Travel guide for Baku and Azerbaijan
This guide has been developed by ISME and the conference organising team and will be updated over time with more information.
For many ISME members, Baku and Azerbaijan will be their first cultural taste of South Caucasus. It’s most definitely ‘the road less travelled’, so here is a brief travel guide and some links to more information so you can prepare for your visit to ISME’s 33rd World Conference.
The prestigious international travel guide company, Lonely Planet, describes Baku
“Azerbaijan’s capital is the architectural love child of Paris and Dubai…albeit with plenty of Soviet genes floating half-hidden in the background. Few cities in the world are changing as quickly and nowhere else in Eurasia do East and West blend as seamlessly or as chaotically.”
Azerbaijan is rapidly developing, powered by money from their oil and gas industry in the Caspian Sea. It has proudly hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, European soccer matches and Formula 1 Grand Prix motor races. It is an international conference venue.
The people are warm, friendly and hospitable.
Airport and airlines
There is a shuttle bus to central Baku every 3 minutes during the day or there are taxis. During the conference, there will be a welcome / help desk at the airport for delegates.
Baku airport is modern and relatively small. When you leave you will find many designer shops in the departure lounge and can buy luxuries such as top class caviar if you have a few hundred dollars to spare. Many airlines fly into Baku airport including Air France, Qatar, Alitalia, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, Azerbaijan Airlines and Aeroflot. Many airlines connect with international services from major hub airports such as London Heathrow, Istanbul or Abu Dhabi. (See the travel page on this site for more information)
The country is situated at the junction of moderate and subtropical zones, so the climate is varied. The average temperature in January varies from 3 to 10 degrees and reaches in July-August to +26-35 degrees.
The crime rate is low and Baku is considered to be one of the safest cities in the world. For a tourist the main issues may be petty pickpockets and credit card skimming. Don’t buy anything that may be an antiquity, including carpets, unless you plan to apply for an export permit. Also remember to maintain basic safety just as you would in any other city, such as not walking in quiet streets or lanes after dark and keeping an eye on your personal items at all times.
Cuisine, alcohol and special food needs
Traditional Azerbaijani food includes many of the dishes of south eastern Europe and Central Asia, which means flatbreads, grilled fish and meats such as kebabs, grilled chicken and fish, eggs, rice and potatoes, dairy products (which are variations on the theme of yoghurts and cheeses), and lots of fruit and vegetables including peppers (capsicum), pumpkin, watermelon, pomegranate and aubergine (eggplant). Expect some familiar herbs such as sage and thyme, and some different spices such as sumac and saffron.
These two website give a sense of the food
Flavours of Baku: http://flavorsofbaku.com/
Nelson Carvalheiro: http://nelsoncarvalheiro.com/the-best-dishes-of-azerbaijan-food/
Visits to a caravanserai restaurant or a traditional tea house are a must for those wanting to explore more the local cuisine.
Vegetarians and vegans will find food options. Those who require gluten free food or need to avoid specific food such as nuts will need to ask carefully in restaurants.
All restaurants and bars serve alcohol. Alcohol is widely available, though not cheap. Vodka is the local spirit and is consumed in large quantities at social and official gatherings.
Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim country, which means the culture is conservative. Overt displays of affection are not encouraged. People tend to speak quietly and respectfully. Having said that, don’t be surprised if the local people stand more closely than you might expect and men will greet other men , friends as well as business acquaintances, with a kiss on the cheek. As you would in any other country, it is important to respect the culture and traditions of the people and not to act in a way which is likely to offend.
Same sex relationships and an equal age of consent (16 years) have been legal in Azerbaijan since 2000. This is relatively recent and there is still much education and attitude change that is needed. It is important to note too that this is a conservative country with conservative views about same sex relationships, with families having difficulty accepting their children or siblings “coming out”. It is unlikely that foreign visitors will be harassed because of their sexuality, but it is important to respect the conservatism of the Baku residents.
Whilst Baku is more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country, it is nonetheless still conservative by many Western standards. Dress is modest. This means that in the streets men generally do not wear shorts or sleeveless shirts (vest / singlets), and women tend not to wear shoulderless or strappy tops or short skirts. If you are travelling outside Baku, this is most definitely the case. As the weather in July can be 30-35C (85-90F) this is important to remember.
Azerbaijanis also tend to dress more formally, so don’t be surprised to see men in a business suit and tie where you may be more used to ‘smart casual’ wear. Women also dress more formally, often with immaculate hair and make-up. There are also many references in the travel guides to the extremely high heels that many Azerbaijani women seem to adore.
Azerbaijan’s electricity is 220V 50Hz, which is the same as Europe. Electric sockets also use the European round pin Europlugs. This means that adaptors and transformers will be needed for anything that uses a different power plug or power supply. Most cameras and computers are supplied with suitable adaptors, but they are also readily available at specialist stores, including travel shops.
Export of artworks, carpets and caviar
When purchasing paintings and works of art you must obtain a certificate from the National Art Museum of Azerbaijan. You must show the product itself and its image. In the absence of a certificate permitting the export of your purchase may be denied at customs clearance.
Certificates are issued only on Wednesdays from 15:00 to 17:00. The cost of the certificate on one piece of art issued on the day is 30 manats. Address: 9/11, Niyazi Street, Baku city. Phone: (+99412) 492-57-89 (landline).
