From its rich heritage to its opulent city centre, Azerbaijan’s capital Baku is more than just a pin on the Eurovision map, says Farida Zeynalova
Baku is the lovechild of both European and Asian charm, one that has shed its Soviet past and transformed into a glittering metropolis on the Caspian coast. It’s a melting pot of Turkish, Persian and Russian influences, with a pristinely preserved Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, grandiose architecture and a delectable national cuisine. Often dubbed ‘Dubai’s little sister’, saunter around Baku for a few days and you’ll quickly realize it sits in a league of its own.
A boutique hotel in the heart of Baku’s historical core, Shah Palace Hotel is a four-story, modern-day Aladdin’s cave. The colonnaded courtyard, made up of traditional marble and wood carvings, is surrounded by 35 rooms, three restaurants and a spa — the Turkish bath here is a must-try. The hotel is just meters away from Icheri Sheher (Old City) and minutes from the buzz of the modern city centre. shahpalacehotel.com
Exchange your dollars for manat and you’ll instantly spot Azerbaijan’s emblem, the 12th-century Maiden Tower on the notes. Although its purpose is shrouded in mystery, it sits at the heart of the Old City in a land that dates back to the Paleolithic era. Stroll further inside the city walls and you’ll discover the Shirvanshah’s Palace, or amble through the cobbled streets to see local men playing backgammon as well as traditional carpet sellers.
Piercing through Baku’s skyline since 2012, the Flame Towers are three colossal, flame-shaped glass buildings, heralding Azerbaijan’s moniker as the Land of Fire. Each flame’s façade is made up of giant LED displays, illuminating the horizon with the blazing visual effect as well as the colors of the Azerbaijani flag. Admire this nightly spectacle during an evening’s walk along the bulvar (boulevard).
The Baroque-inspired Nizami Street is the most renowned shopping area in Baku, and comprises mainly local and international designer boutiques. But nestled between the Guccis and the Pradas are smaller, independent shops selling souvenirs and handy supermarkets. Traditional food markets are found on the outskirts of the city centre.
Firuze is situated down a set of narrow steps in Fountains Square — stomping ground of both locals and tourists. Its decor is delightfully Azeri: every inch of the walls covered with hanging carpets and colorful plates. Firuze is best known for national dishes, such as shish kebab and dolma (Azeris love to grill and pickle pretty much anything). Finish your meal like a local, with tea, baklava and eavesdropping.
Drinking tea is a treasured pastime in Azerbaijan, and the locals like it freshly brewed and strong. Old Baku Tea House is an authentic gem hidden within the Old City walls away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Baku. Tea is served with rich pastries, dried fruit and nuts, and locals often spend hours here puffing away on shisha pipes.
A memorial site for the estimated 15,000 killed during Black January 1990 and later the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Martyrs Lane offers up a sobering piece of national history, but with a twist. Head to the end of the lane for spectacular views of Baku bay and its shipyards, and National Flag Square, with its gigantic flag flying at an astounding height of 162m.