The best way to explore Baku is with a local resident as your guide. As a documentary photographer, Sitara Ibrahimova creates work about contemporary social issues in Azerbaijan, and as a curator and founder of culture and arts site VarYox, she’s actively shaping Baku’s cultural scene. Culture Trip speaks to Sitara about her favourite parts of the city – from the historic centre to brand-new White City, a district still rising from the pages of Baku’s master development plan.
North of Fountain Square, in what was once the Jewish quarter, is the hippest neighbourhood in town. As yet, it doesn’t even have a name – but this is where Sitara and her friends come to hang out among the coffee shops, wine bars, jazz clubs and other live music venues. Le Chateau Music Bar was founded by classical musician Sada Hasanova, and a few blocks down is offbeat Old School with its Soviet-era decor. ZION Hostel, located in a renovated 19th-century house, is a great accommodation option, and puts on film screenings, poetry nights and masterclasses.
“There’s no one cluster of museums and galleries in the city,” says Sitara. “They are scattered in different districts.” But her top choice for art lovers is YARAT in the Bayil district. Launched by Aida Mahmudova in 2011, YARAT (which means create in Azeri) is a non-profit organisation for contemporary artists from the Caucasus, Central Asia and surrounding regions. Bayil’s YARAT Centre is the group’s main venue, and it hosts not only exhibitions but film clubs and literature talks too. The Stone Chronicle Museum and Baku Open-Air Cinema are both a short walk away, so you can easily keep yourself entertained from dawn to dusk.
Baku has a growing nightclub scene, but for electronic music fans, there’s only one place you need to know: iN. When it opened in 2015, iN had capacity for just 50 clubbers; however, since moving several times around the city, it has now found its permanent home in an abandoned factory on Jeyhun Salimov Street in the 3rd microdistrict. It’s a venue on an impressive scale, drawing more than 600 dancers to the biggest events. The founder’s ambition is to become one of the best techno clubs in the world.
Baku has at least two millennia of history, but the face of the city is continually changing. “White City is one of the largest urban development projects in Azerbaijan,” notes Sitara. “The project provides for the restoration and development of the eastern part of the centre of the capital [previously known as Black City], an area of 1,650 hectares [4,077 acres].” Designed in collaboration with the award-winning international architecture firm Foster + Partners, when it is finished White City will be home to 50,000 people, plus shops, offices and parks. Boulevard Hotel Baku has already opened its doors, and it looks straight out onto the waterfront to the Caspian Sea.
Lev Tolstoy Street runs east from Sovetskaya to the Akhundov National Library, half a dozen blocks back from the waterfront. There are plenty of small hotels here, and it’s within walking distance of many of Baku’s key attractions. But Sitara’s pick for the area is Gazelli Art House, a digital art platform and gallery space. Gazelli hosts a range of exhibitions and publishes books and catalogues showcasing the work of the many artists it represents.