You might have noticed that during the past couple of years, your Instagram has been flooded by pictures of your friends in this mystical ‘Land of Fire’. It is no surprise either since the country boasts beautiful nature, delicious cuisine and competitive prices. Being so close to my country of residence, the UAE, I was tempted to see what all the fuss was about. One of the great advantages of visiting Azerbaijan from here is that the flights are extremely cheap and frequent. Moreover, the trip from Abu Dhabi to Baku only takes around 3 hours so it makes for the perfect long-weekend getaway.
If you are planning your own trip, make sure you check their visa requirements first as the paperwork can get a little tedious. Like Russia, Azerbaijan requires that you provide a ‘tourist voucher’ in order to apply for the visa. A tourist voucher can be arranged with any tour guide but can take some time. Luckily, Azerbaijan has one of the weirdest visa-laws I have ever heard of in my life, each UAE national is allowed two accompanying expats who will receive visas upon arrival in the airport.
Before I get into the blog, I wanna take a minute to discuss some of the things you need to keep in mind when planning out the provisions of your trip. You probably won’t be spending the entire trip in Baku since most nature-related activities are around a 3-4 hour drive away from the city. Therefore, you can either take a day trip (which is actually what we did), or you may decide to spend a night or two in Qabala, Guba, Shaki, etc. It really just depends on how long you are there for. Either way, it is worth contacting a tour guide before booking any hotels since they do get some special rates and discounts. Moreover, I was told to hire a driver for the day trips but I think I would’ve actually preferred renting a car and turning it into a road trip. Anyway, we contacted Ten Travel Baku Tour Company and they were great, you can contact Mr. Ali, the owner, directly via his cell phone: +994 55 903 7010. As for the hotel, I strongly recommend The Fairmont Flame Towers. The rooms were spacious, the view was great and the breakfast was fantastic. Their spa was absolutely perfect too, especially after a long day of touring.
Day 1: Baku’s Old Town
Not sure if it was just our bad luck or whether it’s normally the case but passport control in Baku’s International Airport took way longer than I expected; they weren’t too efficient and the language barriers didn’t help either. If you haven’t already arranged for airport pick-up, check out Uber since they are widely spread and very cheap in Azerbaijan.
After checking into your hotel and freshening up a little, head down to the concierge and make reservations at Mangal Steakhouse for tonight. When that’s done, make your way towards the Old Town. Although an Uber might seem tempting, I strongly recommend that you walk since you’re new to the city and there is no better way to kick start that travel mood than wandering around on foot. Baku’s walled Old Town is the historical core of Baku and probably its number 1 touristic attraction. This part of the city dates back to the 12th Century making it the most ancient part of the capital. Moreover, it is also the first location in Azerbaijan to be classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. From the outside, the great walls surrounding the town give it a strong and fortified vibe while the tight alleyways and hospitable neighborhoods behind the walls translate completely different emotions.
If you are into photography, make sure you bring your tripod along for this one. The winding pedestrian streets squeezed between the historic buildings make for an awesome photoshoot spot. Make your way through the Old Town to Qiz Qalasi, known as the Maiden Tower. On the way there, you will walk past countless cafes and restaurants, it is a good idea to stop for lunch now since you’ll be on the move pretty much until dinner later. Right below the tower, there are several ice cream and baklava vendors so make sure you grab some dessert later.
Like the town, the tower dates back to the 12th Century but its purpose is actually the subject of many debates. Some historians insist that it was built for military tenacities while others believe it is a spiritual place. More recent studies indicate that the tower was actually built as an observatory for astronomical reasons. This theory also takes the place’s spiritual presence into consideration. Although we will never be sure why exactly this wonder why constructed, we can still appreciate its magnificence and unique architecture (you’ll see what’s unique about it when you visit the place).
When you’re done munching on some of that delicious pistachio baklava and gelato, make sure you burn it all off by walking to Martyr’s Alley. The cemetery and memorial dedicated to those killed by the Soviet Army during Black January is built on top of a hill in the southern side of the city. There are two ways for you to get to the top: climb up countless flights of stairs or take the funicular. I have no doubt you’re still feeling guilty from all that sugar and will choose the former :p
However way you choose to go, the end result will always be the same… a magnificent view of the Caspian Sea as it hugs Baku’s shores (see what I did there). Moreover, you’ll also get some awesome outlooks of the Flame Towers with a beautiful mosque posing right in front of them. Besides the views, make sure you check out the Eternal Flame and then visit the actual burial site and pay your respects to the deceased.
