Destination Baku: An Intriguing Mix Between Old and New

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.

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A view over Baku’s old town from the rooftop terrace of my apartment. ©Paliparan
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A street in the old town of Baku, with the modern Flame Towers being visible in the background. ©Paliparan
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At night the Flame Towers are illuminated by LED lights, projecting a variety of scenes on the building such as here the national flag of Azerbaijan. ©Paliparan
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Old town mosque. ©Paliparan
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The Maiden Tower. ©Paliparan
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The Maiden Tower. ©Paliparan
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A square in Baku’s old town. ©Paliparan
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A square in Baku’s old town. ©Paliparan
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Baku’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed old town. ©Paliparan
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The main gate separating the old town from the modern-day commercial city centre. ©Paliparan

Commercial centre

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.

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This street directly outside the city walls was being converted into a race track for the Azerbaijan Formula 1 Grand Prix. ©Paliparan
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A street in the city centre of Baku. ©Paliparan
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The Nizami Literature Museum. The statues all depict famous Azerbaijani poets and writers. ©Paliparan
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Fountain Square, the heart of Baku’s commercial city centre. ©Paliparan

Nargiz

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.

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Mutton bozbash at Nargiz. ©Paliparan
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Iskender kebab at Nargiz. ©Paliparan

Walk home

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.

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Walking back through some gorgeous streets to my Baku apartment. ©Paliparan
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Tea and nargilah stop in an old town cafe. ©Paliparan

Exploring the old town

The next morning I woke up early in order to have a full day ahead of me to explore all the main sights of Baku. Staying in an apartment in the heart of the old town, it was only natural to start exploring around this area first.

Baku’s old city was put on the UNESCO World Heritage List in the year 2000. There are some charming alleyways in the old town, with most buildings having very distinctive wooden balconies.

Unfortunately, just like the day before the weather was quite bad which made walking around slightly uncomfortable. Baku is known as The City of Winds – and in winter that means a lot of rain and cold winds blowing from the Caspian Sea. If you have the choice, plan your Baku visit for Spring or Autumn, as also the height of summer is not the best time for a visit due to the scorching heat.

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A street in the old city of Baku. ©Paliparan
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Many houses in the old city have distinctive wooden balconies. ©Paliparan
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Old city walls. ©Paliparan
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Baku old town street. ©Paliparan
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Baku old town street. ©Paliparan

Palace of the Shirvanshahs

One of the highlights of the old town is the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, the seat of the Shirvanshah Dynasty which ruled Azerbaijan in the Middle Ages.

The 15th Century walled palace is almost a city within a city. As the main entrance was at the other side of the old town, I had to walk through the streets located directly along the palace walls to reach it.

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The Shirvanshah’s Palace with the modern Flame Towers skyscrapers seen in the distance. Due to the low-hanging clouds and fog they weren’t even completely visible! ©Paliparan
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The Shirvanshah’s Palace and the Flame Towers, a great contrast between old and new. ©Paliparan
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Walking up the steps towards one of the entrance gates of the Shirvanshah’s Palace. ©Paliparan

Inside the palace

Even though the palace rooms are almost completely unfurnished nowadays, the small but interesting museum exhibition inside the palace gives you an idea how lavishly decorated it must have been in the past.

The Shirvanshah’s Palace is much more than just the main palace alone. The grounds of the complex are vast and also include a mosque, mausoleum, hammam (bath house) and a ceremonial courtyard.

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Mosque in the Shirvanshah’s Palace. ©Paliparan
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Palace of the Shirvanshahs. ©Paliparan
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Palace of the Shirvanshahs. ©Paliparan
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Inside the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. ©Paliparan
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Inside the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. ©Paliparan
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Palace of the Shirvanshahs. ©Paliparan
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Palace of the Shirvanshahs. ©Paliparan
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Palace of the Shirvanshahs. ©Paliparan

Baku metro

I originally planned to explore around the old town a bit more but as the drizzle started to turn into a downpour again I shelved the plan and made my way to the nearest metro stop.

The old town metro station is located right on the edge of the old town, with the city wall on one side and a more modern boulevard with Czarist and Soviet-era buildings on the other side.

