How to Survive a Trip to Azerbaijan as a Vegetarian

One of our tour guides told us that Azerbaijan is a “vegetarian hell” and laughed. It was this kind of a joke that is actually a description of reality. Lamb is all around you in the Land of Fire. Both my husband and I are pescatarian so we eat fish from time to time but our experience was still rather rough. We survived two weeks, though so let me share some of my insight on the topic with you.

1. Lower Your Expectations

I know, I know. You’ve been really looking forward to this trip and you associate holiday with pleasures of the palate. Azerbaijan will not be an absolute disappointment because there are some things you can try (yay!). Still, you may decide to opt for eating in more often than you’d prefer during your holiday or for preparing food at home and taking it with you.
We’ve mostly given up with eating out after three days in Baku when starved after exploring the city we settled for the only place in the area that had anything vegetarian on the menu. We paid ZAR 500 (± USD 35) for a pasta with tomato sauce, hummus with bread, some pickles and tea. And yes, it tasted as sad as it sounds.

Eating pickles in our Airbnb in Baku

2. Vegetarianism is Rare, Be Prepared to Weird People Out

I have tried to explain to people numerous times that we were vegetarians in both Russian and English. The concept is largely unknown so explaining that you don’t eat meat and specifying that this means you also don’t eat chicken and fish is a better idea. People in Azerbaijan are friendly and even if they initially find the concept weird, they will help you choose the right items on the menu (sometimes available only in Azeri) or point out what’s okay for you in a bakery/patisserie/deli.
We weren’t particularly traumatised but we had to deal with a bunch of people making fun of us for most of a meal we ate in a local home during a trip to Khinalug. Russian tourists along with our Azeri guide made unfunny uncle jokes such as “I wonder what they ate for breakfast? Maybe LETTUCE!” and “Did you guys know that the tea you’re drinking is chicken-flavoured?”. And just btw the “vegetarian” option they offered us meant eating the rice from under the chicken. A stricter vegetarian would refuse to eat it but we were too hungry to care.

Let them vegetarians eat cake!

3. The Local Delicacies That You Can Eat

In terms of street food your options are quite limited but you can try perojki, which are deep-fried donut-like dumplings with fillings. The most common version has potato and/or cheese inside but always tell people that you don’t eat meat to be on the safe side. You can also find other pastry that doesn’t have meat in it but it’s usually sweet so not a perfect lunch option.

This is me eating perojki

Another kind of vegetarian fast food is qutab, which you will often find close to many tourist attractions and by the road in various parts of Azerbaijan. It’s a flatbread with different fillings. The typical ones are greens and pumpkin and both are quite tasty.

A little roadside qutab bakery

In restaurants you can try ordering a number of starters and skipping the mains. A waiter usually comes to you with a tray or a big plate to show you available appetisers. Bread or flatbread accompanies them so if you get enough you can end up quite full.
The appetisers that are safe to try include: potato salad (but do yourself a favour ask whether there’s no chicken in it), spicy aubergine paste, tzatziki, hummus and a variety of pickles including cucumbers, green and red tomatoes, apples, beetroot, cabbage, cherries and other things that even though I’m Polish, I had no idea that you can pickle!

A tray of options
A delicious aubergine paste and a salad with goat cheese.
Magda in pickle heaven

Last but not least, you can have a bag of chestnuts if you’re starving and vegetarian food is nowhere to be found.

Are you sure that the the best chestnuts are sold on Pigalle Square?

4. Knock Yourself Out With Desserts

If you don’t mind eating sweets instead of normal food, your vegetarian diet will be much easier during your stay in Azerbaijan. There are many places where you can go just to have sweets and tea. You can also eat starters with bread as suggested above and top them up with a dessert to get a full meal (beggars can’t be choosers and all that).
You should definitely try Azeri diamond-shaped baklava with almonds or walnuts – paklava. There are many kinds of it, from more traditional to more creative ones. I’ve really enjoyed the chocolate one, for instance, so don’t be shy to experiment.

Chocolate paklava and I

Now, to avoid confusion bear in mind that Sheki halva or halvasi is actually a type of paklava and not something resembling a typical halva. You’ll, however, find the “normal” halva in shops and patisseries (and cheap!) so keep an eye out.

This is NOT halva. Ceci ce n’est pas un halva.
This is what you’ll get when you buy Sheki halvasi (= Sheki paklava)
One of many examples of supermarket halva. This 500 g piece costs around 1 USD.

Another pastry not to miss is a shekerbura. A half-moon shaped piece of heaven yet again made of almonds or walnuts. If you like, you can compare it to paklava in one sitting.

