Best things to do in Azerbaijan from volcanoes to tea culture

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CNN  — 

Azerbaijan is the land of mountains and mud volcanoes, multiculturalism and mugham music.

Straddling East and West, it blends dramatic landscapes with a people and culture that reflect its fascinating location at the crossroads of Turkey, Russia and Iran.

For the past few years, neighboring Georgia has been the South Caucasian country to visit, meaning Azerbaijan has remained largely off the travel radar. But with a new and easy three-day visa service, reasonable prices and unbeatable hospitality, travelers that make it to the “Land of Fire” are often very pleasantly surprised.

Here’s a list of the best things to do at this dramatic destination:

Stroll through time in Baku’s Old City

Before the explosive development of the oil industry turned Baku into an industrial powerhouse of the Russian Empire, the city limits didn’t stretch much further than today’s Old City, which is still Baku’s cultural heart.

Inside are maze-like cobbled streets, artist’s workshops, cafés and museums.

Taking a guided walking tour around The Maiden’s Tower, Shirvanshahs’ Palace, old mosques and hammams is a great first step, but don’t miss trying Azerbaijani cuisine at one of the many authentic restaurants.

Sehirli Tendir (19 Kichik Qala; +994 50 403 1435) near the Double Gates is very popular, especially for its traditional Azerbaijani breakfasts served with hot tendir bread.

Tip: Baku Original Walking Free Tour (+994 50 722 7234) offers creative themed tours of central Baku which allow you to explore the city through its oil boom architecture, literary classics and pop culture.

Visit Baku’s Museums

Heydar Aliyev

Azerbaijan is steeped in history and culture and while Baku may not be regarded as one of the world’s greatest museum cities, there are still several places well worth a visit.

The curvy, futuristic forms of the Heydar Aliyev Center (1 Heydar Aliyev Avenue), designed by the late Zaha Hadid, make this extraordinary structure an exhibit in itself but inside the center also regularly hosts world-class exhibitions.

Equally eye-catching is the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum (28 Mikayil Useynov Avenue; +994 12 497 2057) on the Baku Boulevard which contains in the region of 6,000 carpets representing all the seven schools of Azerbaijani carpet weaving.

Carpets here aren’t just visually appealing but also embody the beliefs and traditions of those that weaved them.

To explore the country’s fascinating past, it’s worth spending a few hours getting to grips with key events such as the oil boom, communism and the Karabakh Conflict at the National Museum of History of Azerbaijan (4 Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev Street; +994 12 493 3648), located in the former mansion of early 20th-century oil magnate Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, who is something of a local legend.

Take a day trip to Gobustan

About 40 kilometers from central Baku in the Gobustan National Park (+994 12 544 6627/22) are more than 6,000 UNESCO-listed rock carvings which offer a unique insight into prehistoric life in the Caspian-Caucasus region.

They depict scenes of hunting, dancing, transport and animal symbolism, the oldest of them dating back more than 15,000 years, although there’s also an inscription left by the Roman Thunderbolt Twelfth Legion in the 1st century CE.

For those struggling to interpret them, the contemporary on-site museum offers plenty of context and guidance.

Also in the park and a short drive away is the best place to see some of Azerbaijan’s estimated 350 mud volcanoes (between 30% and 50% of the world’s total according to different sources).

Mud volcanoes do occasionally and unpredictably erupt so most of them lie in protected areas, but in Gobustan you’re free to clamber up the sides and watch their bizarre gurgling.

Tip: Trips to Gobustan’s petroglyphs and mud volcanoes can be organized from many if not most of Baku’s growing number of hostels, hotels and travel agents.

Explore the beaches of the Absheron

Absheron is a popular place to escape the city heat.

Summer in Baku is hot, so come late May the Baku residents who can will make a hasty escape to dachas (country houses) on the Absheron Peninsula, the area that protrudes into the Caspian like an eagle’s beak.

Similarly, travelers can find relief from the heat by jumping in a taxi, bus or hire car and heading for one of the Absheron’s beaches.

Baku beach culture is a unique phenomenon: Picture old Soviet cars parked right up against the water’s edge, picnicking families, samovars and watermelon.

On some beaches you will see local boys cantering along selling horse rides while on others you might catch macho young men jumping from abandoned oil equipment into the sea.

For the local experience, head to the public beaches at Mardakan or Buzovna while for something a bit more luxurious head to the Amburan Beach Resort (Bilgah, Baku; +994 12 504 5000), Crescent Beach Hotel & Leisure Resort (Salyan Highway, Shikh Settlement, Baku; +994 12 497 4777) or Dalgha Beach Aquapark Resort (Mardakan, 53c Sahil Street, Mardakan, Baku; +994 12 310 4499).

Sample honey and wine in Ismayilli

The village of Ivanovka is a legacy of the Caucasus’ once-thriving population of spiritual Christians that were banished from central parts of Russia in tsarist times.

Since the fall of the USSR many have returned north but Ivanovka is unique for still being a center of Russian culture.

Here you will find timeless streets lined with izba-style houses, some of the best honey in the Caucasus and Azerbaijan’s last functioning collective farm whose grapes are used to make the popular “Ivanovka” brand of wine.

For a real wine excursion, however, travel 15 kilometers to the settlement of Hajihatamli to visit Shato Monolit (Kurd Eldarbayli Village Road, Hajihatamli; +994 51 700 3272), a luxury hotel and winery, which offers tours and tasting and an insight into the Azerbaijani wine industry.

Tip: Ivanovka Guest