Azerbaijan’s capital and largest city, this is a city where past and present are intertwined. The Old City’s Icheri Sheher fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dominated by the adjacent 12th century Maiden Tower. But there are many more facets to this fortress complex: the Shirvanshah’s Palace, the Sinik-Gala minaret, mosques, caravanserais and baths. However, it’s the modern city that is making headlines. The twin Flame Towers, suitably illuminated after dark, are already one of the country’s most recognisable landmarks and the Crystal Hall will be readily identifiable by Eurovision fans following 2012’s Song Contest there. While in Baku, don’t forget to stroll along the City Seaside Park by night lit with neon lights. The city’s myriad museums, concert halls, shopping malls and restaurants will also tempt most visitors to linger a while.
Gobustan National Park, located in the Greater Caucasus Mountains is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its rock art engravings. These images depict prehistoric hunting scenes, fishing, domestic lifestyles, flora and fauna. Some of these, such as whales, dolphins and auks, are long gone from the Caspian Sea. Others, featuring bullfights, ritual dances and camel caravans, paint an evocative picture of what life was once like here. Over 6000 engravings survive, dating back as far as 40000 years. Petroglyphs from Gobustan adorn the country’s 5 manat banknote. The area is also known for its explosive mud volcanoes which occasionally shoot flames high into the air. You’ll also find here, unique to this part of Azerbaijan, a gemstone called Gaval Dash which makes a sound like a tambourine when struck.
Set against a backdrop of snow-capped Caucasus peaks, Sheki developed as a trading centre with many caravanserais located within the city. Two still remain: the Upper and the Lower Caravanserais, built in the eighteenth century. A city with a long history, Sheki is a must for architecture buffs. The Palace of the Sheki Khans is a fascinating building featuring intricate mosaics made from glass imported from Venice; not a single nail was used in its construction. To the north of the city you’ll find the ruins of what was once considered an impregnable fortress. Its name, “Gelersan - Gerarsan” translates as “you will come and see”.
Located on the Absheron Peninsula, this seaside resort is one of the area’s oldest villages and is named after the Mards (Braves) who lived here in the first century. The village is known for its fortifications; the round tower dates from the thirteenth century and the four-sided rectangular tower was built about a century later. An easy ride from Baku, the village was a popular place for the capital’s residents to have their dachas or summer cottages. It’s also home to the Mardakan Arboretum where a museum at the house of the poet Sergei Yesenin is located. A half hour drive away you’ll find the burning mountain known as Yanar Dag, a natural gas fire emitted constantly from the sandstone rock.
The country’s second largest city was founded in 494BC and as a result has a rich cultural and historical heritage. Perhaps its most unusual attraction is the Bottle House, built by local architect Ibrahim Dzhafarov in the 1960s and now a private home. As the name suggests, it’s constructed out of bottles - 48,000 of them to be precise - which catch the light and add to its colourful charm. Ganja was also home to the poet Nizami and it’s possible to visit the mausoleum where you’ll find a twenty metre high statue of him flanked by metal figures depicting scenes from his work. As well as these sights, there are many beautiful parks to explore, the most famous of which is Khan Baghi.
Located on the bank of the Nakhchivan River, most tourists are drawn to the city to reap the benefits of its therapeutic salt caves. Treatments are said to help individuals suffering with respiratory disease. The city has a great many historical attractions, amongst them the Mausoleum of Yusuf ibn Kuseyr, built in 1162, the Alinja-Gala Fortress, constructed between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries and the Khan Palace, which dates from the eighteenth century. In addition, pay a visit to Noah’s Mausoleum which occupies a site above an ancient temple.
This is Azerbaijan’s third most populous city, developing quickly as an industrial centre during Stalin’s time and still a major steel producer. Legend has it that a hero named Sum went to fight a monster that was blocking the river; although he succeeded, he was never seen again. After his disappearance, his distraught lover, Jeyran, would head down to the water and cry “Sum Gayid” (Sum, return!) leading to the river and the city that straddles it taking the name Sumgait. The city has an interesting history museum and some good eateries.
The fourth largest city in Azerbaijan, Mingachevir is located on the banks of the Kura River, its gorge utilised for hydro-electric power creating a huge manmade reservoir. Life revolves around the river in this modern city, with plenty of teahouses and restaurants to pass the time. Leading athletes from the Soviet Union prepared here for rowing competitions and there’s an Olympic sports centre here with a pool and tennis court which is open to the public.