June 28, 2015

Top 10 things to do in Baku

Baku is an oil city. The black gold has turned what was once a small sleepy port into a modern city vying with Dubai for excess in modern architecture. The hotel prices are crazy, and accompanied with an archaic visa system (now slowly changing), there is little encouragement for tourists to visit. Yet Baku is well worth the effort, and expense, to visit and explore.

Here are my top ten things to do in and around Baku.

1. Be blinded by the White
The beautiful Heydar Aliyev Centre designed by Zaha Hadid and finished in 2012 is unmissable. Take your time and walk right around it to fully appreciate the effort required to build it. The exhibitions inside are expensive and very hit and miss in quality, while walking around outside is free and much more enjoyable.

2. Take a trip back in time
Visit the old city, still enclosed by a wall, and see what Baku used to be like. Wander around the Maiden's Tower, a fortified 12th century structure, and then just walk through the old cobbled streets and narrow lanes. Stop for a drink at a small bar and you feel you could be in an ancient European town, that is until you look up and see the towering skyscrapers.

3. Have a smoke
Pop into a Chaixana, or tea house, for a great cup of Azeri tea and a smoke of the Hookah pipe. The flavours are usually apple or cherry, and although it is far from healthy habit I found it incredibly relaxing. The best Chaixana are around the Baku University in Nizami.

4. Watch the Mud Volcanoes erupt
Take a trip south to the lunar landscape around Gobustan and watch the unique mud volcanoes belch mud and gas. Not promoted as a tourist destination, and unknown to most locals, you will need a taxi to visit. For more information on the Mud Volcanoes, and how to get there, read this.

5. Walk through a Paleolithic Art gallery.
10 km from the Mud Volcanoes are the Gobustan Petroglyphs, art works engraved on the walls of caves and rocks from 40,000 years ago. This was a major prehistoric site of human habitation, and after a hard days hunting and cooking, our ancestors produced some impressive engravings of both themselves and the animals they killed. For more information on the Petroglyphs, and how to get there, read this.

6. Borrow a book
Baku has one of the worlds most innovative ways to share books. In prominent places are large glass cabinets containing books to be borrowed or swapped. The fact that these would last only 15 minutes in most other cities, before being emptied or vandalised, says a lot about both the behaviour and culture of the Azerbaijan people.

7. Ride the Funicular railway up to Martyrs Lane
Just behind the Carpet Museum on the Baku Boulevard (Note: The Carpet Museum may well make your top 10 if you love carpets. I don't, so it isn't here!) is the Funicular railway to the cemetery of Martyrs Lane. A bargain in expensive Baku,  I was trying to give my fare to someone for quite a while until it was explained to me that it was free. The cemetery on top is a somber memorial to independence protesters killed by Soviet troops in 1990, and to the more recent deaths in the ongoing war with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagornao-Karabakh. There are also great views over the city and out to the oil rigs on the Caspian Sea.

8. Warm up at the Fire Mountain.
At Yanar Dag, approx 25 km outside the city is a perpetually burning fire. The oil rich country actually leaks hydrocarbons. While travelling to the Mud Volcanoes we got stuck on a dirt road, by the time we freed the car, oil was seeping through the ground to fill the ruts made by the wheels. Here at the Fire Mountain (actually more of a small hill) gas had been ignited and been burning for centuries. Go at night to see it at its best. For more information on Yanar Dag, and how to get there, read this.

9. Relax with a cold beer
After all that walking, and you do a lot of walking in Baku, head towards Nizami and some of the best pubs in Baku. If you avoid the Irish and other theme pubs, it benefits both your wallet and taste buds, head down into one of the many cellars serving Xirdalan Beer, the local brew, usually for a about 1 AZN (approx US$1) per pint. The beer is so tasty you might find it hard to stop at one.

10. Watch the Flames at night
This is not about returning to Yanar Dag at night, but heading to the waterfront and looking back at the city. Along with the Heydar Aliyev centre, the Flame Towers are one of the modern architectural wonders of Baku. In the day time they look like boring office blocks, but at night they display elaborate coloured graphics. A great way to finish your day in Baku.

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