In this destination trip report we travel to Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku where we will explore the city’s sights, cafes and restaurants.
First evening in Baku
After checking into my Baku apartment which would be my home for the next two nights and taking some time to admire the great views over the old town from the rooftop terrace, it was time to head out for dinner. As it took a long day of flying to reach the country, I was quite hungry so I couldn’t wait to get some proper food to kick off my Azerbaijani adventure.
Although there are a few restaurants and bars in the old town, most places are actually found in the commercial city centre which is about 20 minutes away on foot.
It made for a lovely walk through the old city streets, passing by some of the main sights of the old town such as the Maiden Tower, which in the 12th Century was a Zoroastrian fire temple, as well as the city walls and main gate. Many buildings are beautifully illuminated.
Even though the old town is quite deserted at night, it is perfectly safe for a late night walk as Azerbaijan in general has a very low crime rate and is considered as one of the safest countries to visit.
Once outside the old town the contrast between the old and the modern becomes immediately clear. Instantly, the architecture changes as well as the narrow Medieval streets and buildings with Islamic architectural influences give way to broad boulevards and pedestrian streets with a Russian-era Czarist architecture of stately buildings.
This is the Baku of the 1900s when it was one of the boom cities in the then Russian Empire thanks to its newly discovered Caspian oil reserves. Both the local government as well as crazily rich oil barons built the most lavish, elaborate mansions and offices with the newfound wealth.
Fortunately Baku is a city that takes great pride in its history, as all of these buildings in the city centre are beautifully illuminated at night. Despite the horrendous rainy weather it was really a pleasure to walk outside in such a gorgeous city.
For my first meal in Azerbaijan I wanted to try some local food. After doing a wee bit of online research I opted for Nargiz, a cellar restaurant in the commercial city centre.
Although Nargiz is a vast restaurant it still feels very intimate as it basically exists out of multiple connected cellar rooms. The restaurant is beautifully decorated in a rustic, traditional Azerbaijani style. The menu is as vast as the restaurant premises as it features food from a variety of cuisines. One part features Azeri food, the other Georgian staples, while there are also Turkish, Russian and Western dishes listed.
To begin with, I ordered one of the Azerbaijani soups (mutton bozbash) which was very good and flavourful. For my main dish, I went for some Turkish Iskender kebab, which was one of the more tasty kebabs I ever ate. Together with a glass or two of a local red wine, the entire meal did only cost around 9 EUR.
Given that accommodation in Baku can be expensive, I was happily surprised that food and alcohol in the city was generally decently priced. Also the other sit-down restaurant meals I would have in Azerbaijan’s capital never set me back more than a tenner including drinks, with street food and snacks costing even less (a chicken kebab can easily be found for less than one euro).
Even though I planned to walk a bit more around the city, I eventually decided to head back straight to my apartment after dinner as the rains slowly turned from drizzle into a torrential downpour.
On my way back to the apartment I however came across a large tent-like structure which turned out to be a tea house and nargilah lounge. I could not resist an after-dinner smoke and some tea so headed inside to relax a bit.
So far, Baku impressed me – and I was curious to what the city would have to offer during daylight hours the next morning.
Exploring the old town
Back in the commercial district, I headed for a restaurant called Firuze for dinner. It seemed similar in style and food as the excellent Nargiz restaurant where I ate the day before, and had similarly good ratings.
Although the food was decent enough, it was a few steps down in quality compared to Nargiz. There was hardly any meat on the bones in my traditional Azeri soup and the dolma (stuffed grape leaves) were very dry. The Azerbaijani beer was however tasty and I couldn’t fault the attentive service at the restaurant.
The meal at Firuze concluded my stay in Baku as I had to go to the train station for my overnight train to Sheki.
Despite having a seemingly worse climate than London and the fact that I haven’t seen so much rain since visiting India during monsoon season, Baku pleasantly surprised me as a city. Baku has such an intriguing mix between different architectural styles, having been at the crossroads of so many great empires.
You can easily see the many influences which made Baku into the city it is today. Turkic, Persian, the Russian Tsars followed by Soviet communism, and then there is the modern-day oil boom and some new construction projects which wouldn’t look out of place in Dubai. Baku has tons of history but at the same time is a highly modern, thriving city.
With a good public transport network, clean and safe streets, great food and affordable prices (except for accommodation) it makes for a fun city trip and a great base to start any itinerary across Azerbaijan or the wider Caucasus. To me, it is one of the cities which do not only have a handful of interesting and cool sights to see, but which also has its own unique vibe. I would love to come back one day in spring or autumn when the weather is hopefully a bit less rainy!