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Azerbaijan: All you need to know Guide

The forgotten country, Azerbaijan has recently started the tourism game, a little late though after the breakdown of Soviet Union. This Eid ul Fitr, I decided to start my travels in this country. I took a direct flight via Azerbaijani Airlines (read my review about their Airlines here) to arrive in Baku and exchanged some currency to Azerbaijani Mannat (AZN) at the airport for a terrible rate but due to Eid holiday, I knew that all the exchange shops would be closed in the city.

I was going to stay here only for four days and had to make the best of it so I got in touch with locals and made some amazing friends who opened their culture and doors for me and I learnt so much about Azerbaijan in those 4 days. Read about it here.

Visa procedure

Azerbaijan has relaxed its visa regulations in the past 2 years for a lot of countries by either allowing a visa on arrival facility or the option to obtain a visa online prior to departure from home country. Those from the GCC countries, China and Indonesia can easily get a visa on arrival no matter which airlines they take. US Citizens get a visa on arrival for 30 days if they take a direct flight to Baku via their national carrier, Azerbaijani Airlines.

The other 95 countries (excluding African countries and a few others) are eligible for an ASAN online visa and there’s a very good chance that your country falls under it.

If your country does fall in the online visa eligible countries, then visit the Official Azerbaijan Visa Application Site to apply for your visa online. You’ll only need a scanned color copy of your passport as an attaching document for the application. Beware of other sites that claim to process your visa application. They aren’t scam. They are legit but they charge more than double the fees and they trick you by making their website address look similar to the official one. One of those unofficial websites is https://evisa.com.az/en. Do NOT apply through them!

Cost of visa (on the official website): 20 USD plus 4 USD service fee

Processing time : 3 days for normal processing but expect to receive it earlier than that.

What to eat and drink

Since Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, it’s a all-you-can-eat haven. Everything is halal and you do not have to worry about pork being served in any restaurant. Alcohol is served though but you can opt out of it.

Here are a few amazing local dishes that I tried in Azerbaijan and absolutely loved it:

Breads

Bread is a staple food item here. You will find varieties of breads sold for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I can’t remember most of their names but my favorite ones were:

Lavash: A thin bread like Indian “romali” roti also resembling the bread used in Saroukh shawarma, is a famous delicacy eaten all over Azerbaijan.

Tandir: A tandoori Nan like bread which is eaten with cheese or meat.

Meat dishes

Bughlama: Lamb with bone is cooked in mild spices along with tomatoes, onions and other vegetables. It is so juicy and tender that it simply falls off the bone. Some bughlamas are soupy and do not have a curry like consistency. I preferred the curry than the soup.

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Dolma: This is another name for “warq enab”, the stuffed grapevine leaves. The filling can be rice and carrot or beef. Almost every household and restaurant serves it.

The 3 sisters: The Azerbaijani name for this is quite difficult for me to remember. I kept asking for its pronunciation so many times but to no avail, haha. This dish has minced beef stuffed in bell pepper, tomato and eggplant. Since three different vegetables are used for fillings and served together on a plate, the name 3 Sisters was coined by the locals. (Okay, I know, tomato is a fruit, but you get the point.)

Julu kebab: These kebabs are a mix of minced lamb, beef and fat cooked to juicy perfection and eaten with fresh yogurt as a side. Other kebabs with bone are equally delicious. I ate a lot of them during my entire trip. If I ever go back to Azerbaijan, it might be for Julu Kebab 😉

Side dishes

Miller ice cream: Even though it isn’t local, I loved the ice cream from this brand. Simply yummy and chocolateyy.

Alpen Gold Chocolate: Found not only here but in Georgia and Armenia too, Alpen chocolates are really rich and authentic. I can’t remember how many of them melted in my mouth. 🍫

Moltal cheese: A very salty cheese with a little pungent smell found only in Azerbaijan. It might put you off at first due to the saltiness but it’s good to eat with bread. Usually eaten during breakfast.

Ayran: Coming from Turkey, this is like “Laban” which is sold in GCC. It is a drink made our of beaten yogurt and water and is soothingly refreshing to drink during meals.

Akhroshka: This is the Azerbaijani version of Ayran which has mint, cucumber and sometimes dill leaves added to the Ayran.

