Baku, a hidden gem and the capital of Azerbaijan, is seemingly a beautiful concoction of the East and West in all its architectural glory. Sitting attractively on the Caspian coastline, Baku is modern and fancy yet has that medieval magic laced within. The old part of the city is steeped in historic buildings, mosques and heritage edifices while the other side is etched with stunning architecture, futuristic buildings and a hint of luxury. Since itâ€™s the largest city in Azerbaijan it reels tourists in with its metro and rural features that are astonishing as well as entrancing. Baku has a little bit of Europe, a little bit of Asia and of course the Middle-East, making it a massive culture-hub that is undiscovered but a growing rage amongst all travellers.
The country of Azerbaijan is bounded by the Caspian Sea and shares a border with Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and Iran.
What to expect:
As I set foot into Baku, it instantly teleported me to Turkey and Russia, being a great mix of both but with itâ€™s own charm. Laced with a great vibe, tons of sheesha joints, amazing local restaurants, a mysterious old town and futuristic buildings, this destination is a paradise for tourists. With an old world charm yet a modern vibe, Baku offers the best of both – luxury and archaism.
Hereâ€™s what you can expect: Marvelous architecture, tall fun shaped buildings, a modern boulevard with the most beautiful hues of greens and blues, high end stores, luxury shopping, a mixed crowd, vintage cars and oil rigs around. All of this borders the Icheri Seher, the old town, the heart of the city which is a medieval village with bricked walls, cobbled lanes, carpet shops, small souvenir stalls, hidden markets and smiling Azeri locals. Both of these sides of Baku blend so seamlessly with a lot of Soviet touches.
Ideal for: A short getaway
I enjoyed the five nights I spent here and might go back some day to explore the country side. So if you reside in the Middle East, Russia or anywhere close to Baku then you should definitely check it out for a weekend getaway but if youâ€™re coming all the way from India or anywhere further, especially for this, I would say club it up with some other country or do it when you come to the Middle East. If you haven’t seen Turkey and Russia, I’d say do those first and then explore Azerbaijan.
Where to stay in Baku:
Baku is home to some amazing hotel brands making it easier to pick an accommodation option here. However, it is smart to choose one which is closer to the old town. I spent four nights in the Art Gallery Hotel and I highly recommend it. We had the fountain square to the left, old town to the right and Baku Boulevard opposite us. All the tourist spots were in good proximity, in walking distance to us. The rooms were so beautifully designed; the entire property was very artistic and quirky. It was a hotel seemingly exhibiting supreme artwork with an aesthetic that is to inspire. The breakfast buffet was just as inspiring; there were trolleys rolled out every single morning with fruits, cheese, nuts, cold cuts, etc, while the hot dishes were made to order, instantly. I loved the idea since there was no wastage of food and hot breakfast was accessible and available at all times. The number of rooms were limited and the service was outstanding. Fairmont, Four Seasons, Marriott and Hilton (in the mentioned order) are other great alternatives to stay at.
Restaurant recommendations in Baku:
Baku and food are more or less, synonymous; there is an unending bond between the Capital and its culinary delights. If there is one thing Baku is famous for, then it’s definitely the food. Here, one can find the most profound restaurant set-ups. From underground caves serving local food to lavish fine dining restaurants, Baku has it all! Although, it is a suggestion to steer clear of the buzzing typical tourist spots and instead go to these few recommendations.
Azerbaijan is perched beautifully between the Middle East and Europe hence that reflects in their cuisine too. Expect lots of meat with fresh vegetables, pomegranates, cheese, bread and tons of sheesha spots. Although finding vegetarian food can be tricky, it can be managed in a few restaurants, if one is not too finicky.
Highly recommend these restaurants:
1) Sirvanshah Museum Restaurant– Book a table in advance for dinner and watch their live dance performances (check the dance timings and then book) Loved their food especially, the eggplant rolls and qutab. Make sure to check your bill properly here, they can goof up at times.
2) Chinar: Dined here two nights in a row. If you love Asian food and youâ€™re looking for something fancy then this is your spot. They serve sheesha too!
3) Chayki: A great lunch spot on the boulevard.
4) Dolma: A must visit when in Baku. Their underground set up is so mesmerising.
5) Firuze: Didnâ€™t get a chance to try this but heard itâ€™s as good as Dolma.
6) Sumac: Highly recommend this spot for a fantastic local fine dining experience. Loved everything we tried here, especially the honey cake. Book a table in advance.
7) Sehrli Tendir: One of my favourite spots in Old Town. Head there for breakfast and order the eggs with tomato, hot bread, labneh, cheese and salad- you will thank me later.
