The best things to do in Baku, Azerbaijan
This post is a travel guide about the best things to do in Baku. Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan and a city famous for its gas and oil reserves on the Caspian sea coast.
What can I say about Baku? Baku did not charm me like the rest of Azerbaijan. I loved Azerbaijan with its rich history, green rolling hills, friendly people and delicious food. But Baku was very different from the rest of the country.
Baku reminded me a lot of Nursultan in Kazakhstan, 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.
That said I stayed for more than a week in the city and certainly enjoyed my time. I must admit that there are definitely some interesting things to do in Baku.
What to do in Baku
There are a lot of things to do in Baku if you love history. While Nursultan was built out of nowhere in the past 20 years, Baku actually has a very long and interesting history as a multicultural Silk Road city on the crossroads of Europe and Asia.
Baku was once part of the Mongol, Persian and Russian empires, before becoming the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. At last, Azerbaijan finally gained independence in 1991 with Baku as its new capital.
As a result, Baku is both modern and full of history. You can feel that nowadays, Baku is a young and dynamic city that is changing rapidly after the fall of the Soviet Union. While the old town with its silk road architecture is a journey back in time, the city also sees lots of new projects.
President Aliyev 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 and the flame towers that rise high above the city. As you can read there is no shortage of things to do in Baku if you love futuristic or eccentric architecture.
Baku’s oil wealth
Throughout its history Baku has always attracted those in search for profits from the rich oil and gas reserves in the Absheron peninsula. 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 with all the fancy things to do in Baku.
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. And if you are into Soviet architecture, its still there if you look carefully.
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 persists.
Things to do in Baku
1. Icheri Seher: strolling through the old town
Wandering around the old town was among my favourite things to do in Baku. Icheri Seher is the most ancient part of the city. The fortress and walls here, were already built in the 12th century. Walking around in the small streets gives you a sense of Baku’s long history as a Silk road town influenced by the Persians, the Turks and the Russians.
There are mosques, caravanserais, ancient hammams and lots of restaurants and cafes. This is the historical heart of Baku and probably the best place to stay with some great budget hostels.
2. The Maiden tower
In the middle of Baku’s old town is the mysterious Maiden tower. 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 unknown 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. You can enter the Maiden tower to enjoy the view over the old town from the top. Recently a tunnel was found connecting the Maiden tower to the Shirvanshah palace.
3. Palace of the Shirvanshah
The palace of the Shirvanshah from the 15th century is another important historic building in the old town of Baku. 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.
4. Juma mosque
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 it was rebuilt several times. The current mosque is from 1899 and it’s worth a quick look inside.
5. 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.
6. Miniature book museum
If you are looking for free things to do in Baku, come to the miniature book museum. I am a book lover, so obviously I was excited about this funny museum. The collection of 5600 books includes the worlds smallest Quran.
7. 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.
8. Nizami museum of Literature
Not far from the fountain square is Nizami’s national Museum of Azerbaijani literature. Nizami was a 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.
9. Boulevard: walking along the sea front
The best place to see Modern Baku is along the boulevard where you can walk along the Caspian sea coast and witness some of Baku’s new futuristic architectural buildings on the skyline. The place is also very popular with the Azerbaijani youth that is hanging out here and families that go for a stroll in Milli’s park.
The boulevard is now about 5 kilometers long, but plans are to extend it to 26 kilometers and make it one of the top things to do in Baku. You can see the construction going on of some of Baku’s newest and futuristic buildings as we speak.
Already you can take a boat in mini Venice, walk to the second largest flagpole in the world, visit the carpet museum and see the crystall hall that hosted the Eurovision song festival in 2014.
10. 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.
11. The Baku eye
I didn’t go into Baku’s own ferris wheel, because I am afraid of heights. I am sure though that the view must be amazing and it is also relatively cheap if you consider the price of other ferris wheels in Europe.
12. The Flame Towers
Azerbaijan’s flame towers are visible throughout the city and representative of Azerbaijan’s roots in Zoroastrianism. The Zorastrians built several fire temples in Azerbaijan and 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.
The flame towers are a symbol of the city. Even though you cannot enter them they are pretty impressive to see. The best way to see the flame towers up close is by taking the Baku funicular.
