VISITING AZERBAIJAN

So much to see, no time to waste

Baku’s plethora of attractions could keep you busy for days. Even if you have only an hour or two between meetings there are a whole series of inspirational places to snap the perfect photograph. Medieval alleyways and caravanserais beckon. Alluring cafes, exotic tea caverns, suave restaurants, great jazz clubs, carpet peddlers, fine museums, cutting edge galleries and sweet little curio shops are all a short stroll away. If you have a little longer there’s a hop-on, hop-off city bus tour. Or a series of intriguing excursions to mud volcanoes, petroglyphs, castles, archaeology sites and even a still-burning fire temple. See two or three of those in an afternoon. If you’ve got all day you could see them all. Or head off into rural Azerbaijan and discover just how beautiful the countryside can be – deserts and mountains, canyons and beaches, forests and ski resorts – any accessible in under four hours.

So what to choose?

Itineraries in Baku

Icheri Sheher – Baku Old City

On the UNESCO World Heritage List, Baku’s compact old city core is a delightful layered maze of medieval alleyways set behind fortified stone walls on three sides. The lanes and passageways are lined by a plethora of historic buildings of very varying ages.

If you have just 15 minutes: stroll down Zeynalli Street, catching a glimpse of the mysterious Maiden Tower (add 20 minutes and a fee to climb it for great views), colourful carpet peddlers amid ancient caravanserais, medieval mosques, century old mansions and an archaeological site.

If you have an hour: extend your stroll though some more ‘lived in’ parts of the old city, see the powerful Double Gate and follow the battlements around to the 15th-16th Century Shirvanshahs’ Palace complex (add around forty minutes and an entry fee to look around – limited exhibits inside)

If you have two or three hours: Do one of the self-guided audio tours giving oodles of information on a range of the sights within the city. Or extend a basic stroll further into the maze and stops at various shops, cafes and art galleries both within the walls and just outside.

If you have trouble walking: There are electric buggies starting from near the Maiden Tower that can buzz you around past all the main attractions within Icheri Sheher.

Easy to combine with: Oil Boom walk, Fountains Square, State Art Museum, Nizami Literature Museum, Baku Boulevard, Funicular.

More information at www.azerbaijan.travel

 

Baku Boulevard

boulvared

There’s no better way to get a feel for Baku’s relaxed, Mediterranean atmosphere than by strolling along the sweep of promenade that follows Baku’s Caspian waterfront on a gentle arc past the whole length of the central city area. Towards the eastern end, between the glistening towers of the Marriott and Hilton hotels. Dom Soviet is one of the most impressive Stalin-era buildings you’re likely to see – a veritable wedding cake of stone arches that looks especially intriguing at dusk (no public entry). Amid the trees are the modernist pods of Baku Business Centre and Park Mall shopping centre then a series of cafes and fairground rides scattered through the parkland and along the wide, open walkway. Beyond the old city, Venesiya is a small boating area where mini gondolas float on a small turquoise blue network of artificial canals beneath with a couple of swooping bridges that link to snazzy island restaurants. If you prefer heading out to sea there are half-hour pleasure cruises in summer from beside the Yacht Club. And beside the Mugham Centre there’s a brand new Carpet Museum. The promenade’s newest section curves around past a gigantic ferris wheel and on towards National Flag Square – named for the utterly huge flagmast that was the world’s tallest until 2011.

If you have just 15 minutes: Drive along the coastal road to get a quick glimpse of the grand buildings that line it. Or nip across that busy road via the underpass from beside the Four Seasons Hotel and admire the sweep of bay from behind.

If you have an hour: Walk the section of promenade between Dom Soviet and the Carpet Museum.

If you have two or three hours: As above but with a café stop, visits to Park Mall and the carpet museum plus a pleasure cruise on the Caspian.

Easy to combine with: Icheri Sheher, Oil Boom walk, Fountains Square, State Art Museum, Nizami Literature Museum, Funicular.

More information at www.azerbaijan.travel

 

Funicular & Flame Towers

flametower

The Flame Towers are a trio of distinctive sky scrapers, each over 30 stories, together giving the impression of a gigantic fire once the evening light show starts a playful shimmer of orange and red rising colours. In many ways the towers themselves are best viewed from a distance but the parkland/cemetery area directly south is worth visiting in itself for the wonderful views over Baku Bay. Access is by a regular funicular that whisks you up from the main bay side road in a couple of minutes. Sometimes there can be queues to get aboard, in which case it’s worth considering the sweaty but satisfying walk up stairways beside.

If you have just 15 minutes: Too little time to go up and back, but if you are just looking for a photo of the Flame Towers you can get some great shots from the Bahram Statue at the base station. Ideal just after sunset when the amazing light show turns the blue glass towers into real flame-like mirages.

If you have an hour: Take the funicular or walk the parkland stairways beside it for a wide range of viewpoints. Walk through the somber graveyard at the top and enjoy the remarkable Caspian and City views from the eternal flame tower.

Easy to combine with: Icheri Sheher (Old City)

More information at www.azerbaijan.travel

 

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre

baydaraliyev_center

If you have half an hour: Drive to and around it (though beware that traffic can be very bad if you approach from Heydar Aliyev Ave).

If you have an hour: Strolling around the exterior can take the best part of an hour if you stop for many photos and admire the oddments of contemporary statuary in the park outside. Or take a more cursory glance and pay the entry fee, more for the intrigue of getting inside than for the permanent exhibition of presidential gifts received by former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev.

If you have two or three hours: Combine the above with visits to whatever other exhibitions are showing or a concert at the splendid auditorium…

More information at www.azerbaijan.travel

 

Oil Boom Walk

Since 2006, Baku has been in the grips of an extraordinary ‘Oil Boom’ transforming the cityscape with a mixture of soaring towers, architectural whimsy and lots of pseudo Parisian Beaux Arts style stone frontages. But this is the second time such a transformation has occurred. The previous one (1885 to 1920) was equally spectacular in scope if not in scale. Some of the finest buildings line Istiglalliyat St, the road that faces the park and exterior northern wall of Icheri Sheher. Here you’ll find the beautiful Ismailiya Palace and the grand city hall. Almost opposite the Old City’s double gates, the Nizami Literature Museum (entrance fee applies) has a beautiful Western façade inset with statues of Azerbaijan’s literary greats. A similar façade adorns the Akhundov (National) Library on Sahil Square. Walking between them will take around half an hour via the popular strolling zone of Fountains Square and the elegant pedestrianised shopping road, Nizami (Torgovaya) St. There are more fine buildings along the north side of Baku Bulevar and along Aziz Aliyev/Rasul Rza Sts with their countless exclusive boutiques. A short detour walks you past the History Museum whose interior is far more impressive than you might guess from the exterior.

