Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, is a vibrant and modern destination that offers a unique mix of history, culture, and entertainment. With its stunning architecture, delicious cuisine, and friendly locals, Baku is a must-visit destination for anyone traveling to the Caucasus region. In this article, we will provide a comprehensive 4-day itinerary for exploring Baku and the surrounding areas, highlighting the best things to see and do in this fascinating city and in Azerbaijan.
Getting to Baku
Baku is served by the Heydar Aliyev International Airport, which is located approximately 20 km from the city center. The airport is the largest in Azerbaijan and is well-connected to other major cities around the world. There are several airlines that operate direct flights to Baku, including Azerbaijan Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways, and Lufthansa. Travelers can also find connecting flights from other major cities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Baku is connected to other major cities in Azerbaijan and neighboring countries by rail. The city’s main railway station is located in the city center and is easily accessible by public transportation. The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway line connects Baku to Tbilisi in Georgia and Kars in Turkey. The journey from Tbilisi to Baku takes approximately 12 hours, while the journey from Kars to Baku takes around 30 hours.
Day 1 – Old City of Baku
Old City Tour
On the first day of the Baku itinerary, visitors can explore the historic Old City, also known as Icherisheher. This UNESCO-listed site is home to several attractions, including the Maiden Tower and Palace of the Shirvanshahs.
The Old City is a maze of narrow streets and alleys, lined with historic buildings and mosques. Visitors can take a guided walking tour or explore on their own. The area is home to several souvenir shops, cafes, and restaurants. You can easily spend an entire day here exploring the different nooks and crannies and that’s exactly what I did.
One of the most iconic landmarks in Baku is the Maiden Tower, located in the Old City. This 12th-century tower stands at 29.5 meters tall and is shrouded in mystery and legend. Visitors can climb to the top of the tower for panoramic views of the city and the Caspian Sea.
The Maiden Tower has been used for various purposes over the centuries, including as a watchtower, lighthouse, and even a prison. Visitors can learn about the tower’s history and significance at the on-site museum.
Palace of the Shirvanshahs
Another must-visit attraction in the Old City is the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. This 15th-century palace complex was the residence of the Shirvanshahs, rulers of the Shirvan region of Azerbaijan.
The palace complex includes several buildings, courtyards, and gardens. Visitors can explore the various rooms and halls, including the Divankhana, a reception hall adorned with intricate carvings and decorations.
Museum of Miniature Books
This is a cute little museum within the Icherisheher and is said to be the only museum in the world dedicated to miniature books. You can find versions of well known books such as The Little Prince or various plays by Shakespeare in micro form. There is also a huge international selection spanning the likes of Chinese communist Mao-era books to Islamic scripture. Entrance here is free.
The underrated Juma Mosque deserves a visit, especially when you’re already exploring the Icherisheher. This is often skipped by group tours so there’s a fair chance you’ll find the place to yourself at any given time. The architecture is beautiful with intricate carvings on the stone facade of the mosque.
Chill in a Teahouse
While exploring the old city of Baku, make sure to stop by for tea and cakes at one of the teahouses within the vicinity. For great views, Cay Bagi 145 offers sweeping views of the Maiden Tower from the topmost dining room. Admire the scene while munching on excellent Russian Honey Cake and traditional tea.
National Museum of History of Azerbaijan
Stretching an entire block, the National Museum of the History of Azerbaijan is located a few blocks away from the old city walls. The building used to be the residence of an oil magnate until the Soviet Army confiscated the premises and turned it into a museum. The museum itself consists of 2 parts – the first is a showcase of the opulence of the 1920’s when the building was occupied for its original purpose. Visitors will pass through ornately decorated rooms filled with priceless furniture and antiques. The second part of the museum showcases the history of Azerbaijan. The latter was closed during my visit. Do note that the entrance to the museum is from Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev Street.
Day 2 – Flame Towers, Heydar Aliyev Center & Museums
Day 2 of the Baku itinerary offers visitors a mix of modern and old architecture, stunning views and a relaxing stroll along the seafront.
On the second day of the trip, visitors can start their day by visiting the iconic Flame Towers. These three skyscrapers are the most recognizable landmarks of Baku and are a must-visit attraction for anyone visiting the city. The towers are illuminated at night and offer a stunning view of the city. Visitors can also take a funicular for 1 Manat to the top of the towers for a panoramic view of Baku. The adjacent Highland Park offers not just a great view of the towers but also of the skyline of Baku.
A short walk from the entrance to the funicular is the Carpet Museum. The building itself is shaped like a rolled carpet and inside, the exhibits provide a visual showcase of the different carpet styles in Azerbaijan, including the historical regions of Azerbaijan that are in present-day Iran. It is worth visiting for those who are into carpets or who are aesthetically-inclined.
