We decided to welcome the New Year in at Azerbaijan, a country bounded by the Caspian Sea and Caucasus mountains.
A former state of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is considered to be part of Eastern Europe as well as Western Asia and it was super interesting to see how its culture crosses between Soviet, Turkish and Iranian influences.
The flight from Kuwait to Azerbaijan is almost two hours. We arrived at the Heydar Alyev Airport, named after the president who led Azerbaijan during its Soviet time.
At the airport, we went through an e-visa system after which we boarded a taxi and drove to our hotel. The air was very chilly – it was 4 degrees celsius!
I love looking out the window during the drive from any airport right to our destination. The glimpse of buildings, people and streets passing by gets one excited about what’s to come in a new place.
Thirty minutes later we arrive at our hotel and we unpack, settle in, and change to get ready for our first exploration of Baku, the capital.
Nizami Street – Large Pedestrian Street
At this time of year Nizami Street is a jolly place to be – complete with a winter bazaar, Christmas jingles, festive lights and a cheerful crowd.
After a walk through the winter booths selling roasted chestnuts, coffee, snacks, winter fair games as well photo opportunities with Santa Claus himself, we headed for dinner at an Azerbaijani restaurant called AYDA.
One of the dishes I looked forward to trying was the signature Dushbara soup indigenous to Azerbaijan. This is a lamb based soup with mini lamb dumplings (dushbere) floating inside. It is always served with some vinegar on the side for acidity. Ever since we arrived at Azerbaijan, this has been my go-to warm starter at every restaurant.
Another dish (because I love dumplings) is Gürzə. These are larger versions of the small Dushbere dumplings and come with a sour cream or yoghurt dip.
The Next Day
There are many places in Baku named after Heydar Aliyev, so when we asked the taxi driver to take us to Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center (the museum), we were taken to a plaza of the same name instead. Since we were there we had a walk around.
Heydar Aliyev Museum by Zaha Hadid
Afterwards, we went to the actual Heydar Aliyez museum designed by architect Zaha Hadid.
The museum has a lovely outdoor area with a modern kids playground and a vast green space to walk around. The entire place looked very clean, expansive and modern.
We entered the museum’s first floor, which displays the different traditional national costumes of Azerbaijan followed by musical instruments, copperware, swords and various ancient tools.
What I found cool about the musical instruments section is that each type of instrument had a ‘listening pad’ next to it that is activated once you step on it. The sensory pads trigger the audio speakers from above your head and you can listen to the distinct sounds of each instrument.
The second floor hosts even more instruments and I was pretty mind-blown at the sheer diversity of them. There were up to 200 of them on display, each with a unique design.
One of my favourite parts of the museum was on the last top 3rd floor housing an astonishing collection of handmade one-of-a-kind dolls from Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Latvia, Italy and other parts of Europe.
I was amazed at the detailing and artistry of these dolls most of which were made by winners of international doll festivals and biennales. There are about 300 dolls in total and some made in porcelain, paper, plastic, wood as well as fabric. Each collection of dolls explore themes like dress history, comic characters, holidays, fairy-tale characters and so on. I’ve always thought that being a doll collector would be a cool hobby have.
After our trip to the museum, we headed back to Nizami Street for lunch. We went to an underground restaurant called Dolma for Azerbaijani food with the aim of trying their infamous dish called Shah Plov.
Shah Plov at Dolma Restaurant
We had checked some of the restaurant reviews in Baku and were recommended Dolma. The underground dining area resembled an old city which I loved.
The saffron-infused rice in this dish is cooked with tender lamb and tossed with chestnuts, raisins and dates. The entire thing is wrapped in a delicious, crispy filo crust or thin crunchy lavash. How much more delicious can this get?
The waiter cut open the shah plov as one would a cake, and everything came steaming out.
Chestnuts are a staple of winter in Azerbaijan and can be found in many dishes. I loved this! I said yes to every dish that contained chestnuts during our entire trip.
Preparing for New Year
That evening we got ready to celebrate the New Year at Highland Park, a large panorama ‘viewing’ square overlooking the Caspian Sea (by the way, it’s the largest body of inland water in the world!) and also home to some of the best black caviar.
We bought some New Year snack items to celebrate with from the local supermarket called BRAVO beside our hotel. I always enjoy exploring the supermarkets of any new country as it reveals a lot about the character of the place and I love checking out their groceries. A great deal of the items are purely in Azerbaijani and Russian language.
