Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is repeatedly dubbed “the next Dubai” – but Icheri Sheher would beg to differ. This old city has managed to preserve its 12th century defensive walls, thereby earning a spot in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Elsewhere, the city hosts a vibrant piazza, a lively jazz scene, artistic institutions aplenty, a handful of architectural gems, and a food scene that draws influences from East and West. Factor in a visa-on-arrival system for all UAE residents, regardless of nationality, and a jaunt to Baku feels like a no-brainer.
By now, many of the major luxury hotel groups have landed in Baku – Fairmont, Four Seasons, and JW Marriott included. But as any savvy traveller 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 visit during your trip. However, bragging rights come in the form of Boutique 19’s proximity to Icheri Sheher – in fact, 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, and 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.
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 kilometres 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 an ice cream stall at virtually every turn.
Nothing wins tourists over more than Icheri Sheher, which holds history, mystery, stories, and secrets within its time-worn 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 pit stops. 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-air museum 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.
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, and history buffs can while away the hours at the massive National History Museum of Azerbaijan. Also keep an eye out on the shows taking place at the various cultural venues around town, starting with the historic Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre.
Incidentally, 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.
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. Walk around to admire the many waves, folds, and curves of this iconic structure – and know that you’re in the presence of greatness.
Art for Art’s Sake
Between 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 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.
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 savoury 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.
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 travellers 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. Russian fare, meanwhile, is best enjoyed at Mari Vanna, where a meal feels more like dining in your (rich) grandmother’s living room rather than a restaurant abroad. As a tourist, however, 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 accents authentic Azeri cuisine with a side of live mugham music, making for a night you won’t soon forget.