Baku

by Ucman Scher
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Solo Gay Trip Guide to Baku – the Capital of Azerbaijan

Baku is the bustling capital of Azerbaijan and a city of intrigue located in the Absheron region of the country. It is uniquely positioned to offer visitors a variety of experiences from a city break to a beach holiday. Azerbaijan is a petro rich dictatorship and like all dictatorships, the emphasis of the elite is to make the capital look as lavish as possible to deflect the problems the rest of the country faces.

Read my country guide about Azerbaijan to find answers to all your questions for a comfortable trip.

Baku is lined with grand highways, shopping centres, high-end restaurants, skyscrapers and a glamorous promenade. I visited this beautiful city as part of my Caucuses trip; Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan with Baku as my last stop. It also held a particular fascination because it is close to Iran with influence from Iranian as well as Russian sides. The combination was an infinite source of fascination which I haven’t felt elsewhere.

Between the old and new town

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Getting to Baku

Baku has two airports with the new International airport built to international standards. I arrived at the International airport and left from the older airport and the difference was stark!

New Airport

The new airport has multiple banks and ATM’s, hotel boots and car rental companies as well as food and a duty-free, all of this is absent from the other airport. I took the bus from outside to the central train station which took some 30 minutes and dropped me at the main train station which isn’t near the old or new city centre. From there, I took a taxi to arrive at my accommodation. I used the same way to get back to the airport when returning. It would have been useful to book a shuttle through the hotel.

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Old Airport, less bling inside

Where to Stay in Baku

City Hall of Baku

I stayed in the fountain square (Fəvvarələr Meydanı) which is part of the new city centre and anywhere between the Old City and fountain square is good. It offers a central location, easy walking distances to many tourist attractions on both sides, safety and other amenities like shops, restaurants etc.  Old city offers some interesting choices for a stay but it is quite touristy and pricey which is why I wouldn’t recommend it. The area around the fountain square also offers a variety of options from hostels to luxury hotels. If you are booking through Airbnb I’d recommend you check the reviews before booking.

Check the guide to find the best accommodation in a new city.

Fountain Square

Public Transport

Public Transport within Baku is pretty good. Baku Metro is modern and great for intercity travel but you’d still need to use taxi to go around like Heyder Aliyev centre. I used Uber which was quite cheap and readily available. In order to use public transport in Baku, you must use BakıKART or BakuCard which can be bought on metro stations and can be sued for both metro and buses.

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Icherishehar Metro Station

Public transport to go out of the city is not straightforward and I’d highly recommend getting your own transportation or joining some tours. You will see plenty of tours advertised on excursion company shops around the city centre.

Artwork at a metro station

Food in Baku

Food is Baku is absolutely lovely. You can choose a variety of food from Russian to Georgian and very Iranian and central Asian flavours. My favourite place in the whole of Baku was Firuze Restaurant and it isn’t like me to go back to the same place for more but I went back twice because it was so good. Some of the best things to try are Pilaf which is Azeri version of Punjabi Pulao but with lots more nuts and dried fruits. It is quite heavy but absolutely delicious and it is usually baked in a filo pastry.

From the Turkish and Iranian influence I found a lot of BBQ’s meat as well as grilled fish and from the Georgian side, Xinkali (these are steamed dumpling filled with minced meat and delicious broth) and Gutab/Kutabi which is bread filled with a variety of things but best with mountain herbs.

Some other must-eat are Kufta Buzbash (broth with chickpeas, lamb and beef), Sheki Style Pitti (lamb with chickpeas, dried plums and saffron), Dolmas and Aubergine rolls stuffed with Walnut sauce.

Fun Fact: There is an intense rivalry between Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan about who came up with Dolma and saying it started elsewhere will get you some stares at the least. I wouldn’t say it to restaurant staff since they handle your food if you know what I mean.

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Best Things to do in Baku

Free Walking Tour

The best way to familiarise yourself with a new city is to take a walk with locals. Free Walking Tour in Baku was my first point of call the day I arrived. We started from Icherishahar or old city metro station and walked around for 3 hours understanding the structure of the city as well as history, customs and traditions of Baku. The tours happen every day and the guides were very friendly and knowledgeable. Most of the tour happened in and around the old city but we did get some recommendations from the guide about what to do and this guide should help you with a good idea of what to do outside the tour.

