Among Baku Old City’s narrow streets and small mosques, visit the beautifully carved 15th century Shirvanshah Palace and the medieval Maiden Tower, a city icon that appears on Azerbaijan’s banknotes. Further out is the Ateshgah Fire Temple, a 17th century religions complex still used by Baku’s Zoroastrian community. For contemporary monuments, the city’s unmistakable modern signatures are the dramatic Flame Towers, three flame-shaped skyscrapers that dominate the city’s skyline. Elsewhere, the Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre, somewhat resembling a melted spacecraft, is just as impressive.
The Absheron Peninsula, on which Baku is built, has some good sandy beaches at its far Eastern end. The most popular spots, such as the popular Amburan Beach Club and the huge Jumeirah Bilgah Beach Hotel, charge entry and attract wealthy Bakuites to their poolside bars and loungers. For longer beach breaks from Baku, it’s advisable to head north to pristine Nabran, a beach resort three hours drive north of the city.
Azerbaijan makes some of the world’s most beautiful carpets, which can be found at the Old City’s Brothers Carpets (be aware that carpets over 30 years old will need an export licence). Further out, the Teze Bazar is a market for locals rather than visitors, selling delicious dried fruit and caviar to anyone prepared to haggle. To find where Baku’s new rich get their designer clothes, head for one of Emporium’s three branches, selling gear from the likes of Stella McCartney, Diane Von Furstenberg and Michael Kors.
Housed in a beautiful arcaded caravanserai (a form of inn), Mugham Club serves Azeri charcoal grills and has traditional music shows in its courtyard nightly. For something more modern try “contemporary Caspian” restaurant Sahil, which serves unusual dishes like charcoal roast sturgeon with saffron butter, in a chic modern pavilion. For a cheap but authentically Azeri meal, try Firuza, a good place to try Azeri mezze such as stuffed vine leaves or lürma bogçada pies stuffed with dried fruit and mince.
For culture buffs, it’s worth attending a performance at the Art Nouveau Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater just to see the stunning building. Later on, Baku’s beautiful people head for Chinar, an opulent, dressy bar, restaurant and lounge that plays smooth house and disco until late. For something more down to earth, the simply named Brewery in the Old City is the only bar in Baku to brew its own beer on the premises.