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Azerbaijan

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Travel Guide Europe Azerbaijan

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Introduction

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sheep in mountain

© All Rights Reserved sue deegan

Placed attractively along the western coast of the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran, you'd naturally expect Azerbaijan to be a place of some internal unrest with neighbours like that. But in recent years, the tension has been with western neighbour Armenia, over Nagorno Karabakh, an area placed under Azeri control by the Soviets despite Armenian protests. For this reason, it's best to avoid the western reaches of Azerbaijan, where the tension is greatest.

But despite this setback, Azerbaijan still offers its visitors a heady combination of history and culture. Azerbaijan was settled as early as 1000 BCE, and the signs of a long past are everywhere. At Baku, the capital, the hustle and bustle of a country eagerly awaiting a economic boom (Azerbaijan's got plenty of oil riches within its borders) is underscored by a decidedly historical look. Elsewhere, visitors are drawn to ancient temples, ancient rock-art drawings, or brand new embroidered textiles.

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Brief History

The earliest evidence of human settlement in the territory of Azerbaijan dates to the late Stone Age. Later it became part of Alexander the Great's Empire and its successor Seleucid Empire. Caucasian Albanians, the original inhabitants of the area, established an independent kingdom around the fourth century BC.
During Median and Persian rule, many Albanians adopted Zoroastrianism and then switched to Christianity prior to coming of Muslim Arabs and more importantly Muslim Turks. The Turkic tribes are believed to have arrived as small bands of ghazis whose conquests led to the Turkification of the population as largely native Caucasian and Iranian tribes adopted the Turkic language of the Oghuz and converted to Islam over a period of several hundred years.
After the collapse of the Russian Empire during World War I, Azerbaijan, together with Armenia and Georgia became part of the short-lived Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. When the republic dissolved in May 1918, Azerbaijan declared independence as the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR). The ADR was the first modern parliamentary republic in the Muslim World. The state was invaded by Soviet forces in 1920, and remained under Soviet rule until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
In 1993, democratically elected president Abülfaz Elçibay was overthrown by a military insurrection led by Colonel Surat Huseynov, which resulted in the rise to power of the former leader of Soviet Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev. Although during his presidency Aliyev managed to reduce the country's unemployment, reined in criminal groups, established the fundamental institutions of independent statehood, and brought stability, peace and major foreign investment, the country was tainted by rampant corruption in the governing bureaucracy. In October 1998, Aliyev was reelected for a second term. Despite the much improved economy, particularly with the exploitations of Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli oil field and Shah Deniz gas field, Aliyev's presidency became unpopular due to vote fraud, widespread corruption and objection to his autocratic regime. The same harsh criticism followed the elections of former Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev, the second leader of New Azerbaijan Party after the death of his father Heydar.

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Geography

Azerbaijan shares international borders with Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Iran and little bit with Turkey. Azerbaijan is in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia, straddling Western Asia and Eastern Europe. It lies between latitudes 38° and 42° N, and longitudes 44° and 51° E. The total length of Azerbaijan's land borders is 2,648 kilometres, of which 1,007 kilometres are with Armenia, 756 kilometres with Iran, 480 kilometres with Georgia, 390 kilometres with Russia and 15 kilometers with Turkey. The coastline stretches for 800 kilometres, and the length of the widest area of the Azerbaijani section of the Caspian Sea is 456 kilometres. The territory of Azerbaijan extends 400 kilometres from north to south, and 500 kilometres from west to east.

Three physical features dominate Azerbaijan: the Caspian Sea, whose shoreline forms a natural boundary to the east; the Greater Caucasus mountain range to the north; and the extensive flatlands at the country's center. There are also three mountain ranges, the Greater and Lesser Caucasus, and the Talysh Mountains, together covering approximately 40% of the country. The highest peak of Azerbaijan is mount Bazardüzü (4,466 metres), while the lowest point lies in the Caspian Sea (-28 metres).
The main water sources are the surface waters. However, only 24 of the 8,350 rivers are greater than 100 kilometres in lenght. All the rivers drain into the Caspian Sea in the east of the country. The largest lake is Sarysu (67 km²), and the longest river is Kur (1,515 kilometres), which is transboundary. Azerbaijan's four main islands in the Caspian Sea have a combined area of over thirty square kilometres.

