A massive advantage of living in Dubai is its strategic position on the world’s map. If you feel the need for a gateway, within a 3-hour flight, you can find yourself wandering new streets, like the ones of Baku, par example.
When I got to Baku, I really didn’t know what to expect. I went there totally unprepared. Nobody talks about Baku, because it’s not Paris, it’s not Dubai. Or… Surprise!… It’s actually both! Yes, yes, Lonely Planet called Baku “the architectural love child of Dubai and Paris”. It is a mini Dubai with its modern and futuristic shaped buildings (did I say earlier Dubai escape?), however, entwined with cobblestone roads and old palaces (yes, still an escape). Baku has definitely, got the bling of Dubai but also the ancient soul and untold stories of the “Silk Road”. This is what makes it unique and appealing. Interested much? Check out below a list of 10 quirky things to do there.
What to do in Baku?
1. Take a walk around the Old City (Icherisheher).
This UNESCO World Heritage Site, surrounded by historical walls should definitely be the starting point of your trip here. Make sure you take the free audio tour to learn more about the famous Maiden Tower, the culture of Hammams, the Caravanserais and the “Silk Road”.
2. Check out the Flame Towers and the Carpet Museum.
The Flame towers were the only thing I knew about Baku before getting there, as a symbol of this modern city. The signature trio buildings emulating flames are inspired by the cult of fire worshipping by Azerbaijanis. You can take a walk up to the hill or admire the dancing flames from the coastline promenade at night.
The Carpet museum it’s another interesting and architecturally creative building that is worth a glimpse. It has actually the shape of a carpet. Crazy modern architecture.
3. Learn about Zoroastrianism and the cult of fire worshiping.
Talking about fire worshipping, you can learn more about it by visiting the Baku Ateshag Fire temple.
I came across many religions and beliefs during my travels, but this caught me by surprise. The Zoroastrians or fire-worshippers attributed mystical significance to the inextinguishable fire in this territory due to a unique natural phenomenon: the burning underground gas that lights up when in contact with oxygen from the surface.
4. Find out why Azerbaijan is called “the land of fire” at the eternal Burning mountain (Yanar Dag).
More fire. As if you didn’t have enough until now. But really, this place is very unique. We all know that Azerbaijan is a rich country in natural gas, so rich that they burn it for free. For thousands of years! Kidding, as I explained just earlier, the natural gas that leaks to the surface create this natural eternal burning flames. Apparently, even Marco Polo and Alexandre Dumas witnessed the very same mysterious flames that I was watching now. It’s quite impressive when you think about it, but don’t expect a whole mountain on fire, is just a 10m wall of fire at the foot of the hill.
5. Chill in the park outside the modern Heydar Aliyev Center.
Heydar Aliyev Center is a fluid, futuristic building designed by the mega-talented architect Zaha Hadid, Gigi Hadid’s mother. That’s what the guide told us. I was like…Ermmm, don’t remember to read that in the tabloids. Definitely, he needs to update his knowledge. Me as well. That’s how I found out about this famous Iraqi-British architect, who was the first female to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Rumors are true, the future is female.
6. Play with the gurgling Mud volcanoes in Gobustan national park.
If you have time to do a day trip outside Baku, you should check out this place. The road is bumpy but so worth to see these gurgling “creatures”. Another new natural phenomenon for me.
Azerbaijan is claiming to have half of the world’s 700 mud volcanoes. Methane, carbon dioxide gases and other subterranean minerals mixed with hot water, are released from deep within the earth on the surface causing Gobustan’s mud volcanoes to bubble and ooze out.
The locals say the mud is good for your skin so at times you might see some loco tourists taking baths in the volcano’s craters hoping they will reach everlasting youth and eternal life. I only took some mud in a bottle. Not aiming for eternal life at the moment.
I also enjoyed so much to dip my hands in the cold mud (yes, it’s actually cold) and simply frolic on this wicked landscape resembling moon’s surface.
7. Stroll along the Baku boulevard along the coast of the Caspian Sea.
This is a nice way to end your day. The walk is especially pleasant at night. You can admire the dancing flame towers from afar or check out some restaurants, cafes or shops along the promenade.
8. Have a drink at the rotating bar at 360 Bar & Café.
I loooove love love rooftops, so wherever I go, I try to find the coolest rooftops. In Baku, I came across this beautiful rotating bar on the 25th floor of the Hilton Hotel. It was my first time to experience this sort of rotating floor so at the beginning I felt a tiny bit dizzy. Ok, one beer only! The atmosphere of the bar is very relaxing and if your companion is boring, at least the view is not.
9. Go bananas with Azeri cuisine.
Azerbaijani cuisine is a vegetarian’s nightmare. Most of the local dishes are meat-based: plov, kebabs like this, kebab like that, shashlik, different types of soups with meat, etc. However, they do have a lot of delicious pastries and fresh vegetables, so the vegetarians can survive.
Since I am a huge lover of the Russian meat dumplings (pelmeni), almost every day in Baku, I had the Dusbara soup – a lamb broth with tiny cute pelmenis. Before the meal, at the restaurants, they bring you traditional Tandir bread baked in a clay oven. Absolutely delicious. Another type of savory pastry is Qutab – a pancake filled with cheese, meat, spinach or pumpkin. Have them in the Old Town. While you wander around, you will see Azerbaijani ladies cooking them in the street. Really is like homemade.
10. Finish your meals with a cup of a strong Azerbaijani black tea.
Azerbaijani people have an old saying: “Over coffee we discuss, over tea with converse.” It means that coffee is mostly for business talks and tea is for friendly chats. I realized how much sense it makes in our modern world.
Drinking tea is a lifestyle in Azerbaijan and a sign of hospitality. The tea is served in a pear-shaped glass with a side of jam or sweets. And, it’s refillable! The host or the waiter will replenish it until you run out of topics to discuss.
What I liked most?
Nothing from this trip compares with the fun I had playing with the oozing and gurgling mud volcanoes. Do not miss it out!