To round out my Caucasus adventure, my last stop was to visit Azerbaijan and its beautiful capital city of Baku. Azerbaijan is not on most people’s list as most people venture more towards neighboring Georgia and its capital city of Tbilisi. I did spend much more time in Georgia, and even in Armenia but in the end I had to visit Azerbaijan since it was nearby.
Baku is A city of Juxtapositions
I think the best way to describe Baku is that it is the ultimate city of juxtapositions. It’s the city with the ultimate contrast between old and new, one I’ve never seen before. It’s the perfect example of what discovering massive oil wealth can do for a country.
Azerbaijan discovered oil at the end of the 19th century and quickly became one of the most influential countries of its time. In fact, near the turn of the century, Azerbaijan produced 50% of the world’s oil. Yes 50%! Nowadays, it accounts for under 1% but it goes to show just how revolutionary it was when Azerbaijan discovered oil.
With this newfound wealth, the country rapidly expanded outside the old city walls. They built magnificent parks, buildings, monuments, hotels all in the traditional European style. They literally had oil barons that would vacation in countries like Italy or France, see something they liked, and then proceed to replicate it back at home.
As you walk around Baku, you can’t help but be mesmerized by the fact that this city which had nothing 100+ years ago, all of a sudden looks like it could Vienna or Rome. It literally went from 0 to 100 in the span of a few years. Nowadays, as you walk through the streets of Baku, you’ll notice how impeccable and immaculate the conditions of the roads are. It is super clean to the point that it just looks almost fake. It’s like Dubai which was also built in the last few decades but with a much larger emphasis on the traditional European architecture (and a fraction of the cost of things in Dubai).
Having just visited Yerevan, Armenia and Tbilisi in Georgia which were “normal” capital cities filled with big city grit, post soviet charm (if you can even call it that), Baku really just blew my mind. I couldn’t stop asking myself how this Caucasus country bordering Armenia and Georgia looks like it is from a different world. But that’s what oil wealth does for you!
Where to eat and drink in Baku, Azerbaijan
Azerbaijani food is absolutely delicious. It’s a mix of Turkish, Persian, and Central Asian food which is right up my alley. You’ll find no shortage of kebabs, dolma, plov, stews, dumplings and the like. The food is cooked with an array of different spices and herbs that have evolved over centuries of being at the forefront of the silk road.
The Plov, which is a dish of rice and meat is the national dish of Azerbaijan. Plov is not so popular in Turkish cuisine but rather a staple of central Asian cuisine like Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. There are numerous types of plovs to try and my favorite of the bunch is probably the lamb plov with the fried crust. Think delicious saffron rice with seasoned lamb meat, chestnuts, spices, and raisins all wrapped in a delicious filo crust.
Dining is also incredibly affordable in Baku. You get top quality food in a very nice atmosphere for bargain prices. I would pay about 30-35 Manat ($18-25) for a dinner that included wine, salad, and insane amounts of grilled meats. I could easily have spent half this money and still been full.
There aren’t many trendy hipster places in Baku
Unlike Azerbaijan’s Caucasus neighbors of Yerevan and Tbilisi, there aren’t many new age trendy restaurants, cocktail bars, and cafes in Baku. I think Baku is trying to get there but has still mostly focused on being this grandiose extravagant city.
There aren’t any decent cocktail bars or cafes that I could find in Baku. This was particularly sad as coming from Tbilisi and Yerevan, there were countless spots like this on offer.
Qayana came at the recommendation of my hotel was probably my favorite restaurant in Baku. It’s located in the old town and attracts locals and tourists alike. They have an onsite clay oven that they use to make fresh bread for every diner. The meats are grilled to perfection and the prices are very reasonable.
I had numerous kebabs and the plov because I had to try everything. It turned out to be way too much food but I enjoyed this place the most. I came back for breakfast the following day to have a traditional Azerbaijani breakfast.
