A Day in a City: Baku, Azerbaijan

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The capital of Azerbaijan is a mix of modern architecture and old Soviet-era style structures, says an article headlined ‘One Day in a City: Baku, Azerbaijan’ published on ABP Live.  Baku is famously known for the F1 Race, Flame Towers (a trio of skyscrapers) and the oil drills set up in the Caspian Sea from the shores of the city.’The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes’, and with the same spirit, I made lesser-known ‘Azerbaijan’ my destination to explore.

A medium-sized country in the South Caucasus region of Europe, Azerbaijan shares borders with the Caspian Sea to the east, Georgia and Russia to the north, Iran to the south, and Armenia to the south-west and west. The capital of Azerbaijan is the ancient city of Baku.

Rich in history and resources, Azerbaijan was a part of the Soviet Union (USSR) until 1991. Since the 1990s Azerbaijan has become more prosperous, mostly because of large amounts of oil. Even the first commercially drilled oil pump was in Baku.

In the first impression, one thing that was immediately noticed about Azerbaijan was that it is a giant mix of cultures. Being a Muslim country, the culture of Azerbaijan is somewhat similar to India and Iran. It is a blend of central Asian, Arabic/Middle Eastern, and European cultures in specific.

Although a majority of people in the country are Muslim, there are also small numbers of Russian Orthodox Christians. Above all, Azerbaijan is considered to be one of the most secular countries in Europe as it has influences from each region in regards to cuisine, religion, culture, etc.

The country has its own currency called ‘Manat’ and the locals prefer that you pay them in their currency rather than in Euros or US Dollars.

After hugely relying on oil revenues for a long time, Azerbaijan has recently opened itself up for tourism. The main attractions of the country are the castles, heritage sites, national parks, among others.

Also, from walking around the charming old city to visiting iconic structures like the flame towers to enjoying some mind-boggling skyscrapers and futuristic attractions, Azerbaijan has a lot to offer!

Besides, with passing years, the country’s religious destinations, spas, and health care tourism have also become popular.

Adding more value to the experience, the tourists visiting Azerbaijan can also enjoy activities like skiing in the winter and swimming in the summer.

Similarly, for a traveler who loves history and likes to visit heritage sites, the historical center of Baku is a perfect destination as it sincerely reveals the country’s tumultuous past.

Besides hosting vibrant arts and cultural activities, the capital city of Baku has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites – The Walled City of Baku (and Shirvanshahs’ Palace and the Maiden Tower) and Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape Reserve.

Furthermore, a visit to Baku isn’t complete until and unless you have tried the local cuisine. It has a lot in common with Iranian and Turkish food such as kebabs, salads, flatbread, hummus, fresh fruits & vegetables, etc.

Interestingly, this little-known country will catch you with many surprises!

HOW I SPENT MY DAY IN BAKU!

The best way to explore a city is to plan your day. Minor changes can be made for sure, but the more you research, the more you see.

I planned the itinerary in a way that could be covered by any individual in a day or two. I started with a walk at 6:30 am at the boulevard along the Caspian Sea, considered the world’s largest inland body of water that is adjacent to the city of Baku. It was a cold, windy morning, which is quite common in Baku. There is an extra-long street that you can walk down, with loads of cafes, bars, restaurants, concert venues, parks, and great views of downtown.

The capital of Azerbaijan is a mix of modern architecture and old soviet era style structures. Baku is famously known for the F1 Race, Flame Towers (a trio of skyscrapers), and the oil drills set up in the Caspian Sea from the shores of the city.

I stayed at the Boulevard Hotel, which lies at the one end of a 16 km boulevard track, which has many parks and activities for the residents. From my hotel, I could see the skyline of Baku and, of course, the iconic Flame Towers.

Azerbaijan has a touch of Turkey’s culture and food as well. So, after strolling around the boulevard, I went back to my hotel and got ready for breakfast. The restaurant, Cay Bagi 145, was in the old city area of Baku overlooking Maiden Tower, the millennium-old World Heritage site, which was once part of the city’s fortifications.

I was welcomed with a 20-item platter of food/breakfast, which consisted of a variety of cheese, sweets, egg, bread, dry fruits, and top that was the traditional Azerbaijani tea served in a tower type setup. Yes, the food was delicious and heavy, of course. This platter certainly made sure that my time will not be wasted in looking for snacks during the first half of my city travel.

Post breakfast, along with my guide, I started the day’s tour by going a little away from the city to a site called Gobustan National Park. This place is around 65 km away from the city. It is a historical landmark, where many ancient carvings, mud volcanos, and gas stones are found.

