Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Will There Be Blood?
Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, the most populous of the three Caucasian capitals with around two million inhabitants, has come a long way since the unlamented collapse of the U.S.S.R, and having come through a period of bitter war with Armenia (over Nagorno Karrabach – which they lost) and power struggle in the 90’s it is now run effectively, if somewhat undemocratically, by the self-appointed Aliyev dynasty – who don’t so much govern Azerbaijan, as own it. It is a bracing, vibrant, and occasionally surreal city in which buildings are mushrooming at an alarming rate – every view of Baku is one of construction, with some of the most audacious and bizarre building projects being undertaken anywhere in the world. Baku’s astonishing reinvention is largely down to two factors – chiefly its huge wealth of oil and gas reserves which at times literally seep through the soil (which it is no longer obliged to cede to Moscow) – and secondly the ambition of its unfortunately authoritarian ruling family.
Baku is not a city for the faint of heart – it is as off the beaten track as you can get, and nothing about travel in Azerbaijan is easy. But to those who are willing to sacrifice some western comfort and come with an open mind, it is a city with some weird and wonderful treasures, which you will probably find you have all to yourself: tourism is a concept only just beginning to take shape here. And if you can ignore the recent placing of Azerbaijan as the world’s 152nd least corrupt country (which means it is the 28th most and actually more corrupt than both the Congo and Zimbabwe and equal with Iraq - which may or may not hinder you as a tourist) – and questionable environmental health - you might just have one up on some of your backpacking mates who have been everywhere…just don’t mention Armenia!
Best of Baku
Since their completion in 2013, the Flame Towers in downtown Baku have become the focal point of the city, and given it a sense of energy and pride. Three innovative and state-of-the-art buildings which are unusually flame-shaped light up the night sky, and a spectacular evening light show takes place every day. The towers dominate the City and they really do look like they are on fire. Walk along the seafront at night and take a photo of the Flame tower reflected in the Caspian Sea. Sadly, there is nothing much inside to see, nor a viewing platform in any of the buildings, which no doubt command superb views of the city. The next best place to get your bearings is the ancient old city, Icharishahar. Just practice a few times before asking directions! Like the kernel of a nut, everything in Baku originates from here, spreading out endlessly east and west along the coast and blurring into the surrounding industrial hinterland. Middle-eastern in flavour, this is a pedestrianised haven in which you can wander unimpeded by the city’s ubiquitous traffic. It contains the two most-visited tourist sights, Maiden Tower and The Palace of the Shirvanshas.
The most instantly recognizable of Baku’s genuine tourist sights, the surprisingly squat and medieval 29m tower overlooks the Caspian from the far end of the old town and affords great views out over the (ahem) glistening, azure waters and surrounding old town – and its rapidly changing environs. From here, you can begin a well-thought out audio-guide tour of the old town, which gives you some nice insights into the history of Baku – the highlight of which is undoubtedly the afore-mentioned Palace of the Shirvanshas, a painstakingly-restored 15th century complex, and the finest surviving piece of Middle Age (Persian) architecture in Azerbaijan. Here, you get a feel for everyday life within the palace walls, from the crypt to the cistern, the hammam and the mosque. For an even better view out over the town, climb up the hill to Martyr’s Alley - an evocative if at times mawkish memento to those who lost their lives in the Red Army’s 1990 quelling of a popular uprising in the city. An eternal flame burns at the end of a long row of engraved tombstones to the martyrs, looking out on the wide sweeping arc of Baku bay.
Mad Max Weirdness
The real joy of Baku is discovering its wacky hinterland; a Mad-Max landscape, stretching east into the Caspian on the Abseron peninsula, it’s a weird mixture of post-industrial waste - populated by nodding donkeys, disused factories and off-shore oil-rigs (the opening desolate scenes of Bond film The World Is Not Enough were shot here – and oddly compelling natural and man-made sights, the like of which you won’t see anywhere else in the world.
Where better to start than Qobustan –home to deeply strange mud volcanoes and a reserve of Stone- and Bronze-Age petroglyphs, some 60km or so south of Baku. Passing possibly the world’s least attractive beach on the way (Shixov), complete with an oil rig you could swim to, the mud volcanoes are located a few miles inland. Nothing short of astonishingly weird, the lunar scenery at the top of an otherwise unremarkable hill is characterized by ‘geological flatulence’, meaning that small volcano-like mounds cover the hilltop, gurgling, oozing, spitting and sometimes erupting thick, grey (cold) mud. The place is completely deserted, and most locals will have no idea what you are asking about if you want directions – just take a cab.
