Sheki Karvansaray Hotel (Sheki Caravanserai Hotel) is one of the most unique and memorable accommodations in Azerbaijan. Here’s what it’s like to sleep inside a historic Silk Road Caravanserai – plus everything you need to know to organise a visit.
Long before I’d ever considered setting foot in this part of the world – before I knew about the Silk Road or had any knowledge of Central Asia – I’ve been enamored with one word: caravanserai.
When I was in my teens, a Turkish restaurant bearing the name Caravanserai opened close to my house. This was probably the first time I heard the word uttered, and I’ve been fascinated with caravanserai and everything it conjures ever since.
Sheki’s Karvansaray Hotel is a phonetic corruption of the word I love so dearly, but this is as authentic (and impressive) a caravanserai as you’ll ever see.
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History of the Sheki caravanserai
Caravanserais were constructed in the early 19th century to accommodate travellers on the Silk Road.
The Caucasus aren’t traditionally considered part of the famous trading thoroughfare that connects China with Turkey and Europe; but so far as the Silk Road was actually an ad-hoc series of routes that extended across Central Asia, traders branched out into Sheki and Northern Azerbaijan.
This particular caravanserai is actually classified as two separate buildings – the yukhary (upper) and ashaghy (lower) caravanserais.
I can’t emphasise how huge the stone and brick structure is. There are close to 600 individual rooms of various sizes – that’s counting the underground storage cells that merchants could access from their sleeping quarters by stepladder if they wanted to check on their goods during the night.
In 1988, after a period of abandonment, a number of these rooms were turned into basic guest accommodation and travellers once again started treading the stone paths of one of Azerbaijan’s oldest accommodations.
Staying at the Sheki Karvansaray Hotel
After a couple of rough nights in Quba and a long bus journey from Baku, we were ready to relax in Sheki. The rooms at Karvansaray Hotel (now officially called Yukari Karavansarai Hotel) are certainly not luxurious, but the atmosphere more than makes up for it.
As you can imagine from the pictures, every room has an impressive domed brick ceiling. The rooms are split into two parts, with a quaint sitting area in the front and a bedroom at the rear. Private bathrooms are very outdated in terms of design and fittings – but there is steaming hot water.
Another thing: The old brickwork and poor sealing around the windows and doors means that the rooms are cold – like, extremely cold – at night.
There were more than enough blankets to keep us warm in bed, but walking around inside the room after sunset was almost unbearable. Get under the covers before dark if you can!
This isn’t the only caravanserai you’ll see in Sheki, but it’s certainly the only one you can sleep in. If you are planning to visit Azerbaijan, make sure you get to Sheki and stay at Karvansaray Hotel for at least a night or two: It’s a truly unforgettable travel experience!
Location & bookings
Sheki Karvansaray Hotel is located on Mirza Fatali Akhundzada opposite the Sheki Palace Hotel. A taxi to the hotel from the Sheki Central Bus Station costs around 3 AZN.
At the time of writing, it’s still not possible to make a reservation online. You have to options: Chance it and ask for a room when you arrive in Sheki (which is usually fine in the low or shoulder season), or call ahead from Baku to reserve a room.
Owners speak Azeri and Russian (no English) and can be contacted on +994 50 859 39 82. They also have a Facebook Page.
If you can’t get a hold of the hotel, try contacting the Sheki Tourism Office on +994 24 244 60 95. Staff speak English and may be able to help out with organising a reservation.
When we stayed at the Karvansaray in shoulder season, we paid 50 AZN per night.
Things to do in Sheki & where to eat in Sheki
The Karvansaray Hotel is located walking distance from the Sheki Khans’ summer palace (Seki Xan Sarayi) and a quick taxi ride (or pleasant meandering stroll through Sheki’s beautiful residential area) to downtown.
For a full list of things to do, see my Sheki travel guide.
The street-facing side of the caravanserai hotel is occupied by a collection of souvenir shops, bakeries, restaurants and – get this – an Illy Espresso House that serves excellent coffee. We also ate at the Shebeke Restaurant attached to the Sheki Sarai Hotel (probably the only place in Sheki where you can find a club sandwich on the menu!), and had a drink at the Buta Bar in the lobby.
