In this destination trip report, we will visit the city of Ganja in Azerbaijan.
Must be the Ganja!
My next stop on my whirlwind tour of Azerbaijan would be the city of Ganja, which is the second biggest city of the country. To start off with a bit of history and the semi-obvious: No, Ganja is not named after cannabis or the Eminem song (‘Must be the Ganja’) of the same name. The name simply stems from the old Persian word meaning “treasure”.
During its turbulent past the city was known under a few other names. When the Russian Czarist Empire conquered the city they named it Elisabethpol after the wife of Czar Alexander I. After the revolution, the Soviets could of course not tolerate such a name and renamed the city to Kirovabad after Soviet revolutionary Sergei Kirov.
When Azerbaijan regained its independence from the USSR, the city was again renamed to its current historic name. So no drugs, but instead lots of history in Azerbaijan’s second city! In the Azerbaijani alphabet, the city is actually written as Gəncə (which can also be transliterated as Gandja).
On the road to Ganja
I decided to visit Ganja as my second and last destination in Azerbaijan outside of Baku as it seemed like the most logical choice as it being March some mountain destinations did not seem like to be the right fit for this trip. By including Ganja, I was able to complete a perfect triangle route Baku-Sheki-Ganja-Baku without doing any backtracking on the same roads, something which I always try to avoid.
After a fun day exploring the beautiful town of Sheki in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains I took a minibus (marshrutka) in the early morning for the two-and-a-half hour drive to Ganja. The minibus made one stop en route in the town of Mingecevir on an otherwise uneventful journey through some relatively boring landscapes.
The marshrutka dropped us all off at a large roundabout on the outskirts of Ganja. As I had no clue about public transport into town and nobody seemed to speak English, I was forced to take a taxi into town.
This created its own challenges as I had no idea where I was going. Normally when arriving in town, I would simply head to my accommodation first – but this time was different. My plan was to spend the full day in Ganja and to head to the railway station late in the evening for the overnight train back to Baku.
After a while I finally managed to explain to the taxi driver using my very limited Russian vocabulary to just drop me off somewhere in the city centre. There was no meter in the taxi nor did I negotiate a fare beforehand, but the guy seemed quite pleased when I handed him over some 2 EUR for the ride. I wouldn’t be surprised if the normal fare is perhaps just a quarter of it.
One aspect which you will immediately notice when driving or walking through the city centre of Ganja is the architecture. With its red brick turn-of-the-century buildings from the Russian era, the city could have easily been located somewhere in the Baltics.
Compared to Baku, Sheki, or even cities in Georgia like Tbilisi, Ganja feels much more European in character.
As for whatever reason I could not catch a GPS signal with my phone, it took a while before I managed to find my exact location on Google Maps, having to navigate the old-fashioned way by actually reading the street signs.
It turned out that I was just a block or so away from the Khan’s Gardens (Xan bağı), a large park in the city centre of Ganja. It was constructed in the late 18th Century by a local Khan who was an avid naturalist, ordering merchants and foreign dignitaries to bring different trees and flowers. As a result, the park almost feels like a botanical garden!
The park makes for a lovely oasis in the heart of the city and is quite picturesque. The park even has a nice garden cafe to wind down for a while, although it did unfortunately have some pretty terrible (powdered) coffee. Note to self: Do not order coffee again in a tea-drinking nation unless sitting in a dedicated coffee shop!
After the coffee I continued my city tour and made my way to Ganja’s central square. Around this square are a number of important city landmarks from different historical eras.
The big eye-catcher is the lovely philharmonic concert hall, a building in classical style which has just recently been renovated. It certainly wouldn’t look out of place in a city in central or eastern Europe.
The mishmash of different architectural styles and historical eras becomes clear when looking at the buildings right in front of the concert hall. The old hammam (bath house) and the twin-minaret mosque, which dates back to the year 1620, have a distinctive oriental style and form a nice contrast with the concert hall right behind it.
Besides Persian, Ottoman and Russian influences, you can also find clear Soviet influences in architecture if you walk further down the square.
The impressive Soviet building flanking the entire length of the square nowadays houses the Ganja city hall and a local museum dedicated to former President of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev, whose statue can be found in the middle of the square.
Heydar Aliyev was 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, which means that Azerbaijan is basically being run by a family dictatorship as recent elections were neither fair nor free.
