The largest city in Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus region is a controversial place. On one side there is a huge contrast with the rest of the country in terms of education and living standards. While Baku received huge investments and has a relatively high standard of living, the provinces seem forgotten. On the other side its abundant architectural heritage is selectively evaluated and reconstructed. Neoclassical Fin de Siècle buildings and most of the medieval Old Town are luxuriously refurbished, while typical Caucasian residential buildings with wooden balconies and small vineyards are left to decay.
What is Baku Like
Located on the Absheron Peninsula, Baku is surrounded by the Caspian sea to the south, a series of lakes to the north, and hills both east and west. The city center is a compact urban settlement with an orthogonal street grid with streets either parallel or perpendicular to the sea. Several wide roads connect the center with numerous dispersedly built rural type suburbs. In the south west corner of the city the round shaped Old Town still has a bit of a medieval atmosphere. The Fountain Square next to it marks the beginning of the wide elegant pedestrian zone.
What to See in Baku
There are plenty of things to see and do in Baku. It is dotted with magnificent buildings from various historical periods, beautiful parks, and nice walking areas. The Old town or İçəri Şəhər dates back as far as the 12th century and parts of the original city including City walls and Maiden Tower can still be seen. Its highlights are the Palace of the Shirvanshahs from the 15th century, two Caravanserais and the Juma Mosque from the 19th century. The modern city center is packed with lavish stone buildings, among which the Baku Opera and Ballet theatre and the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall stand out for their decorations while the House of Government impresses with its curious shape. Modern highlights include the Flame Towers south of the old town, and the Heydar Aliyev Center built by world renowned architect Zaha Hadid, northeast of the city center.
Baku doesn’t have a good range of accommodation, and just like Dubai it tends to attract wealthier tourists. Thus there is a large number of expensive hotels, and even though some of them are listed as midrange their prices are quite high compared to the rest of the region. There are a few budget guesthouses and hostels mostly located in the Old Town or near the Central train station. The best real midrange hotels are located on the outskirts of the city center.
The city center is flat so walking about is a great option, though there is a lot of traffic there are a reasonable number of pedestrian underpasses. The long sea promenade and the large central pedestrian zone are safe havens for those who enjoy walking. Biking would be a good option too if there were bike rentals around the city. The only one is located on the sea promenade between the carpet museum and the new Ferris wheel, but their bikes are pretty old. For larger distances the best way to explore Baku is using the metro. Its low prices and high speed compensate for a somehow confusing system. Just ask the locals and you will find your way around. Taxis are cheap too, although not as much as in the bordering countries.
Baku is a city full of surprises. The Baku Citadel with its unique architecture is the only preserved oriental town from the middle ages. Neoclassical buildings surrounding the modern city center are of exceptional decorative value. Slick new architecture is an additional value to an already varied heritage. But perhaps the biggest gem is its decayed residential architecture consisting of two or three stories stone buildings with wooden balconies and an almost obligatory grape tree around it. There are plenty of examples all around the center, neglected for some reason. Nevertheless Baku with its premium location, large beautiful parks and fantastic architecture is well worth visiting. Since the introduction of low cost flights from Budapest it has become closer than ever.
Baku Travel Guide
- Stay on the outskirts of the city center. Happy Frog recommends Swan Hotel
- The Palace of the Shirvanhahs;
- The 13th century Bibi Heybat mosque;
- The Flame towers and the Martyrs’ Lane;
- Heydar Aliyev Center of contemporary art.
- Try local food in Manqal restaurant in the Old town.
- On foot, by metro and taxi.
- Go on an excursion to Qobustan.
DO NOT MISS:
- Get lost in the Old town and nearby pedestrian area;
- Walk along the seaside promenade all the way to the Crystal Hall;
- Enjoy the sunsets from the Maiden tower;
- Watch the locals shop in Park Bulvar shopping center;
- Listen to a concert in the Baku Philharmonic hall or watch an opera at the Baku Opera House.