Until recently, most people would never have heard of Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city. It was a city and country that flew completely under the radar, even for intrepid travellers. However, in the last couple of decades, the city has emerged as a new must-visit metropolis.
Baku certainly has an interesting mystical appeal to it. Most people simply see images of the futuristic architecture contrasted against the golden-hued Old City and that proves enough to spark some sense of intrigue. Lonely Planet describes the city as an architectural love child of Paris and Dubai, and I’ve struggled to come up with a better description. That’s exactly what it’s like. It’s the epitome of East meets West.
After having spent a lot of time in Tbilisi and Yerevan, I honestly didn’t think I’d feel much love for Baku. But I was wrong. It truly is a cool city in its own way. It might not scream hipster like Tbilisi or edgy like Yerevan, but there is a charm to Baku.
So, here’s my Baku travel guide for spending the perfect three days in and around the city.
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Basic country information
Currency: Azerbaijani Manat, AZN
Language: Azerbaijani or Azeri, which is closely related to Modern Turkish
Visas: An e-Visa is issued within 3 working days through the Government’s online platform here and is valid for 30 days. Nationals from 80 countries can apply for an e-visa and it’s just US$23. A rushed Azerbaijan visa can be organised through the online platform and is ready within 3 hours for US$50.
Budget: $30-40 per day for a budget traveller (without any day tours)
Health: Tap water is drinkable as its chlorinated, although some foreigners have had problems with it. I drank it for the days I was there without any problems.
Planning on visiting the Caucasus? Read: 12 must-see places to visit in the Caucasus with suggested itineraries
When to go to Baku
Baku has relatively severe summers and winters with dramatic changes in temperatures, making both Spring and Autumn the best time to visit Baku. From April to June and then September to November are the best months to travel to Baku. Although, October to December is considered the city’s wettest months.
I was there at the start of December and it was relatively cool and windy, but not too bad for a short visit.
History of Baku
The city first came to prominence under the Shirvanshahs who made it their capital in the 12th century. The city came under persistent attacks from the Mongols until Peter the Great captured the city in 1723. It continued to change hands between Persia and Russia until 1806 when it was finally ceded to Russia.
Oil has been known to surface around the city since the 10th century. However, it wasn’t until commercial extraction was deregulated in 1872 that it saw a massive boom in exports. By the turn of the 20th century, Azerbaijan was producing 50% of the world’s petroleum and oil tycoons began to build lavish mansions and skyscrapers in the city.
In 1920, the Red Army marched into Baku and Azerbaijan became a republic under the Soviet Union until 1991. Tensions continued to grow across the region and after the fall of the Soviet Union, bloody conflict erupted with Armenia until the mid-1990s over territory.
Towards the end of the 20th century, most of the easily extractable oil reserves had been exhausted. After independence, foreign companies explored new refineries and oil exports rose once again and have since contributed to massive growth in the 21st century.
The city is still one of the most important ports on the Caspian Sea and oil and gas still contributes majorly to the country’s economy.
How to get to Baku
The Baku Heydar Aliyev International Airport services many international destinations with most of the major airlines flying into this airport.
The overnight train between Georgia and Azerbaijan is an extremely popular option because of its ease, comfort and affordability.
From Station Square in Tbilisi, the train departs at 8.35pm and arrives at 9am the next morning in Baku.
From Baku Railway Station, the train departs at 8.40pm and arrives at 9am the next day at Tbilisi.
It’s best to purchase the ticket at least the day before from the station or through a local agency. In summer and peak travel times (May to September), the train can be booked weeks in advance and so it’s best to plan ahead if you’re travelling at this time.
I took the train from Baku to Tbilisi at the start of December, and I booked the day before at the station without an issue.
The border crossing can be quite long but the process is painless. On the Baku to Tbilisi overnight train, we arrived at the border at 6am and waited two and a half hours at the border in total for the entire process but it all happens onboard.
There are three classes and I took the third class in an open carriage. It’s perfectly comfortable and you are still given clean bedding to use included in the ticket. It was one of the nicest overnight trains I’d taken in a long time after months in Asia!
