Azerbaijan – Practical information
Azerbaijan is the largest and richest country in the Trans-Caucasus and it is full of contrasts. On the one hand, an ultramodern metropolis on the shores of the Caspian Sea, not far from a peninsula soaked in black gold with oil towers and fires that never die, and only a few hours’ drive away villages surrounded by the peaks of the Greater Caucasus, in which time has stopped and tourists are still rather a rarity. Are you wondering how easy it is to travel in such a country, how much it costs and what to be prepared for? Then read this article.
Entering the country
You will need a visa to enter and stay in the country. You can apply for it electronically on this site. The form is in English, you fill in the reason of your visit, the date from which the visa is due to be valid, your personal details, address at which you will stay in Azerbaijan and finally upload your scanned passport to the system. You will also have to agree that you have never been to Nagorno-Karabakh controlled by Armenia. Even if you´ve been there, you must say no, otherwise you will not be allowed to enter Azerbaijan. The visa is valid for 90 days and the price is 20USD + 3USD service fee. You will receive your visa by e-mail within three days, print it out and keep it with you when traveling. They will want to see your visa at the border and ask you questions about Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. If you are going to both Azerbaijan and Armenia at the same time, go first to the first named country. If you happen to have a Nagorno-Karabakh stamp in your passport, Azerbaijan will not let you enter. Custom officers will also ask you what places you plan to visit, so prepare a list of classic tourist sites. It’s enough for them. As for accommodation, we only mentioned the first hotel in Baku, and they did not investigate anything further. Even if you have a visa, the so-called registration requirement still applies. This means that if you stay in the country for more than 15 days, you are obliged to report to the Foreign Police. You can solve it like us by asking your host to check you in. We wanted to check in in Şəki, but they didn’t know how to do it in our guesthouse, so we waited for Baku, where we stayed at a hotel and the receptionist just sent a scan of our passports to the police together with the date until which we wanted to stay in the country. Unfortunately, I cannot tell from my own experience what happens if you fail to comply (reportedly you should be fined). Since Azerbaijan is, in my view, a police state, I would not risk it.
Azerbaijan’s currency is Manat and its international brand is AZN. The exchange rate in the summer of 2019 was 1AZN = 0.59USD. Coins have values of 1, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50 qəpik, banknotes are issued in values of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 Manatas. You can easily exchange euro and US dollars. If you arrive in Baku, then you will have enough exchange offices and ATMs, if you travel on land from Georgia, at the border there are small exchange offices (more like kiosks), where you can exchange a smaller amount for your next transport and then exchange the rest in some town. In larger towns there are ATMs everywhere and card payments are quite widespread. Keep cash on hand in villages, mountains and remote areas. If you stay with the locals, you will always pay in cash.
The cheapest means of transport are marshrutkes (minibuses) and classic buses. But not all parts of the country can be reached with them, so we combined them with a car rental. We took advantage of the service of the Automile car rental in Baku and we rented Kia Rio for 60AZN/day including insurance. We were looking for a car one day before and in a high season, so it is likely that you can rent it at a better price. Much of the roads are in good condition, except when you drive into the mountain area around Quba, be prepared for worse quality and driveability, especially after heavy rains. But you won’t need a 4×4 car. Be careful when driving, because radars are everywhere. They are also hidden in trees. In addition, the police have systems connected to car rentals, so as soon as the radar targets you, the car rental company will immediately be notified that the car was driving fast and you could expect a high fine. Also be prepared that local drivers are crazy, they blow horns all the time and overtake where they want. So be careful. The biggest madhouse is in Baku, where I recommend avoiding driving just because public transport is very cheap (one ride costs 0,3AZN). Check out the Prices section for more pricing.
The official language is Azerbaijani (Azeri). It is related and similar to Turkish and has many dialects. You will learn about a few basic words in Azerbaijani, but from all the Trans-Caucasian countries you will at least have the advantage of reading the inscriptions in Azerbaijan. The script is similar to the Latin alphabet, adjusted according to Turkish spelling. In villages and with the elderly you can speak Russian, in Baku English, but otherwise do not count on English.
Accommodation is the most expensive item in Azerbaijan. We searched either via Booking.com or on site, but it was a bit complicated. Once, we could not find accommodation we´d booked through Booking.com at all (nothing at the address given). If you are walking down the street and just searching yourself, you will not be very lucky either, because private accommodation is not marked. Ask the locals or look helpless, someone will surely catch you. Accommodation is usually offered with breakfast. In Baku there is a large selection of accommodation of all categories, outside the capital count on lower quality. If you go to the mountain village of Xinaliq, you do not need to make a reservation in advance, you will easily find a private accommodation; just be prepared that it will be simple, without any bathroom and with a toilet outside the house. I can recommend the following accommodation (prices are for a double room):
Şəki – Shaki Host House (Bakhtiyar Mammadov Street/1 House Number: 10), 30AZN/night; the childern of the owner learn English and will be happy to chat with you
Baku – Deniz Inn City Hotel (Islam Safarli Street), 83AZN/night; very helpful and friendly receptionist
Xinaliq – private accommodation near Kəbir Xasəmmədov, 25AZN/person with breakfast and dinner; the owner is a guide who will gladly take you on a hike to the mountains
Nabran – Deniz Guest House, 45AZN/night, clean accommodation close to the beach; just watch out for billing at the restaurant
Internet and phone calls
If you plan not to stay only in Baku and travel around the country, be sure to buy a local SIM card. We used one from Azercel. The SIM card itself costs 4AZN and we also bought a 5GB data tariff for 10AZN. The data is valid for 30 days. The signal worked everywhere except the area around the Xinaliq village (lies at an altitude of 2,350m, so no wonder). Wi-fi is available in all hotels and restaurants in Baku. Outside Baku and especially in mountain areas wi-fi is not widespread or the signal is fluctuating and the Internet almost does not work.
