Baku, it sounds like a species of parrot but in reality, it’s the name of the bustling capital city of Azerbaijan. I’m not very fond of big cities and I prefer to sleep in my tent somewhere in the woods rather than being cramped up in a dorm room in a city, but I gladly made an exception for Baku!
This lively metropolis is a world on its own. The Lonely Planet describes it as “the love child of Paris and Dubai” and once you visited the city, you’ll understand why. I would also describe it as the big brother of Batumi, an odd but beautiful Georgian city on the coast of the Black Sea. Baku has a beautiful boulevard on which you can walk for hours (particularly beautiful at sunrise or sunset), many little parks where you can hide between the green bushes, an old historical city with the neo-Ottoman Shahidlar mosque, a museum of miniature books, incredible eye-catching architecture such as the Heydar Aliyev Center, of course, the iconic Flame Towers which are towering above the city.
I always feel lost whenever I enter a huge city, especially during the first days. There’s a chance you’ll see me sitting on a bench dazed by the heavy traffic and crowds of people, not really knowing where to go or what to do. That’s why I put together this guide with things to do and places to stay in Baku so you won’t feel as lost as me and you won’t need to break your piggy bank. It can be an expensive city if you don’t watch out so it’s good to know a few useful things about Baku before you go. I would still recommend you to sit on a bench and observe the people and the surroundings. It’s always a fun thing to do, especially while sipping on a coffee.
Read more about the visa requirements and registration in Azerbaijan!
A short introduction to Baku
The name ‘Baku’ can be interpreted as ‘city of winds’. After a walk through the streets, you quickly understand why. Azerbaijan’s capital city is located on the western Caspian seaside and you can often feel the harsh sea breeze blowing through the city’s streets and messing around with your hair.
Baku is the largest city in the Caucasus and is the political, scientific and cultural center of Azerbaijan. The city is hip, modern, chaotic and multicultural with architecture that spans multiple generations and styles that neighbor in interesting ways. For example, the futuristic Flame Towers are placed right behind the centuries-old city walls. One moment you find yourself walking in the hypermodern shopping streets and a few streets further you can come face to face with grand old 19th century styled apartment blocks or wooden houses with hanging balconies that evoke the spirit of the Silk Road. Kind of a crazy mix but it works. It creates a unique atmosphere and your camera will love it!
Baku is also the industrial center of Azerbaijan. The city lies on the Apsheron Peninsula which is rich with underground sources of oil and natural gas. That’s why Azerbaijan is historically called the Land of Fire. The many oil rigs on the coast are a visual proof of that. Unfortunately this contaminates the sea water with oil so Baku isn’t exactly the place to go on a beach vacation. But do not fear, you won’t get bored here as there are plenty of other (free) things to do in and around Azerbaijan’s metropolis!
What to do in Baku – 10 places worth visiting
1. Icheri Sheher
Icheri Sheher or “Old Town” is the heart of the city and is located right in the center of Baku. It’s the place where ancient Baku was founded and has a history of thousands of years. Icheri Sheher was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000. The town is surrounded by fortress walls and is a historical ensemble of numerous unique monuments such as the Shirvanshah’s Palace complex, the Maiden Tower, mosques, minarets and the ruins of caravanserais (old inns where travelers could rest) and bathhouses. Walking around in Baku’s Acropolis feels like walking back in time. There’s a cozy atmosphere, especially at night when the locals are preparing food, playing backgammon or just sitting around and drinking tea in the streets.
Entrance fee: Free
2. The Palace of the Shirvanshahs
Shirvanshahs literally means “the kings of Shirvan”. Shirvan was the main territory of the Shirvanshah kingdom and the palace was built in the 15th century in the center of Icheri Sheher. The architectural style is very exquisite and it emphasizes the art of medieval Islamic civilization. The Palace complex contains the palace building, the Royal mosque, the Key Gubad mosque, the Divankhana mausoleum where king Khalilullah is buried with his mother and sons, Sufi philosopher Bakuvi’s mausoleum and the ruins of bath houses.
Entrance fee: 10 AZN
3. Museum of Miniature Books
This museum, located in Icheri Sheher, is the only one in the world that is dedicated to miniature versions of books. This library is the private collection of Zarifa Salahova and contains thousands of tiny books that originate from all around the world and are written in numerous languages, including Azeri, Russian, English and German. It’s definitely worth visiting this unique museum!
