Due to its geographic location, Azerbaijan is a country of versatility. Whether it’s the landscape or its culture, European influences collide with diverse tastes.
Straddling Western Asia and Eastern Europe, Azerbaijan is a versatile land, not just geographically but culturally. It is where ancient and modern, mountains and beaches, and urban and rural charm and amaze travellers.
The country has also acquired an alternative moniker of the Land of Fire due to its vast oil and natural gas supplies. It was once a centre of fire worshipping, and fire is one of the symbols of its capital city.
Furthermore, fire has been deeply ingrained in Azerbaijani culture and mythology since the inception of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, which took root 3,000 years ago. Encompassing multiethnic, multicultural, and multi-religious communities, Azerbaijan is a largely secular country. Zoroastrian customs are present in contemporary culture, as fire temples burning with sacred flames present a window to the past of a land forever at a crossroads of people, continents, and faiths.
One of Azerbaijan’s most famous sites is Yanar Dag (Fire Mountain), where flames blaze continuously on the Absheron Peninsula. The country has many different climate zones, and with its deep and intriguing history, the natural landscape is dramatic. It provides a calming backdrop of beauty whilst swimming in the Caspian Sea or relaxing on a soft-sanded spot on the black beaches in Lankaran.
Alongside the cobbled streets of the Medieval Old Town in the capital city of Baku, relish the magnetic contemporary architecture of the iconic Flame Towers and the futuristic Heyder Aliyev Centre, designed by world-renowned architect, Zaha Hadid.
Azerbaijan seamlessly blends Eastern charm with a Western perspective; the legacy of the Silk Road can still be found at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, with local artisans making crafts.
Whether you’re drawn to scenic hikes, top-tier wellness resorts, award-winning wines, or rich traditional cuisine, Azerbaijan has something to offer everyone. Surrounded by the Caucasus Mountains and Caspian Sea, the country offers an experience unlike anywhere else. It is an off-the-beaten-path destination, which has become a growing interest to tourists. You will not regret adding this destination to your travel list.
TOURISM INSIGHTS: AZERBAIJAN TOURISM BOARD
Q&A WITH FLORIAN SENGSTSCHIMD, CEO, ATB
Firstly, can you talk us through the origins, vision, and mission of the Azerbaijan Tourism Board?
Florian Sengstschimd, CEO (FS): The Azerbaijan Tourism Board (ATB) was established as part of the State Tourism Agency of the Republic of Azerbaijan with the strategic vision to transform the country into a premier destination that offers visible, sustainable, and quality tourism. We aim to create a delightful blend of Caucasian atmosphere, mesmerising nature, and exquisite gastronomy to provide unique experiences that delight in every sense, appealing to both domestic and international tourists.
Our mission at the ATB is to develop quality tourist products that showcase the authentic experiences of Azerbaijan based on the diverse opportunities our country offers in nature, culture, health, and wellness. We strive to understand the needs and travel patterns of various traveller groups from our target markets and have successfully developed new products, experiences, and services to meet those needs. From mapping the tourism product potential of the country to infrastructure development and creating cultural heritage routes, we’ve achieved notable progress in enhancing the tourism appeal of Azerbaijan.
In essence, the ATB’s vision and mission revolves around showcasing Azerbaijan as the most engaging experience provider in the region, with a commitment to offering quality, sustainable, and unique travel experiences that reflect the diverse and rich tapestry of Azerbaijani nature, culture, and heritage.
Why, in your opinion, should someone visit the capital city of Baku – what defines it?
FS: Baku uniquely blends ancient charm with a modern atmosphere. It’s where history meets contemporary, offering every traveller many entertaining, gastronomic, and cultural experiences. Visitors can stroll through the UNESCO-protected Walled City of Baku and experience its historic treasures, while indulging in the Seaside Boulevard’s modern attractions or admiring the futuristic architecture and the majestic Baku Eye. The city boasts historical sites, art galleries, authentic restaurants, and beach clubs, offering a captivating experience combining its rich cultural heritage with state-of-the-art amenities.
Baku appeals to a wide array of travellers. History enthusiasts are drawn to its UNESCO World Heritage Sites and ancient marvels like the Shirvanshah’s Palace and Maiden Tower, whilst art and architecture lovers are captivated by its modern buildings. Families can delight in attractions like the Kinderland entertainment centre and scenic boat rides in Little Venice. Nature lovers can escape to the sandy beaches of the Caspian Sea or the mesmerising mud volcanoes. Gourmands can savour the delectable Azerbaijani cuisine, while wine aficionados can explore the city’s burgeoning wine industry. Adventure seekers can indulge in water sports or hike in national parks, while luxury seekers can unwind in 5-star spas and hammams.
