Planning an Extensive Trip Through the South Caucasus

Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan

Located next to Russia, Iran, and Turkey, between the Black and Caspian Seas, the region of the South Caucasus is Europe’s forgotten frontier. The small countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan might sound exotic and daunting, perhaps even conjuring up images of austere, ex-Soviet states plagued by conflict.

It’s understandable that only the most adventurous travelers make it over to the Caucasus. The reality; however, is that the region is rich in ancient and fascinating cultures, incredible landscapes encompassing the Caucasus Mountains, from subtropical coastlines to dry deserts and grasslands, not to mention great food and wine, and above all, some of the friendliest and warmest people you’ll ever meet. While traveling the Caucasus, the best thing I can advise is to expect the unexpected. You’ll feel like you’re trapped in a surrealist novel at times, but for me that’s part of the appeal.

General Info

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Here is some useful information on surviving the South Caucasus, from the best mode of transportation to managing visas, as well as health and safety.

Getting around

  • Marshrutka: The most economical mode of transportation, in terms of both time and money, is the marshrutka, which is a type of minibus functioning as a shared taxi.  You’ll find them all over the former Soviet Union. If you’re planning on traveling inside and around the countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, this is the easiest way of getting about.
    • Marshrutkas are crammed, and I mean literally stuffed till bursting, and while they run on a regular basis, the rule is they depart when they’re full.
    • There is no concrete timetable, and you’ll need to pay the driver in cash when you get on. It’s a little chaotic, but it’s more straightforward than it sounds.
    • In Georgia and Armenia, traveling by marshrutka can be a bit daunting, since the destination will be written in local script, in an alphabet you’re unlikely to have ever seen before, so do ask and double check before getting on, or maybe even have your destination spelled out in Georgian or Armenian so you can compare.
    • For international routes, like the Tbilisi (Georgia)–Yerevan (Armenia), the destination will be in Cyrillic script, and touristic destinations, like Kazbegi in Georgia will be in English. The good news is that in Azerbaijan is they use either a Latin or Cyrillic script, so it’s easier to navigate (although, if you head south towards Iran, you’ll find the Perso-Arabic script used). In theory, you can go from Tbilisi to Baku (Azerbaijan) by marshrutka, but considering the journey is over 10 hours, I would not recommend it.
  • Train: Traveling by train in the South Caucasus is slow, very slow, meaning that you’ll probably want to take the night train if you’re planning on going long distances. The night trains are comfortable if you get a couchette. Make sure you insist on this in your best phrasebook Russian, because I can tell you from experience that traveling third class on a night train through Georgia is not fun.
    • Take note that you’ll need to reserve these in advance in peak times, especially during the summer and between popular destinations, like the Tbilisi-Baku line or the Tbilisi-Batumi (Georgia) route.
    • Traveling by train is the best way to go between Georgia and Azerbaijan (the border is closed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, so you’ll have to go through Georgia anyway).
    • There is also a night train going between Tbilisi and Yerevan, and while it takes much longer than the marshrutka, it’s more comfortable.