Something I enjoyed at Azerbaijani supermarkets as well is that I found a lot of childhood snacks I used to enjoy back in Ukraine that I couldn’t find anywhere else. One of these is the ‘sweet corn puffs’ which is typically available in Eastern Europe and was widely available in Soviet times. The puffs are thick and coated with fine sugar powder, they are very addictive! The last time I had these was when I was just a kid, so this was really nice and nostalgic.
Another exciting thing I found were ROSHEN chocolates, a Ukrainian confectionary manufacturing group. We ate ROSHEN chocolates regularly back in Ukraine, so when I found them available in Azerbaijan it was a sweet gold mine for me.
Back at the hotel we hung out at the New Year’s Eve Party before heading up to Highland Park. An hour before New Year, the park was already packed on the terrace but we did manage to find a good viewing spot for the fireworks. The flight of stairs leading up to the park were lit up and the silhouettes of people going up looked really cool.
Up to the Mountains in Shahdag
The following day we took a 3-hour journey to Azerbaijan’s ski resort Shahdag.
Temperatures in Shahdag typically reach below zero degrees celsius but during our stay it didn’t drop below that and the skies were clear and sunny which was pure perfection. There’s nothing better than blankets of snow and the warmth of the sun.
We stayed at the new Pik Palace Hotel for two nights, situated at the top of the mountain.
The first activity we tried was sleighing for kids. There were different styles of sleighs to choose from.
Another great and exhilarating activity is the ‘Coaster’.
At the beginning I thought it would be more of a slow cruise on the rails around the mountains but it turned out to be more of a roller coaster. Each ride contains two seats (back and front) with two levers on the sides at the ‘driver’s’ seat. The levers serve as a break as well as speed accelerators. The rails don’t have loops as a roller coaster does, but rather sharp curved turns and drops.
Since I am not a big fan of rollercoasters or any thrilling entertainment rides, I took it slow at first because I also didn’t want to spook my daughter who, turns out, had a blast and loved the speed. I on the other hand was somewhat pressured to use the lever to its utmost capability as there were couples behind me who clearly wanted to go at it at full swing. I didn’t want to be a bore to both my daughter and myself either, so we enjoyed the thrilling ride of frosty currents on our faces as we meandered around snowy mountain views!
Since the ride took us downwards, we then had to hop on a second time to ascend back up where we came from.
After the ride, we enjoyed frolicking in the snow, having fun with snow ball fights and made snow angels before returning back to the hotel for some warmth. Meanwhile my husband went skiing, as the activities of the day close at 5pm daily.
Dinner at Shahdag
We decided to have some dinner at a restaurant nearby called ALOV. Our driver, who took us around in a big van, made a stop at the dining place a bit further ahead from our hotel.
The Following Day
In the morning we hopped on to the cable car ride. These were one of the those rides that only had a seating for three people and a simple railing in front for safety while the remaining cabin was exposed. There is, however, a way to lower the protective window down as well.
We reached to the top of the mountain peak, a viewing spot from which skiers launch on their slopes.
Lunch at a Village
Our driver took us to a nice place near a village that has enclosed wooden cabins to enjoy lunch in. There is no menu, but rather we were told that they’ll bring us their specialty food of the area.
The local village butcher could be seen nearby preparing the meat, and rows of large samovars were brewing tea.
As with all dining places in Azerbaijan, we were offered pomegranate juice with our meals.
The place also had a nice playground nearby, and my daughter spent some time there before the food was brought in.
After our lunch, it was time to get on our 3-hour ride back to Baku through which we dozed off.
On the way, the driver had told us that we’ll be passing by a village called Quba. Quba is a Jewish village in Azerbaijan and it is characterised by red rooftops hence it is also known as ‘The Red Town’ or ‘The Red Settlement’. The village is believed to be the world’s only all-Jewish village outside of Israel and the United States which is interesting. I would have loved to explore the place but it was already getting late and we had a long drive ahead of us.
We did make one last stop at a honey and jam shop on the mountains. We bought 3-year old honey in a nice handmade pot, it was of a pale-yellow colour and in a crystallised state.