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Regions

  • Baku Region - The political, economic, and cultural center of Azerbaijan. Oil has been extracted here since 1871.
  • Ganja Region
  • Nagorno Karabakh - Ethnic Armenian region controlled by an unrecognized independent government. Only accessible via Armenia.
  • Nakhchivan - An exclave bordering Turkey to the west
  • Northeastern Azerbaijan - An ethnically diverse region in the Greater Caucasus mountains covered with lush green forests
  • Sheki Region - A beautiful green mountainous region bordering Georgia, containing Azerbaijan's loveliest city
  • Southern Azerbaijan
  • Talysh Region

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Cities

  • Baku - The capital on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
  • Ganja - Azerbaijan's second largest city has a long history and some important sites
  • Khachmaz - This is the largest tourist destination in Azerbaijan with great beaches and beautiful forests.
  • Lankaran - Southern city near the Iranian border
  • Mingechivir - A mid-sized city on the large Mingechivir Reservoir
  • Naftalan - A town best known for its special petroleum oil baths (spas)
  • Nakhchivan City
  • Sheki - A beautiful city in the forested Caucasus Mountains with lots to see and do
  • Zaqatala
  • Sumqayit - Azerbaijan's third largest city, on the Absheron Peninsula

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Sights and Activities

Caucasus Mountains

The north of Azerbaijan is a beautiful region and the Caucasus Mountains is one of the natural highlights of the country. The Sheki Region is of particular interest and several days in the mountains is a welcome relief of the hustle and bustle of Baku. Gateway is the small city of Sheki which also has many things to offer itself, like the Palace of the Sheki Khans (Khansarai) which is a magnificent work of Islamic architecture. Sheki is located in the northeast of the country and getting here is half the fun, along mountain roads with terrific views. To the north are the dramatic, snow-capped peaks of the Greater Caucasus.

Gobustan

The Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape is on the Unesco World Heritage List and is located immediately east of Baku. It contains three areas of a plateau of rocky boulders in the semi-desert and has an outstanding collection of more than 6,000 rock engravings dating back to almost 40 000 years ago. There are remains of inhabited caves, settlements and burials, which all reflect an intensive human use by the inhabitants of the area. It is possible to visit this area on a day trip from Baku.

Xachmaz Region

Believe it or not, but Azerbaijan has its own beaches along the Caspian Sea and the most popular ones with the locals are located in the northeast of the country, around the city of Xachmaz. But the Xachmaz region has more to offer and on top of the beaches is very rich with monuments of history, culture and architecture. Some of the most significant are Sarkartapa, the ancient city-fortress Khudat, a fourth century Albanian mosque and the sixteenth century mosque-madrasa of Shah Abbas.

Other sights and activities

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Weather

Azerbaijan generally has a pleasantly warm climate. Summers can get very hot though, with temperatures close to 40 °C on some days, though averaging more around 30 °C along the coastal and lower inland areas. Winters are not that cold, around 10 °C from December to February in Baku, but can rise as high as 20 °C and as low as around 0 °C during the day. Inland it is a bit colder, and higher up in the Caucasus mountains it is very cold with snow during winter. Summers here are pleasantly warm though. Rainfall in the country is possible during most of the year, but tends to increase in autumn and higher parts (especially in the north) have much more rain (and snow) compared to places inland.

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Getting There

By Plane

Heydar Aliyev International Airport (GYD) is the busiest airport in the Caucasus. It is located near Baku, the capital, and services flights primarily to destinations in Central Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe. Azerbaijan Airlines, the national airline, has its main hub here.

There are smaller airports at Ganja and Nakhchivan, both of which serve flights to Moscow. Turan Air also operates flights between Istanbul and Ganja.