Finding unique items during the walk..

Activities in Baku can be divided into three main categories; Icherishahar (old town), New town and near the city.

Icherishahar (Old Town)

Cat love!

The old town is the walled old town of the historical Baku. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000. Streets are narrow and houses are built in the old style. It is the protected area (which is surprisingly very well kept and clean). It also happens to be the area of cats which you will find aplenty including some reminders of their presence like this painting dedicated to them).

Entrance to the Old City

Fun Fact: Baku shows the ancient traffic between Subcontinent and Caucuses with its own Multani Caravanserai. This old-style inn is thought to have housed Hindu pilgrims coming to visit the Fire Temple outside Baku belonging to Zoroastrian and Hindu worshipers.

Azeri style Balcony

With the advent of Russians, the old town changed its structure and many European style buildings appeared. Some of these have been turned into luxury hotels now but that doesn’t make them inaccessible, in fact, quite the opposite. Walk-in and enjoy the interior as well as the exterior of these baroque and Gothic buildings which are an utter feast for eyes.

Mixed architecture with a beautiful facade

City Walls

The entrance to the old town is via the old gates and traffic is a bit crazy here during rush hour, I preferred walking in the evenings which was very pleasant. The city walls are very well kept and you can see them circling the entire old city. There were initially one set of walls but a later set was built later to increase the protection. You can also go on top of these walls; there is no ticket for it.

Maiden Tower

The Maiden Tower is the symbol of huge national importance. It is featured on the currency noted and official letterheads. In the evenings, it is the well-lit beacon pointing you to the old town and visible from the sea. The tower has been converted into a (somewhat boring) museum but the area around it is very lively with some ruins and a few ice cream shops. I remember sitting there in the evening watching people with tea and seeing the day turn darker. Good times!

Mohammad Mosque

While Azerbaijan is a Muslim country there isn’t a huge fascination with mosques or religious institutes. Mohammad mosque is the main Muslim prayer centre in the old town. It was the first Muslim building in the country but it has been renovated well and looks relatively new. It is beautifully decorated and separate male and female sections. Make sure you are covered properly before you enter (Which means no bare shoulder or knees!).

Interior of Mosque

Fun Fact: The mosque is also called Sinnigala mosque which means the damaged tower. After the Russians attacked, locals considered a sign of divine punishment and didn’t repair the damaged tower until much later which led to this name.

The mosque is not grand but the interior impresses for sure.  The locals might not use the Arabic script anymore but plenty of Quranic verses cover the domes and pillars.

Entry is free but restricted during prayer times.

Palace of Shirvanshahs

Shirvanshahs were the kings of Shirvan which is located in modern-day Azerbaijan. The Shirvanshah dynasty was a unique and standalone kingdom despite being close to Persian. They originated from the Arab world but quickly Persian-ised and were known for their support for culture. It is no surprise that their palace complex is considered a ‘pearl of Azerbaijan’. The palace complex is part of UNESCO World Heritage and is featured on Azeri currency. The complex has been turned into a museum and entry is ticketed (2 AZN).

The complex is big with multiple buildings. The most fascinating are the Throne room and the Divankhana. The impression of Persian art and architecture is obvious throughout the complex. I was quite tired when I went in and didn’t explore much but this place deserves half a day on its own if not more so come early.

Hammam

I love trying different spas everywhere I go and I couldn’t miss the hammam experience in Baku. I was recommended this place by a local. This Hammam is located near the Ichirishehar metro station within the old town walls. It is called Ağa Mikayil Hamami. The place is quite modest but a sparkling-clean place with separate days and times for men and women. Do call and check in advance before going to avoid disappointment. The massage and scrub left me floating on cloud nine. The owner and staff were very friendly and fun.

Street with Hammam

Note: The massage here is quite intense so brace yourselves! It is shorter but no less effective, trust me!

Miniature Books Museum

The old city is also host to the only miniature book museum. It contains quite a collection in multiple languages from around the world. The smallest books here are just 2mm x 2mm in size and were published in Tokyo. There is no ticket for entry into the museum.

