The best things to do in Sheki: Azerbaijan’s Silk road
This post is a travelguide about the best things to do in Sheki Azerbaijan. Sheki is a pleasant city in northern Azerbaijan at the foot of the Caucasus mountains. It is surrounded by rolling hills with lush forests that beckon you to explore them. It is the perfect place to combine nature with culture and history.
Sheki was an important Silk road city that welcomed merchants and travellers from all over the world. The historic buildings reflect its multicultural past as a center of trade, culture and religion. All these different influences are still visible in its cuisine. Sheki is a great city for those that love food with lots of local delicacies that are hard to get elsewhere.
Sheki has every reason to include it in a trip to the Caucasus, but few people visit this region so far. Maybe I should not write about Sheki and keep it a secret. Walking through the old town without any other tourists was part of its charm as well as its laidback atmnosphere and welcoming people. I thought it was one of the most picturesque cities I visited in Azerbaijan.
A History of Sheki Azerbaijan
The history of Sheki already starts in the 1th century BC when it was one of the major cities of the Albanian state. We are not talking about the country Albania in South eastern Europe, but the Caucasian Albania. An ancient kingdom that ruled a large area of what is now Azerbaijan.
In its long history Sheki saw many rulers come and go. The Caucasus has always been the battleground of different empires. Sheki once belonged to the Romans, Parthians, Arabs, Mongolians, Persians and the Russians.
Wat put Sheki on the map of the Silk Road was its strategic location in between Tbilisi and Baku as well as its silk production. Sheki had the perfect climate for mulberry trees that silk worms need to grow. Much of the city’s wealth came from the highly prized Sheki silk fabrics using a unique embroidery style called Tekelduz. Most famous were also the silk women head scarves called Kelaghayi.
As Sheki grew into a center of trade and commerce, other handicrafts and arts flourished too. The city was an important production center for pottery and ceramics. Another famous art is Shebeke. The multi-coloured stained glass mosaics are beautiful, but even more impressive knowing that it is made without glue or nails.
The city’s cultural heritage from the Silk road is still visible in its architecture. Ancient caravanserais, wealthy merchant homes, churches, mosques and the beautiful palace of the Shaki Khans. The occasional old lada is the only sign that Sheki also belonged to the Soviet Union. Even then it was still a major silk production center.
The best things to do in Sheki Azerbaijan
The summer palace of the Shaki khans
The Shaki Khan’s summer palace, or Xan Sarayi, is among the top things to do in Sheki. In fact, I liked it more than the palace of the Shirvanshah in Baku.
The palace was built in 1797 when the Sheki khanate was one of the most powerful in the Caucasus. It might be rather small in size, but the lavish decorations are outstanding. You can’t take pictures inside, but they won’t do justice anyway to the intricate detailed paintings and frescoes that cover every inch of the walls and ceilings. It’s also a great place to see the Shebeke windows.
The architecture and style of the palace sometimes reminded me of things I had seen in Iran. The Shaki Khans indeed had close relationships with the Iranian Qajar dynasty. Architects from Shiraz were involved in the design of the palace which explains the strong Persian influences.
When tensions with the Qajar grew, the Sheki Khans sought help from the Russians. 18 years after completion of the palace, the Sheki khanate became a Russian province and the Shaki khans lost much of their power.
Entrance fee: 5 manat
The Winter palace of the Shaki Khans
The Shaki Khans also had a winter palace. When I was there it was being renovated and I could not go inside. From the outside it actually just looks like a wealthy merchant home with a nice garden. Apparently they have now redecorated one of the interior rooms with beautiful paintings.
Because it is located somewhat outside of the historic center it offers a much more quiet experience than the summer palace. Even though I could not go inside I thought it was worth a visit. It is a nice walk through a local neighbourhood. You can find its location on Google maps under the name Shakikhanovs palace.
Entrance fee: 5 manat
Sheki Museum of folk and applied arts
The Sheki museum of folk and applied arts felt more like a souvenir shop than a museum. Still it is a great place to see some of Sheki’s traditional crafts such as Shebeke mosaics and Tekelduz embroidery. There are also very small collections of traditional musical instruments, jewellery and samovars.