Upon returning to Baku
After some rest back at the hotel, we decided to have a relaxing walk at Baku Boulevard which also happens to be where Baku Eye is located and the signature Flaming Towers landmark.
On a beautiful evening we got on the ferris wheel for a nighttime view of Baku.
The Next Morning: Visiting the Old Baku
One of my favourite things to do in any city is to visit the old parts. We arrived in the Qosa Qala Qapisi area in the morning and went to have breakfast at Cey Begu overlooking the old city and the Caspian Sea.
Azerbaijani breakfast is similar in style to Turkish breakfasts in that we were served small sharing platters of different cheeses, olives, jam, honey, menemen (Turkish eggs & tomato), cheese pastries and of course delicious freshly baked bread. There was one Azeri breakfast dish though called “kuku”.
The dish is actually Persian in origin and includes herbs, finely chopped vegetables, sometimes meat, all of which are bound together with eggs and browned on a skillet. The herbs/vegetables to egg ratio is bigger so it’s not really an omelette although it does resemble one. Kuku is served with some sour cream or yoghurt on the side.
This reminded me of the dill omelette my mum would make for us.
After breakfast, we explored the streets and bought some souvenirs from the area.
We then stopped by a couple of small, cute galleries on the way.
We passed by quite a lot of hand-forged antique copperware. There is a village in Azerbaijan called Lahij which is one of the oldest villages in Azerbaijan and home to the traditional practice of making and using copper craftsmanship in caucasus.
In Azerbaijan, the pomegranate is regarded as the king of fruits. I hadn’t known that there were that many varieties of them. The fresh fruit is sprinkled on meat, bread, sweets, and also widely served as a drink everywhere.
The Yasil Bazaar – one of the biggest bazaars in Baku
Surprisingly when we arrived at the bazaar, it wasn’t crowded at all. The bazaar is mostly filled with cheeses, nuts, dried fruits, tea, jam and honey items.
One of the things we were on the lookout for was the Sheki Halwa, specific to the Sheki village. The dessert is made of rice flour, hazelnuts, cardamom, saffron, and doused in either honey or a sugary syrup.
Another Azerbaijani specialty that we sought is Walnut jam. Walnut preserves are a traditional delicacy made from early, green walnuts. The preserves are highly prized, as their preparation is laborious and time-consuming.
The best caviar comes from the Caspian sea, home to the Beluga, Osetra, and Sevruga sturgeon fish.
Last Day in Baku
On the last day in Baku, we had lunch at a well-reviewed, popular place called Chayki.
There is an indoor seating area as well as outdoors, and we opted for the outdoor enclosed terrace with a view of Baku Eye near the sea.
It’s a very pleasant and cozy dining area.
For starters, we loved qutab. This national Azeri dish is a flatbread folded with meat or cheese. We picked the meat one and the dough in these is paper-thin which is baked on a traditional panfrying pan. They are super delicious and I am planning to make these back home!
For drinks we ordered compote, which surprisingly to me is also a popular drink in Azerbaijan but then again it’s popular in many former soviet countries. Compote is a pink fruit drink that I loved (and still do) back in Ukraine. I even make compote back home in Kuwait and it brings back so many childhood memories.
The main dish was the dolma – Azerbaijani stuffed vine leaves consisting of lamb meat, rice and yoghurt on the side.
For dessert, we had the infamous delectable Napoleon cake. You could find this cake literally everywhere here in Azerbaijan whether it’s in supermarkets or restaurants. Napoleon is a cake my mum would bake for us on special occasions. It is a classic soviet cake resembling the French mille-feuille and contains multitude of layered flaky puffy pastry with custard/pastry pudding-like cream in between. The cream itself softens the flakes.
Another delicious dessert that’s found on a lot of menus here is the Honey Cake, also known as Medovik, and it is popularly eaten in Ukraine and other Soviet countries. The toasty layers in the cake are soaked with honey and then slathered with sour cream frosting.
Before leaving, I had requested to have some jarred white cherry jam.
White cherry jam is a wintery delicacy enjoyed in Azerbaijan and it’s another one of their specialties.
And that pretty much wraps up our trip to Azerbaijan. We had a great time learning about and experiencing this country. I found it fascinating how much cross-cultural influences there were especially from the Soviets. The people in Baku are also super friendly, welcoming, and caring with children.
If we were to return to Azerbaijan, I would definitely explore more of their villages.