Confession: considering Lonely Planet dubbed Baku the “architectural love child of Paris and Dubai”, we weren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of visiting. Why leave Dubai for Dubai, the sequel? Especially when everyone and their mother seems to be in Baku come public holidays? But when Azerbaijan Tourism Board flew Savoir Flair over, we took back our words, returning to gush over the fact that Baku – a.k.a. the pearl of the Caucasus – is so much more than “the next Dubai”. Here’s why.
By now, many of the major luxury hotel groups have landed in Baku – Fairmont, Four Seasons, and JW Marriott included. But we’re slightly biased towards boutique hotels, preferring to stay at properties that have an entirely distinct personality of their own.
In Baku, our vote goes to Dinamo Hotel for its Constructivist-style architecture and brightly hued rooms. But as any savvy traveler can testify, the location of a hotel trumps all else. Enter: Boutique 19 Hotel, which sits perfectly in the middle of Fountains Square and Baku Boulevard, both of which deserve a spot on your Baku bucket list. However, bragging rights come in the form of Boutique 19’s proximity to Icheri Sheher (Inner City), which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000 – part of its fortress wall is actually located inside the hotel!
Baku may be one of the world’s fastest growing tourist destinations, but never does it feel too chaotic or overcrowded. Unlike your trips to the likes of London, New York, Bangkok, you’ll actually find the time to pause and people-watch in the tree-lined Fountains Square. Here await – you guessed it – fountains of various designs alongside street food, bronze sculptures, and carousels that look like they belong in a whole other era.
The piazza transitions seamlessly into the lively Nizami Street. Stroll down this pedestrian avenue to feel the city’s pulse as it’s rife with restaurants, cafés, souvenir shops, and high street stores. And adding to its appeal is the sheer diversity of historic architectural styles – Baroque, Renaissance, and Neo-Gothic included. Prefer to explore with a (free) tour guide in tow? Book here.
Another wonderful area in which to take a stroll – and get a whiff of the Caspian Sea – is Baku Boulevard. Not only is this seaside venue especially family-friendly owing to attractions such as Tusi-Bohm Planetarium, Baku Eye ferris wheel, and Little Venice (complete with gondola rides), but at 25 kilometers in length, it’s also one of the longest promenades on the planet. Luckily, there’s plenty of opportunities to get heckled by the many playful men who sell dondurma – there’s practically an ice cream stall at every turn.
Nothing wins tourists over more than Icheri Sheher, which holds history, mystery, stories, and secrets within its 12th century walls. You’ll undoubtedly get lost within its maze of cobblestone streets, but that’s part of the fun – just be sure to make a mental checklist of some unmissable pitstops. Both Palace of the Shirvanshahs and Maiden Tower are listed in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. The former is the crown jewel of the inner city as it’s made up of several different structures built throughout the ages, with each adding to the mash-up of medieval, Asian, and Islamic influences. The latter, meanwhile, is a symbol of Baku.
Historians don’t agree on when this cylindrical stone tower was built, how it was built, or why it was built, but everyone agrees that it is the stuff of legends – literally. Of the many folklores that surround it, the one you’ll likely hear is that it’s named after a princess who took her own life by jumping off the top of the tower to escape from a marriage of strategic convenience. Culture buffs, take note: the Museum of Miniature Books and studio of famous (and famously barefoot) artist Ali Shamsi also come highly recommended.
We recommend setting a whole day aside for this open-museum of sorts as amongst the domed bathhouses, sandstone caravanserais, and storied mosques are plenty of opportunities to pick up quality (read: authentic) souvenirs such as traditional copperware, handwoven carpets, intricately painted ceramics, and armudu teacups alongside unexpected vintage finds – Soviet-era shot glasses, anyone? Social project ABAD gets a special mention for housing handicrafts from all over Azerbaijan under one roof, encouraging small-scale entrepreneurship and supporting the formation of family businesses.
You’ll be famished with all this on the itinerary, so mark where you should fuel up: Sehrli Təndir for a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs with tomatoes (or pomidor-yumurta) and bread so good it should be illegal, the wonderfully whimsical Mayak 13 for lunch with a side of modern art, and Çay Bağı 145 for tea, shisha, and breathtaking views of the old city. Do as the locals do and sweeten yours with jam – put a spoonful in your mouth, sip the tea through the jam, and you’re set.
In complete contrast to the old city – and speaking volumes of Azerbaijan’s oil boom in the late 19th century – are Baku’s over the top architectural marvels. There are two in particular that are worthy of a closer look: the flamboyant Flame Towers and the beautifully fluid Heydar Aliyev Center.
We suggest viewing the Flame Towers from the commanding Bahram Gur Statue before taking the Baku Funicular up to Martyrs’ Lane for panoramic views and countless photo ops. Come night, this trio of flame-shaped skyscrapers comes alive, its flickering lights symbolizing Zoroastrianism’s origins in Azerbaijan. Further afield, Heydar Aliyev Center is a true architectural feat by the legendary Zaha Hadid and eye candy from virtually every angle. Walk around to admire the many waves, folds, and curves of this iconic structure – and know that you’re in the presence of greatness.