Baku Boulevard (Bulvar)
After visiting the Flame Towers, visitors can take a stroll along the Baku Boulevard, a beautiful promenade that stretches along the Caspian Sea. The boulevard is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike, and offers a variety of activities such as bike rentals, cafes, and street performances. The boulevard also features a Ferris wheel that offers a bird’s eye view of the city.
Heydar Aliyev Center
In the afternoon, visitors can head to the Heydar Aliyev Center, a modern architectural masterpiece that houses a museum, exhibition halls, and a conference center. The building was designed by the renowned architect Zaha Hadid and is a must-visit for architecture enthusiasts. The museum inside the center showcases the history and culture of Azerbaijan, and visitors can also enjoy the beautiful gardens surrounding the building.
Tip: Afternoon is the best time to visit the Heydar Aliyev Center as the sun will be shining on the front part of the building during this time.
Window Shopping in Nizami Street
You can spend the late afternoon to evening window shopping along the pedestrian section of Nizami Street. One thing I noticed about Baku is that shops are often open until late, with restaurants closing even later. Most of the buildings along Nizami Street are floodlit at night and make for an atmospheric scene when walking around the area. I asked the locals who actually pays for the electricity bills and was told the government does.
Day 3 – Gobustan & Other Day Trips Near Baku
Gobustan National Park
On the third day of the Baku itinerary, visitors can explore the Gobustan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its ancient petroglyphs and mud volcanoes. The park is located approximately 60 km southwest of Baku and can be reached by car or public transportation.
The petroglyphs at Gobustan date back to the Upper Paleolithic period and provide a glimpse into the lives of ancient humans. Visitors can take a guided tour of the park to learn more about the history and significance of the petroglyphs.
In addition to the petroglyphs, Gobustan is home to over 300 mud volcanoes, which are unique geological formations that spew mud and gas. Visitors can take a guided tour of the mud volcanoes to learn about their formation and see them up close.
Ateshgah Fire Temple
After visiting Gobustan National Park, visitors can head to the Ateshgah Fire Temple, located approximately 30 km northeast of Baku. The temple is a unique religious site that was once used by Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Sikhs.
The temple is known for its natural gas fires, which have been burning for centuries. Visitors can take a guided tour of the temple to learn about its history and significance.
The final stop on the third day of the Baku itinerary is Yanar Dag, a natural gas fire that has been burning for centuries. The fire is located approximately 25 km north of Baku and can be reached by car or public transportation, or as a final stop in a day trip that includes the Ateshgah Fire Temple.
Visitors can watch the flames dance and take in the stunning views of the surrounding landscape. The fire is particularly impressive at night when it illuminates the area.
Overall, the third day of the Baku itinerary offers visitors a unique opportunity to explore the natural wonders and cultural sites of the region.
Day 4 – Day Trip to Shamakhi and Sheki
Aside from Baku, Sheki is another popular destination for those visiting Azerbaijan. Being 4 hours away, some travelers invariably choose to stay overnight. If you have the time, staying overnight allows you to explore Sheki at a more leisurely pace and to head to additional places such as the mountainside village of Lahic which is known for crafts. That said, it is entirely possible to do Sheki as a day trip and I did exactly that. From Baku, I departed at around 8AM and got back at 9PM. The day trip allowed me to stop at Shamakhi, the Diri Baba Mausoleum and Nohur Lake before taking in the sights of Sheki.
Roughly midway between Baku and Sheki is the town of Shamakhi. It is most known for the Juma Mosque, a historic place of worship and the oldest mosque in Azerbaijan. It is considered a significant example of Islamic architecture in the Caucasus region. The mosque originates from the 8th century during the Arab invasion of Azerbaijan and was later renovated and expanded in the 17th century. The mosque has a distinctive rectangular shape and features a large central hall with a high ceiling and wooden columns. The interior of the mosque is decorated with intricate geometric patterns and Arabic calligraphy.
One of the most notable features of the Juma Mosque is its minaret, which stands at a height of 24 meters and is decorated with intricate brickwork and ornamental motifs. The minaret is one of the oldest surviving examples of Islamic architecture in the Caucasus region and is considered a masterpiece of medieval brickwork.
A further hour or so from Shamakhi is Nohur Lake. It is a picturesque lake located in the Gabala region of Azerbaijan and is surrounded by lush green forests and mountains, making it a popular destination for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. During autumn, the trees on the hills surrounding the lake turn into a flurry of red and yellow, making it an especially scenic spot for photos.
The lake is fed by several mountain streams and is known for its crystal-clear waters, which reflect the surrounding landscape and create a stunning visual effect when viewed in the early morning before the winds set in. The lake is also home to a variety of fish species, including trout and carp, making it a popular spot for fishing. Aside from fishing, visitors to Nohur Lake can take part in a range of outdoor activities including hiking, camping, and picnicking. There are several hiking trails around the lake that offer stunning views of the surrounding mountains and forests and visitors can also rent boats or kayaks to explore the lake itself. Visitors who are heading to Sheki typically make a customary stop to admire views of the lake.
