Here’s our trip of the Southern Caucasus: August 2017, 2 Adults and (1) 6 year old in tow
Fly Dubai: Manama to Baku, Yerevan to Manama
Overnight Train: Tbilisi to Yerevan
Part I: Baku, Azerbaijan
Apply for the ASAN electronic visa here: http://washington.mfa.gov.az/content/79
Cost: $45 per person - standard
Airport: Heydar Aliyev Intl Airport - one of the architecturally savvy airport I have seen
Hotel: Sheraton Baku Airport - 3 nights, http://www.starwoodhotels.com/sheraton/property/overview/index.html?propertyID=3688&language=en_US
Walking distance from the airport. GOOD decision even if this is further from the city center as we hit a speed bump on our plan to take a train to Tbilisi from Baku. Plus, our room has a nice view of the airport. Friendly airport and we enjoyed the lounge area and business center as we tweaked our travel plans.
We used UBER and skipped on renting a car. At the airport, we bought our SIM card so we can have wifi connection to navigate and get an Uber ride. I saw a tour group offering day tours and city tours (same place where we bought our SIM card) at the airport - My Tour Baku on FB: mytourbaku.
Currency: 1 USD = 1.7 AZN (Azerbaijan Manat) - http://www.xe.com/currencyconverter/convert/?Amount=1&From=USD&To=AZN
Tour Costs from My Tour Baku - https://www.navigator.az/en/firm/23591/info/ (the website is not in English)
A. City Tour: Old City Tour 35 AZN per person, Baku City Tour 30 AZN per person
*if traveling as a group the per person rate is lower by 5 AZN
B. Day Trip Baku:
Package: Gobustan, Mud Volcano, Yanar Dag, Ateshgah, Gala Village, Mosque, H. Aliyev Center 80 AZN per person, 50 AZN per person if group
What To Do and Where To Eat in Baku:
(1) Free Walking Tour by https://bakufreetour.com/ -- daily tours at 10:30am and 3:00pm. Ganni (our guide) is very knowledgeable and provided really interesting in-depth views about his country and Azeri history and society. Our walking tour lasted for 3 hrs.
We booked our trip at: https://bakufreetour.com/booking/
– Explore oldest part of the city on 2.5 hours walking tour
– Hear legends about prominent Oil Barons
– Understand social dynamics of city life
– Soak up the atmosphere in oldest part of city
– Romanticize streets Ali&Nino used to hang out
– Led by a local guide
– Tour ends with a free cup of tea at a local cafe (Coffee Moffie, the tour group’s HQ)
Areas covered: Ahid Garden, Miniature Book Museum, Shirvanshahs Palace, Gubernator’s Garden, Walled Old City (Icheri Sheher), Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall, Maiden Tower Modern central streets, and Palace of Happiness.
Yep, totally free walking tour. Tips are accepted.
(2) Azerbaijan History Museum
Azerbaijan Museum is the major archaeological and historical museum in Tabriz, in the northwest part of Iran (East Azerbaijan province). It was established on April 1958. The museum consists of three major halls, a side yard, office rooms and a library. It mostly contains objects discovered from excavations in Iranian Azerbaijan, also some artworks and sculptures of artists. Its library contains more than 2500 books, both handwritten and printed, about history, archaeology, art and Iranian culture. Apart from National Museum of Iran in Tehran, Azerbaijan Museum has the largest collection belonging to different periods of Iran's history. Source: WikipediaSpecial tip: Museum ticket costs 5 AZN for adults & 2 AZN for children(3) Stroll along Baku Boulevard
Baku Boulevard is a promenade established in 1909 which runs parallel to Baku's seafront. Its history goes back more than 100 years, to a time when Baku oil barons built their mansions along the Caspian shore and when the seafront was artificially built up inch by inch. The boulevard is about 3 km in length and 750 m wide and is located on the south coast of the Caspian Sea.
