For a town of its size, Sheki Azerbaijan has a lot to offer visitors. Once a stop on the fabled Silk Road, Sheki has a wonderful character plus many historical and Soviet-era points of interest. From painted palaces to decadent desserts, hip bars to handicrafts, here are the 12 things I loved most about Sheki!
Sheki is far and away my favourite place in Azerbaijan. After a disappointing overnight visit to Quba, we were seriously questioning our decision to leave Baku and push further into Azerbaijan. Getting around was the easy part—we just weren’t that impressed with the scenery or the towns we saw.
Planning a trip to the Caucasus? Check out my epic Georgia Armenia Azerbaijan itinerary & travel planner.
All that changed when we arrived in Sheki, a mid-sized town in the shadow of the Greater Caucasus, 300km northwest of Baku. Pulling into Sheki, you couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face. Beautiful houses and painted gates, grand old stone buildings, cafes, cobbled streets, plane trees… Ahhh. This was the Azerbaijan I had been dreaming of.
Ever since the town 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, too.
First impressions of Sheki Azerbaijan
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.
Looking for more Azerbaijan inspiration? Check out my favourite photos from Sheki and the rest of the country.
Things to do in Sheki Azerbaijan
Here are 11 things I loved about Sheki—and 11 reasons why I think you should add Sheki Azerbaijan to your own Caucasus itinerary!
Get up close and personal with the incredible Sheki Khans’ summer palace
Considered to be modern Azerbaijan’s most prized piece of historical architecture, the Sheki Khans’ summer palace (often called the Sheki Khans’ Palace or Sheki Xan Sarayi) is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. I won’t go into the history of the palace (it’s easy to read up about it online); even if you’re totally ignorant of the building’s history, the design and aesthetics alone are enough to leave you breathless.
The coloured plasterwork on the exterior… The painted roof overhang… The incredible interior with its shebeke windows and intricate murals (see more below)… Everything has been meticulously restored. In my opinion, the summer and winter palaces are reason enough to visit Azerbaijan.
Photograph the (lesser-known) winter palace
Located outside the fortress walls in a seemingly random suburban street, the Sheki Khans’ winter palace was only rediscovered by historians quite recently. Reconstruction began in the early 2010s and is a work in progress. Only one room has been fully restored to its former glory – our guide told us that 90% of what you see above is original.
As the story goes, Sheki’s 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, ruined, and completely forgotten. While money was being poured into the reconstruction of the summer palace, regular people started living inside the old building. Unbeknownst to them (and to everyone else), there was a former palace hiding under the dirt and decay, complete with picture-book murals and shebeke glass.
The interior is much like the summer palace’s; but here, photography is allowed inside provided you’re willing to pay. We forked out 10 AZN for two people and two cameras, including an English-speaking guide. She and her family are the palace caretakers and they live right next door.
Sleep in a Silk Road caravanserai
I can’t imagine a more fitting place to spend the night in Sheki than the Sheki Karvansaray Hotel. I loved this place so much I wrote a whole post about it – read it here.
Meet the friendly locals
Sheki – population 63,000 – is a conservative town and like elsewhere in Azerbaijan, it’s the men and boys you’ll see out on the street, not women. We found everyone to be extremely friendly and helpful – another thing we’ve noticed about Azerbaijan. 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.
This wouldn’t happen in bustling Baku; it was nice to briefly connect with some Azerbaijani people.
Track down real Soviet retro
Hammer and sickle left an impression on Sheki that hasn’t been filed away like it has in Baku. During the Soviet era, mineral water-rich Sheki was actually used as a health retreat. But what’s far more interesting are the little reminders of Sovietism – throwbacks to the days of the sputnik and chain smoking – that are still scattered around Sheki’s streets.
There is also a Soviet-era silk factory in Sheki, which apparently still uses the original machinery. I tried my best to get a look inside, but was sadly knocked back. There is a small shop attached to the factory where you can buy high-end silk carpets and scarves.