If you took my advice and prompt for the Fairmont, you’re in luck because the hotel is a mere 5 minute walk from the memorial. Head back to your room and relax for the remaining time until your dinner reservation. When the time comes, get dressed in all your fancy clothes and order an Uber ride to the steakhouse. All things considered, Mangal’s steak was absolutely delicious although slightly overpriced (compared to Baku’s other steakhouses). It was not my favorite restaurant in the city but it is the most famous and definitely worth a visit. We will be visiting a steakhouse for dinner each night by the way so if you’re not a meat lover, I suggest you ignore this part of the blog; however, I must mention… I am saving the best for last 😉 After dinner, you might find it challenging to find an Uber, if that is the case, make sure you take a normal cab and haggle for the best price. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT take the London Cabs, their meters belong in a 100 meter hurdle race. It doesn’t help either that the driver takes longer routes on purpose.
Day 2: Visiting Qabala
Good Morning! I hope you went straight back to your hotel room after dinner last night because today will be long, and will start pretty early. I know you might still be feeling full from all the steak and sujuk that you had but the Fairmont’s breakfast is not to be missed. To really get the most out of your day and make it back in time for dinner, ask the driver to meet you (or head out if you rented a car) at 9 AM. However, before leaving, don’t forget to make a dinner reservation at Elvet Steakhouse, 10 PM should be a good time. I also urge you to have a hefty breakfast since you’re gonna be stuck in the car for around 3-4 hours depending on traffic.
The first destination in Qabala is the Yeddi Gozel Waterfall which is actually made up of a number of little falls. Kinda hurts me to add this to the itinerary to be honest as it was disappointing to say the least. However, since you’ve driven all the way to Qabala, you might as well. I reckon this place would be impressive to someone who’s never seen any waterfalls before but if you’ve been to countries like Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Iceland, Faroe Islands, etc. then don’t expect to be amazed. The entire walk to the last waterfall takes around 20 minutes with some steep steps; so I reckon you should spend a total of 1-2 hours here considering you’ll be stopping for pictures, etc.
The next stop of the day, Nohur Gol, is a tranquilizing lake that will definitely satisfy the photographer within you. Here, you can take a paddle boat around the lake, do some lake-side yoga, walk around looking for that perfect photography spot or even ask the locals to lend you a fishing rod and see what you catch! There is an old, run-down café by the lake, not sure what they serve exactly but I wouldn’t recommend it anyway; even the coffee was terrible. It is a shame though because this would be a prime spot for lunch, certainly think someone should invest in a proper restaurant.
On your way to the funicular, stop by a supermarket and purchase some snacks. Remember, you won’t be having a proper meal until you get back to Baku at night so crisps and Snickers aint such a bad idea. You’ll also find some local kids selling walnuts and berries by the funicular in case that’s something you prefer. Once you’ve gotten your food supply, purchase a ticket for all four stops and begin your journey to Tufandag!
Although it is technically a ski resort, Tufandag is equally stunning all year round. If you’re visiting during the warmer months, you will not be able to hit the slopes but you’ll still experience some breathtaking views of the mountains and hidden towns tucked in between the sheer cliffs. Don’t rush all the way to the top since each stop has its hidden gems. You’ll be getting off the funicular four times so walk around each stop, enjoy the cold breeze and high altitude.
The final stop of the day is Qabala’s Shooting Club. This last activity is optional depending on how late you want to drive back to Baku. Nevertheless, it was pretty fun and will only take you around an hour. If you have been before, let me know in the comment section below what you thought of the Yeddi Gozel Falls and the Shooting Club.
The drive back, this is when having a driver will really come in handy since you’ll no doubt be exhausted by this point. To add insult to injury, the drive back feels way longer for some odd reason. On the way back to Baku, make sure you make a quick stop to check out Yanar Dag (best seen at night), which means ‘burning mountain’. This site is particularly cool since it looks like the mountain is on fire even though it’s actually a natural gas fire blazing continuously. The flames jet into the air 3 meters from a thin, porous sandstone layer. It is claimed that the Yanar Dag flame was only noted when it was accidentally lit by a shepherd in the 1950s, it has been burning ever since. No surprise why the country is literally named, The Land of Fire.
Depending on the time and how hungry you are, you can either stop by your hotel to shower and change or get dropped off straight at Elvet Steakhouse. If you still have the energy after dinner, you can go have dessert in one of Nizami Street’s countless cafes and restaurants… or you can have baklava at Elvet 😉
Day 3: Gobustan & the Mud Volcanoes
Once again, enjoy a hefty breakfast at the Fairmont’s buffet before visiting the concierge to make a reservation at Prive Steakhouse, easily my favorite one in Baku. Tonight, aim to have dinner by 6 PM, this will give you time to explore Nizami Street, Baku’s main pedestrian boulevard, afterwards. Once you’ve all stuffed your faces with omelets, sausages, cheese, waffles and pancakes make your way to Gobustan National Park. When you get to Gobustan, skip the museum and head straight to the actual park, nothing really worth seeing in the museum anyway.