(4) Visit Fountain Square
Fountains Square is a public square in Baku city centre. The square was previously called Parapet and is often referenced to by the same name now. The name of the fountains square derives from the presence of dozens of fountains throughout the square first constructed during Soviet rule of Azerbaijan.
(5) Carpet Museum
Azerbaijan Carpet Museum displays Azerbaijani carpets and rug items demonstrating various weaving techniques and materials from several periods. It has the largest collection of Azerbaijani carpets in the world and is now housed in a new purpose built facility on the Baku's seafront park. The museum was established in 1967 and was initially located in the Juma Mosque in Icheri Sheher.
(6) Marvel at the architectural grandeur of Haydar Aliyev Center
The Heydar Aliyev Center is a 619,000-square-foot building designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid and noted for its distinctive architecture and flowing, curved style that eschews sharp angles. The center is named after Heydar Aliyev, the leader of Soviet-era Azerbaijan from 1969 to 1982, and president of Azerbaijan from October 1993 to October 2003.
(7) Schedule a day tour outside the city
Here are options to choose from: https://azerbaijantraveller.com/toursandtrips/ and also from above My Tour Baku.
Where to eat? We enjoyed our meal at FIRUZE Restoran - https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g293934-d2704158-Reviews-Firuze-Baku_Absheron_Region.html
This restaurant is BUSY and has a lot of character!
Ganni (free walking tour guide) recommended a local hole in the wall and the place was downright local but I totally forgot the name as it is not in English :-(
Notes: Knowing how difficult it was to purchase the overnight trains between cities, we went ahead and booked our Tbilisi, Georgia to Yerevan,Armenia using https://www.advantour.com/georgia/trains/tbilisi-yerevan.htm
We used this weblink for overnight train info: https://www.seat61.com/Caucasus.htm Please note that train tickets could not be bought in advance and the train/railway websites are not in English. We spent 2 hours in Baku’s train station waiting in line to buy a ticket, only to be told that it was sold out for the day we needed to reach Tbilisi.
Part II: Tbilisi, Georgia
Visa: No need for visa
We decided to fly out to Tbilisi and not push through with taking the train as the train from Baku to Tbilisi on the date we need to take was already full. We booked ourselves using Azerbaijan Airlines: https://www.azal.az/buy
There was NO Uber after arrival at the airport, we bought ourselves a SIM card. and rented a taxi to take us to our hotel. A Tourist Information Kiosk is available at the airport for questions and they were a good resource for us in estimating the distance and cost for taxi from the airport to the hotel. ATM at the airport is available for local currency.
Currency: 1 USD = 2.45 GEL (Georgian Lari) http://www.xe.com/currencyconverter/convert/?Amount=1&From=USD&To=GEL
Hotel: Ibis Styles Tbilisi Center - 3 nights, http://www.ibis.com/gb/hotel-A413-ibis-styles-tbilisi-center-/index.shtml
This is a lovely budget hotel, the design is very kid-friendly. Breakfast buffet could be very busy during the weekend so head down early. The rooftop bar is a welcome sight after we arrived in the evening from Baku. Perfect central location. A nearby cafe for coffee and pastries and a couple of restaurants nearby. The front desk staff were all very helpful, ATM on site which we used, and our train tickets to Yerevan was delivered to the front desk by Advan Tours for our convenience. The location is perfect, very close to Freedom Square or Pushkin Park (meeting point for the walking tour and day tour) and for walking around Old Tbilisi.
Things to do:
(1) Join a free walking tour
It became a tradition for us to scope the city by joining a free walking tour group, there are two popular groups. We decided to go with Levan at www.tbilisifreewalkingtours.com. You may pick and choose the kind of walking tour that is ideal for you. Tours are 12:00 PM and 6:00PM, meeting place: Pushkin Park’s Tourist Information Center. We went with The Backstreets of Tbilisi, offered every Tuesday. They also have paid tours available. For the free walking tours, tips are much appreciated.
