Situated on the Caspian Sea, the Azerbaijani capital of Baku combines a Medieval old town with an ultramodern skyline, bringing together Persian, Turkic, Soviet and European influences. With the city’s best attractions ranging from scaling 18th-century skyscrapers to exploring its very own Little Venice, the Azerbaijani capital has something for everyone.
Baku’s UNESCO-listed fortified old city was the Medieval capital under the Shirvanshahs. Today, it’s the capital’s historic heart and home to the Maiden Tower, traditional carpet weavers and a plethora of bars and restaurants. Visiting traders in eras past often referred to Icheri Sheher as the Acropolis of Baku.
Dating back to the 12th century, this cylindrical tower has a mysterious story. Historians believe that the UNESCO-listed Maiden Tower served as a Zoroastrian temple before becoming a watchtower in the 18th century. Follow the spiral staircase to the top of the 29-metre (95-foot) structure for the best views of Ischeri Sheher.
The Palace of the Shirvanshahs, the ruling dynasty for 800 years, can be seen on the back of Azerbaijan’s 10 manat banknote. The 15th-century UNESCO-listed complex served as a royal residence for 200 years and has a palace, mosque, burial vaults and a mausoleum. Both its awe-inspiring architecture and the excellent views it offers over the city make the Palace of the Shirvanshahs one of the top attractions in Icheri Sheher.
The largest museum in Baku, the National Museum of History of Azerbaijan lies inside an Italian Renaissance-style mansion and boasts more than 300,000 artefacts. The museum’s exhibits span ancient to modern history and ethnography, with one of its most notable exhibitions being its extensive numismatic collection, which includes Ancient Greek coins.
Named after the Azerbaijani poet Nizami Ganjavi, the 3.5-kilometre-long (2.2-mile-long) Nizami Street forms Baku’s main shopping district. As you stroll along its length, pay close attention to the architecture, which moves from Baroque and Neo-Gothic to Neo-Renaissance facades and Stalinist styles.
The opulent Baroque-style Government House on Neftchiler Avenue was built between 1936 and 1952 and is home to numerous government departments. For visitors, the key attraction here is the building’s architectural beauty, especially when it is lit up at night.
The pedestrianised Fountain Square, formerly known as Parapet, is a bustling public destination. Dozens of fountains fill the area, which stretches from Nizami Street to the eastern walls of Icheri Scherer. Bars, cafés and restaurants with outdoor terraces fill the lower floors of the surrounding buildings.
Baku’s trio of skyscrapers – the Flame Towers – are the most recognisable sight on the city’s skyline. At night, their glass facades light up in the colours of fire, an effect created by 10,000 coloured LED bulbs. Perched majestically above the Bay of Baku, two of the towers are occupied by offices and apartments, while the third – the Fairmont Baku – is open to non-guests, who can enjoy a drink or meal at the hotel.
National Flag Square marks the western end of Baku Boulevard. Officially opening in 2007, the square is a symbol of national pride. The giant flag, which measures 70m × 35m (230ft × 115ft) on a flagpole standing 162m (531ft) tall, was featured in the Guinness World Records as the world’s tallest flagpole, but Baku’s efforts were overtaken in 2011 by the 165m (541ft) Dushanbe Flagpole in Tajikistan.
The almost 3.75km (2.3mi) Baku Boulevard hugs the Caspian Sea. The coastal promenade is home to an amusement park, bars, cafés, a cacti garden, the Baku Ferris Wheel and Mini-Venice. Beginning at National Flag Square and ending at Freedom Square, this spot has spectacular views of the Flame Towers and is perfect for a relaxing stroll along the coast.
If you haven’t visited the City of Canals, Baku’s Mini-Venice will give you a taste. A top attraction for a romantic evening, this small area on Baku Boulevard has several islands – both large and small – all connected by bridges. Here, you can pay a few manats to ride the local version of a gondola through the artificial canal system, which first opened in the 1960s.
Three years after the completion of central Baku’s sandstone Teze Pir (Taza Pir), this mosque – recognisable for its gold-plated minarets – fell victim to the 1917 October Revolution. After being used as a cinema and later a barn, it reopened as a mosque again in 1943.
The Baku Funicular is Azerbaijan’s first and only funicular, taking passengers from Neftchilar Avenue to Martyrs’ Alley. Views from the top span from the Icheri Sheher in the near distance to the newer skyscrapers towards the horizon.
This extravagant Venetian Gothic palace has a sad story behind it. After early-20th-century oil baron Agha Musa Naghiyev lost his son, Ismayil, to tuberculosis, he hired renowned Polish architect Józef Płoszko to design the building in memory of his son, which opened in 1913. After serving as a meeting and assembly hall for the Muslim Charity Society, the building is now occupied by the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences.
The Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum, established in 1967, is the world’s first. Resembling a rolled-up carpet, the museum’s current building, which opened in 2014, was designed by Austrian architect Franz Janz. Home to the largest collection of Azerbaijani carpets in the world, the museum offers visitors the chance to learn about traditional carpet-weaving and its importance in Azerbaijani culture.
The Palace of Happiness, also known as the Palace of Marriage Registrations, combines elegance with romance and heartbreak. The building was built by oil baron Murtuza Mukhtarov for his wife, Liza-Khanum Tuganova, in the style of a structure she had admired in France. In 1912, Mukhtarov surprised his sweetheart with the large Neo-Gothic building, another Józef Płoszko masterpiece. They lived happily for eight years until the Bolsheviks occupied Azerbaijan in 1920, at which point Mukhtarov shot the Russian officers who entered the beloved building before killing himself.
There’s no better way to see Baku’s evening skyline than by taking a Caspian Sea Cruise, which sets sail into the bay for approximately one hour. One of the highlights on the excursion includes seeing the glowing Flame Towers. Boats leave from the terminal in the centre of Baku Boulevard.
Formerly known as the Mailov Theatre, the Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre opened in 1911. Designed by Armenian architect Nikolai Bayev, the theatre is a superb example of Art Nouveau architecture. Today, you can catch a performance or visit simply to marvel at its magnificent architectural details.
Towards the end of pedestrianised Nizami Street, close to Icheri Sheher, stands the Nizami Museum of Azerbaijan Literature. Named after 12th-century poet Nizami Ganjavi, the building holds a wealth of materials about Azerbaijani literature and culture. Be sure to have a good look at the building’s facade, which features six statues of famous poets and writers.
To combine exploring history and culture with a seaside break, head 35km (22mi) northeast of Baku to Bilgah. Here, you’ll find a clean, sandy beach – the ideal spot to take a dip in the Caspian Sea. Admission is free, but you have to pay a small fee to use the sunbeds.