In 2007, Gobustan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is considered to be of “outstanding universal value” for the quality and density of its rock art engravings depicting images of hunting, fauna, flora, and lifestyles in prehistoric times and for the cultural continuity between prehistoric and medieval times that the site reflects. I saw many Indian tourists at the site who came with their families and friends.

A 10-minute drive from Gobustan will take you to a stop where you have to hire a car to go and see mud volcanos. I had a choice to choose cars of the soviet era. A 15-minute off-road drive from that spot took me to the highest point of the mountain, which had mud volcanoes and a large natural pool of boiling water.

As per my guide, the world’s 50% of mud volcanos are present in Azerbaijan. Another interesting fact is that NASA geologists studying Mars planet, concluded that mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan are similar to uplands of the earth for their structure. In 2004, the biggest mud volcano in the territory of Azerbaijan was included in the Guinness World Records.

The mud volcanoes located in Gobustan National Park sights attract thousands of tourists annually.

After spending some time there, I continued with my journey, and while coming back to the city, I stopped at Bibi-Heybat Mosque. A small but stunning mosque which had a bit of history as well. The mosque was built to honor the sister of the 7th Shiite Imam, Ali. It was destroyed during Stalin’s rule. After the USSR collapsed, a new mosque was constructed at the same spot.

My next stop was in the center of Baku, known as Old City, where historical sites are present such as the palace, watchtower, entry point, etc.

First, I explored the Palace of Shirvanshah, a former residence of the rulers of the Shirvanshahs. The palace complex was built in the period from the XIII to the XVI century. In 1964, the palace complex was declared a museum-preserve. In 2000, a unique architectural and cultural ensemble, along with the fortified walls enclosed by the historic part of the city and the Maiden Tower, was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Shirvanshahs Palace is considered one of the pearls of the architecture of Azerbaijan.

With the walled city, I then went to the top of Maiden Tower, a 29-meter stone tower that many believe was a watchtower for surveying Baku Bay and the old town. There are other stories or fairy tales that are attached to it, but I will leave it here.

After that, I went to the other side of the city to explore other spots. Fortunately, there was a restaurant just outside the place, where I quickly grabbed my lunch, which was a Qutab (a roll).

The Baku Ateshgah, often called the “Fire Temple of Baku”, is a castle-like religious temple in Surakhani town – a suburb in Baku. Based on Persian inscriptions, the temple was used as a Hindu, Zoroastrian, and Sikh place of worship. “Atash” is the Persian word for fire. The pentagonal complex with a courtyard surrounded by cells for monks and a tetra pillar-altar in the middle was built during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Baku Ateshgah was a pilgrimage and philosophical center of Zoroastrians from the Northwestern Indian Subcontinent, who were involved in trade with the Caspian area via the famous “Grand Trunk Road.” Well, there is a lot to know about this place.

After visiting the temple, I went to check out another natural phenomenon in Baku, which is called Yanar Dag (Burning Mountain). Yanar Dag is a natural gas fire that blazes continuously on a hillside on the Absheron Peninsula on the Caspian Sea. Flames jet into the air 3 meters from a thin, porous sandstone layer. It was indeed a popular site among the tourist that I got only a little chance to stand near the flames for a selfie. And yes, it was something I have seen for the first time- a burning mountain.

From historic sites visit, I came back to the city. I decided to stroll around the Boulevard area where there are plenty of activities such as Giant Wheel (like London Eye), Gondola rides, play areas, and the world-famous carpet museum.

Following the walk at the boulevard, I went to one of the most happening streets in Baku called Nizami street. High-end shops with a lot many eating and hangout options. The road reminded me of Europe. If you are on a 3 to 4-day visit to this city, then this street will be the place where you will spend most of your time.

It was night, and around 8 pm, I decided to have food at a very famous restaurant called Mangal Steak House. The place had live performances/musicians playing local music along with live food counters. It was a sweet entertainment spot for any tourist. The chef’s preparation style was good too. I had pork steak along with Russian salad and eggplant roll.

Post dinner, I decided to take another walk, but this time at the highest point of Baku city, called Highland Park. From here, the city’s skyline is visible. It is close to the iconic Flame Towers, which are lit at night. LED light animation with different themes at Flame Towers is unmissable. It was a perfect spot to get a panoramic view of the whole city.

After the walk, I decided to end my day and headed straight back to the hotel. Though for a nightlife loving person, there are many clubs, lounges, etc. in the city which are open till late at night.

Overall, it was a day well spent! I enjoyed strolling around the city, exploring a bit of history, visiting some fascinating spots, and having an incredible variety of foods and snacks. My take-away is that the city will surprise you in many ways, and if you are looking to explore a new country this year, then Baku in Azerbaijan can be the next ideal destination for you and your family.