From painted palaces to decadent desserts, silk factories to handicrafts, here are 15 wonderful things to do in Sheki, plus my complete Sheki travel guide.
Once a whistle stop on the fabled Silk Road that connected East and West, the small city of Sheki (also known as Shaki or Şeki) is far and away my favourite place in Azerbaijan.
Located in the shadow of the Greater Caucasus mountains in the country’s far-north, Sheki lies roughly 300km from Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. One of the main draws is Sheki’s historic architecture, including the country’s newest UNESCO Heritage Site (2019) and one of the most beautiful buildings in the Caucasus, the Sheki Khan’s Palace.
Ever since Sheki was featured in the TV doco Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure (read on to learn how you can stay overnight in the stone caravanserai featured in the series), more and more people have been dreaming about visiting Sheki.
While you can quite easily pause for a day in Sheki to take in the Summer Palace and a second Winter Palace, I recommend staying a little longer to visit Sheki’s craft workshops and textile museums, rifle through antiques at the bazaar, wander the charming back streets, and indulge in piti, Azerbaijan’s national dish and a Sheki specialty.
My guide to this Azerbaijan Silk Road town includes detailed travel information on how to get from Baku to Sheki, plus what to do in Sheki.
Essential Azerbaijan reading
- 12 things to know before you travel to the Caucasus
- My favourite photos of Azerbaijan to inspire your trip
- An easy 10 or 14 day overland itinerary for Georgia and Azerbaijan
- My epic Georgia Armenia Azerbaijan itinerary
- How to travel between Georgia and Azerbaijan by sleeper train
- My tips for travelling by local bus in Azerbaijan
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First impressions of Sheki
Pulling into Sheki on the bus from Baku, you couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face. Beautiful houses and painted gates, grand old stone buildings, cafes, cobbled streets, plane trees…
The only reasonable parallels I can draw are with Granada in Southern Spain (the feel more than the look of the place) and Sarajevo’s Old Town (the look more than the feel!). Historical buildings attract tourists, and the little town of Sheki has developed its infrastructure to accommodate them.
If you don’t mind seeing a few tacky souvenir shops, it’s a very comfortable place to spend a few days.
Sheki has still managed to hold onto its residential neighbourhoods, which are an absolute delight to wander through. Pair this with friendly locals, good food and fresh air, and Sheki is definitely the place to go if you want to experience a part of Azerbaijan that’s not Baku.
Sheki is conveniently located between Tbilisi and Baku, so you can break up the journey here if you’re travelling between the two cities by bus. At the end of this post, I’ve provided more detailed transport instructions for reaching Sheki from Baku.
Where to stay in Sheki
Sheki’s famous Karvansaray Hotel (pictured above) is one of the most memorable accommodations anywhere in the Caucasus (or anywhere in the world, for that matter). Housed in a converted Silk Road caravanserai, rooms are very basic but incredibly atmospheric.
It’s not possible to book online, so you’ll either need to try phoning ahead from Baku, or take your chances and inquire when you arrive in Sheki. More information here.
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.
Things to do in Sheki
Here are the top 15 things to do in Sheki, Azerbaijan.
Visit the incredible Sheki Khans’ Summer Palace
Of all the fascinating places to visit in Sheki, the Summer Place should be top of your list. Recognised by UNESCO in 2019 as part of the broader Historic Centre of Sheki, it’s considered one of modern Azerbaijan’s most prized pieces of architecture.
The palace was built in 1763 as a summer residence for Sheki’s ruling family. To make the most of the fresh air, they built it on a small hill above the city and enclosed the gardens with fortified walls.
The palace is quite modest in size for a royal residence – just six rooms and two balconies spread over two levels. What it lacks in floorspace, it more than makes up for in decoration.
Every inch of the palace – which has been painstakingly restored by architects and master craftspeople – is absolutely breathtaking in its detail and opulence.
The 36 metre-long facade is the first thing you encounter upon entering through the gates. Every inch is covered with exquisite plasterwork, peacocks, scallop patterns and Islamic-inspired motifs in a palette of salmon, black and blue.