If you have half an hour: stroll around Fountains Square and along Istyglalliyat St.

If you have an hour: Combine with a stroll along Nizami St.

If you have two or three hours: Add visits to the History Museum and State Art Museum.

More information at www.azerbaijan.travel

 

History Museum

Exhibits can tell you everything you might have wanted to know about Azerbaijan through the ages. But even if you aren’t a great history buff, it’s worth looking inside the building, once the residence of one of Baku’s great early-20th-century “oil barons”. The opulence of the oriental room is particularly memorable.

Combine with: A day trip out to Absheron sights like the Surakhany fire temple, Qala Preserve or Mardakan.

More information at www.azerbaijan.travel

 

Carpet Museum

carpet

As of 2014 Baku’s world-class collection of carpets is due to move into a purpose built new museum building. Right on the Boulevard near the funicular and Mugham Centre, it has been designed to give the impression of a partly unfurled roll of rug.

Combine with: Baku Boulevard, Icheri Shahar, Funicular

More information at www.azerbaijan.travel

 

Modern Art Museum

If you visited the State Art Museum but wanted more from of Azerbaijan’s more recent artistic superstars, it’s well worth the short drive out to this large, imaginatively laid out gallery. It’s in an area undergoing dramatic transformations with the Port Baku complex to the west and the vast White City development rising to the east.

Combine with: Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center. Or for a day trip out combine with the Absheron sights like the Ateshgah (Surakhany fire temple), Gala Archaeological Reserve and/or Mardakan.

By Public Transport: Get there by buses 1 or 2 from near the train station (they return by a different route). Continue to Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre with bus 1 in the same direction of travel.

Opens Late: The gallery stays open till 9pm so there’s time to get there in the evening after a conference.

More information at www.azerbaijan.travel

 

Excursions near Baku

Gobustan – Petroglyphs and Mud Volcanoes

On a Daliesque rockscape above the town of Gobustan lie some of the world’s most important petroglyphs – stone and iron-age figures carved thousands of years ago and now considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And on a rock beside the approach lane there’s the most easterly known graffiti by a Roman legionnaire. Even if you’re not especially taken by rock scribbles, there’s a fine new museum at the petroglyph site whose setting is magical with wide views out across the opal Caspian. And the trip can be combined with a visit to a lovable series of Mud Volcanoes, little grey mounds and pools that bubble and burp merrily around 10km further south.

Allow: Half Day

Transport: You can reach the destination by taking first bus 120 or 88 from the Boulevard then by finding a taxi driver in Gobustan town. There are two ways to drive to the mud volcanoes – approaching from the south adds several kilometers but is much easier than the bumpy direct northern approach.

More information at www.azerbaijan.travel

 

Absheron Excursions – castles, fire temples and curiosities

Folk culture, fortress towers, a fire temple and burning hillside… the Absheron Peninsular has an off beat series of attractions quite aside from its many popular Caspian beaches. And it’s all within an hour or so of Baku city centre. We won’t pretend that the landscapes are pristine – for that head to Sheki or Laza. However, for some visitors the remnant areas of decaying old oilfields form an attraction to be seen before they are fully cleaned up. Other intriguing features include colourful salt lakes and old village cores in some of the settlements, notably at Gala where the region’s millennia of human habitation are impressively outlined in an archaeological-cultural centre. The popular getaway of Mardakan has a couple of castle towers and is home to the remarkable Pir Hassan, one of the most visible places to witness very unauthodox local folk ‘cures’ – but we won’t spoil the surprise… see for yourself! Superstition and religion come together in a particularly creative way down the road in Shuvelan at the Mir Movsum Mausoleum (Namazgah) where a new shrine with mosaic patterned blue-majolica domes is the nearest Azerbaijan gets to the classic Central Asian scene.

Allow: Half Day/Full Day

Transport:Technically the entire peninsular falls within Baku city limits which can cause confusion. Still, most sights are within an hour’s drive from the city centre using a big new highway running 30km east to Mardakan then another 6km north to the best beaches at Amburan and the Jumeirah Bilgah Beach Hotel. Buses link Baku to all the peninsula’s main centres. The direct 136 to Mardakan/Shuvelan starts from near Baku railway station, but finding the departure points for other services means heading out to distant suburban metro stations and will more than double your travel time over taking a taxi. Also, combining sites gets fiddly since buses between Absheron villages are less frequent than those to/from Baku. The suggestions below assume you’ll find a driver in Baku. If you’re staying at Jumeirah Bilgah Beach Hotel, visiting any of the sights is likely to be quicker than visiting from the capital.

If you have 2½ hours: Drive to the remarkable fire temple at Surakhani, return via Ramana Castle with its views over an extraordinary scene of desolate old oil workings. Possibly add a detour via the Burning Hillside (Yanardagh).

If you have 4 hours: Spend longer at the fire temple, add an hour’s visit to Qala Historical Preserve or a visit to the Mir Movsum Namazgah at Shuvelan, stopping briefly at one of Mardakan’s Pir Husein shrine and one of the town’s castle towers.

If you have all day: Do all of the above and add a beach stop or lunch at the Jumeirah Bilgah Beach Hotel with its water park and incredible multi-storey chandelier.

Combine with: Modern Art Museum and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre. The typical route out of town to Mardakan takes you right past both of them anyway along with the giant new Olympic Stadium, the Buta Palace, Expo Centre and airport.

More information at www.azerbaijan.travel

 

Visiting Baku – Options by theme

Art & Museums

Heydar Aliyev Centre

One of the world’s most dramatic 21st-century architectural statements. Even if you don’t want to take the time to investigate the series of changing exhibitions inside, catching a glimpse of the exterior is a must. Fortunately, for those in a hurry, you can do just that as you drive into town from the airport.