By Train

The only international train connection is the direct train between Baku and the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi.

By Car

You can enter Azerbaijan by car from Georgia and Iran. Borders with Armenia are closed and with Russia only open to citizens of Russia and Azerbaijan. You need all the proper information, documentation and permits including visa.

By Bus

Buses travel west to Georgia and south to Iran. There are even directly masochistic bus connections to Istanbul, taking something like 3 days...or more. It's better to trips in stages, even to Iran as crossing the border takes much longer if you are in a big bus. Better to walk across alone.

By Boat

Ferries, both cargo and passenger, travel across the Caspian Sea from Baku in Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan and Aktau in Kazakhstan. Services are erratic though, but the crossing to Turkmenistan is the most popular and reliable. Some ferries go to Russia as well, which is mostly used because as a foreigner, you can't travel overland between the two countries.
Theoretically, ferries also cross the Caspian Sea to Iran, but these are unreliable and infrequent, no schedules exist, they are not comfortable and it's slow. It is adventurous though!

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Getting Around

By Plane

Azerbaijan Airlines flies between Baku and Ganja and Nakhchivan City (exclave).

By Train

There are a few rail connections, most notably the one going west towards Georgia, linking Baku with Tbilisi. It's comfortable, cheap, but slow and not suitable for going to some more remote areas.

By Car

Although several companies offer cars, it is best to rent one with a driver if you feel the need. Roads are not always in a good shape and driving can get on your nerves in some bigger cities and towns or in the moutains of the north. You need a national driver's licence (EU countries) or international driving permit.

By Bus

Buses and minivans are the way to go in Azerbaijan with frequent, reliable and cheap connections going literally everywhere in the country. It is also generally faster (or less slow) than trains, but also not as comfortable. Minivans leave when full, buses run on a timetable somehow.

By Boat

Few boats are available for passengers, but sometimes there are services from Baku going south to Lankaran.

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Red Tape

Foreign nationals of a wide range of countries can enter Azerbaijan visa-free; see the website of The Foreign Ministry for details. If you have an Armenian name, you will not be issued a visa, no matter what country you hold citizenship in. All other travellers require a visa for entry into Azerbaijan and can obtain single-entry visas by mail or in person from any Azerbaijani embassy offering consular services. Travellers are no longer able to obtain visas at Heydar Aliyev Airport in Baku. Multiple visas are generally not issued for tourists outside of Azerbaijan. EU nationals generally pay 60 AZN while US passport holders pay US$160 (based on reciprocity) for any visa from 1 to 3 months length. A letter of invitation (LOI) from a contact in Azerbaijan is required.

Evidence of travel to Nagorno-Karabakh will cause you problems upon trying to enter Azerbaijan. Azeri authorities will deny you a visa, cancel any Azeri visa you may have previously obtained and ban you from their country. Upon trying to enter Azerbaijan, you will be turned away, deported, or possibly arrested. If requested, Nagorno-Karabakh authorities can issue their visa on a piece of paper separate from your passport, although sometimes they forget to do this even if instructed to do so.

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Money

See also: Money Matters

The Azerbaijani Manat (AZM) is the official currency of the country. One manat is divided into 100 qəpik. Banknotes are in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 manat. Coins in circulation are 1, 3, 5, 10, 20 and 50 qəpik.

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Language

Azerbaijani (or Azeri Turkish) is the official language. Dialects of the language are also widely spoken in parts of Iran and in Russia's Republic of Dagestan, south-eastern Georgia, northern Iraq, and eastern Turkey.

English and Russian are both used in the education system. Lezgi, Talysh, Avar, Tatar, Ukrainian, Georgian, Turkish, Tsakhur, Kurdish, Tat, Udi, Greek, Chechen and Armenian (In Nagorno-Karabakh only) are spoken by minorities.

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Eat

A tip of 10% is customary at restaurants in Azerbaijan.