The Squares and Streets of Icherishehar

By far the best experience was walking around the old city, getting lost and finding beautiful small squares, eccentric buildings, and narrow streets turning narrower and opening up and down. The small square near the Maiden Tower, another one near the Italian Embassy and my favourite was the small trees covered a small garden outside the Palace of Shirvanshahs.

Square outside Italian Embassy

The area behind Mohammad Mosque is also very traditional and hosts these beautiful wooden tall balconies which are a signature of Azeri architecture.

Square outside the palace complex

Philharmonic Park and Hall

While not within the old city, the park lies just outside the walls with the beautiful building in its middle. It is very beautifully lit at night. The park also has a small cafe which serves amazing mint tea and makes the perfect spot after a day of exploring in the old city especially if it is hot during the day. I made some local friends who told me it was the hotspot for the younger generation and a nice spot to go out for evening tea without splashing a lot of cash.

New Town

From Old to New City

The New Town is a vast area with its city centre around the Fountain square. It isn’t a consolidated area and some of the things to see and do here require a bit of a trek outside the commercial city.

Fountain Square

Tradition isn’t forgotten in the name of modernity here

The Fountain Square is quite a big square with multiple fountains placed quite randomly. They are all different shapes, sizes and forms and while some are quite grand and old fashioned there are new modern pieces in there. it looks almost like someone hoarded a lot of fountains. Some of these are actually quite hideous but regardless of the aesthetics and symmetry, it draws crowds. It is the life and blood of social life in Baku. Youngster, families, groups of friends, old folk, everyone seems to come here to give and take their share of life.

The buildings in this part of the city are grand and very European in style with elaborate Baroque facades. In the evenings it is well lit and offers multiple places for nightlife from cafes, restaurants to pubs and bars.

Flame Towers

Azerbaijan is called the land of fire because of its huge oil and gas reserves. This trio of skyscrapers is the new symbol that consolidates the power of this tiny country. The flame towers stand in an area outside the old tower in isolation with a mosque at the base of one of the towers. A sunset here is a must-do in Baku and for me, it was the very first one. I arrived, left my bags, got fresh and headed here. The walk along the promenade was nice until I reached the funicular. Using the BakuCard, the ride up is 1 AZN one way. The sunset is absolutely beautiful with views of entire Baku in front of you including the promenade, the city, the old town and new town.

Funicular entrance

After the sunset, the lights change colours and the flame towers change lights and colours. My favourite was the fire raging through these beautiful buildings. To be honest, I am not a big fan of such displays especially when you’re a poor country but I have to give it to Azeris, it was a fun show.

The buildings host luxury hotels and cafes and a panoramic viewpoint inside as well but I decided to skip it due to lack of time. I do recommend walking down on the way back to enjoy the entire area which is very well maintained and beautiful.

Baku Promenade

Baku Promenade is the boundary between land and Caspian and contributes to the beauty of this city. I saw a lot of tourists and locals here in the evenings with kids playing and running around. The promenade stretches quite a big distance and covers the area from the old town to the flame towers included and more. There is a yacht club and some other interesting items along including the Baku Eye which is a big Ferris wheel.

Baku Promenade

The promenade is also home to the largest flag pole and the largest flag in the world as well as a huge chessboard which becomes more interesting when children play on it. Some of them are absolutely brilliant and I lost within minutes of trying with a teenager. Highly embarrassing!

Fun Fact: Chess has a special importance is almost all former Soviet states which have produced some of the masterminds in the world and it is a popular board game. It is also taught in schools across Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.

Little Venice

Little Venice promises a lot more with its name than it delivers! I thought of beautiful canals lined with Venetian style houses with gondolas roaming around but when I actually got to it, it was a caricature of a Venetian dream.

Little Venice

It is a few small water alleys, wide enough for a small boat. The good thing here was the view on both sides. I could see the flame towers and the Caspian waters both. There’s a cafe as well which offers some basic stuff but I don’t remember being wooed.

Carpet Museum

Carpet Museum of Baku

Carpet museum is right next to the Little Venice on Baku Promenade. The building is fashioned in the style of a folded carpet which is where my experience ends, unfortunately. I am utterly enchanted by carpets and rugs and being so close to Iran, Azerbaijan has a special style of carpet weaving but the museum was closed due to some renovations. It was a disappointing outcome but hopefully next time! What do you think of the collection if you’ve been there?

