Oil-rich Baku divides opinion amongst visitors

From bubbling mud volcanoes to revolving sky bars, we seek out some of the more surprising highlights of Azerbaijan’s little-visited capital.

This summer, the Azeri capital of Baku will shoot into the universal nuclei when it hosts the inaugural European Games, a monolithic sporting event pitting Europe’s top athletes against one other.

While Baku is a city that fiercely divides opinion, the bustling East-meets-West destination has enough charms to blow even the biggest sceptic away. Here are 10 of the best things to do in Baku:

1) Explore Baku’s historical core

The view from the 12th-century Maiden TowerThe view from the 12th-century Maiden Tower
Jack Palfrey

The alluring stone walls and cobbled streets of Baku’s UNESCO-listed Old City are a welcome distraction from the gleaming glass skyscrapers and luxury apartment blocks that dominate the rest of the city.

Within the walled core, history has been left well enough alone. Climb the 12th-century Maiden Tower for aerial views of the Old City’s labyrinth of alleyways and its rearing minarets, before touring the sacred Palace of the Shirvanshahs – a grandiose memorial that includes the mausoleum of philosopher Seyid Yahya Bakuvi, a 17th-century bathhouse and an ornamental stone pavilion.

Finish by browsing the delightfully dingy antique stores that occupy wall space between tiny mosques. Other historical highlights include traditional tearooms, art galleries and the Baku Museum of Miniature Books. 

2) Witness the birth of a sporting spectacle

The all new Baku National Stadium opened earlier this yearThe all new Baku National Stadium opened earlier this year
Creative Commons / Trevor Claringbold

The capital of the Land of Fire will ignite during June 2015, when over 6,000 athletes descend upon the city to compete in the inaugural European Games. Swiftly erected gargantuan, glowing stadiums will host a variety of Olympic disciplines from boxing to beach football.

While inevitable questions have surfaced over such grand spending in a country where education and basic healthcare is grossly underfunded, an incentive to keep ticket prices as low as 5 manats (£3) has helped drum up local support.

3) Discover the region’s ancient offerings

Gobustan National Park has some remarkable cave artGobustan National Park has some remarkable cave art
Creative Commons / Trevor Claringbold

A short drive from the neon lights of Baku lies Gobustan National Park, a distinctive semi-desert landscape that was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2007.

While many visitors venture here to snap a shot of the spurting mud volcanoes that bubble around the park, Gobustan’s real worth is in its remarkable collection of cave art. The site is home to around 6,000 prehistoric petroglyphs, with detailed drawings depicting primitive human existence.

4) Live the high life of an oil tycoon

The 360° Bar is on the 25th floor of the Hilton Hotel in BakuThe 360° Bar is on the 25th floor of the Hilton Hotel in Baku
Hilton Hotels

A quick drink (and spin) in the Hilton Hotel’s 25th-floor revolving sky bar is one of the best ways to absorb the imperious Baku skyline at night. Whether it’s the overpriced beer, the plush sofas or the stench of expensive cigars being smoked indoors, it’s hard not to feel like a conceited oil tycoon as the glowing smorgasbord of modern engineering slowly whirls past.

5) Dust up on your history

Azerbaijan Carpet Museum is designed to look like a rugAzerbaijan Carpet Museum is designed to look like a rug
Jack Palfrey

While a museum dedicated to carpets sounds like a stitch up, Azerbaijan Carpet Museum actually highlights the country’s turbulent history through the medium of rugs and floor coverings.

As a prominent stop on the Silk Road, Azerbaijan is famed for its carpets and the colourful works on display here are impressive. Naturally, you can get your hands on some authentic wares in the on-site store too.

Still not convinced? Then perhaps it helps to know that the whole structure is shaped like a carpet itself. Now that has to be worth a photo at least.

6) Enjoy some fiery celebrations

Fire-jumping at Novruz Festival is said to burn away any lingering woesFire-jumping at Novruz is said to burn away lingering woes
Creative Commons / F Delventhal

There is no better time to capture a glimpse of Azerbaijan’s traditional culture than during the Novruz Festival each spring.

Banned during Soviet rule, the highlight of this week-long celebration is fire jumping; an act purported to ‘burn away’ any lingering woes from the previous year. Head to the shorefront for the best of the fire-themed displays.

7) Eat like a local

Eat like a local at Kafe Araz on Fountain SquareEat like a local at Kafe Araz on Fountain Square
Creative Commons / Trevor Claringbold

Baku’s dining scene has really taken off in recent years as restaurateurs scramble over themselves to sate the appetites of the city’s nouveau riche.

Zest Lifestyle Café (‪JW Marriott Hotel, 674 Azadliq Square‬), Yuukai Restaurant (Jumeirah Bilgah Beach Hotel, 94 Gelebe Str) and Fireworks Urban Kitchen (also at the Marriott) are some of the hottest tickets in town, offering everything from Mediterranean to Japanese fare.

If highfalutin restaurants and eye-watering bills leave a bad taste, book a table at Kafe Araz (Fountain Square), a traditional eatery serving cold bear and authentic Azeri food in unpretentious surrounds.

Open 24/7, Araz is packed with tiny wooden tables and the air is thick with shisha smoke. Squeeze in and browse the all-encompassing menu that offers everything from steak to plov (a traditional Azeri rice dish). Nearby Firuza (‪Eliyarbeyov kuc 14) is another fine establishment, serving traditional regional fare at honest prices.

8) Strut along one of Europe’s longest promenades

Baku Boulevard is one of the most pleasing areas of the cityBaku Boulevard is one of the most pleasing areas of the city
Jack Palfrey

Refreshingly green and spacious, and benefiting from a sea breeze, Baku Boulevard is one of the most pleasing areas of the city. It roughly runs 3km (1.9 miles) along the fringe of the Caspian Sea, connecting two of the city’s most historic squares, National Flag and Freedom.

While the jaunt is enjoyable in itself, it is heightened by a number of curious art installations along the route, ranging from modernist sculptures that highlight the city’s burgeoning art scene, wooden structures with historical significance or the mysterious floating tap that baffles passersby.

9) Take a trip to Fire Mountain

Yanar Dag is known locally as Fire MountainYanar Dag is known locally as Fire Mountain
Creative Commons / Stefano Bolognini

While it’s certainly more hill than mountain, Yanar Dag (known under the sexed-up pseudonym of ‘Fire Mountain’) is both a dazzling and fascinating sight.

According to local legend, the 10m-long (33ft) wall of burning flames started after a clumsy shepherd accidently lit the gas stream below when pausing for a cigarette, though legendary explorer, Marco Polo, observed flames here as far back as the 13th century. The spectacle is best observed at night.

10) Relish in some fantastic modernist architecture

Heydar Aliyev Center was modelled on the signature of its namesakeHeydar Aliyev Center was modelled on the signature of its namesake
Jack Palfrey

The unprecedented poster child of the city, the striking, glass-fronted Heydar Aliyev Center is simply magnificent. Built in 2012, the curved architectural marvel was modelled on the signature of its namesake, Heydar Aliyev, the first president of an independent Azerbaijan.

Inside, the structure houses an auditorium, gallery hall and a museum that hosts both temporary and permanent exhibitions, which range from classic car shows to historical artefacts.

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Is Baku destroying its herritage?
Azerbaijan: Beyond the Baku Games


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