Just like many other metro networks built in the time of the Soviet Union, the main stations of the Baku metro network are all located deep underground. They feature some exquisite decorations, blending traditional Azerbaijani motifs with Soviet ideology.

Nizami Ganjavi station, named after a Persian poet, is considered the most beautiful of all stations. It is well worth it to get out at the stop to admire the design before taking another train to your destination.

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Icheri Sheher metro station is the closest station to Baku’s old city. ©Paliparan
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Just like most Soviet-era metro systems, the Baku metro features stations dug deep into the ground, allowing them to double as bomb shelters. ©Paliparan
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Nizami Ganjavi station is considered to be Baku’s most beautiful metro station. ©Paliparan
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Nizami Ganjavi metro station. ©Paliparan

Railway station

My destination was the metro station 28 May as it is located right next to Baku’s main railway station. I had previously bought a train ticket to Sheki online at the Azerbaijani Railways website to be sure of a spot. However, I still needed to exchange my e-ticket for a proper ticket at the station. As I had no idea how long that would take, I figured that it would be better to do so in advance instead of last-minute before departure.

Fortunately, it turned out that there were no queues at all at the railway ticket office and within a minute I had exchanged all my e-tickets for old-fashioned Soviet-style paper tickets for both of my upcoming rail journeys inside Azerbaijan.

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I surfaced again from the metro on the square at which Baku’s main railway station is located. ©Paliparan
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Baku’s railway station. ©Paliparan

Architecture

As the railway station seemed to be close to Baku’s city centre, I decided to walk instead of taking the metro as it would allow me to do some sightseeing on the way.

Outside of the old town, Baku really has a curious mix of all kinds of architectural styles. The Government House, a Soviet building housing various ministries, is for example just a short distance away from the modern glass building of the Hilton hotel, while the city streets in between ooze old-fashioned Russian imperial charm.

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Government House. ©Paliparan
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The Baku Hilton. ©Paliparan
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Most of the city centre streets have a very Russian feel to it. ©Paliparan
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Opera and ballet theatre. ©Paliparan
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Architecture from the Russian Imperial era. ©Paliparan

Lunchtime

Even though I wasn’t really hungry I forced myself to eat something given the huge distances I already walked so far. I decided to opt for a quick snack and sat down in a local cafeteria for a tasty chicken kebab, which including a bottle of water only set me back around one euro.

As I spotted a lovely cafe (Passage 145) close to the kebab shop, I also decided to sit down for a cup of tea, some nargilah and some baklava.

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Quick kebab for lunch. ©Paliparan
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Tea, baklava and nargilah at Passage 145. ©Paliparan
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Tea, baklava and nargilah at Passage 145. ©Paliparan

Funicular

My next plan was to catch a funicular up a hill at the other end of the old town, from where you are supposed to have sweeping views over the Caspian Sea, the Flame Towers and the city of Baku.

I left the comfortable and warm surroundings of the cafe and braved the rainy weather again, which wasn’t all that bad given the lovely buildings and streets I was walking on.

Unfortunately, the weather was all foggy by the time I arrived at the funicular down the hill. It’s definitely not a good sign when the hill and surrounding buildings are all covered in a thick layer of fog! When I inquired at the cable car station if it was worth to go up, the guy said that for the next hour the funicular would not even be opened. I decided not to wait and to continue my walk towards the seaside promenade.

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Statue of Nizami Ganjevi. ©Paliparan
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Statue of Nizami Ganjevi. ©Paliparan
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Old building with the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences, with the Cyrillic letters on top still saying “Azerbaijan SSR” – with SSR standing for Soviet Socialist Republic. ©Paliparan
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Broad Baku boulevard being converted into a race track for an upcoming F1 race. ©Paliparan
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Baku boulevard. ©Paliparan
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One of the old city gates. ©Paliparan
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Underground passage. The entire city of Baku was spotlessly clean and even such pedestrian passageways feel rather glitzy. ©Paliparan
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The hill and funicular covered in fog. ©Paliparan
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The hill and funicular covered in fog. ©Paliparan

Caspian Sea

Parallel to the Caspian seashore you can find a pedestrian promenade and park known as Dənizkənarı Milli Park or National Park. This area is popular with joggers and locals taking a walk, or well, at least in times when it doesn’t actually rain cats and dogs.

