If there was a city that surprised me, it has to be Baku. I did not expect to find a modern, aesthetically pleasing and cosmopolitan city in this part of the world. As I entered the city from another sleepy town in Azerbaijan, I could not help but gasp at what I saw. Baku was surprisingly very European in style, with a largely traditional old city and a part full of modern skyscrapers. This balanced mix makes Baku unique and worthy of more than just a few days of your time. Here are 9 things to do in Baku:
1) Get lost in the old city of Baku, Icherisheher
Icherisheher is small, but it sure has more alleys than you can count. Even locals get lost in this mysteriously attractive old city. Take your time to appreciate the different streets and alleyways in the old city of Baku, otherwise known as Icherisheher. Walk along the bastions and imagine what it was like living in Baku hundreds of years ago. Or visit the tiny, but nonetheless intricate and interesting palace in the heart of the old city (Shirvanshahs’ Palace). End your tour with a cup of black tea in one of the atmospheric cafes housed in centuries-old stone buildings. The old city of Baku was definitely one of my favourite old cities in the world!
2) Admire the eclectic mix of old and new
Baku definitely plays the old-meets-new concept very well. On one street, you will find very beautiful European-style houses and on the other, traditional Azeri homes with their iconic balconies. Walk a few streets more and you will find large, spacious boulevards with extremely modern buildings flanking both sides. You might think that these modern buildings would stick out like an eyesore. Strangely enough, I thought they blended perfectly with the different architectural styles in the centre.
3) Visit the out-of-the-world places
If you appreciate bold designs, Baku has many to offer! Here are a few that you must visit:
a. Carpet Museum
The name of this museum is as literal as it can be. Housed in a building that looks like the flying carpet of Aladdin, this museum boasts hundreds of intricately weaved carpets. The carpets on display were amazing, so was the “carpet building”.
b. Heydar Aliyev Centre
This exhibition space has a weird façade, but the story behind it is beautiful. Designed by an Iranian lady, this building propelled her to fame in the architectural world. While it might look strange from the outside, take a drone and see it from above. What you will see is the signature of XX Aliev, the first president of post Soviet Union Azerbaijan.
c. Flame Towers
These three towers are now the icons of Baku. Designed like the flares of a flame, these towers can be seen from most places in Baku. At night, the three towers glow in full LED facades.
4) Walk along the coastal promenade
The entire coastal promenade of Baku sure is one hell of a walk. But it is beautiful. Mostly reclaimed, this promenade is now a long park dotted with cafes, museums and even a Ferris wheel. You can walk a short section of it, or rent a bicycle and bike along the wide lanes. Though the Caspian Sea is not exactly one of the cleanest water bodies in the world, the views of the horizon are definitely spectacular.
5) Take a second walk at night for a wholly different perspective
Baku is no miser when it comes to using electricity (thank you crude oil!). As such, the entire city lights up at night. From the coastal walk to the old city and the skyscrapers, everything lights up beautifully at night. You might think you have seen everything in the day, but you will be delightfully surprised at how you saw nothing yet at night.
6) Visit Heydar Mosque, the largest Shi’ite mosque in Baku
Heydar Mosque, the largest Shi’ite mosque in Baku, is a little off the city centre but still worth a visit. You can easily reach the mosque by metro or bus, which is modern and unbelievably cheap (AZN0.20 or USD0.10). The mosque is an architectural masterpiece and you will be wowed just by its façade. It is so huge that I had trouble trying to frame the entire mosque in a photograph. If you are lucky, the main hall will be opened for visitors. I did not have the chance to view the interior, but I can imagine how intricate and splendid it would have been.
You must be wondering why this was not the first thing to do in Baku. Well, I just wanted to save the best thing to do for the last! Baku is a foodie’s paradise. Pop into any of the traditional restaurants and taste the dolma (vegetables stuffed with meat) or try Khash, a stew of lamb trotters (Azeri: xas). You can also try Khengel (Azeri: xingəl), the traditional Azeri pasta or grab a kebab at one of ubiquitous kebab stalls. If Azeri food is not your thing, there are many international food places in Baku so there is no excuse to settle for Macdonalds.
8) Gobustan petroglyphs
Items 8 and 9 are located outside of Baku, but can easily be done in a half-day trip. The Gobustan petroglyphs are one of the oldest in the world. Spend some time understanding the significance of the various petroglyphs in the impressive museum first. Thereafter you can visit the petroglyphs and better appreciate the different drawings. In my opinion, the museum was a lot more spectacular than the actual drawings themselves because many of them have faded over thousands of years.
9) Gobustan mud volcanoes
So you have heard of volcanoes erupting lava, but have you seen volcanoes erupting mud? Azerbaijan boasts the most number of mud volcanoes in the world. One highlight of my stay in Azerbaijan was definitely the Gobustan mud volcanoes. Imagine a wide field of little volcanoes, each bubbling and spurting mud. You can see the trail of mud flowing out of the volcanoes and peek into the craters to watch the eruptions. Very, very interesting. Warning though: these volcanoes sure are muddy, and I mean, muddy!
Baku is an amazing city, and still quite off the beaten track. There are so many things to do in Baku that is worth your time. Visit Baku in Azerbaijan and be surprised at how different it is from what you have imagined. If you are looking for an affordable getaway, full of modern amenities, yet still interesting and lively, Baku should be on top of your bucket list of things to do.
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