13. Taking the Baku funicular
The best way to see the Flame towers up close is taking the Baku funicular. It costs only 1 Manat to go up and down. It starts on Neftchilar avenue square and brings you to the Flame towers.
Even though the flame towers can not be visited, 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 nearby Martyrs Alley.
14. 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.
15. 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. The futuristic building is a strange form of white waves. Apparently the interior offers more quirky architectural wonders so it is definitely among the top things to do in Baku for those into architecture.
16. The cats of Baku
I couldn’t write about Baku without mentioning its cats in the old town of Baku. I love cats and even though there are not as many as in Istanbul, there were enough that stole my heart.
17. Trying Azeri food
Azerbaijan’s food is an interesting mix of Turkish, Central Asian and Persian cuisine. Besides tea, flatbread, kebabs and fresh salads, Azerbaijani cuisine has some delicious specialities and trying Azeri food is among the top things to do in Baku.
Dolma (minced meat with rice and spices wrapped in vine leaves or tomato) was a favourite, but the highlight was Naz Qovurma (A lamb stew with pomegranate and hazelnuts) . And it’s just as delicious as it sounds.
Other national dishes include Dushbara (dumplings in broth), Lavangi (fish stuffed with onion, walnuts and raisins), Dovga (yoghurt soup with spinach) and Qutab (flatbread filled with spinach).
Things to do near Baku
Baku is located in what is called the Absheron peninsula. While most tourists never leave Baku, the Absheron peninsula offers plenty of interesting things to do near Baku.
If you like to travel off the beaten path and learn more about Azeri culture the Absheron peninsula is well worth the effort.
18. Bibi Heybad Mosque
In the outskirts of the city on the way to Gobustan you can find the beautiful Bibi Heybad mosque. Although the current building is quite new, this is a place of worship with a long history. It started in fact, not as a mosque, but as a mausoleum with the tomb of a descendant of Mohammed that was built in the 13th century by the Shirvanshah dynasty
How to get there: Bus 124 from 28th may or Sanahil bus station. It is very easy to visit this mosque from Baku and it is also easy to combine it with a trip to Gobustan, because it is on the way
19. The absheron peninsula
Some places in the Absheron peninsula are hard to get to and require a tour like the Gobustan mud volcanoes and Gobustan Petroglyphs.
Others are easy to visit with public transport such as the burning hills of Yanar Dag, the Atesgah fire temple, the Mir Movsun Agha pir and the Mardaken castle.
To read more about the Absheron peninsula you can read my post about The best day trips from Baku. It includes information on the best way to visit these sites with public transportation.
I can also really recommend a visit to Xinaliq, Europe’s highest mountain village. Even though there are day tours available from Baku I would recommend to sleep in one of the homestays. You need at least 2-3 days for this, but it was my highlight of Azerbaijan. Read more in my post on Xinaliq travel guide.
The best budget places to eat in Baku
1. Araz kafesi
Araz kafesi near fountain square is a great budget place with a good menu of different kebabs and other Azeri cuisine. I can recommend the dolma.
2. Fisincan restorant
A similar budget place near Araz kafesi is Fisincan restorant. They have a nice garden outside next to the Armenian church. It has almost the same menu. I can recommend the Naz qovurma.
3. Gutab House
Gutab House is the best place to try the traditional Gutab. Delicious flatbreads with a filling. Spinach is the most common, but Gutab house serves a large variety of Gutabs for under less than 1 Manat. There is even one with camel meat.
Baku Travel Tips
The best hostels in Baku
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 with good reviews are Travel Inn Hostel & Sahil hostel. Budget rooms are available at the City Inn Boutique hotel or the Maestro hotel.
How much time do I need for Baku?
There are a lot of things to do in Baku and I would say you need at least three days to do Baku justice. However, that is if you stick to Baku itself.
I highly recommend you to make some daytrips out of the city. Add another 2 days to explore the Absheron peninsula with its interesting tourist attractions like mud volcanoes and burning hills. Add more days to head to the Caucasus mountains and visit Xinaliq.
The best time to visit Baku.
The best time to visit Baku are spring and autumn when the temperatures are comfortable and the weather is good.
