I went to Baku and the surrounding area for a three-day weekend in January 2010 with a group of friends — it was one of the most fun trips I’ve ever had! I highly recommend visiting Azerbaijan– either as a standalone visit or part of a broader regional visit. I understand the city has changed dramatically over the past decade… there are plenty of new skyscrapers and buildings such as the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center and the Flame Towers. But many of the classic, must-see attractions are still flagged below!
Baku hosts the ruins of an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple (Atasghah) — as well as a small museum on sight to explain the ancient rituals. It’s a few kilometers outside of the downtown area, between Baku and the airport. You really don’t hear too much about Zoroastrians very often, so I found this very interesting!
When I visited the ruins of the Old City, it was under renovation. It was still possible to see the old brick Haji Bani Bath Complex and the Maiden’s Tower but you couldn’t go inside. We were able to walk around the nearby Shirvanshahs Palace Complex, however. All of those places are interesting, photogenic, and worth a stop while in Baku!
Carpets: Azerbaijan’s artisans produce intricate, high-quality carpets. It’s important to buy them from a reputable place (several good carpet shops are in the old city area) — and if you’re getting something large / expensive / old, make sure to ask for a certificate to ensure it’s allowed for export (otherwise you can be fined for illegally taking cultural heritage). The Carpet Museum in the city center provides interesting information about the carpet-making craft and the history specific to Azerbaijan. It also helps give a sense for what to look for when buying a carpet. I didn’t buy one myself in Baku, so I can’t say how much haggling is possible, but my friends bought some and it didn’t seem like there was much appetite for bargaining.
A lot of the fun of Baku involved just wandering around town and taking in the sights. The waterfront on the Caspian Sea was particularly nice, and the architecture vacillates between large, Soviet-era construction (such as the train station) and Islamic-themed buildings.
The metro station reminded me of the one in Moscow — with large, clean, fast metros and decorative patterns at each stop. Olive-drab uniformed ladies would wave paddles on the platforms to help with train / crowd control.
While there are several cozy cafes and hearty restaurants in Baku, I especially liked one that was in an old Caravan Serai (a waypoint for caravans on the old silk road). Our group had a great multi-course meal of kebabs, cheese, pomegranates, etc. It was definitely geared towards tourists, but it was still good food and great ambiance. (I should note it currently only gets a 3.1 on Google reviews– not sure what happened.)
I was very impressed with the nightlife scene in Baku — even in January, we found a few great clubs and a karaoke bar that kept the party going until late! Some of the clubs have “Face Control” — I think that means they check out your overall appearance before letting you in — but everyone in our group was fortunately able to make it through : )
West of Baku
I lined up a tour guide for our group and headed west to see a few sites outside of town. Just on the southwest side of town (the South Bay) is a massive old field where the 1999 James Bond Movie “The World is Not Enough” was filmed. Nearby is the Bibiheybat Mosque, which overlooks the Caspian.
As we continued along the road, we passed several oil derricks and refineries until we turned inland and made our way to the Gobustan Petroglyphs. The Gobustan National Park has over 6,000 engravings dating back thousands of years, and is a UNESCO heritage site. It was very impressive, and I enjoyed climbing around on the rocks, discovering various carvings, and trying to decipher what they mean!
Close to Gobustan is a broad grouping of mud volcanoes that constantly bubble up and overflow with mud. I’m not exactly sure how they’re formed, but this site really shows that the ground is active! When we went there weren’t any paved roads heading out there and our van almost got stuck in the mud trying to reach the volcanoes. It would be worth asking if the roads have improved — and if you drive yourself, make sure your car has some clearance.
Heading East from Baku, we ventured along the Absheron Peninsula, passing several old-style donkey pump oil rigs along the way. There was some beauty and photogenic quality to the bleak landscape, and we eventually reached our goal — a flaming hillside! Yanar Dag is a local hill that was apparently ignited by accident in the 1950’s– and because the land is so awash with oil and gas– it has never gone out. It’s free — so you can just walk up and start roasting marshmallows : )
Pro Tip: It’s best to go around sunset, as the fire looks more dramatic than in the daytime.
We were supposed to go hiking around the small northern mountain village of Xınalıq, but a massive winter storm rolled in from over the mountain and we got over a foot of snow overnight! All of the roads going out of town were blocked (we got stuck in a three-hour traffic jam trying to leave Baku) so we ended up staying in Baku and walking around the beautiful snow-capped streets of town. A group of people were using wooden boards to sled down the streets (which became ice slicks), so we joined in and went impromptu sledding. While Xinaliq is at the top of my list for next time, I really enjoyed that extra wintry day in Baku!
Finally, for anyone who has ever wanted to bathe in crude oil — visit the western town of Naftalan and make it happen! The Qarabag Resort and Spa is famous for its 10-minute crude oil baths, which allegedly have health benefits. Take a dip at your own risk!