Until recently this little-known slice of Eurasia was peddled as the Dubai equivalent in the Caspian, but with far less attention. Yet with the help of Eurovision (Baku hosted the singing competition in 2012) and the Azerbaijan Grand Prix (the inaugural race was held in 2017), the country is now a major draw for the culturally curious for its East meets West identity. If you’re into alternative travel, Baku is one place to watch for.
Old is gold
All the action happens in Baku’s UNESCO-listed Old Town. It’s filled with character and cobbled stones with only a few modern buildings poking between the narrow streets. But still, very pleasing for Instagram. Going all the way back to the Stone Age, Azerbaijan is a country with deep roots. Baku’s historical core is the Fortress Wall, which dates back to the 12th century. It’s a must-visit, if only to snake around all 25 towers via five different entrances.
For a flavour of the artisan meets peasant life, the Kanegah Complex is a market reminiscent of the 15th-16th century glory – where you get your fair share of colourful knick-knacks. Although in its time it was at ground level, now it is underground, benefitting from shade – very useful in baking Baku at summertime.
Being a product of the Soviet era as well, Baku still bears remnants of its checkered past. As you move through the streets, especially Nizami Street (named after an Azerbaijani poet), you’ll notice the architecture swiftly changing from baroque to neo-renaissance to Stalin-esque. There’s also a heap of the famous Russian Lada cars trudging about, which is even more endearing when you see them on Baku’s future-planned highways. These highways are so wide that they can accommodate 18-wheelers comfortably.
Keep the kebabs at bay – there’s loads of meat joints to whet your palate, anyway. You need to get involved with the surprising pancake situation in Baku. Yes, the Azerbaijani’s have a thing called Kutabi. If you’re a Nutella nut, best keep a small tub at the hotel because in Azerbaijan, locals go savoury. Kutabi is filled with pumpkin, veggies, sometimes meat and a peppering of herbs – then toasted. The best place to indulge in Kutabi is at Zeytun – a swish restaurant with lots of heart. Locals love to go and bask in the views of the city.
Keep to tradition at an Old Town favourite: Sehirli Tendir, you’re unlikely to have better bread anywhere else. They’re known for offering the most authentic local cuisine with items such as Kaymak (sweet cream, best accompanied with your buttery eggs, yes, eggs!), Plov (a rice pilaf served with lamb and chestnuts) and a sprightly cold dill soup.
Whatever floats your boat
Baku is really a city of surprises. It has its own Mini Venice with a man-made waterway flanked by a flow of shops, best experienced in a gondola. It’s recommended you carry out this activity as the sun goes down because otherwise, in the summer months, it’s intolerably hot. Alternatively, make use of your legs while you’re on holiday, and walk along Bulvar, the sea boulevard stretching a few kilometres along the Caspian Sea. Here’s where you’ll capture local life unfold.
Words: Georgie Bradley