Baku: Cosmopolitan, Gritty, and One of a Kind
Ten Places that Define Baku, Azerbaijan
By Adam Bush
On the arid Absheron peninsula jutting into the Caspian Sea sits a city of profound intrigue many declare “the next Dubai.” Baku’s geological wonders, captivating history, architectural masterpieces, and unique culinary scene provides visitors with an unexpected experience.
Explore the meandering cobblestone streets of Baku’s mesmerizing Old Town, or enjoy world-class shopping and dining in its decadent cosmopolitan avenues rivaling those of London. An e-visa now available to most nationalities makes a visit to Baku effortless.
Azerbaijan means “land of fire,” inspired by its ancient Zoroastrian history and illustrated in every aspect of Baku. Oil not only transformed this city since the 19th century but influenced it thousands of years prior.
Here are ten places define Baku and can be covered in several days; A comprehensive sampling of its history, cultural heritage, cuisine, and natural wonders.
Old City “Icherisheher
Old City’s gate portals visitors to the past. Inside, much of its mosques, towers, caravanserais, and buildings dating back centuries remain well preserved.
The winding, narrow, cobblestone streets of shops, restaurants, and teahouses appear much the way they did hundreds of years ago.
The Bukhara and Multani Caravanserais, 800-year-old stone-carved hotels created for the Silk Road’s weary travelers, are now a restaurant and bazaar selling old-world trinkets.
Nearby is Baku’s most famous landmark found on the ten manat banknote, the Maiden Tower.
This thirty-meter high medieval tower built in the 12th century is shrouded in mystery and contains eight floors linked by a winding staircase.
The Palace of Shirvanshahs, a 15th-century well-preserved palace complex, takes visitors to a time when the Shah’s ruled this city by the sea and is the centerpiece of Old City.
Elaborate Arabic calligraphy carved from stone decorates elevated courtyards that open to the calming winds of the Caspian Sea.
Ancient bathhouses, mausoleums, and a chilling bullet-riddled wall remaining from the 1918 Armenian conflict contribute to this magnificent UNESCO heritage site.
It is a canvas on which Baku’s history is painted and a timeless Silk Road masterpiece.
Dagustu Park, and the Flame Towers
Take the Baku funicular on Neftchilar Ave to Dagustu Park for the best panoramic views of Baku and the Caspian Sea, particularly at sunset.
Elevated courtyards garnished with waterfalls, exotic gardens, and traditional Azerbaijani architecture provide serenity from the bustling city below.
Branching off Dagustu park is “Martyr’s lane,” a cathartic cemetery chronicling recent conflicts, chiefly the Nagorno- Karabakh war which has been re-ignited in 2020.
Adjacent to the cemetery sits the iconic Flame Towers. At over 182 meters tall, an imposing trio of flame-shaped skyscrapers embodies Baku’s history of fire worship and ancient Zoroastrian roots. One cannot help but awe at this architectural wonder.
Yasil Bazaar delivers an unprecedented Azerbaijani culinary experience. Unique foods include local cheeses, spices, homemade baklava, and the famous Baku Caspian Sea Caviar.
Free sampling is adamantly encouraged allowing for a taste of numerous local delicacies. Pomegranates native to the region are especially sensational.
Abundant candies, fruits, nuts, and sweets illuminate to form a mirage of beautiful colors and aromas.
Fountain Square, renamed from Karl Marx square following Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991, showcases Baku’s oil-funded opulence with a plethora of high-end shopping, international restaurants, and lavish fountain displays that illuminate at night.
Baku Boulevard promenade and Carpet Museum
This 5 km stretch of blissful park bordering the Caspian Sea is a perfect escape from the bustling city streets providing a rejuvenating sea breeze and cityscape views.
The carpet museum located here is well worth a visit.
Architecturally designed in the shape of a carpet being rolled out, it’s the world’s only museum dedicated to carpet weaving, containing the most extensive collection of Azerbaijani carpets, from the 17th century to the present.
Ateshgah fire temple
In the sleepy suburb of Surakhani, an ancient temple rises from the arid desert landscape and draws admirers of antiquity to its gate. This 7th-century pentagonal complex contains a central altar built directly over a natural gas vent fueling an eternally burning flame.
To a Zoroastrian, who’s ancient religion centered on fire-worship and dominated the region since the 1st millennium, this would have been a holy pilgrimage site.
Ateshgah brings this mystic religion to life while providing a window into Azerbaijan’s past culminating in a masterful cultural heritage exhibition.
Before oil was used to power the industrial revolution, it was used as an offering in Azerbaijan’s fire temples.
Between the villages Digah and Mammedli, subterranean gas deposits give rise to a perpetual burning mountainside blazing with luminous intensity.
Although sites like Yanar Dig have been dramatically reduced due to gas and oil exploitation, they inadvertently gave rise to Zoroastrianism.
Heat exerted from this mountainside can be felt twenty meters away, and the smell of natural gas saturates the air. No smoking!
Gobustan Mud Volcanoes and National Park
Sixty kilometers southwest of Baku in the small dusty desert town of Gobustan two famous attractions exist that you will unlikely find anywhere–mud volcanoes and petroglyphs.
Locals sit in old Lada cars and four-wheel-drive vehicles ready to take visitors across the rocky desert landscape to this natural wonder.
Here in the desolate Azerbaijani desert, impressive mud volcanoes seemingly transport you to an alien world. Underground methane fissures through the earth provoking thick mud to bubble in a dramatic fashion from small volcanoes onto the desert floor.
It is said that the mud has curative properties and has been used by many for numerous health remedies. Locals sell bottles of mud at a decent price.
Nearby, carved into the rocks of a mountainside near Gobustan are the prehistoric petroglyphs discovered in the 1930s.
Images of bulls, lions, deer, snakes, and humans dating back to 10,000 B.C depict a sophisticated prehistoric society.
From the hillside is a spectacular view of Gobustan, the Caspian Sea, and a prison holding Armenian terrorists.
Just outside of Baku perched on a cliff above the Caspian Sea is the Bibi-Heybat mosque, a major spiritual center for Azerbaijan Muslims.
The mosque’s grandiose minarets and geometric designs embody the style of the Shia Muslim architecture similar to Iran. While most Islamic countries are majority Sunni, Azerbaijan is one of the few countries with a Shia majority.
World’s first industrialized oil well
The Bibi-Heybat neighborhood is home to the world’s first industrialized oil well. Constructed in 1847, it was the first oil well to mechanically extract crude oil and sparked Baku’s oil boom that forever changed the history of the region.
Hundreds of thousands of people died to prevent Hitler from accessing these very oil fields in 1942 culminating in the Battle of Stalingrad.
Adam Bush is a travel writer based in Denver, Colorado, and a graduate of Morris Travel Journalism program possessing a keen interest in developing unique stories often tied to offbeat travel destinations.