In essence, Baku welcomes everyone, from solo travellers and history buffs to families and luxury seekers.
What is your branding strategy for Baku, how do you market and promote the city?
FS: Our strategy emphasises Azerbaijan’s rich tapestry of culture, history, and modernity. We focus on amalgamating the city’s historical legacy with its modern-day allure. Azerbaijan places significant emphasis on tourism development. Through a multifaceted approach, we aim to elevate tourism-generated revenue and spotlight Baku’s potential as a compelling tourist destination.
The cosmopolitan capital of Baku boasts a tapestry of city experiences, from museums and galleries to chic bars with local wines and delicacies to an array of restaurants with traditional and international cuisines, as well as countless meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions (MICE) offerings. With its well-equipped resources and world-class infrastructure, Azerbaijan can host events of all scales. It features the 5-star Baku International Airport, a plethora of chain hotels, versatile venues, and facilities like the Baku Congress Centre and the Heydar Aliyev Centre, which includes museums, exhibition complexes, and multimedia conference rooms for international events.
We have reactivated collaborations with international hotel chains, including recent openings of The Ritz-Carlton, Winter Park Baku, and Mercure Baku. Such partnerships emphasise luxury, comfort, and global standards. We also aim to showcase the country’s intangible treasures. Baku’s rich culinary heritage, especially the winemaking tradition, is another aspect we highlight. Visitors can indulge in wine tastings at local bars and explore the unique grape varieties we possess.
Our promotional activities include showcasing both the historical hotspots and the modern architectural wonders of Baku. We also emphasise the city’s safety, family-friendly attractions, and wellness facilities, including the traditional hammam culture and the vast culinary landscape. By interweaving these elements, we position Baku as a destination to visit and an experience to cherish.
What is the sustainable tourism approach for Azerbaijan, and what eco-friendly travel experiences does the country offer?
FS: We’re deeply committed to fostering sustainable and eco-friendly travel experiences, showcasing Azerbaijan’s distinct and rich heritage. Our initiatives are broad and diverse, aiming to offer immersive and authentic experiences.
In line with our commitment, we have crafted and implemented an action plan for advancing sustainable tourism in Azerbaijan. We aim to enhance the regulatory framework by introducing sustainability standards to the industry and acknowledging sustainable practitioners through certification. Taking a proactive approach, we are currently embarking on a comprehensive destination audit, beginning with the northern region of Azerbaijan. This initiative allows us to scrutinise the current situation and devise a meticulous action plan, ultimately working towards establishing a sustainable ecosystem in the area.
We actively involve local communities in creating and implementing tourism experiences, providing economic benefits and opportunities for residents. Supporting locals and meeting their needs will sustainably generate a baseline for the value of tourism. Since locals create the destination and make it attractive to the whole world, “local” will dominate our continued tourism strategy.
This is why we started the Slow Food Travel programme in 2021, to honour and preserve the age-old methods and products that are in danger of extinction and connect local producers with hotel and restaurant chains. Additionally, we are enhancing our focus on outdoor and adventure activities, with a keen interest in developing winter tourism.
For instance, the Shahdag Mountain Resort has recently expanded its facilities and infrastructure to welcome more winter enthusiasts. Moreover, together with industry partners, we have developed joint initiatives over the years. Join us on well-developed hiking routes and explore birdwatching nationwide.
Birdwatching in Azerbaijan is a rewarding experience with over 400 bird species, including endemic ones like the Caucasian snowcock, making it an exciting destination. Nature reserves like Gizil Aghaj National Park, Shirvan National Park, and many more are hotspots for bird lovers.
Hiking routes passing through Khinalig village will take you to witness the newly UNESCO-inscribed cultural landscape of Khinalig and the ‘Köç Yolu’ transhumance route. The village is located in the Caucasus Mountains on a steep mountain peak nearly 2,200 metres from sea level. Having historically practised transhumance, every year when the season changes, thousands of Khinalig families still roam between the mountainous lowlands along the so-called ‘Köç Yolu’ seasonal migration route.
Central to our strategy is the development of sustainable and responsible tourism. We’re actively working on creating new hiking trails in the south and north of Azerbaijan, which are set to open to the public in 2024 in addition to the existing ones. We are also introducing a range of eco-friendly activities, from butterfly watching and olive tree route developments to new camping zones. Cultural and infrastructural renovations are underway in various regions, including Khinalig, Nakhchivan, and Sheki. A German heritage route in Azerbaijan is in the final stages of development, promising immersive cultural experiences.
