Called the 'land of fire', Azerbaijan is famed for its old-world ties, oil spas, healing springs, and (eternal fires). History buffs and wellness tourists will not be disappointed. The country lies between Asia and Europe and is an important player in the South Caucasus' energy space. Indeed, Azerbaijan was first to explore the region's tremendous potential in the sector.
Azerbaijan is also renowned for Naftalan: a unique, medicinal oil. The remedy is thought to be an effective treatment for arthritis, psoriasis, and rheumatism. Naftalan town has special spas and treatment centres, where patients sit up to their necks in baths of the rare oil. Visitors can choose from more than 1,000 mineral springs throughout the country as well.
The capital, Baku, is the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the Caucasus region, and is Azerbaijan's cultural, economic, political, and scientific centre. Situated on the Caspian Sea, it is about 5,500 years old.
History lovers can see some wonderfully preserved relics, ancient mosques, cities, oases, fortresses and palaces. They can also visit the ancient fire-worshipper temple complex, Ateshgah, and walk the natural gas-fuelled Yanar Dag (Fire Mountain), which is one of many impressive eternal fires on the Absheron Peninsula. For the most part, Azerbaijan is mountainous and dotted with beautiful lakes. Many resorts line the Caspian Sea's sandy beaches.
On a cautionary note, there is ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the small Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Though largely populated by Armenians, it is officially part of Azerbaijan. The trouble began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when both countries gained their independence.
Baku has a semi-arid climate with warm, dry summers and cool winters. The city is located in the most arid part of Azerbaijan, where precipitation is less than eight inches (203mm) per year. Even in the winter (December to February), when Baku experiences the majority of its rain, precipitation levels are still relatively low.
Strong gale-force winds are possible throughout the year and, for this reason, Baku is known as 'The City of Winds'. Also, because of these winds, the city experiences fierce snow storms during the winter months.
Average high temperatures during summer (June to August) reach 87°F (31°C), with the Khazri winds providing a much-needed cooling effect. In winter, average temperatures drop to around 39°F (4°C), with temperatures on the coast dipping below freezing.
Nine out of the 11 existing climate zones are present in Azerbaijan, although most of the country is dry semi-arid steppe. Generally speaking, summers are hot and winters are mild and wet, with snow in the mountains. Average temperatures range from 41°F (5°C) in the mountainous regions to 81°F (27°C) in the lowlands in summer, and 14°F (-10°C) to 37°F (3°C) in winter. The best time to travel for warm and dry weather is between April and October, but mountainous areas are best visited in the summer months of July and August. Baku is very hot and humid in the summer.
Late spring and early summer, between April and June, are the best time to visit Azerbaijan, as the weather is warm and the flowers are in bloom.
The official currency is the Azerbaijani Manat (AZN), which is divided into 100 qapik. Credit cards are not widely accepted outside of large hotels and restaurants in Baku and travellers are advised to carry cash, preferably in Euro, British pounds, or US dollars. Foreign currency can be exchanged at banks and official exchange bureaux, but visitors are advised to keep all receipts until departure from Azerbaijan. ATMs can be found in most major cities and towns.
Azerbaijani, or Azeri, is the official language. Turkish and Russian are widely spoken; few people speak English.
Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. Round, two-pin attachment plugs and Schuko plugs are in use.
US nationals require a valid passport and a visa.
UK nationals require a valid passport and a visa.
Canadians require a valid passport and a visa.
Australians require a valid passport and a visa.
South Africans require a valid passport and a visa.
Irish nationals require a valid passport and a visa.
US nationals require a valid passport and a visa.
New Zealand nationals require a valid passport and a visa.
A valid passport and a visa are required for travel to Azerbaijan. Visas are only available on arrival if the passport holder also has an official invitation letter from Azerbaijan. E-visas can be obtained before departure. Passengers visiting relatives must register with local police. If staying at a hotel, the hotel staff will do this for the visitor. It is recommended that passports be valid for six months after departure from any holiday destination.
