Sheki: Azerbaijan’s Most Lovely Town and Springboard to the Caucasus

In this destination trip report, we will visit the city of Sheki in Azerbaijan.

Train arrival

After a comfortable overnight train journey from Baku I arrived in the early morning at Sheki’s railway station, which is still located some 10 miles out of the town proper.

I easily managed to negotiate a 1 EUR fare in a shared taxi, with the driver dropping me off directly in front of my guesthouse where I would stay the night.

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Driving the last 10 miles from Sheki’s railway station to the town itself. ©Paliparan
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Arriving in the town of Sheki. ©Paliparan

Homestay

Sheki, which is written as Şəki in the Azerbaijani language and alphabet and alternatively also transliterated as Shaki in English, is a small city having only around 70,000 inhabitants.

Despite its relatively small size the city is however home to a decently-sized tourism industry being one of Azerbaijan’s most popular destinations.

There are a handful of hotels in Sheki, although what is really thriving here is the number of small guesthouses and homestays. It is therefore a great city to live like the locals do, and this is exactly what I opted for. The usual hotel and accommodation booking website all list a big number of well-rated homestays. There really is quite a wide choice in this accommodation category.

Sah Ismayil

I stayed at ‘Guest House Sah Ismayil’ and paid 13 EUR for a double bedroom with shared toilet facilities. Breakfast was included in the rate and freshly cooked by the host family in the morning.

The house was located in a side street of the main avenue and easy to find. Behind a large gate was a small front yard and a small building containing the only shower/toilet facility of the house. The house itself looked exactly like similar to old family houses I’ve stayed in during my previous travels throughout neighbouring Georgia some years before.

My private room was hardly luxurious, but it was clean and the bed comfortable. It oozed old-fashioned local and Soviet charm with the gold-coloured bed cover and carpets on both the floor and wall.

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For accommodation, I opted for a homestay. ©Paliparan
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My room, with lots of carpets and golden touches, is how 90 percent of household interiors in the greater Caucasus look like. ©Paliparan

Exploring Sheki

After settling into my room I bought some pastries from a nearby bakery as belated breakfast. With almost the entire day still ahead of me, I had plenty of time to see all the main sights in and around Sheki.

Coming from glitzy Baku, it was quite a culture shock to walk around Sheki which in its commercial centre feels like the standard Soviet-era provincial town with low-key apartment blocks and a few small city parks. In all three of the countries of the southern Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia) the difference between the capital and countryside is huge – and I felt that in Azerbaijan the contrast was even greater.

This also has its advantages, as prices for accommodation, local transport and taxis and food are just a fraction of what you pay in Baku. Even though Azerbaijan is rich in oil, it is Baku where all the money goes and not the hinterland.

Outside of the capital, Azerbaijan is still relatively poor with people trying hard to make ends meet. Think dirt roads instead of grand boulevards, Lada cars instead of BMW’s, and homestays instead of the grandeur of the Kempinski Hotel. To understand Azerbaijan you have to see both aspects of the country and do have to venture out of Baku as well.

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Ladas – and not BMWs and Audis – dominate the streets of Sheki. ©Paliparan
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Statue in front of a communist-era building. ©Paliparan
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Away from the main streets there are only dirt roads. Bring good shoes in winter and early spring! ©Paliparan

Historic town

Sheki is described in guidebooks as one of Azerbaijan’s most lovely towns, and it does have quite a bit of history as well. Sheki was a stop on the Silk Road and in the 18th century it was even the capital of a short-lived independent Khanate. Because of its heritage and old town core, Sheki was even placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2019.

The old town is centred around the Khan’s old palace and an old caravanserai (old traveller’s inn) and is located a bit more uphill from Sheki’s commercial centre. The short walk up the hill is quite pleasant as the road runs parallel to a small riverbed.

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From the commercial heart of Sheki, you wander along a small riverbed uphill to the old town. ©Paliparan
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Heydar Aliyev, the third President of Azerbaijan who served from October 1993 until his death in October 2003. He is the father of current president Ilham Aliyev. ©Paliparan
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Artisan shops in old stone houses. ©Paliparan
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Artisan shops on the way up to the old town. ©Paliparan

Caravanserai

The old caravanserai of Sheki is well worth a quick peek. Just open the small wooden gate and walk inside to the inner courtyard of this magnificent stone building!

True to its original use, the building is still functioning as a mid-range hotel (Karavansaray Hotel) and has a decent on-site restaurant according to reviews. If you are looking for something historic – this is probably the play to stay in Sheki.

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Wooden door leading into the Sheki caravanserai. ©Paliparan
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The inner courtyard of the caravanserai. ©Paliparan
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Sheki caravanserai. ©Paliparan

Khan’s Palace

When you arrive on the top of the hill you might easily think that not much else is there. The hilltop is almost completely bare with very few structures if it would not be for the Khan’s old palace (Xan Sarayı) located just beyond the stone fortifications.

