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My Favorite 15 Things to do Baku – Understand
Baku is a surprisingly modern and wealthy city along the shores of the Caspian Sea. The city looks like a mesh of Soviet architecture and Bahrain-style modern projects.
In daily life, Baku feels more like Izmir than a former Soviet city; there is just a bit of Russian left – the Azeri language and English have otherwise completely taken over. On some mornings here, I had to remind myself that I was in Azerbaijan – that’s how much it seemed like Turkey. Azeri is 95% Turkish and both peoples can understand each other well.
Baku has a great Old City that has been perfectly restored and has a number of sights that will elevate your heart. The many modern Bahrain-style building additions are worth checking out and the city will easily entertain you for a day or two. Billions have been invested into the enjoyment of Baku, including the waterfront boulevard and the modern art museum.
After the recent currency devaluation of the Manat, the city (and country) is affordable – sometimes VERY affordable. Most US credit cards don’t work here, though, as most credit card terminals outside of hotels require a PIN for each purchase or will decline it. Nevertheless, most ATMs are free of charge and can be found all over the city. Bring enough cash just in case!
Although Baku seems so Turkish, Turkish food hasn’t made it here and finding excellent food and coffee is surprisingly difficult for such a modern city.
Expect people here to be friendly – a bit more than in Turkey and less obnoxious compared to most of Turkey. Most people are helpful, though reserved, and speak a few words of English.
Azerbaijan prides itself as a multicultural country and melting pot. However, there is something spooky and unspoken about the place; there seems to be lots of prejudice and unsaid agendas that fit more into Russia and its dealings than in an open society. I could not put my finger on it but felt relieved once I made it to the other side of immigration (which also triple checked my paper printout visa when leaving).
Like in Tbilisi and Batumi, smoking is a big issue here. You will be subjected to secondhand smoke everywhere, including most public places and even indoors. Azerbaijan is meant to be getting ready to introduce a ban on smoking in public places in the near future, though.
My Favorite 15 Things to do Baku – Get Around
Uber is in town and the service works fantastic in the city. Modern cars, friendly drivers (many of whom speak English) and very low prices make it a winning mix. There are plenty of taxis and air-conditioned public buses in Baku, too. I could not find a reason to not use Uber, though, as the 20-minute airport ride was just $6 and any ride in town was under $2.
My Favorite 15 Things to do Baku – Safety
Baku is a safe city. Crime isn’t an issue and walking around is safe enough at any time. I shied away from walking long distances at night but I would have done it if needed.
Traffic is very aggressive and fast here. Drivers generally stop at the last possible second after trying to compete with the Formula One speeds that run through the city streets each year.
My Favorite 15 Things to do Baku – Get In
With the new visa policy, Azerbaijan now allows online visa which is an efficient process (just don’t forget any middle names on a passport though!) You can access it here and after paying around $24, a visa for 30 days will be yours.
My Favorite 15 Things to do Baku – Sights
İçərişəhər (Old City)
Baku’s Old City has been masterfully restored in part but has plenty of traditional housing left. It was surprisingly empty, with no mass tourism in sight, when I visited.
I loved strolling through the small alleys and just watching the life and imagining how it was a few centuries ago.
Şirvanşahlar sarayı (Shirvanshahs Palace)
The palace and the adjacent mosque are also part of the Old City. The entrance fee is 10 AZN for adults and kids get in free. The palace is restored from old drawings and descriptions; very little seems to have been left of the original structures.
The restoration looks fantastic and given the few visitors at the time, I liked this small place quite a bit.
Qız Qalası (Maiden Tower)
Sooner or later while exploring, you will find the Maiden Tower – a fortification tower that overlooks the water and has a pretty illumination thrown at it at night.
Fəvvarələr Meydanı (Fountain Square)
Fountain Square contains a number of incredibly beautiful fountains that make you feel like you have been transported to Iran as it was a long time ago.
