After such a thrilling time in Singapore for the Grand Prix, we found ourselves eager to experience an F1 race again this season. We (very quickly) settled on Baku thanks to previous F1 coverage we’d seen of the city. It showed a race circuit meandering through a city of contrasts: the old city and the new, east meets west. We were not disappointed.
This post is a little overview to share with you the highlights; food, sights, tips etc to help you plan a trip to Baku, or add it to your plans. I’ll cover:
- the basics
- the old town
- the new town
- food highlights
- getting around, including to/from the airport
- visa requirements
Baku is the capital city, indeed the only city, in Azerbaijan. It is situated on the Caspian Sea, oddly 29m BELOW sea level, making it the lowest capital city in the world and it is the first city in Europe to experience the sunrise each day. It is home to around 2.5 million people and has a rich history, particularly from the period of the Shirvanshahs in the 8th Century. Although Azerbijani is the official language, Turkish and Russian are widely spoken and the currency is the Azerbijani Manat (approx. 1 Manat = £0.45).
From the UK, there is (unfortunately) only one direct flight a week which departs from London. However, there are daily routes via Istanbul (Turkish Airlines), Dubai (Emirates) and Doha (Qatar Airlines) from regional airports too. We opted for the Qatar airlines route from Manchester and flew via Doha, spending 5 days there en-route.
The Old Town (İçərişəhər)
İçərişəhər is the name given to the Old City of Baku. This walled section of Baku is full of history which dates to at least the 12th (and possibly the 7th) century and is a UNESCO world heritage site. The walls alone are Instagram worthy
Inside the walls you can find a mix of winding narrow streets as well as wider cobbled roads, which you can easily imagine filled with horse and carts back in the day. Nowadays the old town is more of a tourist hotspot, lined with restaurants (including our favourite detailed below), tourist shops and quirky street art. It’s also where you’ll find two of the biggest tourist attractions: The Palace of Shirvanshahs and the Maiden’s Tower.
Both the Palace and Maiden’s tower can be entered for a fee (15 manats each, April 2019), or for 30 manats you can visit both and have a guided tour of the old town.
Our favourite was the Maidens tower, which has been very nicely restored (as many buildings in the old town have) and has informative exhibits on each floor. The old stone steps are the only way up and down, but the views at the top make the effort worthwhile.
Outside of the Old Town walls Baku is a sprawling metropolis. There are parts dating back to late 19th and early 20th centuries that feel very French, with architecture and squares reminiscent of Parisian streets. It was this area that we chose to stay in (at The Shalimar Boutique Hotel), which proved to be a great base to explore from.
The seafront has a fantastic promenade and park, stretching right the way around the bay. There are cafes and restaurants dotted throughout the park, some of which did pretty good kebabs (but then almost everywhere in Baku does good kebabs!). These cafes were perfect for stopping off and enjoying the scenery – the parks are kept pretty immaculate!
At the west end of the bay is a pretty looking lotus-shaped building (pictured left and still under construction) and turning inland at this point will take you past the National Carpet Museum (we gave that one a miss), towards the Flame Towers.
Recently Baku has seen some big changes, most notably the ‘Flame Towers’ which have become a symbol of modern Azerbaijan. Completed in 2012, these three ‘flames’ tower over the rest of Baku and put on a little light show at night. Whilst exploring the city it was disappointing to find that only one of the three towers is occupied – by the Fairmont Hotel – with the others still empty!
The towers are built high up above most of Baku, meaning there’s a steep walk up to the towers. But thankfully, just around the corner from the towers is the top station of a funicular (a kind of tram that goes up and down hill). For 1 Manat, you can ride in one direction. Arguably it’s better value for money if you’re taking it uphill, which is exactly what we did. Immediately outside the funicular top station is Martyr’s Lane – a memorial and park dedicated to those who lost their lives in World War I and for Azerbaijan’s independence in the 1988 – 1994 war.
From here, you walk back downhill to the centre of Baku.
Like most large cities Baku offers a wide range of cuisine, including traditional Azerbaijani, French, Indian and Italian. Here are a couple of my favourites:
A colleague of mine has family in Baku and thankfully he sent me some recommendations. Our favourite was the traditional Han restaurant in the old town. Firstly, the restaurant was huge and around the edge had traditional ovens. The menu was plentiful (my only regret is that we didn’t arrive hungrier!) and all the food was delicious. We started with traditional breads served with a mezze of pickled vegetables, fresh salads, cheese and beetroot. For mains Lee enjoyed a steak whilst I had a meat, aubergine and tomato dish.
Paris bistro, situated on a cute square with fountains, was our favourite spot for breakfast. It has a varied breakfast menu, friendly wait staff and (oddly) is open 24 hours. With the warm weather we experienced on our visit, this was the perfect place to sit outside and have a very leisurely breakfast! It is just outside of the old-town walls and so close to the majority of city-centre hotels.
We had a few steaks on our trip, but the best experience was at Prive. We had great steaks here and the restaurant is also a deli with mountains of produce stacked up and huge steaks on show (t-bone bigger than your head anyone?!). The service is also excellent.
Getting around (inc. to/from the airport)
Although Baku has an underground metro, it isn’t of much use to tourists. It doesn’t yet go to the airport and only has 2 central stops (it seems to be more for access to the suburbs). Also, our Uber apps didn’t work in Baku, insisting on an update from a foreign App Store we couldn’t access. So it seems the only options are bus and taxi.
Buses depart for Baku from immediately outside the terminal building every 30mins and cost 1.5 manat per person. Tickets can be purchased from the machine immediately outside the terminal door, and AZN cash is required. There are foreign exchange terminals and ATMs inside the terminal. Be sure to exchange or withdraw cash before leaving the terminal as you have to go through a security scanner to get back in the building (not the end of the world but still). If you need a card to use abroad I recommend applying for a Starling card, which is one of my top 5 apps to download before going away.
Baku’s official taxis are the same as London black cabs, but painted dark purple with a yellow check down the side. I’d always recommend taking those rather than some of the other taxis we saw, which looked old and run down. We paid 40 Manat (around £20) to get to Baku but on the way back the driver requested 60 Manat! (We haggled him down to 50 as had a 50 manat note). Be aware of this and perhaps try to agree the price up front.
Once in the centre of Baku, we found everything was within walking distance.
UK and US citizens require a visa which has to be arranged before arrival. This can be applied for online and is usually granted within three days, issued via email. The cost is 20 USD when applying through the official website, but be aware of secondary sites which can charge more. You require a scan of your passport when making the application as well as the address where you’ll be staying in Azerbaijan. Check the latest requirements for UK citizens here and apply for the visa here. Its worth noting that you may be denied a visa if you’ve visited the Nagorno-Karabakh region (which is disputed by Azerbaijan and Armenia) since 1991, so if you plan on travelling around Armenia too, be sure to go to Azerbaijan first.
Worth a visit?
Although there is lots to see and do in Baku a few days is enough if you’re an avid explorer. Baku has great food, most notably fantastic and authentic kebabs. The main sites are close enough to walk between and can be experienced for minimal cost – only the Palace of Shirvanshahs and Maiden’s Tower required tickets.
Day trips are a good idea if you’re spending a bit longer in Baku. The most popular trip is to Gobustan National Park’s mud volcanoes. But as we were there for the Grand Prix we didn’t leave the city.
Baku is the perfect place to team up with a visit to Tbilisi in Georgia or Armenia. But be aware of visa restrictions – you have to visit Azerbaijan before parts of Armenia. Alternatively, team up with a long layover in Istanbul, Dubai or Doha like we did depending on your airline.