Azerbaijan.
Where to stay in Baku: Sahil Hostel – This hostel has comfortable beds, a nice common area, and incredible showers (they even have massage sprays). The staff is not that friendly, but its central location and facilities, as well the ease with which you can meet other travelers, more than make up for that.
Day 2 – Baku
On your second day, wander some more around the city, enjoy a cooking class, stroll along the lovely boardwalk along the Caspian Sea, and explore Upland Park, which offers great views of Baku as well, as it’s the highest point in town. There’s a funicular that goes all the way up if you want to avoid the stairs. Be warned: the funicular’s hours of operation change without notice. Here you’ll also find Martyrs’ Lane, a cemetery and memorial dedicated to those killed in World War II and the Nagorno-Karabakh War (an ethnic and territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan).
Additionally, nearby are the famous and iconic Flame Towers. Built in 2012, they stand 182 meters (600 feet) tall and are covered in LED screens displaying images of dancing flames (hence their name). One of them is a hotel with a restaurant at the top; the food there is supposed to be very good and fairly priced. I highly recommend watching the sunset over the city near the Flame Towers, then seeing the tower’s LED lights come on.
As a unique contrast to the ancient history of Baku’s Old Town, head to the Heydar Aliyev Centre. Designed by Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-British architect, this hyper-modern structure is one of the most interesting buildings in Baku. The design is fluid and curvy with hardly any harsh angles. The space is often used for events like rotating art exhibitions and gala concerts. Check the website to see what’s on during your visit.
Day 3 – Outside Baku
Head out of town for a day trip to the four biggest attractions near Baku. First up are the mud volcanoes. Azerbaijan is home to nearly a third of the world’s mud volcanoes, which form when pockets of underground gas force their way to the surface. They’re like geysers, but with mud. Here, you can visit one of the only mud volcanoes in the world where you can actually put your hands into the mud.
Next are the petroglyphs in Gobustan, home to 6,000 rock paintings that are up to 40,000 years old. The well-preserved sketches display ancient populations traveling on reed boats, men hunting antelope and wild bulls, and women dancing.
Then visit Ateshgah, a temple that has been used as a Hindu, Sikh, and Zoroastrian place of worship (now it’s a center for Zoroastrians). Each room has really detailed panels about the history of the temple, the pilgrims who visited it, and the Zoroastrian religion. In the center of the complex is a flame representing God.
Until 1969, the temple featured a natural eternal flame, but it went out from the overuse of the area’s gas. Now the fire is relit by a pipeline connected to a nearby city. The temple itself is a castle-like structure with a museum surrounding it.
Finally, there is Yanar Dag (“burning mountain”), which is a natural gas fire that blazes continuously on a hillside. Marco Polo once described the land in this area as being on fire because of phenomena like this, but this is the only fire left. It’s kind of a disappointment, as it’s really small. It’s not worth the journey, to be honest, but it’s included in most tours, so you’ll see it anyways.
None of the sites are too far from Baku, and can all be done in a day. Most leave around 10am and get back around 5pm. I suggest taking a tour instead of going on your own, as it makes getting to these sites easy. Only Ateshgah is reachable by public transportation. All the other sites will require a car. Lots of people on Couchsurfing offer rides too. A full-day tour will cost about $40-60 USD and include lunch.
Days 4 & 5 – Lahij
Take a three-hour bus to Lahij in the Caucasus Mountains, home to less than 1,000 people. Lots of day tours come here because the town is famous for copper wares; you’ll hear the clang of metalwork throughout the day. On your way, you’ll wind through the mountains, over bridges, and along a road so narrow you’ll feel like you’re going to fall off before you reach the town. When I was there, the road was partially out because of heavy rain and I was not a fan of driving the narrow, gravel road to town!
But it was worth it!
Lahij is beautiful, with cobblestone streets, panoramic views of the valley, and old locals sitting in the town square eyeing the tourists that wander past on their way to hike for the day. The tiny village is over 2,000 years old and is known for its craftsmanship. Over 40 unique craftsman trades have been practiced here throughout the ages. These include leatherwork, blacksmithing, carpet making, and of course creating copperware.
There is also a unique cuisine in this region, so make sure to try some during your stay.
Overall, though, there’s not much to do in Lahij itself. There’s a tiny museum that takes five minutes, and you can ride a horse or shop if you want, but the real reason to visit is to go hiking. There are a lot of trails in the mountains around town, and it’s best to ask your guesthouse or the tourist office for information, as there’s no trail map. There are some ruins on the trail leading up from the nearby river and waterfall but be warned: it’s a steep 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) up and the ruins (really just a wall) are easily missed.
Where to stay in Lahij:
Ancient Lahij Guesthouse – This cozy homestay offers free Wi-Fi, a garden and terrace, fully-equipped kitchen, and a delicious free breakfast. It’s cheap and charming.
Days 5 (& 6?) – Sheki
Next, head to Sheki via public bus, a famous stop on the Silk Road, where you can see the old caravanserai (inn with a courtyard), which housed traders and merchants centuries ago. Built like a castle to protect merchants (high walls, one gate), it dates back to the early 18th century. Now, it’s a restaurant (skip it) and a hotel.
Sheki Khan’s Palace is the country’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site and was built in 1797. It was the summer residence for Shaki Khans and features exceptionally well-preserved frescoes that were painted at various times throughout the 18th century. Additionally, there’s a fortress and a few churches in the old town fortress down the street from the caravanserai. All in all, you only really need a few hours to see everything in town.
Be sure to visit nearby Kis to see the Albanian church, which dates back to the 5th century and was restored with the help of Norwegians in the early 2000s. If you’re staying for longer, consider booking some of the interesting craftsmanship classes and workshops offered in the area.