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  • Bus: Forget the luxury air-conditioned coaches you’ll find on your trips around Europe, traveling by bus in the South Caucasus is an experience.
    • While the buses are marginally more comfortable than the marshrutka and slightly faster than the trains, this isn’t the best way to get around.
    • They are still cost effective, but unless you want to enjoy the potholes in the roads and absorb stunning countryside for long periods of time without air-conditioning, I wouldn’t recommend them.
    • There are some direct bus routes that connect Istanbul with Tbilisi, but unless you’re a hardcore traveler, or a just hardcore masochist, it might be better to just take a flight to Batumi, Tbilisi, Yerevan, or Baku.
  • Air: While the Caucasus culturally counts as a part of Europe, you’re not going to find any low cost airlines that connect  between the countries.
    • At the moment, there are no direct flights between Tbilisi and Yerevan, so you’re going to have to take either the train or the marshrutka, and also, there are no flights between Yerevan and Baku due to the tension between the two countries (while Armenia has a closed land border with Turkey, there are flights between Yerevan and Istanbul).
    • You can fly between Tbilisi and Baku, but it’s expensive, and it’s more fun to take the night train anyway.
    • Flying into the Caucasus, Tbilisi airport is probably the one that has the best connections, since there are a number of direct flights from London (British Airways), Paris (Georgian Airways), Vienna (Austrian Airlines), Rome (Alitalia), Kiev (Georgian Airways), Prague (Czech Airlines), and Istanbul (Turkish Airlines) to name a few. Czech Airlines, Air France, Austrian Airlines, and LOT (Poland) also fly to Yerevan, and Azerbaijan’s own airline AZAL fly to a number of large cities in Europe.
  • Car: Renting a car in the South Caucasus can be an adventure, a potential disaster, or both.
    • First, the roads are pretty terrible; at best they’re filled with potholes, and at worst they’re life threatening. While there are some parts of Caucasus with brand new, nice roads, like the route running between Zugdidi and Mestia in Georgia’s Svaneti region in the Caucasus Mountains, you’ll find many are no more than bulldozed dirt tracks with hairpin bends and nothing standing between your car and a steep drop down the mountainside (bonus points if you have to do this in thick fog).
    • Not to mention there is a sense of lawlessness while driving in the region, so unless you’re a brilliant driver, I’d avoid renting a car.
    • If the above hasn’t put you off, make sure you rent from an international company like Avis, SIXT, or Hertz. My friends went for a cheap, local company in Tbilisi, only to be rented a shoddy car that broke down three times with a smoking car battery, headlights that didn’t work, and at one point we even ended up driving through the mountains without working windscreen wipers in the rain. When driving, especially in Georgia, be very careful with drunk and/or reckless drivers.

Vaccinations & health

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It’s a good idea to get your routine vaccines up-to-date, like the DPT vaccine, before embarking on a journey round the Caucasus, but also it’s recommended to get Hepatitis A and B, and check with your doctor about any other vaccinations you should get. It may be a good idea to get vaccinated for rabies, particularly if you’re planning on going into the countryside. Getting hold of the immune globulin is difficult and could set you back hundreds of dollars should you need it. In my opinion, it’s one vaccine you should insist on getting before traveling to the Caucasus, and bear in mind you’ll need three doses administered over a month as a preventative measure. Avoid drinking the tap water, I’ve been sick on a number of occasions in both Georgia and Armenia from doing exactly this, and bottled water is inexpensive. Trust me, the last thing you want is to have violent diarrhea on a five-hour marshrutka ride. Looking into good insurance is also a good idea. Health and safety are two things the Caucasians don’t take particularly seriously.

Visas

  • The easiest country for US, EU, Australian, and other citizens to enter is Georgia. You don’t need a visa; you just need to get your passport stamped at the border, which allows you to stay in the country for up to 360 days.
  • To get a visa to enter Armenia is pretty straightforward, since you can get this on the border, and a single entry visa will cost around $7. You can also buy it in advance on the Internet. If you’re from the EU or the Schengen Zone, a new law has just been passed allowing passage into Armenia without a visa from January 2013 for up to 180 days.
  • Azerbaijan, on the other hand, is a more complicated and costly process. The easiest way is to collect your visa from the Azerbaijani embassy, which generally costs around $165 for a 1-3 month stay.
    • You’ll require a letter of invitation, which can be arranged by a travel agency located in Azerbaijan or even some hotels.
    • You cannot get the visa on the border, so it’s best to enquire at the embassy, since the rules regarding the Azeri visa seem to change on a regular basis.
    • As of this year (2013), you can now apply for your visa online (UK/EU only).
    • One thing to note though, if you’re planning on traveling to the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh via Armenia and travel later to Azerbaijan, you will be denied entry. You can request the Nagorno Karabakh visa on a separate sheet of paper, but bear in mind that some people traveling from Armenia and later to Azerbaijan have encountered problems at the border crossing, even if you haven’t been to the de facto region.
    • It’s advisable to go to Azerbaijan before you go to Armenia.
    • You’ll also encounter serious problems if you enter Georgia through the Russian border with Abkhazia as well.

