Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is the lowest capital city in the world. As it is located next to the Caspian sea, a land lock sea, it’s hard to imaging that the city is actually 28 meters below sea level. We were not quite sure what to expect when we were arriving in Azerbaijan and to our surprise, the city feels like Paris.
Although Baku is located in the Asia continent, it declares itself to others in Europe to be a European country. Baku was once declared by Lonely planet to be the “World’s Top 10 Party Towns” and is also known as the “Dubai of the Caucuses“. This article will introduce Baku and discuss what is there to see in Baku.
Baku is originated from the Persian word Bād-Kube. Bād means wind and Kube means Pounding and together indicates that Baku is a city of pounding winds. We did experience a milder version of these pounding winds, especially when we were seeing the mud volcanoes, Winny got blown into the mud. Apparently in winter, the wind picks up even more velocity and is unbearable when mixed with snow. No wonder Baku is unofficially known as the city of winds.
Baku’s airport is connected to the city via a bus route. (Koroglu & 28 May metro station). Currently, the bus operates from 6 am-10 pm every hour. You can buy the bus ticket from the airport entrance. The ticket costs 1.3 Manat and the top-up card costs 2 Manat. We ended up seeing all the city attractions on foot so we didn’t end up buying a top-up card.
We arrived in Baku at 11 pm on our first night so we didn’t catch the bus. At Buku, Uber and Bolt share rides are available. However, our first experience with the Bolt app in Baku was quite unpleasant. The first driver accepted our trip on the app, but when we met up with him, he asked for a lot more money in cash. Luckily we got away from the first drive and on our second attempt on Bolt, the driver honoured the price on the Bolt app and we were only charged 8 Manat for our trip from the airport to our hotel.
We also took the night train from Baku to Tbilisi, Georgia. The ticket for economy bunk bed was USD $22 and can be bought online or at the main train station in Baku. The time table for all the trains leaving Baku can be found on their website. You can also buy train tickets to most Russian cities, ie Mosco in 60 hours or St Petersburg in 70 hours.
When our local guide told us that Baku is full of oil, he wasn’t joking. There were oil pumps were literally everywhere around the city and in between houses in the slums. There was so much crude oil around the city, we even saw puddles of crude oil bubbling out into big puddles only a few kilometres out of Baku. Crude oil is so accessible that people hardly have to dig for them.
Our guide took us to a normal looking car park where there were three oil rigs pumping oil out of the ground. One of these oil rigs is made out of wood and is the first oil rig built in Baku in 1846. All the oil extraction was done by hand before this date. A village close to Baku records that there was once a hand-dug oil well that was 35 meters deep. However, most of the oil pockets are found in shallow depths of around 10 to 12 meters.
There are records in Persian and Arabic that people were trading with crude oil as far back as the third century. When Marco Polo came by Baku in the 13th, he even documented that the crude oil was used as fuels to light fire. Some even used crude oil to treat certain skin diseases.
There are so many oil rigs when you look out into the Caspian Sea from Baku. One of them was even used to shoot a 007 movie. Some of them are so close to shore that it is only a short swim away. Azerbaijan is super-rich from all these oils, but only a few people truly benefit from this wealth.
From the 19th century to the first world war, almost half of the world’s crude oil came from Baku. The ones that made all the money from these crude oils are the oil barons who own the land that contains the oil. Because of the wealth, most of these oil barons send their children to have an education in Europe and when these children come back to Baku, they want to build a Baku that looks like the wealthy European countries that they stayed in. With all the European architectures, Baku became known as the Paris of the Caucuses. With all the money, every new building becomes more extravagant.
In 1920, the Russian Red army occupied Baku and by this time the city has been booming on oil for nearly 50 years. As a result of the occupation, all foreign oil companies were expelled and all the oil baron’s mansions were seized and confiscated. This ended the extravagant building spree. The private homes were used as public buildings, headquarters or divided up into apartments.
One of the confiscated building by the Red Army is known as the Palace of Happiness. It is currently used as the place for civil marriage. The wife of the first owner of the building fell in love with a French Gothic style European house when they toured Europe. The rich oil baron then secretly commissioned the exact replica to be built in Baku in 1912 as a surprise for his wife.
When the Red Army arrived in Baku, the oil baron vowed that he will not let any barbarian enter as long as he lived. So he shot a Red Army soldier that entered his building in horseback and then shot himself. It was one of many tragic stories that were unfortunately all too common during this period of time.
