Azerbaijan is not a name you’ll hear frequently when it comes to bucket list destinations. But if you’re a traveller seeking far flung locations and the road less travelled, you will find a lot to enjoy here. A country by the Caspian Sea straddling both Eastern Europe and Western Asia, Azerbaijan is home to ancient mosques and modern architecture, mud volcanoes and flaming mountains. Why else do you think it’s also called the Land of Fire? Here’s our roundup of the top places to visit in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s capital is a curious mix of the old and new, evident in its old walled city and towering skyscrapers with LCD screens. Don’t miss the Flame Towers, the focal point of Baku. Three towers that resemble fire light up after sunset and cast a bronze glow over the city at night. For a taste of the ‘old’, head to Icheri Seher, the medieval core and protected quarter of the city. Get a feel of what life was like between the 12th and 15th century with a tour to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and the Maiden Tower. Come here not just for the ancient architecture, but also for its local market, handicrafts, ceramics and textiles. The wealth of things to see in Baku make this one of the top places to visit in Azerbaijan!
2. Absheron National Park
For a nature experience, get out of the city and head over to Absheron National Park. The wildlife who call this place home includes a variety of birds, foxes, jackals, tortoises and snakes. In total, more than 50 types of animals and 25 species of plants live here, including the rare endangered Caspian seal. Sightings have been next to none in recent years but if you’re feeling lucky, time your trip between May and August. The waters here are also known to be crystal clear and teeming with sea snakes!
3. Garasu Volcano
Fun fact: Azerbaijan has the highest number of mud volcanoes in the world, and one of the top places to visit in Azerbaijan is Garasu Volcano. It is known to spew mud over 1,000 metres into the air! A trip here is incredibly surreal and makes you feel as if you’re on another planet. In fact, NASA geologists studying Mars have concluded that Azerbaijan’s mud volcanoes have a similar structure to the uplands of Mars!
4. Garabag Resort & Spa
For a controversial health and beauty experience, look to an unusual local oil – Naftalan. Too thick for commercial use and not very good for burning, the crude oil is touted to ease over 70 skin, joint and bone diseases. People have been bathing in it since ancient times, with the earliest record in the 12th century. At Garabag Resort & Spa, guests have to go through a full medical checkup. After the initial tests are done, then they are led to their first oil bath. Each bath lasts 10 minutes, with courses of treatments running from seven days to three weeks. Guests may also supplement their plans with physiotherapy, massages, ozone therapy and salt chamber sessions.
5. Caspian Sea
Its name is somewhat misleading, as the Caspian Sea is more of a lake than sea. In fact, it is the largest lake in the world. The Azerbaijani coastline is one of the top places to visit in Azerbaijan. It stretches a whopping 500km from its southern border with Iran to Dagestan in the north! Although some of its beaches near Baku suffer from pollution, you can find beautiful resorts in Sumgait and Lankaran near the Iranian border. Popular activities on the Caspian Sea include boat tours, diving, and fishing.
Azerbaijan is known as the Land of Fire due the natural oil and gases burning underneath its earth. It is said to have inspired fire worshippers who later founded Zoroastrianism. In ancient times, people thought that these burning gas outlets were evidence of a divine being, and temples were built upon the sites. One of these temples is Ateshgah in the suburb of Surakhany. It dates back to the 17th century, and the ancient temple complex houses a fire altar in the centre. Although, the natural gases where it was built over have been exhausted, and today the fire is fed from a gas pipeline.
7. Yanar Bulag
For an intriguing natural phenomenon, Yanar Bulag is famous for its burning water. Located in Arçivan village, this water can be set alight due to the levels of natural methane in it. The locals believe the water has health properties and can cure a whole host of diseases. In fact, people come from all over the region to collect water from the spring. It’s not uncommon for them to take a swig while the flame is still alight! We’re not sure about the health benefits, but the water looks, tastes and smells like normal water.
An important destination in Azerbaijani culture makes Quba one of the top places to visit in Azerbaijan. The ancient mountain town is full of history and points of interest that still remain. One example is the Juma-Mosque, built in 1802 in an octagonal prism with a huge dome. The city also draws in summer vacationers thanks to its cooler climate and beautiful mountain scenery that surround the cultural communities. Nearby, the village of Khinalug at 2,350m above sea level offers stunning landscapes and plenty of hiking opportunities.