Safety

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While there has been a history of conflict in the South Caucasus in recent decades, with Georgia’s Five Day War with Russia back in 2008, and tensions still existing between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the area is safe to travel, even up on the border with the volatile regions of Chechnya and Dagestan.

It’s best to exercise caution and common sense while traveling the South Caucasus. Even the de facto regions of Nagorno Karabakh (in Azerbaijan, but under Armenian control) and Abkhazia (Georgia) are open to tourists and are relatively safe. However, many governmental organizations advise against traveling there, and the breakaway region of South Ossetia should be completely avoided.

If you plan to travel to Abkhazia or Nagorno Karabakh, I would advise going with a tour or with a local guide, if you really must go.  Land mines are still a risk there, and you never know what could happen regarding the ceasefire. Violent crime is low in the region, but do be careful with your belongings in crowded areas of the main cities.

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You find people from the South Caucasus willing to help you if you are in trouble, and even when I traveled around alone, as a woman I never got hassled (although I have read stories about Western women who have, so it’s best to blend in as much as possible, and just exercise common sense as you would traveling in any country). In my opinion, the biggest risk while traveling the Caucasus is the driving. Take special care as a pedestrian; you don’t have the right of way, and there is a tendency for drunk driving, especially in Georgia. The country roads, particularly in the Caucasus Mountains, are pretty terrifying, and I’ve had some near death moments myself in them, so make sure you hire an experienced driver.

Costs

The general consensus on costs in the South Caucasus is that Georgia is cheap, Armenia is cheaper, and Azerbaijan is expensive. The three countries use different currencies. In Georgia they use the Lari (1 USD = 1.65 GEL), in Armenia the Dram (1 USD = 415.5 AMD), and in Azerbaijan they use the Manat (1 USD = 0.79 AZN).

Take note that the Lari and the Manat are closed currencies, especially in Azerbaijan, since it’s strictly forbidden to enter and leave the country with Manat.

  • General costs for a home stay or a hostel - $12-18USD (some home stays sometimes include meals) in Georgia
    • $9-18USD in Armenia
    • $20-75USD in Azerbaijan
  • A local meal out would cost around$6-15USd in Tbilisi
  • $7-19USD in Yerevan
  • $6-18USD in Baku.

When to go

The ideal time to visit the Caucasus is in the spring and autumn, when it’s neither too hot nor too cold. If you’re looking to explore the remote part of the Caucasus Mountains, then you must come during the months running from late spring to early autumn, since the roads up to the regions of Khevsureti and Tusheti are closed in winter – and believe me, traveling those roads during the summer is bad enough without the danger of ice and snow.

While you can visit Yerevan in the winter, you’ll find that the city is pretty dead and there is very little to do, unlike the summer, when everyone is strolling the streets, sitting in decorated pavilions sipping Armenian brandy and cocktails on the squares surrounding the Opera house. The summer months are also the perfect time to take a dip in the Black Sea on the Georgian coast or the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan.

Georgia

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Georgia is located in the northwest region of the South Caucasus, with Russia bordering its Caucasus Mountains to the north, and Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to the south. Of the three countries, Georgia has the most to offer. It’s a small country, approximately the size of the UK, but you’ll find some of the highest mountains in Europe, a subtropical coastline, grassy steppes and even a desert. With the architecturally eclectic Tbilisi, the Black Sea playground of Batumi, as well as medieval mountain villages and cave monasteries, you could spend months in Georgia and not get bored.

Cities

  • Tbilisi is Georgia’s capital and a good base to explore both Georgia and the surrounding regions. You’ll find an eclectic array of architecture, with conical roofed churches dotting the city, dilapidated and restored galleried houses that wouldn’t look out of place in New Orleans, flaking art nouveau buildings, and even post-modern steel and crystal structures. Tbilisi is a city that is fully of contradictions, and easily the most beautiful and fascinating out of the capital cities in the region.  Do check out the sulfur baths!
  • Kutaisi is located halfway between Tbilisi and the Black Sea, and if you like your mythology, it sits in the heart of Ancient Colchis, where Jason and the Argonauts went looking for the Golden Fleece. Kutaisi is mostly visited for its medieval architecture, and contains two UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Bagrati Cathedral and the Gelati Monastery, located 9km outside of Kutaisi.
  • Batumi: Some say Batumi is “Las Vegas by the Black Sea,” but this former 19th century holiday resort has reclaimed its former grandeur. Filled with fin de siècle buildings, tree-lined promenade over looking the Black Sea, and open plazas, Batumi is a great place to come if you’re looking for a trip by the sea. While I wouldn’t recommend going to Batumi’s crowded beaches, if you take the marshrutka towards the nearby Turkish border to Gonio you’ll find some quiet and clean beaches with green mountains in the backdrop.