Old City Art Galleries

At least half a dozen small private galleries are dotted around the medieval alleys and lanes of Baku’s UNESCO listed Old City (Icheri Shehar) giving art lovers that extra impetus to a visit.

State Art Museum

Spiked 18th century helmets with carnivalesque metal face-plates are the spookiest items in this fine, multi-faceted collection. The paintings include canvasses by Azerbaijani 20th-century greats, but also include carpets, antique pottery, Flemish, German and Russian masterpieces and a few classic miniatures. The collection is displayed in two newly linked stone mansions dating back to Baku’s first Oil Boom a century ago.

Modern Art Gallery

If you visited the State Art Museum but wanted more from of Azerbaijan’s more recent artistic superstars, it’s well worth the short drive out to this large, imaginatively laid out gallery. It’s in an area undergoing dramatic transformations with the Port Baku complex to the west and the vast White City development rising to the east.

Combine with: Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center. Or for a day trip out combine with the Absheron sights like the Ateshgah (Surakhany fire temple), Gala Archaeological Reserve and/or Mardakan.

By Public Transport: Get there by buses 1 or 2 from near the train station (they return by a different route). Continue to Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre with bus 1 in the same direction of travel.

Opens Late: The gallery stays open till 9pm so there’s time to get there in the evening after a conference.

More information at www.azerbaijan.travel

Historical Museum

Exhibits can tell you everything you might have wanted to know about Azerbaijan through the ages. But even if you aren’t a great history buff, it’s worth looking inside the building, once the residence of one of Baku’s great early-20th-century “oil barons”. The opulence of the oriental room is particularly memorable.

Combine with: A day trip out to Absheron sights like the Surakhany fire temple, Qala Preserve or Mardakan.

More information at www.azerbaijan.travel

Yarat

Watch for interesting happenings in the world of contemporary and conceptual art through the website www.yarat.az

 

History & Architecture

If you have a limited time and just want to grab a quick pic, see here for our photo op suggestions. To stroll amid some of the finest architectural sites try one of our walks .

Icheri Shahar

Get lost amid Baku’s UNESCO-protected medieval core, with its narrow alleys, art galleries, colourful carpet-peddlers and melange of old stone buildings.

Maiden Tower

Baku’s ancient architectural mystery is so old nobody’s quite sure what it was for. Climb it to gaze out across the heart of the old city and out across the Caspian – maybe dressed up in one of the available traditional costumes.

Shirvanshah Palace

If stone walls could talk they’d recite praises to Baku’s medieval rulers who slowly pieced together this magical collection of stone domes, tombs and pavilions dating back over 500 years.

Eternal Flame

A martyrs’ graveyard might seem an odd place for a photo-stop but the memorial to victims of the 1990 Russian massacre and 1992-4 Karabakh war is not just a place for quiet reflection. It is also a magnificent viewpoint high above the old city and opalescent bay. The ride up by funicular is part of the attraction and the meditative flaring of an eternal flame is an appropriate neighbour to Baku’s iconic Flame Towers.

Gala

Back when Baku was in nappies, villages like Gala (around 45 minutes’ drive east) were relatively important settlements. Today a fanciful reconstruction of a medieval fortress ushers visitors into an ‘Ethnographic reserve’ showing off a selection of artefacts, excavations and reconstructions of historic habitats dating back to the third millennium BC.

Gobustan

Some of the finest petroglyphs anywhere form the centerpiece of a preserved landscape of giant boulders on a clifftop overlooking the town of Gobustan and the Caspian beyond. Recognised as a UNESCO site, it’s around an hour’s drive south of Baku and can be combined as a day trip with a visit to a curious series of mud volcanes..

 

Curiosities

Visiting any of the suggestions below will require an hour or two’s drive each return from Central Baku.

Ateshgah (Surakhany Fire Temple)

A fire temple? Really?! Yes. Hidden away in unexotic Surakhany and backed by a collection of nodding donkey oil wells, is one of the Azerbaijan’s most photographed sites – a walled, stone caravanserai-temple with central hearth and four side flues that each spit flame (if lit). Although the site was originally Zoroastrian, the current structure appears to be Shivite-Hindu based on inscriptions and a Shiva-trident on the central structure. The whole complex is now a museum.

Mir Movsum Ziyaratgah

Mosaic domes in turquoise majolica create Baku’s nearest impression to classic Central Asian style architecture. Hidden away in Shuvelan, on the eastern edge of Mardakan (an hour east of Central Baku), the shrine is typical of a Shiite, Iranian style holy tomb with its sparkling mirrored interior. But it is also a curious model of cross cultural tolerance – the cemetery outside including not just Muslim star and crescent moon symbols but Orthodox crosses and Soviet-atheist stars too. Few places in Azerbaijan attract as many piously superstitious devotees. Bus 136 from Vurgun Gardens in central Baku takes just over an hour to get there. It’s less than 15 minutes’ drive from Jumeirah Bilgah Beach Hotel.

Yanar Dagh

If you drive between Digah and Zabrat one dark evening, you might notice a strange orange glow rising from the hillside near the low pass. That’s because the hill itself is on fire. Gas escaping from subterranean flues has been burning incessantly for over 50 years and now attracts the curious who can drink a pot of tea while warming themselves beside the unusual feature.

 

Photo Ops

So you don’t have much time – the conference has finished and there’s only a couple of hours before dinner. Where should you go for those great photos that will show the folks back home that you’ve been somewhere really special.

  • Twirl the video from the steps directly east of Nizami Museum – you’ll catch the edge of Fountains’ Square, the niched statues of the literature museum facade, the medieval stone arches of the old city’s double gates and a fountain-flanked stairway climbing to a proud statue of national poet Nizami Ganjavi
  • Stand at the Bahram dragon-slaying Fountain (opposite the Mugham Centre) and you’ll get a photo that combines one of Baku’s grandest stone buildings in the foreground, the modernist bonnet of the Funicular behind, and a fine composition of the Flame Towers rising on the ridge above. Ideal at dusk but not afternoon.
  • The street lamps hanging over pedestrianised Nizami (Togovaya) Street are full blown chandeliers. Really!! Stroll along the western end of that street and along the connecting routes to Fountain Square for a range of attractive night scenes
  • The Heydar Aliyev Centre is jawdropping from every angle but walking around the whole site can take nearly an hour. If you’re pushed for time, you could get a taxi and grab a quick snap from there without getting too heavily into the traffic of Heydar Aliyev Avenue.
  • Eternal Flame – from this Martyr’s Alley the view of Baku Bay is hard to beat, unless you can score a room in the Fairmont Hotel. Don’t miss walking to the eternal flame with its mirror-interior dome and its photogenic angles back onto the Flame Towers.
  • Dom Soviet viewed from the JW Marriott Hotel at dusk with the flag-coloured stripes of the Hilton behind and the Flame Towers rising distantly on the horizon behind. Good early morning or after dusk
  • Views of the Maiden Tower framed by colourful costumes and carpets along Zeynaly street. Best in the afternoon.