The museum is in a former church. People call it the three saints church and it was in use as a russian orthodox church for a while, before it became a storage place during the Soviet years. Some believe that the old building was originally an Albanian church. Because it is right next to the Sheki Khan palace and within the Sheki fortress walls it is convenient for a quick visit.
Entrance fee: 2 manat
The Sheki fortress was built to protect the historic center that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The original walls were 8 meters high and 2 meters thick with several defensive towers and arched gateways. Unfortunately most of the fortress was destroyed, although some parts have been restored.
Within the fortress you can find several buildings of interest such as the summer palace of the Shaki khans, the Shaki khans mosque and the Sheki museum of folklore and applied arts. In this area you can still get a glimpse of the old fortress walls.
Entrance fee: free
Sheki Karavan Seray
The Karavan Seray hotel, it is one of the top things to do in Sheki. Caravanserais along thje silk road provided a secure place to sleep for merchants passing through with their camels and donkeys.
Nowadays the Karavan Seray offers the unique experience of sleeping in a former caravanserai with much of its traditional architecture still intact. If you look carefully you will still see the hooks where traders kept their animals.
Even if you are not staying at the hotel, you are free to explore the courtyard and walk around. I love exploring places on the old Silk road and nowhere did it feel so real as in Sheki.
Entrance fee: free
Right before entering Sheki’s old town stands the tall minaret of the Juma mosque. The 18th century Juma mosque is one of the oldest surviving mosques in Sheki. You are free to enter even if you are not a muslim to see the simple but beautiful interior.
Do respect the local dress code when entering the mosque. Men should wear long pants and women should cover their head.
Entrance fee: free
The old town
Besides the UNESCO World Heritage historic center you will also find the city’s less famous old town. A neighbourhood of small streets with traditional red brick homes and friendly people. It’s also in the old town that you will find the Shaki khans winter palace.
Sheki is the kind of town where just wandering around is pleasant enough. The strange mixture of Persian and Russian influences in the architecture is not something you will find in many places.
Entrance fee: free
Shopping for Souvenirs
With such a rich history in arts and crafts it is no surprise that Sheki is probably the best place in Azerbaijan to buy high quality handicrafts. In the shops around the major tourist attractions you can buy the cheap mass produced souvenirs you will find everywhere else in the country. However, if you know where to go, you can find handmade crafts that are unique to Sheki.
For Sheki silk you can visit the silk factory that has a small store selling silk fabrics such as the traditional kelaghayi silk headscarves. Prices are not cheap, but you know you buy the real deal. At the museum of folk and applied arts in the three saints church you can buy shebeke and tekelduz embroidery items.
With all the Silk road architecture in Sheki, it is easy to forget that Sheki was part of Russia and the Soviet Union too. After the Shaki khanate sought military support from the Russians, it became a Russian province before it was finally incorporated into the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.
It was the Soviets that built the first silk factories in Sheki that were to replace the small scale production by local families. As a result, Sheki was the largest supplier of silk within the Soviet Union. Some of the factories are still there producing high quality silk using the Soviet era machines.
As a tourist, the biggest Soviet reminders are the old zhiguli lada cars on the road that look like they belong in a museum. But look closer and you will see Russia’s influence in the architecture too.
The World War 2 memorial
Like any former Soviet city, Sheki has a World War 2 memorial to remember those that died in the Great Patriotic war. The one in Sheki is like most Soviet memorials a sober place. If you have an interest in Soviet architecture it is definetly worth a visit and otherwise you can also come here to enjoy the beautiful panorama views over the city. The World war 2 memorial is a gentle climb up the hill.
The best things to do near Sheki
Kish and the Albanian church
A bit outside of Sheki is an Albanian church. I was a bit confused with the country Albania, but apparently the Caucasian Albanians are a mysterious old civilization that once ruled the area and are not at all related to the present day Albanians.
The Caucasian Albanians wre Zoroastrians at first, before adopting christianity. Although the current church is from the 12th century, there is archeological evidence that it was built on top of an even older religious site that was used for pagan traditions including animal sacrifices.
The Kish church has a small museum with skeletal remains and other artefacts. Luckily some of the information is in english. Don’t miss the statue of Tor Heyerdahl and the accompanying story claiming that the Norwegian Vikings were actually from Azerbaijan.