(2) Ride the cable car and visit Narikala Fortress and Mother Georgia
Narikala (Georgian: ნარიყალა) is an ancient fortress overlooking Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and the Kura River. The fortress was established in the 4th century as Shuris-tsikhe (i.e., "Invidious Fort") and it was a Persian citadel. It was considerably expanded by the Umayyads in the 7th century and later, by king David the Builder (1089–1125). The Mongols renamed it "Narin Qala" (i.e., "Little Fortress"). Most of extant fortifications date from the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1827, parts of the fortress were damaged by an earthquake and demolished. Source: Wikipedia
(3) Watch the dancing and musical fountains at night and join the locals for music and dancing at Rike Park.
(4) Experience the sulfur baths at the bathhouses in Old Tbilisi
(5) Stop by the Leaning Clock Tower in Old Town
(6) Enjoy the food scene at Bamba (cotton row) and Chardin Street
(7) Peace Bridge
(8) Dry Bridge Bazaar
This extraordinary flea market will keep you entertained for hours. There is a mesmerising assortment of antiques, jewellery and bric-a-brac on sale. In the tough days of Perestroika and the early years of independence, the Dry Bridge is where hard-up citizens of Tbilisi would come to sell their possessions in order to make a little cash. For some people that is still the case today, though for others this is their main business. Everything is laid out on the ground, often carefully arranged on on sheets of material, other times it is a haphazard collection. One person might be trying to sell you twenty-year-old batteries or an old toothbrush, while their neighbour will be touting antique amber and silver jewellery. If you want to buy anything remember to haggle. Prices may be inflated, especially for tourists. Open daily if the weather is good, from 10:00 - 17:00. At weekends there are usually more sellers, but more tourists too.
(9) Take a day tour outside the city
We used Tkemali Tour, www.tkemalitour.com and chose Kazbegi as our destination, http://tkemalitour.com/holiday/kazbegi-i-voenno-gruzinskaya-doroga/. Cost: $30 for each adult, $15 for each child. Additional $10 each for the lunch. Duration: 6-8 hrs.
Our meeting place was the same spot for the walking tour at Pushkin Square in front of the Tourist Information Center. We rode a comfortable, air conditioned medium-sized van along with 8 other travelers. Good experience overall!
(10) Enjoy the food and wine
Restaurants we enjoyed:
Sakhli #11 which is a few meters from our hotel - local https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g294195-d3923866-Reviews-Sakhli_11-Tbilisi.html
Kafe Leila - vegetarian, the decor alone is the reason why you need to visit!
Stelzen Haus - late night eats
Part III: Yerevan, Armenia
Visa: No need for visa
THE TRAIN RIDE a.k.a. The Soviet-Era Train Experience Of A Lifetime
The tickets delivered to us at our hotel by Advan Tour were all in Cyrillic, pretty cool to guess how our names were written. All we needed to know was the date, time of departure and our compartment number. Not that we understand the writing, but there were symbols that we could tell - calendar for the date, train for the compartment number, and “chair -like” for the seat number.
From Tbilisi we took the overnight train to Yerevan. My advice is to bring food and drinks particularly water with you for the ride. We opted for the second class cabin (4-berth compartment) good for 4 and bought 4 tickets for our party of 3. Not going to take our chances of having 1 stranger join us. Total expense: $300 for the train tickets for 4 people.
We used these helpful websites as guide:
https://www.reinisfischer.com/tbilisi-central-railway-station - to pinpoint HOW to get to the train station. The staff at Ibis Styles hotel called a taxi for us to bring us to the Tbilisi Central Railway Station. Whew!
https://www.seat61.com/Caucasus.htm#Tbilisi_or_Batumi_to_Yerevan - general overview
https://wander-lush.org/how-to-travel-by-overnight-train-between-tbilisi-georgia-and-yerevan-armenia/ - excellent blog to guide you step by step on the train ride + immigration + other important stuff
Now, as this train is soviet-era, there will be no AC, noisy, and if someone decides to smoke inside, you will get a whiff of it. I barely slept during the train ride and tried my best not to go to the restroom...heaven knows I will freak out! Blessings that my daughter found this experience exciting and she enjoyed the trip plus she slept through the 8-hour train ride. Linens were provided but I prepared before hand and brought our own travel blankets.
