Azerbaijan, a country straddling the border between Asia and Europe, is a land of intriguing contrasts. Its culture is a captivating blend of influences from the Caucasus region, Turkey, Iran, and the Soviet Union. Having personally traveled to Azerbaijan twice, I've witnessed its rapid growth in tourism, thanks in part to the introduction of the e-visa system. In this comprehensive guide, I've gathered essential information to ensure a smooth and enriching journey to Azerbaijan in 2023.
COVID-19 Travel Guidelines
Travel Entry Requirements
- Vaccination: All travelers must be fully vaccinated with at least two doses.
- COVID-19 Coverage: Consider acquiring travel insurance that includes coverage for COVID-19-related expenses, including treatment and trip cancellations due to testing positive.
- E-Visa Option: Since January 2017, Azerbaijan has offered an e-visa application system accessible through the official Governmental portal.
- Cost and Processing Time: An e-visa costs $25 and takes approximately 3 working days to process. Urgent processing is available for $50.
- Tourist Visa Eligibility: Tourist visas are open to citizens of many countries, including Western nationalities.
- Single Entry: The tourist visa for Azerbaijan grants a 30-day stay within a 90-day window, with no option for double entry.
Registration in Azerbaijan
- Registration Necessity: Travelers staying in Azerbaijan for more than 15 days are required to register. This can be done at your accommodation or the local police station.
Best Time to Visit Azerbaijan
Varied Climate Zones
- Azerbaijan boasts an astonishing nine out of eleven distinct climate zones, making it a year-round travel destination.
- Ideal Seasons: Mid-spring and mid-autumn are recommended for comfortable weather conditions, avoiding the extremes of summer and winter.
Travel Insurance for Azerbaijan
- Given its adventurous nature, comprehensive travel insurance is highly advisable when visiting Azerbaijan.
Country, People, and Culture
- Independence: Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
- Political Landscape: The New Azerbaijan Party has ruled the country since 1993, characterized by nationalism and a personality cult surrounding Heydar Aliyev.
- Disparities: A stark contrast exists between the developed capital, Baku, and rural areas, driven by petro-centric development and corruption.
Religion in Azerbaijan
- Islamic Heritage: While the majority of Azerbaijanis are Shia Muslims (85%), the country declared itself a democratic and secular republic in 1918.
- Religious Diversity: Azerbaijan's multiculturalism has resulted in a secular society, with few functional mosques.
The Azerbaijani People
- Physical and Cultural Diversity: Azerbaijanis often share physical traits with Iranians but possess a unique cultural identity.
- Cultural Blend: The culture of Azerbaijan is an amalgamation of Georgian, Armenian, Iranian, and Turkish influences.
- Language: Azerbaijani is the official language, a Turkish dialect, with Russian also spoken. English proficiency is limited, mainly in Baku.
- Welcoming Culture: Azerbaijani hospitality is renowned, with locals frequently extending invitations for tea and declining payment for meals.
Is Azerbaijan an Off-the-Beaten-Track Destination?
- Growing Tourism: The introduction of the e-visa system in January 2017 has led to exponential growth in tourism.
- Popular Destinations: Baku, Sheki, and Lahic are frequented by tourists, while remote villages like Xinaliq offer official homestays.
- Hidden Gems: To experience the authentic Azerbaijan, consider exploring less-visited areas like the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan, Ivanovka, and the towns around Ganja.
Getting to Azerbaijan in 2023
Traveling to Azerbaijan has become increasingly accessible and convenient, whether by air, land, or sea. This guide provides an overview of the different travel options available for your journey to this unique destination in 2023.
Traveling to Azerbaijan by Air
Baku International Airport
- Baku International Airport, the primary gateway to Azerbaijan, offers numerous international connections to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
- It serves as a convenient starting point for your exploration of this diverse country.
Traveling to Azerbaijan by Land
Georgia Border Crossings
- Zaqatala to Sighnaghi: A friendly border crossing between Azerbaijan and Georgia, providing access to Sighnaghi.
- Ganja to Tbilisi: Another border point allows train travel from Tbilisi to Baku, offering a scenic night train journey.
Iran Border Crossing
- The border with Iran is open and welcoming; however, travelers heading to Iran should possess an Iranian visa.
- Currently, the border with Russia is closed to foreigners.
Traveling to Azerbaijan by Sea
Caspian Sea Routes
- From Kazakhstan (Aktau): You can embark on a sea journey from Aktau, Kazakhstan, to Azerbaijan over the Caspian Sea. This voyage takes approximately 24 hours and requires patience, as departures are somewhat irregular.