When purchasing a carpet you will need to obtain a certificate of goods in Azerbaijan State Museum of Carpet and Applied Art. You must show the carpet and a permit for its export. Otherwise, while leaving the country, you can be prohibited the export.
Certificates are issued only on Wednesdays from 10:00 to 13:00. The cost of the certificate on one carpet issued on the day is 46 manats per carpet. Address: 123 A, Neftchiler Ave., Baku city. Phone: (+99412) 493-44-17 (landline).
Note that many sellers of carpets and works of art will help you to obtain authorization certificates for goods purchased from them.
You are allowed to export up to 125gr of Black caviar. You are recommended to make purchases in Caspian Fish stores, because the quality of the caviar purchased from private traders in the markets cannot be guaranteed.
Geographic location and population
Azerbaijan is located in the South Caucasus, on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. The republic borders with Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Turkey and Russia, on the sea - with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Azerbaijan's total area is 86 600 square km with a population of around 9 million people.
Health authorities such as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a US government body) advises that Azerbaijan is a relatively straightforward place to visit. Make sure your routine vaccinations are up to date, the risk of malaria is low but take sensible precautions against mosquito bites, and a hepatitis A vaccination is advisable in case of contaminated food or water.
Emergency medical care is usually provided free of charge. Call for an ambulance at any time on (012) 103. There are also private clinics and paid medical services, where doctors speak foreign languages. Many pharmacies are open around the clock and stock a large selection of medical supplies.
There is a fine of AZN20 for anyone caught jaywalking. Remember to cross the road at a designated pedestrian crossing. This is c. US$12 and the ticket is issued on the spot and needs to be paid immediately.
The primary and official language of Azerbaijan is Azerbaijani/Azeri, closely related to and partially mutually intelligible with Modern Turkish. Russian and English are used in education and both are spoken by large numbers of people in Baku.
Money and credit cards
The currency is the Azerbaijani Manat and it can be hard to find outside the country, so many travellers take US dollars or Euro and change them locally. Alternatively check with your bank about the fees and charges related to withdrawing cash from a local ATM. MasterCard and VISA are widely accepted. A reliable smartphone app for currency conversion is XE (free version contains ads).
Mobile phones and the internet
The international country code for Azerbaijan is + 994. The Baku code is 12. For a call to Azerbaijan, dial +994 + area code + phone number.
Azerbaijan uses the GSM 900 system, which is used across Europe and Australasia, but is not compatible with phones from the US and Japan. 3G and 4G networks are available in Baku. Wifi is available in most hotels, though some will charge for it, and there is an abundance of free wifi in cafes. It is important to remember that, like anywhere, free wifi is not as secure and security precautions should be taken. The mobile network is also available in the underground network.
Do not photograph an official building or military installation. You can make the usual tourist photos and videos with the exception of some objects, so keep a look out for signs forbidding photography, and when taking a photo of strangers as a rule you should ask permission.
Baku has a well-developed public transport system. If you plan to use it, check out the BakiKart, which is a pre-paid card to use on the bus, underground train and airport shuttle bus. You can buy it at the airport.
It is acceptable and normal to bargain at markets and fairs. The sellers, in most cases, will make a deal. Transactions in shops are normally carried out in the local currency. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Tipping at many restaurants is 5-10% of the bill. If there is no mention of this in the menu you can add 10% to the amount of the bill. Tip porters at the airport or at the hotel AZN 5-10 manats, depending on the amount of luggage. Tipping is not mandatory for taxis, but you would normally round up the meter charge to the nearest 5 or 10 manat. It is recommended to negotiate the fare, if there is no taxi counter (taxi drivers usually do not take foreign currency).
Baku has recently introduced an electronic visa system where visas are issued within about three days. Visit https://www.evisa.gov.az/en/ to apply - you will need to apply for a business visa for attendance at the conference. On the same website you can see a list of countries that are eligible for the e-visa https://www.evisa.gov.az/en/countries If your country is not on that list then you will need to ask the conference secretariat to arrange a letter from the Ministry in Baku so that you can obtain a visa at Baku airport on arrival. More information about this will be available when registration opens – but be prepared to ask for this well in advance of the conference to ensure that the letter arrives in time for your travel.
Avoid drinking un-boiled tap water - use bottled water, or boil any tap water.
Weekends are usually Saturday and Sunday (mainly for public offices), but most of the shops and supermarkets are open daily. The beginning of the working day is around 8-9am, shops are closed at 9-11pm, but restaurants and bars close much later. Banks are usually open from 10am to 5 - 6pm.
For more information:
The Lonely Planet guide is widely considered the definitive guide for visiting Azerbaijan and is available online and through good bookshops. If you want to buy a copy, the latest edition is Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Edited by Alex Jones Cat and published on 17 May 2016. This is the 5th edition. Also available as an e-book. Also perfect for anyone attending the ISME Community Music Commission pre-conference seminar in Tbilisi, Georgia.
The Azerbaijan Convention Bureau has an excellent travel information section. http://azcb.com/travel-information
Their page about visiting Azerbaijan also has some excellent walking itineraries for Baku even if you only have fifteen minutes. http://azcb.com/visiting-azerbaijan