Cities & Towns & Places
Baku has pretty much everything you would expect of a historic city with a million plus inhabitants. The walled old-city area is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the surrounding central area is delightfully cosmopolitan with attractive turn of the 20th century buildings with a good balance of local and Western-orientated businesses.
Around Baku, the Absheron peninsula is not immediately appealing but offers a selection of curiosities (castles religious sites and fire phenomena). It is culturally fascinating if you scratch beneath the often-ugly surface and glimpse the range of superstitious practices that jarringly co-exist with Islam in the nation's most self-conscious pious Muslim communities.
The Baku-Alat route is similarly ambivalent but features the world-renowned Gobustan, petroglyphs and some of the most delightful mud volcanoes anywhere. Some surreal oil landscapes give the area a perverse fascination. To the north of Baku one can find the wildly colourful geology of the Candy Cane mountains, the quaint twin towns of Quba and Krasnaya Sloboda and the modest beaches of Nabran are the easiest places to head for, but hidden in the mountains behind is a fabulous patchwork of canyons and hard to reach timeless villages.
The road to North-West Azerbaijan crosses the country skirting just south of the High Caucasus mountain range. It gives the best possible idea of Azerbaijan's extraordinary diversity (desert, farmland, forests and high mountains) within a few hours' drive. Lahic makes a great side trip and Shaki or Zaqatala are appealing choices for get-away-from-it-all breaks from Baku. This route is the recommended way to head for Georgia.
Central Azerbaijan offers much less in the way of scenery and many of its historic sites are underwhelming though if you can make it to Lake Goy Gol the scenery makes up for it all. Beautiful but Armenian-occupied Nagorno Karabagh is still tragically out of bounds to visits from the rest of Azerbaijan.
The south is lushly fertile with thick woodlands and delightful hidden teahouses in the charmingly peaceful Talysh mountain foothills. The route from Baku offers some variety (oilfield hills, plains, marshes, mountain foothills, forests) though less drama than the Shamakha-Shaki route. Nakhchivan enclave has several important historical monuments (eg in Ordubad, Cuga, Karabaglar and Nakhchivan city) scattered across a dramatically rocky semi-desert landscape. The region would be much higher as a tourist priority were it not blockaded by Armenia (so you have to fly or drive via Iran/Turkey).