Entrance fee: Free, donations are welcome
4. The Workshop of Ali Shamshi
While you’re wandering through the narrow lanes of the Old City, you’ll suddenly come across a psychedelic looking wall. This is the exterior of Ali Shamshi’s studio, who is a talented artist. His tiny studio is filled with colorful paintings and quirky installations. Pop in his studio while you’re visiting Icheri Sheher.
Entrance fee: free
5. Maiden Tower
The Maiden Tower is probably one of Baku’s most famous landmarks. There are a lot of different theories about the purpose of this tower but none is confirmed. One theory is that the tower was part of the Shirvanshah’s defense system and served as a beacon. People sent alarm signals from this tower to other towers, using smoke by day and fire by night. Another theory is that this tower used to be a Zoroastrian temple of fire worship and that with the changing times in the Middle Ages later functioned as a defense tower.
A local friend also told us another legend about this tower: The Shah’s (king) daughter fell in love with a guy whom her father refused her to marry. The king built this tower to lock her up and the daughter became so desperate that she jumped from the tower and killed herself.
One tower, many stories. You can go inside the tower, visit the interactive exhibits and climb the spiral stairs to the top and be rewarded with a nice view over the city.
Entrance fee: 10 AZN
6. Upland Park
Another place where you will be rewarded with an amazing view is Upland Park. The park summarizes the architecture in Baku – a blend of Ottoman, Soviet and ultramodern architecture. It’s a nice place to walk around. I would definitely recommend you to go there at sunrise or sunset as you’ll have a fantastic view over the harbour and the Caspian Sea. It’s a fairly comfortable climb up the stairs but you can also get there by taking the funicular.
Entrance fee: 2 AZN if you take the funicular, free if you walk
7. Flame Towers
The Flame Towers are the tallest skyscrapers in Baku, with a height of 190m. This iconic trio of buildings marks the city’s skyline and is evidence of the country’s oil wealth. The towers also promote its historic identity as they are inspired by Baku’s history of fire worship.
The three flame-shaped towers are set in a triangular shape and each tower has a different function. The tallest of the three is a 39-story residential luxury apartment building. Imagine the views from your kitchen while having breakfast in the morning! The second tower is a hotel and consists of 318 rooms spread over 36 floors. The third one is an office tower that provides many commercial office spaces. Not a bad place to work if you ask me! I reckon that those offices definitely come with a nice view!
The towers provide a spectacular light show once the sun goes down. The facades of the three Flame Towers function as large display screens which uses more than 10.000 high-power LED lights! The light show makes the towers look like they are burning as it depicts a beautiful array of red flames going towards the sky. The display of lights is also arranged to show the Azerbaijani flag in all its glory.
Entrance fee: The towers are not open for public visits, unless you’re a resident, office worker or hotel guest. The price of one night in the hotel costs around $170 per night, not exactly a budget-friendly price. You could always try to become friends with someone who lives in the residential tower or give your best smile at the security guards…
8. Heydar Aliyev Center
The Heydar Aliyev Center is an architectural masterpiece! This cultural center is named after Heydar Aliyev, the first secretary of Soviet Azerbaijan and later president of the Republic of Azerbaijan (2993 – 2003). The building is considered as one of the main attractions for tourists and became a symbol of modern Baku.
The cultural center was opened in 2012 and was designed by the Iraqi-British award-winning architect Zaha Hadid. The overall shape of the building resembles a wave-like ascension from the ground towards the sky followed by a gradual descent down to the earth. The center was awarded in 2014 as the Design of the Year.
The Heydar Aliyev Center houses a conference hall, the Heydar Aliyev museum and multiple exhibition halls. The museum presents the history of Azerbaijan and different stages of Heydar Aliyev’s life and work. One of the exhibition halls demonstrates all the periods of the history of Azerbaijan and displays items related to different areas of Azerbaijani culture.
Entrance fee: Admiring the architecture of the building is free but if you want to go inside the center, you can buy a ticket for 12 AZN. This tickets provides you access to the museum and the “Azerbaijan Treasures” exhibition within the Center. You can also buy separate tickets for the other exhibitions that are held.
9. Baku Boulevard
The Baku Boulevard is a 3 km long promenade which runs parallel to Baku’s seafront. It was established in 1909, in a time when the Baku oil barons built their mansions along the Caspian shore. At the beginning of the Soviet period the boulevard’s area was mismanaged and the situation became worse as the sea began to rise so high that many of the trees and shrubs in the park started to die because of the salinity of the water. After a big clean-up and a huge renovation and reconstruction work, the boulevard became a popular place for locals and tourists to stroll and relax. There are now many small parks, fountains and restaurants. There’s even a weird little Venice setting where you can rent tiny gondolas.
