My 5 Favorite Remote Places and Hidden Gems in Azerbaijan
Kevin Testa, Travel Sales/Client Services Specialist, knows the backroads and corners of so many MIR destinations, having traveled extensively throughout Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, and beyond. He recently returned from his first visit to Azerbaijan, where he had an opportunity to experience the country’s ancient culture and village life away from the booming capital. Here, Kevin shares insider information on some of his favorite places and experiences in Azerbaijan’s remote corners.
Poised at a crossroads between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, Azerbaijan is a land of contrasts and curiosities, flaunting fascinating Silk Road architecture alongside dramatic mountain landscapes and the stunning, futuristic skyscrapers of its modern capital, Baku. The cosmopolitan Caucasus nation is most commonly thought of for its present role as a major oil and natural gas producer. But that shiny veneer belies an ancient history and competing influences — Persian, Turkish, and Russian — that have impacted it over the centuries.
My interest in Azerbaijan originally came about as an undergrad studying the former USSR at Portland State University. I was intrigued at the pivotal role the country’s oil fields played during WWII, particularly for Nazi Germany. (Hitler famously celebrated his 53rd birthday with a cake in the shape of the Caucasus, cutting the Azeri piece for himself.) I marveled at how, for a brief period between the fall of the Russian Empire and the rise of Soviet Union, Shia-majority Azerbaijan emerged as the first democratic Islamic republic, offering women’s suffrage long before the rest of the world did.
In October 2017, I finally had the opportunity to visit this fascinating country for myself. It surpassed any expectations I may have had.
It’s true that Baku has been having its moment in the spotlight, basking in the glory of hosting such prestigious events as the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest and the Formula 1 motor race.
While the capital is a must-see, I quickly came to realize that Azerbaijan’s gorgeous countryside and timeless rural villages have even more to offer travelers.
Here are just a few of my favorite out-of-the-way places and hidden gems that I experienced while traveling in the remote corners of Azerbaijan.
1. See the City of Khans and Caravans in Sheki
Sheki is one of the oldest towns in Azerbaijan, claiming to have been founded some 2,700 years ago. Set in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus and surrounded by beech and oak forests, the city is one of the loveliest in Azerbaijan, with its cobbled streets and well-preserved stone architecture.
Sheki was once an independent khanate, and the former Khan’s Palace is the glittering jewel of the city. Covered in vivid mosaics and murals and decorated with brilliant stained glass work called shebeke, this royal fortress is one of the most iconic sights in Azerbaijan, and is currently on the UNESCO Tentative List.
(click on photo to see a larger version)
Make sure not to miss the 18th century caravanserai, one of the remaining links to Sheki’s rich past as a stop on the Silk Road. If you have time, also visit the local market for some quick souvenir shopping or an opportunity for people watching.
Sheki is also the best place to try the Azeri take on plov (known humbly as King’s Plov) and halva, a sweet, syrupy, nutty dessert.
Perhaps my favorite hidden gem in the city is the viewpoint near a somber memorial to WWII (called the Great Patriotic War throughout the former Soviet republics). This view gives you a chance to reflect on Sheki’s important place in history as you admire the striking views of the mountains and the city below.
2. Uncover Azerbaijan’s Earliest Cultures in Kish
On the banks of the River Kish, little Kish Village is all that remains of the original Sheki before a terrible 18th century mudslide destroyed the town. Since 1998, archaeologists have been excavating near a 6th century church that survived the slide. The oldest discoveries have been ceramics dating from the early Bronze Age of the Kur-Araz culture, about 3000 BC.
Kish’s main highlight, the Church of St. Elishe, is believed to be one of the first churches built in the Caucasus. Its history is quite contentious — some argue that it was originally founded in the 1st century by the saint himself, but the existing church only dates back to the 12th or 13th centuries. The small stone church, which has been renovated and transformed into a museum, is located over an ancient pagan sacred site. Visitors can see glass-covered excavations of Bronze Age graves found beneath the church.
While here, enjoy a chance to try the ubiquitous Azeri tea, served in the traditional pear-shaped armudu glasses alongside a variety of sweets.