Comote: Really sweet fruit syrup drink made after reducing fruits and their pulp.

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Tip: If you cannot try local food and are craving for some Arabic food, go to Shawarma Number 1 in the main city near Fountain square for some authentic and cheap Shawarma. It is truly best in town.

Exploring the capital city, Baku

It is famous for its many statues standing tall and high making it a great identification point while telling directions. The city is one of the best when it comes to architecture and cleanliness. The old buildings have a European feel to it, mainly Italian because they built it a long time ago while the modern ones have beautiful designs and unique shapes to enjoy gazing at.

Staying connected

Three major sim companies in Baku are Azercell, Bak cell and Nar cell. If you want a peaceful stay without hundreds of messages and notifications bombarding you from the Telecom company, choose Nar cell. Their data plan is good too.

If you’re wondering why you need data at all, think twice before wanting to save money on this. Doing Baku city yourself will need you to rely on Google maps for walking navigation, explaining the location to the taxi drivers or simply ordering food in a cafe using Google translate. Most of them do not speak English. They are all fluent in Azerbaijani and Russian.

The big chains and premium restaurants obviously have English speaking staff, but if you want to get the local feel, you cannot do without translating what you want into their language.

Moving around Baku city

Taxis are available all around. Apps like taxify and Uber are commonly used here. Other taxis called as “badimcan” ( eggplant, because of their purple color) get priority everywhere in parking due to their political association in the company’s investment.

Metro can be used too and you can purchase the card to give you access around other non-touristic places of the city.

Buses are regular and tickets can be self purchased for each trip. You’d have to buy a card for the self purchase though.

But, should I tell you the best part? You can cover most of the main city’s attractions by walk! Isn’t that amazing? And, you won’t get bored. It is really fascinating. Starting from the fountain square, moving on to the Old City area and then finishing the walk by the Boulevard, you have the whole day to walk, pause, pose, and walk again.

What to See and Do

The city of Baku was beautiful. It was full of life and buzz during daytime and all lit up in the evenings. Cobbled roads give it a polished look and cleanliness in the city center is well maintained.

In and around Baku

✓ Fountain Square: I was always around this place either because I had to pass this area to access other places that I wanted to walk to or perhaps because my accomodation was just past the Fountain square path. Chairs are spotted everywhere and huge trees provide the much needed shadow to take a break from the walk and sip a drink or two. Restaurants and cafés are in the vicinity along with little rides for kids and all the major sim shops can be found here.

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✓ Old City Tour: The Old City tour is an interesting one. There’s always some kind of bazaar happening inside with cultural live performances, auctions, food stalls and souvenir collections. You can expect to easily spend half a day checking out the variety it has to offer. A lot of restaurants also are built to stop you from going anywhere else. This is the best place to buy souvenirs. Wait till you get inside almost towards the end and choose the less fancy looking shops to find what you want.

One of the souvenir shops where I bought a lot of nice souvenirs to take back and only paid 12 AZN in total.

✓ Maiden Tower: The Maiden Tower claims to have an interesting yet sad story attached to it. Locals say that a princess from the 12th century requested the building of the Maiden Tower after the king (who was also her father) asked to marry her. She waited until it was completed and promised to marry him after it is ready. When the Maiden Tower’s construction was all done, she jumped off from the top and gave her life away.

There are other myths and stories associated with this tower one of which is of a fire girl rescued the people living in Maiden tower from the enemy’s siege.

It is open until 6pm daily if you wish to climb all the stairs to reach the top for a view of the Old city and the Boulevard from above.

Entrance Fee: 8 AZN for foreigners, 2 AZN for citizens of Azerbaijan.

✓ Boulevard: The Boulevard proves to be a cheap way to watch the Caspian Sea water flowing around neatly made borders and walls. Perfect for long walks during the evening, the Boulevard is a great place to relax in Baku.

✓ Mountain fire 🔥- Yanardağ: The fire doesn’t stop here. It continues blazing in the hottest of weather as well as the coldest. A minimal entrance fee will allow you to view the magical fire that seems to never cease, a view best watched at night.

It has a flight of stairs going up where you can view the surrounding area from a height and also choose to take a carriage ride to go explore the area with a handsome looking horse.