 

Restaurants, Cafes and Bars

Chic Restaurants

A whole series of suave, designer restaurants are taking Baku by storm, many the creation of Henry Chebaane – Sahil, Pasifico and Tosca share a great spot on the Boulevard while mesmerising Asian-fusion lounge Chinar is tucked away beside the Funicular. Several more are to be found in the Port Baku development. Merci Baku in the Old City serves French influenced local specialities, has a frilly take on Gallic decor and offers a small, in-demand Terasse des Amis out front on which to see and be seen.

Caravanserais

At least four historic stone caravanserais now act as atmospheric restaurants right within the fortified wall of the UNESCO-listed Old City. Karavansaray oozes old world atmosphere. Mugham Club is unusual for its two storied interior and often stages excellent cultural performances. Art Garden has a somewhat more polished feel.

Local style

Azerbaijani food excels in bringing together Turkic fresh meat specialities (especially lamb) and a range of fruity flavours that add a twist of its own. Don’t overlook flavour-packed roast tomatoes and tangy sumaq to accompany your kebabs. Or the delicious narsharab (pomegranate sauce) that complements sturgeon fish fillets. Seek out southern delicacies like lavangi (stuffed chicken). Or enjoy a range of dolma (vegetables or vine leaves filled with mince). Fresh coriander and assorted salad leaves add a healthy flourish. And there’s a vast range of hearty soups and stews that you can enjoy for next to nothing in local eateries.

International Cuisine

Want flavours of France, a taste of Turkey, genuine Italian, gorgeous Georgian or rustic Russian cuisine? From Korean to Ukrainian, Mexican to sushi, the ever expanding palate of options keeps Baku’s diners well supplied. Addresses change rapidly so it’s always worth asking for the latest recommendations.

Vegetarian Food

Few Azerbaijanis understand vegetarianism and Baku has no specifically veggie or vegan offerings but most good restaurants along with plenty of East Asian eateries will have at least one or two options that are meat free. Lebanese and Middle Eastern restaurants will also have non carnivorous mezze dishes. With its curious Italianate trompe d’oeil interiors the grand yet casual Midpoint serves a particularly good roast vegetable platter including baked peppers and artichoke hearts.

Views and Terraces

Atop the Sultan Inn, within the Old City, is an upper-market rooftop restaurant with great views across to the Maiden Tower. Cafe Casual offers coffees, cakes and cocktails at a sizeable street terrace in a square at the western end of the main pedestrian shopping street (Nizami). With endless Caspian views beyond the beach at Bilgah, Yuukai on the 17th floor of Jumeirah Bilgah Beach Hotel serves Thai and Asian-fusion food in a dazzling interior ablaze with red and golden reflections.

Cafes & Coffeehouses

Conversation over coffee and cake is a classic 21st century pastime for many Bakuvian couples and upwardly mobile young women. Debate rages as to who serves Baku’s best cappuccino but popular opinion rates Baku Blenders. Second Cup is good value albeit with the ambience of an international chain. Cafe City has several suave yet comfortably inviting venues with attractive patterned dark-wood panels and lighting that is discreet without being dim. Mado is ever popular, its Narimanov branch offering a spacious upper floor lounge if you’re visiting this family-oriented part of town.

Teashops and Chaykhanas

Tea is the symbol of hospitality right across the Caucasus, and the usual social lubricant for the vast majority of Azerbaijanis. Teahouses (chaykhanas) might be a few tables under an ancient plane tree, a simple basement room or a grand stone yard with hubble-bubble qalyan (hookah) water pipes to smoke. All are traditionally the preserve of domino-playing men, but while the majority do remain predominantly male environments, there’s also a new breed of teahouse which is more open to female guests. Some exude the colourful exoticism of a dreamy Arabian Nights scene (like Qadim Baku). Others take more of the old English teashop approach. Note that Azerbaijanis pour tea from a ceramic pot into dainty pinch-waist glasses set on small saucers. While slices of lemon and a basin of sugar lumps are almost inevitably provided, locals prefer to sweeten their tea with jams and fruit conserves – many home made. The ideal Azerbaijani pot of tea is made with water boiled in a wood fired samovar producing a very faint, subtle smokiness.

Bars & Pubs

While Azerbaijan is predominantly Muslim, there is no stigma to drinking alcohol. Indeed, there’s a plethora of lounges, cocktail bars and pubs catering for a vast range of tastes. The rotating, evening-only 360 Lounge on the top floor of the Hilton has amazing views, as does the Sky Bar atop the Landmark and hip Bar 11 in the Park Inn. For a more down-to-earth atmosphere there’s a good scattering of Anglo-Irish style pubs, most notably in the triangle formed by the southeast corner of Fountains Square, Mammadaliyev and Taghiyev Streets.

 

Music & Dance

Jazz

The USSR once frowned on jazz as a decadent western phenomenon, but in Baku the form remained popular and gained extra depth by incorporating aspects of traditional Azerbaijani mugham. Today the jazz scene remains vibrant. The annual jazz-fest pulls in great international talent. Meanwhile local stars like piano maestro Isfar Sarabski and jazz-mugham singer Aziza Mustafazadeh travel the world. Baku’s unpretentious jazz center is a reliable place to catch established and rising local talent. Several hotel bars host jazz combos, notably the Alov Jazz Club at the Fairmont (within one of the remarkable Flame Towers).