Dənizkənarı Bulvar (Seaside Boulevard)
Further south it would be called a ‘corniche’ – because that’s exactly what it is. It may look deserted during the day (even on a calm, 80-degrees day) but it’s almost always crowded at 8PM, with the whole town coming out to stroll, eat and drink or simply go on the many rides there.
Dövlət Bayrağı Meydanı (National Flag Square)
Once the highest free-standing flag pole in the world (until the one in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, which has now been overtaken by the one in Jeddah), the area is a national event center. The Baku version is out on a long stretch of the ‘corniche’.
I liked the Dushanbe version more – not because it’s a bit longer but because it is so well-integrated into the park there.
Alov qüllələri (Flame Towers)
The Flame Towers house a number of offices and the Fairmont Hotel and are visible from almost anywhere in the city.
At night they feature a great LED light show (with flames).
Most of the buildings are modern and the whole area is done very well. Unless you are staying at the Fairmont, there isn’t too much of a reason to go up there, though.
Kiçik Venesiya (Mini Venice)
Mini Venice takes you on a 20-minute ride through a mini version of Italy’s ‘City of Water’. It looks cheesy but it’s actually very relaxing.
Heydər Əliyev Mərkəzi (Heydar Aliyev Center)
This museum (and adjacent auditorium and gallery hall) has become synonymous with Baku. The shape of the museum and its great grounds are indeed stunning and worth admiring for half an hour or so (especially if it is not too hot).
I did not venture inside, though. The entrance fee is rather high at AZN 15 (and kids pay the same).
My Favorite 15 Things to do Baku – Eat & Drink
Somewhat shocking for such a modern city, great food and drinks options are rather hard to find here. It’s the same symptom as with modernized planned cities in the Gulf – they end up with a mix of chain options and a rather uninspiring local staple with too little entrepreneurship.
You can find this bakery chain in Georgia and Azerbaijan; it wasn’t my favorite place in Tbilisi or elsewhere in Georgia but the Dilara Aliyeva St location in Baku (just off Azadliq Ave) really came through. The raspberry desserts are done to perfection and made for a breakfast in heaven.
We also tried the sandwiches and many other items such as the breads and it quickly became our favorite food.
This was another surprising find, though not as noteworthy; Z-style offers buffet lunch food that makes for great, hearty taste. We tried the bulgur, schnitzel and eggplant dishes and liked them a lot.
This Middle Eastern restaurant comes with so much attitude and fine dining etiquette that we were really freaked out a bit. However, it isn’t expensive and the eggplant/tomato dishes we tried were really good. We found the atmosphere to be downright weird, though; everyone was so serious about it.
Paris is a great-looking French-inspired bistro overlooking a lovely square with fountains.
Too bad, though, that everyone here smokes both indoors and outdoors and the service is decidedly slow. The breakfast pancakes and continental breakfast were pretty good, however, and it’s cheap as well.
Unfortunately, we did not get a chance to check out this Turkish restaurant that gets stellar reviews.
This local cuisine expert gets fantastic reviews. It has a pretty setting right in the Old City in an old ‘shack’. Oddly, the huge tandoori-style oven is right at the entrance and you pass it on your way to the small (but very original-looking) dining room. This can be very hot in summer!
While top-rated by others, I found the food just OK, with way too much salt and odd spices. I like Middle Eastern cuisine but did not become a big fan of this restaurant.
This Italian-themed chain can be a decent option in many countries (as it was in Chile’s Santiago for me recently). The local franchise is very cheap but the food is downright horrible and there’s lots of smokers inside. Not my favorite place but beggars can’t be choosers sometimes.
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About the author: Torsten is a serial entrepreneur who started almost a dozen ventures on four continents. Torsten's love for travel has brought him to 130+ countries and travel with most of the world's airlines. You can reach Torsten at [email protected]
This post has been tagged with: City Center Review | city guide | city reviews