The park is located around 40 miles southwest of Baku and was established in 1966 when the area was declared a national historical landmark in the country. The region as then protected in attempt to preserve the ancient carvings, mud volcanoes and gas stones. The park is very rich in archeological monuments with over 600,000 rock paintings which depict primitive men, women, animals, battle-pieces, ritual dances, bullfights, boats, warriors and much more. The carvings date back to 5,000 to 20,000 years! If you’re interested to know more about the carvings and the history of the park, you can hire an English speaking guide at the entrance.
Around 100 meters past the entrance, you’ll notice a line of people waiting to get photographed at the top of a hanging rock. The spot actually has great potential if you know where to position yourself with the camera. Look at the picture below and try figure out where it was taken from. Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to pull it off without some optical zoom (unless you crop the hell out of the picture).
The mud volcanoes were my favorite part of the trip, probably because it was a completely new experience. Your car won’t be able to make it all the way in but luckily there are plenty of drivers that are willing to take you in their old Ladas. The ride will only cost you around 10 Manat too! In addition to taking you to the volcanoes, the drivers also throw in a thrilling driving experience. I won’t say much as to not ruin the element of surprise here but let’s just say I hope you’ve digested your breakfast already.
Despite being named volcanoes, the mud is actually really cold. Moreover, the mud has countless benefits to your skin as it is loaded with multiple vitamins and nutrients… who needs expensive creams and lotions when you’ve got an endless, natural supply of this stuff! Don’t be afraid to dip your hand in the mud and rub it all over your arms and face, the more the merrier. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll even see one of the volcanoes erupt sending mud all over the place. If you’re extremely lucky, you might get covered in mud from the eruption 😛
If you really made the most out of your time at the volcanoes, then you should be covered in mud from head to toe right now so stopping by the hotel to change is a good idea. We stopped by a doner shop on the way back to the hotel and I felt pretty awkward standing there with a face covered in mud. It didn’t help that none of my friends came anywhere near the mud either… buzzkills. The rest of your day will be pretty chilled and you’ll probably head straight to dinner so you can dress fancy if you’d like. Spend the next few hours visiting the Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by Zaha Hadid, and Baku’s very own Venice. If you’re visiting during summer, these areas will be pact with tourists and locals enjoying the sunny day. At the Heydar Aliyev Center, we must have spotted at least 5 different couples posing for their wedding photoshoot, don’t see the charm in the spot to be honest but seems to be a trend nonetheless.
6 PM, behold some of the best steaks you’ll ever have. Make sure you try the Asado ribs, spaghetti steak, dry-aged steak, flank steak and top it all off with sujuk. If you’re still hungry, ask the manager what he recommends, the quality of their service is top notch and you can definitely trust in his recommendations. Honestly, I cannot think of anything negative to say about this place; we were actually told that our bill was the highest they’ve ever seen for three people… that is how much we feasted!
Once you’ve recovered from your food comma, walk out to Nizami Street which is actually right by the restaurant. Spend the rest of the night wandering around buying souvenirs, desserts, juices and people watching.
Day 4: Goodbye Azerbaijan
In a long weekend, you’ve enjoyed historical sights, natural scenery, ancient carvings, delicious food and lively street vibes… that’s what I call time well spent. Today, it’s time to chill and destress. Start your day with a massage at Fairmont’s ESPA. Their staff is well trained and extremely professional, absolutely worth the price. After the massage, spend some time enjoying the spa’s generous facilities before going downstairs for breakfast.
After you’ve eaten, I suggest you go back up to your room to shower, get changed, pack and finally check out. Leave your luggage at the hotel and head back down to Nizami Street. You’ll notice a completely different side of the area during the day, more of a European vibe. Finish off any left-over shopping that needs to be done and maybe enjoy a coffee at Mado. When you start feeling hungry again, head over to Firuze Restaurant for some traditional Azeri dishes. It was at this restaurant, when I devoured an entire lamb’s thigh on my own before sharing some of my friends’ kebabs, that they looked over at me and called me an animal XD
With light hearts and heavy stomachs, pick your luggage up from the hotel and head over to the airport. This concludes your trip to Azerbaijan but remember that the adventure never ends. There are a total of 195 countries in the world, you’ve just completed visiting one so where will you travel to next? Let me know in the comments section below. Moreover, also let us know what you thought of Azerbaijan; did you go anywhere in addition to the places I mentioned in this blog? Did you try any other restaurants? Share your experiences but more importantly… Grasp the Adventure!
PS: Do me a huge favor guys, if you followed this itinerary, please comment on what you liked, what you didn’t like, anything you did differently or anything you’d change. Most importantly though, rate this trip out of 10 so that other travelers, explorers and adventurers can also benefit from your experience 🙂