Haydar Aliyev Centre

This is the crowning jewel of Baku and Azerbaijan. Designed by Zaha Hadid, this building is one of the sort you will find anywhere with those signature Zaha Hadid curves. (I did see  a somewhat similar piece being built in Beirut, I guess everyone runs out of ideas at some point).Getting to the centre via public transport is slightly tricky. This combined with slight laziness, I ended up taking uber there. The building occupies quite some area with a vast green area in front. Sitting here was a bit of test of patience because the white of the building was reflecting most of the light and the curves send it across to the front making it quite hot. It was a wise decision to keep this area free, I suppose it would make for a fun place in the evenings.

The building itself has been converted into an exhibition centre and there was an exhibition on cars going on. Now I am someone horrible with cars (I remember them by colour instead of makes, yes, I am that bad!). All in all, I didn’t bother with the exhibition but the walk to the lobby was enough to admire the charm of this place.

Near the City

Some of the things near Baku are quite easily accessible. I decided to give the burning mountain a miss because it is just a big area with raging fire because of natural gas. Most of it is not visible during the day and the area is cordoned off in the evenings.

Fire temple

Fire temple

The Fire temple of Baku is an entire complex. I cannot stress how incredible it is if you are intrigued by the history of this region. The temple was a joint place of worship for Ancient Hindus who travelled all the way from the subcontinent as well as the Zoroastrians from this area as Persia. It was a place of sanctity with the fire burning day and night naturally. (This is before anyone realised the use of gases of course). The temple is outside the city and halfway between the city centre and the International airport. Taking the Uber is the best option.

The building has been kept well with a few room exhibiting the ancient practices and two different religions sharing a place of worship without fighting (seems weird these days right?). In the centre, there is a small fire burning which is kept alive artificially since the natural gas in this area has been gone for quite some time.

Beach

Baku doesn’t have any beaches in the city. In order to get to one, you will need to get a car or use a taxi which can be quite expensive. I visited two beaches during my stay Nikki beach and Mayak beach. Both were nice. Most of the coastal area is wild and finding a beach is not a problem. Make sure to take your own towel because you will need it and take some provisions as well.

Tip: If you are not with a female you won’t be let into many beach clubs who only allow families. I absolutely hated it but then found the open beaches to be a lot more fun than spending time in a pool next to the Caspian, felt a bit like cheating.

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Qobustan

Qobustan or Gobustan is the desert area outside Baku. It is famous for its mud volcanoes and while you’re at it, you also see the ancient stone writings of prehistoric men. I hired a taxi for the day and stopped on the way to Quba for a while.

Tip: When you arrive at the museum before the actual entry point, purchase your tickets because you will be sent back for them later, there’s no indication for it when entering the area.

The tour to the place was short and the stone markings quite fascinating. I kept thinking i am looking inside the mind of someone from thousands of years apart, wondering if the time works the same way we think it does. At the edge os this lies the wider expanse of desert. Quite a beautiful and enchanting view!

Since I was short on time, I decided to head to the second part of Qobustan experience which was way more fun.

The taxi driver brought me to the mouth of mud volcanoes area and I hopped into a Russian Lada because the terrain is bad and you cannot go there in new cars. The driver had a small son who was riding with us. I sat in the back and the journey began. The guy was driving like he was auditioning for Fast and Furious. I am a huge fan of Russian old cars because they are insanely strong but I thought that would be my last journey. The driver and his son kept laughing looking at my face. I decided to toughen up a little and the ride became a bit more fun. About 15 minutes later we arrived at the small mud volcanoes.

Fun Fact: The mud volcanoes aren’t really volcanoes but small bubbling mounds emitting natural gas which is why they are cold. They don’t have lava and are not rocky.

I won’t lie I felt like a little kid jumping from one volcano to other making videos of the bubbling mud. I also filled a bottle for myself to try in the hammam later. (It was not worth it, I smelled like petrol and had to wash it off with extra effort).

The journey back was equally fun and I will always remember that father and son duo who once again taught me how easy it is to be happy with whatever little you have. I love people like that and always wish for more of them in my life.

I hope you’ve had fun taking a little glimpse into Baku, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the place and if I have missed something.

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