Opera, Ballet, Classical

Imagine the Monte Carlo Casino given a vaguely Islamic flourish and painted in golden yellow tones: voila – you have Baku’s glorious Philharmonia. Think of a century-old palace-theatre built with the passion of love and renovated with lavishly moulded interiors – that’s the Baku Opera-Ballet. There’s also an old Menonite church used for organ recitals and a grand former synagogue used as a song theatre. Tickets for most events along with a great range of theatrical performances (September to May) are sold conveniently from a little booth on Aziz Aliyev St.

Local, Traditional

Recognised by UNESCO as an intangible manifestation of world heritage, Mugham music is Azerbaijan’s particular gift to global culture. There’s a special centre to promote the artform on Baku Boulevard but concerts are relatively rare. A livelier genre called Meykhana, like a Turkic rap-battle, is gaining popularity in recent years while an array of Azerbaijani musical instruments (tar, saz, zurna, kermancha, Oud) accompany a range of performances in certain restaurants including the Mugham Club.

Pop & Rock

Baku’s range of music genres is remarkable but the most popular style, particularly at weddings, is a Turkic pop with a galloping synth-led beat along with wailing or pining songs of love or mourning. A wide range of visiting stars from many different backgrounds have played Baku – Elton John to Pitbull, Jenifer Lopez to 50 Cent. And locals will likely look aghast if they discover you don’t rate Eurovision, of which Azerbaijan was the enormously proud host in 2012.

Lounges & DJ Bars

Upwardly mobile Bakuvians generally have a fastidious sense of designer chic that extends well beyond shopping at the numerous luxurious boutiques. Notably there is a series of poised lounge bars. Musical tastes in such places varies from ambient through Jazz to cutting edge DJ beats especially on party nights but overall the tone tends to be low lit, mellow and with a semi-strict dress code. You won’t usually expect dancing at such places, though it’s possible at 11 (top floor of Park Inn) and at weekends at Pasifico (top floor above Sahil restaurant). For incredible views of Baku, it’s hard to beat 360, the revolving lounge bar on the top floor of the Hilton.

 

Activities & Sports

Shopping

Central Baku has more designer boutiques per square yard than most European capitals. Prices aren’t cheap and most seem semi-permanently empty but for sheer variety and glitz the scene is astounding. But there’s plenty of less exclusive offerings both in the shiny new 28 Mall and Park Bulvar shopping centres and along Nizami St (Torgovaya), the pedestrianised heart of the city’s commercial district. For really local feel head to the suburban markets or rummage around in more central Taza Bazaar. For carpets and souvenirs there’s masses of choice in family owned stores around the Maiden Tower. Soviet Era badges and medals can be found in the same places and in small shops lurking around the edges of Fountains Square.

Beaches & Seascapes

The Caspian glistens or snarls, dazzles or broods as the weather changes. If you just want to stare at the waves, you need go no further than Baku Boulevard, one of the most popular central strolling areas. But if you want to swim in the sea, you’ll have to drive. Around 20 minutes south beyond Bayil are several party beaches including one attached to the Ramada Hotel with its indoor-outdoor linked pools. The beaches here are curious for the middle distance views of offshore oil rigs. Many locals prefer to drive a little further out onto the Absheron Peninsula. Popular beaches include that at Nardaran with its exclusive Seabreeze development and Amburan/Bilgeh, home to the dramatic Jumierah Beach Hotel and the popular Amburan Beach Club.

Gyms

The panoramic view of Baku from the top of the JW Marriott Absheron Hotel is unforgettable. But it’s all the more amazing to enjoy it as you ply your lengths of the 22nd-floor pool. Or as you run towards it in the 23rd floor gym. The Hilton’s poolside loungers also survey a fine arc of bay from a similar altitude.

Spas & Hamams

Need a massage for those tired bones? Baku’s five star hotels all have glorious spas with a phenomenal range of treatments, relaxations and good old pampering. But the city also has a series of older, more traditional hamams full of local character. Local women are big fans of facials and manicures so you’ll find an extraordinary plethora of beauticians.

Beyond Baku, there are a whole series of rural spa towns each with their own specialities. Best known is Naftalan whose therapeutic oil might be new to western ears, but has been widely esteemed for a century, especially by Russians. A full classic Naftalan oil bath is a unique if decidedly odd experience, and the resort town from which the oil is extracted is now a major draw for health seekers. Chinar (www.chinarhotel.com) offers a relatively luxurious experience, Santorium Naftalan (www.naftalan.biz) is somewhat less showy. Elsewhere, water-based hot springs in Masalli district attract many local clients and the sulphurous springs at Qala Alti are being redeveloped. But one of the wildest therapeutic experiences is sleeping in a salt mine near Nakhchivan, reckoned to be of great benefit to asthmatics. The salt caves are attractively lit and for those who tire of the sparkling subterranean life, nearby Duz Dagh Hotel offers a comfortable modern rooms.

Skiing

Azerbaijan has two new ski resorts, both typically active from December to early March. Both are brand new with state of the art equipment, indeed so new that neither is entirely finished. Shahdag’s upper cable car infrastructure has yet to be installed, though the main lower slopes are fully functioning. Gabala’s network so far includes four cable cars, one of them jawdroppingly steep. Both resorts are just over three hours’ drive from Baku.

Golf

Azerbaijan’s first full-size golf course is now operational near Guba. That’s a little over two hour’s drive north of the capital and there’s loads more to see in the region if you’re heading up that way.

Horses & Riding

Magnificent but rare, thoroughbred Karabagh Horses are the pride of Azerbaijan’s equestrian connoisseurs. One of the nation’s classic sports is Chovghan, an ancient variant of polo which is also played in its modern form. There’s a big equestrian centre on the Absheron Peninsular beyond Baku Airport, while those hiking in the High Caucasus will often find it possible to rent a horse, albeit more to carry baggage than as a mount given frequently steep gradients.

Spectator Sports

Azerbaijan’s great sporting triumphs usually come in martial-arts, combat sports and weight lifting but football (soccer) is ever-popular. Hosting the 2015 Euro Olympics in Baku is set to boost the country’s standing as a world class sporting venue.

 

How to see the city

Baku Hop-on Hop-off bus

Typical of most European capitals, Baku has regular sightseeing buses. This allows for a 15-stage hop-on, hop-off circuit that takes visitors to, or close to, most of the city centre attractions along with the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre, Flame Towers and Flag Square. Tickets are valid for 24 hours with buses departing twice an hour between 10am and 7pm. The whole circuit would take around 80 minutes if you stayed aboard.