- Travelers in possession of a Turkmen visa can also explore the sea route from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan.
Internet and Connectivity in Azerbaijan
- Remarkably, Wi-Fi connectivity is widespread and reliable throughout Azerbaijan, even in remote areas.
- Azercell is a recommended mobile provider, and you can purchase SIM cards from official Azercell stores for accurate pricing and generous data allowances.
eSIM for Convenience
- Consider acquiring an eSIM for browsing, calling, and traveling in Azerbaijan, allowing you to secure your connectivity before departing for your trip.
VPN for Online Security
- Enhance your online security and access restricted content by using a VPN, especially when connecting to public Wi-Fi networks. ExpressVPN is a recommended option for reliability and affordability.
Money in Azerbaijan
- The Azerbaijani Manat (AZN) is the local currency, with an approximate exchange rate of 1 USD = 1.70 AZN.
ATMs and Credit Cards
- Credit cards are widely accepted in Baku, and ATMs are abundant. However, it's advisable to carry cash when venturing beyond the capital, as card payments may not be as widely accepted.
- Exchange offices can be found throughout the country, making it convenient to convert your currency to Azerbaijani Manat.
Cost of Living in Azerbaijan
- Azerbaijan is renowned for its affordability, making it one of the cheapest countries to visit.
- Sample costs include:
- Backpacker hostels: 7 to 15 AZN
- Budget guesthouses: 30 to 40 AZN
- Mid-range hotels: 60 to 80 AZN
- Fast food: Around 2 AZN
- Local eateries (a meal): 2 to 5 AZN
- Mid-range restaurants: 8 to 15 AZN
- Supermarket (beer can): 0.50 to 1 AZN
- Budget bars or happy hour (local draft beer): 1 to 2 AZN
- Night bars (local draft beer): 2 to 5 AZN
- Short taxi ride in Baku: 2 to 3 AZN
- Metro ride in Baku: 0.30 AZN
- Bus from Baku to Quba: 6 AZN (3 to 4 hours journey)
Backpacking Budget for Azerbaijan
- Budget travelers can comfortably manage their expenses with a daily budget ranging from 30€ to 40€.
Food and Cuisine in Azerbaijan
- Azerbaijani cuisine reflects a rich blend of cultural influences, incorporating flavors from Turkey, Russia, Iran, and even Greece.
- Local variations on regional dishes are a common feature, with Azerbaijanis often claiming these adaptations as their own.
- Piti: A hearty stew of vegetables, lamb, and chickpeas, slow-cooked in a clay pot.
- Yarpak Xangal: Layers of pasta, meat, caramelized onions, and yogurt create a hearty dish.
- Dushbara: Enjoy this delightful dumpling soup, particularly prevalent in the northwestern part of the country.
Drinking Alcohol in Azerbaijan
Availability of Alcohol
- Azerbaijan is more lenient about alcohol compared to some other ex-Soviet Muslim countries.
- Beer and vodka are readily available even in rural areas.
Drinking Vodka with Locals
- Drinking vodka with locals can be a memorable cultural experience; however, it comes with a caveat: if you agree, you must finish the entire bottle.
- Exercise caution and be prepared for generous hospitality when accepting such offers.
- When enjoying beers with Azerbaijani locals, you'll often encounter "beer snacks," which range from smoked cheese to fried meatballs. Embrace this local tradition and order them at bars.
Transportation: How to Move Around Azerbaijan
Getting Around Baku
- Baku boasts a well-maintained metro system, with individual rides costing 0.30 AZN. A 4 AZN metro card is required.
- Utilize the Uber app for convenient taxi services within Baku.
Getting Around Azerbaijan
- Locals commonly rely on marshrutkas, which are public mini-vans, for transportation between towns and cities. They are affordable and depart when full.
- A train service operates between Baku and Ganja, extending further to Tbilisi, although it doesn't follow the primary tourist trail.
- Consider domestic flights for specific routes, such as Baku to Nakhchivan, offered by Azerbaijan Airlines.
- Renting a car provides flexibility, especially when exploring areas with limited public transportation, such as Quba.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Azerbaijan
Diverse Accommodation Options
- Azerbaijan offers a broad spectrum of accommodation choices, catering to all preferences and budgets.
- Options range from hostels, guesthouses, and homestays to regular hotels, including numerous 5-star properties in Baku.
By following these travel essentials and guidelines, your journey to Azerbaijan in 2023 will be not only well-prepared but also deeply enriching. Explore this captivating and unique destination with confidence, and immerse yourself in its remarkable culture and landscapes.