Dolma is one of the most popular restaurants in the city. It’s located underground near the old town and decorated in the traditional style. The food here is exceptional with delicious dolmas and grilled meats. I stayed the course in pretty much every meal I had ordering lamb chops, minced lamb kebabs, and the like.
Lamb is probably one of my favorite things to eat and for the prices they had here, I had to get my fix in before going back to a place where I eat lamb pretty much never.
Shirvanshah Museum Restaurant
The Shirvanshah restaurant is a must for tourists. The 15th century palace complex is considered one of the masterpieces of Azerbaijan architecture, and is of great historic importance for the country. For these reasons reasons, among others, it was awarded World Cultural Heritage status by the UNESCO.
Nowdays, there is a large restaurant in the complex which serves delicious traditional Azerbaijani cuisine. The decor and ambiance is incredibly beautiful and pays homage to the traditional styles. They even have live music playing traditional music for diners.
I pretty much had the same food here as I did everywhere else which is heaps of lamb meat, dolma, and salad. This place is definitely a must visit.
Rooftop at the Hilton hotel
For amazing panoramic views of Baku, head to the rooftop hotel at the Hilton. This 360 degree rooftop is actually a rotating rooftop so for those that get vertigo, this is not the place for you. From here, you can have wonderful views of the Baku skyline and in particular the very unique Flame Towers with their never ending light shows.
Where to stay in Baku, Azerbainjan
Baku is an upscale city (or at least it portrays itself as such) and you’ll find no shortage of the big chain hotels that own grandiose buildings. Think JW Marriott, Hilton, Four Seasons, etc. There aren’t many boutique hotels that I found during my search because Baku just doesn’t attract that type of crowd. At least that is my theory.
I also looked for Airbnbs throughout the city and nothin really impressed me, at least nothing like what I found in Tbilisi, Georgia. Therefore, I ended up using my Marriott points to book nights at the Courtyard Marriott. It’s a level two hotel so it is quite cheap (only 12,000 points a night). I ended up getting an amazing room with a balcony overlooking the city. Fantastic deal for this hotel. It’s also centrally located meaning I could get everywhere easily by foot or by Bolt.
How to get around Baku
Getting around Baku is very simple. You just need to download the app Bolt which is the ride hailing app of choice in Georgia and Azerbaijan (yandex in Armenia). Don’t even bother with learning the metro system in Baku which is actually quite extensive with beautiful subway stations.
The reason for this? The price is just too damn cheap to really bother with anything else. A ride from Baku International Airport to the city center is about 7-10 Manat ($4-6). Yes it is less than $5 to travel from the airport to the city by private taxi. If you are too cheap to pay these prices, you probably shouldn’t be traveling.
Bolts around Baku city are between 1.7-3 Manat ($1-$1.7). Yes, I’m not joking, it is about $1 to go by taxi around Baku. Having already been to Tbilisi and Yerevan where prices are similar, I still don’t understand how anyone can make money doing this. At least in Azerbaijan however, the price of gas is heavily subsidized so at least it makes more sense. Price of petrol is 1 Manat per liter (~$0.6 per liter).
What to do in Baku, Azerbaijan
Baku is a large city with an incredible amount of beautiful buildings to see. There are not many traditional sights to see like in other big capitals because of how new everything is. Nevertheless, you’ll need at least a day to see the main highlights of the city.
Take the free walking tour
The free walking tour is definitely a great way to familiarize yourself with the city. The tour meets just outside the old city walls every day in the summer (and on demand during off season months). I really enjoyed the tour as the guide explained a lot about this city that is so perplexing especially having visited Tbilisi and Yerevan prior.
I particularly liked getting the guide’s views on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict as I had gotten a very biased version days before with my guide in Yerevan. The tour takes roughly 3 hours and mostly centers around the old city.