Taxi

“Ride the aubergine!” In Baku taxis are ubiquitous, but if you can’t speak local languages it’s usually safest to jump into one of the large fleet of London-style cabs, painted a soothing shade of deep egg-plant purple. Unlike other taxis that you’ll find on the streets (mostly white or yellow), the London-style cabs work strictly on the meter so there’s no need to haggle… though it is customary to tip by rounding the fare up to the nearest Manat. Landmarks are often better than addresses when instructing the driver, few of whom speak much, if any, English. Better still have a local friend explain to the driver where you want to go.

On Foot

Our suggested itineraries give you some walking suggestions. Do use the underpasses when crossing under major roads – traffic takes no prisoners.

 

Public Transport

Metro

Baku’s underground railway, currently undergoing expansion, is predominantly of use for commuters getting into the city rather than for getting around the central area. Nizami metro station is worth visiting for the mosaic murals.

Bus

The sheer overload of route options can make using buses rather confusing for first time visitors in Baku but there are a few easy route numbers to learn:

88 and 120 go along the Boulevard (eastbound) or a block further north (westbound for part of the route) linking many of the major sites.

1, 2 and 11 from the train station area all pass the Heydar Aliyev Culture Centre via different routes.

136 heads out to Mardakan and Shuvelan

116 goes to the airport

The handy website gomap.az has a “buses” button which will show you the exact route taken by dozens of useful services.

 

Azerbaijan beyond Baku

Feel the magic, see the sights, extend your stay.

Don’t rush home! Once your event is over, there’s a whole lot more to see in Azerbaijan. Baku’s plethora of attractions could keep you busy for days. Or jump in a car and within minutes you can swap the capital’s cosmopolitan avenues for mesmerising semi desert… or for one of the Absheron Peninsula’s glistening Caspian beach resorts. Landscapes of mud volcanoes and steppe give way to forests and fields after an hour or two. Within around three hours you can be sipping a cocktail in one of Azerbaijan’s glamorous new ski resorts. Drive for a short day or rumble along on an overnight train and you can find yourself in the magical foothill city of Sheki with its fortress, khan’s palace and real life caravanserai, still serving as a hotel. And if you are planning to combine Georgia and Azerbaijan on the same business trip, why not continue by road from Sheki. You can be in Tbilisi by supper time – and it’s a glorious journey .

So what to choose?

Shahdagh, Guba and the North

Soaring Caucasus mountains, luxurious ski-resorts, sunny beaches and fascinating villages with unique languages – the north has an amazing range of attractions.

Caucasian Cascades

The rapidly expanding Shahdagh resort sits on a glorious shoulder of green mountain turf, turning shepherd pastures into one of the most spectacular ski resorts imaginable. Many of the longer pistes and upper cablecars are still under construction, but the resort is already a superb base from which to hike high into the dramatic crags above or to wander less strenuously into the gloriously set village of Laza surrounded by strings of waterfall that turn into ice climbs in winter. In summer the range of outdoor pursuits gets wider every year.

Golf Retreat

Hidden down country lanes behind the pretty, historic town of Quba is Azerbaijan’s first professional standard golf course, home to the national golf federation (www.aqf.az) and handy for the plush five-star Rixos Resort complex. Perfect for a post-conference getaway that combines scenery, comfort and exercise.

Historic Guba and its Jewish Twin

Don’t be hoodwinked by the splendid 21th century stone buildings and an impressive Olympic Sports Centre on the town’s southern approach. In fact Guba has a quaintly old fashioned heart with pretty old brick houses with overhanging window boxes and unusual old mosques. Meanwhile cross a bridge on the far side of a deep-cut river it’s not mosques but synagogues that you’ll find as the town’s northern neighbour Girmizi Gaseba is perhaps one of the few all-Jewish settlement anywhere outside Israel.

Mystic Mountain Villages

The road is rough. The canyons en route daunting. And accommodation when you get there is limited to ultra-simple guesthouses and real village homestays. But bumping your way to Xinaliq in a 4WD is well worth the effort for the matchless views, the timeless atmosphere and the sense of discovery of a village that has somehow maintained its own distinct language. And it’s not the only one! If Xinaliq whets your appetite you might take the even more adventurous mountain trails and see if you can reach Haput or Qriz. Even if you fail, the attempt will be something unforgettable.

Additional Points of Interest in the region

  • A 30km strip of Caspian beach around Nabran constitutes one of Azerbaijan’s most popular seaside retreats with countless retreats ranging from simple wooden huts to suave hotel-chalets and kitschy family resorts complete with pirate boats and waterslides.
  • En route from Baku you’ll drive past the rocky crown of Beshbarmag, a mystical place with splendid Caspian views and a constant trickle of pilgrims seeking superstitious blessings at its summit.
  • Hidden in an inland valley, the ridge-top ruin of Chirag Castle is one of Azerbaijan’s most striking medieval fortresses and sits above a spa retreat famed for its curative sulphur-filled waters.
  • Vineyards and carpet weavers.

Accommodation

  • Pik Palace Hotel at Shahdagh is the last word in mountain resort luxury and also a great venue for events and conferences should you be considering a location that’s very ‘different’. There are three other brand new hotels in nearby and considerably more accommodation is under construction.
  • Guba has a range of accommodation from intimate family guesthouses to five star resorts.
  • Laza village has very simple family homestays and a seasonal cottage resort, Suvar, with beautiful views.

Access

  • From Baku – driving takes less than 2 ½ hrs to Guba, mostly on a four-lane highway. Ten minutes further turn inland at Gusar and drive another half hour to reach Shahdagh Resort. Laza is 5km beyond that.
Ismayilli & Lahij

Green mountains, fortresses and mountain villages.

Fortress Follies

Ancient trees, fertile hills, towering mountains all play second fiddle to Ismayilli’s extensive grey-stone fortress walls, topped with battlements and crusted with towers. Stretching over a kilometer. Of course they’re a 21st century folly, and claim to be nothing more, but it’s an entertaining welcome to this beautifully set rural community – a stopping point between Baku and Gabala or a launch point for excursions to Lahij and Ivanovka.