3. Admire Traditional Azeri Crafts in Lahij
One of my favorite stops in Azerbaijan was Lahij, an ancient, almost untouched village that seems worlds away from Baku. Virtually isolated in its mountainous location, its inhabitants speak an ancient dialect of Persian known as Tat, in addition to Farsi, Azeri, and Russian.
The village is known for its apple orchards, but is also home to coppersmiths and carpet weavers, trades that have been practiced here since the Middle Ages.
Beautiful hand-tooled plates, goblets, trays, and samovars are still produced here by master artisans according to age-old traditions. While in Lahij, you can visit the studio of a copper master, and learn about the UNESCO-listed traditions and techniques of casting and working with the richly colored metal.
If copper isn’t your thing, make sure to take advantage of the high-quality saffron and other spices at very affordable prices.
4. Discover the Diversity of the Caucasus in Nij
The Caucasus as a whole is known for its incredible cultural and linguistic diversity, and the small town of Nij in Azerbaijan is no exception.
Nij was part of a historic region known as Caucasian Albania, a once predominantly Christian territory with origins that can be traced as far back as the 5th century BC. The majority of people that settled here belong to a small ethnic group called the Udis, direct descendants of ancient Caucasian Albanians who today have managed to retain their own unique language and distinct form of Christianity. They are among the few practicing Christians living in Azerbaijan today, and enjoy sharing their history and traditions with curious visitors.
Make sure to see the Orthodox Albanian Church of St. Elesei, restored to the Udi people of Nij in 2003. It had been given away to the Armenian patriarchy by Czar Nicholas I in the 19th century. Yet the Udi people in keeping with their beliefs refused to go to the church and held services in their homes even through Soviet times. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the opportunity to tour this unique religious site with the church’s caretakers, all of whom are quite proud of their efforts to maintain their culture, language, and religion.
5. Step Back Into Silk Road History in Shemakha
A renowned grape growing and winemaking district, the ancient village of Shemakha through most of its history was the major commercial center of western Azerbaijan. Present-day Shemakha is known for its finely woven carpets and the 10th century Djuma Mosque, the oldest in the Caucasus.
Shemakha was the former capital of the once-powerful Shirvan Khanate from the 6th to the 15th centuries, and you can find traces of this remarkable history at the royal tombs of Yeddi Gumbaz. The domed mausoleums here may have originally numbered seven, but today only three octagonal royal tombs remain. The mausoleum complex is surrounded by numerous ancient gravestones with carved inscriptions.
Photos, Videos, and More!
While commonly seen as just the “Land of Fire,” Azerbaijan possesses a surprising amount of geographical diversity for a country of its size.
One of the true highlights for me wasn’t just touring the towns, but having the opportunity to see the rural countryside in between. The main road between Baku and Sheki offers interesting sights such as the Djuma Mosque and Seven Domes in Shemakha. On the way to Lahij, make sure to stop and admire the boldness of locals balancing on their hands (or feet) on the local suspension bridge.
In quieter stretches of the journey, you can see roadside vendors selling various local fruits, which are often used to make colorful lavashak (fruit leather snacks). For a nice way to break up the trip, enjoy a delicious meal of Azerbaijani favorites at such restaurants as Xan Bagi or Chinar.
Want to find out more about travel to Azerbaijan? Here’s more information about how to experience it’s bustling capital and remote corners for yourself and reap the benefits of its hospitality.
- A Traveler’s Tale: Baku, Azerbaijan and the Shores of the Caspian Sea
- Jewish Heritage in Azerbaijan
- Travel Guide to Our Favorite UNESCO Sites in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan (videos)
- Top 5 Reasons to Love the South Caucasus
- South Caucasus: Why I Love This Place
- Cheers! Wines of the South Caucasus
Travel to Azerbaijan with MIR
MIR has more than 30 years of experience hand-crafting tours to Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
Or on a rail journey by private train:
You can also visit Azerbaijan on a custom private journey, handcrafted to fit your interests, pace, and dates. Or choose from one of MIR’s suggested private independent travel itineraries:
Chat with a MIR destination specialist about travel to Azerbaijan by phone (1-800-424-7289) or email today.
(Top photo: Lahij, Azerbaijan. Photo credit: Jered Gorman.)
PUBLISHED: May 6, 2019