As I’m writing this, I have just this afternoon got back from a real whirlwind tour of the South Caucasus: taking in the republics of Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan.
We did a very hasty 10-day trip which involved all three capital cities, a free walking tour in each, a day trip in all three countries, as well as including four border crossings, a flight and an overnight train.
We definitely didn’t see everything the region has to offer (which would probably still be the case if we’d had anything less than a month) but if you’re interested in getting a taste for Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan at break-neck speed, you can check out our itinerary below.
Day 0 involved me hopping on a flight from Cologne to Budapest, then taking WizzAir from Budapest to Baku, arriving at 05.30am on Day 1.
Why start off in Azerbaijan? Azerbaijan and Armenia are still at war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region internationally recognised as Azerbaijan but completely controlled by Armenia. (See more here.) Arriving at either country with the other’s stamp already in your passport will most probably raise an eyebrow and mean a few questions at the border, but we were told this is far worse entering Azerbaijan with an Armenian stamp than vice versa.
Three days in Baku, Azerbaijan
We spent the first days of our trip enjoying some spring sunshine on the Caspian Sea (our trip took place between 05 – 15 April) and exploring the Azerbaijani capital. I for one was really surprised how much I liked the city; it was by far the least tourist-y place we visited (we really struggled to get a decent selection of tacky souvenirs) and yet it was definitely the most cosmopolitan – think jogging along the sea-front bulvar, sipping cocktails in a rotating panoramic bar and inspiring, futuristic architecture. (By the way, Baku has a lot of money).
Day 1: Baku
After starting with a great breakfast at Sehrli Tendir, we explored Baku on foot with a free walking tour from the excellent Gani at Azerbaijan Traveller. The tour took us through Baku’s history and took us around some of the city’s most interesting and beautiful buildings, ending in a cosy coffee shop for some tea and cake. Gani even pointed out some of the locations in Ali & Nino, the Azerbaijani ‘national novel’ I’m reading. Afterwards, we wandered around the old town and waterfront bulvar.
Day 2: Qobustan day trip
On day two, we went on a tour with TES Tours. In the end we actually only did our third choice of tour, forgoing the long drive into the mountains. (Unfortunately, Azerbaijan’s other big sights – namely Sheki and Khinaliq – are almost all at least a four-hour drive away, making them hard for a day trip.) Instead, we focused on the surrounding area of Baku. The trip included the mud volcanoes and petroglyphs of the Qobustan region, a tour around the Ateshgah fire temple, a drive up to the Yanar Dag burning mountain and a photo opp outside the Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre.
Despite not having the highest expectations, we were all really impressed by the tour – I would definitely recommend. The proximity to Baku meant that we managed to fit several sights into one day, as opposed to driving hours and hours to see just one or two.
That evening we had a few cocktails at the 360 panorama bar in the Baku Hilton hotel.
Day 3: Baku
On day three we again ate a lot of great food, took the funicular up to the Flame Towers and Martyr’s Lane and visited the Shirvanshir Palace.
Baku to Tbilisi: at the end of day three, we flew from Baku to Tbilisi with Azerbaijan Airlines, which cost around €50.
Three days in Tbilisi, Georgia
Of the three countries, Georgia definitely has the most to offer travellers and three nights certainly isn’t enough to see everything in this up-and-coming country. However, making Tbilisi your base affords you the close proximity to the Armenian border, as well as the chance to venture into the mountains (weather-permitting). Staying in Tbilisi for three nights, we tried to focus on the Eastern and Central regions of the country.
Day 4: Tbilisi
Following a similar pattern, the first thing we did in Tbilisi was sign up for a free walking tour, led by the energetic Ako. The tour started off with an hour’s wine tasting, which was a pretty perfect introduction to Georgia and then continued around the old town, giving us some tips on food and local traditions. After the tour, we sat out the rain in a café in the old town, trying various khachapuri, meats, veg and wine, as well as some questionable traditional desserts… Wine and food were big themes for our time in Tbilisi.
Day 5: Tbilisi
On the next day, we initially wanted to head up to Kazbegi (now Stepantsminda) to see the mountains up close. We had hired a private driver on the advice of our hostel (the lovely George) who told us that sadly, the road was closed due to bad weather. (April still sees a lot of snowfall in the mountains, with consistently good conditions not seen until June).
Instead, we spent more time in Tbilisi, taking in the Georgian Orthodox Cathedral and hopping on the cable car up to the fortress, before another prolonged wine and food session, this time trying khinkali.
Day 6: Ananuri Fortress, Gori, Uplistsikhe & Mtskheta
On day six, the weather was still looking a bit touch and go (Georgia definitely served us up the worst weather during our trip) and so instead of committing to the long drive to Kazbegi and potentially not seeing much, we opted instead to take in the Ananuri Fortress, Stalin’s hometown of Gori and its Soviet Stalin museum, the former capital Mtskheta and the cave town of Uplistsikhe.
