Even though it’s the largest city in the Caucasus, the Azerbaijan capital isn’t a common tourist destination. On one hand, that means many miss out on the many things to do in Baku. On the other, visitors can be filled with wonder by entering a surprising city like no other!
Baku is a few different things at the same time. It’s undoubtedly European, but it also has a long history with the Middle East. It’s an ancient city, but you can also clearly see the modern side of Azerbaijan as an oil-rich country. You can really feel the Russian and Turkish influences here, including the heavy bargaining at the bazars!
This former Soviet capital has a lot to offer, even for a medium-sized city. Its boardwalk on the Caspian Sea is a photographer’s dream, and so is the view from the funicular. With its centuries of history, the Azeri capital offers numerous landmarks and fascinating museums, all unique. They also have their fair share of UNESCO Heritage Sites – and even Formula 1 for sports fans.
For us, this was the perfect weekend getaway from Moscow, as the Baku winter is much milder and more pleasant. Enjoy my Baku travel guide!
Traveling – How to Get to Baku?
The Baku airport is 25 km away from downtown; a 20 to 30-minute drive. It receives flights from many Eastern European cities and multiple Middle Eastern capitals. You can also arrive from New York and Paris .
The airport is state-of-the-art, and it’s easy to see there’s a lot of oil and natural gas money in Azerbaijan. I’d recommend booking a cab in advance, as the outside part of the airport is a bit chaotic. A taxi bazar!
Best Hotels in Baku
Since this was a short weekend getaway for us, we didn’t survey all the hotels in Baku. Still, we were pleasantly surprised with our accommodation!
Part of the gigantic Marriott chain, we didn’t expect Intourist Hotel to be so lovely and have such great service. This landmark shines among the hotels in Baku due to its arty, contemporary design plus its truly friendly staff.
While we visited during the cold months, I definitely see myself here in the summer. With the hotel’s gorgeous terrace view towards the Caspian Sea, winter in Baku is also breathtaking! Have a look at my full Hotel Review Post to read all about our stay in Baku.
Top 8 Things to Do in Baku
Hidden in plain sight like many of the best places, Baku is an unexpected wonder. This vibrant Eurasian capital made me fall in love – and here’s why you’ll love it, too!
1. Enjoy the Contrasts
Baku is a fascinating mix of cultures, styles and history. Like its neighbor, Turkey, it contains elements of European and Asian countries, creating a distinctly Azerbaijani look. It’s also a former Soviet city, and there are a lot of remnants from that period. Baku borrows little details from nearby Eurasian cultures, ultimately looking different to everywhere else.
2- Feel the Sea Breeze from the Caspian Sea
There’s something special about coastal cities; they always have a particular, metropolitan vibe to them. Azerbaijan’s beautiful capital is no different, as Baku stands proudly as the largest city in the Caspian Sea.
The Baku Boulevard, created over a century ago, offers locals and visitors a chance to connect with the sea. This beautiful boardwalk covers around 26 km of the city’s coastline. The promenade offers amazing views of the city – it’s the best way to see Baku in winter!
3. Get Swept away by the Museums
In one form or another, Baku has had human settlements since the Stone Age. There’s a whole lot of history in this Caucasian city, which in turn renders its museums fascinating!
We had a tough time choosing which museums to visit, as Baku is full of them. The Heydar Aliyev Center, an imposing futuristic building, offers amazing art exhibitions – and the complex itself is an oeuvre.
The Carpet Museum, along the boardwalk, offers centuries worth of this uniquely Azeri art form.
And, of course, there’s Shirvanshah, our favorite museum / restaurant – a true travel in time!
4. Get Lost in the Old City
Baku’s historical core is a walled city dating back to at least the 12th century. The area includes breathtaking buildings from past centuries, including the Maiden Tower and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. The 11th and 12th century Baku fortress Wall is another unmissable spot.
5. The Magic View & Setting
As it often happens with ancient cities, Baku is a pretty romantic place. From the beautiful seaside promenade to its many parks, the City of Winds offers many vibrant hideouts.
