Mention the country of Azerbaijan and you’re likely to get a confused look. Much of the western world isn't familiar with this small, petroleum-rich nation and is even less likely to be able to locate it on a map. Information about it is sketchy at best. Take, for instance, my own first thoughts when I first heard of Azerbaijan: that the name sounded like a vaguely Middle Eastern newly-developed country full of goat herders and antiquated Russian buildings.
Well, I'm in Azerbaijan right now and I can tell you this: any and all stereotypes I had were completely wrong. The truth is that Azerbaijan is a very interesting place full of surprises, and although it might not have any landmarks you’ve heard about, it makes a great stop if you’re in this part of the world.
What part of the world is that? The capital city of Baku is situated on the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest saltwater lake, which also borders Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran. There’s a beautiful waterfront promenade in Baku that boasts a mixture of older buildings interspersed with gleaming modern structures rivaling the architecture of Dubai.
The most famous of these new skyscrapers are the Flame Towers, which consist of three gleaming buildings shaped like flames. They light up at night with high-tech LED lighting imbedded in the mirrored glass windows that play colored patterns and videos of flames lapping up the sides of the buildings. Another landmark is the giant nautilus-shaped building complex called the Heydar Aliyev Center which looks unlike anything you’ve ever seen. A sprawling park surrounds the center, with giant pink snails and gargantuan rabbits dotting the area. Trump Tower Baku is reminiscent of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai with its sail shape. There are plenty of other futuristic edifices that make you feel that you’ve stepped forward in time, with older buildings throughout the mix. Maybe that’s what the snails and rabbits represent—progressive development balanced with slower, traditional ways.
Baku's Old City, whose architecture dates to the 12th century, is a UNESCO site surrounded by ancient walls and historic wooden buildings full of traditional restaurants and cobblestone alleyways. The most famous caviar in the world comes from the Caspian Sea and there’s no place you’ll find it fresher or cheaper than here. The country is 97 percent Muslim, but that doesn't mean teetotalers abound; the Russians left the country with a taste for vodka and no one seems to have an issue with joining you for some shots. The Russians left their legacy in other ways too: Where else can you find last names like Abdullayev?
You could easily find lots of fun things to keep you busy in Baku, but this small country boasts other unique treasures, most of them accessible within a few hours' drive at most.
Yanar Dag is touted as a “fire phenomenon” and is one of the reasons Azerbaijan earned the moniker "the land of fire." A stream of natural gas seeps out of the earth on a hill just north of Baku, which burns perpetually like a giant pizza oven. There’s very little to see other than five-foot flames dancing out of the hill’s fissures, but when you realize that this natural fire has been continuously burning for over 75 years, it’s a bizarre sight indeed. Bring some meat, marshmallows and a stick; no one will judge you for being environmentally conscious and taking advantage of natural energy.
Gobustan National Park is Azerbaijan’s most famous geological site and consists of a mountainous area filled with broken slabs of rock and cliffs covered with over 7,000 petroglyphs that date back to the Stone Age. The park includes a museum with English translations and a path to some of the most accessible engravings. It’s a beautiful walk—if you can avoid the busloads of school children that are shipped in for field days.
An hour south are some of the country's more visited mud volcanoes. Fun fact: Azerbaijan has over half of the world’s mud volcanoes and they make for a very interesting sight. These cone-shaped mud mountains often contain a pool of grayish bubbling mud that sporadically erupts and covers the area with its contents. The mud isn’t hot, as one might expect, and has the consistency and smell of newly poured cement. The surrounding area is surreal, with rolling, gray mud hills cracked and dried from the sun.
It’s a long haul, but the town of Shaki is probably the most beautiful place in the country. Its mountains are reminiscent of the Austrian Alps, with forests and fresh air that seem to belong to a different country. You can stop midway on the four-hour drive and enjoy some tea in a little hut that looks like a Colorado rest area. Also along the way is the town of Gabala, home to interesting ruins from its time as the former capital of Caucasian Albania, along the famed Silk Road, beginning in the 4th century BC.
In Shaki itself, is the gorgeous 18th-century Palace of Shaki Khans, with elaborately painted walls and ceilings. The stained glass is mostly original and the only thing you won’t love about visiting is that photos are verboten. The little town is built on a hill with old stone buildings and its famous for its baklava. The entire population of Azerbaijan salivates in unison when you mention Shaki baklava, though the country's most popular dish is piti. Piti is Azerbaijan's own, delicious version of Irish stew (here, made with potatoes, lamb, chickpeas, saffron and other ingredients) cooked in individual earthen pots made from Shaki clay.
Other popular destinations in the country include the historical town of Ganja (where the residents, interestingly, seem to have never heard of Jamaican “ganja”) and various spots along the Caspian Sea. The oddest attraction in the country is the city of Naftalan, once home to a large collection of "petroleum spas," where you can still sign up to “relax” in a pool of warm black crude oil. Does it treat psoriasis or is it a carcinogenic? That’s the real question.
Whatever you find in Azerbaijan will be a surprise. In the last year, the Azeri manat has declined in value almost 60 percent. What does that mean? It’s happy hour everywhere all day long! Uber rides are $1-2, food and drinks are cheap, and most attractions are only a few dollars. Even the visa process is relatively inexpensive: U.S. citizens require travel permits, but everything can be done online for $20. Right now truly is the best time to go.