8) Cay bagi 145: A great spot in the Old town with bricked walls and a medieval vibe. Loved the place for tea and sheesha.
Didnâ€™t get a chance to try Nakhchivan, Mugham Club and Sahil Bar and Grill but they were on my list too.
The locals love their tea time and take it too seriously. Make sure to have a good tea experience where they serve you a tea set with jams, chocolates, nuts, local sweets and local tea. Their jam is made out of a fruit and youâ€™re supposed to keep a piece of that in your mouth and then sip tea so that you donâ€™t find it bitter. An experience by itself! Most of the spots serve the set, enjoy it with some sheesha.
* Avoid the restaurant Il Patio on the main square, it was horrible!
Local Dishes to try:
1. Pilaf/ Plov: Rice with meat, dryfruits, apricots, spices, herbs
2. Dolma- Vine leaves stuffed with meat and vegetables
3. Qutab- Local paratha with a stuffing of meat/cheese/greens
5. Dushbara â€“Meat dumplings in a broth
6. Pakhlava- Dessert
7. Saj- Meat and veggies on a copper pan
8. Azeri Breakfast: Tandoor bread with cheese, jams, honey, butter
9. Tea with jam- Locals prefer their tea with a jam fruit
If youâ€™re looking for a good nightclub then Pacifico is your spot. It gets packed only after 2am and goes on till the wee hours of morning.
Left: Cay Bagi 145; Right: Chayki
Left: Dolma at Sumac; Right: Honey cake at Sumac
Sirvanshah Museum Restaurant
Sirvanshah Museum Restaurant
Left: Paul; Right: Dolma
Things to do in Baku:
The best way to explore the city is by foot.
1. Old Town – Walk around and get lost in the magical cobbled streets of the Icheri Seher. Check out the Maiden Tower, Palace of the Sirvanshah and the entire area around it.
2. Fountain Square
3. Flame Towers
4. Heyder Aliyev Center
5. Upland Park â€“ Take the furnicular up and hang around the park around sunset. Also as you keep walking up you will get the best view of the flame tower.
6. Nizami Street
7. Indulge in good local meals, tea and sheesha
Museum of Miniature Books
Day trips from Baku
For this weÂ booked a car and driver through our hotelÂ concierge. We opted for a private tour and it was great- Emil =0552220422 (Couldn’t speak English too well but he was fun to hang out with and knew all the local spots)
8. Gobustan National Park: You will have to hire a car and driver as this spot is an hour away from Baku but definitely visit it. It’s a half day tour from Baku
9. Mud Volcanoes: The mud volcanoes are right in the Gobustan region and a delight to watch.
– You could also tour the famous Ateshgah. Please skip Yanar Dag, I found it a bit hyped and a waste of time.
– The candy cane mountains inÂ Khizi Rayon and Siyazan Rayon are also worth exploring.
– Places like Shamakhi and Diri Baba were on the list too but didn’t get a chance to visit.
-There are also some interesting wine tours from Baku. You could try out the Chabiant Winery
**I would recommend opting for a guided tour outside Baku as language can be a barrier. You can book it from companies like Experience Azerbaijan, Pasha Travels or through your hotel concierge.
Tours Outside Baku
The regions of Qabala, Sheki, Ganja, Khizi district and Lahij are definitely very interesting. If you have extra days in hand then hire a car and spend a few days around.
Left: Flame Towers; Right: Nizami Street
Left: Baku Boulevard; Right: Balu Old Town
Left: Gobustan National Park; Right: Mud Volcano
Donâ€™t leave without:
– Eating breakfast at Sehrli Tendir
– Taking the local Sumac spice home
– Buying their famous mountain honey
– A local rug or a carpet
– Eat the honey cake at Sumac
– Exploring the region of Gobustan
– Taking a picture with the flame towers
– Eating qutab with greens
– Buying local ceramics (Check out Nargis in Old Town)
– Walking around aimlessly around Old Town
– Sitting in the cute local cab (the one that looks like a London Taxi)
– You can buy a SIM Card at the airport
– From the airport hire one of these cute purple and yellow taxis.
– Table reservations are required for fancy restaurants.
– Opt for tour guides if stepping out of Baku because language can be a barrier.
Things I loved:
– I was happy with how cheap the prices at all restaurants are. Everything we ate was so delicious and affordable. Imagine even the best restaurant had an item on the menu which was 0.5$
– Baku is quite safe for everyone. At no point will you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Of course you have to be vigilant and not walk in dark empty lanes late at night.