This is me, shekerbura (on the left) and paklava.

You can also grab a deconstructed fruit roll from one of the offroad stands around Azerbaijan. Just a fair warning: they’re quite tart and weird. I’ve tasted quite a few of them and still am not sure whether I like them or not.

Kiwi or pomegranate?

5. Opt for Western-styled, Italian or Indian places

I really don’t love eating at places that serve food one can find everywhere else when I’m exploring a different country but Azerbaijan didn’t leave us much choice at times. Most Western-styled places will have some vegetarian options for you (often not many, though). Another safe choice are pizza and Italian places. Last but not least, for obvious reasons, you won’t leave hungry if you visit an Indian restaurant.

Oh, hey! It’s me eating qutab again because I have no choice if I don’t want to starve…

6. Drink a Lot, It Kills Hunger

Even though our guide was SO funny to suggest that tea in Azerbaijan is chicken-flavoured I’ll state the obvious and tell you that it isn’t. In fact, all drinks we’ve tried in Azerbaijan were meat-free! My recommendation to you is to drink a lot on your trip to Azerbaijan as it kills hunger.
I don’t mean alcohol, which can be found in many but not all restaurants. Remember that Azerbaijan is a moderate, but still, Muslim country. That’s probably when it comes to soft drinks and hot beverages, there’s a lot of variety.
First of all, there’s tea, often served in big pots in a traditional Azeri way with spices such as cloves and thyme. We actually managed to reproduce the special Azercay flavour at home that I will elaborate on at a different time.
Don’t forget that if you want to drink your tea with your meal, you need to specify it with your waiter because their expectation is you’ll drink it it after the meal.

Tea time!

Apart from teas you may want to try kompot. It’s a sweet beverage made of different fruit. In Azerbaijan I only saw it served cold. It’s also much sweeter than the variation I’m used to from visiting and living in Eastern European countries.

Don’t even dare to leave Azerbaiajn without trying a juice made out of a fruit symbolising the country. Pomegranate juice may taste a bit sour but it was a love at first sight for me.

7. Tips For Vegans

Guys, I really appreciate what you’re doing for animals and the planet but Azerbaijan is a super challenging location for you. If you don’t want to reconsider your trip, be prepared to make food at home and eat in to avoid problems.

Azerbaijan is certainly not a place where a vegetarian will feel inspired by his or her food choices. Still, if you plan well and you don’t mind eating pre-packed lunch on a park bench, you can manage to have a decent holiday.

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The Heydar Aliyev Center

The Hedyar Aliyev Centre is a stunning building with amazing exhibitions inside. It’s definitely one of the things to see in Baku, when you’re there. We spent more or less three hours exploring the building from the inside and from the outside and it was a true feast for the senses.
There are many entries and finding the right one was rather confusing. We got chased around a lot until finally we found the place that sold tickets (it’s where all the posters are, guys). With tickets in hand we downloaded a super useful app for free to use as an e-guide.

My husband is mentally preparing for an alien abduction

So Who’s Heydar Aliyev?

Just to give you some background, Heydar Aliyev was a president for 10 years up until one month before his death in 2003. His son, Ilham Aliyev is the current president of the country. The current president’s wife, Mehriban Aliyeva apart from being the First Lady is also the first vice-president of the country. Nepotism much? iPhone cases with the faces of the whole family in different configurations are available at most tourist locations…
You’ll often hear during your trip to Azerbaijan that Heydar was a great man. Countless buildings, streets and other places of interest in the country are named after him. You can learn everything you want to know about him and more in the Heydar Aliyev Centre – the exhibition dedicated uniquely to him occupies three floors. Of course, that’s the official version of things.

The Mauro Corda Exhibition

Apart from the Heydar Aliyev part of the center there are numerous world-class exhibitions there. When we visited the place in April 2019 a big part of the first floor was occupied by a marvellous collection of sculptures by Mauro Corda. I must say that he was unknown to me before I visited Baku but I was very happy to be introduced to his work. Here are my personal favourites I’ve seen inside of the spaceship:

I really love the detail here!
A quick visit to the island of Dr. Moreau
Seems like someone was inspired by the myth about Romulus and Remus and the origins of Rome
Why so serious?
The protagonist of Sharknado 7? I don’t think anyone believes they’ll stop at 6 movies.
The English Patient in Baku

Puppet Master: Baku Edition

I never thought much of puppets to be honest. I’m sure I enjoyed some puppet shows as a child and certainly liked some of the Puppet Master series movies as a young adult but that’s about it. That’s why I didn’t exactly drop my panties when I saw that there was a puppet and doll exhibition in the Heydar Aliyev Center. I was wrong – I should have! So many of them very really amazing tiny pieces of art. Have a look at my selection of the best of:

Have you ever played Neverhood? This doll really reminds me of the game.
Hey there, wana make out?
I’m not sure why but this doll makes me feel sad
I love the imagination of the maker of this doll!
A Queen Nefertiti doll, anyone? Certainly better for raising ambitious daughters than a Barbie!
A rare spotting of an Internet troll

What Else Is There?

