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Exploring Baku, a Charming Destination With a Mishmash of Cultures

The capital city of Azerbaijan offers the best of Europe and Asia when it comes to food and architecture.

Bustling is not the first word you’d think of to describe Azerbaijan’s capital city Baku.

Before my trip there, I thought the same. But after spending four days in the relatively offbeat country, I can’t think of any other word to encapsulate my experience.

A small nation geographically, Azerbaijan is bordered by Caspian Sea to the east, Iran to the south, Armenia to the west and Georgia and Russia to the north.

A flight from Dubai to Baku takes a little less than three hours and tickets are relatively cheap. From Abu Dhabi, Wizz Air offers a basic one-way fare at Dh439.

Arrival and accommodation

Upon landing at Heydar Aliyev International Airport, I was welcomed by a sleek modernity that is the perfect introduction to what lies ahead. Designed by Turkish studio Autoban, the airport is clean, bright and airy, featuring lots of natural materials like wood and stone but designed with a contemporary touch.

Before going to passport control, I collected my visa through one of the many kiosks at the airport. It costs $30.

I also exchanged some dirhams to Azerbaijani manat, but most establishments in the city accept card payments, so this is optional.

The immigration process was quick and smooth, and as soon as I stepped outside of the airport, I got a glimpse of the clean and modern metropolis. Intercity roads are smooth, reminding me a little bit of Dubai.

The airport is about 30 km away from the city centre, which is about a 20-minute drive, depending on traffic conditions. There are taxis available on site, and it’s the most convenient way to get around. There is also the option to take public transport, such as the bus or metro.

The Fountain Square, a lively plaza filled with tourists and locals, is quite often referred to as the city centre. It is the perfect place to people-watch and soak up the city’s atmosphere.

There are numerous accommodation options around the area, from boutique hotels to five-star properties. Staying close to Fountain Square is a good idea, because it is within walking distance from landmarks such as the famed Old City, Nizami Street and Baku Boulevard.

I stayed at The Ritz-Carlton, Baku, located about 3km away from the square.

East meets West

A cultural mishmash of East and West, Azerbaijan is a harmonious mix of modernity and tradition. This is immediately evident in the city’s architecture, which blends eclectic influences that reflect the country’s rich history.

Islamic architecture is evident in the intricate designs of places of worship, such as the historical Bibi-Heybat Mosque. The country also bears the marks of its time as part of the Soviet Union. These Soviet-era buildings are utilitarian and brutalist, often with pointed tips, such as the famous Flame Towers and the Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre.

Baku experienced an oil boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which led to the construction of grand buildings. Rich oil barons built mansions with European influences, and they are now a prominent fixture in the city’s architectural landscape.

My first stop is the historic Old City or Icherisheher. A Unesco World Heritage Site, the walled section of the city centre is a captivating labyrinth of narrow winding alleys, ancient buildings and historical landmarks. Wandering through the cobblestone streets felt like stepping back in time.

From old residences that often feature wooden balconies with intricate carvings, to structures that highlight skilled stonework, the Old City is truly an aesthetic wonder. Make sure to visit the Maiden Tower and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs.

There are also numerous dining places here, including Qala Divari, which serves Azerbaijani classics. The local food here shares many similarities to the ones you get in the UAE – many of them share the same spices, ingredients of Middle Eastern cuisines.

Dolma, or stuffed grape leaves, is on offer on every local menu, as are kebabs and pilau or a one-pot rice meal made with meat, vegetables, herbs and spices.

Outside the Old City is a completely different vibe. Only a few minutes away by foot is the famous Nizami Street, a vast pedestrian and shopping street in downtown Baku. Various outlets, from banks to restaurants and retail stores, are lined up across 3.5 km.

This is probably my favourite part of the city because of its vibrant and dynamic atmosphere. This bustling market is full of eager tourists and locals wandering about. There are many cafes and green spaces to hang out in, and the area is open until late night.

The ‘land of fire’

Fire holds a special place in Azerbaijani culture and history. The abundance of natural gas reserves in the country has led to the emergence of vents and underground fires. One of the most famous examples is Yanar Dag, or the burning mountain, where fire blazes continuously from the ground. It’s been said that the flames there have been burning continually for at least 700 years.

Because of this, the country also has a long history of fire worship, dating back thousands of years. One of the oldest religions in the world, Zoroastrianism, is believed to have originated in the region that is now modern-day Azerbaijan. There are still fire temples in the country, including the castle-like Ateshgah, which is a popular tourist spot.

There are other manifestations of the country’s natural gas abundance, including the famous mud volcanoes. A must-visit is the Gobustan National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, which is located about 64km south-west of Baku. It is famous for its ancient rock carvings and unique geological features.

In downtown Baku, fire is symbolised in the famous Flame Towers, one of the most recognisable structures in the Azerbaijani capital. At night, it lights up with visual effect projections of flames, waves, or sometimes the national flag.

Other notable spots

Four days were not enough to fully enjoy Azerbaijan’s breadth of culture and history, but if you are there for a weekend, there are other spots to check out to get a holistic experience of the country.

Other places to check out include the Heydar Aliyev Centre, an architectural masterpiece by the renowned Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. It stands out for its fluid design, with the striking absence of sharp edges and straight lines. It hosts exhibitions and other cultural activities.

Also check out Shirvanshah Museum Restaurant which, as the its name suggests, is both a museum and restaurant. From carpet art to other local crafts, the venue highlights local culture, while guests dig into sumptuous Azerbaijani cuisine. Their lamb kofta was probably the best I’ve ever had.

Other tips

The country’s currency is the Azerbaijani manat. Card payments are accepted in most places, but it’s advisable to carry some cash for small purchases. A dollar is equivalent to 1.7 manat.

Based on my experience, it can be a bit difficult to get around without speaking the local language, so it’s best to have Google Translate ready. Residents speak Azerbaijani, which is a Turkic language, so if you speak Turkish, you will be fine. Most locals also speak Russian.

It is best to download ride-sharing applications, such as Uber and Bolt, instead of hailing cabs, which can be quite the task especially in tourist hotspots. Taxi rides are relatively cheap and most drivers accept card payment.

Baku is generally safe, even at night, but general precautions are advised. It is worth checking dress codes and local customs when visiting certain places.

Baku experiences hot summers and mild winters. Daytime temperatures from September to November range from 20ºC to 25ºC. During winter, temperatures can go as low as 5ºC. When visiting during these months, pack some light to moderately heavy warm clothes.

Source : The National News