Due to the reservoir levels being low, Ananuri didn’t quite offer us the photo opps we’d hoped for, but the other stops made up for our initial disappointment. The Stalin museum was actually a lot better than I was expecting – the exhibits themselves still glorify the dictator but the guides do an excellent job of giving a more realistic view. Mtskheta and Uplistsikhe were also well worth the visit.
Tbilisi to Yerevan: that evening, we took the overnight train from Tbilisi to Yerevan, which only departs on ‘odd’ days – i.e. 11th, 13th, 15th etc. The journey took 11 slow hours and cost us around €25 in second class. (For comparison, the bus takes a mere six hours…)
Three days in Armenia
Our stay in Armenia was practically sponsored by Envoy Hostel, the highly-praised and Lonely Planet-recommended accommodation and tour provider. Over the course of our three-day stay, we did their free walking tour, their Essential Armenia tour and their Enlinking Caucasus tour from Yerevan back to their other hostel in Tbilisi. The quality of the tours was really high and like us, most guests seemed to go on several.
Day 7: Yerevan
On day seven, we arrived in Yerevan at 06.55am. After orienting ourselves in the city with the free walking tour, we then spent the rest of the afternoon seeing some of the sights: after climbing the Cascade, we jumped in a taxi to the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial Complex (which was incredibly moving), before heading back to the city to see the world’s oldest shoe in the Armenia History Museum.
Day 8: Lake Sevan, Geghard Monastery & Garni Temple
The next day, we embarked on the Essential Armenia tour, which took us to two churches on the shores of Lake Sevan, the UNESCO-listed Geghard Monastery and the pagan Garni Temple. Though it was great to see the lake (which takes up around 10% of Armenia’s territory), in my eyes, Geghard and Garni were definitely the highlights of the day. The former is a sacred monastery built into several caves, and the latter is a Greek-style temple offering great valley views. If you’re pushed for time, the latter two could easily be done as a half-day trip from Yerevan with a private taxi.
Day 9: Debed Canyon
On our final day in Armenia, we went on another tour with our great guide Yerv, this time travelling through the North of the country via Lori and the Debed Canyon. I much preferred this tour, as we were travelling through some beautiful scenery with dramatic mountains. (The sun and blue skies didn’t hurt either…) The Debed Canyon itself is beautiful and pretty dramatic – it’s very deep and narrow, with the land seeming to come to an abrupt stop on each side. However, thanks to the copper found here, the valley is blemished by several Soviet-era factories that spoil the landscape. Despite this, I still think Debed was the highlight of my time in Armenia.
Here, we visited the UNESCO-listed Sanahin and Haghpat monasteries. Sanahin had a very Gothic feel to it, while Haghpat had incredible views over the canyon – we were lucky enough to get entry to the bell tower to take some amazing photos. Lastly we visited the Akhtala church, one of the few in Armenia to feature colourful frescoes.
The day ended with a quick border crossing and our drop-off in central Tbilisi.
Day 10: home
Another travel day, day 10 started with a 02.00am wake up call for a bleary-eyed 04.30 flight to Istanbul, and then on to Dusseldorf.
Even after the trip, I’m still pretty happy with the itinerary and how everything worked out. I initially wanted to spend less time in Baku and Azerbaijan, but in reality, I really liked the city and three days there meant we could enjoy ourselves at a nice, relaxed rate.
It’s obviously disappointing that we didn’t make it up to Kazbegi, but that is the gamble when travelling in April. Supposedly April is the rainiest month, something that we definitely noticed during our time in Georgia.
Our trip also left most of Eastern Georgia completely untouched but Kutaisi Airport is well-placed for exploring mountainous Svaneti and the coastal resort of Batumi and is growing as a budget airline hub – WizzAir fly there already from Germany and London among others and Ryanair recently expressed an interest in starting a new base there.
If I were to change anything, I would potentially spend two days in Baku, then travel on to Sheki on the third and enter Georgia via bus from there. It would have been nice to see a different side of Azerbaijan away from the glitz and glamour of Baku, but this would have meant a lot more travel time compared to our short one-hour flight between the capitals.
In addition, it would have been much more convenient to fly out of Yerevan, but Tbilisi is much better connected with Western Europe, so we found much cheaper flights. However if you can find a good deal, arriving in Baku and leaving from Yerevan would mean no time spent doubling-back on yourself.
Day 1: Baku
Day 2: Daytrip – Qobustan
Day 3: Baku
Day 4: Tbilisi
Day 5: Tbilisi
Day 6: Daytrip – Ananuri, Gori, Uplistsikhe, Mtskheta
Day 7: Yerevan
Day 8: Daytrip: Lake Sevan, Geghard Monastery & Garni Temple
Day 9: Daytrip: Debed Canyon
Day 10: Homeward bound!