Important things to know about Baku/ Things I didnâ€™t like:
– Scams are extremely common in Azerbaijan so be extremely careful. While we were being dropped to the airport at the end of the trip, the driver demanded an extra amount for parking which he didnâ€™t really have to pay. Of course we didnâ€™t fall prey to it but make sure you demand a bill and be smart.
– SIM Card scams are also quite huge. I suggest buying a sim card from the Azercell stall at the airport before the exit.
– Always check your bill in the restaurants. They do throw in a few extra things here and there since you wonâ€™t understand the names of the dishes. Donâ€™t be afraid to ask about each and everything mentioned in the bill. Also they might charge extra for breads and salads that they bring to the table without asking.
– If youâ€™re ordering an UBER make sure to verify the car and driver. Normal taxi guys also yell UBER when they just want some clients. If youâ€™re opting for a normal taxi then please donâ€™t sit in a dingy soviet car, make sure it is a real taxi.
-I was a very disappointed with the departure airport staff. They were so rude at the check in and at immigration. Also the airport doesnâ€™t have too many eating options.
– Before taking a cab discuss the price to avoid disappointment.
Shopping in Baku:
From luxury brands like Dior, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi etc to high street brands like Zara, Bershka, Baku has most of it. I wouldnâ€™t say the prices are lower than Dubai but the collection is a bit different. You could also head to the Baku Mall for more options or else hop on to the pedestrianized Nizami street for some local buys. I bought some beautiful ceramics for my home (from Nargis Porcelain), local scarves and honey from Old Town.
Overall I found Baku quite cheap as compared to other European places or the Middle East.
Sim Card – 46 Manat (the only thing that was a bit steep)
Taxi from airport to the city (purple yellow cab) – 30 Manat
Entry to the Sirvanshah Palace – 30 Manat
Ceramic shopping – 45 Manat( for two things)
Gobustan Tour- 225 Manat (includes pick up from hotel, gobustan national park, mud volcanoes, yanar dag and ateshgah followed by a drop back to the hotel for two adults in a private car)
Dolma lunch- 33 Manat (for two)
Sirvanshah Museum Restaurant- 80 Manat (for two including wine)
Starbucks coffee- 5 Manat
Paul lunch- 50 Manat (for two)
Chinar- 224 Manat (meal for two including wine and sheesha)
Chaiki lunch – 65 Manat(for two)
Sumac – 125 Manat (for two with wine)
Best time to visit to Baku:
I went in the month of September and absolutely loved the weather. It was 20 to 25degrees, very pleasant. May to August is usually dry and warm. I would recommend anytime between September to March is good.
Number of nights required in Baku:
Ideally, four nights are just enough to explore Baku and the Gobustan area at ease. If you want to do other parts of Azerbaijan then you could add a few nights. In three nights you can experience all of Baku and keep one full day for Gobustan.
Getting around Baku:
The city is best when explored on foot. I would not recommend renting a car if you plan to spend time only in Baku. But if you want to explore the countryside then I recommend hiring a car and guide. Buses and metros are safe to use but their taxis (London looking cabs) are the cutest. Luckily Uber is also available.
What to pack:
Unlike other neighbouring countries, Baku is not so conservative. People are modern and dress like it. But due to the extreme climates you might want to be prepared for any kind of weather. Baku is quite windy and can go from extreme hot to extreme cold in a few hours. If you’re visiting mosques or any religious spots, cover your legs and shoulder. I suggest pack comfortable walking shoes, avoid flashing brands too much, pack a thick jacket and scarves, dresses (avoid shorts) and comfortable pants.
The main language spoken is Azerbaijani but the locals also speak a bit of Russian. Most people do manage to speak English as well. Unless you’re in the countryside, language shouldn’t be a problem.
The local currency is Azerbaijani Manat. Check the exchange rate www.xe.com
Did you know?
–Azerbaijan is called the Land of Fire. It was invaded by the Achaemenids aka The Persian Empire and this brought Zoroastrianism which is why you will find the fire worshipping temples in the country.
– It is also called as the city of winds. Due to its location on the Caspian Sea you will often find the place very breezy
Fly: Direct flight from Dubai to Baku with Fly Dubai (3 hours)
Take a taxi from the airport to the centre (distance is 30km approx).
Visa: Most citizensÂ need an E-visa to enter Baku. It is easy to apply. Check the link here-Â evisa.gov.az/en/
With a ravishing coastline and a medieval feel, the city sure did lure me in. Baku is almost enchanting with equal doses of antiquity and modernity, something that you should experience!
If you have any other questions about Azerbaijan then do leave them below and I’ll be happy to answer 🙂