Introduction and Food for Thought
The Lonely Planet guide to Baku put it the best, “Azerbaijan’s capital Baku (or Bakı in Azeri) is the architectural love child of Paris and Dubai…albeit with plenty of Soviet genes floating half-hidden in the background.” The secular Sunni Islamic country has seen Medieval times with the Shirvanshah dynasty (an independent Azerbaijan empire) and some of the Persian and Ottoman Empires, it saw an oil boom in the 18-19th centuries, it became an independent republic for 2 short years (1918-1920), then fell under Soviet rule until 1990 before gaining independence under an authoritarian regime and entered its 2nd oil boom. You will encounter architecture and cultural elements from all these eras. And because of the oil money, Azerbaijan was not as cheap as I had imagined but certainly still an affordable country to visit.
Would I recommend it? Yes. Great food, super clean and easy to get around, very friendly and welcoming people, and a fascinating history. It is probably the closest and easiest way most people in the world will get to experiencing real Persian culture and traditions as Iran is a wee bit difficult to get to for us American citizens.
Azerbaijan borders the Caspian Sea and shares borders with Armenia (contentiously), Georgia, Russia and Iran; it is also part of the nations that are bound by the Caucasus Mountains. It is also the largest capital city that is below sea level. Gradually the Azerbaijani government is making it easier to travel to Azerbaijan after receiving backlash when Baku hosted Eurovision for the high price, difficulty of travel and challenging visa process. Most countries can now obtain an e-visa, if you are a U.S. Citizen flying on Azerbaijan Airlines on their nonstop JFK-Baku flight you are eligible for visa-on-arrival. Few foreign flag airlines fly into Baku, the most convenient ones to connect to from anywhere in the world is Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa.
When I told people I planned to venture far out to Baku, Azerbaijan for my labor day vacation most people immediately had confused looks and asked where is that/ said “I dont even know where that is.” This is quite accurate, most people, whether it be in the West or even in mainstream East (ie: China/ Taiwan/ Japan….etc.) have not really heard of Azerbaijan let alone its capital city, Baku. In fact, I find most people in the world forget Central Asia/ Euroasia even exists. Most people know there are countries than end in -stan and the Middle East area. But literally people seem to draw a blank on the geographic area between Turkey/ Russia and Iran/ Afghanistan/India/Pakistan.
As such, the appeal of going to Baku only increased for me. The mystery, the intrigue, and lack of mainstream tourists. But then in my research and in talking to more people I learned a bit more of the region and the multiple authoritarian regimes governing most of the Central Asian nations. I thus arrived in Baku thinking 24 hours would be enough and that once I saw it and experienced it for one day, that would be enough, I would have on desire to return to Azerbaijan. I was mistaken. I enjoyed my time in Baku, in part because I lucked out with my Viator tour booking and got an excellent guide and it ended up being just me on his tour so we had very good candid conversations. In another part it was because in many aspects Baku is very similar to Istanbul (probably my favorite city in the world), even though Azerbaijan is culturally more similar to Iran, both are Sunni Muslim.
Apologies in advance for the following stream of consciousness but I feel it is important to put in my posts some often recurring thoughts I have when traveling to lesser known nations that people tend to fear or worry about. NOTE: I am in no way defending the oppressive things and lack of freedom of speech that has occurred in this country but I am also just pointing out that sometimes we should not let what we read/see online or in the news and the politics of the world deter us from traveling and getting to know the real underlying people and cultures of these nations. In the end I continue to discover that the saying “same same but different” is seen in every country I visit, we are more alike than different, even if its hard to admit or see. Most of the Central Asian countries fall near the bottom of Human Right index listings, but after the trip I wondered, who exactly has the “right” to set human right standards, is that based on Western values and principals? Do we ever consider local culture, is there a way to maintain traditions and values whilst giving rights and freedoms to minorities, disabled, women, journalists, LGBTQ community…etc.? I have no answer, because as far as I can tell few if any countries have successfully done any of that, even the powerful ones that like to dictate to other nations what they should be doing, when their own country is falling apart. BUT, I will say that after visiting and talking candidly and openly with my exceptional guide, I came to learn that with many countries, under what is reported about it, the truth is usually quite different. My guide said is there a pressing need for improvement and change? Absolutely. But he added, are some nations held at double standards? Absolutely. People would avoid traveling to Azerbaijan after reading about some of the oppression, but then people have no problem flocking to nations like China, Russia, Brazil, the UAE….etc., and in part it is because of the overall image and understanding people have of these places. And let us be honest with ourselves, the United States, as great as it is, is far from perfect and far from being the safest (Baku is definitely safer). As to things like LGBTQ issues and rights, my guide said this will take time as Azerbaijan has only since the 90s opened up to the world following the collapse of the Soviet union, it will take time and education, and as younger people come into society it will get better, or so he hopes. In regards to women’s rights, he said culturally Azerbaijani people highly respect women in society and have no problem with women in power or control, as a secular Islamic state, the women I saw all dressed very freely and yes shoulder/ elbows/ knees were all exposed in the heat of the summer. He also said, it may be secular, but there are times when folks will use Islam to defend their choices when it is convenient to do so, otherwise most of the time society is not bound by Islam, in fact you do not hear call to prayer at all in Baku, and people drink and smoke and eat whatever they like. Quite different to the culturally similar neighbor of Iran.
