Combining the charms of both Europe and Asia, Azerbaijan is a country of surprising contrasts, hospitable people and epic landscapes. From historic and traditional experiences to modern-day escapades, this fast-growing destination offers countless experiences all leading to untold tales and adventure. And no matter which experience you opt for, expect spectacular architecture, rare natural wonders and exquisite food and wine.
Home to nine out of 11 distinct climatic zones, the landscape offers diverse scenery with everything from city to beaches, forests, and lush and snowy mountains. In fact, the mountains of Azerbaijan are transformed into a white paradise every winter, offering a magical experience for both those seeking adventure and those looking for a dose of rest and relaxation. Set amid the Caucasian mountains, the change of scenery with the most satisfying pistes for ski enthusiasts is just three hours away from the city centre.
Here are the top experiences waiting for you in Azerbaijan in winter.
In winter, Azerbaijan’s mountains are irresistible for skiing enthusiasts. Breathtakingly beautiful, they are home to state-of-the-art ski resorts with well-prepared slopes and first-class amenities. The dramatic landscapes make ski trips here unforgettable, while non-skiers can opt for numerous other activities such as riding a snowmobile, ziplining or snow tubing.
Perched atop the pristine mountains of the Gusar region, Shahdag Mountain Resort has a range of high-class hotels, open-air steam pools, spas, restaurants, and an endless array of thrilling sports and leisure activities. The snow at Shahdag transforms it into one of the most stunning ski resorts in the Caucasus. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced skier, brave the slopes and enjoy over 17 kilometres of pistes. The nearby charming village of Laza is famous for its storied waterfalls which freeze into icefalls during the winter and become a popular site for ice climbing.
Further along the Caucasus Mountain chain, the scenery at Tufandag Mountain Resort in Gabala is equally enchanting. The complex, which can accommodate up to 3,000 people at a time, is well equipped with restaurants, cafes, bars and recreation areas, as well as a ski school for children and adults. The 15 kilometres of perfectly groomed slopes are great for snowboarding and skiing. Like Shahdag, it also has several affordably luxurious hotels. The Chalet Steak and Wine House, which can only be reached by cable car, is the highest restaurant in Azerbaijan, to enjoy a perfectly cooked steak alongside a glass of local wine.
Hammams were once a major part of local Azerbaijani culture. Located near mosques in every small quarter of cities around the country, as well as tending to their visitors’ cleanliness hammams were also places to gather, relax and socialise with friends, family and neighbours. In central Baku a few of the old ones remain, such as the Agha Mikayil, Akhund and Agha Zeynal hammams, which are still visited by locals. Heading to any of these will give you the traditional Azerbaijani hammam experience which entails immersing yourself in warm water, sitting in the steam room and enjoying an all-over body scrub followed by tea ceremony with friends. Visits are particularly recommended during cool winter months.
Additionally, Baku boasts a series of excellent five-star hotels with soothing spas proposing a phenomenal range of treatments, relaxing therapies and good old-fashioned pampering. These two health and wellness centres also offer fabulous relaxation packages: located in the city centre, the Gazelli Wellness Centre has a broad selection of services ranging from detox to dermatology, physiotherapy and beauty treatments. A range of beauty treatments is provided in the top-floor Jaleh spa centre, including a hammam, sauna and massages. Guests can also take a dip in the magnificent Romanesque swimming pool or work out in the fitness centre.
With mountains accounting for over 60 per cent of Azerbaijan’s total area, visitors can enjoy memorable moments hiking through the stunning landscape. One such village is Khinalig which is beautiful and peacefully isolated, so much so that its residents speak a little-known, unwritten language. The scenic route to Khinalig from the city of Guba opens to impressive views at every turn. But the photo opportunities do not stop there! Recently included in the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative list, the village is made up of 360 cobblestone houses built on top of one another 200-300 years ago: one house’s roof is another family’s courtyard! The settlement’s 2,000 residents are warm, welcoming and eager to share with you their local dishes and homebrewed tea. To see all the village’s best bits, reserve up to five hours of your day. Griz village is another popular destination in Guba region, located 2200 meters above the sea level. It is famous for its fascinating waterfall located up in the hills of Ag Dagh mountains. The waterfall freezes in winter and creates a breath-taking scenery, making it a perfect spot for nature admirers. In the region of Gakh, Ilisu village is also picturesque from every viewpoint and has paths to spectacular waterfalls and historical monuments.
Looking for a great winter getaway? Baku is the perfect place to experience an exciting array of activities. Along with celebrating New Year in the vibrant capital, scroll along the downtown part of the city to enjoy the marvellous local architecture pearls. Besides Old city (known as “Icherisheher”) surrounded with the walls and listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site, enjoy the iconic structures throughout Baku built in the 19th century. One of the finest examples of the modern architecture is the Heydar Aliyev Centre, that was designed by prominent architect Zaha Hadid and is noted for its flowing, curved style that eschews sharp angles. While in Old City, make sure to visit the only Museum of Miniature Books in the world, which houses a unique collection of over than 5,600 miniature books. Azerbaijan Carpet Museum is another place you would not want to miss – here you will be able to get acquainted with the ancient traditions of the art of carpet-weaving. For theatre connoisseurs, there are certainly lots to explore – from wonderful performances in the Azerbaijan State Opera and Ballet Theatre to children’s favourite Baku Marionette Theatre. Kids would definitely love the “Cold Hands, Warm Hearts” Christmas/New Year fair located in the Fountains Square, with its numerous entertaining activities, food corners and festive atmosphere. From twinkling lights to warm beverages and exquisite food, the city boasts an atmosphere to get even the most cynical in the holiday spirit.
Azerbaijan’s unique geography and location have resulted in a cuisine influenced by the best of the Middle East, Turkey, Europe and Asia. The foothills and valleys of the Caucasus country’s naturally growing vinifera grapevines has led the region to produce some fine wines over its celebrated 6000-year wine history. While local wineries make extensive use of well-known grape varieties like Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. several Pan-Caucasian and local varietals are also in use. Many of the top producers now offer factory tours and encourage wine tasting as part of their visits. In addition to classically made grape wines, there is also a fast-growing demand in Azerbaijan for other non-grape wines, most notably full-flavoured pomegranate or quince-based wines which are a current favourite amongst Baku’s younger social circles.