Find a hostel in Georgia

Eat & drink

  • Georgian wine: Wine is a big part of life in Georgia. Archaeologists have discovered that Georgia is the birthplace of wine, with vini- and viticulture dating back to 6000BC. Here, wine is made by placing the crushed grapes in amphora type jars called qvevri, which are then buried for six months to make a young wine. There are over 500 varietals that are indigenous to Georgia, but only 38 are used in commercial wine making. Start with a red Saperavi or a white Tsindali, but don’t be shy about trying the rest.
  • Khachapuri: I like to affectionately call khachapuri “heart attack on a plate.” This typical Georgian dish consists of local bread filled with white, tangy, creamy cheese and sometimes topped with an egg and slivers of butter. Each region has its own brand of khachapuri, and while some are heavier than the others, they’re all just as delicious and heart stopping.
  • Khinkali: While I lived in Georgia, I survived on khinkali, small boiled dumplings usually filled with a spicy meat filling, although they’re also available with mushroom, cheese, and potato filling. They’re incredibly cheap, tasty, and satisfying, and there is an art to eating khinkali. You pick it up by the nib at the top, bite into it and suck the juices out before eating the rest. You shouldn’t eat the nib though, this is usually used to calculate how many you’ve eaten, but folklore says if you eat this you lose your manhood.
  • Lobio: This is a simple stew made from red kidney beans, flavored with lots of fresh cilantro, fenugreek, and sometimes even with plum. It’s a fragrant stew that’s filling, healthy, and inexpensive. Eat this alongside some fresh, spongy Georgian bread and some win,e and you’ve got a good meal.

Do

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  • The Caucasus Mountains: With rugged peaks, green forests, white water rivers, and medieval fortresses, the Caucasus Mountains look like something out of a Tolkien novel. If you’re short of time, you can take a day trip to Kazbegi (also called Stepantsminda) up the Georgian Military High and hike up to the Gergeti Church.
    • Svaneti is one of Georgia’s most beautiful regions, with alpine scenery and small towns dotted with historic defensive towers. I would take a few days to do this, since it’s far from Tbilisi, and it’s worth it to go up to the unspoiled village of Ushguli, the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe.
    • If you love adventure and want to really go off the beaten track into the heart of the mountains, then you must visit the remote regions of Khevsureti or Tusheti, but only if you’re brave enough to travel on terrifying mountain roads. With its unspoiled landscape, dramatic historic fortresses, and unique cultures, it’s worth the risk.
  • Cave Cities: Georgia’s three main cave cities: Vardzia, Davit Gareji, and Uplistsikhe all have something different, but spectacular to offer.
    • Vardzia is by far the most dramatic, with over 13 stories, 119 cave groups, and 409 rooms, some of which are still inhabited by monks. It looks like something you’d see in a fantasy novel. It’s worth staying the night in the region as there is plenty to see in the area, but if you hire a car, you can do it as a day trip.
    • Davit Gareji is split up into a network of cave monasteries, with a small group of secluded monks still living in the main monastery of Lavra. If you hike up to the ridge, where the Georgia-Azerbaijan border is located, and follow the dusty trail, you can visit the abandoned monastery of Udabno and its 10th-13th century frescoes, from Georgia’s fresco Renaissance. Unlike Vardzia, which is located in green mountains, Davit Gareji is situated in a desert and is far less visited due to the bad roads. You can either charter a guide in Tbilisi or do what we did, which was to take a marshrutka to Sagarejo, and then a taxi. Make sure you don’t pay more than 50 GEL.
    • Uplistsikhe is an ancient city, and the former capital of the ancient kingdom of Iberia. The smooth white rocks have been worn down over the centuries. You can easily combine this as a day trip from Tbilisi to Gori.
  • Signaghi: Located in the heart of the Kakheti wine region, the hill town of Signaghi is set on a hilly outcrop overlooking the flat plains all the way to Caucasus Mountains. Its small winding streets, galleried balconies, castle walls, and greenery give it a romantic feel. If you have time, try to visit the monastery at Bodbe and take an icy dip in St. Nino’s spring.
  • Gori: Joseph Stalin’s hometown can be done as a day trip from Tbilisi. The Stalin Museum is one of the most surreal places I’ve ever visited, since it feels like a shrine to the dictator, with his childhood home preserved on the grounds , along with his private train carriage.
    • The museum itself houses photographs, such as Stalin voting for himself, his death mask, and a number of Stalin carpets and tapestries.
    • There is a small room on the ground floor that acknowledges his purges, but the museum glosses over the atrocities.
    • The town’s love for Stalin meant that the last statue of the Soviet dictator was only removed a few years ago, at night, so as not to upset the residents.
  • Mtskheta is an easy half-day trip from Tbilisi, since it only takes 30 minutes by marshrutka. There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the town: the Svetitskhovloba Cathedral and the Jvari Monastery, with views over the city and the Mtkvari River. Do note that if you visit any Georgian churches or monasteries as a woman you should bring a headscarf, and perhaps even a skirt or a shawl to wrap around your waist.

