The coastal Astara region is 86% ethnic Tahsh, lushly forested and is known especially lor its citrus fruits. Rising rapidly behind this narrow fringe, the first phalanx of wooded hills are vaguely evocative of South-East Asia with big slightly sparse tree cover on thin, red soil. Behind are folds of forested mountains hiding numerous villages. These would make for intriguing horseback exploration but the roads are impossibly muddy even in dry weather. Astara Town offers very little but the Istisu excursion is fun and Archivan's Yanar Bulaq is fascinating.
For those going further to Iran, the most logical re-entry point would be the border crossing at Astara (same name both sides). Some guide books report this as a "challenging" or "heavily militarized" crossing, which is not quite true. As only one of a handful of tourist that use this crossing you could be given the VIP treatment, including being fast tracked in line. It's a rather odd crossing though as the Azeri passport control is set-up in an old bus! The town of Astara (on either side) is not worth hanging around in. Taxi drivers (on both sides) will try to tell you that the crossing is far from the centre, LIES!! Both the Iranian and Azerbaijani crossings are more or less in the centre of town. Getting to the Astara is also quite simple.
There are numerous buses (big and small) from Lankaran which cost 1 Manat. Although, taking a taxi (10 manat) and stopping of at the Yanar Bulag (burning spring) in nearby Archivan village is highly recommended (see below).
Astara town offers little incentive to hang around and the police remain vaguely suspicious of people who wander the streets. Nonetheless, there is a fairly standard historical museum and the little chaykhana with tea-glass-shaped windows is passingly curious.
Astara has one of Azerbaijan's nicer beaches, but being a border town you'd be unwise to linger too long here and there's little else to do except cross the border (8am-noon & 2-5pm, variable) to Iran. Note that midrange hotels in Azerbaijani Astara are generally better value than the equivalents in Iran's namesake town.
If you're arriving from Iran as a pedestrian you emerge through an oddly unmarked metal doorway into a nest of waiting taxi drivers. Contrary to their assertions, it is very easy to walk to the central square (less than 10 minutes, straight ahead up Heydar Aliyev kuch).
If you're in Astara, don't miss the curious Yanar Bulag (burning spring), in nearby Archivan village. Here, spring water gurgling from a metal stand-pipe is impregnated with methane that the locals swear is good to drink. But even more fun is taking a lighter to the flammable gas. Be careful as the first spark can nearly explode. Put a lighter to it and it burns, giving a magical little display of the wet and the warm. It's shaded by a modest brickdomed pavilion, right beside the Lankaran-Astara road, 6km north of central Astara.The water's flammability is secondary to its remedial properties for locals, who collect it by the gallon and seem bemused by visitors' flaming antics.
Isti Su literally means "Hot Water." Isti Su is a Soviet Era sanitarium - but really there are a set of hot springs. You will need some confident directions to find them though. Soak yourself in in the hot, sulphuric water. And even on a hot day you will feel good.
Crossing the Border to Iran
Astara is divided by the Iranian border. Vehicles queue for hours via Cafar Cabbarli Street. However, on foot there's a special crossing point hidden away behind an unmarked grey metal door where Azadlyq Street appears to end. You can walk from the town centre or take a short taxi ride from the main bus station.
As long as you avoid the tedious Tehran-Baku through buses, the border appears to be hassle-free.
The border is open between 8am and lpm and 2pm till at least 6:30pm, possibly as late as 8pm. If heading southbound change enough money with the freelancers near the Iran-side border post to get you to Rasht, Ardabil or Tabriz, the nearest towns where banks will exchange (cash only) at decent rates.
From the Iran side of the border walk two minutes south down the alley in front of you to Hakim Nezami St where it's easy to find a taxi for the 3km ride to the bus station. Buses leave every hour or so to Tehran via Rasht or take a shared taxi (savari) from outside. For the busy, beautiful road to Ardebil rarer buses sometimes pick up at the roundabout 300m further south.
If you're planning a trip to Azerbaijan you may be interested ▶ Azerbaijan highlights - For those who prefer to go unbeaten path, to explore less visited places and check national charisma of this small country in Southern Caucasus on the edge of Europe.