Firing the Imagination
Whilst you are here, check out the petroglyphs nearby – cave engravings from 6000 years ago, when the shores of the Caspian stretched way inland, some 80m higher than now. On the subject of ancient forebears, a visit to the Atshegar Fire Temple is a must; a relic of the ancient fire-worshipping religion Zorastrianism, you are unlikely to see anything like it outside India, where the religion originated. Because of natural gas vents under the ground, the earth here used to breathe fire (the fire here is no longer natural), and a temple was built up by followers from the east. The very interesting adjoining museum includes models of its followers undergoing brutal self-mutilation. Yanar Dag (Fire Mountain), a little further east on the Abseron peninsula, once boasted countless natural gas flames – they were mentioned by Marco Polo in the 13th century – and is particularly vivid at night.
Events and Experiences
For a city which straddles Europe and Asia, and which is home to upwards of two million people, it has to be said that finding musical entertainment in Baku outside of the typical ex-pat, cover-band scene is somewhat tricky. The city does have a reputation as a place with a lively jazz scene however, one place you might want to sample this is Baku Jazz Centre. It was for years Baku’s top jazz club, but reports suggest that recent performances have been sporadic and of variable quality. For traditional Azeri music, you need look no further than one of the many top-end restaurants, for example Mugam Club, in which you will dine to the accompaniment of not only music but dancing too. Others, typically in large suburban gardens, offer top Azeri stars singing at full blast. Many westerners consider this to be more punishment than entertainment however. For a more Middle-eastern experience, customers at some restaurants and several upmarket tea-houses are subjected to belly-dancing of very unreliable quality. Better than most is the show (after 10pm) at the atmospheric, Arabic-themed Karavansaray restaurant. For theatre and classical music buffs, the season runs from mid-September to late May, as in all ex-Soviet countries. It’s worth seeing a performance at Baku’s Opera & Ballet Theatre, if only to admire the grand interior. Also worth a look is the impressive Philharmonia, which was once an oil-boom casino, containing an even grander interior and an eclectic concert programme. For football fans, local club Qarabag Baku have been making minor ripples in the Champion's League, having made it to the group stages of the 2018/19 competition. Visiting their recently-renovated stadium and watching a game amongst their passionate, partisan supporters is a great experience, and very good value – tickets for a concrete terrace seat cost a reasonable €10-25. For Formula One fans, Baku has been a destination since 2016. This year's Baku Grand Prix takes place between 26-28 April. It's an exciting street circuit, taking place in the city centre.
Hitting the Hay
Baku is a city in which cheap, back-packer style accommodation is at an absolute premium. Baku Budget Hostel seems to tick most of the budget traveller's boxes though: central, clean, friendly, cheap and well-equipped. For F1 fans, all rooms with a balcony boast a view of the racing track, recently added to the Grand Prix Circuit. (See above). Another budget option is the Old Yard Hotel. Central, close to the railway station and with Caspian Sea views, popular with backpackers waiting for a ferry across the Caspian and Iranian petty traders, the Old Yard has neat singles and doubles, and a passable adjoining restaurant. Don’t expect much atmosphere or service for your €40 a night though. In the ‘mid-range’, the Sultan Inn is an 11-room boutique place with great views over Maiden’s Tower and is tastefully done out with friendly service. You’ll pay for it though – doubles come in at an eye-watering €150 a night. For those with money to burn, there is the Radisson, The Hilton and The Hyatt. All offer the high standards you would expect when you are paying €200-500 a night.
The one thing that Baku indubitably offers tourists is a very reasonable selection of restaurants, many of which serve very decent food at affordable prices. Dining out (as elsewhere in the Caucasus) is a family-and-friends affair though, so lone diners may sometimes feel uncomfortable. Russian, Georgian, Turkish and Persian influences suffuse the cuisine. Firuze is an outstanding choice for anyone wanting to sample traditional Azeri food in pleasant rustic surrounds. The menu is bewildering; there are some great dishes on offer such as dolma (stuffed vine leaves), qovurma – lamb fried in butter with apricots and chestnuts, and fesanjan – chicken or lamb with pomegranates and walnuts. Araz Kafesi is also good and with a similar type of menu, though slightly less atmosphere. To sample really traditional 14th-century dining, try the afore-mentioned Karvansarai Restaurant, where you can eat open-air in the courtyard of an old hostelry, or in one of its atmospheric stone dining cells. Prices aren’t too steep, but take care with your orders – you will be offered, and brought, too much food, and you pay for every single item, including bread. For Italian food, Dolce Vita is hard to beat – good food at modest prices in a nice trattoria style, atmospheric and traditional diner. For Persian cuisine, Bibi is fantastic. The best plov (fried rice and lamb with dried fruit) in town is sold here, and its sturgeon is pretty good too. For street food, you will never be more than a block away from a Turkish kebab shop – a doner kebab and chips with coke should set you back about €3.