Sheki Khan’s Palace
Sheki Khan’s Palace is one of the most famous landmarks in Sheki. It was built in the 18th century and served as the residence of the local ruler, the Khan of Sheki. The palace is known for its intricate architecture and beautiful frescoes.
A typical tour of the palace takes visitors to various rooms that are decorated with beautiful frescoes and stained glass windows. Outside the palace is a large garden with fountains and a pool.
Along the walk to the main palace building, visitors can marvel at local craft shops, including one that showcases just how the stained glass windows were restored without using a single nail.
Visitors can take a guided tour of the palace and learn about its history and architecture. Photography inside the palace is prohibited.
The Caravanserai is another popular historical site in Sheki. It was built in the 18th century and served as resting houses for traders and travelers who were passing through the city. Up to this day, the caravanserai is used as a place for lodging. It has now been converted into a hotel. While the facilities are not plush, the atmosphere evokes a much simpler time. There is also a charming central courtyard filled with trees and benches for guests to relax in. The outer part of the caravanserai is filled with souvenir shops and teahouses.
The Albanian Church in Kish Village is a historic Christian church located in the village of Kish in the Sheki Rayon of Azerbaijan. The church is believed to have been built in the 1st century AD and is considered one of the oldest Christian churches in the Caucasus region. It was originally an Albanian Apostolic Church and was later converted into a mosque during the Islamic conquests in the 8th century.
In the 19th century, the church was renovated and restored by the Russian Empire, which controlled Azerbaijan at the time. It was then used as a Russian Orthodox Church until the early 20th century. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the church was returned to the Azerbaijani government and was declared a national historical and architectural monument.
Where to Eat in Baku
Baku offers a wide range of Azerbaijani cuisine with its unique blend of flavors and spices. Visitors can try the traditional dishes such as plov, dolma, and kebab. Plov, a rice dish cooked with meat and vegetables, is a must-try for anyone visiting Azerbaijan. Dolma, stuffed grape leaves or vegetables, is another popular dish. Kebabs, grilled meat skewers, are also a staple of Azerbaijani cuisine.
For those who prefer vegetarian options, there are plenty of options available. Badimjan dolma, stuffed eggplant, and lobiya choban salati, a bean salad, are some of the vegetarian dishes that visitors can enjoy. Azerbaijani cuisine also features a variety of soups, including dovga, a yogurt-based soup, and shorba, a meat-based soup.
Here are some recommended restaurants that I have personally tried:
Nakchivan – This nicely decked restaurant specializes in cuisine from the Azerbaijan exclave of Nakchivan. Check out the Nakchivan variation of Dolma, the Chicken with Pomegranate Sauce as well as their crunchy flat walnut pies.
Sumakh – This is another atmospheric restaurant to check out in Baku for local food with an extensive menu of local dishes. Servings are huge so it may not be ideal for solo diners. Their plov and lamb dishes are excellent.
Marivanna – kitschy and instagram-worthy Russian restaurant in the city center near the coast.
Dolma – This underground restaurant is very touristy but they serve a wide variety of Azerbaijani and Caucasus dishes so if you are pressed for time, this city center restaurant is a great option.
United Coffee Beans – this is probably the closest you can get in Baku to a hipster cafe. While coffee houses abound in the city, the number of establishments that offer vegan milk options is limited. United Coffee Beans is one of them. They also have a range of healthy eats including grain bowls and wraps.
When planning a trip to Baku, finding the perfect accommodation is crucial. Fortunately, Baku offers a wide range of options to suit every budget and preference.
Luxury: InterContinental Baku – Located right in the heart of the city, the InterContinental Baku is housed in a strategic location. It is just next to Sahil Metro Station and about 10 minutes walk away from the Icherisheher (Old Town) and the pedestrian shopping street of Nizami. Rooms are plush and the lighting is touch-based.
Budget: Sahil Hostel & Hotel – There are a few hostels where backpackers congregate in Baku and Sahil Hostel & Hotel is one of the more prominent places of lodging. Don’t be fooled by the rather un-glamorous entrance – the hotel itself is modern and clean. Wooden parquet floors help shield guests from the cold from autumn until spring. Private rooms are also available, including those that have their own balconies. This hostel is also an excellent place from which to watch the Formula 1 in Baku.
Helpful Tips for Baku & Azerbaijan
- Travel Insurance: In this age of uncertainty, I’d err on the side of caution and purchase travel insurance. You can check out Worldnomads as they have quite an extensive coverage, even including personal accidents into their list of benefits.
- Getting Around: While in Baku, I use Bolt app which allowed to get around different spots in the city easily despite knowing no Russian or Azeri language. I got to pay local price and most trips within the city cost me less than 3 Manat (~ around 2 USD or less).
- Best Time to Visit Azerbaijan: Most places in Azerbaijan, especially the area near Baku which is semi-arid, don’t get much rain so there’s no rainy season to be wary of. However, do not that it can get very hot in summer which is in July and August.