For an in-depth guide to the train journey, check out this post from my friend Emily at Wander-Lush blog here.
Another option from Georgia to Baku or vice versa is by marshrutka, the Caucasus’ main transportation option. These minibuses do not technically go the entire way between Tbilisi to Baku but it’s possible to get across the border by stopping en route.
From Tbilisi’s Ortachala marshrutka station, there are minibuses going to Qax (pronounced ‘Gakh’) in Azerbaijan at 8.40am, 11am and 1pm. From Qax, there are marshrutkas to Tbilisi at 8.30am, 10.30am and 1pm.
The border crossing took just 30 minutes and was very efficient. The journey should take around 6 hours in total. From Qax, you can go directly to Baku on frequent minibuses or most travellers head to Sheki, a small town just 45 minutes away and just 1 manat (AU$1) for the bus. I stayed in Sheki for a couple of days, where there are a few historical sights to see.
From Sheki, there are direct marshrutkas and big coaches throughout the day heading for Baku and the journey takes around five hours. My marshrutka from Sheki to Baku cost 9 manat (AU$8).
Planning on visiting Georgia? Read: 11 free things to do in Tbilisi, Georgia
You cannot travel between Armenia and Azerbaijan because of their ongoing conflict over land and territory known as Nagorno-Karabakh. When you cross the border from Georgia into Azerbaijan, the border officials will ask whether you have been to Armenia before. It’s not illegal to do so but it’s certainly considered illegal if you have been to Nagorno-Karabakh. Otherwise, if you just say you have been to Armenia as a tourist without visiting the disputed territory then you shouldn’t face any problems. However, having a Nagorno-Karabakh stamp or visa will mean you will not be able to enter Azerbaijan, technically forever (or until you get another passport).
Transport in Baku
Baku has a great transport network with an efficient and cheap metro and bus system. The metro is the most convenient to use and you must purchase a plastic top-up card to be able to hop on, called BakiKart. The same card can also be used on most city buses.
There are three metro lines currently and a single trip on the metro costs 0.30 AZN. The BakiKart card costs 2 AZN to purchase.
If you’re staying in the city centre though, the city is surprisingly walkable, especially the Old Town part. The metro is really only useful if you want to go somewhere outside of the immediate city centre or to the main Bus Terminal and Train Station.
To get to the airport, you’ll need to take a local airport bus, because the metro does not reach the airport. The trip should cost around 1.30 AZN and you can use the BakiKart card (it’s possible to purchase one at the airport).
Uber is available in Baku too and vintage British taxis are all over the city. However, trips are quite expensive compared to public transport and cost around 3AZN within the city and around 10 AZN to the airport.
What about the Baku Card?
The Baku Card is an official Baku tourism card for visitors that includes free public transport, free or discounted entrance into 30 museums plus discounts at restaurants and cafes. You can purchase a 24 hour card for 24 AZN, 72 hour card for 45 AZN or 1 week card for 70 AZN. If you plan on going to a few of the museums and UNESCO attractions, it can be worth the money as some of the individual ticket prices are exuberant.
You can learn more about the card at the official website here.
What to do in Baku
If you have three days in Baku, you’ll have the perfect amount of time to see the main sights and get out of the city on a day trip too. So, here are the best things to do in Baku in three days.
Baku Old City or Icherisheher
Baku’s Old City was the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s old architecture and history is what draws most people to explore inside its walls. Most of the major landmarks here were built from 7th to around the 12th century while most of the Gothic style apartment buildings were constructed under the Russian occupation.
You could spend a couple of hours just wandering the sandy coloured, stone laneways and taking pictures of the stunning buildings. However, some of the noteworthy attractions here are the top things to do in Baku.
You could put aside an entire day for the Old City, which would give you time to see the main attractions and wander the laneways. There are also some good food options inside the old walls if you get hungry.
This stone tower is the city’s most iconic sight, along with the Flame Towers, and it’s impossible to miss in the Old City.
