I didn’t believe one dear friend of mine when he was telling me that Baku is amazing and one of the best cities he ever visited. Now I know what he meant. Baku is amazing. I can confidently say that it’s on my favorite cities list, and it’s hard to get on that list.
Welcome to Baku
Azerbaijan’s capital is the architectural love child of Paris and Dubai, albeit with plenty of Soviet genes floating half hidden in the background.
Few cities in the world are changing as quickly and nowhere else in Eurasia and East and West blend as seamlessly or as chaotically. At its heart, the UNESCO listed Old City (İçəri Şəhər) lies within an exotically crenelated arc of fortress wall.
Around this are gracefully illuminated stone mansions and pedestrianised treelined streets filled with exclusive boutiques. In the last decade, countless towers have raised, replacing the fragile old Soviet apartment blocks. Some of the finest new buildings are jaw dropping masterpieces.
Meanwhile romantic couples canoodle their way around wooded parks and hold hands on the Caspian front bulvar (promenade), where greens and opal blues make a mockery of Baku’s desert ringed location.
Sights in Baku
This tapering 29m stone tower is Baku’s foremost historical icon with rooftop views surveying Baku Bay and the Old City. Possibly millennia old, its original date of construction is the subject of much debate, though much of the present structure appears to be 12th century. The Azeri name, Qız Qalası, is usually rendered ‘Maiden’s Tower’ in English, leading to plenty of patently fictitious fairy tales. Various versions are considered in the imaginative little multimedia installations that adorn several floors of the tower’s interior.
A better translation of Qız Qalası would be ‘Virgin Tower’, alluding to military impenetrability rather than any association with tragic females. It was certainly an incredibly massive structure for its era, with walls 5m thick at the base and an unusual projecting buttress.
Heydar Әliyev Cultural Centre
This is the most iconic building in Baku and personally my favorite sight. This Zaha Hadid building is a majestic statement of fluid 21st-century architecture forming abstract waves and peaks that seem to melt together. The real delight is simply pondering and photographing the extraordinary exterior from ever-changing angles. The interior hosts concerts and several exhibition spaces including a permanent collection featuring the gifts received by Azerbaijan’s presidents.
Palace of the Shirvanshahs
This sandstone palace complex was the seat of northeastern Azerbaijan’s ruling dynasty during the Middle Ages. Mostly 15th century in essence, it was painstakingly (over)restored in 2003 with museum items added since, including one or two entertaining audio-visual surprises.
Endlessly popular with strollers, this leafy piazza forms Baku’s central natural focus. The fountains for which it is named include one topped by shiny silvered spheres giving fish-eye reflections of the trees and stone facades.
Don’t miss the beautiful statue-inlayed facade of the Nizami Literature Museum , best photographed at night. And outside the large McDonald’s notice the bronze statue of a young lady with umbrella, bare midriff and mobile phone. Very Baku.
The symbol of Baku! Completed in 2012, this trio of sinuous blue-glass skyscrapers forms contemporary Baku’s architectural signature. The three towers range from 28 to 33 storeys – so huge that they’re most impressive seen from a considerable distance, especially at night when they form a vast palate for a light show which interchanges between fire effect, pouring water and the national flag. Take the funicular from near Little Venice to go to the top of the hill.
Baku Flag Square and Crystal Hall
One of the highest flag of the world is Azerbaijani flag fluttering in the square of the National Flag in Baku. The National Emblem of Republic of Azerbaijan, the text of the National Anthem and the Map of the country, which were installed at square, have been prepared from bronze in gilded water. Museum of the National flag has been created in the square, too.
Baku Hall is an indoor arena near the Fla square, build primarily to host the Eurovision Song Contest 2012.
Food and drink
Located on the crossroads of Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Azerbaijan’s incredibly rich cuisine (think labm, lots of lamb) has been inspired by many nations, yet remains distinctly unique. Keep in mind that it’s currently still legal to light up indoors in Baku, so if you are keen to avoid the fumes, ask to be seated in the non smoking section (if they have one).
The local Azeri cuisine is dominated by meat, rich cheese and the traditional fruit, the pomegranate. Some of the best restaurants to sample local cuisine in Baku include casual Kafe Araz and the slightly more upmarket Firuza (don’t leave without trying its beetroot dip), both located on opposite corners of the Fountain Square. The pick of the city’s more upscale local options include the rooftop restaurant at the Sultan Inn Boutique Hotel and Sumakh, near the Supreme Court.
All do their own delicious versions of local favourites such as plov (Azeri-style pilaf), lyula kebab (lamb or mutton skewer served with lavash), qovurma (lamb stewed with onions and pomegranate) and saj ichi (meat and vegetables cooked in a cast-iron pot).
Getting around Baku
From the airport you can take bus H1 which takes around 45 minutes from the airport main terminal and the central train station in the city. It costs AZN 1.30 which must be loaded onto a BakiKart, available from a vending machine nearby.
It’s pretty easy to roam around the city on foot, considering that nearly everything is walking distance from the Fountain Square. Alternatively you can hop on the expensive taxi available everywhere. Cheaper option is UBER which will cost you is 1/3 of the price of the regular city taxi. (Use the code filipd21 for 2 free rides in Baku, or free ride anywhere in the world!)