The other exhibitions were not as interesting as the ones I’ve photobombed you with in detail. The old car showcase was really not my thing. There was also a Russian painting exhibition, which had one painting I particularly liked:

A curiosity is a collection called “Mini Azerbaijan”, which presents miniature versions of the most important Azerbaijani buildings including… the Heydar Aliyev Centre itself. How post-modern and meta-artistic is that?

Last but not least, there were certain exhibits relating to the culture and traditions of Azerbaijan.
I really liked the small collection of musical instruments that you could listen to by standing on a circle-shaped carpet, as shown by the Husband:

We also enjoyed looking at some traditional costumes. However, the models were quite smug and I needed to put them in their place.

In brief, the Heydar Aliyev Center is an absolute must if you’re visiting Baku. Appreciate it from the outside and have some time left to explore the inside too. It’s really easily accessible with public transport so there’s no need to invest in an organised tour to go there.

Trips around Baku: Explore the Land of Fire

Did you know that Azerbaijan is dubbed the Land of Fire? There are two fire-related tourist attractions close to Baku. They’re also places of religious worship to which pilgrims travel from all around the word. Don’t miss them, if you have a few days to explore Azerbaijan.

Yanar Dag or the Burning Mountain

Yanar Dag or the Burning Mountain is a place where a 10 metre-long wall of natural fire has been burning incessantly since the 14th century (or so claim the locals). It runs on natural gas and hasn’t been extinguished by rain or snow. It sounds fascinating so of course we needed to see it for ourselves.
We were not disappointed but you should know what to expect: it’s a fire on the side of a mountain. Unless you’re visiting it for religious reasons as Zoroastrians do, you’ll be happy with hanging out around there for 5-10 minutes, taking some pictures and heading off. The tour of the place with the local guide is super short so prepare your questions, if you have any, because they’ll disappear soon.

Amrik’s visibly uncomfortable because of the heat.

The Fire Temple – Ateshgah of Baku

If you’re a real Game of Thrones fan and you haven’t had enough fire yet, the Fire Temple will certainly make you happy. The Temple was built around natural gas sources, however, due to fuel exploitation the fire you can see there today is no longer natural. There’s only one fire, which is artificially sustained at all times. Another four are only lit for special occasions. Our visit clearly wasn’t special enough for that…

The mother and father of Dragons in the Fire Temple

It’s also a very interesting location to visit as it’s a place of worship for two religions: Zoroastrianism and Hinduism. They’ve co-existed for a long time without disturbing one another, even though their customs are very different.

Zoroastrian mythology
Hindu mythology

You can learn a lot about both religions from the descriptions in the Temple or from your guide. If you arrive on your own, you can pay for a guided tour of the place. If you pay for an organised tour, the service could be included in the price.
It seems to be a trait of the Azerbaijani tourism industry that the guide, who travels with you usually doesn’t tell you about the locations you’re visiting. He or she may share some general info with you on the bus (or not, unfortunately…) but most tourist locations have their own guides. “Your” guide will just follow you around, acting as an interpreter, if required.

How to Explore the Fire Attractions?

The cool thing about both places is that they’re quite easy to access from Baku. They are actually a part of the Greater Baku area, meaning Baku and adjacent villages.

If you want to explore these attractions on your own you can use public transport or a cab. You’ll certainly find a cab back as taxi drivers here have a habit of hanging around tourist attractions.

If you prefer the convenience of an organised tour, there are generally two types of group tours that allow you to visit both Yanar Dag and the Fire Temple of Baku: a half day tour with these two locations only and a full-day tour that adds the Mud Volcanoes, the rock paintings in Gobustan and the Heydar Aliyev Centre to the itinerary. The latter is an amazing art centre so it’s a real shame not to have enough time to explore it properly. If you can afford it time and moneywise, rather do two half-day tours and add a visit to the Centre to top up one of them.

