Baku is not the disorganised, old school “Russia meets Middle East” stereotype that it was when it first broke away from the Soviet Union back in 1991. After that well needed shift, Azerbaijanis gained not just independence again, but a new sense of pride. Politically and geographically, Azerbaijan continues to be a complicated enigma.
The mainland part of Azerbaijan varies dramatically in landscape. You could be hiking on snowy mountains in Xinaliq by the Russia border, seeing a pink lake (Lake Masazir), touring the charming city of Sheki or checking out mud volcanoes. Terrain wise, you’re in for a diverse treat. Politically Azerbaijan is split into two parts – the mainland and Naxcivan (borders Armenia, Turkey and Iran and is geographically separated.
Naxivan is isolated and can be tricky to get to, given that Azerbaijan and Armenia don’t have any open borders, so you have to go via Iran (which is kind of a waste of a visa, if you’re not stopping to backpack in Iran). Don’t forget about the completely crazy Republic of Nagorno Karabakh. After getting my 10 day Azeri visa in Batumi Georgia, we got a night train to Baku, the capital city, from Tbilisi ready to explore Azerbaijan.
Here are my top 22 things to see and do in Baku, Azerbaijan. Which I narrowed down because if truth be told, this is a beast of a city and in 4 days we only felt we scratched the carpet. We based ourselves in the cosy Caspian Hostel in the Old Town.
1. Flame Towers
Get up and personal with these elaborate flame towers. At night they are lit up, all 3 of them shining proudly down on Baku, Azerbaijan.
It’s a tidy hat-trick and a defining part of the Baku skyline. This is an oil rich country, and you’d only know that from the capital city. Other parts of Azerbaijan seem poor, lacklustre and lacking modernity. Inside the towers are offices, you can get up to them by walking up steps or taking a Funicular. What you can’t do is turn your photos round (I’ve tried).
2. James Bond Oil Fields
You can get to “do the Brosnan” by visiting the James Bond Oil Fields. This is not really in the city centre though and hard to get to, so I recommend going with a driver. We headed to the James Bond Oil fields as part of our Qobustan tour. It’s on a side road between the Bibi Heybat and Bayil districts in the south of the city. Deem de deem deem…de de de.
3. Maiden’s Tower (Qiz Qalasi)
On the edge of the Old City of Baku, the Maiden’s Tower is the iconic traditional Azerbaijan style building. It’s only 29 metres high but it’s thick, historic and has many tales about it. There’s a mini museum within and a good viewing point from the top. Entry is 3 Manats.
4. Siniq Qala Mosque
I’m including quite a few sights inside the Old City rather than just bung the Old City in as a sight of its own. It’s important to wander around freely and explore the nooks and crannies of it. The Siniq Qala Mosque is odd a narrow street and not obvious but it dates back to 1079 and was recently restored after being broken and destroyed during a 1723 Russian attack.
5. Juma Mosque
Right on the street that leads to the Maiden’s Tower you will see the Juma Mosque. When I look back I just think how different the Mosques are between three of the countries in this region – in Iran they are bright, elaborate and colourful. In Turkey they are touristy and chaotic. In Azerbaijan, they are bland and hidden. Though, ultimately, they are architecturally and spiritually important.
6. Carpet Markets
OK this can be annoying as what backpacker in their right mind goes to a new country to buy carpets? Exactly! However Iran and Azerbaijan are probably the two most famous countries for carpets in the world!
You can visit the famous Azar Lime Carpet factory (at Ganclik) and the carpet museum (on Neftcilar Street number 123 in the downtown) but as a budget backpacker who has no desire to buy carpets, admiring the ones in the many shops around the old town market is the best way to do it! Head to the street called Esef Zeynalli Kuc to find all the town’s main carpet and rug sellers.
7. 17th Century Market Square
Wandering around the Old Town, you come to a small square. These days, it hasn’t changed that much. It’s right beside the Maiden’s Tower and is sunken, it’s also hard to notice as it is quite a small “square”. It’s just behind the tourist information booth (see below picture).
8. Old City Walls and Gate
While exploring the Old City, you’ll notice that the walls scale the whole way round and have survived to tell the tale of a city clearly good at not being invaded. The brick work gets renovated every now and then of course but you have to admire the walls, and the main gate entrance to the old city.
9. Palace of the Shirvanshahs
This is one of the few sights I recommend paying the entrance fee for and going inside. You can spend a while in here if you want to explore every part of this old palace. The entire complex takes a good hour to see all of it, it’s massive and it’s housed inside the walls of the Old City. The highlights within the Palace of the Shirvanshahs are Dervish’s Mausoleum, the Shah Mosque, the Mausoleum of the Shirvanshahs. Information is written in English at points around the palace.
The Shirvanshahs were the ruling dynasty , the Muslim rulers of Azerbaijan dating back to the mid-9th century to the early 16th century. What feels completely odd (especially in the photo above) is seeing these out of place swanky apartment blocks overlooking ancient ruins and bath houses! It was 2 Manats (£1.25/ $1.90) for an entry ticket and they wanted a further 1 Manat for taking photos (which we didn’t pay and don’t recommend paying).
10. Caspian Sea Cruise
Azerbaijani capital Baku sits on the gorgeous Caspian Sea. A dreamy childhood book by Belfast author CS Lewis called Prince Caspian had me wondering about this sea. Once we finally arrived in Baku, we decided we wanted a cruise on the Caspian. You can get a cruise by the harbour for just 2 Manats which is a bargain (£1.25/ $1.90).
