Billing itself as the 'Land of Fire', Azerbaijan (Azərbaycan) is a tangle of contradictions and contrasts. Neither Europe nor Asia, it's a nexus of ancient historical empires, but also a ‘new’ nation which has undergone an extraordinary transformation from the war-ravaged post-Soviet 1990s to an oil-enriched host of Formula 1 and Europa League football.
The cosmopolitan capital, Baku, rings a Unesco-listed ancient core with dazzling 21st-century architecture and sits on a balmy bay of the Caspian Sea. In the surrounding semi-desert are mud volcanoes and curious fire phenomena. Yet barely three hours’ drive away, timeless rural villages lie amid lush orchards backed by the soaring Great Caucasus Mountains.
Come quickly. Having long been overlooked by visitors, Azerbaijan's new easy visas, bargain-value hotels and close-packed range of beautiful landscapes are starting to attract significant flows of tourists, though as yet few of them from Western countries.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Azerbaijan.
Vast and jaw-droppingly original, this Zaha Hadid building is a majestic statement of fluid 21st-century architecture forming abstract waves and peaks that seem to melt together. The real delight is simply pondering and photographing the extraordinary exterior from ever-changing angles. The interior is impressive, too, and hosts concerts and several exhibition spaces. Arguably the best part of the permanent collection is 'Treasures of Azerbaijan', which walks you through the nation's cultural highlights.
This tapering 29m stone tower is Baku’s foremost historical icon, with rooftop views surveying Baku Bay and the Old City. Possibly millennia old, its construction date is the subject of much debate, though much of the present structure appears to be 12th century. The Azeri name, Qız Qalası, is usually rendered ‘Maiden’s Tower’ in English, leading to plenty of patently fictitious fairy tales. Various versions are considered in the imaginative little multimedia installations that adorn several floors of the tower's interior.
The Unesco-listed Qobustan Petroglyph Reserve protects thousands of stick-figure stone engravings dating back up to 12,000 years. Themes include livestock, wild animals and shamans. The images were carved into what were probably caves but over time they have crumbled into a craggy chaos of boulders. Even if you have no particular interest in ancient doodles, Qobustan’s eerie landscape and the hilltop views towards distant oil-workings in the turquoise-blue Caspian are still fascinating.
The unique Ateşgah is an 18th-century fire temple whose centrepiece is a flaming hearth. Arching above is a four-pillared stone dome with side flues which also spit dragon breath…but only on special occasions, notably the four Tuesdays leading up to Novruz (21 March). The fire-altar sits in a roughly triangular courtyard surrounded by the simple stone cells of former devotees. Well over a dozen cells now host a well-explained museum. Allow around an hour to see it all.
For those prepared to climb over 1500 steps up a mountain crag, one of Naxçivan's great highlights is the magnificent view from the sparse medieval ruins of Alinja Castle, sometimes nicknamed 'Azerbaijan's Machu Picchu'.
On top of utterly unpromising little Daşgil Hill is a weird collection of baby mud volcanoes, a whole family of ‘geologically flatulent’ little conical mounds that gurgle, ooze, spit and sometimes erupt with thick, cold, grey mud. It’s more entertaining than it sounds – even when activity is at a low ebb, you get the eerie feeling that the volcanoes are alive.
This ornate 1762 palace building features vivid murals and dazzling coloured light streaming through şəbəkə (stained-glass windows), making it Şəki’s foremost sight and one of the South Caucasus’ most iconic buildings. It was originally the Şəki Khan’s administrative building, just one of around 40 now-lost royal structures within the fortress compound.
The brilliantly renovated round-towered 'temple' in pretty Kiş village has been 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. In fact, the church site goes back well beyond the Christian era and glass-covered grave excavations allow visitors to peer down onto Bronze Age skeletons.
Perfectly proportioned, if gently leaning, Naxçivan’s architectural icon is a 26m brick tower dating from 1186. It’s decorated with geometric patterns and Kufic script (a stylised, angular form of Arabic) picked out in turquoise glaze. Views of it are more interesting than going inside, and the surrounding park is a veritable open-air museum of historic stone rams and grave markers.