Baku: Getting There and First Impressions

Let’s start with getting to the country. There are regular flights to Baku from Doha and Dubai so for travelers from many countries this may be the easiest way to get there. My journey was not short: a 10 hours flight from Cape Town to Doha, an 8 hour-long layover in the port of transit (nope, couldn’t go out to explore, it was in the middle of the night) and a short flight from Doha to Baku.

Where to Stay?

Baku, as any modern city, has a number of options for every budget. They have expensive 5-star hotels as well as more affordable ones. Hostels in the city centre are also very popular and are always a good solution for a solo traveller. We wanted some privacy and independence so we opted for Airbnb. Our first host cancelled a week before our arrival but we managed to find a new accommodation, also in the city centre. Our apartment could look better but has an amazing location and a very good, responsive and helpful host. Definitely recommended for the price.

Pro tip: You should remember to book your accommodation before you apply for your visa, as they’ll ask you about it. Have a printed e-visa, a confirmation of your accommodation and your return ticket ready for the immigration officers too.

The protagonists

Visa, please

Best to always check the requirements for your country with a local consulate/embassy. Some countries are eligible for a visa on arrival. I also saw e-visa self-service terminals at the airport but I have no idea how and if they work.
As recommended, we got our e-visas before our trip using the super useful Azerbaijani e-visa system. The usual processing time is up to 3 days but if you’re travelling last minute you can opt for an express service at additional cost. In my experience, the process is very quick and easy. You provide your personal details, your address, pay the fee, wait a bit, print out your e-visa and voila, you’re ready to go! With this in hand you’ll obtain your actual visa at the port of entry.

The Airport and Getting to Baku

The airport, as it usually happens, is slightly outside of Baku. If you want to have a local simcard (useful for data, wi-fi isn’t available everywhere), the easiest is to buy it straight at the airport. You’ll see the stand as you get out of the terminal after picking up your baggage. There are also places to exchange or draw money there.
You can get to Baku by bus or by taxi. Whatever your choice, do yourself a favour and act decisively once you leave the airport. The moment the door closes behind you, taxi drivers will surround you like harpies, trying to use all sort of tricks to get you to their taxi. E-hailing services such as Uber and Taxify/Bolt are available and are cheaper than the taxis waiting for tourists at the airport. It cost us 10 manat (6 USD) to get to the city centre using Taxify/Bolt.

Baku Olympic Stadium

As we were driving from the airport my first impression of Baku was: WOW. I was expecting great architecture but perhaps not immediately. The beautiful modern buildings on our way from the airport to the city centre surprised me. The highway is wide and in perfect condition.

The First Day in Baku

After we unpacked and showered we decided to go for a walk on the seaside Boulevard. Locals use it for walks, runs and other sport activities. I was surprised to see so many people (even adults) on scooters and roller-skates. The pathway is smooth like Philadelphia cream cheese so it’s perfect for all kinds of activities.

The Baku Boulevard

On our first day we also climbed a hill, starting from the Carpet Museum. It leads to the Upland Park, famous for being the best spot for panoramic shots of Baku. You can take a funicular to get there, if you prefer but it’s a very nice walk. It’ll also make you feel less guilty about all the baklava (or paklava as it’s called here) you’re going to eat during your holiday.

A panoramic view of Baku from the Upland Park

We also discovered a pretty cool restaurant on our first night in Baku. As we were walking home, we noticed an elderly woman making a qutab (traditional Azerbaijani flat bread with a filling of choice) in a window. “Mangalia Food Baku” serves traditional Azerbaijani food but surprisingly, we managed to find some vegetarian options on the menu. They actually told us they had vegetarian kebabs and they didn’t lie! We were also impressed with great service and a live band. Apart from the food we enjoyed the local signature tea, Azerçay. It has a particular flavour and it’s really delicious. I’m planning to bring more or less 5 kilos back with me to South Africa.

Baku was one of my most impulsive travelling choices – a Russian translator I was working with was based in Azerbaijan and I started to research the country. It looked like an amazing location to travel to with its rich history and not too many tourists visiting it yet. My husband agreed with me and here we are. Almost one week into the experience and we certainly don’t regret the decision!

A New Beginning

I’ve probably had 738483792394329 blogs before I started this one. I’ve deleted most of them but you can still read more of me (#zlotybaby) at RinseBeforeUse. I’m not going to go on about my need to reinvent myself. I have one.
So here it is, my new baby I have high hopes for. Now, please do enjoy this song I really, REALLY like by Wolfie’s Just Fine (AKA Jon Lajoie) before I publish something more substantial 🙂