10. Get lost in the streets and get surprised
It sounds cliché but the best way to visit Baku is by picking a random street, start walking and getting lost. You’ll find interesting little shops, exquisite buildings, colorful mosques, beautiful parks and odd monuments.
What to do around Baku – 4 places worth visiting
Azerbaijan is known as the Land of Fire due to the huge amount of underground oil and gas sources. The natural gas in Azerbaijan’s bowels is so much that it comes to the surface over and over again. In some places a match dropped accidentally can ignite the gas, which will keep on burning until it fully exhausts. No wonder that Azerbaijan became a pilgrimage destination for fire-worshipers, followers of the Zoroastrian religion. They believed that the fire sources were the manifestation of divine power so they built altars and temples to worship them. In the suburbs of Baku are some very interesting and unique places where you’ll learn more about the history and richness of the Land of Fire.
1. The mud volcanoes of Qobustan
There are about 1000 mud volcanoes in the world and Azerbaijan is home to one third of them because the country is a big source of oil and natural gas. The mud volcanoes are formed in places where pockets of underground gas find a weak spot in the earth and forces its way to the surface. That starts first with a big explosion, then a huge flame but instead of magma, there will be a big eruption of mud. Interesting enough the mud is cold so you can touch it without hurting yourself. The substance contains a lot of minerals so sometimes people come here to take a mud bath in the volcanoes. The mud volcanoes in Qobustan were formed in 2001 and they are definitely a very interesting phenomenon worth visiting!
Entrance fee: free
How to get to the mud volcanoes from Baku by public transport:
Take bus 125 or any other bus that goes to the Bina Mall. This trip costs 0.50 AZN and you can buy the bus ticket in the ticket machine at the bus stop. Get off the bus at the mall (it’s the end station anyway) and take bus 195 towards Qobustan and Alat. Don’t get off at Qobustan unless you want to visit the museum. Although the mud volcanoes are referred to as ‘the Qobustan mud volcanoes’, they are actually located near Alat. Ask the driver to stop at the bus stop in Alat. It’s a tiny little bus station near a small village. The journey from the mall to Alat is about 55 minutes and costs 0.80 AZN which you pay to the driver once you get off the bus.
You’ve got two options when you’re in Alat. You can take a taxi to the volcanoes. Don’t worry about finding a taxi, the taxi drivers will definitely find you! They will give you ridiculous prices but don’t give in. Don’t pay more than 15 AZN for a roundtrip! Start walking away and they will lower their price.
The second option is to walk. Walk about 50m towards the village, take the first road to the left and follow this road for about 2km until you come across train tracks. Cross it and keep walking. You’ll be up for a long walk in the desert – about 5km one way. Keep following the dirt track and you will see a sign that says ‘volcanoes’. Follow that sign up the hill and you’ll suddenly see the hidden mud volcanoes appear. Take plenty of water with you as it can be super hot in summer!
Check out our vlog about the mud volcanoes:
2. Qobustan National Park
The National Park of Qobustan is cut up with numerous ravines (in Azerbaijani Qobu), so it’s clear where the park got it’s name from. Qobustan is home to thousands of rock engravings spread over 100km. The engravings display hunting scenes, people, ships, constellations and animals. The oldest petroglyphs are 12.000 years old! UNESCO included the Qobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape in the World Heritage List in 2007. It’s considered to be of “outstanding universal value” for the quality and density of the rock art engravings, for the substantial evidence the collection of rock art presents and for the cultural continuity between prehistoric and medieval times that the site reflects.
There’s also a museum on the site that presents a lot of background information about the history of the area and the rock engravings.
Entrance fee: 2 AZN, entrance to museum is included in this price
How to get to Qobustan from Baku by public transport:
Take bus 125 or any other bus that goes to the Bina Mall. This trip costs 0.50 AZN and you can buy the bus ticket in the ticket machine at the bus stop. Get off the bus at the mall (it’s the end station anyway) and take bus 195 towards Qobustan and Alat. The journey from the mall to Qobustan takes about 40 minutes and costs 0.80 AZN which you pay to the driver once you get off the bus. You’ll know when to get off because you’ll see a sign with ‘Qobustan’. You can always ask the bus driver in advance to stop there.
The museum and rock engravings are at about 6km from the bus stop in the direction of the hills. You can walk the distance if you’re up for it but make sure that you’re prepared as it can be very hot during summer. The walk is partially uphill. You can also opt for a taxi, which will be very easy to find but less easy to bargain with the taxi drivers. Don’t pay more than 20 AZN and maybe you can make a deal to include a visit to the mud volcanoes for this price (see section above). The museum is open from 9 am until 5pm.