Once at the other side of the wall you are in the lovely gardens of the Khan’s Palace built in 1762. Although my March visit was perhaps not the best time of the year to admire the beauty of the rose garden, it doesn’t require much imagination to picture the grounds on a lovely spring or summer day.

Being the only tourist at the time of the day, I got a sort of private tour by the friendly groundsman. Unfortunately no pictures were allowed inside the Khan’s Palace. For a palace I thought the building was fairly small although it is very beautifully decorated inside, with the highlight being a huge guest room on which various battle scenes were painted across the entire walls. The ornate mosaics on the exterior are beautiful as well.

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The Khan’s Palace is located beyond an impressive stone wall on top of the hill. ©Paliparan
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The Khan’s Palace. ©Paliparan
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The Khan’s Palace. ©Paliparan
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The The Khan’s Palace is surrounded by a lovely rose garden. ©Paliparan

Old town

Having seen what are basically all the main sights in Sheki, I opted for a walk back through some random streets. This is where perhaps most of Sheki’s charms can be found. There are no better ways to absorb the old atmosphere of yore than walking the backstreets of town.

To my great delight, the clouds started to clear at this point. Besides bringing in gorgeous blue skies, it also meant that for the first time I could appreciate Sheki’s location in the foothills of the Caucasus with mountain views slowly opening up.

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The town of Sheki as seen from the Khan’s hilltop palace. ©Paliparan
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Walking down again from the hilltop palace. ©Paliparan
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Walking through the backstreets of Sheki. ©Paliparan
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Walking through the backstreets of Sheki. ©Paliparan
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Walking through the backstreets of Sheki. ©Paliparan
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Old Soviet car parked on a cobblestone street. ©Paliparan
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With the skies finally clearing up also came some great mountain vistas. ©Paliparan
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Exploring the backstreets of Sheki. ©Paliparan
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Small minaret of a Sheki mosque. ©Paliparan

A traditional lunch

For lunch I stopped at a pleasant restaurant called Çələbi Xan. When in Sheki, you have to try ‘piti’, a dish famous throughout the Caucasus and Turkestan, but which is said to have originated here.

The dish, a popular workman’s lunch, is named after the way how the food is prepared. A stew is made out of mutton and veggies such as tomatoes, potatoes, chickpeas and onions, It is infused with saffron water and placed in individual crocks with a glazed interior (called piti in Turkic languages), covered by a lump of mutton fat, sealed and placed in an oven.

Before you can eat it, there is some etiquette which you have to follow if you want to eat piti the proper way. First you tear off some bread and put it in a bowl. You then fill up the bowl with the liquid from the piti. This you eat as a soup.

What remains in the piti is basically mashed mutton and veggies, which you put on a plate as a sort of second course with some more bread. It’s quite ingenious and was indeed delicious! With a drink it only set me back around 3 EUR.

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Çələbi Xan restaurant. ©Paliparan
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A waiter pouring in the liquids from the piti on a plate with pieces of bread. ©Paliparan
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Pouring in the liquid from the piti into the bowl. ©Paliparan
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The mashed mutton and veggies from the piti. ©Paliparan

Ancient church of Kiş

After lunch I commandeered myself a taxi and headed to the nearby village of Kiş, just a few miles up the road in the main valley. Kiş is famous for a 12th century Caucasian Albanian church, although there is evidence a church existed here already in the first century after the birth of Christ.

Caucasian Albania has by the way nothing to do with the current Balkan nation of Albania – it was the name of an old empire in present-day Azerbaijan.

I thought the little church of Kiş was indeed beautiful – and so was the backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains. Inside the church, which is not in active use for religious services, are some interesting old artifacts on show. The courtyard and garden around the church is also being used to showcase some historic objects found in the area.

Any taxi driver in Sheki can take you to Kiş and back for just a few euros – just be prepared to negotiate a good fare! It is perfectly fine to ask the driver to stop alongside the road as well to take in some of the great mountain views you will encounter on the way there.

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There are some great view over the Caucasus Mountains from the Sheki-Kiş road. ©Paliparan
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The old Albanian church of Kiş is located just a few miles out of Sheki. ©Paliparan
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The old Albanian church of Kiş. ©Paliparan
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Church interior. ©Paliparan
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View on the way back to Sheki. ©Paliparan

Back to Sheki

After exploring Kiş for half an hour I walked back to my taxi for the ride back to Sheki. Having basically seen all there is in Sheki, I decided to wander a bit randomly through town, snapping a few more pictures.

Although there is a lot more to do around Sheki (it makes a good starting point for some hikes) I was not in the right season for it and did not have the time for any multi-day hiking trip into the Caucasus. Unless you go on a hike in the Caucasus foothills or further into the mountains, one full day is certainly sufficient to see everything Sheki and to head to nearby Kiş – you will even have some time to spare!