Standing under the roof gable and looking up at the painted overhang, you realise that every last corner of the palace has been thoughtfully decorated. From the outside, you can appreciate the detail of the intricate wooden window frames. Once you go inside, you’ll realise these are actually stained glass (a special local variety known as Shebeke).
The interior of the palace is even more lavish – so don’t pass up the opportunity to join a short ‘guided tour’ for 5 AZN. Floor to ceiling miniature paintings that depict folk stories and scenes from nature are beautiful beyond words.
Photography is not permitted inside the Summer Palace, but you can take photos inside the Winter Palace (up next).
The Summer Palace is open daily from 10am until 6pm.
Photograph the lesser-known Winter Palace
Located outside the fortress walls on a seemingly random suburban street, the Sheki Khans’ Winter Palace (Shakikhanovs’ Palace) isn’t quite as opulent as its summer cousin – on the outside, at least.
Don’t let the plain white facade fool you. The interior of the second palace is every bit as beautiful – and unlike at the Summer Palace, where photography is strictly prohibited, you’re free to snap as many photos as you like.
Incredibly, the second royal residence was only rediscovered by historians quite recently. Reconstruction began in the early 2010s and is a work in progress.
So far, only one room has been fully restored to its former glory. Our guide told us that 90% of the picture-book murals and miniature paintings, with vary from portraits to peacocks, are original. Walls of stunning shebeke glass, painted doors, mirrored niches and carved room dividers can also be seen up close.
How could such a magnificent building lay empty for so long? As the story goes, the Sheki Khans’ were exiled to Iran and Turkey when the Red Army marched into town. A few generations of the Khans’ decedents lived inside the Winter Palace before it was abandoned, fell into ruin, and then was almost completely forgotten.
While money was being poured into the reconstruction of the Summer Palace, people were living inside the winter residence. Unbeknownst to them, there was a former royal palace hiding beneath the dirt and decay.
Entrance to the Winter Palace costs 5 AZN per person, including a camera. An English-speaking guide, one of the palace caretakers who lives adjacent to the property, can show you around and explain some of the features.
The Winter Palace is open daily from 9am until 6pm.
Sleep in a Silk Road caravanserai
Sheki’s lofty stone caravanseri is an incredible piece of architecture and a historic gem. Spending the night inside one of the small rooms – converted from the original sleeping chambers that once housed Silk Road traders – is an incredible experience.
Even if you’re staying elsewhere, it’s worth dropping in to see the building up close. Anyone is free to wander through the caravanseri’s heavy wooden doors, past the fountain and through to the central courtyard, where you can see the three walls of stone arches and cloisters in all their glory.
Find more information about the caravanseri here.
Learn how Shebeke is made
Sheki is part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network that recognises cities with a particularly impressive heritage of traditional crafts. One of the many traditional artforms practiced in Sheki is Shebeke (or shabaka), a special kind of stained glass that you see throughout both Khan’s palaces.
Shebeke is made through the process of tracery. Puzzle pieces (called ‘network tracery pieces’) made from wood and coloured glass are expertly slotted together into a frame. Amazingly, there is no glue, nails or any fasteners or any kind used in the process.
Some panes of shebeke use up to 1,800 individual pieces.
You can see beautiful examples of shebeke inside both Khan Palaces. At the right time of day, when the light hits the shebeke at just the right angle, it casts a gorgeous mosaic of light onto the wooden floor, not unlike an intricate Azerbaijani carpet.
When the Sheki Khans’ palaces were being reconstructed, all of the shebeke work was done by local master craftsmen using original materials and glass imported from Burano in Italy. You can visit their workshop on the grounds of the Summer Palace to see a quick demonstration of how it’s done.
Visit the Three Saints Church
Also located within the Summer Palace complex, the petite Three Saints Church (or Round Temple) is beleived to be a former Russian Orthodox Church. The exact story of the building is unknown – according to some records, it could actually be an Albanian church like the one in nearby Kish.
Other evidence says the building was used as a mosque and a garison for the Imperial Russian army at various points in its history.