Cultural Information

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The Georgians speak their own language, Georgian, which is unrelated to any language group outside the Caucasus Region. The first thing you’ll notice is their beautiful, but indecipherable alphabet (it took me two weeks to learn just that). You can get by in Russian or English without problems. Don’t worry about speaking Russian from a political standpoint; the Georgians in general don’t hate Russian people or the language, it’s the politicians they have a problem with.  In fact, a lot of Russians travel to Georgia on holiday. That said, do avoid talking about the conflict with Russia, and stay away from topics concerning the de facto regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Georgians are Orthodox Christian, and Georgia is the second earliest Christian state, after Armenia, in the world. They are very friendly people and will help you out whenever they can. They love to eat, drink and party. Perhaps you might get lucky and be invited to a supra, a Georgian feast with lots of drinking and toasting. The latter is often made with either wine or chacha, a Georgian spirit made from grape pomace, often homemade, and can be dangerous, especially for your liver.

Read 20 Foreign Drinking Rules and Customs You Need to Know and 8 of the Cheapest Destinations for Wine Tasting

Armenia

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Armenia is probably the poorest  of the three countries, but it is rich with culture, beautiful landscapes, friendly people, and excellent brandy! Armenia gave the world far more than the Kardashians (“Kim Kardashian is to Armenia what Borat is to Kazakhstan,” to quote my Armenian guide), as the country was the first to become a Christian State, and its unique language was studied by Lord Byron himself. Armenia borders on Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran, but only the borders with Georgia and Iran are open.

Cities

  • Yerevan: After taking a marshrutka over the bumpy and dusty roads leading down from the Georgian border, I was pleasantly surprised by Yerevan’s cosmopolitan feel. With wide boulevards and crowds of people sitting in outdoor pavilions around its opera house, in the summer Yerevan is as much of a party city as Madrid in Spain. Walk up the Cascade, a modern art museum and open-air sculpture, to take in views of Mount Ararat at sundown, go to the poignant Armenian Genocide Memorial, and finish the evening with the singing fountains at Republic Square.

Find a hostel in Armenia

Eat & drink

  • Brandy: Armenia is famous for its brandy, and even Winston Churchill said he favored it above French Cognac (it’s much cheaper too). Ararat is the most famous brand, and you can visit the distillery at the Yerevan Brandy Company.
  • Khorovats: This is essentially grilled meat similar to a kebab. It can be made from a variety of meats, including pork, chicken, beef, or lamb. It’s flavored with onions and local spices and often served alongside eggplants, bell peppers, and sometimes lavash bread.
  • Lavash is a very thin flat bread with a chewy texture that you’ll find served at any good Armenian meal. Try it with stews or khorovats.
  • Fruit: The fruit in Armenia is incredible, so try some of the apricots and pomegranates fresh from the local market. Apparently, apricots originate from Armenia, and the Romans even named it prunus armeniaca. You can also try fruit in the form of fruit leather or with an alcoholic twist in orgee, fruit vodkas.