Cabbage, grape leaves, and eggplant wrapped meat (kelem, yarpaq, badimjan - dolmasi), kabab (kebab), rice with different variety of toppings (plov), gutabs and meatballs (kufta) are some of the several specialties of Azerbaijan. Yarpaq dolmasi is often considered to be the national dish.

Bread is a staple, and is quite revered by the people of Azerbaijan. Georgian food, in particular kajpuri (a cheese-filled bread), along with some Russian staples (borsh, creps) have become common throughout Azerbaijan. Other cuisines such as Turkish, Italian, Asian, Western & fast food, along with Asian food can be found in Baku.

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Sleep

There is a good selection of hotels in Baku, including many Western chains, but options elsewhere in the country are limited. Prices for the hotels start from $60 and higher. Rental apartments might be a good choice as they are cheaper than hotels and sometimes are even more comfortable.

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Drink

Some local drinks include ayran (a yogurt drink based on sour milk) and sherbet (made from rose petals or saffron). There are also different sorts of quite decent wines produced from local grapes and a wide array of mineral waters from natural springs. In some areas of Azerbaijan the markets offer lemonades (limonat/dushes) made from pears or taragon.

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Health

See also: Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Azerbaijan. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Azerbaijan. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks a vaccination against typhoid.

If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Malaria only occurs in the south and in Kachmas during the summer months, but taking malaria pills is not necessary. Just use mosquito reppelant and wear long sleeves when it is dark.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also: Travel Safety

Robbing and pickpocketing in the capital Baku, especially in poor and sparsely populated areas is possible but rare and is higher across the capital at night. Common sense is useful as in all other countries. Also watch your stuff in public transport.

Corruption is widespread. But as a foreigner you have a fairly strong position in refusing to pay "hörmet" (bribe). Never give any bribe. Often Azeris are so ashamed of their corrupt economy, that they might hide it from you anyway.

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Keep Connected

Internet

Internet cafes in Azerbaijan are called "internet klubs" and they are found throughout Baku. Some coffee houses provide wireless internet, but they are quite rare in Baku. Recently public wi-fi service was implemented the central areas of the capital. Outside Baku, wifi access becomes more difficult but there's a growing number of places offering it.

Phone

See also: International Telephone Calls

The country calling code to Azerbaijan is: 994. To make an international call from Azerbaijan, the code is: 00

There are three mobile operators: Azercell, Bakcell, Nar Mobile, Azerfon-Vodafone. Azercell is the largest one. To dial an Azercell number you need to dial (050) or (051) and then the number. Only with Azercell can you talk in the metro(subway) in Baku. Nar Mobile is pretty cheap but doesn't work in some regions. For dialing Nar Mobile numbers you need to dial (070) and then the number. Azerfon-Vodafone is new operator have 3G. For dialing Azerfon-Vodafone numbers you need to dial (077) and then the number. Bakcell is ok. It works almost everywhere and is cheaper that Azercell. To dial a Bakcell number you need to dial (055) and then the number. The numbers have a 3 digit code (different for each operator) + 7 digits number.

Post

Azer Post offers services in the country. They are affordable and fairly reliable, yet not very fast. It takes at least a week to most European countries, but (much) more so further afield. Post offices in the capital are usually open from around 8:00-9:00am to late afternoon weekdays, but keep shorter hours in more rural areas. If you want to send a package overseas, use international companies like TNT, DHL, FedEx or UPS, as they are fast, reliable and fairly affordable as well.

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Quick Facts

Azerbaijan flag

Map of Azerbaijan

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Local name
Azərbaycan
Capital
Baku
Government
Republic
Nationality
Azerbaijani
Population
8 532 700[1]
Languages
Azerbaijani
Religions
Islam, Christianity (Orthodox)
Currency
Azerbaijani Manat (AZN)
Calling Code
+994
Time Zone
UTC+4
Summer (DST)
UTC+5

Contributors

as well as Hien (9%), Peter (6%), dr.pepper (2%), nigelpeaco (1%), Kurusu (1%), Lavafalls (1%)

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