Copper Connection

Less than an hour’s drive via geologically spectacular canyon, the pretty little village of Lahij woos visitors with its antique copperware workshops, white-cobbled streets, stone houses and plethora of craft shops. It’s a great place to unwind in relatively cool summer air and hike a series of accessible mountain trails to the crumbling remnants of half-forgotten fortresses. For a very full day trek in summer, follow pilgrims up holy Mt Babadagh and throw stones at the devil!

Wine and Milk

The unique hilltop village of Ivanovka is a timewarp discovery, many of its inhabitants descended from a Russian religious minority know as the ‘milk drinkers’or molokans as they wouldn’t touch a drop of alcohol. So it’s a curious twist f fate that some of Azerbaijan’s most exciting wines come from the same hilltops. Head for Chateau Monolith to taste a selection and tour a state of the art modern winery. Their vast stone arched bottle-aging caves may look medieval but in fact those are 21st century.

Brand New Facilities

When it opens in late 2014, the Sheraton Ismayilli will give the town a new string to its bow with international standard hotel rooms, six meeting rooms and a three-way dividable ballroom of nearly 700sqm. The hotel stands proud in an attractive green field site on the Talistan side of town with views of the mountains to the north and over hills patchworked with the sunflower fields to the south.

Additional Points of Interest in the region

  • The idyllic silk weaving village of Basqal
  • Searching out castle ruins at Talistan and Xanagah
  • Dining on manti at Topchu
  • Excursions via ancient Shamakha to the bracing Bronte-esque highlands of Pirguli, home to one what was once of the USSR’s foremost astronomical observatories.
  • Quick stop at Diri Baba Mausoleum built into a cliffside barely 1km off the road at Maraza/Qobustan
  • The remarkable metamorphosis of landscapes en route from Baku, passing from semi desert to bucolic fields to mountain-backed lush forests

Accommodation

Ismailli – Sheraton Ismayilli is the one international style hotel in this rural setting

Lahic – numerous family guesthouses, homestays and mini hotels are dotted around the mountain village

Ivanovka – a cute Anglo-Azeri guesthouse gives a real sense of local life but with the ease of dealing with fluent English-speaking owners

Access

  • From Baku – 2hrs 45 mins drive to Ismayilli – route encompasses semi deserts, mud volcanoes, historic Shamakha with its finely re-built classic mosque, the Diri Baba cliff-tomb at Qobustan-Maraza. 3.5hrs drive to Lahij including a passage through a canyon of impressively upturned strata.
  • From Gabala – 45 minutes to Ismayilli through fields and woodlands dotted with simple, rustic roadside restaurants
Gabala Area

Azerbaijan’s luxury rural resort combines history, forested foothills and cablecars climbing dramatic high ridges for mountain panoramas, along with a vast range of alternative outdoor pursuits.

Music, Culture and Comfort

Qabala is one of Azerbaijan’s foremost resort towns, its bucolic setting giving a beautiful air to an exceptional array of hotels. Kids love the Qabaland Theme Park while classical music lovers can attend the prestigious annual International Music Festival, sensibly hosted in a town that hosts Azerbaijan’s main piano manufacturer. If you want to do more than leisure, Qabala is a potential MICE destination in its own right with a truly remarkable international standard Congress Centre that hosted a 2013 heads of state meeting.

Year Round Activities

Gabala is working tirelessly to expand its sports offering. Considerable infrastructure for winter sports is growing with a new super steep black run nearing completion to provide a piste for even the toughest professional-level competitions. But there is also a range of summer activities to suite mere mortals, including quad biking, horse riding and sport-shooting in a purpose built centre. The top hotels have decent pools and spa facilities and there’s a large pleasure-lake towards nearby Vandam.

Cable Car Capers

Adrenaline rushes are guaranteed even if you don’t want to ski, as Gabala’s brand new cable car launches you up a vertiginous mountainside for an amazing panorama of surrounding peaks and valleys. Stroll around, snack or ski back in season. Or carry on down the far side and on a third ropeway up to Duruja, an historic shepherds’ village traditionally occupied only in winter, but now reborn as a node on the ropeway network.

History Hunting

History hunters have plenty to do seeking out the archaeological reminders of the once-great kingdom of Caucasian Albania that had its capital some 20km west of Gabala over a millennium ago. The town museum tells you more but perhaps a more interesting adventure is to visit the village of Nij where the population still speaks an otherwise ‘lost’ dialect essentially the same as that of the mysterious Caucasian Albainans, and retains three fine churches related to Caucasian Albanian rites. One has been beautifully restored and re-consecrated.

Additional Points of Interest in the region

  • Comfortable Yengija mineral-water spa resort
  • Pretty Caucasian foothill villages
  • Seeking out the Seven Beauties Waterfall
  • Well preserved 15th-century tomb towers hidden in the woodlands of Hazra

Accommodation

  • Gabala’s range of smart resort hotels includes the very grand Qafqaz Riverside Hotel, the brand new yet traditionally styled Qafqaz Caravanserai.
  • For those on smaller budgets, Gabala also has a wide range of guesthouses, motels and more modest hotels both in town and in the surrounding rural district.
  • Duyma is a family friendly resort hidden up a 5km lane from Vandam from which a tempting long distance hiking trail starts right outside.

Access

  • From Baku – 3 ½ hours’ drive – a remarkable variety of scenery en route
  • From Ismayilli 45 minutes’ drive – fast but pretty through fields, woodlands and with many tea-places and local eateries en route. Mountain views aplenty.
  • From Sheki – around 2 hours on well maintained but relatively peaceful lanes, many lined by trees with mountain views
  • International airport – limited scheduled flights but ideal for pre-arranged VIP arrivals
Sheki

Birdsong and ancient giant plane trees envelop the exotic little khan’s palace at Sheki, sunset light turning into rainbows as it filters thorough the latticework shebeke windows. Sturdy castle walls surround the site set amid birdsong and rolling forested hills. Down the cobblestoned hill, some of the world’s most complete caravanserai complexes have a movie-set sense of the old silk road, their brick arched cells still used as a basic hotel to this day. For greater comfort there is a modern day Saray too. Short drives bring you out onto an Alpine viewpoint with Sound of Music views. At Dashyuz there’s an equestrian centre where Chovghan, Azerbaijan’s feisty version of polo has its annual climax. The magical ancient village of Kish has an ancient church and splendid walks. And it’s all easily accessible, barely 20 minutes’ detour if you’re driving the scenic route to Tbilisi.