Visit the Heyder Aliyev Cultural center
Designed by the noted architect Zaha Hadid, the building is firm and stunning and one of the signature attractions in Baku. The outer area and park offers a beautiful view of the city. It is recommended to visit the centre before sunset so you can experience both the pre- and post-sunset view of the building.
Walk along the waterfront and enjoy views of the flame tower
Visit the Baku Old City
Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the ancient city dates back to the 12th century. Within its confines are enough touristy gems, such as the Maiden Tower, Juma Mosque, Hamam Mehellesi public baths and the Palace of Shirvanshahs.
The old city is incredibly well preserved and you’ll find beautiful displays of the traditional architectural styles of Azerbaijan. You’ll find iconic narrow streets that meander from one beautiful view to another. It’s crazy to think that most of Baku was just within the confines of the old city walls just 100 years ago.
I particularly liked the pictures where I could see old town architecture with the flame tower in the background. It just goes to show how unique and how different the city of Baku is. The combination of old and new doesn’t exist like it does in Baku.
Visit the Yanar Dag Flaming Mountain
A must visit sight in Baku is a short drive to the Yanar Dag Flaming Mountain. It’s located about 25km outside of Baku to the northeast. Yanar Dag Flaming Mountain is literally just that, a hill that is on fire. Because of the incredible amount of natural gas and oil in the country, there are some areas of the country that have have fires for decades or even centuries.
Yanar Dag in particular has had their fire burning for 50+ years now. The oil reserves in this part of the mountain mean the fire will burn continuously rain or shine. It’s not as big as I thought it would be but it was still very impressive to see.
Come here right around night time to see the full effect of the fires. Do not book a tour to visit Yanar Dag but simply use Bolt to come here. I paid about 10 Manat one way for the Bolt to Yanar Dag and told him to wait for me. It only takes about 20 minutes to see everything and the drivers are usually happy to wait for you to collect the return fare.
Take a day trip to Gobustan and the mud volcanoes
The Gobustan National Park is located about 60 km away from Baku and is one of the most popular day trips from Baku. The typical itinerary goes to Gobustan and mud volcanoes and takes most of the day. There are many tour operators that you can find in the old city offering this tour. The going rate is about 80-90 Manat per person which includes a lunch.
This park was created to protect the true jewels of nature hidden in the lands that make up the Gobustan National Park, which was also declared a UNESCO Cultural Heritage in 2007.
The Petroglyphs of Gobustan
The mud volcanoes are interesting things to see but most people come to Gobustan for the petroglyphs. What are petroglyphs you ask?
They are some of the most ancient drawings made by early humans. They were chiseled with primitive tools of the time into the exposed rock in the Gobustan national park. These drawings embody the thinking patterns of early human beings which makes it one of the most important historic discoveries. The drawings date back to as far as 40,000 years ago long before civilization developed. More than 6,000 carvings have been found to date.
Many of the drawings depict animals like horses, lions, mammoths etc. as well as dance ceremonies and other traditional practices of the time. It is quite mesmerizing to stand here in front of the drawings knowing that they were done at a time when people knew little more than just how to survive.
The scenery of the Gobustan is quite beautiful as well. You are surrounded by large rocky cliffs on all sides making it a perfect day trip. I also did appreciate having a guide to explain everything. I would have otherwise felt like I was just looking at a bunch of scribbles on rocks (which are cool but not so interesting).
Mud Volcanoes of Gobustan
Nearby to the Petroglyphs are the famous mud volcanoes of Gobustan. Its muds are reputed to have many benefits for the skin, bones and rheumatism.
There are not more than 800 mud volcanoes in the whole world and about 400 of them are found in Gobustan. What are mud volcanoes? They are volcanoes that eject flames and spew out tons of mud covering the surrounding area. A few people believe that volcanic mud has healing qualities.
And what in the world is a Gaval Dash? These are musical gemstones that produce tambourine-like sounds when struck by a smaller stone. Where else in the world can you find Gaval Dash? Nowhere, but in Gobustan.
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