Learn how ‘Shebeke‘ is made
I wasn’t aware of this at the time of my visit, but Sheki is part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network that recognises cities with a particularly impressive heritage of traditional crafts. Shebeke, Sheki’s own special version of stained glass, is made through the process of tracery. Puzzle pieces (called ‘network tracery pieces’) made from wood and coloured glass are expertly fitted together without using glue or any other fasteners. Some panes of shebeke use up to 1,800 individual pieces – it really is very impressive.
You can see beautiful examples of shebeke inside both the summer and winter palaces. At sunset, when the light hits the shebeke at just the right angle, it casts a gorgeous mosaic of light on the floor, not unlike an intricate Azerbaijani carpet.
For more Azerbaijan recommendations, check out this 7-day cultural itinerary.
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. You can visit their workshop on the grounds of the summer palace and see a quick demonstration of how it’s done.
Admire textiles & embroidery
Also on the grounds of the summer palace you’ll find a few small museums and an arts and crafts souvenir shop. The museum housed inside the old Albanian Church displays a nice collection of textiles, carpets and embroidery from Sheki and surrounding villages.
Love textiles and crafts? Check out my Textile Lover’s Guide to the Caucasus.
Roam Sheki’s charming neighbourhoods
Sheki’s residential area is full of beautiful brickwork, houses with plaster molding that imitate the Sheki Khans’ palace, little shops and taverns, and colourfully painted gates. I was so impressed with the beautiful town streets that I could seriously contemplate living in Sheki.
To get to Sheki’s residential neighbourhood 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 Sheki Khans’ winter palace is also in this area, tucked away down a narrow suburban street.
Appreciate Sheki’s religious diversity
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 Kis (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.
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 of meat (chicken or veal), chickpeas, vegetables, and a bunch of other unidentifiable ingredients. The stew is 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 into 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. (The 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 (located underneath the Karvansaray Hotel), followed by the Karvansaray Hotel restaurant itself and finally, Restaurant Gargarin.
…And Sheki halva
Azerbaijan has a major sweet tooth. Sheki’s contribution to the country’s sweets cabinet is halva (halvasi), a super-sweet, syrup-drenched slice that’s a lot like baklava. I have no idea what’s in it (apart from some kind of nut); what makes it different is the web of crispy sugar syrup on top which gives halvasi an interesting texture.
Buy it at shops all over town, at the local market, or eat it with a latte at Buta Bar inside the lobby of the Sheki Saray Hotel.
Enjoy the fresh air and green space
One of the most appealing things about Sheki is the town’s 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.
Getting to Sheki — Baku to Sheki bus
The easiest and most affordable way to travel to Sheki from Baku is by minivan (marshrutka). Marshrutkas regularly depart from the main bus station in Baku. (For more details about navigating the bus station and finding the right van, check out my report on Azerbaijan bus travel.) Vans terminate at the Central Bus Station in Sheki, which is centrally located. From there, you can take a taxi to your accommodation (taxis are readily available at the station).
The Baku to Sheki bus takes 4-5 hours depending on traffic. The bus makes one rest stop along the way at a small roadside restaurant. A ticket from Baku to Sheki costs 7 AZN per person.
There is also a train service between Baku and Sheki if you prefer to travel by rail.
Travelling by bus in Azerbaijan? Read my essential public transport guide next.
Where to stay in Sheki
Sheki’s famous Karvansaray Hotel is one of the coolest and 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 comfortable. The central courtyard is outstanding—as is the chance to stay overnight in such a historical building. I have a whole post about the Karvansaray Hotel in Sheki, which outlines room types and how to reserve a room.
Read next: Sleeping in Sheki’s Karvansaray Hotel.
Planning your visit to Sheki
- Sheki is a small town, but it’s well set-up for tourists. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes dotted around.
- 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.
- It’s possible to travel from Sheki to Tbilisi, Georgia by marshrutka, changing vans in Qax. My Azerbaijan bus transport guide outlines how to do this.
- Finally, 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.
- Planning to visit Sheki as part of a larger Caucasus trip? Make sure you check out my epic Georgia Armenia Azerbaijan itinerary!