This short day trip was one of my favourite things to do in Sheki. I was not only intrigued by the history of this Albanian temple, but I also enjoyed getting a glimpse of Azerbaijans village life in Kish and the stunning mountains.
Entrance fee: 4 manat
Logistics: You can take minibus 23 or 15 to Kish. They leave every 20 minutes from the new bazaar. Once you get out in Kish it is a short walk up to the Albanian church. There were signposts leading you to the church
Hiking in Sheki
Although the mountains around Sheki are not as spectacular as the ones in Khinaliq, they are certainly worth exploring. Although there are no official hiking trails it is easy to just wander some of the paths up the mountains from Sheki and soon you will have some beautiful views.
From Sheki it is possible to hike to the Qurucana waterfalls. The hiking trail starts at the last bus stop of bus number 17 and it takes about an hour to reach the waterfalls at the start of the Gurjana river.
Another reason to visit Kish are the beautiful mountain sceneries. From Kish you can hike to the 8th century fortress ruins of Galarsan Gorarsan. It takes about 2 hours to reach the ruins. There is also a hiking trail from the village of Bash Goynuk to Kish.
Entrance fee: free
Things to do in Sheki for foodies
Whenever I travel I always love to visit the local markets. Sheki’s lively bazaar is full of fresh fruits and vegetables and certainly one of the fun things to do in Sheki.
Another reason I like to visit markets is that they offer some of the best local food for bargain prices and the Sheki bazaar did not dissapoint in this regard either. It’s a great place to buy dried fruits and nuts such as hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts and dried apricots.
The juicy kebab stalls are not for the faint of heart. Often the cows head and feet are on display to proof the freshness of the meat. As a result, the kebab is very delicious, especially when you eat it with fresh bread that is also widely available at the bazaar.
Entrance fee: free, but bring enough money to buy some of the local food
Visiting a tea house
Azerbaijan is a country with a rich tea culture. Sheki’s bazaar is full of local teahouses (chaykhana). Just like Iran, they are the world of men and it is rare for women to enter. Nevertheless I was invited over for a cup of tea more than once.
The tea is boiled in a samovar and served in a pear shaped glass (armuda) with separate sugar cubes. Traditionally, you should put the sugar cube between your teeth and sip the tea through the sugar.
Drinking tea is an old tradition in Azerbaijan and apparently makes or breaks marriage proposals. If the family comes together to discuss a proposal and they serve tea without sugar it means the men is rejected. On the other hand, if the tea is served sweetened the marriage preparations can begin.
Tasting Sheki Halva
The great food in Sheki was not restricted to the market and trying some of the local delicacies is one of the great things to do in Sheki. In the Caucasus it becomes difficult to keep track of all the great food experiences you will have, but Sheki Halva makes it high up the list.
The sweet made of nuts, walnuts, butter, sugar and spices melts on your mouth and the taste is something you’ll not forget easily. If not for the history and mountains, come to Sheki for Sheki halva.
Eating Sheki Piti
Sheki Halva is not the only specialty of the region. Sheki also has some of the best piti in the country. Piti is a stew made of lamb, sheep fat, chickpeas, onions, chestnuts, saffron and spices. The dish is cooked in a traditional claypot called a dopu that is put in a special oven where it brews for hours to develop the rich flavours of the dish. It is similar to dizi in Persian cuisine, but with the chestnuts the Azeri version is even better.
Like dizi, you eat piti in a particular way that consists of two seperate stages. Piti always comes with lots of fresh bread that you need to soak up the juices. First you should pour the liquid from the clay pot on your plate and eat it with half of the bread. Then you should mash the rest of the stew together and scoop it up with the other half of the bread. Most of the time they serve it with a red spice mix called sumac that you should definetly try as it adds even more flavour.
Piti is considered the national dish of Azerbaijan and it is no surprise it developed in Sheki. As a huge center of pottery it was here that the dopu clay pots developed. There used to be 50 families producing the dopu clay pots. The street where they lived is still called potters street, but now only a few artisans remain that still produce handmade dopu clay pots.
Try Tandyr Naan
I already mentioned that the market was a great place to try some of the local foods. One of my favourite delicacies at the market was the fresh bread.
