Stretching from the border with Armenia in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west, Azerbaijan is a hidden travel gem still uncharted by tourist crowds.
Tens of flights leaving from Europe’s capitals every week have put the futuristic capital of Baku on the map. But there’s so much more to explore outside of the city - especially for adventure lovers.
Like other countries in the region, Azerbaijan - also known as the Land of Fire - is surrounded by formidable, snow-capped mountains luring climbers and hikers towards their breathtaking heights.
But unlike some of its landlocked neighbours, Azerbaijan has also been blessed with a warm sea on the east and a diversity of unparalleled landscapes.
“In the south, you have a subtropical climate and these fairytale villages with a permanent mist, moss-covered stones, waterfalls, small rivers, and lots of traditional homes,” Florian Sengstschmid, CEO of the Azerbaijan Tourism Board (ATB), tells Euronews.
“Then you move through these semi-desert, moon-like landscapes with a lot of mud volcanoes. Halfway you have Baku and the Caspian Sea and then you go up the mountains, 4,000 feet (1220 metres) and more.”
Where is the best for adventure in Azerbaijan??
One of the best things about Azerbaijan is that visiting feels like a unique experience.
“Very few people have hiked or experienced the greater Caucasus, the Lesser Caucasus, the Talysh mountains,” Sengstschmid says, listing the incredible mountain ranges of Azerbaijan.
You don’t have to be an experienced climber to tackle these mountains, either. While some routes are only safe for experts, others are accessible to any level of experience and fitness.
There are all kinds of other adventurous activities to do in Azerbaijan too, from hiking to canyoning and even skiing in winter.
While half of the country is occupied by mountains, there’s more to Azerbaijan than its peaks. From highlands, plateaus, plains and lowlands to rivers, lakes, waterfalls, beaches and mud volcanoes scattered across the territory, a journey through the country is nature’s rollercoaster.
“Depends on what you love, there’s something for everyone,” Sengstschmid says.
“There are great spots for kitesurfing on the Caspian Sea, and if you’re into hiking I’d recommend you go visit some of the mountain villages, where locals speak a different language and have some very unique traditions.”
Where to experience Azerbaijan’s cultural history
Visit Gobustan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, to admire the 40,000-year-old history carved in the area’s stones, with over 6,000 rock engravings.
Don’t miss a visit to Nakhchivan, an autonomous republic within Azerbaijan that is home to a mediaeval mountaintop fortress, Soviet apartment blocks and gold-dome mosques. Still widely unknown to many in the world, this is one of the most isolated outposts of the former Soviet Union and makes for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
You can’t leave Azerbaijan without a visit to its famous mud volcanoes and fire temples - the only traces of the country’s Zoroastrian history - forever burning on top of natural gas fields.
The country is scattered with traces of its diverse history.
To the surprise of foreign visitors, Azerbaijan is home to the “oldest Jewish settlement outside of Israel,” Sengstschmid says as well as, “German heritage villages, the Polish architecture in Baku, and the industrial remains of the bridges the Siemens brothers built in the country when they were mining copper there.”
How easy is it to travel across the country?
According to Sengstschmid, travelling across Azerbaijan is “super easy”.
“Infrastructure is great, roads are great,” he says. While you can rent a car and drive yourself around, if you get a local driver “Google Translate is super helpful if your driver doesn’t speak English,” Sengstschmid says, adding that this is quite a common way of communicating with tourists in Azerbaijan.
While many prefer independence, getting a driver or a local guide through the country’s mountains will help you discover hidden gems along the way - “and it’s very cheap,” says Sengstschmid.
What should you eat in Azerbaijan?
Azerbaijan’s cultural landscape is as rich as its natural one.
“Food is a second religion,” Sengstschmid says, and the country’s undisputed culinary king is plov , a saffron-infused rice dish which accompanies grilled kebabs, skewered meats and dolma.
Other dishes to try are dushbara - Azerbaijani dumplings similar to tortellini; kuku, an onion omelette served with flatbread and plov; piti, the traditional soup; and lavangi, fish or chicken stuffed with walnuts, raisins, onions, sumac and much more, including pomegranate molasses.
Azerbaijani wine, while not as famous worldwide as Georgia wine, is just as good. Despite the fact that the country has a Muslim majority, you’re still able to buy a glass of wine in most places as Azerbaijan is “multicultural and secular,” Sengstschmid says.