Sheki Museum of Folk and Applied Arts
Step inside the Three Saints Church to visit Sheki’s tiny Museum of Folk and Applied Arts. You’ll find a nice collection of textiles, carpets, costumes and embroidery from Sheki and surrounding villages.
There isn’t much information in English, and the collections are in need of some serious TLC. Still, if you’re interested in handicrafts, I think it’s worth a quick walk through if you have time. Entrance costs 2 AZN.
Shop for souvenirs
Lokal Craft Market inside the Summer Palace complex (near the tourist information centre) has a wide range of handicrafts. Unfortunately, we found most the products here were mass-produced or poor quality (polyester scarves marketed as silk, for example).
If you want to do some souvenir shopping in Sheki, I recommend visitng the little shops in the street-facing arcade along the bottom of the caravanserai instead. You can find a range of antiques and cute knick-knacks, including gorgeous embroidered shoes.
Find the Sheki Silk Factory
Sheki used to be positioned on the old Silk Road and was itself an important producer of the much-coveted natural fibre. High-quality Sheki silk was known throughout the region for its luxe sheen – the city was even nicknamed ‘Caucasian Lyon’ in reference to France’s biggest silk producer. Sheki was famous for its Kelaghayi, a traditional Azerbaijani silk shawl decorated with woodblock prints.
In 1861, the first silk factory was built in Sheki to process the local silk and turn it into fabric. More factories followed course. Incredibly, some are still ticking away today, aparently using the same Soviet-era machinery. I tried to talk my way into one of the factories in the centre of town, but sadly I was turned away.
There is a small gift shop attached to the factory where you can buy high-end silk carpets and scarves.
Roam Sheki’s charming old town
The residential area and Old Town Sheki are full of beautiful brickwork, houses with plaster molding that imitate the Sheki Khans’ palace, little shops and taverns, and colourfully painted gates.
To get to Sheki’s residential area from town, walk up the street that leads to the Sheki Khans’ Summer Palace. When you see the movie theater (The Gengis Club), make a left.
Cobbled alleyways peel off in all directions from here, and it’s a great place just to wander and get lost. The Khans’ Winter Palace can also be found in this area, tucked away down a narrow suburban street.
One of the most appealing things about Sheki is the scenic location. With the Greater Caucasus as a backdrop, fresh spring water runs through town and there’s green all around.
It might not be as beautiful as some mountain villages in Georgia, but Sheki is idyllic and a stark contrast to Baku – which is exactly why I think it makes an ideal complimentary destination if you’re only making a few stop offs in Azerbaijan. Take a few hours to just wander, enjoy the fresh air and soak it all in.
Meet the locals
Sheki is a conservative town and like elsewhere in Azerbaijan, it’s the men and boys you’ll see out on the street, not women.
One day while out walking, I had my camera poised and this group of men asked me to take their photo. A few blocks later, a group of construction workers did the same thing. On the bus out of Sheki to Qax, the other passengers were so excited to talk to us through the few Azeris who spoke the tiniest bit of English.
You’re far less likely to have an encounter like this in bustling Baku.
Track down real Soviet retro
Hammer and sickle left an impression on Sheki that hasn’t been filed away like it has been in Baku. During the Soviet era, mineral water-rich Sheki was a popular health retreat.
It’s fascinating to see the little reminders of Sovietism – throwbacks to the days of the sputnik and chain smoking – that are still scattered around Sheki’s streets.
Learn how to eat Sheki’s signature dish, piti
Piti is a traditional Azeri dish – but we never came across it in Baku. It wasn’t until we arrived in Sheki, where piti is something of a local specialty, that we were able to try it.
Piti is a chunky, aromatic stew made from meat (chicken or veal), chickpeas and mixed vegetables. It’s quite fatty (sometimes with chunks of lard on top), and some pitis have a single apricot added to the mix. It’s traditionally served in a small earthenware pot with lots of bread on the side.
Eating piti is a bit of an art. First, tear your bread into small pieces and place them in an empty bowl. Using the back of your spoon to keep the chunky bits in the pot, pour the piti liquid over the bread. Sprinkle with sumac and eat the sodden bread/soup as your first course.