Baku’s summers are hot and dry and the winters mild. Winter is also a good time to visit if you want to avoid the summer heat. Snow is rare in Baku, but it can get chilly so bring some warm clothes if you decide to visit during winter.
Visa and registration in Baku
Most nationalities can apply for an e-visa. It’s an easy process, but make sure you are on the official website.
If you are staying for more than 10 days in Azerbaijan you must register with the government. You can do this yourself online at the immigration department. However, you do need a local mobile number as they will send a code to confirm your application.
You can also ask your hostel to do it to make sure it is done well or go to a police station that does registration. I registered myself at the police station in Sheki and it was a smooth process.
Language in Baku
The main languages in Baku are Azerbaijani (very similar to Turkic) and Russian.
Baku is a multicultural city with a large expat community. Even though english is not widely spoken you can get by pretty easily. Most young people and those that work in tourism speak at least a basic level.
Money matters in Baku
Azerbaijan uses the Manat. Baku has enough ATM’s to get money. In shops and restaurants it’s best to pay in cash.
Make sure you have enough small bills as people rarely have change for a 100 or even 50 manat bill.
Baku is not an expensive city and if you are a budget traveller staying in hostels and eating in cheap restaurants you can survive on less than 30 dollars a day.
Books about Baku
Ali and Nino by Kurban Said is a wonderful novel about the love story of a muslim Azerbaijani boy and a Georgian Christian girl. Set in Baku around 1920 it is a great book to read before you visit the city.
The best way to get around in Baku
Baku on foot
Most things to do in Baku are in the old town, along the boulevard or around Nizami street. It is a pretty large area so expect to walk a lot. However, this is still one of the best ways to discover Baku.
Taxi’s in Baku
I rarely used taxi’s in Baku, because I either walked or used the metro. That said, taxi’s should not be expensive.
Taxi’s do try to overcharge tourists so always negotiate a price beforehand and make sure it is a licensed taxi. Using uber is recommended.
A taxi in the city should cost between 4 to 10 manat if you stay within the centre area.
A taxi from the Baku airport to the centre of town should not cost more than 25 manat, but it requires some negotiation skills.
There is also a bus from the airport to Baku’s train station that will cost you less than 2 manat and takes about 45 minutes. The train station is in the centre and well connected by metro and other bus routes.
Bus & Metro in Baku
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 accept cash and it is 20q per ride, the newer red buses only accept the Bakikart.
The best way to get to Baku
Flying to Baku
Baku has an international airport allowing you to fly directly into Baku. Some budget airlines like Wizz air have cheap tickets available.
Traveling by train to Baku
You can travel by train to Baku from neighbouring Georgia. Keep in mind that the border with Armenia is closed. Therefore 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 the Silk road city of Sheki before taking the sleeper train from Sheki to Baku for a nostalgic Soviet like journey.
Update 2023: The night train from Sheki to Baku is no longer running because they are modernizing the railway system in Azerbaijan. As soon as the train is running again I will update this page, but it will likely be a newer train and therefore a different experience than I had on an old Soviet train.
Traveling by ferry to Baku
Another exciting way to reach or leave Baku is by ferry. There are services from Baku to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan (17 hours) or Aktau in Kazakhstan (30 hours). There is no timetable, but ferries leave every 3 to 5 days. Prices range between 80 and 150 dollars. You can find more info on the ferries on caravanistan.
Safety in Baku
Baku is a very safe city where you can follow normal precautions. Crime is low and there are no problems walking alone in the streets even if it is dark.
However, some scams do exist in Baku. Taxi’s tend to overcharge foreigners. Also check your restaurant bill to see if you were not charged ‘extra’ and always check your change.
Solo female travel in Baku
As a woman travelling alone I did not encounter any problems when I was in Baku. I travelled for more than a week with public transport including the more conservative Absheron peninsula.
Despite Azerbaijan being a muslim country, you won’t notice this when you are in liberal and modern Baku.
Solo female travellers might get the occasional male attention in the streets, but nothing that can be discouraged by a stern look or walking away.
For women no special dress code applies in the city and you can wear whatever you wish.
If you plan to travel into the Absheron peninsula it is good to dress more modestly though, as things are much more conservative once you leave the city.
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