The land where the first humans drew pictures on rocks now expands with streets filled with flashy signs.
Baku may never have been part of the Silk Road but it sure came close. As a neighbor to Turkey and Iran, merchants from across Europe, Russia and the Caucasus could not have reached the paths of the Silk Road without getting close to the ancient lands of Azerbaijan. The city keeps its past glory alive with its current energy resources.
Known as the "Dubai of the Caucasus" and ‘bad kube’ (city of winds), Baku is the region's leading and most cosmopolitan city. Nowhere else in the Caucasus is the East and West combined so effortlessly - it can even be seen in the cars on the streets where old Soviet cars and popular European brands drive side by side with stunning old Soviet buildings and glittering futuristic architecture in the background.
In 1667, an earthquake destroyed the original Azeri capital of Şamaxi, so the Shirvanshah rulers of the time declared Baku as the new capital. For centuries, the Shirvan, Azeri Shah Ismail, Persian and Soviet empires fought over the region and its oil-rich lands. For this reason, Baku has experienced the power of many ruling empires.
After gaining independence in 1991 in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Empire, Baku has not looked back. Building its national wealth on petroleum and vast gas reserves, Baku has become a culture and economic boomtown.
These were the first things we realized as we arrived in Baku. We quickly embarked on our exploration of the city over three days and experienced an enormous melting pot of traditional age-old cultures and futuristic experiences. The first thing was a stroll along the Boulevard for a quick feel of the city and its people. And that is where we met Vafa, at the funfair. She took us on a walking tour of the historic heart of the Old City and the Fountain Square. Her enthusiasm for the city was contagious; “Walking along the promenade,” she said, “beneath the stars alongside the sea, it makes me feel alive - this is when I best experience and feel the glow of this city.”
Strolling over to the Maiden’s Tower, we saw Baku’s leading architectural symbol at the edge of the Old City. Today, the tower displays a photography exhibition and on the top we caught a spectacular view of Baku Bay.
A must-see in the area is the extraordinary Baku Philharmonic Concert Hall. Nearby is the 15th-century Palace of the Shirvanshas, with courtyards and gateways leading to Divan-khana an open-sided stone pavilion where the court of the Shirvanshah Khalillullah I once gathered. From here, we took steps down to the Keyqubad Mosque and Dervish’s Mausoleum. In this area one can find tombs filled with Arabic visuals and inscriptions, creating a mystical atmosphere. After the palace, one can also rest at Aga Mikhayil, a famous Old City bathhouse.
Leaving the Old City the Carpet Museum is a must-see. The museum documents Azeri carpet making and is home to over one thousand exquisite rugs. Even those not particularly interested in carpets may find out a few interesting facts about them and be amazed by some of their incredible designs. You cannot help but admire each piece resembling a meticulous painting. The museum building looks like a rolled-up carpet. The structure is so mesmerizing that visitors also take a few selfies outside in addition to the pictures of the carpets exhibited inside.
Next stop is the Martyr's Lane, built in memory of Azeri and Ottoman soldiers who died in Baku and other corners of Azerbaijan. Stunning views of the city can be seen from the steps and gardens of the lane, which is the best point to see the Flame Towers.
Baku has no shortage of places to go at night. For starters, there is a lot of character and atmosphere, and prices are very reasonable even for fancier options. After a day wandering along the cobbled alleyways of the Old City, we decided it was appropriate to sample some Azerbaijani cuisine.
The menus are usually comprehensive and very long, so you may find it difficult to choose just one dish. We decided to follow some really strong recommendations and ate either dolma or qutab. Dolma, Azerbaijani style, featured tomatoes stuffed with ground lamb and tahini on the side. But perhaps, even more recommended is the qutab, a delicious local dish that is essentially pancakes stuffed with meat and spinach and served with yogurt.
There are many elegant options to spend the night in harmony with the spirit of the city where you can listen to Azeri folk music and watch local dance performances.
Finally, in our last day in Baku we spent time visiting the Baku Fire Temple with its eternal fire that gives the country the nickname "Land of Fire." Then we trekked out of the city to see Gobustan National Park. Gobustan is close to Baku and boasts the mud volcanoes, deep ravines and over 6,000 ancient petroglyphs dating back to 10000 BC. A visit to Baku would not be complete without a nighttime visit to the eternally burning hillside of Yanar Dag.
The city is exhilarating from silk scarves, to pottery, mouthwatering cuisines to stunningly designed architecture - such as the Flame Towers and Heydar Aliyev Center to name but two. There is a plethora of restaurants, cuisines, shopping malls and cafés to choose from, alongside parks, promenades, offering proximity to nature and stunning Caspian sea views.