There are quite a few modern buildings and interesting sights at the seafront. After Azerbaijan won the Eurovision song contest in 2011, National Flag Square was unveiled featuring the world’s highest flagpole measuring 162 metres high (the flag itself measures 70 by 35 metres). Also the venue for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, Baku’s Crystal Hall, was constructed here.

Designed in the shape of a rolled-up carpet, the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum was constructed in 2014. It is actually much more interesting than it may sound and well worth a visit!

The seaside park also features kitschy canals with Venice-style gondolas and a few shopping malls. Perhaps best of all are however the views from the promenade over the Caspian Sea, the Baku skyline and port.

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Caspian Waterfront Mall. ©Paliparan
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The world’s tallest flagpole. ©Paliparan
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The seaside promenade. ©Paliparan
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The seaside promenade. ©Paliparan
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The seaside promenade with the Flame Towers in the distance covered in fog. ©Paliparan
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Some modern construction projects and the Port of Baku being visible in the background. ©Paliparan

Dinner

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.

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A soup to start my meal at Firuze. ©Paliparan
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A portion of dolma – grape leaves stuffed with minced meat.

In short

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!

Trip report index

This article is part of the ‘Siberian Shuffle – A Crazy Winter Trip Around Eurasia‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:

1. Review: Wizz Air Bucharest to Oslo Sandefjord Torp (Airbus A321)
2. A Day in the Norwegian Capital of Oslo
3. Review: Norwegian Railways Night Train Oslo-Stavanger in a Private Sleeper
4. Review: Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Stavanger
5. Stavanger – A Great Norwegian City Trip Surprise
6. Review: North Sea Lounge Stavanger Airport
7. Review: KLM Cityhopper Business Class Stavanger to Amsterdam (Embraer RJ-175)
8. Guide to the Carnival Celebrations in the Netherlands
9. Review: KLM Crown Lounge (Schengen) Amsterdam Airport
10. Review: Air France Business Class Amsterdam to Paris (Airbus A319)
11. Review: ‘Salon Paris’ Business Class Lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2C
12. Review: Aeroflot Business Class Paris to Moscow (Airbus A320)
13. Review: Aeroflot Domestic Business Class Lounge Moscow Sheremetyevo
14. Review: Aeroflot Domestic Business Class Moscow to Irkutsk (Boeing 737-800)
15. Review: Matreshka Hotel, Irkutsk
16. Irkutsk Trip Report: Exploring the ‘Paris of Siberia’ in Winter
17. Review: Mayak Hotel, Listvyanka (Lake Baikal)
18. A Winter Trip to the Frozen Wonderland of Lake Baikal
19. Review: Ibis Irkutsk Center Hotel, Irkutsk
20. Review: Domestic Business Class Lounge Irkutsk Airport
21. Review: Aeroflot Domestic Business Class Irkutsk to Moscow (Boeing 737-800)
22. Review: Pushkin Hotel, Moscow
23. A 24 Hour Stopover in the Russian Capital of Moscow
24. Review: ‘Moscow’ and ‘Jazz’ Business Lounges Moscow Sheremetyevo Terminal D
25. Review: Aeroflot Business Class Moscow to Paris (Airbus A320)
26. Review: TAROM Business Class Paris to Bucharest (Airbus A318)
27. Review: TAROM Business Lounge Bucharest Otopeni Airport
28. Review: Air France Business Class Bucharest to Paris (Airbus A320)
29. A Short Overnight Stopover in Paris
30. Review: Sheltair Business Lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2D
31. Review: Azerbaijan Airlines Business Class Paris to Baku (Airbus A320)
32. Review: Old City Hotel and Apartments, Baku, Azerbaijan 
33. Destination Baku: An Intriguing Mix Between Old and New (current chapter)
34. Guide: Train Travel in Azerbaijan
35. Sheki: Azerbaijan’s Most Lovely Town and Springboard to the Caucasus
36. Must Be the Ganja! A Visit to the City of Ganja in Azerbaijan
37. Review: Shah Palace Hotel, Baku, Azerbaijan

Koen

Koen

Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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