Our commitment to sustainability is further echoed in our partnership with the World Travel & Tourism Council’s ‘Hotel Sustainability Basics’ initiative, aiming to reduce the environmental impact of our hospitality sector and involve as many hotels as possible in this transformative journey.
We have also initiated the Rural Guesthouse Programme to cultivate a network of sustainable rural accommodations, set to provide valuable resources and enrich the local tourism sector, emphasising our dedicated efforts to reshape Azerbaijan’s global image from solely an oil-rich destination to one that conscientiously preserves and showcases its invaluable resources and traditions.
In essence, our varied initiatives, from sustainable food experiences to innovative tourism projects and responsible accommodation practices, all represent Baku’s holistic approach to offering rich, sustainable, and eco-friendly travel experiences, inviting the world to ‘take another look’ and discover Azerbaijan’s commitment to sustainable and responsible development.
What are the main trends transforming tourism in Azerbaijan?
FS: The tourism landscape of Baku is witnessing several transformative trends. Firstly, blending ancient history with modern attractions gives travellers a multi-dimensional experience. From the UNESCO-protected sites in the Old Town to contemporary marvels like Flame Towers, Baku offers a diverse palette of experiences.
Secondly, luxury tourism is on the rise, fuelled by the entry of international hotel chains and malls with luxury brands, such as the Port Baku Mall. These establishments emphasise top-notch luxury, comfort, and world-class service, catering to the high-end traveller segment.
Thirdly, there’s a renewed interest in intangible cultural experiences. Tourists are eager to delve into Azerbaijan’s revered UNESCO-listed ‘tea tradition’ and our rich culinary heritage, which can be enjoyed in many local restaurants. The emerging trend of experiential travel is leading to more immersive experiences like wine tastings and exploring the unique grape varieties of Azerbaijan.
Lastly, family and wellness tourism is gaining traction. With many attractions on offer, families and wellness seekers find unique experiences tailored to their interests.
In essence, the main trends are a synthesis of luxury, cultural immersion, family-centric activities, and wellness experiences, making Azerbaijan an all-encompassing and versatile destination.
Are there any sights, activities, or hidden gems you would recommend?
FS: Azerbaijan offers incredible diversity, with nine of the world’s 11 climate zones. From lush subtropical regions with lemon trees and tea plantations to majestic mountains, forests, and coastal beauty, we have a unique experience waiting for you, whatever the season.
While the southern regions boast a pleasant mild climate, just a short drive from Baku, you can experience the beauty of our northern ski resorts. The journey from Baku to the north unveils picturesque landscapes, from the world’s lowest national capital to our highest peak. Along the way, you can explore the historic Chirag Gala fortress, meet the unique ethnic group in Khinalig village, or enjoy an array of winter activities at our mountain ski resorts.
The rising popularity of our winter resorts is undeniable. As we anticipate increased visitor numbers in the coming year, we’re eager for more tourists to experience Azerbaijan’s winter splendour. The range of icy colours and luxury resorts with all the necessary equipment is perfect for a ski getaway in the Shahdag and Tufandag Mountain Resorts.
The resorts are constructed in such a way that everything you are looking for is located in one place: scenic views with first-class hotels, apartments, spas, lots of restaurants to dine in, as well as various thrilling sports and leisure activities. An Austrian engineering and consultancy firm planned and supported the construction of the Shahdag Tourism Complex, the first project of its kind in Azerbaijan. Not many people know, but right here at the Shahdag Mountain Resort, you’ll find the only mountain coaster in the Caucasus.
It’s an exhilarating adventure for both the young and the young at heart. The infrastructure work has been executed to extend the skiing slopes, leading to an overall length of 30 kilometres (km).
At both resorts, everyone from beginners to professional skiers can relish vast pistes. Non-skiers can also have fun choosing from activities such as off-road tours, paragliding, cycling, trottinette, and cable car rides overlooking the majestic mountains.
Can you tell us about Azerbaijan’s gastronomical experiences?