Food and drink
Azerbaijan cuisine is influenced by Turkish, Lebanese and Russian ones. The basis of everything is meat. Vegetarians don’t have many options here. The most famous dishes include shashliks (grilled meat), plov or pilaf (fried rice with meat, vegetables, herbs or dried fruit), kebab (pieces of meat on skewers) or dolma (vine leaves or peppers stuffed with meat, rice and herbs). Sheep or cow cheeses are produced everywhere in villages. In Baku, there is a large selection of international cuisine, and besides, you will usually find only meat grilled on an open fire and kebabs. A good and cheap meal is a well-known döner kebab, which you can get in street stalls, or pirozhki filled with meat. The traditional side dish is lavaş (lavaš), an unleavened thin bread, which is sold as pancakes and is often packed with other dishes. When a waiter is bringing food to your table, be careful what he is serving. He will often bring what you did not order (salad, cheese, bread or fruit). It is not a present (amuse bouche) of the restaurant and if you do not refuse it immediately, you will be charged at the end. Always check your bill, if you get any. Several times it´d happened to us that the waiter made the prizes himself. If you are a beer or wine lover, Azerbaijan is not the right place for you. You can get these drinks here, but you won’t really enjoy them. And you will very rarely see the Azeri drink alcohol. Their national drink is tea – at all times of the day and weather, the Azeri sit in squares, cafes and restaurants and sip tea. It is strong, black, mostly sweetened a lot and served in small glasses. Together with your tea you will often get even sweeter candied fruit or jam. Coffee is drunk in Turkish style. Out of spirits, the most famous is vodka.
People and religion
If you come to Azerbaijan from Georgia, you may experience a shock or even disappointment. The Georgians are very open and friendly, they like to talk to you on the street or invite you to their table. But that is not true in Azerbaijan. The Azeri are Muslims and their religion, of course, has different rules. They are friendly, but closed and conservative. They observe tourists from a distance, they do not start talking to them and they mostly tolerate them more quietly rather than loving them like they do in neighbouring two countries. The Azeri are slowly getting used to tourism. An Azeri man will never wear shorts and sandals (flip flops) and be prepared they will look at you if you wear them. We learned that a few years ago the Azeri had not tolerated shorts even with foreigners. The Azeri world is a world of men. In restaurants, cafes, parks, most shops or hotels, you will only meet men. Women stay at home. It is unthinkable that a group of women goes to a restaurant or café, as it is common in Western Europe. Even if a woman went out alone and ordered a glass of wine or beer, she would be considered a bitch. If you are a woman, do not wear short and provocative clothes. Also be prepared that an Azeri will never look you in the eye, and if you travel with your partner, he will only talk to him. A woman is in second place in the Azerbaijan world, but you have to accept that in Muslim countries. But I don’t want to damn the Azeri or defame them. We came across a few people who were very friendly, helped us without hesitation and with whom we spent nice moments. We also have to say that a completely different world is in Baku. It is a modern international city in which they are accustomed to tourists. They don’t care about their clothes or behaviour, and actually you don’t even realize that you’re in a Muslim country.
Safety and health
Azerbaijan, like other Trans-Caucasian states, is safe. Thefts are quite exceptional, you can move around the country without any problems. However, it is a Muslim country, so it is necessary to respect certain rules (covered shoulders and knees, ban on drinking alcohol in public areas, etc.). There are no health risks and there is no need for vaccination. Given that Azerbaijan has very tense relations with neighbouring Armenia for the Nagorno-Karabakh region and until recently these states had been fighting, it would be better not to mention Armenia at all in Azerbaijan. To be sure, if you are asked about going to Armenia, always answer negatively.
In general, prices are lower than in Europe, but accommodation is relatively expensive compared to neighbouring countries. Also, you have to be careful all the time, because especially the restaurant staff would like to add something to your bill or they do not even bring any bill and just create some final price. When you ask for budgeting and receipts, it takes a long time for the waiter to devise prices so that the final amount fits. If you don’t speak Russian, it can be very difficult to negotiate and at the end you will have to pay what they tell you. There is no bargaining in shops, but outside at stalls, you have to.
bus Zaqatala – Şəki (75km) – 2AZN
Bus Şəki – Baku (300 km) – 9AZN
bus Baku – Quba – 4AZN
bus Baku – Tbilisi – 15AZN
Baku Kart – 2AZN, single fare 0.3AZN
1.5 litres of water – 0.9AZN
ice cream – 0.6AZN
kebab at stand – 2AZN
food in a restaurant in Baku – from 10AZN
food in a restaurant outside Baku – from 3AZN
salad in a restaurant – 2AZN
bottle of wine in a shop – 5AZN
melon – 4kg for 2AZN