Azerbaijan’s hazelnut capital sits at the confluence of two wide mountain rivers descending steeply from the Great Caucasus. The lower town (bazaar, bus station) is unremarkable but a useful place to stay and organise transport. The older town centre is 2km uphill. Climbing steeply into the wooded foothills behind is the pretty village of Car (pronounced 'jar').
Azerbaijan's top provincial holiday centre, Qəbəlә is a string of flashy new hotels and a burgeoning ski resort spread up into the foothills of some glorious forested mountains. Bakuvian families form the main clientele but a series of events and meetings also attract a wider audience.
Qax (pronounced 'gakh') has a partly Georgian-speaking population and three historic churches, one containing a modest museum. From its gently quaint centre, the town straggles up through beautiful landscapes towards İlisu (15km north), somewhat over-grandly nicknamed Qax’s ‘mini-Switzerland’. The upper valley inbetween has many rural restaurants and several hotels.
Balakən is the first town you’ll reach on arrival from Georgia (via Lagodekhi). A large flagpole marks the central junction near the bazaar. Comfortable Hotel Qubek is a short walk north of here beside a large park with its entertainingly pointless horizontal cable car. Marshrutky 1, 9 and 10 run west then south past the fine central mosque, or east 1.
Kiş village has plenty of tile-roofed homes, cobbled streets and views up the valley towards snowcapped peaks. But it is best known for its round-towered Albanian church. Lovingly converted into a very well-presented trilingual museum, it’s the best place anywhere to learn about mysterious Caucasian Albania, the Christian nation that once covered most of northern Azerbaijan.
Set at the junction of two beautiful high-altitude valleys, diminutive İlisu was once the capital of a short-lived 18th-century sultanate. It’s a narrow ribbon of photogenic old houses with box windows, arched doorways and red-tiled roofs with only a few Soviet and 21st-century blemishes.