The train leaves at about 8:20PM. There was a lounge area with a little cafeteria while we waited for the train to arrive. The announcement was not in English so spot for foreigners and ask if they are waiting for the same train. Once the train arrives, look for your compartment number based on your ticket.
Note that the staff at the train station and for the train DO NOT speak English.
When you board the train, one of the staff will check for your tickets and passports. You will be ushered inside your compartment. At about 1.5-2 hrs from the train leaving Tbilisi, a Georgian border immigration inspector will knock and ask for your passport and will come back to return it. I checked and I saw they have stamped our passports as we exited Georgia. Close to 1 am, possibly as we near the Armenian border, an Armenian Immigration Inspector knocked to check and stamp our passports. As I am already aware of the issue between Armenia and Azerbaijan, I pre-printed all our air tickets, hotel reservations, and itinerary before hand in case the border inspectors will require it. The only question he asked was the reason we were in Baku, we told him for “tourism”. Again, the conversation was not in full sentences as the Immigration Officer does not speak English as well. No hassle, easy peasy :-)
I waited for sunrise and had a glimpse of Mt Ararat while in the train --that made the train experience a truly memorable adventure. At 6:20am we arrived in Yerevan. We used the ATM at the train station to take out cash. The train station will have a LOT of taxis. We opted to walk further out and dodge the taxi drivers closer to the train station. At first glance, you may even feel unsafe in this part of Yerevan ...fear not, Yerevan is an amazing city and the people are friendly.
Hotel: Hyatt Place Yerevan - 3 nights, https://yerevan.place.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html
The service and the staff at this hotel are wonderful! Though we arrived at their doorstep at roughly 7:45am without calling them for an early check in...they made an effort to get our room ready in 1 hour. While waiting, we enjoyed the breakfast buffet which is heaven sent and a wonderful welcome after our “very interesting” overnight train ride. The location of the hotel proved to be very central, walking distance to all the sights and of course, heart of the city - The Republic Square.
Hotel ATM is convenient as we took out local currency. We found a cellphone store, Viva Cell, www.mts.am right on Republic Square. When we went out of the hotel we veered left and found it to buy a SIM card. There were major hotel chains, restaurants and cafes around the area.
Currency: 1 USD = 480.73 AMD (Armenian Dram)
** Yep, so much cheaper in Armenia compared to Baku and Tbilisi.**
Things to Do:
(1) Free Walking Tour
We joined Vako’s big group for the walking tour, https://www.freetour.com/yerevan/yerevan-free-walking-tour
We learned about Armenia’s history including pop culture too ahem, ahem Kanye and Kim K. He also shared with us Sir Winston Churchill’s favorite whisky and how it was instrumental to a few political decisions made for Armenia. A notable tidbit is the last name of most Armenians.
Join us to see Yerevan from a different angle. Walk with us around 2.5 hours in the center of the city and you'll find out things that are not written in guide books; over 25 Yerevan points of interest and stories as well as info about Armenia in general, from history to culture, from art to recent events.
We will see the historic center (Armenian, Persian, Imperial Russian and Soviet periods), go to the back alleys, see the modern architecture, stop for coffee, discuss about food and drinks. We also touch upon history from ancient Armenian kingdoms, to Soviet times and independence.
The tour ends at the sculpture park and the iconic Cascade stairs, where travelers can stay for to see the sunset over Yerevan or continue to a bar or restaurant.