No vaccinations are required for entry to Azerbaijan, but travellers should ensure that all routine vaccinations are up to date. Vaccinations for hepatitis A and hepatitis B are recommended for all travellers. Most health facilities are state-owned and equipment and staff training often fall short of Western standards. Outside of the capital, medical care and supplies may be difficult to come by and serious medical problems will require air evacuation to another country; comprehensive medical insurance is advised.
Service charges are usually included in bills and tipping is not compulsory. However, taxi-drivers, waiters and hotel staff are commonly given some small change.
The crime rate is relatively low, but muggings do occur in central Baku, particularly at night. Political gatherings and demonstrations should be avoided as these have become violent in the past. Unlicensed taxis should be avoided. Corruption is widespread. The area around Nagorno-Karabakh has long been the subject of dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia and most foreign governments advise against travel to the region due to ongoing outbreaks of violence -- despite the ceasefire.
Most of the country is Muslim and visitors should respect religious customs, particularly during the month of Ramadan, when eating, drinking, and smoking during daylight hours should be discreet as it is forbidden by the Muslim culture.
Travellers should dress modestly, especially when visiting mosques or religious shrines. More specifically, women should cover arms and legs, and men should not wear shorts, even in summer.
Although homosexuality is legal in Azerbaijan, public displays of affection will cause offence, especially outside the capital. Foreign nationals are routinely subject to police checks and it is advisable to carry identification at all times.
Personal contact and relationship-building is critical in Azerbaijan, which means that meetings are more effective than long-distance communication. It is common to exchange business cards in meetings, and these should be in Russian or English and have an Azeri translation on the reverse.
The language of business is Azeri or Russian, and translators will be required for those who don't speak either language. Azeris tend to be polite and visitors should be aware that a 'yes' might actually mean 'no'.
Culturally, there is a strong emphasis on not causing 'loss of face' publically. Azeris should not be rushed into making a business decision. Gender roles are traditional and businesswomen might be met with scepticism.
The international dialling code for Azerbaijan is +994. Area codes are in use (e.g. 12 for Baku). There are few telephone lines outside of the main cities, and international calls usually require the use of operators, many of whom do not speak English. Mobile coverage is modernised and extensive, and service-provider branches are easily available in towns and cities. Roaming charges are high and it is best to buy a local SIM card. Internet access is increasing.
Travellers older than 18 may bring 600 cigarettes, 3 litres of alcohol, 10kg of food products and goods up to the value of US$1,500 without paying customs duty. Banned items include weapons, narcotics and material encouraging terrorism or violence. Permission must be granted by the government before cultural artefacts, such as antique carpets, are exported from the country.
Official tourism website: azerbaijan.travel
Azerbaijan Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 337 3500.
Azerbaijan Embassy, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Ireland): +44 20 7938 3412.
Azerbaijan Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 288 0497.
Azerbaijan Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 346 1018.
Azerbaijan Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6290 5600.
United States Embassy, Baku: +994 12 488 3300.
British Embassy, Baku: +994 (12) 437 7878.
Canadian Embassy, Ankara, Turkey (also responsible for Azerbaijan): +90 312 409 2700.
South African Embassy, Ankara, Turkey (also responsible for Azerbaijan): +90 312 405 6861.
Australian Embassy, Ankara, Turkey (also responsible for Azerbaijan): +90 312 459 9500.
Irish Embassy, Ankara, Turkey (also responsible for Azerbaijan): +90 312 459 1000.
Visitors will find a number of transport options. The Baku Metro is the capital's rapid transport system and consists of more than 20 stations scattered throughout the city. It provides the cheapest way to get around. Baku also has a system of electric trains that serve several locales and surrounding areas. Alternative modes of public transport include buses and minibuses, which can take people almost anywhere in the city. Destinations are clearly marked on the fronts of vehicles.
Taxis in Baku are similar to London's black cabs in style. Travellers can also hire a car in Azerbaijan and a number of car rental companies have offices at the airport. Road conditions and signage are of a good standard in the city. Against that, foreign drivers can sometimes struggle to deal with the erratic behaviour of local road users.