There’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the tower. Its construction date is unknown, although most historians agree it appears to be from the 12th century. Its an unusually shaped building with walls up to 5m thick at its base. Its purpose and meaning are also uncertain. Some believe it was a fire temple for the pre-Islamic Zoroastrians, while other’s believe it was meant to be a defensive structure to keep invading armies out.
Either way, the tower is open for visitors and as you climb through the levels you can read about the tower’s history as well as the greater city. The real appeal though is the panoramic view from its rooftop, where you can see right across the city skyline and to the Caspian Sea.
Entrance is a bit pricey at 15AZN or AU$14.
Palace of the Shirvanshahs
The Shirvanshahs ruled the region from the 9th to the 16th century and Baku became their capital in the 12th century. The main attraction in this palace complex is the 15th century mosque and tomb commissioned by Shirvan Khalil I.
The entrance is also 15 AZN or AU$14.
Step inside an old Caravanserai
Baku was a major trading hub on the Silk Road and caravanserais or resting places were constructed all over the city for traders. Some have been preserved and turned into restaurants and shopping bazaars, meaning you can take a peek into what used to be important structures on the long trade route across continents.
The Karvansaray Restaurant is one of the most popular, just two minutes walk from the Maiden Tower.
Shop for souvenirs
Many of the buildings in the Old City have been converted into souvenir and handicraft shops and it won’t take you long to come across beautiful carpets and textiles hung around the doorways of the buildings.
The Old City is the best place for shopping in Baku and you can get all the souvenirs you could possibly want there. Some of the popular buys are Azeri carpets, Russian style woolly hats, silver jewellery and antiques.
The three futuristic-looking flame-shaped towers known as the Flame Towers have become the icons of Baku. The skyscrapers are sitting on the upper hill of the city and stand out from almost anywhere. The towers were only finished in 2012 and are meant to symbolise the country’s wealth from the oil industry. However, they have since become more of a symbol of some of Baku’s modern architectural designs that have popped up around the Old City.
You can reach the Flame Towers by a 20-30 minute walk up from the Old City walls. Or you can take the funicular from near the Carpet Museum, which costs just 1 manat each way. The attraction is really just to get a closer look at the towers, as they’re mostly used for fancy hotels and luxury car dealerships and are not really worth entering inside.
On your second day in Baku, you can head up to the Flame Towers to check them out after walking down to the edge of the Caspian Sea and past the architecturally unique, Carpet Museum. The funicular leaves from just across the road from the museum and takes you up to the Flame Towers.
Next, head back to downtown Baku where you can relax in Fountain Square and grab lunch from one of the city’s best restaurants.
The highlight of downtown Baku is Fountains Square. This leafy public space is surrounded by the best shopping and eating options in the city. You can find international brands here including H&M and Starbucks, as well as the best bars and the hub of Baku nightlife.
This was also where the Christmas market was held when I was here and it has to be one of the best things to do in Baku in December, with countless delicious food stalls and cheery Christmas music.
If you’re wondering where to eat in Baku, then the area around the Fountains Square is where you should head. My top restaurant picks for this part of downtown Baku include:
- Chef Baku: A nice place with a view out onto the pedestrian shopping mall, it’s popular for those looking for a cup of tea or a proper meal.
- Dolma: A really extensive menu covering all the region’s best dishes in a traditionally decorated place. The staff are over the top friendly and the place is very busy with tourists in high season. You must try their dolmas, their speciality.
- Fisincan Restaurant: One of the most popular restaurants for trying the Azeri national dish, pilaf, as well as other regional favourites like dolma and kebab.
Day trip to Gobustan and the mud volcanoes
On your third day in the city, I recommend taking a day trip to Gobustan (sometimes written Qobustan) National Park and the mud volcanoes. The landscape as soon as you leave the city is almost apocalyptic and otherworldly and it makes for an interesting contrast to the built-up and modern city.
The rock and mud around Gobustan appear like a wasteland but in reality, there are some interesting attractions here which I would say are a must visit in Azerbaijan.
