The food markets in Sheki provide an authentic local experience in Azerbaijan. // 2013 © Devin Galaudet
Azerbaijan is a country full of surprises. Located in the Caucasus region, it is surrounded by Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Iran and the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan has a war-torn history with a long Soviet legacy and mild Muslim leanings, which makes it an interesting crossroads of culture and architecture. Due to its rich oil reserve, Azerbaijan’s currency, the “manat,” is worth 30 percent more than the American dollar, which makes this country of nine million people an emerging market in an industry looking for the next great destination.
Baku may be the most thriving capital city that you have never heard of. It is clean, safe and cosmopolitan, with both modern and historic elements. The architecture is a mix of impressive glass skyscrapers — such as the new Flame Towers, which light up at night and are visible from almost anywhere in Baku — and 12th-century UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the iconic Maiden Tower. Baku combines the appeal of Paris and Dubai, with major hotel chains and high-end shopping options during the day and idyllic strolls along the Caspian Sea at night.
The city is growing quickly, with impressive developments and tall cranes filling its skyline. On the road, keep your eye out for London’s famed black cabs — Baku is now their largest importer, but here, they are purple.
Outside of Baku
Forty minutes outside of burgeoning Baku, the petroglyphs at Gobustan are some of the oldest remnants of human civilization. Over 6,000 ancient rock carvings date as far back as 40,000 years ago. The site features a walking tour of the rock drawings, an impressive interactive museum and a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman stone inscription. For fans of archeology, this is a must-see attraction.
Known as the “land of fire,” Azerbaijan also contains one of the world’s most unusual wonders: naturally and continuously burning hills. These hillsides have been burning for 2,000 years and have appeared in the writings of both Alexander the Great and Marco Polo. Located 25 miles outside of Baku, Yanar Dag is the most impressive site, drawing a large number of visitors to witness its flames at night, when they appear most spectacular.
In the north, walnut trees line Azerbaijan’s impeccable roads with friendly babushka-headed ladies bearing pomegranates, homemade jams and smiles full of gold teeth.
The town of Sheki — which has one of the most beautiful mosque interiors in the world at Khan’s Palace, as well as churches that date back to the first century — is arguably the region’s most tourist-friendly small city. While architecture is a chief attraction for sightseers, don’t let the cultural opportunities of shopping at the local Sunday market for fresh produce, meat, dried fruit, nuts and photo ops go unnoticed.
Flo Tours offers packages, private tours and travel agent fam trips into the Caucasus region and helps with cheap visas ($20 per person with a tour operator voucher) into Azerbaijan. Flo Tours also provides a variety of commission programs for agents, starting at 12 percent.
Due to the complex political climate in the Caucasus region, travel agents should remind visitors to Azerbaijan to avoid bringing in products made in Armenia, particularly when visiting Nagorno-Karabakh.