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Walking around Sheki. ©Paliparan
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Walking around Sheki. ©Paliparan
sheki statue
Walking around Sheki. ©Paliparan

Pub

I thus did what most men would do when they are bored and have nothing else to do: head off to the pub. There weren’t many in town, and the few local joints I walked across were all closed. So I headed towards the hotel bar of the upmarket Sheki Saray Hotel, which actually looked quite nice from inside.

While enjoying a cold beer, I pondered the big questions of life such as: ‘Why on earth does Azerbaijan make the effort to import a beer all the way from Vietnam?’ – as the hotel bar somehow only served Vietnamese and Turkish beer.

After a few beers I got hungry, so I decided to stay at the hotel bar for some dinner as well. The shish kebab was quite good!

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The bar of the Sheki Saray Hotel. ©Paliparan
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The bar of the Sheki Saray Hotel. ©Paliparan
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The oddity of drinking a Vietnamese beer in a hotel bar in provincial Azerbaijan. ©Paliparan
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Shish kebab for dinner at the bar of the Sheki Saray Hotel. ©Paliparan

In short

I had a lovely day in Sheki and the surrounding area. The town itself is indeed worth a stop on any Azerbaijani itinerary and makes for a great contrast with the modern, glitzy surroundings of Baku.

Sheki’s old town has a few interesting highlights such as the caravanserai and the Khan’s palace, although the biggest charm is just walking around aimlessly through the backstreets of town where time seems to stand still completely. When in town, don’t forget to eat some piti!

Making the short drive by taxi to Kiş is definitely a worthwhile trip as well as the old Albanian church and mountain views are quite lovely. Although one day is definitely enough to see everything in Sheki and Kiş, you may want to stay longer in summer as there are apparently some great hikes in the area through the foothills and valleys of the Caucasus Mountains.

Trip report index

This article is part of the ‘Siberian Shuffle – A Crazy Winter Trip Around Eurasia‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:

1. Review: Wizz Air Bucharest to Oslo Sandefjord Torp (Airbus A321)
2. A Day in the Norwegian Capital of Oslo
3. Review: Norwegian Railways Night Train Oslo-Stavanger in a Private Sleeper
4. Review: Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Stavanger
5. Stavanger – A Great Norwegian City Trip Surprise
6. Review: North Sea Lounge Stavanger Airport
7. Review: KLM Cityhopper Business Class Stavanger to Amsterdam (Embraer RJ-175)
8. Guide to the Carnival Celebrations in the Netherlands
9. Review: KLM Crown Lounge (Schengen) Amsterdam Airport
10. Review: Air France Business Class Amsterdam to Paris (Airbus A319)
11. Review: ‘Salon Paris’ Business Class Lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2C
12. Review: Aeroflot Business Class Paris to Moscow (Airbus A320)
13. Review: Aeroflot Domestic Business Class Lounge Moscow Sheremetyevo
14. Review: Aeroflot Domestic Business Class Moscow to Irkutsk (Boeing 737-800)
15. Review: Matreshka Hotel, Irkutsk
16. Irkutsk Trip Report: Exploring the ‘Paris of Siberia’ in Winter
17. Review: Mayak Hotel, Listvyanka (Lake Baikal)
18. A Winter Trip to the Frozen Wonderland of Lake Baikal
19. Review: Ibis Irkutsk Center Hotel, Irkutsk
20. Review: Domestic Business Class Lounge Irkutsk Airport
21. Review: Aeroflot Domestic Business Class Irkutsk to Moscow (Boeing 737-800)
22. Review: Pushkin Hotel, Moscow
23. A 24 Hour Stopover in the Russian Capital of Moscow
24. Review: ‘Moscow’ and ‘Jazz’ Business Lounges Moscow Sheremetyevo Terminal D
25. Review: Aeroflot Business Class Moscow to Paris (Airbus A320)
26. Review: TAROM Business Class Paris to Bucharest (Airbus A318)
27. Review: TAROM Business Lounge Bucharest Otopeni Airport
28. Review: Air France Business Class Bucharest to Paris (Airbus A320)
29. A Short Overnight Stopover in Paris
30. Review: Sheltair Business Lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2D
31. Review: Azerbaijan Airlines Business Class Paris to Baku (Airbus A320)
32. Review: Old City Hotel and Apartments, Baku, Azerbaijan 
33. Destination Baku: An Intriguing Mix Between Old and New
34. Guide: Train Travel in Azerbaijan
35. Sheki: Azerbaijan’s Most Lovely Town and Springboard to the Caucasus (current chapter)
36. Must Be the Ganja! A Visit to the City of Ganja in Azerbaijan
37. Review: Shah Palace Hotel, Baku, Azerbaijan

Koen

Koen

Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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