Known as the City of Winds, Baku offers warm hospitality, rich culture, inspiring architecture and natural beauty to amuse all kinds of travellers.
The city is steeped in history, and almost every turn you take in this city will give away glimpses of its glorious past and aspirations for the future. The architecture and food are inspired by millennia of cultural influences from Romans, Mongols and Turks. Today the city is a melting pot of ancient history and modern architecture. Baku ticks all the boxes on the list of any discerning traveller and I couldn’t resist the first opportunity I got to visit this great city.
I got the opportunity to travel to Baku when I snapped up a deal for a holiday package in just 500 US$ inclusive of a return flight from Dubai, a 4-star hotel and airport transfers. I didn’t waste any time to sort out the itineraries and mark points of interest in my plan. While planning, I came across several interesting facts about the city, it is the largest city along the Caspian Sea, 28 m below sea level, yes you read it right, below sea level! Making it the lowest-lying national capital and the largest city in the world situated below sea level. Not to forget its seaside boulevard which is one of the longest promenades on the earth.
Manat is the official currency and one unit = 0.60 US$ or 73 PKR. Despite being one of the strongest currencies in the world, it is hardly available at any currency exchange; even in Dubai, I could not find it. I suggest to carry US$ and get it exchanged once you land there or use your ATM card to withdraw local bucks from the teller machines. Azerbaijan visa policy is super friendly, and Pakistanis can get e-visa within three working days by applying online, and it costs just 23US$.
The immigration at the airport was pretty straightforward. After checking into the hotel, I decided to walk around the neighbourhood. While asking for directions, I met some Azerbaijanis who showed it rather than telling, that was the level of hospitality! Unparalleled and beyond my expectations. Though language was a barrier as very few people, speak English, yet we had great conversations in a nearby café. Azerbaijani is the national and language of the majority of the population while many people also speak Russian making it the 2nd language of the country.
The list of “must visit” places is long in Baku; however, you can divide the city into two larger areas, the old town and city centre. The old town or Icheri Sheher as it is commonly referred to; has a number of historical buildings including Shirvanshah Palace and Maiden Tower. The Town centre has shopping malls and modern buildings such as the Carpet Museum, Hayder Aliyev Centre and Flame Towers, which has become a symbol for the new Baku. The entire city is well connected with metro trains, and you will find a train station for all the landmark points in the town. Taxi is also readily available, but I would suggest avoiding as much as possible as a short trip can become really costly.
On my quest to explore the city, I stumbled upon Heydar Aliyev Center renowned for its distinctive architecture. It spans an impressive area of 56,000 Sq. Meters and was opened in 2012. There’s an entry fee on it, but it’s worth the price.
Next, I headed to the old city, the most ancient part of Baku. There was something magical in it; it felt so awesome. The defensive walls dated back to the 12th century are still preserved. Another distinctive structure was Maiden Tower almost 800 years old, and you’ll also notice it on Azeri currency notes. There were street vendors selling souvenirs and other articles. Tip, don’t be hesitant to bargain with street vendors, it is totally acceptable, and sellers make discounts.
Walking through these ancient walls, I reached a street with local eateries and settled at a traditional restaurant Sehrli Tendir. There was a delightful spread of local dishes from salads to soup and lamb to goat kebabs. Notable thing was the bread, cooked in a Pakistani-style oven (tandoor). Azerbaijani’s cuisine is delicious and very economical, a dinner for two at such a lavish restaurant costs under 30 US$.
Having enjoyed my meal, I took a taxi back to the hotel; it is recommended to get a metered taxi which is readily available throughout the city.
The following day, I was going with a group to explore the countryside of Azerbaijan. I had bought a package in 50 US$ which included pick up and drop off at the hotel, lunch and sightseeing. Passing through forests and mountains, we reached a small village where our lunch was arranged with an Azeri family in a traditional setting. It again provided me with an opportunity to chat with the wonderful people of Azerbaijan. There was a strange kind of contentment on their faces. The lunch was 100% organic; even the chicken was home-grown. Lunch was followed by their traditional tea, served in a pear-shaped glass called an armuda, and it’s consumed widely throughout Azerbaijan.
On the way back to Baku, we stopped at a lake, though it was cloudy still views were spectacular. One can also take a horse ride in just 5 US$ to enjoy the lake from more than one vantage point.
On the 3rd day, I hired a taxi outside my hotel in 50 US$ and went to Gobustan National Park, 65km from Baku.
It was established in 1966 when the region was declared as a national historic landmark of Azerbaijan in an attempt to preserve the ancient carvings, mud volcanoes and gas-stones in the area.
House to over 6,000 rock carvings dated back to 5000 to 20000 years depicting primitive people, animals, bullfights, camel caravans and many more. I spent hours learning more about the history and appreciating the handicrafts dated back to thousands of years.
Sometimes referred to as Earth’s biggest pressure cooker, Azerbaijan is the home of 400 of the world’s 1,000 odd mud volcanoes. In 2001, one of these made world headlines when it suddenly started spewing flames 15 meters high. A recent eruption was in February 2017, when the Otman Bozdag volcano in the outskirts of Baku flared a 350m-high blaze into the sky. The mud is considered to have medicinal qualities, and some tourists end up happily covered in it.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Azerbaijan is Yanar Dag meaning “Burning Mountain”. Accidently lit by a shepherd nearly 70 years ago when he tossed his cigarette butt. Since then it’s continuously burning fairly steadily all year around even in winter when the rest of the mountain is covered with snow.
The last thing on my itinerary was a visit to The Baku Ateshgah also known as Fire Temple of Baku. The temple was used as a Hindu, Sikh, and Zoroastrian place of worship. The complex was built during the 17th and 18th centuries.
With this, I called my day off as I was flying back the next day. My visit to Azerbaijan was for four days in early summer, which was fairly sufficient time to enjoy Baku and its surrounding countryside. I had a fantastic and joyful time, and on top of everything, I was taken aback by the sheer hospitality of Azeris, what an amazing nation. I long to revisit Azerbaijan but this time in winter to relish Shahdag Mountain Resort, the first and largest ski resort in the country, located in Azerbaijan’s Greater Caucasus range. Thanks to its varied landscapes featuring 75% of the world’s climatic zones, it can be visited all year round. If you haven’t considered visiting this transcontinental country yet, then I would highly recommend doing so. It is also one of the cities hosting the quadrennial UEFA Euro 2020 international men’s football championship.