Landing in Baku I wasn’t expecting the baby booming tourism attraction that will soon grow into the Caucuses version of Dubai. Much like that United Arab Emirate city, Baku can overwhelm you fast to the point you might leave feeling like you haven’t seen anything.
To begin to cut in to Azerbaijan’s capital city you’ll need to dissect it into digestible pieces so you can begin to see what’s actually behind all of the rapidly rising steel and flowing concrete.
Begin With The Old In The New
The “Icheri Sheher”, Inner or Old City, is a deceptively quaint area of Baku located behind its original fortress walls. (It also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) In the Inner City is where you’re likely to end up and even if you don’t, it contains several small but interesting sites like Qiz Qalasi (“Maiden’s Tower) where you’ll find exceptional shots of Baku from above, all within walking distance.
From there you can get to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, in a walk less than 10 minutes to see this realtively large complex that was completed around the year 1585. Some of the sections are less spectacular than others but yours eyes shouldn’t miss the underground tombs or the doors of the mausoleum. There are extra fees to bring cameras into the palace area unless you *cough* keep them inconspicuous when purchasing tickets.
Eating In The Inner City: The restaurants and food within the walls are varied but tend to be the upper-class no-locals-eat-this-stuff variety; with one notable exception. Tendir sits at one of the entrances of the fort walls and serves relatively inexpensive – yet damn good – Azeri cuisine, including fresh bread cooked in a stone over right outside. It doesn’t seat more than 20-25 people total so get there are bit early or late to make sure there’s enough room for your group.
That’s hardly all to there is to the Icheri Sheher, such as the Miniature Book Museum, which my nerdy side loved and yours probably will too if you have one.
Climb Up To Martyrs’ Lane
A touching tribute to many of those killed in several wars, including during fighting against the Soviet Army at the end of World War I. There is also a memorial to 1,130 Turkish soldiers killed protecting Baku during that time. Martyr’s Lane (“Shehidler Khiyabani”) is thought to have over 15,000 bodies in its cemetery, though its not certain as it was destroyed during the 1920s. Today, you can see the line of hundreds killed in the 1988-94 Nagorno-Karabakh War, including the graves of several journalists killed covering the fighting.
I’d recommend arriving at sunrise (maybe your bladder can help wake you up) or an hour before sunset for some great photo opportunities of the Caspian Sea. Then you can take the nice, very-downhill walk down by the water. Those of you traveling with children will especially appreciate all of the rides along the way.
Around The Absheron Peninsula
Baku is loaded with museums, modern shops, with cranes on every horizon; much like the Middle East’s fastest growing nation Qatar. Shopaholics with big budgets will enjoy bouncing between the mega-malls like AF Mall, each of which are easily accessible via Baku’s metro system. Baku’s subway system is generally safe and orderly, with few major lines; however several trains share the tracks. Most stops will have personnel in uniform hanging around to ask if you get confused. (As you may have guessed, I got confused.)
But around Baku are where some of its other popular sites are; most of which may be worth skipping depending on your tastes. The much famed Yanar Dag (“Burning Mountain”) was disappointing. I was expecting a mountain engulfed in flames only to find a boulder on fire. A fire that has been burning for over 50 years, fueled by natural gas deposits beneath the surface.
The Atashgah Fire Temple, over 1,000 years old, is also a site that I felt similarly about. The history of the structure, and its possible Hindu roots are fascinating however, though without a thorough brush up on its background, you may leave feeling unsatisfied.
Farting Volcanoes And The Stories Along The Way
Once you’ve seen both, it’s hard not to be reminded of Dubai in Baku. Except that it’s like what I imagine Dubai was 15 years ago; making Baku’s surface still so very transparent. The way the government’s tourism direction is headed however makes that window a rapidly closing one. While I enjoyed surfing down the farting mud volcanoes in Gobustan, it was the serendipity that happened along the way that made bouncing around Baku memorable.