The capital city of Azerbaijan
and the nation's travel hub. For the dark tourist, there's the dark anti-aesthetics of all the industrial wastelands around the area, as well as some natural bizarreness in the form of mud volcanoes, both doable as day trips from Baku. And the city itself also offers a couple of interesting sights
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: Baku – the name alone conjures up ideas of oriental mystique and exoticness. In part that is justified. But more than living up to such a conception of the old Orient, it is today a modern place, now by far the largest city of the Caucasus and constantly getting larger still; currently estimated population: over 2 million. It's a boom town, fuelled by oil riches.
This is accompanied by a wild building boom – with new prestigious high-rises mushrooming all around the city and altering the skyline constantly. All this may obscure the fact that it's also a place of much ancient history, having been vaguely on the Silk Route, if you count the sea route across the Caspian, and frequently fought over by neighbouring empires, especially Persian and Russia
It remained a fairly small place, however, until the onset of the oil industry – for which it was the most significant birthplace (see under Absheron peninsula
In spite of the oil riches – and at the same time because of this – Baku continued to be kicked about by outside powers. The First World War
and the Russian October Revolution brought turmoil also to Baku, including massacres carried out by Bolsheviks and Armenians
– and the British
had some involvement as well (see Martyrs' Lane
). A short-lived independent republic was eventually ended by the Red Army that invaded and captured Baku in 1920. Shortly afterwards Azerbaijan
became part of the Soviet Union
and Baku capital of the Azerbaijan SSR.
The importance of oil continued, though it gradually declined, in part due to the fact that oil fields in Siberia, which were strategically in a safer location took over in priority. Still, the pollution of the Soviet era oil drilling as well as the chemical plants around Sumqayit (see Absheron peninsula
) left a nasty toxic legacy.
The break-up of the Soviet Union also hit Baku hard. There had already been tensions – including escalating violence in ethnic clashes between Azeris and Armenians
. In January 1990, the Red Army intervened in Baku – resulting in bloodshed (see Martyrs' Lane
), which only furthered the desire for independence from Moscow
. This was finally achieved in 1991.
The troubles were far from over, though, as soon after the war with Armenia
added a new strain to the young republic. Since the cease-fire in 1994, however, Azerbaijan and in particular Baku have risen to an economic miracle – with renewed oil exploitation now fuelling a crass capitalist boom. Problems with internally displaced people from the Karabakh war remain – though they are not so visible in Baku itself.
Today, Baku is easily the most cosmopolitan city of the Caucasus region, and at the same time one of a heady cultural mix, characterized by glitzy new symbols of wealth coupled with grotty remainders of Soviet architecture and life as well as with a take on Islam so moderate and leaning towards the secular that you often forget that this is indeed an oriental Muslim country. You wouldn't guess it going by the women not wearing headscarves (let alone burkas) or blokes sitting around drinking beer in open-air bars. The mosques too are nowhere near as deafeningly noisy in their calls for prayer as in other Muslim countries (such as Turkey
There's a large expat community too – and the nightlife is supposedly one of the best in the world (presumably requiring the necessary cash) … not that I could testify to this, as I never took part in any of it. Nonetheless, I found Baku by far the most attractive city of my extensive travels of the Caucasus region in the summer of 2010. A good dash of that exotic mystique remains too, though …
What there is to see:
Baku mainly serves as a base for day trips to the amazing mud volcanoes of Qobustan
and/or the Absheron peninsula
with its industrial wastelands and oilfields. But it also has a couple of points of interest for the dark tourist within the city limits itself. The two main ones have their separate entries here:
Just south of the city itself, there's the "James Bond Oil Field", thus named because it featured in the 1999 James Bond movie "The World is Not Enough" (cf. Absheron peninsula
Apart from these, a certain dark-ish element of Baku, and Azerbaijan
in general, is the omnipresence of pictures, posters, even illuminated screens showing Heydar Aliyev, the deified former leader of the county. I suggest you play the endurance-demanding count-the-Aliyev-images game – maybe you'll do better than me: I lost counter after about two dozen.
Not quite as ubiquitous but still numerous are also corresponding images of the old man's son, Ilham Aliyev, who in a shameless act of dynastic nepotism was simply lifted into the president's throne after his daddy's death in 2003 despite doubts about his actual ability to do the job. But credit where credit is due, the subsequent years under Ilham have continued, even bolstered, Azerbaijan's economic miracle and none of the chaos that some feared ever materialized.
The riches that Baku likes to display, e.g. in the form of fancy luxury shops and oversized flashy cars are something to behold too – especially if one remembers how very unevenly the country's oil wealth is distributed. In that sense Azerbaijan follows Russia
, especially Moscow
, in rather unsavoury ways.