Someone recommended we eat at nearby Gagarin Restaurant, but we enjoyed the stew at Piti House (located under the Karvansaray Hotel) much more. The Hotel also has a cafe/restaurant on the top level that boasts a decent range of home-cooked Azeri dishes.
Other hotels in Sheki
If the Karvansaray Sheki hotel is booked out, there are a number of other places to stay in Sheki. Here are my recommendations.
Mid-range: Sheki Palace Hotel (from 35 USD) is located on the hill near the Sheki caravanserai and just 50m from Summer Palace. Breakfast at the terrific on-site restaurant comes included, and helpful staff can assist with transfers to and from Baku. Rooms have hardwood floors and are tastefully decorated. Check prices and availability on Booking.com.
Boutique: Sheki Saray Hotel (from 32 USD) is in downtown Sheki, walking distance from restaurants and cafes. Suites are spacious and have full lounge areas and balconies overlooking the city. Downstairs, the Shebeke Restaurant is one of the best Western eateries in town, and the lobby Buta Bar is one of the coolest spots to hang out in the evening. Check prices and availability on Booking.com.
Homestay style: If you’re out to experience some good old-fashioned Azeri hospitality, Shaki Host House (from 18 USD) is a welcoming, comfortable guesthouse. Doubles and triples feature private en suites. Furnishings are simple, but the sprawling outdoor garden and home-cooking more than makes up for anything this hotel lacks in design. Check prices and availability on Booking.com.
Budget: Located in the northern part of Sheki, Tehran Hostel & House (from 10 USD) is set in a suburban family home with a large yard, outdoor common spaces, and a share kitchen. Shared bathrooms are outside but they’re clean, and there’s hot water. Choose from a dorm bed in a single-sex dorm or a private twin or quad. You can take city bus no. 10 to get here directly from the bus station. Check prices and availability on Booking.com.
How to get to Sheki from Baku
Baku to Sheki by bus or minivan
Marshrutka vans and large coach buses both leave for Sheki from the International Bus Terminal in Baku. There are at least 6 buses per day, with the first service at 9am and the last bus at 5.30pm.
The journey from Baku to Sheki by coach takes about 6.5 hours, including one bathroom break at the halfway point. Tickets cost 8.40 AZN per person, and can be purchased at the cash desk inside the Baku bus terminal (level 3).
It’s faster to travel from Baku to Sheki by marshrutka (minibus/van). When we went, it took us just 4 hours, but the journey can go up to 4.5 or 5 hours depending on conditions. Marshrutkas also depart from the International Bus Terminal in Baku. Rather than sticking to a specific schedule, they depart when full. Tickets for the marshrutka cost 7 AZN.
The road from Baku to Sheki is quite steep and windy in parts, so pack some non-drowsy motion sickness medication if you need it. Buses terminate at Sheki Central Bus Station in the north of the city. When you arrive, there will be taxis there to meet you. A cab to the other side of town should cost 3 or 4 AZN.
Heading back to Baku, buses depart Sheki bus station hourly between 6.30am and 6pm. Tickets cost 9 AZN.
Baku to Sheki by train
Another option is to take advantage of the overnight train service from Baku to Sheki. There is one train departing Baku’s 28 May Station at 11.30pm and arriving at Shaki Railway Station at 6.20am the next morning.
There are three types of train ticket available – plaskard (a seat in a carriage for 7.63 AZN per person), coupe (a seat in a middle-class carriage for 12.69 AZN per person), and spalny vagon (a sleeper bed for 20.34 AZN per person).
Tickets can be purchased at the station or online in advance through the official Azerbaijan Railways website. When searching for tickets on the website, enter Baku Pass. as the departure station and Shaki as the destination.
Trains arrive at Shaki Railway Station, 17km west of the centre of town. A taxi into Sheki should cost around 7 AZN.
Baku to Sheki by shared taxi or private car
The fastest way to get to Sheki from Baku is by taxi. In a sedan, the journey takes just 4 hours.
