The best of Baku
Find F1 action, fire temples and eye-popping architecture in Azerbaijan’s capital.
Baku may not be on your bucket list, but it should be. Where else can you visit fire temples in the morning and ground-breaking 21st-century architecture in the afternoon?
Azerbaijan’s capital sits at a crossroads of Russian, Turkish and Middle Eastern culture, making it a fascinating centre of history, geography, food and religion. It’s also relatively cheap – a half litre of beer costs $1.50 and a three-course meal will set you back about $20 each, plus the shoulder seasons offer wonderful weather, with sunny days and temperatures in the low 20s.
Slideshow: Baku by the Caspian Sea, Haydar Aliyev Cultural Centre, Baku’s Old Town, Azerbaijan F1 Grand Prix.
To the north, on Azerbaijan’s border with Russia, are the Caucasus mountains, to the east is the world’s largest inland sea – the Caspian – and Iran, Turkey, Armenia and Georgia are to its south and east.
Financed by massive oil and natural gas reserves, Azerbaijan is spending up big to claim a place on the world stage, so get in before the rush.
The Old City
The city’s heart lies behind the crenellated walls of the 12th-century fortress and sits on far more ancient foundations. There is evidence the site has been settled since the Stone Age, although changing sea levels and invasions from neighbouring tribes affected earlier buildings.
Among the 20-hectare maze of narrow sandstone alleyways are the mysterious Maiden Tower (the city’s oldest building that was built and rebuilt between the fourth and 12th centuries yet experts can’t agree on its purpose), mosques and the sandstone Palace of the Shirvanshahs – the seat of the mediaeval ruling dynasty. Tourist shops, art galleries and large hotel chains are moving in, but it is still a living, vibrant city reminiscent of Dubrovnik. Beyond the walls, broad boulevards make up the bulk of Baku, and the recent presence of Mother Russia is palpable in the brutalist buildings and grey monuments.
April in Baku has become a fixture on the F1 calendar, and the six-kilometre street circuit encircles the city walls, featuring some stiff 90-degree turns. The crowds aren’t as big as US, UK or Australian levels yet, but when Lewis Hamilton won in 2018, the crowd was 30 per cent up on the previous year. It’s a fitting F1 destination, as Baku claims to be the birthplace of oil production.
There are records of oil being traded in the third and fourth centuries, and the phenomena of ‘burning mountains’ – gas escaping through rock and burning for centuries – inspired fire-based religions such as Zoroastrianism.
The Baku Ateshgah or Fire Temple.
There are few places in Baku that aren’t dominated by the Flame Towers – three curved-glass skyscrapers that sit 180 metres above the city like three impressionist flames licking a hilltop camp fire. A funicular railway takes you there, offering spectacular views over the bay en route. The lookout at the peak includes a sobering cemetery and war memorial honouring those who died in the most recent border dispute with Armenia, which ended in 1994.
A short ride east of the city centre lies an equally photographed monument to modern design – the huge, sinuous Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre, named for the former president and designed by Zaha Hadid. Go for a concert or simply stroll the grounds, enjoying its creativity and excess.
A broad, spotlessly clean boulevard runs the length of Baku’s waterfront where families and couples promenade beside the Caspian Sea. Behind are meticulously kept parks with fountains, restaurants, tea houses and a funfair. At its southern end is the excellent Carpet Museum – shaped like a rolled carpet – and the Baku Eye, a 60-metre-high ferris wheel modelled after the London Eye.
Fire Temples and burning mountains
The Baku Ateshgah or Fire Temple, built by Hindu, Sikh and Parsi traders in the 17th and 18th centuries, centres on a constantly burning pocket of natural gas. Most tours to the area, on Baku’s eastern city fringe, also take in the nearby ‘Burning Mountain’ of Yanar Dag, where a shepherd accidentally lit a natural gas source with a discarded cigarette in the 1950s. Visit at twilight for maximum effect.
Rock carvings and mud volcanoes
A short drive south-west of Baku is the Gobustan National Park – a rocky hillside offering shelter from the arid plains below. On the rocks are carved more than 6000 petroglyphs dating back to 10,000BC and depicting animals, dances, boats, warriors and camel caravans. A museum gives context to this UNESCO World Heritage site. Nearby are fields of mud volcanoes, reached via a bumpy dirt track but worth the effort to marvel at the surreal sight of liquid mud propelled up by subterranean gas, forming moon-like craters across this barren landscape.
The staff can be surly and the fittings are basic, but few hotels offer more history than this caravanserai that has hosted traders since the 18th century. Built like a fortress with 14-metre-high walls and an enormous timber door (big enough to take a camel train), stone-lined rooms lead off arched walkways that overlook a courtyard with tea house, restaurant and shady gardens.
Sheki is a pretty hill town about four hours north-west of Baku and is famous for its halva sweets and intricate stained-glass windows, which feature heavily in the town’s decorative, 18th-century summer palace.
If you have time, make a side trip en route to Lahic, a highland village popular for its creative coppersmiths and hill walks. Return via Naftalan and indulge – if you dare – in a bath of Naftalan oil, which is credited with medicinal powers.
Photos: Getty Images