3. Atesghah Temple of Baku or Fire Temple of Baku
The Ateshgah Temple of Baku (‘Atash’ is the Persian word for fire) is a religious temple in Surakhani, a suburb of Baku. The pentagonal complex was constructed in the 17th – 18th centuries. In the middle of this complex sits an altar with a natural gas vent, which is known for its natural “eternal flame”, a phenomenon of burning natural gas outlets. This flame went out in 1969, after the exploitation of petroleum and gas in the area but it’s now lit by gas pipes from the nearby city.
The temple was founded as a pilgrimage and holy place of Zoroastrians – a group of religious people who worship fire – who were involved in the Silk Route Trade. They attributed a mystical significance to the inextinguishable fire and came here to worship the relic and practice fire rituals. The temple altar is surrounded by a number of small cells, which accommodated the ascetic worshipers and pilgrims.
The temple ceased to be a place of worship after 1883 with the installation of petroleum plants and the complex was turned into a museum in 1975. It was also nominated for the List of World Heritage Sites in 1998.
Entrance fee: 4 AZN
How to get to Ateshgah Temple from Baku by public transport:
Take the metro to Koroghlu. Tickets can be purchased at the ticket machines in the metro stations and costs 0.50 AZN. Get out at the metro station called Koroghlu. Walk out the station and to the buses that go towards the suburbs (there’s a sign that will tell you ‘towards Baku’ and ‘to suburbs’). You’ll also see a lot of taxis but you can ignore the drivers who will call out to you. Take bus 183 towards Amirjan settlement. Ask the driver to stop at ‘Suraxani Rayon Qaz Istismar Sahesi’ (better to note this place down so you can show it to him – kuddos if you can memorize this name!). The ride takes about 16 minutes. Pay the driver 0.40 AZN once you get off the bus. You’ll see a little pharmacy and tiny convenience store across the street (this is the place where you have to catch the bus back). Walk 1km straight ahead towards a big walled complex. Chances are that you’ll see a few buses parked there. Enter the gate, go to the right and purchase your entrance ticket at the little kiosk right next to the entrance of the temple.
4. Yanar Dag (Fire Mountain)
One of the most famous tourist places of the “eternal flame” in Azerbaijan is the mountain of Yanar. Well, the word mountain is a bit exaggerated as it’s rather a hill but it’s still quite a fascinating place. It reminded me a lot of Mount Chimaera in Turkey – which can be properly called a mountain. Both places have natural gas burning in its slopes since ancient times. Perfect place to have a camp fire if you ask me! Yanar Dag has a 10m long wall of fire that is burning continuously alongside the edge of the hill. The best time to watch it is in the evening, when the sight of the blazing hill is most effective. The legend goes that it was a shepherd who actually ignited the fire in the 1950’s by tossing a cigarette and that the hill has burnt ever since. Yanar Dag is declared a state-protected conservation area since 2007.
Entrance fee: 3 AZN
How to get to Yanar Dag from Baku by public transport:
Take the metro to Koroghlu. Tickets can be purchased at the ticket machines in the metro stations and costs 0.50 AZN. Get out at the metro station named Koroghlu. Walk out the station and to the buses that go towards the suburbs (there’s a sign that will tell you ‘towards Baku’ and ‘to suburbs’). You’ll also see a lot of taxis but you can ignore the drivers who will call out to you. Take bus 217 towards Yanardag qorugu. This is also where you have to get off the bus. The journey takes about 30 minutes from Koroghlu and you pay 0.45 AZN to the driver when getting off the bus.
Where to stay in Baku
There’s an abundance of hotels and hostels in Baku. Here are two hostels where we stayed and would recommend to you.
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- For the low-budget traveler: Mr Hostel Baku. A colorful and cozy hostel right in the city center. The people who work in the hostel speak English and will also help you with your registration if needed. Price for one night in a dormitory: $6
- For the not-so-tight budget traveler: Central Guest House & Hostel. This is not your average hostel. The place is so big and well-maintained that it feels more like a hotel than a hostel. It’s right in the city center and it has dorm rooms as well as comfortable private rooms. If you don’t like being social and you want some time for yourself, you will enjoy this hostel! Price for a double room: $25
I hope you will enjoy your stay in Baku as much as we did! In case you have to wait multiple days to catch the boat to Kazakhstan, and have some time to kill, you’ll know what to do in Baku!
Have a look at our videos of Azerbaijan. Hope we can inspire you to visit this beautiful and off-the-beaten-track country!