So in the end, what gives?
Getting There and Around
Baku is not that easy to get to. Major airlines that fly here other than national carrier Azerbaijan Airlines (with a nonstop flight to New York JFK) are Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, China Southern, Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa and Aeroflot. Not all are daily and certainly given the timezone the hours of arrival and departure are often in the middle of the night. I flew in with Turkish via Istanbul as they have daily high frequency flights relative to the other guys. Baku immigration and customs was super fast and easy as long as you have your e-visa printed and ready to go. The airport, Terminal 1 used by most carriers is modern, new and clean. You have a only a handful of options to get into town. Taxi, hired car, or take the bus to Baku Central Stations which then requires subway or taxi to most accommodations. If like me you arrive and depart in the window between 11pm and 6am, Id recommend just taking a cab or arranging for a transfer through hotel or tour company. My transfer arranged by tour company was USD$25 for the 20 minute no-traffic ride, which is about what the cabs would charge too. I got a luck free transfer to the airport with a promotion my hotel was running.
Baku is easy to get around. Old Town Baku and the Highland Park/ Flame Towers as well as the Boulevard along the bay is all walkable. Places like the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center require a cab or subway ride. The metro is not extensive but it is very cheap around USD$0.50 per ride. Sites further out would require a long taxi or arrangement through tour company. Viator has a wide range of tours and companies available to book with and all at reasonable prices. All stations sell a transport card that is refillable that you need to ride metro or buses. Further, there is no uber but there is a local rideshare app, Bolt. NOTE: the busier main roads of Baku dont have crosswalks, instead there are underground passageways to be used to cross the streets/ major intersections, this was designed to prevent deaths.
Restaurants and main sites and areas have folks who can speak English, though it is not prevalent and you may find it challenging at say a subway stop (all signs have English though).
Accommodation and Money
ATMs are available accept foreign debit cards. Most places take cards, HOWEVER, a lot of places have trouble reading foreign credit cards so it is advisable to have enough cash on you. I would say between meals (between 20-40 Manat), sightseeing (around 15 Manat per site) and maybe a hammam experience (around 45 manat for the full experience), you would want to have at least 100AZB Manat (USD$60) if not more on hand. Tipping is not required at restaurants, although a small 10% is a nice gesture, it is expected at the Hammams though.
There is a wide range of accommodations in Baku. A handful of international chains (Hilton, Marriott, Fairmont) and luxury hotels, the highest end one being the Four Seasons. And then hostels and bed and breakfasts as well as many smaller boutique hotels in and around old-town. I opted to stay at the Citrus Boutique hotel (USD$50-$100/night), located just off old town walls. It is a newly rennovated hotel inside a historic residential complex. It is modern, clean, comfortable with well-appointed amenities and great staff, note there is no breakfast included but who cares when you have access to incredible Azerbaijani breakfast all around! And avoid room #8 when booking as it is where I stayed and is adjacent to a nightclub so you walls will be a shaking and youll be listening to heavy base all night. Further the hotel requires a cash deposit of 100 manat or your passport for a security deposit.