Additional Points of Interest in the region

  • Silk factory
  • Famed for local sweets
  • Ancient church ruins in the nearby foothills
  • Beautiful Ilisu and Jar villages, further west
  • The fortress citadel of Zaqatala, two hours’ drive west.

Accommodation

  • There are several hotels, guesthouses and homestays.
  • The classic choice is a fully functioning historic Caravanserai, converted to a hotel in the Soviet era. The building oozes atmosphere but comfort is limited.
  • Sheki Saray is a comfortable boutique hotel with many artistic flourishes that meld traditional these with modern sensibilities
  • Sheki Palace Hotel is a big, full service contemporary complex handily placed near the historic heart of old Sheki.

Access

  • From Baku – Allow around six hour’s drive. The route is very varied yet beautiful for almost the entire journey and you might be tempted to take much longer – so consider leaving as early as possible. The trip is also possible by overnight train from Baku – conditions are simple but you get a sleeping berth for less than the cost of most basic guesthouses.
  • From Tbilisi – around six hours’ drive via the very attractive regions of Qax and Zagatala then through Georgia’s Kaheti district, widely famed for its excellent wines. Consider side trips (with possible overnight stops) at the mountain-view castle village of Ilisu (near Qax) and the Georgian hilltop resort of Sighnaghi.
Central Azerbaijan

Compared with the endless beauty of the northern forests, fields and mountains, it takes a little more effort to seek out the charms of Azerbaijan’s steppe-land interior. But there are some intriguing discoveries to be made. Tucked away at Naftalan is one of the world’s oddest spa experiences with cure-seekers immersing themselves in tubs of marmite-coloured mineral oils – said to have miraculous healing and rejuvinative properties. The nation’s second city, Ganja claims at least 2500 years of history and retains antique mosques, a grand central square and a unique ‘bottle house’. In the foothills of the nearby Lesser Caucasus mountains is Goygol the best preserved of several villages originally founded in the 19th century by German settlers (previously known as Helendorf). It new name is taken from a glorious if hard to access mountain lake. The road towards the lake passes beautiful views of Mt Kyapaz, rising like an open rocky beak above a range of green mountaintops.

Southern Azerbaijan

Azerbaijanis love to tell you how many different climatic types are crammed together in such a small country. Heading south the truth in this is obvious. On one side, the road looks out over dazzlingly blue Caspian waters. On the other you pass sun-parched semi-desert, collections of mud-volcanoes big and small, a classic petroglyph site and some intriguing oil workings, all within the first hour out of Baku. Further south, sharp eyed visitors to the Shirvan National Park may catch sight of lovable jeyran (Caucasian antelopes) while further south are lagoons that attract seasonal migrations of flamingos. The land becomes hilly and lush beyond Masalli. Citrus groves and tea fields lie close to the main highway while side valleys lead through pretty woodlands into bald topped moorland-style mountains in whose villages live some of the world’s longest lived people.

Nakhchivan

Like a giant divine tooth, the giant crag of Ilan Dagh (Snake mountain) towers above unforgettable desert landscapes in the little visited exclave of Nakhchivan. The short but dramatic flight to get there from Baku requires a short but dramatic flight across the Lesser Caucasus with great views of Mt Ararat (Aghri-Dagh). Despite its memorable attractions, foreign visitors remain remarkably rare in this land of legends which sees itself as the last resting place of that great biblical boatman, Noah. Noah even has a mausoleum in the mud walled ruins of Nakhchivan’s ancient citadel site. The city’s most impressive building, the 1186 Momine Khatun tomb tower is a glorious combination of brick and blue majolica tilework. Nearby Duzdagh offers an extraordinary opportunity to sleep in a Soviet era salt mine now transformed into an asthma treatment spa and hotel complex. To the southeast beyond the curious pilgrimage cave-site of Ashabi Kayf, badland scenery reaches a magnificent crescendo en route to the pretty oasis village of Ordubad whose lemons are locally reckoned to be the world’s best.

Note that to reach Nakhchivan from the rest of Azerbaijan it is necessary to fly (or drive via Iran or Georgia/Turkey). If you’re planning a visit and planning to travel using Turkish Airlines it’s possible to fly one leg Istanbul-Nakhchivan rather than backtracking to Baku.

Possible Itineraries for Exploring Azerbaijan

How much time do you have?. Below are just a few possibilities if you want to get out of Baku for a certain length of time. But remember there are also plenty of other options within the greater Baku area.

  • 1 day: Glimpse of the mountains. Drive to Shahdagh with stops at the base of Beshbarmag and tea in Guba. Meal at Pik Palace and return after a glimpse of Laza.
  • 1 day: Spot Jeyran Caucasian Gazelles at Shirvan National Park. Return and visit the beaches at Shikh.
  • 1 day: Qabala cable car ride. Drive via Diri Baba, Shamakha, Ismayilli.
  • 2 days: As b) above, adding one night at Shahdagh or golfing at Rixos-Guba and a visit to Girmizi Gasaba
  • 2 days: As b) above, but adding an excursion to the remote mountain village of Xinaliq and a night in simple accommodation there or something more luxurious around Guba
  • 2 days: Ismaiyilli, Lahij and Ivanovka
  • 2 days: As c) above but with a brief side trip to Lahij.
  • 2 days: Baku-Tbilisi with a night en route in Sheki
  • 3 days: Combine d) and e)
  • 3 days: Baku-Tbilisi with nights en route in Lahij/Ismayilli and Sheki
  • 3 days: Fly in, fly out weekend in Nakhchivan
Overland Baku-Tbilisi

Of course it’s easy to fly. And there’s an overnight train too. But if you have business in both the Georgian and Azerbaijani capitals, do consider taking a car and using the opportunity… some of the region’s most beautiful yet accessible scenery lies close to or right along the roadside. But be sure to take the smaller, more northerly route via Shamakha, Ismayilli, Sheki, Zagatala and the Georgian wine district of Kaheti. You won’t regret it. But do plan on sleeping at least one night en route. Sheki is ideally situated for just such a stop and has a winning combination of rural charm, historic pedigree and modern comfort. Plus you can stay in a genuine caravanserai!

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