Do

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  • Monastery Hopping: Armenia’s early Christian heritage has gifted it with a number of historic monasteries, worth visiting either for architectural reasons or natural ones.
    • The Geghard Monastery is built partly into the rock of the cave that encapsulates it. With elaborate carvings and its location in the gorge, it’s easy to see why this is one of the most visited sites in Armenia.
    • Khor Virap is where Christianity began in Armenia, after St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for years in a hole under the present day church. Architecturally, Khor Virap is a fairly standard Armenian monastery, but the view of Mount Ararat  makes it worth the visit. This is as close as you can get to the Biblical mountain without crossing the closed Turkish border.
    • You can combine this with a trip to Noravank further south, which is stunning in both architecture and in nature. With the iron red rocky gorge that surrounds it, Tatev in the south is also a mix between the two components.
    • Echmiadzin is Armenia’s “Vatican City,” and best seen on Sunday while the services are going on.
  • Lake Sevan is one of the world’s highest fresh water lakes, and Armenia’s largest body of water. Unlike Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenia is a landlocked country, so the locals come to Sevan to bathe.
    • There is plenty to see surrounding the blue waters of this fresh water lake, like the Sevanavank monastic complex on a peninsula near Sevan town and the Noratus cemetery filled with hundreds of khackars, Armenian gravestones, in ordered lines.
  • The Debed Canyon combines natural beauty with history, along with two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries. Since the road from Yerevan to Tbilisi runs through here, you can even use it as a stopping base to break up the journey between the cities if you’re hiring a taxi, or you can even take a tour that specializes in the Yerevan-Tbilisi sightseeing route.

Cultural Information

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Like Georgia, Armenia has its own language, Armenian, with its very own unique alphabet (completely unrelated to Georgian). It forms its very own Indo-European language family. You’ll find people who speak English in Yerevan, but you might need to resort to your Russian dictionary when you go outside  the capital.

Armenians are Christian, with the Armenian Apostolic Church as their religion. You’ll find that Armenian culture is similar to much of Eastern Europe. Avoid the topic of Azerbaijan, and be careful when talking about Nagorno Karabakh. On the topic of the Armenian Genocide, treat the subject with respect. Talking about the Soviet Union is fine, and most people are happy to discuss it.

Read The World’s Most Underrated Destinations

Azerbaijan

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Rich with oil from the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is the most prosperous country of the three. With cosmopolitan Baku as its capital, located on the shores of the Caspian Sea, numerous mud volcanoes, desert plains, and green valleys in the Caucasus Mountains, Azerbaijan is a country that perfectly blends the east with western culture. It shares land borders with Russia, Georgia, Armenia (closed border), Iran, and also shares a border with Turkey with the Nakhivachan exclave (separated by Armenia), and has connections by sea to Central Asia.

Cities

  • Baku: is not only the capital city of Azerbaijan, but it is also the largest city in the Caucasus region.
    • Its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and the Maiden Tower as its key sites.
    • Strolls along the Baku Boulevard allow you to take in views of the Caspian Sea and the modern skyscrapers, like the Flame Towers, which come to life with “fire” at night.
    • Make sure you take a day to go to the Atashgah Fire Temple just outside the city or Yanar Dagh, a small mountain on the Absheron Peninsula that has been continuously on fire from natural gas for over a thousand years.
  • Ganja is often left out of the travel itinerary, since many travelers go straight to Baku, but this is one of the oldest cities in the Caucasus, and if you’re planning to stay longer than a few days in Azerbaijan, it’s a good place to go.
    • There are plenty of historic and medieval sites, like the bathhouse and the old caravanserai, the Shah Abbas Mosque was built in the 15th century.
    • For something more contemporary, check out the private house made from bottles! Also of interest is the tomb of the Central Asian poet Nizami, which is located just outside the city.