Baku’s blend of East and West, old and new, has resulted in a culture scene that has something for everyone. Bibliophiles should make a beeline for the extravagant Nizami Museum of Azerbaijani Literature, history buffs can while away the hours at the massive National History Museum of Azerbaijan, and a slice of the country’s carpet-making heritage can be experienced at Azerbaijan Carpet Museum. Also keep an eye out on the shows taking place at the various cultural venues around town, starting with Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater and Baku Marionette Theater.
The city has a longstanding (and complicated) relationship with jazz – authorities in the Soviet Union banned it after World War II, forcing musicians to move or perform in secrecy. The result? Baku became a regional hub for this genre of music. Today, live jazz can be enjoyed at various places around town, but Baku Jazz Club is the one to beat.
Art for Art's Sake
Between the Center of Contemporary Art, Azerbaijan National Museum of Art, and Yarat Contemporary Art Space, aesthetes will be spoilt for choice – the city’s thriving art scene certainly came as a surprise to us. But if you can make time for only one, opt for Baku Museum of Modern Art, where open passages help provide a multidimensional perspective of the over 800 exhibits. Contemporary art by leading Azerbaijani artists aside – which greets you before you’ve even entered the building – masterworks by Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and Marc Chagall are also on display.
It’s not just Baku’s architecture that reflects the diversity of its past; the culinary culture of Azerbaijan, which sits at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia and borrows from the travelers who passed along the Great Silk Road, is just as rich. Influences from Turkey, Iran, Russia, and Georgia are evident in Azeri dishes – think: pilafs embellished with nuts and dried fruits, fall-off-the-bone meats, sumac-infused salads, creamy cheeses, and pomegranate molasses adding a hint of zing to fresh fish from the Caspian Sea.
Both Sumakh and Nakhchivan are popular with the locals for their upscale ambience, but as a tourist, you ought to dine at Şirvanşah – especially if you’re pressed for time. Not only is this museum-meets-restaurant housed in a two-story building that once served as a caravanserai, but it also serves authentic Azeri cuisine to a backdrop of live mugham music, making for a night you won’t soon forget. Russian fare, meanwhile, is best enjoyed at Mari Vanna, where a meal feels more like dining in your (rich) grandmother’s living room than a restaurant abroad.
If you’re lucky enough to make it to the Baku Museum of Modern Art, there are two great stores just minutes away on foot: Port Baku Bazar and Chelebi. The former is a gourmet food market where you can sample and stock up on endless varieties of the sinfully delicious pastry, pakhlava. But that’s not all. Locally produced jams and honey, black caviar produced from classic Caspian sturgeon by Baku Caviar, all manner of sweet and savory breads, and high-end confectionery by Xurcun are also on sale at Port Baku Bazar. Next door, Chelebi sells vibrantly hued cushions, coasters, wall art, figurines, and other decorative home accessories – all making for great gifts.
If the urge to splurge strikes – the currency exchange is in your favor, after all – head to the Menzer Hajiyeva showroom near Fountains Square to pick up a handmade kelagayi scarf. This type of scarf is made by dipping stamps (with patterns carved out of wood) into hot wax and imprinting white silk, which is then dyed. It’s an incredibly labor-intensive process, so if you’re seeking a truly artisanal souvenir, this is it. Call ahead as timings vary daily.
Off the Record
No trip is complete without discovering a hidden gem and, in Baku, we relished stumbling upon an offbeat hangout by the name of Old School. Chock full of vintage clocks, cameras, typewriters, record players, rotary phones, and other tchotchkes from the Soviet Union era – hence the name – it’s a local watering hole in the literal sense of the word. Young and artsy types linger here over chess and tea, although the occasional set of live music only adds to its hipster vibe. A tip: download the Bolt app to reach the café with ease.
One Fine Day
And if all that wasn’t enough, Mother Nature gifted Azerbaijan with natural beauty in spades – picturesque lakes, majestic mountains, and sprawling national parks all play a role in the country’s beloved landscapes. But you don’t actually have to travel far to visit some rather unorthodox natural wonders, making Baku ideal for a long weekend.
We did the legwork to discover four stops comprising the ideal day trip: Yanar Dağ (a continuously burning fire along the edge of a hill that is shrouded in mystery), Ateshgar (a 17th century fire-worshipping temple that has served as a shrine for Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Sikhs), Gobustan Preserve (home to over 6,000 ancient petroglyphs, some of which date back 40,000 years), and the mud volcanoes of Gobustan.
Fun fact: roughly 350 out of the world’s 800 mud volcanoes are located in the barren region of Gobustan, with one of them even making it into the Guinness World Records – it’s a whole kilometer in length across the base and several hundred meters in height. But not all of them are quite so dramatic. Most volcanos just sort of make gurgling sounds (and a mess if you get too close), occasionally spitting and bubbling up gray volcanic mud that is surprisingly cold in temperature. You may be offered a choice between heading there in an off-road vehicle or a rickety old Lada – go for the Lada. Every time.
FlyDubai flies daily to Baku, and all UAE residents are eligible for a visa on arrival in Azerbaijan. Book here.