Cultural exchange. Broadened perspective. Deeper understanding. These are the reasons we travel. These are the reasons traveling to places unblemished by tourism trends and unblemished by overtourism is so important.
In the earliest days of global travel, the Silk Road offered an exchange of ideas, goods, culture, politics, architecture, and cuisine. Today, in places, it still does. Places like Azerbaijan. Located on the west coast of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is approximately the size of Austria, stretching from the seashore beaches to tiny mountain villages. Thanks to the injection of products, people, and practices from both east and west through the centuries, Azerbaijan is a crossroads. Travelers today will relish the rich amalgamation of European and Asian influences; they will also be welcomed by the Azerbaijani tradition of hospitality and tolerance.
This story was created in partnership with Azerbaijan Tourism Board. All photos courtesy of Azerbaijan Tourism Board.
We recommend arriving in the hub and capital city of Baku. Not only will this be a great launching point for your travels (think: rental car, exchanging your money, connecting with guides, etc.), it’s also an excellent introduction to the many early influences that make Azerbaijan what it is today. Take a walking tour of the Old City or Inner City, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The cultural center and heart of Baku is a veritable architectural tour, from the 6th to 12 centuries and Medieval structures to Asian and European influences, from Soviet and oil boom buildings to Gothic and post-modern styles, all of which you can appreciate alongside traditional Azerbaijani crafts and cuisine. Be sure to ponder the 12th-century Maiden Tower—no one knows what its original purpose was!
The contemporary side of Baku will intrigue you as well. As one of the first nations in the world to mass produce oil, Azerbaijan’s oil money not only created a realm of luxury, it now fuels reclamation and investment in sustainability across the country. Distinct skyscrapers mark the skyline, and sandy beaches call to travelers’ tired feet.
After getting to know Azerbaijan in Baku, embark on a voyage in any direction for a wide variety of experiences.
History and Culture Along the Sea
Take a step farther back in history in Gobustan, about 40 miles southwest of Baku. This UNESCO World Heritage site has almost 6,000 petroglyphs that date back as far as 40,000 years ago. This rock art landscape is surrounded by the Caspian Sea to one side, a small volcano to the other, and the world’s highest concentration of mud volcanoes all around.
Did you know you can gaze into the very same flames that Marco Polo once did? Azerbaijan’s oil-rich economy is also its oil-rich heritage. In the town of Surakhani just east of Baku stands the Ateshgah Fire Temple, built by Zoroastrians in the second and third centuries and destroyed in the 18th century, then rebuilt by Hindus in the 18th century. In the neighboring village of Mammadli, you’ll find Yanardag, the burning mountain Marco Polo wrote about. The base of the hillside is still marked by enduring flames along a 10-meter stretch, a remarkable place to stand and connect with history and culture. We recommend you visit this site at dawn or dusk for the most dramatic (and photographable) experience.
This is just the tip of the country’s cultural sites near the hub of Baku. You’ll find even more history and culture packed into the relatively small country of Azerbaijan, including two more UNESCO world heritage sites (Baku’s Old City including the Maiden Tower and Shirvanshahs’ Palace, and Sheki’s Old City), traditional silk scarf making and “tekelduz” (embroidery with colored thread silk tambour on dark velvet), carpet weaving classes, and much more.
Outdoors and Nature in the Mountains
Heritage and nature meet in the mountains of Azerbaijan. In addition to trekking through small villages that may have their own languages and their own unique traditions thousands of years old, you’ll find views that take your breath away in the northwest region of the nation. The villages of Laza and Khinalig offer incredible hiking with breathtaking views and numerous waterfalls. Be sure to head into the highly rural mountains prepared with knowledge and supplies. Remember to travel sustainably, responsibly, and respectfully through the communities and wilderness, no matter where you choose to hike.
These two stunning, remote villages are truly untraveled, but if you’d like something a little more on the map, check out Azerbaijan’s national parks. One standout experience in these parks is birding. In fact, Azerbaijan has ‘taken off’ as a destination for global birders in the past decade. The parks and nature reserves are ideal for birding and wildlife watching, with nearby towns ready to host you with authentic cuisine and beverages.
Travel, exploration, hiking, and expanding your knowledge of the world is invigorating and empowering. Let’s be honest: it’s also exhausting. Fortunately for your tired knees and sore feet, wellness meets eco-travel and culture in the oil of Naftalan in northwest Azerbaijan. The rare oil here isn’t extracted to fuel vehicles; its purpose is to refuel your health. Local legend states that the oil’s healing properties were discovered by a Silk Road merchant who left one of his sick camels by a pool of naftalan oil. When he returned, he found his camel fully recovered. Today’s treatments (for humans) are simple baths in the oil to treat aches and pains.
Another Azerbaijani wellness experience rooted in mining is salt therapy. Explore restored salt mine caves as treatment for lung ailments and allergies and a fascinating underground adventure. You can even spend the night in some underground salt caverns.
There is much more to experience in this under-the-radar destination. From ski resorts to mountains that look like candy canes, from architecture to nightlife, it’s all relatively undiscovered. Learn more about Azerbaijan and planning your trip at Azerbaijan.travel.