Find a hostel in Azerbaijan

Eat & drink

  • Ayran is a drink made out of yogurt, with salt and chilled water. It’s perfect for a really hot summer’s day to cool you down and rehydrate.
  • Sherbet: This is a sweet, nectar type drink made from either saffron, rose petals, or fruits, and often boiled with sugar. It’s a very light, drink, of Persian origin.
  • Plov is a rice dish with many different toppings, such as mutton, dried fruits, and eggs, and while it’s also found in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, it’s considered to be one of Azerbaijan’s most important dishes.
  • Dolmasi: You can find these parcels of stuffed vine leaves or cabbage leaves all over the Mediterranean, Balkans, and the Caucasus, but each country has its own flavor profile. Just because you tried stuffed vine leaves in Greece doesn’t mean you’ve tried Azerbaijani Dolmasi. The filling is often meat, but the exterior can be any one of a variety of leaves, including grape, cabbage, and even eggplant.

Do

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  • Sheki: Situated on the green slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, the city of Sheki is located in the north of Azerbaijan close to Georgia’s south-eastern border.
    • Once a town on the Silk Route, Sheki is rich in history and historic Islamic architecture.
    • It’s famous for its caravanserai, a key stopping point on the Silk Road, still operating as an inn, but you can also just visit to have something to eat and admire the architecture.
    • There is also the Khansarai, a former summer palace for the Sheki Khans, beautiful on the inside and on the outside. It’s a nice place to come to for a cool down in the summer.
    • Invest in an Azeri, Russian, or Turkish phrasebook when visiting Sheki, since you’ll find many of the locals, especially outside of Baku, won’t speak English.
  • Qoubustan: The site of the rock petroglyphs in Qoubustan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and easily done as a daytrip from Baku.
    • The oldest petroglyph dates back to the 12th century BC, but the area has been settled since the 8th millennium BC.
    • The engravings on the rocks have captured the daily lives of its former inhabitants, with people, animals, ship,s and astronomical constellations.
  • Mud Volcanoes: Azerbaijan has over 300 mud volcanoes (there are 700 in the world), most of which are located on the eastern part of Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea. You can visit some of these easily, such as the ones near Qoubustan, which you can combine with a trip to see the petrogylphs.
  • Shopping: Azerbaijan is a great place to go shopping, especially if you’re staying in Baku. Have a look for antiques in Baku’s Old Town, and shop around for some beautiful Azeri carpets and souvenirs around Baku. Check out the area around the Boulevard or for luxury goods go down to Nizami Street.

Cultural Information

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Unlike Georgia and Armenia, Azerbaijan is a Muslim (mostly Shiite) country, but the state is secular. Culturally you’ll find it’s quite similar to Turkey, and even the Azeri language is part of the Turkic family, so if you know any Turkish, you’ll find you can survive traveling in Azerbaijan with little problem. Failing that, you’ll find a lot of people speak Russian, too, but more and more are speaking English. Avoid talking about the Nagorno Karabakh conflict or anything to do with Armenia, this is a very sore point for Azerbaijanis. Also, don’t speak badly about their president Ilham Aliyev. Try to read up a bit on the etiquette and the dos and don’ts in the country. There are a lot of social rules, like the Azerbaijanis won’t raise their voices in public, so do some homework before going so you’re a respectful traveler.

Read about Walled Cities Around the World

Adding the South Caucasus to your RTW trip

If off-the-beaten path is what you want out of your big trip, then adding the South Caucasus to your RTW trip may be for you. Check out the multi-stop trip below for ideas on how to plan your route. Remember that every trip you see highlighted on Indie can be completely customized to fit your needs by registering for a free account.

 

manifesto - value private transformation

Photo: 2 – Tommy and Georgie, 3 – Andres Rueda, 8 – Mortsan, 9 – Maks Karochkin, 13 – peretzp, 14 – Sergio Alonso de Leon, 15 – Retlway Snellac, 16 – indigoprime, Paata Vardanashvili, all others courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission

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