- 1AM Sunday September 1: I arrived in Baku and had arranged for a car pickup through the tour company I had booked a day tour with. He met me at arrivals, was a bit confusing to find him at first as he didnt have a sign but rather through the tour guide we had each other’s photos on whatsapp! Nonetheless we found each other and proceeded for my transfer to Citrus Hotel
- On the way we passed through new downtown which honestly felt like a replica of Dubai. Multi-lane roads without many cars and towering curvy modern skyscrapers next to neo-European apartment complexes. Soon the landscape changed and it was more classical European architecture with a few Soviet era block buildings and before I knew it I was in old-town with medieval Arabic/Persian architecture. We also passed by many bars and nightclubs, Baku ranks amongst the world’s top destinations for clubbing and my guide said they exist for folks from neighboring Islamic states to come party and let loose since they cannot at home.
- 2AM: Arrived and checked-in. Tried to sleep but it was difficult with the loud clubbing music next door, the street noise from the popular streets below didnt bother me though.
- 8:30AM I woke up around and headed out for some breakfast and walk. My tour guide who had responded to me on whatsapp immediately after I booked, tailored my tour start time to later given my late arrival and that I was the only person on the tour that day. Very nice of him.
- 9:15AM: after a short 5 minute walk, I was within the walls of Old Town and at Sehrli Tendir restaurant. This place is known for their fresh baked Azerbaijani tandoor bread, thick airy yet doughy, crunchy on the outside chewy on the inside “magic bread.” Azerbaijani breakfast, much like Iranian and Turkish breakfast is a feast. You start by choosing from a tray presented to you full of condiments. Various cheeses, clotted cream, house made butter, olives, tomato, honey and a local Caspian Sea delicacy, Caviar (did not have time or opportunity to try in Baku, will save it for next time). I went for homemmade butter, local cheese, honey and butter and of course Cay (tea). The giant piece of tandoor bread also arrived shortly after. Then you order your main, mainly a egg dish. Traditionally it is a variation of Kuku (herb and vegetable omelette) but what caught my eye was Narnumru, scrambled egg of onion, walnut and pomegranate. It was all sublime.
- After breakfast I walked around a bit and passed by the home of The Barefoot Artist, a famous local artist with a beautifully painted and decorated house and studio full of pomegranate and women subject paintings, the man himself is eccentric but full of stories and insights from what I gather.
- From there I walked along the old town walls until I reached Aga Mikayil Hamam, one of the oldest Hamams in Baku. Google maps said it opened at 11AM, my guide wasnt sure exactly time of operation either, so I checked it out and sure enough it was already open at around 10:30. It was 45 manat($USD27) for a full service hammam experience which includes: sauna, ice bath, massage, soap scrub, and relaxation. Recommended to bring your own towel and cash, I tried paying with card given that I only had 39 manat on me but all my cards got rejected, the owners were super friendly and said it was fine and welcomed me in and walked me through every step with their limited English, thankfully I remembered most of Hammam etiquette from my time in Turkey. Key things to remember, usually 5 days out of the week it is for men only, the other two women only. You are naked but not stark naked as you wrap a cloth around your waist area. The massage is painful as it is deep tissue but also with a body scrub to rid the dead skin off your body. But it is over all a very relaxing experience and yes it is very clean.
- 11:30AM: I finished the entire process in an hour and unfortunately couldnt stay to relax and drink tea in the main hall as I had to rush back to meet my guide at 11:50AM.
- 11:50AM: met my guide outside my hotel and we proceeded for a packed day of walking, touring, eating and good conversation.
- First stop was walking into the Barefoot Artist’s Studio. All his works are for sale and he welcome everyone inside and you can have conversations with him!
- Next we tried to go to the world’s only Miniature Books Museum, and world’s smallest Quran is housed here, but had been closed for multiple days apparently without reason.
- Next to the books museum is one of the main sites of Old-Town the Palace of Shirvanshah, you can purchase a ticket to enter, but apparently there is not much to see inside as you can get a glimpse and admire most of the structures from the entryway/ courtyard. The Shirvanshah dynasty ruled Azerbaijan before Persia and were quite powerful and wealthy in their day. From the entryway there is a great view of Baku and you can see the Medieval architecture, the European architecture from the first oil boom in 1800s, the Soviet Russian architecture from that era and finally the modern architecture from the 2nd oil boom. Shirvanshah palace was preserved and respected during all eras of Azerbaijan and by all occupants.
- From there we walked downhill and through local non-tourist streets of old-town, some area gave a glimpse of the glistening Caspian sea with a few cypress trees lining the streets. Many buildings in old-town are being bought by the government or developers to refurbish and turn into boutique hotels or restaurants. You can also see wealthier families who have been able to afford to restore deteriorating walls, and as such on a single wall see elements of true historic walls and modern restored ones.