✓ Fire temple Akeshtag: It’s hard to believe that a temple exists in Azerbaijan especially when the majority of the population comprises of Muslims. History lovers will love it here as it not only features the burning fire in the centre of the location but also has little ancient doors that have statues of men performing religious rituals and everyday tasks. One of the rooms has the Hindu “bhajan”, a religious incantation being played on loop with write ups such as “Om” being displayed on the walls in red in Hindi and Sanskrit language.

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✓ Caspian Sea: Highly overrated due to its dispute over being a sea or a lake and countries not being able to come to a consensus, Azerbaijan is one of the countries that has the Caspian Sea water flowing. If it’s just the bucket list that you want to tick, go ahead and visit it. Personally, I didn’t find it that special.

✓ Amboran & Dalga beach club: Home to the Caspian Sea, they also offer luxurious time offs from city life by featuring swimming pools, restaurants, bars and lots more to keep their high entrance fee justified. To know more about Amburan beach club, read my review here.

✓ Heyder Aliyev Center: Not having enough time to research on the must sees before heading over to Baku, I had no idea about this building complex. When the taxi driver drove past it, I marveled at the curvy yet edgy design of the Center. Three days later, I returned to it to see it a little more closely. It was designed by Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi British architect and is 57,500 metre square huge, I learnt.


Just look at the design! I feel like sliding down the bumpy curves, haha!

😍😍😍😍

The area around the center has the typical “I love Baku” 3D letters standing tall, great for clicking the obligatory selfie 😉 A few other sculptures can be found which look cute and tempting for the camera.

✓ Heyder Ali Mosque: One of the few big Mosques in Baku, it looks absolutely magnificent. Guarded heavily by security personnel, one can enter to visit it inside if only dressed appropriately. Shorts are strictly not allowed and for women, they have head coverings available to wear at the entrance hall.

✓ Thai House Baku: If you’re looking for a relaxing massage in Baku, then this is the place to hit. They are really professional in their jobs and provide the much needed relaxation after a full day tour of the city. You’d find it a little hard to locate them since they do not display a sign board outside to avoid being asked for irrelevant services by inauthentic customers.

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Outside Baku

You can easily do day trips or choose to stay overnight at the top touristic places of Azerbaijan. Here are a few worth going to:

Qabala

Boasting a beautiful panoramic view from the top of the Tufandag (telefric), Qabala is perfect to get a short respite from city life into raw nature.

The Nohur Lake gives a pleasant reflection of the sky and the sun and has paddle boat rides for 10 minutes for 10-15 AZN. There’s no ticketing office to purchase the tickets officially yet, so you’d just be paying the personnel on the spot for it. It has a few souvenir shops, café and small restaurants surrounding it.

Tufandag is a telefric connecting the high and low ends of Gabala by four stations. The ticket stands at 20 AZN for all the four stations and at 10 AZN for reaching 2 stations. It is well managed with a lot of restaurants and cafés at every stop of the Tufandag. Do not think of saving money here and buy all the four stations’ ticket, as the view from the the 3rd station is just mesmerizing.

Where to Eat in Qabala?

Ignore the tour guides and operators who will take you to the most expensive restaurant to get their commissions for the number of people that they will bring. Go instead to Palid which is a medium priced restaurant having nice views in the middle of trees and lush greenery. It serves delicious Azerbaijani cuisine from kebabs to cheese to Akhroshka and tasty breads.

Cost: 100-120 AZN for a group of 5.

Sheki

Sheki is famous for its historical background. It is really interesting for historical lovers and is different from what Qabala has to offer.

Quba

Usually, people visit Quba as a stopover destination for an overnight before heading to Xinaliq the next day. It is good to check out the Town for a few hours before getting a good night’s sleep.

Xinaliq

Overrated for its greenery and landscapes, Xinaliq is quite popular among tourists who want to explore mountains and village life. But, if you ask locals, they will tell you that it has nothing but some good landscape and the rest is just an old village.

I just had one day to spare for a day trip outside the city, so after all the local recommendations, I chose to go to Qabala. And boy, I didn’t regret it even once!

That was Azerbaijan for me in 4 days! How about you? Are you ready to explore it anytime soon?

Next up is Georgia, the country that becomes a burger sandwich between the two hostile countries: Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Stay tuned!

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