The rock caves in the National Park are decorated with hundreds of petroglyphs or rock art, drawn around 40, 000 years ago by early humans.
The drawings are relatively well preserved and are mostly figurative with many representing animals and big game. Before you enter the area, you should visit the dedicated Museum which explains the history of the drawings and their meanings in an interactive display. From there, you can follow the easy paths that lead to the main drawings on the nearby caves.
The ticket for the museum and rock art is 10 AZN (AU$9).
Not far from the rock art, you can also visit the mud volcanoes. Don’t worry too much as they’re not really volcanoes as such but mounds of bubbling cold mud that appear like mini volcanoes. More than half of the world’s mud volcanoes lie in Azerbaijan and some of the most accessible ones are in Gobustan National Park.
They’re created from a combination of gases underneath the earth’s surface, but it’s otherwise safe to get up close to the gurgling mounds. You’ll need a local driver for this as it’s not a place you can reach any other way.
Both the rock art and mud volcanoes are usually done in a 5-6 hour day trip from Baku. Gobustan is just 68km or just over an hour from downtown Baku. In high season it’s possible to join tours that run almost daily for around 50 AZN per person, otherwise, you can hire a driver to do a private trip.
I went with a private driver called Elmin and it cost me 80 AZN (AU$75). I can highly recommend him and his number is +994506857879. I learnt a lot about Azerbaijan from him as his English is incredibly good.
Where to stay in Baku
For most travellers, it’s best to stay in either the Old City or Downtown Baku. This way you can easily access the main attractions and best restaurants and shops, even on foot.
I stayed at Olive Inn and Hostel in downtown Baku, 1km from Fountains Square. It was the perfect place to stay and I would highly recommend it for budget travellers. The dormitory rooms are spacious and comfortable with lockers and privacy curtains on the beds. The Wi-Fi was very good and the staff were extremely helpful, making sure I enjoyed my stay in the city. They also had a kitchen to use for self-catering. Prices were from AU$13.
For something a little closer to the Old City, JH Hostel is right on the outside of the walls and a 10 minute walk to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. It’s pretty cheap too, from just AU$9 for a dorm bed.
For something more mid-range and in the Old City, I would recommend Old Castle Boutique Hotel, which is a popular choice and just 600m from Maiden Tower. Rooms are comfortable and basic double rooms start from AU$40.
Planning on travelling to the Caucasus? Read: 12 must-see places to visit in the Caucasus with suggested itineraries
FAQs about travel to Baku
Is it safe to travel to Baku?
Baku is a really safe city and even at night, it’s relatively safe to be out in downtown or the Old City. There is still a certain risk of petty crime, as there is in many cities around the world. The current government has boosted police presence which many local people have credited for dwindling crime rates. However, be cautious of your belongings as you would in many countries.
Is Baku expensive?
Compared to Georgia and Armenia as part of the Caucasus region, Baku and Azerbaijan are certainly more expensive in general. However, visiting Baku won’t break the bank and it’s still a really affordable place to spend time.
Prices are only slightly higher than in neighbouring countries, with hotel rooms and restaurant meals a few dollars more on average. On the bright side, public transport in Baku is one of the cheapest in any city of the world so you can get around relatively easily on a budget.
Budget travellers can expect to live on $30-40 per day with a dorm bed, public transport and cheap local meals. Entrance fees for many attractions in Baku are on the pricey side now, as the government has hopes to start earning more from the Azerbaijan tourism industry. You can either pick and choose what you decide to enter or consider a Baku Card which can make things cheaper overall.
Is Baku in Europe or Asia?
A popular question and one that not really anyone can answer definitively is whether Baku and Azerbaijan are in Europe or Asia. Geographically, it really sits within the Asian continent. However, along with Georgia and Armenia, many locals consider themselves as being closely aligned with Europe.
In reality, the country and city span across both Asia and Europe and it’s this crossroads of cultures and history that makes the Caucasus such an interesting place to visit.
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