As a tourist, you will not notice much of this when visiting Azerbaijan – certainly not in the capital of Baku – as it is a perfectly safe country to visit. That said, I found the vibe in Ganja to be a bit different compared to Baku and Sheki as there were quite some suspicious stares by passersby.
Just like the rest of Azerbaijan, the city of Ganja is completely safe to visit. That said, at two separate moments I was addressed by local police officers while making pictures with my phone, something which did not happen to me in Baku or Sheki.
The cops first addressed me in Azerbaijani followed by Russian, two languages which I don’t speak nor understand. With my limited Russian vocabulary I managed to say “angliyskiy turist”, after which they said something back to me, lost interest and walked on. I did not feel threatened by it, although it strengthened by gut feeling that Ganja is much less used to visiting tourists than other places in Azerbaijan.
I’ve heard many tales of over-inquisitive Azerbaijani police who apparently think that every visiting tourist must be an Armenian spy, but this really were the only two times I would have a small run-in with them.
Fortunately, the interactions I had with non-uniformed locals, whether cafe or restaurant staff or school children wanting to practice their English, were all warm and friendly!
After the run-in with the rozzers, I stopped at one of the take-away restaurants on the main square for a quick takeaway chicken kebab. Costing less than 0.50 EUR, it was quite a steal – and delicious.
One thing you will quickly notice in Ganja (or basically anywhere in Azerbaijan not called Baku) is how cheap restaurants and local prices are.
Across the street from the square you can find two other important city buildings: Ganja’s main university building as well as the city’s main hotel, simply called ‘Ganja Hotel’.
As I was in dire need of a toilet break, I went to check out the hotel. It looked distinctively Soviet from inside with its dusty, vast reception hall in which nobody seemed to be around.
Although the central areas of the hotel all looked quite ornate in their grand Soviet style, the rooms seem decidedly less impressive when checking online hotel booking websites, unless you are fond of beige and grey room interiors from the 1980s that is.
One of Ganja’s nicest parts is pedestrianised Cavadxan Street, a shop-lined street which runs in a loop from the main square towards the river.
Besides shops there are also plenty of restaurants and bars to be found in this street, many of them being housed in gorgeous red-brick buildings. I stopped at a nice-looking gazebo teahouse frequented by old Azerbaijani men drinking tea, smoking nargilah and playing nard (backgammon).
It was indeed a nice place to drink a pot of tea, smoke a bit and linger around for a while absorbing the atmosphere.
After more than an hour of tea drinking and smoking I was fully rested and decided it was time to continue my walk. I continued down Cavadxan Street until I reached the riverside.
The small Ganjachay River (which does have a huge riverbed) bisects Ganja in two. Because the river is dammed, the upstream part of the river was completely dry while the lower part still contained quite a bit of water.
Apart from a small amusement park, there wasn’t much to see along the riverbank, although it did make for a leisurely walk.
After the leisurely afternoon walk I found a Turkish fast-food-style family restaurant near the river where I sat down for dinner. The Iskender kebab and a drink were 2 euro combined and tasted fine.
As I had no accommodation booked for the night and planned on taking the overnight train to Baku, I spent the rest of the evening drinking some beers in a pub and smoking some more nargilah with a group of local students eager to practice their English.
After a fun evening in the town I took a marshrutka to the railway station where some ten minutes later train number 665 to Baku arrived at 11.20pm. With an expected arrival time in Baku at 6.30am, I had a short night ahead for me. Fortunately, my private compartment in the train was again comfortable and made for a decent sleep.
I went into Ganja with zero expectations whatsoever and the town ended up pleasantly surprising me. With its lovely red-brick architecture and potpourri of building styles from different historical eras, Ganja is actually quite an interesting city and I spent some nice time walking around town.
Sure, the city does not have any blockbuster sights and I wouldn’t rate it as a must-see place in Azerbaijan. But if you find yourself in the area Ganja does make a worthwhile stop even if just stopping by for half a day to admire the Khan’s Garden and historical buildings around the central square.
Most of all, it gives a refreshing view into daily Azerbaijani life which neither Baku as the capital or to a lesser extent Sheki as a relatively popular tourist destination can.
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
36. Must Be the Ganja! A Visit to the City of Ganja in Azerbaijan (current chapter)
37. Review: Shah Palace Hotel, Baku, Azerbaijan