Next, you smush the remaining piti stew into a chunky paste using a special wooden pestle. (Your waiter might step in at this point to help you.) Once you’ve finished the soup and smushed the stew, transfer it to your bowl to eat as a second course.
A serving of piti costs about 5 AZN and since it’s basically two meals for the price of one, we ate a lot of it in Sheki. Our favourite piti was at Piti House Sheki (located underneath the Karvansaray Hotel), followed by the Karvansaray Hotel restaurant itself and finally, Restaurant Gargarin. Buta Restaurant in the city centre also serves a good piti.
Treat yourself to some Sheki halva
Between the baklava and the sugary tea, it’s obvious that Azerbaijan has a bit of a sweet tooth. Sheki’s contribution to the country’s sweets cabinet is halva (halvasi or Sheki pakhlava), a super-sticky, syrup-drenched nut slice.
According to legend, the recipe for Sheki pakhlava was first devised for the Khan who didn’t mind a dessert or two. It was such a success, it soon became a mainstay of Sheki’s pastry shops and a favourite across Azerbaijan.
Sheki halva is made with rice flour, sugar and hazelnuts, and flavoured with coriander seeds, cardamom and saffron. It’s traditionally prepared in a round pan by building up layers of pastry and stuffing. The diamond motif on top (made to reflect the patterns of shabaka glass) is made using a special funnel. Once baked, it’s finally drenched in hot sugar syrup.
You can find Sheki halva at shops all over town and at the local market. Order a slice to go with your cafe latte at Buta Bar inside the Sheki Saray Hotel.
Take a side trip to Kish
Azerbaijan is an Islamic country, but just like the town of Quba, which is home to a sizeable Jewish population, Sheki is similarly diverse.
The Albanian Church in the nearby town of Kish (also known as the Church of Kish or Church of Saint Elishe) was constructed in the 12th century and used variously as an Apostolic and an Orthodox place of worship.
Although the church is inactive today, the interior dome and crypt are well-kept and can be visited as a quick side-trip from Sheki town.
How to get to Kish from Sheki
Kish is a short 15-minute ride north from Sheki by van, or a brisk 90 minute walk.
Marshrutka number 15 departs every 20 minutes from Sheki and stops at the small bus station in Kish. Right before the stop, you cross over a small river. That’s a good indication that you’re about to reach your destination. From there, it’s a 700m walk to the church.
You can flag down marshrtuky vans to and from Kish anywhere along the way. Tickets cost 0.4 AZN per person – pay the driver directly when you arrive at your destination.
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.
How to get to Sheki from Tbilisi
It’s possible to travel from Sheki to Tbilisi, Georgia by marshrutka, changing vans in Qax. Refer to my Azerbaijan bus transport guide for full details.
More tips for Sheki
- There are a few ATMs that accept international credit cards in Sheki. We had no problem withdrawing cash from a bank close to the bus station.
- There is a very helpful tourist information office located inside the Sheki Khans Summer Palace complex. English-speaking staff there can help with transport, and any other questions you might have.
- Taxis in Sheki are affordable and a good option for longer legs of travel (for example, getting from your accommodation to the bus station or vice versa). Other than that, I recommend exploring Sheki on foot.
- Sheki is located in rural Azerbaijan and is a bit more conservative than the capital city. Dress appropriately (especially in summer) and avoid public displays of affection. Contrary to some reports, female and male passengers do not need to sit separately on public transport. It’s more common to see men out on the streets than women.
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.
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!
More stories from Azerbaijan
- My guide to Baku Old City
- Marvelling at the wonderful Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku
- How to take a day trip from Baku to the Gobustan mud volcanoes
- How to visit Quba and see Azeri carpet weaving
- My top photos of Azerbaijan
- Planning to visit Sheki as part of a longer Caucasus trip? Make sure you check out my epic Georgia Armenia Azerbaijan itinerary
- For more Azerbaijan recommendations, check out this 7-day cultural itinerary