Views are tremendous and the sea is calm. Head to Baku Bay and walk along Bulvar and the promenade south west and you’ll see the pier where the boats leave from.
11. Azadliq Square (Freedom Square)
Lots of ex-Soviet Union states have these freedom squares since the break up of the USSR. Baku’s square is called Azadliq Square and happens to be the place where I met up with some friends and Northern Ireland football fans to collect our tickets for the football match.
After collecting our match tickets, we sang some songs for the media (BBC and SKY Sports) and I was interviewed in the square for TV (I have yet to see the interview of course but it was live in NI and UK around the time of the match!).
It was formerly called Lenin Square but the Lenin statue was removed in 1991 after the USSR broke up, unlike in Tirapsol in Transnistria where Lenin statues still remain!
12. Bakcell Arena Football Stadium.
I had planned my trip to Azerbaijan about a year in advance to coincide with the Northern Ireland match there. We were due to play Azerbaijan in Baku in a World Cup qualifier. It was my first Northern Ireland match in over four years. Sadly, we lost 2-0. The stadium is impressive though and you can get the metro there to Nefcilar or Xalqlar Dostlugu (we had a group of us and taxi-ed it).
13. Baku Metro
When I’m in ex-Soviet cities, the Metro systems always fascinate. When I backpacked through Moscow in 2007, a lasting memory was the stylish metro systems, which almost served as mini museums. Sofia in Bulgaria is similar, and I loved the different metro systems in Tbilisi, Yerevan and Minsk on my travels, Baku metro takes a bit of understanding but once you know it, it’s a cheap and easy way to get around the city.
Some of the stations have displays in them and due to the oddness of it, I would compare it to my underground experience in Pyongyang’s Metro in North Korea.
14. World’s Second Tallest Flagmast
During my couple of visits to North Korea, I saw the world’s tallest flagmast – south of the city of Kaesong and at the DMZ border with South Korea at Panmunjom. Azerbaijan takes home a silver medal, as their flag here is the second highest in the world (allegedly).
15. Bibi Heybat Mosque
Being a Muslim country, Mosques are everywhere and the Bibi Heybat is the most famous in Baku. The existing structure, built in the 1990s, is a recreation of the mosque with the same name built originally in the 13th century by Shirvanshah Farrukhzad, which was completely destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1936. It’s south west of the city – get your driver on the Qobustan tour to take you here, or you’ll have to bus it out there and bus it back.
The Mosque includes the tomb of Ukeyma Khanum (a descendant of Muhammad), and today is the spiritual center for the Muslims of the region and one of the major monuments of Islamic architecture in Azerbaijan.
16. Fountains Square
I have no idea if it is actually called “Fountains Square” or not, but it has a fountain and it is a big square. This is where vibrant Baku meets the 21st Century. From the square, streets of flashy bars and brand name designers shops lead the way. Proof that Baku has well and truly left communism behind and never really embraced it in the first place.
17. Vahid Garden
Famous local poet Vahid, has his own massive head sculpture and garden within the old city walls. There is also a coin museum and a miniature books museum in the same area if you’re into either of them.
The whole park area by Baku seafront is known as Bulvar so I’m bunging it into one sight as well. Enjoy strolling around it day and night admiring the sea and the leafy gardens. There are fountains and light shows at night and lots of bars and cafes.
19. Martyrs Lane (Sahidler Xiyabani)
High above the city of Baku, on your walk up to the Flame Towers you will find Martyrs Lane. This is a poignant and sad tribute to those killed in the most horrendous wars in Azerbaijani history.
The main tributes are also in joint recognition with the friendship between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Victims of the horrific 1994 Karabakh War have their graves here as do those who were killed by the Red Army’s 1990 attacks. I found it completely sad that in Yerevan in Armenia they also have the Genocide Memorial to those Armenians killed by Turks and that in Nagorno Karabakh they had museum tributes to those Armenians and Nagorno Karabakhians killed by Azerbaijanis in the Karabakh War. The other side of Martyrs Lane offers excellent views of the city.
20. Eternal Flame
At the end of Martyrs Lane, there is the eternal flame, again I found it sad as there is a similar flame in Yerevan and we both know the 2 countries (Armenia and Azerbaijan) hate each other.
21. Nizami Ganjavi Statue
The Monument to Nizami Ganjavi, a great medieval Persian poet, is located in Baku in Nizami Square, on the intersection of Istiglaliyyat, Ahmad Javad, Azerbaijan and Islam Safarli streets, just on the edge of the Old City Walls and Gate. The sculptor of the monument was Fuad Abdurahmanov – People’s Artist of Azerbaijan
22. Gardens and Buildings Near Icari Sahar Metro
This area isn’t really listed as anything touristy, but I totally recommend it. It is a leafy parks and gardens area just outside the metro station Icari Sahar and right beside the old city walls. Features included a theatre style yellow and white building, a clock on the wall and pretty gardens and fountains.
That completes my top 22 backpacking in Azerbaijan ‘s capital Baku. There are obviously lots and lots of other things to see and do in Baku. I spent 4 nights and 4 days here in the end and enjoyed the city. The only thing it lacks is atmosphere as architecturally the place is fantastic looking. Weirdly I’d actually compare it to Doha in Qatar.
Here are some videos from my trip to Baku, Azerbaijan, the rest are on my Youtube Channel: