On our first full day in Baku we figured that we start with city sightseeing and walk a route recommended in Lonely Planet guidebook. The walk started just around the corner from our hotel in the Baku old town. The first spot was Maiden Tower, which despite being one of the oldest buildings in Baku, was restored to the point that it felt like there was nothing old about it. Nevertheless the Maiden Tower, located in a historical area called Icherisheher (inner city), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered the symbol of Baku. The interesting thing about it is that it is not know when exactly it was built nor for what purpose. The three main theories suggest that it might have been a part of city fortification, a temple or an observatory.
The Maiden Tower can be visited and there is a viewing platform on the top of the tower. The downside is that the platform is surrounded by a high plexiglass wall, which is full of fingerprints, so you don’t really get nice pictures from there, but it is a nice view of Baku in every direction. The funny thing about the tower is that before the restorations in 1960s, there was no floors within the tower, so the entire tower was empty. The staircases and eight floors were added during the restoration.
We continued to walk around the old town, which is really small. One street was full of colorful souvenir stalls, but we only bought artisanal pistachio ice cream, which to be honest, wasn’t very good.
Outside the old town Baku is spotlessly clean and shiny and new. It is almost like they want to challenge Dubai and a lot of things is built quickly and to impress. Like for example the 26 km long bayfront boulevard, which is supposed to be over 60 km long when it is finished and of course be the longest in the world. The is also a world’s second tallest flagmast (162 m), which used to be the world’s tallest for a whopping eight months until Tajikistan built one a bit higher. 🙂
We also walked a big chunk of the bayfront boulevard/park, which was very nice, but offered very little shade. I’m also not a big swimmer, but the temperature in July hovered around +35°C all the time, so I never missed swimming so much in my life. Unfortunately the water around Baku is polluted, so nobody was swimming. There is a beach about 30km from Baku, where we saw people on the beach with a backdrop of oil rigs, but apparently the water there isn’t much better. We were told that there is a nice beach about 50km from the city, but it is a rather long trip to take a dip.
The carpet museum was in a shape of a carpet, but we’re not that big carpet fans, so we didn’t go inside.
Little Venice is a small water park where you can take a gondola and imagine yourself to be in Venice for five minutes. A bit strange concept, but we saw some people enjoying the gondola ride.
After that we decided to head to the flame towers. According to the guidebook there is a funicular going up the hill, which is free. Well, it wasn’t free, but we could spare half a manat per person. 🙂 The funicular has a schedule, which seemed random to us. There was a bit of a line, so we waited in line so that the first group could go, but then there was a 20 min break just for the sake of it where we stood in line, the funicular stood still, and the guy, who was letting people in just sat on a small chair. 😀 Finally we got in and enjoyed a couple of minutes ride to the top.
On the top the Flame Towers were quite cool, but they look really nice at night as well.
We wanted to take a taxi back down and there was in fact a taxi waiting, but when I asked how much it would cost to get back to the old town, the driver just said that get in and we’ll see later. I laughed it off and asked him three or four more times and he just kept saying the same. There is of course no way we would agree to such a deal and we walked away. He was yelling after us that he’ll accept five manats for the ride, which is too much for a short ride like this, but if he would’ve stated this upfront, we would’ve accepted. Anyway, it was about 30 min walk downhill and the sun was already going down, so it wasn’t difficult, but not very scenic either. After this incident my boyfriend installed an app called Taxify and all other taxi trips went more or less smoothly. The app specifies the pickup location (you need to be very precise) and the destination and estimates the final cost and it is charged to your credit card. Super easy! The only downside was that for some reason the taxi drivers often called us to ask where we are or asked for the destination where we were going despite all of this info being provided by the app. The behavior changed after we used the same app in Georgia, but kept the Azeri number in the app as the contact number. None of the drivers called anymore. 😀
Anyway, we got approached a few times in Russian about day trips, so if you haven’t booked anything ahead, it is super easy to book something in the old town. It was also quite interesting that my boyfriend was always approached instead of me or us as a couple. So old-fashioned gender roles are visible in this way as also the predominance of men as workers in restaurants, hotel receptionists, and as tour guides. In Baku you can dress however you want and nobody bats an eye despite it being muslim country. Very few people are covering themselves, but virtually all men wear long pants. You can occasionally see shorts on men in Baku, but not at all in the countryside. It almost looks like the dress code for women is less strict. But you never see mixed groups of friends sitting in cafes or restaurants. You see families, couples, and single-sex groups.
In the evening we went to a restaurant called Sheki, which had lots of tables, live music, and a weird garden with actual live fowl in the middle. The food nevertheless was very very good. For appetizers the waiter just approached the table carrying a huge tray of small dishes and we just chose some of them and they all very good. For main course we chose saj, which is meat and vegetables fried in a special iron pan. The local wine made from saperavi grapes was also surprisingly good. We were so full that we didn’t manage dessert, but we were really happy with this restaurant. During our entire trip, we didn’t make a single reservation, but always managed to get into restaurants we wanted, so maybe we were lucky, but at least this place has so many tables that I think it is always possible to get a table.
We took the taxi back and they dropped us off at the old town gates, so we got to see the Maiden Tower as well as the Flame Towers lit at nigh.