- Next was the stunning on the inside but unassuming on the outside Cuma Mosque, the largest in Old Town.
- Down the street from here is Maiden Tower, the Caspian sea used to come all the way up to the tower base, the top of the tower is at Sea Level. As such this was used as the prime defense of Baku in medieval times. Fun fact is that while restoring the tower, they came across a colony of bird’s nests inside the wall and had to relocated these nests to an apartment building across the street, as such you’ll see a bird pattern artwork on the wall of said building and they are actually bird’s nests! Its 15 manat to enter the tower, worth it for the views and if you have time there are displays and exhibits on each level.
- 2:30PM: it was time for lunch, my guide took me to Dolma, near Fountain Square just off the walls of Old Town. I will let the photos tell you what we ordered. The restaurant, like many other traditional Azerbaijani restaurants in town is in the basement and is decorated in Traditional carpets/ rugs and patterns.
- After lunch, we walked along a street full of Neo-Classical European architecture built during the first oil boom when new found wealth brought Azerbaijanis to Europe, and they brought back with them the inspiring art, architecture and culture in 18th and 19th century industrialist Europe.
- We soon arrived at the Boulevard, Baku’s seaside promenade and also more the modern/ 2nd oil boom style of architecture. We walked through Mini-Venice, a shopping and dining complex with a series of canals and yes gondola rides. At the end of Mini Venice is the National Carpet Museum. The museum is housed in a modern building designed to look like a folding carpet. It is worth checking out, my guide organized for a museum guide to take me around, I dont think this is that necessary as most displays have English signage and many of them are interactive. I did get lucky and got to see a local carpet weaving master get to work on a small carpet, it was quite amazing to watch.
- 5PM We then took an underground passageway to the other side to catch the modernized soviet Funicular up to Highland Park. The tickets are around 1 or 2 manat I believe, but it is around 15-20minutes between each funicular. We missed the first one and given our short time, my guide offered to just walk up the steps, I was fine with that. At the top of the park, you get a beautiful panorama of Baku and the Flame Tower (which is right next to the park). Next to the park is also the eternal flame of Azerbaijan Martyrs alley and a monument commemorating Turkish assistance in Azerbaijani resistance. Across the ways is the architecturally beautiful Flame Towers, three towers designed to look like flames given Azerbaijan’s natural gas deposits that often burn eternally from the ground. Currently only one tower is occupied by the Fairmont Hotel, one is meant to be office and the other residential, but apparently it is not built on solid foundation and is actually sinking/ tilting. Oh and the towers put on a light show nightly at a rumored cost of USD$9000/night.
- 6PM: this was supposed to be the end of our tour but earlier I had asked my exceptional guide if it was possible for me to see the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center and that I could totally do it myself and take the Soviet era subway system as well. Instead of just pointing me the way, my guide decided to just take me to both the center and on a subway ride. He ordered a bolt and in 15 minutes we arrived at the stunning and mesmerising Zaha Hadid structure of Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, a mix use museum, theater and convention center. Estimated to have cost USD$250 Million, it is the most expensive building in Azerbaijan and at the time one of the most expensive in greater Europe. But it really is so stunning. The building closes at 6PM so we had just missed it, but it is still so worth taking the time to come here just to check out the exterior and walk around the structure. It was also great to be here at sunset as the setting sun’s lights gave the whole structure a golden glow and you kind of can pick up on the design nuances. We then took another bold to a subway station and took the main red line back to old town where I parted ways with my wonderful guide.
- 7:30PM: right around sunset I walked around old town for a bit and grabbed some fresh squeezed pomegranate juice before heading to Nergiz Restaurant in Fountain Square for some dinner. Here I got to check off a couple other traditional Azerbaijani/ Persian dishes such as Pilaf, local crispy saffron rice accompanied by a stew of your choice, and kebab.
- After dinner I made one more walk through old town to take in the mystical night vibes of the city and to also watch the pretty impressive light show on the Flame Towers.
- 10PM: Back to Citrus Boutique for a quick sleep.
- 2:30AM: Pickup to airport for a 4AM flight to Frankfurt on Lufthansa.
There are a few key sites outside of Baku proper, such as Gobustan, that many say is well worth the half day trip to visit. Next time!
I hope this will help shed some light into the relatively unknown country and city of Baku, Azerbaijan and help you should you choose to go explore it.