What can I say about Baku? Baku did not charm me like the rest of Azerbaijan. It reminded me a lot of Astana, because both cities are built by dictators showing off their oil and gas wealth to the international world. Besides that, both do so with futuristic buildings and international events to cover up their authoritarian regimes.
President Aliyev’s Baku has a museum on offer in the form of a rolled up carpet, the second largest flag pole in the world, a cultural centre in an undefined form of waves, flame towers and enough billboards with his own picture. In addition, Baku just hosted the Islamic games of solidarity and the formula 1 races.
The only difference is that while Astana was built out of nowhere in the past 20 years, Baku actually has a very long and interesting history as a major city on the Silk Road.
It was once part of the Mongol, Persian and Russian empires, before it became part of the Soviet Union. At last, Azerbaijan finally gained independence in 1991. But even in the old town it is not clear what is still authentic and what is new.
Baku’s oil wealth
Baku has always attracted those in search for profits from the rich oil and gas reserves. Throughout history a handful of powerful oil barons became rich while the majority of workers who did the dirty jobs often lived in harsh conditions. The current reality is not much different.
If you only visit the capital you will think the country is well off. When you walk through the modern shopping streets with fancy fountains you could be in any city in Europe.
Certainly, not much of the Soviet past survived in Aliyevs Baku, but it doesn’t take much to look beyond the facade of glitter and glamour. Taking a marshrutka to the suburbs already shows you a different side of the city.
Even though the city didn’t charm me, I was certainly fascinated by it. Its ancient Zoroastrian roots, its communist past, its current politics and above all the interesting mix of different cultural influences that still persist.
As a result there is something in me that wants to return. That wants to learn more and understand the city better.
Travel Guide to the best things to do in Baku
1. Icheri Seher: strolling through the old town
The old town was my favourite part of Baku. Although some buildings are clearly renovated it does give you a sense of Baku’s history. This is probably the best place to stay with some great budget hostels, restaurants and interesting sights that you can explore on foot.
Some believe that the maiden tower used to be a Zoroastrian fire temple while others believe it was an astronomical observatory. The towers design and purpose remain a mystery and many legends exist as you can read in this article. The 12th century building is still one of Azerbaijan’s national symbols and you will find it on the Azeri currency notes.
Palace of the Shirvanshah
The palace of the Shirvanshah from the 15th century is another important historic building. It now hosts a small museum about the Shirvanshah dynasty. It is an interesting place to visit, but comes nowhere near the beauty of the palace of the Shaki Khans in Sheki.
Before you know you have already passed by the beautiful Juma mosque. The mosque was built on the site of an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple and rebuilt several times. The current mosque is from 1899 and it’s worth a quick look inside.
Visit a Hamam
Because of the Persian influences Azerbaijan has a tradition of communal bathhouses. If you are interested in reading more about the Hamam culture of old Baku I can recommend this article.
Nowadays the hamams have upgraded to a place to pamper yourself with saunas and pools. If you visit in winter and it’s cold outside there will be no experience more relaxing than a visit to one of the hamams. Teze Bey Hamami is one of the more authentic hamams left, but there are others as well.
Miniature book museum
I am a book lover, so obviously I was excited about the miniature book museum. The collection of 5600 books includes the worlds smallest Quran. Another good thing is that it is free to visit.
2. Modern Baku: shopping at Nizami street
Close to the old town is Fountain square and Nizami street. The main pedestrian street in Baku with its modern shopping area where western brands have taken over. What does remain authentic are the delicious Azerbaijani restaurants and the multicultural atmosphere.
Nizami museum of Literature
Not far from the fountain square is Nizami’s national Museum of Azerbaijani literature. Nizami was one famous Persian poet that was born in Gence in Azerbaijan. He and other Persian poets had a big influence on Azerbaijan’s literature.
The most famous Azerbaijani Novel is Ali and Nino. The love story of a Muslim Azerbaijani boy and a Georgian Christian girl in Baku written by Kurban Said in 1937.
3. Boulevard: walking along the sea front
The boulevard along the sea with Milli’s park is the place where Azerbaijan’s youth is hanging out. Along the shore you can see the construction going on of some of Baku’s newest and futuristic buildings. You can visit mini Venice, walk to the largest flagpole or visit the carpet museum.
