Beguiling Baku sits on the shore of the Caspian Sea. The oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan takes its architectural cues from both Paris and Dubai, and its rich culture melds Persian, Turkic, Soviet and European influences. In addition to exploring the Walled City of Baku and scaling the city’s modern skyscrapers, the best things to do on a visit to the Azerbaijani capital include marvelling at the 15th-century Palace of the Shirvanshahs and seeking out souvenirs handcrafted by local artisans.
Baku’s UNESCO World Heritage-Listed Inner City (also known as the Old City, or Icheri Sheher) is the capital’s cultural heart. It is here that you’ll find the 12th-century defensive walls built to keep out attackers, along with grand buildings and crumbling hammams. It’s also the best area for people-watching, as writer Emily of Wander-Lush alludes: “Inside tea houses, endless streams of chai cascade from pewter pots into little glasses, while outside, kids sit on the back stairs doing their homework while their mothers hang washing from lines strung between balconies.” Allow plenty of time to explore the Old City; getting lost in streets designed to confuse potential enemies and drinking tea at a chaikhana (tea house) are key parts of the experience.
The UNESCO-listed Palace of the Shirvanshahs – a royal residence for 200 years – is renowned as the pearl of Azerbaijani architecture. It’s an extensive, mostly 15th-century complex that includes everything from mosques and mausoleums, to a bathhouse and even a reservoir. The sandstone walls seem to glow in the afternoon light, and as the palace is built onto the hillside, it doubles as an excellent vantage point for views across the city.
Shopping is a major draw for visitors to Baku, with many flocking to the designer brand stores in the shiny modern malls. If you’re looking for souvenirs that are unique to Azerbaijan and locally made, head instead to ABAD – a state-run organisation that works to help small, mainly family businesses.
ABAD sells reasonably priced handicrafts, artworks and foods made by artisanal producers across Azerbaijan. You might take home, for example, cherry or rose petal preserve, intricately designed copper vases or delicate silver earrings. The craftsman’s name and location is listed on every item, and when you buy something, the money goes into a designated account for that particular person. ABAD has a number of stores in Baku, including within the Old City and at the Heydar Aliyev International Airport.
Late architect Zaha Hadid’s design for the Heydar Aliyev Centre won the Design Museum’s 2014 Design of the Year Award, and is famed for its fluid, wave-like form.
Most visitors just photograph the Heydar Aliyev Centre from the outside, but if you do venture in you’ll appreciate how the fluid form continues: you won’t find any corners or hard edges here! Spread across eight floors, there’s an impressive auditorium, a museum and an exhibition space, plus conference facilities. Among the highlights of the centre’s permanent collection is the Treasures of Azerbaijan exhibition, which showcases the best of Azerbaijani culture.
Baku’s trio of skyscrapers – the Flame Towers – are the most recognisable sight on the city’s skyline. The shape and name is an homage to the Zoroastrian religion, and at night the glass façades are transformed into flickering flames, created by 10,000 coloured LED bulbs.
Two of the towers are given over to offices and apartments; the third is the Fairmont Baku. Non-guests can enter the hotel to use the restaurants and bars, and it is well worth going for drinks at the Jazz Club. Not only are the cocktails divine, but you can look out at the Caspian Sea while the musicians and DJs get the party started.
One of Azerbaijan’s natural highlights is less than an hour’s drive outside Baku, an easy trip there and back in an afternoon, and therefore often included on city tours: the mud volcanoes in Gobustan National Park.
“The scenery seems to be from a different world,” explains Fabio Bolognese of MyCaucasus. “The silence is only interrupted by the gurgling and bubbling noises from the volcanoes with their small eruptions of cold mud.” Around half of the world’s mud volcanoes are in Azerbaijan, and they’re a quirky thing to see, whether you’re a geology geek or simply intrigued by the prospect of seeing mud (and occasionally flames!) burst out from the earth.
Azeri cuisine is a mouthwatering combination of grilled meats and seafood, seasonal vegetables and spices. But if there is one dish that stands out above all others in Baku, it’s ‘Three Sisters Dolma’ (Uch Baji) – a recipe made from aubergine stuffed with pepperoni, minced meat and tomato, and it is usually washed down with a glass of tea. You’ll find this cheap, quick snack in every Baku café, but some of the best are at Dolma Restaurant, behind the Nizami Museum of Literature.
Before Baku built its Flame Towers, it was the Maiden Tower that was the city’s high-rise icon. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the structure – which may have been built as early as the 4th century – is a prime example of pre-Islamic architecture in Azerbaijan. Bloggers Alesha and Jarryd at NOMADasaurus have a tip: “Climb the Maiden’s Tower just before sunset and enjoy the panoramic view of the Azerbaijan capital and its Old City – it’s a Baku must-see!” The tower is open daily until 6pm.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Azerbaijan produced more than half of the world’s oil supply, and the oil millionaires the city spawned included the likes of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prize.
On an oil-themed walking tour of Baku, you’ll learn how the discovery of oil transformed the city, not only in its fortunes but in its society and architecture as well. Many of the banks, hotels and public buildings were built at the height of the oil boom, and the price of oil still affects the mood in the city.
Baku sits on the shore of the Caspian Sea, and there are a number of beaches within easy reach of the city – ideal for cooling off in the hot summer months (temperatures regularly exceed 30C/86F). Shikhov Beach is a family favourite thanks to the nearby Aqua Park and is accessible on public transport with Bus No. 125. For a quieter, sandier spot, drive 30 minutes north of Baku out to Bilgah Beach on the Absheron Peninsula.