Baku is the capital and largest city of Azerbaijan. Lying 28 meters below sea level it is the lowest national capital in the world… It is also the largest city located on the shores of the Caspian Sea, as well as in the Caucasus region; the border between Europe and Asia. With over two million residents, Baku is home to nearly a quarter of Azerbaijan’s population.
Very few cities in the world have transformed as quickly as the Azerbaijani capital, into an international cosmopolitan metropolis. East and West blend seamlessly as beaten down ‘Ladas’ (soviet jalopies) overtake flashy BMW’s on downtown avenues. Stone mansions, gleaming glass towers and tattered Soviet-era apartment blocks riddle the city like portraits in a gallery.
Baku’s chic city center features an array of pedestrianized streets bursting with exclusive boutiques and exotic restaurants. Nizami Street, the central hotspot, runs through the city’s downtown from East to West. The traffic-less portion, which runs from the Fountains Square till Rashid Behbudov Street, is usually referred to as ‘Torgovaya’ i.e. The Merchant Street in Russian. Nizami Street is one of the most expensive streets in the world, accommodating various designer outlets, banks, embassies and the European Union Delegation to Azerbaijan.
Situated in the inner City of Baku, Palace of the Shirvanshahs is the biggest monument of the Shirvan-Absheron branch of Azerbaijani architecture. The complex contains the main building of the palace, Divanhane, the burial-vaults, the Shah’s mosque with a minaret, Seyid Yahya Bakuvi’s mausoleum, a portal in the east – Murad’s gate, a reservoir and the remnants of the bath-house. The palace is also depicted on Azerbaijani banknotes.
First constructed during the Soviet rule of Azerbaijan, Fountains Square is a leafy central piazza that features dozens of fountains littered across the area. Popular with strollers, the square is a location where city authorities hold many public festivals, shows and celebrations. This boutique-ringed piazza forms central Baku’s natural focus. It also features a modern bronze statue of a young lady with an umbrella, bare midriff and mobile phone.
Inside the ancient walls of Baku’s UNESCO-listed historic core are caravansaries, mosques and restored medieval palaces, built when the city was a major stop on the Silk Road. Located in the old city, The Maiden Tower known locally as ‘Giz Galasi’, is one of the most noted landmarks and Azerbaijan’s most distinctive national emblem; it is thus featured on Azeri currency as well as official letterheads. The Maiden Tower houses a museum which presents the historic evolution of Baku city. It also hosts a gift shop. The view from the rooftop takes-in the alleys and minarets of the Old City, the Baku Boulevard, the De Gaulle house and a wide vista of the Baku Bay. In recent years, the brazier on the top has been lit during the nights of the ‘Novruz’ festival.
Running parallel to the seafront, the Baku Boulevard, also sidelined by the National Park, is a promenade that was established in 1909. Its history dates back over a 100 years, to a time when Baku oil barons built their mansions along the Caspian shore as the seafront was artificially reclaimed bit by bit. Bustling with cafes, fountains and fairground rides, this central stretch of seafront is eternally popular with families, street side musicians and courting couples.
Located on Baku Boulevard is the International Mugham Center of Azerbaijan, which is the center of Azerbaijani arts and music aimed at promoting, preserving and popularizing the Azerbaijani ‘Mugam’ music genre.
Baku’s 350 million dollar trio ‘Flame Towers’ add the theatrics to the skyline come nightfall, as their facades are illuminated by LED’s to display blazing flames. The recently opened Fairmont Hotel occupies one of the three flame-shaped skyscrapers, and looks on to a 162-meter tall pole topped with their national flag the size of two tennis courts. It is the tallest flagpole in the world.
Although not yet an established tourist destination, in-part due to its strict visa policy, Azerbaijan is trying very hard to make Baku a world-class destination. Given the country’s oil-fueled limitless ambition, this bustling capital may soon surpass Dubai as one of the world’s most-visited destinations.