FS: Azerbaijani culinary delights promise to tantalise your taste buds. From flavourful fruity sauces to succulent mutton-based meat dishes and a variety of aromatic plovs, Azerbaijan’s rich cuisine is a journey in itself. Its variety of high-end Western-style restaurants converted old medieval caravanserais, and rustic eateries situated in the lush forests of the Caucasus Mountains’ foothills offer a vast range of dining experiences. In Baku, traditional bistros serve classic local dishes to accompany soulful local folk music. At the same time, regional recipes in other corners of the country are infused with the aromas of the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, and Azerbaijan’s astonishing nine climate zones.
Explore Azerbaijan’s rich winemaking tradition and taste local grape varieties like Madrasa, Bayan Shira, Shirvanshahi, and Khindogni. In the Soviet times, most of the vineyards in Azerbaijan were destroyed, but in the past year, locals have revived the industry. Azerbaijan’s commitment to viticulture and wine tourism has earned recognition from the Council of Europe and the European Institute of Cultural Routes.
As you embark on the journey to the vineyards, enhance your experience with more delights. Explore Sheki’s captivating Wine Museum, savour wine tastings at the Chabiant winery in Ismayilli, consider an overnight stay at the Chateau Monolit Guest House, and don’t miss out on a trip to the nearby craft village of Lahij. In the sun-kissed terroir south of Gabala, indulge in Savalan’s unique wines and the luxurious Chenot Palace Gabala.
Explore the Meysari winery in Shamakhi, known for crafting sophisticated organic dry reds and whites, and Sharg Ulduzu near Shamkir, boasting renewed vines and delightful tastings. Meanwhile, the Goygol winery, an historic icon dating back to the late 19th century, plays a pivotal role in Azerbaijan’s winemaking heritage.
If you can’t make it to the vineyards in the regions, you can visit Baku’s excellent wine bars to try local wines along with Azerbaijani culinary delights.
What makes Azerbaijan a health and wellness destination?
FS: While in Azerbaijan, one should enhance their trip with a refreshing wellness experience. Travellers can restore their minds and souls at renowned wellness resorts nationwide. In addition to thermal baths and springs, you can also try the famous oil baths in Naftalan, known for their ability to heal more than 70 diseases.
Azerbaijan is also home to more than 30 deposits of thermal mineral waters with different concentrations, sulphur levels, and organic substances in the Caucasus Mountains. Three of these are located near the charming city of Gabala and are the essentials of balneotherapy treatments at several world-class health and wellness resorts.
Discover the ideal urban escape at the luxurious Chenot Palace Gabala, which offers a wide array of wellness experiences for relaxation and rejuvenation. Several villages of Azerbaijan, such as Haftoni in the Lankaran region in the south of the country, are also famous for their thermal water springs, with several sanatoriums offering relaxing and therapeutic baths where hot, mineral-rich water flows naturally from underground. To indulge in the wonders of these thermal waters, one should visit the luxurious Lankaran Springs Wellness Resort, with its modern amenities and promise of a tranquil and serene experience.
Finally, what are the Azerbaijan Tourism Board’s current goals?
FS: In our dedicated journey at the Azerbaijan Tourism Board, our central goals revolve around making Azerbaijan a leading destination, emphasising accessibility, sustainability, and quality in tourism.
We aim to present a harmonious blend of our rich Caucasian culture, breathtaking natural beauty, and diverse gastronomy to captivate local and international tourists.
We’re deeply invested in creating top-notch tourism products that echo Azerbaijan’s authentic experiences, from its unique nature and rich cultural tapestry to wellness opportunities. By understanding the diverse needs and preferences of travellers from our target markets, we’ve embarked on introducing new products and immersive experiences.
A significant part of our strategy involves tapping into the full potential of Azerbaijan’s tourism offerings. This encompasses everything from enhancing our infrastructure to charting cultural heritage routes and establishing vibrant recreational zones.
FOR A REFRESHING WELLNESS EXPERIENCE…
Authentic salt therapy at the Duzdağ Hotel – an underground sanatorium converted from a former salt mine – will restore your mind and soul. Although there are many different therapies, from hot springs to hammams.
FOR SAVOURING UNIQUE LOCAL WINE…
Tour the wineries and sample vino straight from the mesmerizing vineyards in the regions. Local grape varieties such as Khindogni, Madrasa, Bayan Shira and Shirvanshahi are highly valued by winemakers for their unique flavours and aromas. Furthermore, Azerbaijan has unique tastes including pomegranate wine by Azgranata and Aznar, and the exceptional Manat Gold quince wine. Alternatively, enjoy the evening in the cosmopolitan city to try local wines at chic bars with delicious delicacies.
FOR AN AUTHENTIC DISH…
In the Old Town of Baku, visitors can try various traditional delights while enjoying a beautiful view of the medieval architecture.