This activity includes:
Republic Square - 19th century buildings - Parks and markets - St Sargis and St Katoghike Churches - Blue Mosque - Mashtots Ave and Abovyan Street - Opera House - The Cascades - Northern Avenue - Sculpture park - Swan lake
**While at the top of the Cascades, we met Kara - she and I started chatting because we were seated beside each other admiring the scenery. After the tour, we walked around the area and exchanged numbers so we can meet up again.
(2) History Museum of Armenia - located at the Republic Square, https://historymuseum.am/en/
See the world’s oldest shoe at this museum.
Armenia is the first country to embrace Christianity. You will see that the most important symbol for this country is the KHACHKARS or Armenian cross-stones. When we went to visit Jerusalem after our trip so the Southern Caucasus, I easily spotted a Khachkar to mark the Armenian Quarter.
(3) Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral
(4) Vernissage Market -- THE place for souvenir shopping
(5) Stroll around Republic Square and you will see how vibrant this city even at night! Restaurants and cafes do not disappoint AND among the 3 places we visited hands down Yerevan is the cheapest! Baku was the most expensive.
(6) Join a local for a concert and dinner -Thanks to Kara, on our last night in Yerevan, she brought us to a local outdoor concert and dinner at Tavern Yerevan. Definitely, the highlight of our trip! Our daughter enjoyed Tavern Yerevan where she can view how Armenian bread is made.
(7) Take a day trip outside the city
We decided to have the hotel staff book our private day trip since the tour company, https://www.envoytours.com/armenia/armenia-tours/ did not offer the Lake Sevan tour we wanted on the specific day we requested..so book early if you wish to take a day trip outside Yerevan. Total cost for our private tour with our guide, driver and own vehicle: $200 for the 3 of us.
Another tour group that I researched is https://hyurservice.com/eng/
We went to Geghard, Garni, and Sevan and the tour was about 5 hrs total (lunch excluded) . Our guide brought us to this wonderful family-owned restaurant at Lake Sevan --- the fresh fish (trout) grilled perfectly , salad, bread, etc = perfect! At Geghard Monastery, when we went, it was the perfect timing as there was a lovely choir singing inside the “cave” monastery -- to me, it was such a lovely, solemn experience. Since we have our own private tour guide, he was able to secure the key to the baths by Garni pagan temple and showed us the ancients baths. At Sevan, atop the monastery, there was a crew filming an Armenian dance crew --- what a scenery with Lake Sevan as the backdrop. We had a great time enjoying the impromptu dancing and music.
DAY TOUR INFO:
A day tour that starts in Yerevan and includes Garni pagan temple, Geghard monastery complex and Sevan lake with Sevanavank.
The tour starts 9:30 in the morning. You will be picked up from hotel and your first stop will be the Arc of Ararat, where you can enjoy the fantastic view of mount Ararat. You will then move onto Garni pagan temple, which is the only pagan temple in Armenia. Pagan Temple referred to as the well known symbol of pre-Christian Armenia that was converted into a royal summer house. Then you will be taken to UNESCO listed Geghard monastery complex of 13th century. The tour continues to Sevan lake and Sevanavank, where you can enjoy the lunch with Sevan lake Iishkhan (trout). You will then be transferred to Yerevan.What’s included
We did not rush ourselves in enjoying each city. We took our time, picked the pace we preferred and lived like a local. The walking tours were helpful in getting us acquainted with the layout of each city. Aside from the insider knowledge from the tours, we gained new friends along the way, the guides and walking tour group members included. There was this Spanish couple we met in Tbilisi with our walking tour group and the next thing we know, we saw them again and in the same walking tour group with us in Yerevan! We exchanged notes from our own travels and shared their notes from their own travels as well. The world becomes smaller when we open ourselves to new adventures.
From the 3 cities, I would love to go back to Yerevan again...Armenia has a magical draw to me and perhaps I will visit Batumi in Georgia next time --this is a promise to our new found friend in Yerevan, Kara.
Taking the overnight train is not for the faint of heart but it was the best teacher to learn in-depth the people and the ways of life in the Southern Caucasus and if asked if we will do it again...why not!
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