The carpet museum
The carpet museum has a much longer history than its brand new building in the form of a carpet. It was initialy located in the Juma mosque in the old town in 1967. It now has the largest collection of Azerbaijani carpets in the world and has organized more than 30 exhibitions in different countries.
4. Taking the funicular up to the Flame Towers
Azerbaijan’s flame towers are visible throughout the city and representative of Azerbaijan’s roots in Zoroastrianism with its fire temples. It’s no coincidence that fire was worshipped here. With its vast gas and oil reserves fires erupted spontaneously in places where gas seeped from the surface. In fact, Azerbaijan in Persian means the protector of fire.
Even though the flame towers can not be visited, because they are office and residential buildings, I can recommend you to take the funicular up the hill. Seeing the flame towers up close is quite impressive. Even more interesting is the beautiful view over Baku and the Martyrs Alley.
A sad, but peaceful and serene place is the park around Martyrs Alley with the graves of soldiers who died during Azerbaijan’s wars. Most of them are from the Second World war, but also from the more recent struggles for independence in 1992 and the ongoing conflict regarding Nagorno Karabagh.
5. Heydar Aliyev’s cultural centre
No longer in walking distance from the old town I passed by the Heydar Aliyev’s cultural centre several times by bus on my way out of Baku. I never stopped to have a closer look, which maybe I should have. Its futuristic building is a strange form of white waves. Apparently the interior offers more quirky architectural wonders.
6. The cats of Baku
I couldn’t write about Baku without mentioning its cats. I love cats and even though there are not as many as in Istanbul for example, there were enough that stole my heart.
7. The Absheron peninsula: Gobustan mud volcanoes, fire temples and pirs
From Baku there are some interesting daytrips into the Absheron peninsula, such as the Gobustan mud volcanoes, the fire temple and the burning mountain. To read more about what the Absheron peninsula has to offer and how to reach those places by public transport read my post beyond Baku: exploring the Absheron peninsula.
I can also really recommend a visit to Xinaliq, Europe’s highest mountain village. You need at least 2-3 days for this, but it was my highlight of Azerbaijan. Read more in my post on Xinaliq: Azerbaijan’s wild mountains.
Where to eat in Baku
Azerbaijan’s food is an interesting mix of Persian, Turkish and Central Asian food. Besides tea, flatbread, kebabs and fresh salads Azerbaijani cuisine has some delicious specialities. Read my post on the best of Sheki: Azerbaijan’s Silk road to read more about Sheki piti and Sheki halva.
In Baku i tasted dolma, plov and others, but the highlight was naz Qovurma. A lamb stew with pomegranate and hazelnuts. And it’s just as delicious as it sounds.
Arraz kafesi near fountain square is a great budget place with a good menu of different kebabs, dolma and qovurma. I can recommend the dolma.
A similar budget place near Araz kafesi is Fisincan restorant. It has almost the same menu, but the qovurma here was slightly better.
Where to sleep in Baku
Baku Old city hostel
I stayed in the Baku Old City hostel in the old town and was happy about it. The people were friendly and a nice breakfast was included. The latter is useful as shops in Azerbaijan don’t open early and it will be difficult to find a place for breakfast.
Hostels are getting more common in Baku and they are a great way to keep things within your budget. Other hostels are Stay Inn Baku hostel, Amsterdam hostel, Happy Baku Hostel, Khamsa hostel, Check inn Hostel, Downtown Baku hostel, Sahil hostel, Freedom hostel & Azeri hostel.
Baku has an excellent public transport system by bus and metro. You can purchase a Bakikart for 2 manat that you can recharge. It is valid for the Metro and the new red buses. The metro connects the old town (Iceri Seher) with the train station (28 May) and the suburbs.
For buses you can check the routes here. The older buses still except cash and it is 20q per ride, the newer red buses only accept the Bakikart.
How to get to Baku
You can either fly directly to Baku or travel by train from neighbouring Georgia. The most direct route are the sleeper trains between Baku and Tbilisi. A more scenic and adventurous route is to make a stop in Sighnaghi (Georgia), cross the border to Azerbaijan the next day and make another stop in Sheki before taking the sleeper train from Sheki to Baku for a nostalgic Soviet like journey.