No matter whether you visited a year earlier or a decade ago, it hits you every time you set foot in Baku—change runs through this cosmopolitan capital city of Azerbaijan like a surging tide. Bordered by the oil-rich Caspian Sea and once a port on the ancient Silk Route, Baku has always been open to varied influences, and age-old traditions rub shoulders with hyper-modernity. Gleaming new architectural marvels and lush parks and promenades wrap around a compelling Unesco-listed medieval heart.
I begin my explorations on foot in the Old Town or Icheri Sheher, the 12th century medieval centre. Inside the ancient walls are narrow lanes peppered with Moorish architecture. An obvious starting point is the palace complex of the Shirvanshah, a masterpiece of medieval Islamic architecture. Built between the 12th and 15th centuries, the palace complex is a sandstone labyrinth of courtyards, mosques, hamams, great halls and mausoleums. Near at hand is the dark, enigmatic Maiden Tower, a much-loved 12th century city symbol shrouded in mystery. Every guide proffers an alternative theory to the tower’s use—it could have been a prison, a fortress, an observatory, a Zoroastrian worship temple, depending on who you listen to. Besides the speculative intrigue surrounding its existence, the tower offers spectacular views to sea for those who brave the climb.
Outside the Maiden Tower are sandstone buildings with chestnut-colored balconies that house museums and art galleries. The Museum of Miniature Books is worth seeking out, a Guinness Record holder for the world’s largest collection of miniature books. A short walk away is the monument of Aliagha Vahid, a master of ghazals and satirical poetry. Look closely at the artwork of him, and you’ll notice characters from his work, embedded into the lines of his hair.
Immediately outside the old town, one confronts the modern city. Strident examples of baroque, neo-classical and art nouveau buildings, all products of the oil boom of the late 1800s, pepper the streets. The next oil boom of 2006, which followed the development of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, led to the building of further architectural and cultural projects. One such project is the Heydar Aliyev Centre, designed by star architect Zaha Hadid, and characterized by waves and peaks. Inside, don’t miss the ‘Treasures of Azerbaijan’ exhibition that showcases the country’s unique history, culture and traditions. The building also hosts a retro car show, with over 100 classic cars. A short taxi ride away is the Museum of Modern Art, an interesting collection of Azerbaijani art, largely from the second half of the twentieth century, and a smattering of works by international greats like Picasso.
Another cultural institution worth seeking out is the National Carpet Museum, designed by Austrian architect Franz Janz in the shape of a rolled-up carpet. It holds roughly 10,000 carpets—all masterpieces of intangible cultural heritage. Opposite the carpet museum is a funicular that takes you on a 7-minute journey up to Flame Towers. Completed in 2012 and designed by US-based firm HOK, these monumental towers can be seen from most points in the city. That they’re in the shape of a flame is a nod to the nickname of the city, Land of Fire. Dusk is the best time to visit, when the towers are illuminated.
A short distance away is Highland Park, an elevated terrace promenade offering sweeping views of the city. You’ll also see the Caspian Waterfront Mall, a larger-than-life retail, dining, and entertainment venue that resembles an eight-petalled flower made of steel and glass. If you’re looking for more retail therapy, eclectic dining and quirky pop-up markets, head to Nizami street, the rambling pedestrianized shopping street in downtown Baku.
Baku holds shades of complexity, its people finding a balance between centuries-old traditions and a cosmopolitan modernity. This perhaps is the legacy of any great port city—open to the eclectic influences that the tide consistently brings in.
Sonia Nazareth is a writer and an anthropologist based in Mumbai.