Baku or Bust

Azerbaijan's capital city is setting itself apart as a top-notch travel destination.

Baku flame towers

The Flame Towers is the tallest skyscraper in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The oil-rich capital city of Baku, Azerbaijan, set along the Caspian Sea, is an eclectic mix of culture and attractions, considered by some to be the "Dubai of the Caucasus." In addition to being home to a UNESCO World Heritage site and historic monuments, Baku is also becoming a hub for international events. The city hosted the inaugural European Games in June 2015, will host the European Grand Prix 2016, and will host several games of the UEFA Euro 2020 European Football Championship, to name a few — further setting this city apart as a top-notch travel destination. 

Historical sites
The city of Baku dates back centuries — in fact, archeological evidence suggests there was a settlement here centuries before Christ. The core of Baku, known as "Old City" or "Inner City" (Icheri Sheher) is a picturesque display of the past, where walls from the Russian conquest in the early 1800s still survive. The most ancient monument, and perhaps the most distinguished landmark of Baku, is the stone Maiden Tower, boasting walls more than 15 feet thick. Although there are several theories regarding the tower's name, one of the most popular legends claims that it was named after the daughter of the Khan of Baku, who jumped from it to her death. Today you can visit the tower, which now houses a museum, and climb the eight floors to reach the open-air top, where you can enjoy breathtaking panoramic views of the city and coastline. 

Shirvanshahs' Palace, another treasured monument, is located at the highest point of the Inner City and contains residential spaces, a reception hall, mosques, tombs, and a bath house within the palace complex. Services such as Viator offer guided walking tours of Old Baku, including visits to both of these sites. 

Showing the important role religion has played in the region, the Muhammad Mosque, a historical symbol of Islam in Baku, dates back to the 11th century. The mosque also takes the name Siniqqala, meaning "broken tower," due to the structure having been damaged during an expedition by Russian Tsar Peter the Great.

The Maiden Tower

The Maiden Tower

Contemporary designs
Standing in stark contrast to the ancient history of the city, modern day Baku has seen its growth defined by stunning architecture, including the Flame Towers. Consisting of a south, west, and east tower, this is the highest skyscraper in Baku and represents Azerbaijan's cultural rebirth. The sides of the towers are comprised of 10,000 high-power LED luminaires that turn the building's façade into a video display. Lamborghini recently opened its first branch in Azerbaijan and put it in one of the Flame Towers.

About five miles northeast is the Heydar Aliyev Center (named for a former president of Azerbaijan), which houses exhibition spaces, concert venues, a library, and a museum. Its wave-like appearance, made out of a steel space frame and glass fiber-reinforced concrete panels, netted this architectural feat top prize at the 2014 Design of the Year awards in London. Designed to reflect romance and optimism, the center is a unique departure from historical architecture and representative of Azerbaijan's effort to be distinct from the Soviet era since gaining independence in 1991.

Another fascinating architectural accomplishment is the Baku Crystal Hall, which sits on a peninsula outside the center of Baku, overlooking the Caspian Sea. This 25,000-seat indoor stadium is made of lightweight steel with a faceted membrane exterior, intended to resemble a cut crystal. At night, the hall comes to life with 9,500 LED lights. Incredibly, this building was designed and completed in just eight months. 

Baku along the Caspian Sea

The Baku coastline along the Caspian Sea

Luxurious dining and accommodations
For gorgeous views of the Caspian Sea from your own personal balcony, the Four Seasons Hotel Baku offers fabulous accommodations just steps from the Old City. Relax to the pampering of a calming chamomile tea soak or fennel fusion tea mask with the manicure and tea package at the adjoining Jaleh Spa, which culminates with finger foods and fine pastries from the Piazza lounge. Located on the lobby level, Zafferano (meaning saffron in Italian) offers specialties from Central Italy. The indoor dining area is bright and airy, with high ceilings and a welcoming atmosphere. If you visit during warmer weather, dine on the outdoor terrace beside the beautiful Philharmonic Park.

Or visit the Fairmont Baku Hotel and enjoy lounges, a rooftop pool, and 24-hour room service with an exceptional view of the Flame Towers. The Fairmont offers eight different food and beverage options, ranging from café to bistro to steakhouse. The Alov Jazz Bar on the third floor features live music every evening while you enjoy light bites and signature cocktails. 

For a night out, try international cuisine in a chic setting at Chinar, a landmark in Baku for decades. Originally created as a tea house, Chinar now offers a bar, lounge, and pan-Asian dining, along with a DJ some evenings on the mezzanine. Be sure to take advantage of their walk-in wine and sake cellar. For modern elegance and an upscale modern Caspian environment, Sahil Bar & Restaurant offers a variety of high-quality menu items that balance classic flavors and creative composition, all of which you can savor from the outdoor terrace overlooking the Caspian Sea.

Kari Pedersen is Associate Editor of Wells Fargo Conversations.

Images by Thinkstock

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