Azerbaijan’s capital may not be on everyone’s bucket list, but Baku is home to countless ancient sites, stylish East-meets-West restaurants and enough shops to please even the most discerning fashionista.
With an expansive mosque and burial vaults, the Palace of the Shirvanshahs is a Unesco World Heritage Site, described as “the pearl of Azerbaijan’s architecture”. Its Maiden Tower, a 12th-century turret, has inspired numerous poems, plays and ballets. Baku also has many ultra-modern sights, including the futuristic Flame Towers, illuminated after dark and including the Fairmont Baku Hotel, and the striking, curved, Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Center, which houses an art gallery and Azeri culture museum.
Neftçilar Avenue is where many of the world’s top fashion designers have opened flagship stores, including Dsquared2 and Givenchy. To pick up something made locally, shop at Baku Corner, a fair-trade outlet launched by Leyla Aliyeva, daughter of the president of Azerbaijan, to showcase local designers. Azeri carpets are world-renowned for their quality, and Natural Hali is the perfect remedy for carpet envy, containing room after room of vibrant hand-woven rugs hanging from the ceilings.
Riding the funicular lift from the beach up to the Flame Towers costs next to nothing and offers spectacular views across the city. To see even further, take a trip on the Baku Eye, a giant Ferris wheel on the waterfront; on a clear day, you can see snow-capped mountains in the distance. Cruising on the Caspian Sea is also not to be missed, with hourly boats circling around the bay.
If you’re after tasty Azeri food in a cultured, museum-like dining room, Şirvanşah is the place, offering low-cost pot dishes, dolmalar and an extensive drinks list, in a room decorated with antiques and fine china. For families, Café City is a must; eat local takes on pizza, pasta and soups surrounded by lush forest plants. The Central Market is ideal for sampling the variety of dried fruits produced around Baku, from raisins, plums and pineapples to peaches and apricots.
Tea is an integral part of Azeri culture, and the Mexmeri Café and Lounge, with designer furnishings and loose teas lined up in glass jars, has a wide choice of local varieties. Cay Bagi 145, in Baku’s old town, is a local favourite, with black coffees and loose-leaf teas served alongside tasty Azeri pastries. Pakhlava has a high-flying clientele, who come for the live music, comfy sofas and shisha.
Baku is legendary in the region for its bustling nightlife. Royal Hiss Club is one of the hottest night spots in the city, with theme nights, a disco and a long non-alcoholic drinks list. The Buddha Bar inside the JW Marriott Absheron Hotel is an upmarket cocktail bar with shisha and live music. For families, a visit to Dalga Beach Aquapark Resort at the seaside makes a great day out, with water slides, beach and wave machine.
There’s no shortage of hotels for all budgets in Baku. The Four Seasons Baku is a grand palace on the waterfront, with most suites opening onto balconies, and a gorgeous pool housed within a lofty, glass-topped atrium. The Fairmont Baku, inside one of the iconic Flame Towers, is synonymous with luxury in the city. There are 318 suites, serviced apartments, a spa, and numerous high-end on-site restaurants. Affordable Golden Time Hotel is located in a historic building in the old town, just a short walk from the city’s main attractions.