On the plus side, the oil boom also funnelled badly needed money into the beautification of Baku's city centre, where cleaned up facades in picturesque pedestrianized streets and squares have come a long way from the pollution-blackened old Soviet
Back to the Heydar-Aliyev cult of personality – those in pursuit of a good dose of such a cult should check out the rather bleak square called Heydar Aliyev Square with a Heydar Aliyev statue at the eastern end of it, which is facing away from the Heydar Aliyev Sarayi (a cultural centre/concert hall) at the other end of the square/park. This "marvel" of ambitious socialist grandeur even sports its name on the top of the roof in ostentatiously oversized letters.
No visit to Baku could be complete without at least once ambling up and down the seafront Bulvar, better twice – once in daylight, once after dark, when it really comes alive and the exuberant light installations can be marvelled. This is the promenade – with national park status! – that curves its way around the waterfront of Baku Bay from the ferry port to the Old Town. It's an odd mix of recreation ground and amusement park complete with rides and plenty of open-air cafe-bars and even a new flashy shopping mall. Roughly in the centre is a fountain, near the Carpet Museum across the road. Next to the fountain stands a clock tower that strikingly resembles an oil drilling derrick – fitting for a city so associated with oil.
The oil itself can also be seen – floating in streaks of brown and petrol-like colours of the rainbow on the waters right up to the shore of the Bulvar – best seen, though, from the jetty that pokes into the bay opposite the fountain. This jetty ends in a rusty old wreck and the view beyond goes out to the harbour and the Caspian where all this oil comes from …
Also from the Bulvar, you get a good impression of the building boom that has gripped Baku – in an almost Beijing
-like fashion. Indeed, if I had to describe the character if Baku by comparison, I would say it's like Istanbul-cum-Beijing-cum-Moscow
The oil that is so close to Baku's heart, mind and physical location, is extracted all around the city and from the sea. A couple of oil drilling fields are even within the city limits, most prominently the so-called James Bond Oil Field to the south of the central Baku Bay. It's no longer quite as grisly and grimily atmospheric as it was a few years ago, when it featured in that the James Bond Film "The World is Not Enough". You can't just go there anyway. However, you can get a good view of it from the square behind the Bibi Heybat mosque. You could take a taxi there from the centre of Baku – or if you do the Qobustan
tour (which you should!), ask for a stopover by the mosque for a look.
on the western shores of the Caspian Sea, roughly in the centre of the stretch of that coast that Azerbaijan
occupies, to the south of the Absheron peninsula that pokes out into the Caspian towards Turkmenistan
and thus forms the eastern-most end of the whole Caucasus region.
Access and costs: not so difficult to get to, but quite expensive.
: From Europe or beyond, the only realistic option of getting to Baku is to fly. Several airlines serve Baku, with direct flights available e.g. from London
. Many connections go via the eastern-oriented hubs of Vienna
or Istanbul. Prices aren't necessarily of the cheap no-frills carriers level, but need not be excessive, especially if booked early.
The only really easy and convenient overland access is by train from/to Tbilisi
. The most exotic way to get to Baku is probably by ferry/freighter from Turkmenbashy, Turkmenistan
(but see under Azerbaijan
Baku itself is a very expensive place. The oil boom has inflated prices for almost everything, including restaurants and hotels. Even a fairly modest hotel will have to be budgeted at around 100 USD at least, more upmarket options can quickly go up to three times that price level. There is, however, a very wide range on offer, so it is worth researching and booking ahead Sometimes local travel agents can get reduced rates – so it may pay off checking this option as well.
For eating out, Baku offers a dazzling number of restaurants, but again, prices are often steep, in particular for en vogue foreign delights such as sushi. (For more on food see Azerbaijan
Getting around within the central parts of Baku can mostly be done on foot – unless your accommodation happens to be too far out, which is not recommended. It does not necessarily make for any significant saving anyway, so you're probably better off staying central. Baku has a metro, which is efficient and very cheap, but a bit impractical to use: you need to obtain a farecard which is then charged with credits … not worth the bother if you're only staying for a short period and concentrating on the walkable parts of outlying destinations for which you need other forms of transport anyway.
Time required: Seeing just the dark(ish) places outlined here could at a push be done in a day or two, but Baku deserves at least three or four full days, especially if you also want to do the suggested day excursions.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Baku itself has plenty of joys to offer of the non-dark sort. It is a surprisingly pleasant city to just stroll around in, as long as you stay in the central parts, that is. And there are a few prime tourist sights too:
The number one on most visitors' list will doubtless be the UNESCO world-heritage site of the Old Town. This mediaeval walled maze of little alleys and pretty mosques is indeed a great place to spend a few hours in ... and getting lost in it is supposed to be part of the experience. The two top individual sights within the Old Town are the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and the ancient Maiden Tower, which is the No. 1 landmark of Baku!
