A Short Guide to Baku

Updated: Feb 27, 2020


Baku bay at night
The wide arc of Baku Bay by night - TV tower and Flame Towers dominate skylne

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 metro mosaic
Big Brother is watching you - mosaic in the Baku underground

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!

Night view of the new Flame Towers in Baku
Night view of the new Flame Towers in Baku - a celebration of the oil that has brought the city its riches.

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.

Palace of the Shirvanshas, Baku
Palace of the Shirvanshas: a painstakingly-restored 15th century complex

Maiden Tower, Baku
The Maiden Tower - surprisingly squat at only 29m.

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.

Martyr's Lane, Baku
Martyr's Lane, Baku - monument to the a 1990 Uprising against Mother Russia

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