Shared taxis leave from outside the International Bus Terminal in Baku on ground level. If you ask around, someone will be able to point you in the right direction. They only depart when full, so you might have to wait while the driver gathers 4 passengers – or else you can pay for the empty seats and leave right away.
There are two options: Join a shared taxi (around 15 or 20 AZN per seat), or hire the entire car (60 to 80 AZN).
If you’re on a tight schedule, you can visit Sheki on a day trip from Baku travelling by private car.
Here are some of the websites and services I use when I’m planning a trip to Azerbaijan and the Caucasus. Remember to check out my full list of travel resources for more tips.
– Find affordable flights to Baku on Kiwi.com, a booking site that mixes and matches airlines to find the best route (there’s a money back guarantee if you miss a connection).
– Use iVisa to check if you need a tourist visa for Azerbaijan and apply for an expedited visa online.
– Pre-book a private transfer from Baku Airport to your hotel.
– Short on time? Get to know Baku on this Old City walking tour, or join this panoramic night tour to see Baku in her best light.
– Buy your tickets for the Tbilisi to Baku sleeper train online in advance through my partners at Geotrend (get a discount when you use the code in this post).
– Find the best Azerbaijan hotel deals on Booking.com, book a Baku hostel, or find a unique Airbnb (use this link to sign up and get $55 AUD off your first Airbnb booking).
– Find the best city tours and day excursions in Azerbaijan.
– Pre-order the new Lonely Planet Caucasus guidebook (coming out in June 2020).
– Pick up a copy of Ali and Nino, Azerbaijan’s national novel. I can guarantee that Kurban Said’s evocative descriptions of Baku will get you excited for your trip!
7 things to pack for Azerbaijan
- An anti-theft backpack. As a general rule, Azerbaijan is a very safe place and petty crime against tourists isn’t really an issue. Still, a good anti-theft day pack is worth having to keep your valuables safe in the city. If you’re having trouble deciding, here are a few of my favourite minimalist backpack designs.
- A scarf for visiting mosques (women). A lightweight cotton scarf is my number one travel item. In Azerbaijan, it will come in extra handy for covering your hair when entering a mosque or for draping over your shoulders when visiting a market or a rural area. This neutral travel scarf goes with anything, and it even has a hidden pocket. Remember the dress code in Azerbaijan is quite conservative – women and men alike should avoid shorts and wear pants or a skirt that covers the knees.
- Walking shoes. From the cobbled streets of Sheki to the hills of Baku and the muddy landscape around Gobustan, you’ll likely be spending a lot of time on your feet in Azerbaijan. Comfy walking shoes are absolutely essential. I love these ones for women, while my partner lives in these waterproof shoes.
- A reusable water bottle. Avoid single-use plastics whenever you can. I love my S’Well water bottle for warm climates because it doesn’t sweat. Silicone bags, a reusable straw and a portable cutlery set might also come in handy in Azerbaijan.
- Wine Wings. Should you decide to buy a drinkable souvenir in Azerbaijan, these handy custom-made bottle protectors will keep your vino safe and sound in your luggage. A travel corkscrew and a wine stopper are bound to come in handy, too.
- Entertainment for long bus/train journeys. If you don’t suffer motion sickness, an e-reader is great for passing the time on long bus or train journeys. If you have a travel buddy, pick up a headphone splitter – probably my favourite travel gadget of all time – so you can share a screen or a podcast. Check out my full list of essential items to make a long train or bus journey more comfortable.
- Biodegradable wet wipes. Try this convenient travel pack.
More Azerbaijan travel resources
- My best photos of Azerbaijan to inspire your travels
- Plan your trip: The ultimate Caucasus itinerary or an efficient 10-14 day Azerbaijan Georgia itinerary
- How to travel to/from Baku and Georgia by overnight train
- Tips for travelling around Azerbaijan by bus
- Guide to exploring Baku Old City
- Why you must visit the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku
- How to take a day trip from Baku to Gobustan for the mud volcanoes
- Guide to Sheki, Azerbaijan’s most beautiful city
- Guide to Quba, Azerbaijan’s capital of carpet weaving
- How to spend the night in a Silk Road caravanserai in Azerbaijan