Baku’s old town is Azabajian’s first UNESCO site. The old city is the ancient part of Baku where the majority of the population lived before the oil and population boom. The old town wall was built in the twelfth century and wonderfully preserved. There are even Baths built next to all the Old town entrance for travellers to wash before entering the city. This was a way to reduce travellers bringing in diseases into the city in the medieval ages.
The old city was built like a maze for defensive purpose. Interesting places in the old town include a mosque and minaret built in the medieval ages. The old town is built on a slope and right at the top of the hill is the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. The view at the Palace is superb and could see the different ages of Baku all in one viewpoint.
We especially love how there are small shlters built for stray cats everywhere in the old town. They even proved water and food in these shelters. This type of friendliness towards stray cats reminds us of our time in Marocco where all the locals love and feed stray cats.
The most famous building in the Baku old City is the maiden tower. The maiden tower is 26.5 meters in height and is now used as a museum educating the historical evolution of Baku. No one really knows why the Maiden tower was built and when it was actually built. Most archeologists believe that it was built between the seventh to the twelfth century. Some guessed that its original function could be a temple for Zoroastrianism or an ancient temple. The Maiden Tower was once right next to the Caspian sea, but as the Caspian sea level dropped, there is a now a strip of land between the tower and the sea.
Even the name Maiden was a mystery and no one really knows why it was called Maiden Tower. One of the many legends of this creation of this tower is that once upon a time there was a princess that was forced to marry someone that she didn’t love. The princess told the king to build a tower and after he built it, she will marry her fiance. But once the tower was built, the princess jumped off the top of the building. Apparently, it’s an inspiration for many people to jump off in the modern time that they have to build barriers at the top of the tower to prevent people from jumping.
In the old town there is the only museum of miniature books in the world and hold the Guinness book of records as the largest private museum of miniature books. The founder of the museum collected these miniature books for a period of 30 years and has now got a collection of over 6500 books from 64 different countries.
Each of these miniature books is a work of art. The smallest book in the museum is only 2mm x 2mm. To read the book, you will need a magnifying glass. The museum has been open since 2002 and is opened to public viewing for free. If you would like the support the place, you can always donate or buy some of the books.
After the collapse of the soviet union, Azerbaijan became independent in 1992. Along with the rise of crude oil prices, Baku embarked a process of construction at a scale that was unprecedented. Quite a few characteristic modern buildings have appeared around the city, such as the carpet museum shaped in a carpet and the flaming towers. Baku also began holding international events such as Formula 1, two years in a row.
Completed in 2012, the Heydar Aliyev Center is one of the Baku landmarks with beautiful innovative design. The building cost 250 million dollars to build and has won the 2014 Design Museum’s design of the Year award. It hosts multiple international exhibitions and performances over the years.
Another iconic modern Baku building is the three Flame Towers that could be seen in the skyline of Baku in most places. Building the flame towers costs 350 million dollars to build and the towers are built in the shape of a flame to symbolize the element of fire. At night the LED light show flickers throughout the three-building and is mesmerising to see.
Climbing along the Funicular track, we could see one of the best views in Baku. We climbed during sunset to see the Baku night view. It was quite windy cold when we reached the top but luckily we were quite prepared for the weather.
At the top of the Funicular is the Martyrs’ Lane. The Martyrs’ Lane is to commemorate the ones who were killed by the Soviet army during Black January 1990 and the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 1988–1994. There is a big Eternal Flame Memorial located at the Martyr’s lane where a hug gas naked flame burns at the centre. It’s quite a nice place to stroll at night time and see the view.
Our guide said that the Muslim country that drinks the most alcohol is Turkey and then is Azerbaijan. Here you can buy pomegranate wine which has a unique taste quite different from grape wine.
Qutab is the local Azerbaijani stuffed flatbread. It has different variations with different fillings with usually pumpkin and greens as fillings. We found a good local store that makes Qutab with no online ratings and no English menu but we found the food there to be delicious. We saw the chef making the Qutab on a circular stove next to the window.
Xezer Restaurant is a very famous local cafe that is in the underground. We found that there are many famous and delicious cafes that are all located underground. Our guide told us that the rent is usually cheaper in these underground locations, hence the food prices of underground restaurants are usually cheaper. Xezer is always packed with locals and tourists and they serve excellent local cuisine.
Majority of the local food we tried, we enjoyed. We thought some of the food was similar to Greek food, such as Dolma (minced meat wrapped in grape leaves). We ate at this restaurant a few times when we were in Baku. The meals never cost more than USD$15 for two people.