Despite its brief moment in the spotlight as the host of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, the easternmost corner of the Caucasus has remained largely unknown to travellers – until now. As Baku gears up to host the world’s first European Games in 2015, Lonely Planet has the scoop on how to make the most of a visit to Eurasia’s oil-boomtown.
Perched on the crossroads of Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Azerbaijan’s incredibly rich cuisine (think lamb, lots of lamb) has been inspired by many nations, yet remains distinctly unique. Keep in mind that it’s currently still legal to light up indoors in Baku so, if you’re keen to avoid the fumes, ask to be seated in the non-smoking section (if they have one). Reservations are recommended at more upscale restaurants.
Local: Azeri cuisine is dominated by meat, rich cheese and the national fruit emblem, the pomegranate. Some of the best restaurants to sample local cuisine in Baku include the casual Kafe Araz and the slightly more upmarket Firuza (don’t leave without trying its beetroot dip), both located on opposite corners of pretty Fountains Square. The pick of the city’s more upscale local options include the rooftop restaurant at the Sultan Inn Boutique Hotel, and Sumakh (sumakh.az), near the Supreme Court. All do their own delicious versions of local favourites such as plov (Azeri-style pilaf), lyula kebab (lamb or mutton skewer served with lavash), qovurma (lamb stewed with onions and pomegranate) and saj ichi (meat and vegetables cooked in a cast-iron pot).
International: Whether you’re after a good steak or an authentic pat tai, you can now find it in Baku. Surprisingly affordable Pan-Asian restaurant Chinar remains one of the hottest tables in town since it opened in 2010. For Italian, it’s all about Tosca (saffron.az/en/restaurants/tosca) and when it comes to Japanese, the set menu at Zakura (zakura.az) is unbeatable. Paul’s is well known for serving the city’s best steak, but Alov at the Fairmont Baku offers a more comprehensive selection of sauces and sides.
Lunch and brunch: Many Baku restaurants offer a competitive ‘business lunch’ deal; expat fave Zest Lifestyle Café (facebook.com/ZestLifestyleCafe) does one of the best with unlimited access to the gourmet salad bar, a cold drink and a proper espresso coffee for AZN11. It may not have been the owner’s best move to name his takeaway joint after himself, but the wraps at Jihad Falafel (at 40e Qogol Street) are one of Baku’s best meals-on-the-go when you need a break from the ubiquitous kebabs. For something a bit more special, make for international bistro Bisque (bisquecafe.az). It’s a tie between the Fairmont Baku and the Four Seasons Hotel Baku for the city’s best weekend brunch spread.
The bulk of Baku’s sights are concentrated in its charming old town. A handful of other attractions outside its walls are easily reached by taxi (which, thanks to local oil prices, are unbelievably cheap), with several day trip options for the more intrepid.
Old town: It’s easy to spend a whole day exploring this medieval walled village. Don’t miss the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a sandstone palace complex that was the seat of northeastern Azerbaijan’s ruling dynasty, and the tapering Maiden’s Tower, which is Baku’s foremost architectural icon and possibly millennia old. There are also half a dozen galleries and plenty of carpet stores to peruse throughout the labyrinthine streets; be ready to barter.
Baku city: Just a short taxi ride from the centre of town, the futuristic, Zaha Hadid–designed white curves of the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre (heydaraliyevcenter.az/#main) trump the actual contents of the cavernous museum, but it’s still worth the AZN5 entry fee to have a look around. Not far away, closer to Port Baku, the city’s Museum of Modern Art (mim.az/en/) bears the mark of another famous architect, Jean Nouvel. Its maze-like interior is home to an impressive collection of mostly post-1980 Azerbaijani art, as well as a small handful of Picassos and Dalis. Hugging the shoreline of the Caspian Sea, the paved Bulvar (boulevard) is a lovely spot for a walk on a sunny day, despite the pervading smell of oil wafting across the water from offshore rigs.
Greater Baku: Hire a driver (approximately AZN70) for a great day out at the fascinating Qobustan petroglyphs, about 60kms south of Baku, and nearby mud ‘volcanoes’. On the way back to the city you’ll see what remains of the ‘James Bond Oil Field’ (featured in scenes from The World is Not Enough) just south of the city, but if you’ve hired a driver for a full day it’s worth tacking on a visit to the Ateşgah Fire Temple on the Abseron Peninsula, which is best visited at sundown for good photos.
After dark: Propped up by a sizeable expat community, Baku has a thriving nightlife. The largest clutch of bars lies just southeast of the old town; perennially popular haunts include Otto’s and wine bar Room (facebook.com/RoomFineArtWineDine). If you share Azerbaijan’s soft spot for jazz, head to the Baku Jazz Centre or the Fairmont Baku’s swish Alov Jazz Bar, while those after booze with a view should make for Opera Sky (operasky.az) or the Landmark Hotel Baku’s SkyBar.
Baku is in the midst of a hotel boom, with newly-opened branches of the Fairmont, Four Seasons and JW Marriott helping to keep pricing competitive. Rates are on par with Western Europe, and service standards have improved across the board in recent years.
High end: Situated in Baku’s now-iconic Flame Towers with sweeping views across the Caspian Sea (even from the spa!) , the Fairmont Baku is hands-down the hottest bed in town. For more local-style luxury, check out the Shah Palace Hotel or the Sultan Inn Boutique Hotel in the old town. Other luxe options include the new JW Marriott Absheron Baku and the Four Seasons Hotel Baku.
Midrange and budget: While Baku does business hotels best, there are still a good range of cheaper sleeps to be found. Great, centrally located hotels laden with local character include the Azcot Hotel (set in an 1885 mansion), and the Museum Inn. If you’re on a budget, the well-run Baku Old Town Hostel is a top choice.