Despite it being Muslim, Azerbaijan’s attitude to alcohol is ambivalent. Baku’s bar scene is somewhat geared to the oil-rig working ex-pat community, and as such, is a haven for lovers of Irish and English style bars with overpriced drinks, Sky Sports, pool tables and curry nights. If you can’t resist such temptations, Shakespeare’s and Finnegan’s seem to be the most popular choices. If on the other hand your tastes are a bit more eclectic, try Brewery – Baku’s oldest brew-pub with wooden furniture and a German feel – you can even sample German sausage here. Soviet Union Bar is a throwback to Communist times, with plenty of memorabilia hanging on the walls and a welcoming vibe. Clubbing is a hit and miss affair in Baku (mainly miss) but Oxen is usually busy and friendly - anything but a cattle market though. For coffee-lovers, Baku is a challenge – it being a tea-drinking nation – but Old School is a nice café with a simple menu serving tea, coffee and some basic snacks. Also serves alcohol at affordable prices. You can also pay a small fee to rent board games and chess. Le Caramel Patisserie and Cafe, which has great cappuccinos and gives out nice street views – perfect for people-watching. For a true Azeri experience, visit a ‘chaixana’ – teahouse – where you can while away your time amongst men playing cards, backgammon and dominoes – they are all over the backstreets of the city. Women might feel uncomfortable, and may not even be allowed entrance.
Baku is, to say the least, not easy to get to, and for most people it requires a visa. Depending on where you are from, this may be either a simple or infuriating experience. For most European citizens, the simplest option is to fly in to Baku airport and buy a visa on arrival. (UK and most EU citizens pay around €100). Overland options are limited – the land border with Armenia being closed, and the one with Russia (Dagestan) being closed to foreigners. There are three land borders with Georgia, and there is a reasonably cheap and comfortable overnight train to Tbilisi. For those with more time than money, heading east to Turkmenistan over the Caspian is an option but be prepared for long waits – there is no reliable ferry timetable, since the ships plying the route are cargo vessels, not passenger ones. Some backpackers have been known to be stuck in Baku for days waiting for their ride to leave. If you do persevere with this tortuous route, expect a 36-48 hour trip to cost around €50, which will also get you a bed in a bunk. The phone number of the sea terminal (Daniz Vagzal) is 994 12 447 7314. Be very careful with your visa expiry dates if you intend to stay for a month – border police can and will cause problems if you are leaving on or near the date of expiry. Don’t even think of being late - you could be subject to extremely punitive fines (see below).
Information on Baku is, as usual for the Caucasus, pretty hard to come by and of questionable reliability - and there's precious little at all in English. All government sites will be rabidly anti-Armenian; www.azer.com is probably the best online resource, with an extremely comprehensive archive of cultural articles and resources. There's a Wikitravel link to Baku also, although it may be a bit dated, https://wikitravel.org/en/A_weekend_in_Baku. Wikivoyage is a bit more in-depth: https://en.wikivoyage.org/wiki/Baku. A good blog on Baku is Wanderlust: https://www.wanderlust.co.uk/guides/azerbaijanAfter. After that, it's the usual suspects; Lonely Planet’s guide to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbiajan is the default guide for most backpackers, and it’s the best guide to the region as a whole, but Mark Elliot’s guide Azerbaijan With Excursions is far more comprehensive on this country – if a little too obsessive. Most expats refer to it before expressing an opinion on anything Azeri-related.
Kurban Said’s Ali and Nino is a must read – a love story written in the 1920’s which gives a great introduction to the whole region. Lutz Kleveman’s New Great Game is a great book for anyone interested in the politics surrounding the struggle to control one of the world’s great oil reserves and covers the whole Central Asian – an area known as the ‘black hole of earth’ for much of the last century. Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Imperium also covers the region with typically witty and thoughtful insights.
Words of Warning
With flashy hotels and restaurants, expensive cafes and bars, there is no easy way to do Baku on the cheap. It's a city only for those travellers who are absolutely determined to visit places off the beaten track, list-tickers and those in search of the weird and wacky. It's extreme travel in many ways. If you do decide to go, check the political situation first here: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/azerbaijan and be very aware that this is a country which does not tolerate political dissent of any kind. It is wise to avoid the subject of politics completely in your time in Baku, and stick to safe topics with locals - undercover police are everywhere here.
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Follow this link for more information on the F1 Grand Prix in Baku (and much other useful info besides)