My initial impression of the Azerbaijani capital is that of a giant modernisation project, one where the old and the hyper contemporary vie for attention. The city actually feels a bit… undecided.
Baku is a crossroads in every sense: between Europe and Asia, between conventional and modern, between traditional Middle Eastern culture and nouveau riche. There’s winding ancient narrow stairways and vast shopping centres; rugged sandstone houses and towering skyscrapers; rambling B&Bs and luxurious hotels. A half-kilometre long 12th century wall encircles Içeri Şəhər (inner city = old town). In Bayır Şəhər (outer city), state-of-the-art constructions, many designed by world-leading architectural firms, very visibly represent the country’s rapid economic growth.
The city is home to Art Nouveau, Baroque and Gothic architecture, as well as space age structures which makes me wonder. Is this a new Dubai in the making? In between, remnants of the more recent past emerge. Brutalism. Soviet chic. I like the diversity, and hope there is room for all to coexist.
As always in times of prosperity, people move to the cities. Of Azerbaijan’s 10 million inhabitants, about half now live in metropolitan Baku. Traffic is heavy, especially along main street Neftchilar Prospekti, which runs parallel to the seaside promenade. Pollution levels are high, including noise from construction work as well as traffic (blaring car horns seems to be a national sport).
That aside, after four days in Baku, I’m left with an impression of generosity and a high level of trust. I like that in a city. For the entire stay, my bags were lost somewhere between Frankfurt and Baku. Or in Timbuktu, for all I knew. Nothing for it, shopping had to be done. Upon hearing my story of misfortune, a kind shop manager gave me a ‘be careful or you might fall in love with me’-t-shirt for free. An equally kind random stranger bought me a hoodie at the Hard Rock Cafe shop. You just don’t run into that all that often.
Now that you’re all set to go – ’cause you’re going, right? – here are a few suggestions to get the most out of your Baku break.
11 Baku things to do
1. Old town, Içeri Şəhər
I arrive late on a pleasantly balmy, summery, quiet, mid-week night and decide to spend a night or two inside the old city walls. Taking that initial, exciting exploratory wander around, I hear talk, laughter and clinking of glasses emanating through wide open windows. Walking in the old city feels quite safe, even late at night, all by myself, with nary a soul about. Restaurants have entire wine racks placed outdoors with no one watching over. It’s very atmospheric; like I’ve taken yet another time leap.
Next morning, daylight brings with it a different atmosphere: still pleasant, but very much in the present. Cobbled streets, narrow alleys and stairways turning this way and that, courtyards, small shops and taverns, little (almost indistinguishable) mosques, caravanserais, bathhouses and gardens. Yet the old town is very much living and breathing, with children playing, mothers hanging clothes to dry, grandfathers playing backgammon and dominoes in the shade.
The old town offers great views. You can see the landmark Flame Towers, Soviet housing projects and ever more construction.
If you look at your Azerbaijani currency, you’ll see that the manat notes have the 12th century Maiden Tower on them. This structure is one of the most famous in Baku. Most famous of old Baku, at least. Why ‘Maiden Tower’? Some believe it’s because the tower was never destroyed by enemies and thus remained a ‘virgin’ tower. I prefer a different explanation:
During a siege in ancient times, the enemy was intent on smashing the fortress and kill or enslave all those within. Many die in the tumults, no food passes through, water supply is cut off. Priests are praying. Enter flame-haired maiden who defeats the enemy commander in a one-on-one face-off. She saves the day, the tower and the city from death and destruction.
There’s actually a rather silly ending to that story, about flame-hair and the enemy commander falling in love. I don’t believe it. This girl would not fall for someone who thought it was OK to leave people to die of thirst and starvation. 10 manat will take you to the top for magnificent views of old and new Baku.
Next is the Palace of the Shirvanshah. You’ll see that on the new 10 manat bank note. From the 9th to the 16th century, Shirvan was a region in the eastern part of the Caucasus in present-day Azerbaijan. The shah was ruler of Shirvan, and when earthquakes and enemy attacks became just too prevalent, he moved the capital to Baku where he built a palace at the city’s highest point. What this palace was used for through the centuries? Theories abound, evidence does not. We do know that the complex was used as military HQ during the Russian occupation in the 19th/20th century. 10 manat to enter here as well.
Old town art
There’s much more to see inside the old town – including an adorable miniature book museum (possibly the only one in the world) and several art studios. Visit everything – or just wander around and soak up the mood. That’s what I did, mostly.
2. Haidar Aliyev Centre
Hopping a few centuries into the future, take the metro to Nariman Narimanov, then walk for 10-15 minutes for a look at what is perhaps the most extraordinary amongst Baku’s cutting-edge structures, the Heydar Alijev Centre. Inside you’ll find various exhibitions, or you can just see it from the outside (we did). From 2012, the centre is designed by one of the world’s great architects, Zaha Hadid, whose work I’ve admired ever since I first saw her Nordkettenbahn in Innsbruck seven years ago.
3. Baku funicular railway, Dağüstü Park and the Flame Towers
Take the funicular (cable car) up the mountain to Dağüstü Park and the emblematic Flame Towers, a relatively recent addition to Baku’s skyline.