Of less ancient appeal, but equally attractive at least is the newer part of the inner city centre, which stretches out mostly to the north-east of the Old Town. The ring of grand former oil barons' houses along the Old Town Wall is only the beginning. Directly to the north of the Double Gate at the eastern end of the Old Town Wall is Fountains Square, from where various streets radiate, some of which are pedestrianized and feature neatly polished Belle Epoche architecture to even rival Paris
. Further east and north the splendour gradually gets a little less, but it's still interesting to wander.
The waterfront Bulvar (see above
) is naturally also a must-do when in Baku.
Many would probably say the same about some of the museums, in particular the Carpet Museum, housed in the same building as the Museum of Independence
– in fact guidebooks may only mention the Carpet Museum or dismiss the other one as "far less compelling". Personally, though, I couldn't think of anything less compelling than a carpet museum. Maybe I just lack the rug gene, but the very thought of it makes get bored stiff.
Those into the arts beyond the traditional carpets can also find a decent range of galleries and further museums, though some of it may be a bit obscure from a foreigner's point of view. As far as music is concerned, however, you may be surprised to learn that Baku is one of the world's premier centres of high-quality jazz.
The Zoroastrian Artesgah Fire Temple in the Baku suburb of Suraxani is probably the most popular cultural sight outside the inner city. A bit further out still is another archaeological/cultural sight, the more recently developed complex at Qala. Both places are described under the Absheron peninsula
The prime destination for another trip out of the city, and yet a bit further out, is the historical site at Qobustan with its ancient petroglyphs. This can best be combined with a visit to the Qobustan mud volcanoes
Those in need of a beach can find them not far from Baku too. The beaches and resorts of Shixov south of Baku offer the added combinatorial value of the bizarre sight of sunbathers and swimmers against the backdrop of gigantic oil rigs in the Caspian Sea. More beaches are located on the north coast of the Absheron peninsula
, east of Sumqayit with its heavy industrial pollution. The infrastructure geared towards beach folk is remarkable, but given the location the waters as well as the beaches are probably only for the fearless or careless enough not to bother about the toxic environmental issues of the region.
Baku is of course also the hub for travel further into Azerbaijan – and beyond: from here you can take an overnight train to Tbilisi
, which provides the best and most convenient connection to neighbouring Georgia
, and the most easily crossable border Azerbaijan can offer to foreign/Western tourists, given that the borders with Armenia
are completely closed and off-limits, while the border crossing points into Russia
are only usable by citizens of the two bordering countries. The border to Iran in the south falls somewhere in between the extremes. Also, if you intend to go to the former/occupied part of Azerbaijan that is Nagorno-Karabakh, then the only
possible way to get there from Baku is to first travel to Georgia and then go overland via Armenia.
Azerbaijan's exclave of Naxcivan to the west of Armenia can only be visited by flying in from Baku – but that part of the country is the very opposite of touristy, and also offers next to nothing to the dark tourist either, except perhaps for the feeling of achievement of having made it to such an exotic and allegedly rather unwelcoming place.
- Baku 01 - view over Baku Bay
- Baku 02 - mosque in Old Town
- Baku 03 - Maiden Tower
- Baku 04 - inside Maiden Tower
- Baku 05 - view over Old Town from Maiden Tower
- Baku 06 - view from Maiden Tower over the Bay
- Baku 07 - old and new
- Baku 08 - inside Old City wall
- Baku 09 - narrow old alleys
- Baku 10 - in the Old Town
- Baku 11 - shabbier bit of Old Town
- Baku 12 - Old Town Double Gate
- Baku 13 - palace of the Shirvanshahs
- Baku 14 - palace of the Shirvanshahs
- Baku 15 - part of the silk route
- Baku 16 - palace hammam ruins and Old City facades
- Baku 17 - pedestrianized pleasant central Baku
- Baku 18 - Fountains Square
- Baku 19 - pleasant cityness
- Baku 20 - Parisian-style fountain
- Baku 21 - glitzy-kitschy shop window
- Baku 22 - OTT garden
- Baku 23 - building site and mosque
- Baku 24 - building boom
- Baku 25 - Heydar Aliyev Square
- Baku 26 - Heydar Aliyev statue
- Baku 27 - Heydar Aliyev cultural palace
- Baku 28 - former Dom Soviet on Bulvar
- Baku 29 - Bulvar waterfront
- Baku 30 - Bulvar amusements
- Baku 31 - fountain and oil derrick-like clock tower
- Baku 32 - Carpet Museum
- Baku 33 - rust
- Baku 34 - oil
- Baku 35 - Bulvar by night
- Baku 36 - Bulvar lights
- Baku 37 - Bulvar light installation
- Baku 38 - by night
- Baku 39 - Baku TV tower in red