A short 2 day visit
We are running out of nearby options for places to visit, while we are living in Doha, Qatar. We stumbled on Baku, next to the Caspian Sea, while scanning our world map. Since it is only 2 and a half hours’ direct flight from here with Qatar Airways, we were delighted and excited to visit our first Eastern European, ex-Soviet country.
Azerbaijan is a mostly Muslim country, but it is not a Government Imposed religion. They do not operate under Sharia law. Because of this and their Russian history, you can find alcohol and pork products in most restaurants.
Azerbaijan is really striving to improve Tourism and the first evidence of this is that since January 2017, you can now apply online for a tourist e-visa. It can take up to 3 working days to approve, but ours was done in one day. Keep your e-visa printout, as they need to stamp it again when you leave the country.
Unbeknownst to us, Baku was hosting the 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games and had the opening ceremony that Friday evening that we landed! We did see a lot of athletes on the plane, but thought it was maybe just a tour.
The city is beautiful and clean. I have honestly never been this surprised at a place ever before. Everywhere we went they had beautiful gardens and walkways along Baku Boulevard. The old apartment buildings were equally pretty. Stylish, modern buildings in between, makes Baku a very vibrant and interesting place.
Of all my friends, only one had ever been to Baku. My friend is Turkish and he recommended some amazing restaurants for us. For lunch, Kervansaray for some local food. For dinner, we booked Mangal Steak House (great reviews on Tripadvisor). Unfortunately, due to the Islamic games’ opening ceremony, they closed off certain roads on Friday evening. We had to cancel our dinner plans and were super disappointed. I was already drooling after seeing the menu online! Another place recommended to us was Nar & Sharab Restaurant, for fish and seafood. We did not get to try any of them!
We stayed at a very nice hotel, called the Fairmont. It is a famous landmark in Baku because of the flame shape of the 3 towers, called… the Flame Towers! Situated on a little hill, it overlooks both the Caspian Sea and the city. Only one slightly negative thing is that their restaurant, Le Bistro, was very average. We also got access to the hotel lounge for afternoon tea as well as drinks and canapes. The lounge has a stunning view, but afternoon tea was just a few biscuits and snacks while there were no canapes with the drinks (we got some nuts). Not sure that it was worth it to pay just for the view on lvl 19, since we had a great view from our room on lvl 24 too.
We were surprised yet again when we discovered that Baku will be hosting the Formula One Grand Prix in June 2017. Like Monaco, Baku’s race is held in the city, and their streets are in truly great shape. They were busy putting up the safety barriers, stadiums and pit stops all along the course. This will not be the first time for Baku to hosts the Formula One, as they hosted this last year too.
In April 2017 Baku also had a tax-free shopping festival, that we just missed. Something to keep in mind for the future ladies! There are some very nice shopping malls with my favourite being the Port Baku Mall. They sell all the top fashion brands as well as some local ones. I found walking around the city to be a great experience. They really cater for pedestrians with a means to cross the road by going underneath it!
The aubergine coloured, old London-style cabs were easy to flag down and we were advised that they were the best ones to take. The taxi drivers did not always speak good English, but whenever we said the name of where we wanted to go, they knew where it was and took us straight there. It is customary to round off the amounts charged by the taxis. One AZR Manat is about 60cents US. We usually gave them 10 Manat when they charged a 7 Manat fare.
Food in the restaurants were also very reasonably priced. We had two coffees with cake for 16 Manat! In Fountain Square we had a fantastic local lunch of Pilaf and rice, for 36 Manat for two (with water and a beer!). We did not try the Ganja Bistro, but apparently their food is great, and NO, nothing illegal is sold here!
We got a local guide from the hotel for Saturday, to show us around. Samir and his driver came to pick us up at the hotel. We visited a fire burning in memory of those who died during the Soviet repression in the black month of January 1990, as well as the graves of the deceased. The flame is a symbol of Azerbaijan. Our guide was great and you can also see this memorial from the Fairmont hotel. There is also a beautiful little Turkish Mosque and funicular to the coast.
Afterwards we went to the UNESCO site of the Old City. Now a residential area with local shops and restaurants, inside the original walls. There is a little museum inside a palace as well as the Maiden Tower to climb. If you wanted to do your own thing, they have the audio guided tours available too.
Lastly, we visited the stunning Heydar Aliyev centre, designed by Zaha Hadid. The Center houses a conference hall (auditorium), a gallery hall and a museum. Sprawling gardens and lawns, with fountains everywhere made for some spectacular photos. Very impressive, to say the least! While I knew that we climbed a lot of stairs, I only felt it the next few days! I really need to work on my fitness, as these poor legs were SORE!
These two days flew past and with sadness I left Baku, a place I need to return to. Still so much to see and do and eat! Oh, and a carpet museum to visit! I leave you with a photo of their beautiful airport building, the Heydar Aliyev International Airport.
It may not have been a place you previously considered going, but put it on your list! I love Baku!