You might be going for the Europa League final, but you’ll stay for this galvanising gumbo of ancient and modern
The Azerbaijani capital pits its starchitect-designed modern architecture against its ancient monuments – and this weekend there’s the small matter of a Europa League final.
When to go
The Azerbaijani capital has rocketed in popularity over the last few years, hosting everything from Eurovision to F1 races. On 29 May, it will host the UEFA Europa League final between Chelsea and Arsenal.
Special events aside, spring is the best time to visit Baku, and its energy is at its most palpable in May when the city wraps up from F1. Azerbaijan celebrates its national holiday on 28 May – see azerbaijan.travel for events during your stay. From June to August it can be unbearably hot, while winter sees frequent snow. Shoulder season is your best bet.
UK citizens require an e-visa to Azerbaijan, which costs £16 plus £2.50 processing fee from evisa.gov.az. The process takes up to a week.
Where to stay
The Sahil Hotel & Hostel (1) is one of Baku’s best value places to stay. It has views of the famous Flame Towers, while the Caspian Sea, Fountains Square and old city of Icherisheher are a short walk away. Dorms from £8, doubles with shared bathroom from £27, room only.
For friendly accommodation near the main sights, Shalimar Boutique Hotel (2) is a great option. Rooms have garden views, and it’s near Baku’s main nightlife scene, in and around Fountains Square. Doubles from £50, room only.
Baku is brimming with luxury hotels but none are as renowned as the Fairmont (3), located inside one of the Flame Towers – a trio of skyscrapers covered in LED lights which simulate flickering flames on their facades. Rooms are businesslike but plush, with balconies overlooking the city and Caspian Sea. Baku. There’s an excellent spa too. Doubles from £200, room only.
How to get around
From Heydar Aliyev International Airport, a taxi to town costs around 24AZN (£11) and takes about 25 minutes. The Airport Express coach runs every 30 minutes during the day and every hour at night – it takes 30 minutes and costs 1.50AZN (69p) but tickets must be bought with a BakuCard, available at airport kiosks for 2AZN (92p). You’ll also need that BakuCard to take public transport during your trip. Metro and bus fares all cost 0.30AZN (13p). The metro is more efficient.
The main sights in Baku are close enough to make it largely walkable. However, some sights, such as the Flame Towers and Highland Park, are situated on hills and may be easier to reach via taxi or funicular.
Start the day
A walk around Icherisheher, Baku’s Unesco-protected old city, is the best start to the day. If you get there early enough, you will experience a tranquil atmosphere that will slowly liven up when the other tourists arrive. Grab a traditional Azerbaijani breakfast of eggs and tomatoes for 4AZN (£1.85) at Sehirli Tendir cafe (4), a local haunt.
Hit the shops
Baku’s best shopping can be found on pedestrianised Nizami Street (5), also known as Torgovaya Street. Located near to Fountains Square – a popular Baku meeting point with several fountains – it runs for nearly 3.5km with shops from souvenir stands to designer brands. The grand, Soviet-built TsUM (6) is Baku’s largest department store.
A classic Azerbaijani souvenir is a set of handle-less Armudy tea glasses. Buy one from vendors on Nizami Street. A set costs around 26AZN (£12).
Going strong since 1967, the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum (7) is an intriguing look at one of the country’s most famous exports, while the exterior is an architectural masterpiece by Franz Janz resembling a rolled carpet. Entry 7AZN (£3.25), closed Mondays.
Baku’s other architectural standout is the 57,500 square-metre Heydar Aliyev Centre (8), designed by Zaha Hadid. This cultural centre hosts everything from international expos to ballets and art exhibitions. Entry 5AZN (£2.30).
Time for a drink
Azerbaijan has a thriving wine culture, with endemic grape varietals grown across the country. Enjoy a glass at Kefli Local Wine & Snacks (9), an unpretentious wine bar near the Old City where a glass of red will cost you 3.50AZN (£1.60). Bottles from 20AZN (£9).
Nergiz (10), near Fountains Square, specialises in traditional Azerbaijani cuisine (and décor). There are several rooms inside, and there is often live music. Order the dolma (7AZN/£3.25), which features on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list: minced meat with rice and seasoning wrapped in grape leaves.
Go for a stroll
Sunday mornings are at their best along the windy, yet captivating Caspian Sea. The 3km Baku Boulevard along the Caspian Sea takes you past some of the city’s best sights.
Keep an eye out for the Mirvari Kafesi (11), a standout building from 1959 that was designed to look like a shell opening to reveal a pearl. Then stroll out to the end of the pier (12) on the promenade for a panoramic view of the sea.
Back on the promenade, the Baku Eye (13) is an oversized ferris wheel open daily from 1pm until 1am, which scores you fantastic city views. It costs 5AZN (£2.30).
Following renovations last year, Rea Cafe (14) has gone from coffee shop to one of the trendiest places to eat in Baku. Its Persian owners often host events from cocktail nights to Aeropress Championships, and the burgers are the top draw on the menu – from 8AZN (£3.70).
Time to relax
Take the funicular (1AZN/46p) from Bahram Gur (15) to Highland Park (16) for panoramic views from the Flame Towers to the Caspian Sea. The park is home to various Soviet-era statues and Azerbaijan’s eternal flame.
Have a treat
On a cliff above the city, the Central Botanical Gardens (17) house over 200 species of trees, herbs, and plants from various regions around the world. Entry 1AZN (46p).
Ask a local
Valeriya Valiulina, Barista at Kofetearea
“For my favourite view of the city, head to the green space surrounding the Baku TV Tower in Sabayil District. There are several cliffs nearby that offer amazing views over the city from one of its highest points.”