Afterward, go to the Gelersen-Göresen ruins, which are a lot more expansive than those in Lahij and provide some incredible views of the surrounding valley. Originally used in a fortress, the medieval ruins date back to the 8th or 9th century. The name translates to “you come, you will see.” Around the fortress, there are deep, seemingly bottomless wells that may have served as booby traps for enemies.
I’d recommend taking a taxi there, as it’s an uncomfortable and not very scenic two-mile walk on an open and exposed road. Your driver will wait (or might join you, as mine did).
Overall, you really only need a day for these sights. There’s not much to do, and the attractions aren’t that stellar. Sheki is a popular day trip from Baku and a weekend spot for locals, who head to the resorts located on the way to the ruins. The only reason I would stay longer is if you wanted to do some hiking and horseback riding in the area.
Where to stay in Sheki: Ilgar’s Hostel – Ilgar is an incredible host. This homestay is really basic. No A/C, simple accommodations, very basic bathroom. It’s cheap but you’re staying in Ilgar’s home with his family and he’s an awesome host who speaks fluent English and knows everyone in the area. There’s nothing he can’t help with!
Day 7 – Back to Baku
Spend the day heading back to Baku to enjoy a last night in the big city before you head home.
What to See and Do in Azerbaijan: A Two-Week Itinerary
Want to spend some additional time in the country? Great! There are a bunch of other places worth visiting too. Here are more suggestions on what to see and do in Azerbaijan if you’re staying longer:
Days 1-3 – Baku
Follow the Baku itinerary from above before continuing on.
Days 4 & 5 – Quba
Head north by bus to the mountain town of Quba for a cooler climate, old mosques, and traditional carpets in beautiful alpine surroundings. There’s a lot of hiking here, too, and many people also visit Tenghi Canyon. You can also stop in Khinalig, a major Zoroastrian center, or Krasnaya Sloboda, the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel, populated by the Juhuro, or Mountain Jews.
Where to stay in Quba: Vadi Chalet Hotel – This upscale hotel offers mountain views, an airport transfer, pool, and air-conditioned rooms. It’s not cheap, but if you want to splash out on something nicer than guesthouses, this is your best option.
Days 5 & 6 – Lahij
Follow my Lahij suggestions from above and spend another day or three hiking the mountains. There are some famous multi-day hikes in the area if you want to camp. A guide is highly recommended for longer hikes; your guesthouse or the tourist office can arrange one for you.
Days 7 & 8 – Sheki
Follow the itinerary listed in the above section and use your extra time for hiking or horseback riding.
Day 9 – Qabala
Once strategically located along the middle of the Silk Road, this dusty, old, not-so-small town now houses several ancient monuments, including a thousand-year-old defense tower, a 13th-century mosque, and a mausoleum. Take an early bus from Sheki and spend the night here. All the attractions are close together, so you can easily see the town in a day. There’s really nothing else worth sticking around for.
Where to stay in Qabala: Kahran Hostel – This is a newly opened hostel in a good neighborhood located next to some great cafés, bars, and restaurants. It’s a social environment and the staff is really helpful.
Day 10 – Ganja
Azerbaijan’s second-biggest city dates back to the 6th century. There’s an attractive square near another caravanserai (similar to the one in Sheki), some traditional churches, a very odd house made from bottles, and the Tomb of Nizami Ganjavi, the country’s most famous 12th-century poet (he’s kind of a national hero). It’s a good stopover on the way south.
Where to stay in Ganja: Old Ganja Hostel – It’s located right in the center of the city, and the staff is friendly and helpful.
Days 11 & 12 – Lankaran
Before heading back to Baku, go south to visit this sleepy resort town on the Caspian Sea. See the Old Prison and Lighthouse (Stalin was actually a prisoner here for a while), visit the ancient bazaar, the 18th-century fortress, and the 19th-century mosque. You can spend a good day sightseeing here and then another on the beaches further south in Kenaramesha. If you have more time, take a day trip to the Ghizil-Agaj State Reserve, which is home to about 250 bird species. You can take organized tours from town.
Where to stay in Lankaran: Khan Lankaran Hotel – There are not many hostel options in Lankaran, but this hotel is affordable and incredibly cozy. The restaurant serves Azerbaijani and European food, as well as local drinks.
Day 13 – Head back to Baku before heading home.
Head back to Baku for any final things to do before flying out of the country and heading back home!
Whenever I leave a place, I always ask myself: On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely am I to come back? I feel like I’m a 6 with Azerbaijan.
I loved my time there and, if I were in the region again, I would definitely visit again to do some longer hikes I missed this time. I found the people to be incredibly warm and hospitable. Even though we couldn’t communicate a lot (outside Baku, English is not widely spoken), we pantomimed and communicated nonverbally, which led to some fun and lots of laugh over the confusion of trying to figure out what we were both trying to convey.
The food in the country is excellent: a mix of Turkish and Mediterranean styles, with lots of rice, chicken, fresh vegetables, and spices. The landscape is stunning with lush valleys and farmland and the raw beauty of the Caucasus Mountains in the north.
And Azerbijian is very safe too, as the government doesn’t want to anything to ruin the tourism sector (and, being a quasi-dictatorship, it has the power to make sure nothing does).
All in all, Azerbaijan is an awesome destination. It’s definitely a place you shouldn’t miss, especially if you want something a little exotic, cheap, and filled with outdoor activities.
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Book Your Trip to Azerbaijan: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner to find a cheap flight. They are my favorite search engine because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- Safety Wing (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional evacuation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
Want More Information on Azerbaijan?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Azerbaijan for even more planning tips!