If the view of the Caspian Sea from below isn’t enough to entrance you, the Baku funicular certainly will. You can also enjoy feeling surrounded by the city’s colors and atmosphere at the Hilton’s 360 Bar.
6. The UNESCO Sites
As an ancient city with such a particular culture, obviously Baku is a city of world landmarks. The Old City is, in fact, one of them, as are some of its most prominent buildings.
About 64 km away from city centers stands the Gobustan National Park. An Azerbaijani point of pride, this place offers a voyage into humanity’s deep, far away past. The place bears testimony to thousands of years of human history, depicting art from prehistoric times. The sketches and carvings within the boulders offer a glimpse into life in the region following the last Ice Age. There are also invaluable remains of inhabited caves and even burials from that time. It’s quite a thing to behold: the very beginnings of human civilization.
The musically inclined can also find the Gaval Dash here, a unique stone that emits musical sounds when touched!
7. The Incredible Food & Vibe
Azeri seasoning is very much its own, delicious thing. Food is a key part of socialization in Azerbaijan, with deep significance in local tradition. A lot of the local flavors revolve around meats (lots of lamb, for example) and soups of different kinds. The most popular dish in Azerbaijan might just be plov and its variations, namely rice cooked in broth.
Best Restaurants in Baku
I loved this foodie experience: we got to try local food and international plates with a tinge of local spicing. The mix of ingredients is interesting, with strong influences from neighbors Turkey and Iran, but still maintaining its own flair. For me, these are the best restaurants in Baku!
Right next to the funicular, Chinar provides a great Asian fusion experience. The food is delicious, with great Eastern seasoning. This is a fantastic place for groups, because the portions are very generous and perfect for sharing!
The design here certainly honor the Orient, with plenty of dark wood and nature-based drawings. The young and hip atmosphere is another highlight, and the place feels cosy despite its large size.
A uniquely Azeri experience, Shirvanshah mixes great local food with a trip to the past. This impressive venue serves as both restaurant and museum, with many art and decorative objects around. I’d definitely recommend paying (by giving tip) for the short tour, learning more about this special place.
The food is delicious, in the style of Azeri traditional – as is the design. A big place with multiple rooms, Shirvanshah’s labyrinthic nature adds to the local vibe. Also good for large groups due to its large servings – plus, a great place to see local dances!
Privé Steak Gallery
Heaven for meat lovers, Privé Steak Gallery is a Turkish grill where you can also choose your meat cuts. This is both a restaurant and a meat market, with a very open vibe to it. You almost feel at home, even between the multiple food displays!
I really liked the decoration here, which mixed Turkish traditional with brasserie à la française. Very cosy and unassuming! Of course, the food was very generous and the wine selection was fantastic, to boot. Vegetarians, beware!
For those always trying to find the perfect burger, be sure to try Baku’s gourmet sandwich place, Fryday. And to end a long way of getting to know the city, visit the Hilton’s outstanding rooftop 360 Bar. The view from this moving 360 bar is the best you will get!
Read all about the best food in Baku in my Restaurant Review post!
The food aside, the vibe in Baku is truly extraordinary. Called the City of Winds since antiquity, feeling the chilly air from the Caucasus is a lovely and beautiful experience. The colors of artisanal rugs everywhere will enthrall you, while the long and gorgeous pier will provide endless photo ops. What’s not to love in this hidden seaside gem?
No Baku travel guide would be complete without mentioning Azerbaijan’s love for sports. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly chill Baku exterior! The city is best known as one of the international capitals of chess, having birthed numerous champions like Garry Kasparov. While locals sit around parks to play chess constantly, this is also a city that loves movement and athletics.
Baku is a rising Formula 1 destination, with its own circuit and a recently created Grand Prix. It will also host games in the upcoming 2020 UEFA Championship; see the city before it enters the mainstream!
I end this travel guide with a photo from the mesmerizing golden hour. I hope I have inspired you to visit this relatively unknown gem by the Caspian Sea!
Want to know more about cities in Caucasus? Then read all about another favorite of mine – Tbilisi!
Please let me know if you found this Travel Guide useful below in the comments and what can be improved!