Tandyr naan, similar to tandoori naan in India, is a flatbread from a clay oven. If they are still crispy and hot they are the best bread you will ever eat. At the market you will find some traditional bakeries where they are served right from the oven.
Sheki Travel Tips
Where to Eat in Sheki Azerbaijan
Chalabi Khan: Chelebi Khan is one of the best restaurants in Sheki to try the varied Azeri cuisine. With influences from Persian food, central Asian food and Georgian food, Azerbaijan kept surprising me with its culinary delicacies.
Chalabi Khan has an extensive menu that includes the delicious Sheki piti as well as Sheki halva. It looks a bit upmarket, but prices were reasonable and similar to other restaurants in the city. The food was delicious and portions were huge.
Serin: Serin is one of the cheapest restaurants in Sheki serving delicious kebabs as well as Sheki piti. It is centrally located in the modern city center and thus a bit far from the historic town. For me, the food made it worth the effort to come here.
Qaqarin: Qaqarin has a convenient location not far from the historic center. What drew me to this place was that it is named after the Russian cosmonaut Gagarin. It has a very nice outdoor terrace and the food is ok. Service is a bit slow though and they did not have everything on the menu.
Where to Sleep in Sheki Azerbaijan
Sheki Panorama Guesthouse: The name says it all. The Sheki panorama guesthouse offers the best views over the city. If you are travelling on a budget this is one of the cheapest options. For solo travellers they have a dormitory for bargain prices. The people are extremely friendly and helpful and prepare a delicious breakfast (included).
The Karavan Seray Hotel: Not as cheap as the panorama guesthouse and without the view. However, the experience of sleeping in an old caravanserai is something special. I did not sleep here, but I did visit the hotel and it looks beautiful. For a recent review head to wander-lush.
How to get to Sheki
From Baku to Sheki
The fastest option between Baku and Sheki is taking a minivan (marshrutka). Marshrutka’s leave once full from the international bus terminal in Baku. In practice they fill up quite quickly so you should nbot have to wait more than an hour. The journey takes between 4 to 5 hours, depending on how fast the driver goes. It’s a steep and windy road so if you have a speedy driver the journey can get a bit scary.
There are also large coach buses leaving from the International Baku bus station. They have fixed departure times and it takes 7 hours with a bathroom break in between. Despite the longer journey, you might prefer this option, because the drivers go more slow and it will be more safe.
At last there is the train. Trains in Azerbaijan are slow and ineffective. There is a nighttrain between Baku and Sheki that takes 12 hours. I did choose this option, because I love train journeys. You can read about my experience on the train from Sheki to Baku.
Update 2023: The night train from Sheki to Baku is no longer running because they are modernizing the railway system in Azerbaijan. As soon as the train is running again I will update this page, but it will likely be a newer train and therefore a different experience than I had on an old Soviet train.
From Georgia to Sheki
Sheki is not far from the border with Georgia and makes a great stop over if you plan to travel in between Baku and Tbilisi. Although there are more faster ways to travel in between these two cities, it is really worth it to take the longer route with stops in Sheki and Sighnaghi in Georgia.
Unfortunately there are no direct buses between Sighnaghi and Sheki. Therefore some people opt to take a private taxi. However, it is not that difficult with public transport either. You can check my post about how to get from Sighnaghi to Sheki by public transport.
Update 2023: Tourists are still not permitted to enter Azerbaijan by land. The land border between Georgia and Azerbaijan closed during the COVID epidemic and it seems the borders remain closed for the foreseeable future for political reasons. Current news is that they may open in October 2023, but there is a big chance this will be postponed.
When to visit Sheki
The best time to visit Sheki are spring and autumn when the temperatures are comfortable and the weather is good. During springtime the mountains are lush and green. In autumn, the trees turn golden, yellow and red making this a particularly beautiful time.
Sheki lies at the foothills of the caucasus mountains. Therefore Sheki is also a good place to escape from the summer heat and summer is a great time to go hiking.
Solo female travel in Sheki
I travelled for three weeks in Azerbaijan using public transport and did not encounter any problems as a women travelling alone. Sheki also felt like a very safe city. You might get the occasional male attention in the streets, but nothing that can be discouraged by a stern look or walking away.
That said, Sheki was a bit more conservative than Baku. It will be appreciated if you dress modestly and at least cover your legs and shoulders.
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