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Once an important Silk Road way station, and again today a nation of growing trade stature, Azerbaijan borders the Caspian Sea in the South Caucasus, at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Its long history and deep heritage in a pivotal location has helped the republic discover a new tourism footing. And with fascinating, immersive and out-of-the-ordinary cultural, historical and natural experiences, Azerbaijan makes for a worthwhile and safe place to travel with children. Here’s how families can best visit the country.
Inside Baku: Mysterious Towers and Carpet MuseumsAzerbaijan’s capital city of Baku lies on the southern shore of the Absheron Peninsula, which juts into the Caspian Sea. A modern metropolis with a European feel, Baku has a central, walled Old City (also known as its “Inner City”), held fast on one side by sprawling urban development, and on the other by a lovely bayside park and promenade.
The pivot around which it all turns — a symbol of the city pictured on the local currency, called the manat — is the mysterious, 97-foot-tall Maiden Tower, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the oldest structure in Old City, but no one knows just how old, why it was built or the true source of its fairytale name. What is for sure is that a climb to its child-safe roof, through several floors of an interactive museum, is sure to captivate kids.
Back down below, the waterside park is a great place for visiting families to take in the pulse of local life. The most interesting attraction is Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, set in a striking building designed to look like a partially rolled carpet. Inside, several floors display gorgeous rugs and carpets, with educational exhibits that help children understand the interest and impact of carpet weaving, an art form that is a vital part of Azerbaijan’s national heritage.
Outside Baku: Up Close With Mud VolcanoesThere are several natural attractions located within a day-trip’s drive of Baku, including Gobustan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of ancient petroglyphs, and Yanar Dag, a continuously burning mountainside. But the several fields of “mud volcanoes” hold the most fascination for children.
Mud volcanoes form where underground gas pockets force their way to the surface. What erupts is not melted rock, though; it’s cool-to-the-touch mud. And it simmers, bubbles and gloops, making delightfully rude gurgling noises, in small conical formations and vents spread across a lunar landscape.
Youngsters can dip their hands into the mud and come away with a quick-drying layer of mineral-rich, liquid earth. Of about 400 mud volcanoes in coastal Azerbaijan, those at Alyat and Gobustan are most easily reached from Baku. It’s wise to bring water and rags for cleaning, and a change of clothes for the over-curious.
Notably, while the mud volcanoes are presently free and open, they risk being degraded or damaged by a future flood of tourists. As unique natural formations, they deserve proper care, and some have already been designated for protection.
In Sheki: Imagination-Spinning Caravanserai and PalacesCommonly thought of as Azerbaijan’s prettiest village, Sheki hides in the Caucasus Mountains in the northern center of the country. Long ago, silk and spice traders would trundle through here, stopping to rest in the town’s five caravanserai (roadside inns) that once dotted the Silk Roads. Today, family visitors to Sheki’s old town can still pause in a surviving, authentic, 18th-century caravanserai: Yukhari Karvansaray Hotel.
As kids pass through the huge, original wood doorway to a dark inner vestibule — followed by a two-level arched arcade surrounding a calm central courtyard — they might imagine colorfully dressed merchants tying up and unloading their animals and chatting in many languages. The evocatively spare rooms with arched brickwork ceilings and small windows add to the ambiance. Day visits are allowed to the courtyard, the indoor teahouse and the back garden restaurant, which has a play area for children.
A stay here sets the mood for exploring the nearby palace of the Khans, the local 18th-century rulers. Although the exterior of Khan’s Palace, recently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a marvel to behold, a guided tour inside is a must to witness the masterfully ornate murals of flora, fauna, battles and hunting scenes, as well as woodwork and mirror-work mosaics (tours in English can be arranged). The dazzling and intricate multicolored glass windows are famously made without nails or glue — just a wooden lattice, called a shebeke and notable in Sheki.
Note: A 30-day visa, required for most nationalities, can be easily purchased in three days through the official electronic visa portal.
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