FOR A LUXURY CITY CENTRE STAY…
With its collection of suites, The Ritz-Carlton offers international luxury with breathtaking views from the balconies of the largest rooms in the city. Marble bathrooms with heated floors, Diptyque amenities, and smart glass technology are standard. Upgrades to premium rooms are also available. Unrivalled dining experiences are accompanied by a pool, fitness centre, and spa to ensure the perfect stay.
It should be noted that there is a huge choice of varying types of accommodation throughout Azerbaijan.
AZERBAIJAN IN FOCUS
A city enchanted with the ambience of ancient times and the magic of the modern atmosphere, there is more than one way to spend your vacation here.
Enjoy the atmosphere strolling along the seaside boulevard or a gondola ride in Little Venice, visit the Carpet Museum, constructed like a rolled carpet and designed by Austrian architects Franz Janz, and taste the best dishes from local cuisine. You can also indulge in a shopping spree at two of the largest malls of the Caucasus region – Deniz Mall and Yashil Bazaar – a magnificent manifestation of the Silk Road.
Azerbaijan’s rich cultural heritage boasts a range of UNESCO World Heritage Sites like the Walled City of Baku with Shirvanshah’s Palace and Maiden Tower, Gobustan State Reserve, the historic centre of Sheki with the Khan’s Palace, with the cultural landscape of the Khinalig People, and Hyrcanian Forests newly inscribed on the list. Beyond these tangible landmarks lie intangible treasures, such as the revered tea tradition and the crafts of Sheki, Lahij, and the renovated Basgal village. Surrounded by beautiful nature, Basgal village is filled with restored hammams, mosques, and artisans of kelaghayi – a traditional silk headscarf for women, crafted from natural local resources with a unique batik technique.
Experience the nomadic spirit by hiking to another newly designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, Khinalig village. Perched at 2,200 meters in the Caucasus Mountains, it’s one of Azerbaijan’s highest villages. Celebrating its rich cultural heritage, locals preserve their traditions and a language spoken nowhere else, embracing a truly authentic semi-nomadic lifestyle. As part of the Khinalig Historical, Architectural, and Ethnographical Reserve, enjoy breathtaking mountain views and an immersive cultural journey. The Köç Yolu trail, connecting highland summer pastures with winter lowlands, reveals the village’s age-old practice of seasonal livestock movement for an extraordinary experience. It would be best to take your travel up a notch by extending your trip to the epic landscapes in other parts of the country, too.
Northern Azerbaijan is decorated by the Caucasus Mountains, which offer unique hiking opportunities. Nature’s immeasurable generosity and beauty provide an attractive future for nature-based tourism, which is actively developing. Notably, the Khinalig-Galakhudat and Galakhudat-Griz trails near Guba stand out for their unrivalled beauty. As over 50 percent of Azerbaijan is mountainous, many of its villages and most monumental landscapes are accessed by hiking.
Azerbaijan has the greatest concentration of mud volcanoes of any country, with 700 of the 1,700 that are situated around the world and only 350 are active. Underground and submarine volcanoes are also famed in Azerbaijan, as there are more than 140 of them in the Caspian Sea. The landscape around Baku is messy and bubbling, and Dashgil, around a 90 minute drive from Baku, is a popular site to visit to see the natural, unearthly phenomenon in action.
Palace of the Shirvanshahs
Described by UNESCO as “one of the pearls of Azerbaijan architecture”, the Palace of the Shirvanshahs is located in the inner city of Baku. Together with the Maiden Tower, the monument is built over earlier structures. Within the palace complex is the Divankhana, a reception hall that some researchers believe contains the Tomb of Shah, the remains of Key-Kubad Mosque, Murad’s Gate, and the Palace bathhouse, to name a few.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Before you book tickets, a visa is required to enter Azerbaijan. Visit the Republic of Azerbaijan’s website for an electronic visa available through the ASAN Visa system.
Served by many international airports, Azerbaijan Airlines operates regular flights from Berlin, Milan, Vienna, Barcelona, London, Istanbul and Beijing. The airline also flies several times a Nakhchivan. The Airport Express Bus runs every 30 minutes to Baku’s central transport hub.
Once there, buses and trains are a convenient way to travel around the country. The buses are a modern, comfortable, and relatively inexpensive way of getting about, taxis are widely available, and Baku’s metro connects the city centre, suburbs, and rural areas. International and local car hire companies are also based in downtown Baku.