While you’re up here, have a look at the Alley of Martyrs, a memorial cemetery for fallen soldiers from the war with Armenia. Also, enjoy the city and sea views. Sunset is lovely seen from the many viewpoints up here.
4. Four Seasons Baku
If you’re in town on a baking hot summer day, step inside the cool, beautiful lobby at the deliciously luxurious Four Seasons Hotel Baku to relax with a drink or a cuppa. Perhaps a shisha in the garden? Or splurge on dinner at Restaurant Zafferano. Don’t miss the silver bar!
5. Baku Boulevard
Quiet afternoon on the prom
Boating in the promenade park
From 1909, Baku Boulevard, locally known as Dənizkənarı Milli Park is nearly 4 km long along the Caspian Sea. Plans are afoot to extend this seaside promenade to 26 km; it just might become the world’s largest park. I strolled back and forth along the boardwalk many times. Cosy cafes, Bakuvians out strolling, kids running around, dogs playing, couples kissing.
6. Carpet Museum
UNESCO has inscribed Azerbaijani carpet weaving on the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. If you’re at all interested in local arts and crafts, you’ll want to visit Azərbaycan Xalçası Muzeyi, the carpet museum. As you walk along the seaside boulevard, you can’t miss it. It’s designed as, you guessed it, a partially rolled-out carpet.
7. Race car driving
Carpets not your thing? Well, perhaps Formula One is. Azerbaijan is one of the newest race grounds in the F1 circuit. The second annual Azerbaijan Grand Prix takes place at the end of this month (April 2018). At just over 6 km, the Baku City Circuit is the second longest in this world of speed. Somehow, it’s difficult to imagine 340 km/h through the city streets here.
Norway and England winning F1. This is how that could look.
When we visited in July 2017, the race had just taken place a few weeks earlier. Except for the occasional sign left remaining, the city was well cleaned up.
8. Fountain Square, Fevvareler Meydan
Locals and tourists (not that you’re likely to meet many in Baku) gather at Fountain Square and the surrounding streets. It’s Baku’s see-and-be-seen spot. You’ll find shops and cafes, fountains, public art and you can even catch a festival or public celebration here.
It’s an easy place to hang out. I sat at the fountains or in one of the many cafes for hours, scribbling notes, writing postcards, watching life, whiling away time.
9. Azerbaijani food
Azerbaijani food includes (but is by no means limited to) excellent salads, kebabs, hummus, lots of fruits and veg – and strawberry jam in your tea. Well, why not? Try one of the many çayxanalar (small tea houses) that you will find in nooks and crannies outdoors, some of them with fantastic views. Not a great fan of Nutella myself, but if you are, you’ll be happy to learn there’s an entire cafe devoted to the sweet,
gluey gooey stuff in Baku: Nutella mousse, Nutella burger, Nutella waffles… the list goes on.
10. Shikhov beach
About 10 km south of the city is Shikhov beach, a favourite hangout for locals on sunny days. The water isn’t much for swimming here (although some don’t seem to mind), as it’s polluted and dirty, and you can see why. Do go and have a look, though. It’s a bit surreal to see the oil installations just off the beach, like some futuristic wasteland. If you absolutely want to swim in the Caspian Sea, there are better spots along Azerbaijan’s 500 km coastline, e.g. on the Absheron Peninsula, north of Baku.
11. Day trip to Gobustan
The one-hour trip out of town to Gobustan is well worth your while. 40 000 year old petroglyphs, mud volcanoes you can get up close and personal with, and there are old Ladas to drive! More on all that in this post here.
- Several airlines fly to Baku from various European and Middle Eastern cities, including Frankfurt, Istanbul, Vienna, Riga, Budapest, Moscow, Doha, and more.
- To and from neighbouring Georgia, there’s an overnight train. If you can face 60 hours on a train, there’s also one between Moscow and Baku. Busses go to and from Turkey, Iran and Georgia.
- A rickety ferry crosses the Caspian Sea between Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan and Baku daily (or at least a few times weekly). There isn’t a set schedule, takes 12 – 18 hours, costs about USD 50.
- Busses, cheap taxis and an even cheaper metro (about 10 cents pr journey) takes you around the city. Baku is easily – and most delightfully – covered on foot, though. Just beware of traffic and use the underground pedestrian passages. Otherwise you might not make it.
- Money: 1 euro = 2 manat (AZN)
After four days in Azerbaijan, Ingunn and I take the midnight train to Georgia. We only buy tickets the night day before and the only available bunks are in the open cabin. That turns out to be an adventure in itself with many interesting people, including a Georgian fashion designer who later shows us his workshop in Tbilisi and takes us to dinner along with heaps of his friends. A Sex and the City-kind of experience. Maybe I’ll write that story one day.
Walled City of Baku with the Shirvanshah’s Palace and Maiden Tower is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites from around the world.
Disclosure: For parts of my stay in Azerbaijan, I was a guest of Four Seasons Hotel Baku. As usual, this has no bearing on what I write – or even if I write anything at all. That’s the way it’s got to be. Otherwise, this makes no sense.
PS: In case you’re wondering about my seemingly random use of ‘I’ and ‘we’ throughout this post, it’s because I was on my own at first, then joined by my two fave travel mates, and on the final day by my daughter’s friend’s mum/practically neighbour/good friend.