Why Baku Is a Lot More Than “The Next Dubai”
With its medieval walled Old City, melting pot cuisine and vibrant jazz clubs, adventurous travelers should put the capital of Azerbaijan on their must-visit list
Azerbaijan’s capital Baku is often referred to as “The Next Dubai.” And whether that’s due to its recent tourism boom, wealth of black gold, or penchant for showy architecture, I beg to differ. In fact, as a longtime resident of Dubai — where historical sites are scarce, and pockets of culture hide amongst high-rises and megamalls — I find the comparison downright reductive. For starters, Baku’s Old City has managed to preserve its 12th century defensive walls, which earned it a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Elsewhere, the city hosts a thriving jazz scene, artistic institutions aplenty and an eclectic food scene shaped by its location in the Caucasus. Truth be told, a trip to Baku is a no-brainer for any adventurous traveler.
Never too chaotic or overcrowded, Fountains Square is to begin an exploration of the city, and a perfect place to stop and people watch. Here there are — you guessed it — fountains of varying designs as well as designer boutiques, trendy nightclubs, street food vendors and old-timey carousels along tree-lined avenues. The piazza transitions seamlessly into the lively Nizami Street. Stroll down this pedestrian avenue to feel the city’s pulse and take in the diverse array 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 area family-friendly thanks 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. There are also plenty of opportunities to try frozen treat dondurma at one of the ice cream stalls at virtually every turn. But no neighborhood wins tourists over more than Icherisheher, which holds history, mystery, stories, secrets and even relics from the Soviet days within its time-worn walls. You’ll undoubtedly get lost within the maze of the Old City’s cobblestone streets, but that’s part of the fun.
Among the unmissable pit stops are Palace of the Shirvanshahs and Maiden Tower. The former is the crown jewel of the inner city as it’s made up of several different structures built throughout the ages, each adding to the mash-up of medieval, Asian and Islamic influences. The latter has come to symbolize old Baku. Historians don’t agree on when, why, or how this cylindrical stone tower was built, but legend dictates that it’s named after a princess who jumped off the top to escape a marriage of convenience. Try to set aside a whole day for Icherisheher as amongst its domed bathhouses, sandstone caravanserais and storied mosques are plenty of opportunities to purchase quality (read: authentic) souvenirs such as armudu teacups alongside unexpected finds like military service medals.
In complete contrast to the old city — and speaking volumes of the country’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 absurdly fluid Heydar Aliyev Center. View 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 late 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 and culture flourished at the turn of the last century, courtesy of the theaters and opera houses funded by oil magnates, some of which are still standing today. Case in point: the Akhundov Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater. 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.
For the uninitiated, the city has a longstanding (and complicated) relationship with jazz — Soviet Union authorities 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, it can be enjoyed at various places around town, but Baku Jazz Club is the one to beat. The 17th edition of the annual Baku Jazz Festival will kick off on September 23, taking over the city for seven glorious days of live performances.
Art for Art’s Sake
Between the Center of Contemporary Art, Azerbaijan National Museum of Art, and Yarat Contemporary Art Space, the city’s art scene tends to come as a surprise to many. 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 commands attention 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 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, sumac-infused salads, fall-off-the-bone meats and fresh fish drizzled with tart pomegranate molasses.
Unsurprisingly, a handful of essential dining experiences await in Icherisheher: Sehrli Təndir for a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs with tomatoes and traditional bread, Mayak 13 for lunch with a side of whimsical art, and Çay Bağı 145 for tea and shisha in an atmospheric setting. 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.
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. Accenting Azeri cuisine with live mugham music, this museum-meets-restaurant is housed in a two-story building that was once a caravanserai. Russian fare, meanwhile, is best enjoyed at Mari Vanna, where a meal feels more like dining in your (wealthy) grandmother’s living room than a restaurant abroad.
Off the Record
No trip is complete without discovering a hidden gem and, in Baku, a local watering hole by the name of Old School comes highly recommended. Here, young, hipster types linger over chess and beer surrounded by vintage typewriters, record players, rotary phones, and other tchotchkes from the Soviet Union era — hence the name. A tip: download the Bolt app to reach this haunt with ease.
One Fine Day
Interestingly, you don’t have to travel far from Baku to visit some of Azerbaijan’s most unusual natural wonders. The ideal day trip comprises four stops: 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 Zoroastrians and Hindus alike), 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 and several hundred meters in height. But not all of them are quite so dramatic. Most just sort of sit there and gurgle, spitting up cold volcanic mud occasionally. You’ll be offered a choice between heading there in an off-road vehicle or a rickety old Lada. Go for the Lada and the bumpy ride that’s guaranteed — there’s no better way to explore the eccentricities of Azerbaijan.
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