The inaugural European Games will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan June 12-28, 2015. The event is a high point in Azerbaijan’s campaign to raise their tourism profile in recent years, as well as the New York Times listing Baku among its “52 Places to Go in 2015” and Lonely Planet including Baku on its “Ultimate party cities” list.
So, what should you do in between attending the Euro Games events? Read on…
The Azerbaijan National History Museum, opened in 1921, is located in one of central Baku’s gorgeous neo-Baroque buildings. Though some of the exhibits are a bit dated, it’s rich with material from prehistoric history to the near-present and meticulous in its signage printed in Azerbiajani, Russian and English.
The Heydar Aliyev Center is an architectural triumph, designed by Iraqi-British architect Dame Zaha Hadid, white all over and surrounded by colorful modern art. The Dr. Seuss-caliber building is just as fantastic inside as it is outside, containing displays of old cars and yet another Azerbaijan history museum focusing on 20th century history, laid out like a modern art installation.
The Flame Towers aren’t necessarily something you need to visit, but they can be seen from just about any point in the city and they’re downright mesmerizing at night when exterior LED lights put on a show.
The new Carpet Museum is surprisingly captivating. The building, resembling a half rolled-up carpet, contains exhaustive displays of carpeting styles and even live carpeting-making demonstrations.
The architectural wonders continue with the Museum of Modern Art designed by Jean Nouvel. Its wacky interior contains collections of Azerbaijani art (mostly after 1980) and a few precious Picassos and Dalis
Baku’s historic center has structures that date back to the 12th century. It’s a UNESCO Heritage site which, alas, has been classified as “in danger” due to a combination of neglect and “dubious” restoration efforts. Some ancient structures have been so aggressively cleaned that they look almost new. It is nonetheless good fun to wander the winding, tight streets and alleys, taking copious photos of the city walls, the 12th century Maiden’s Tower, the 15th century Palace of the Shirvanshahs, and the 14th and 15th century caravansaries now operating as restaurants. Keep an eye out for the (free!) miniature book museum, said to be the only one of its kind in the world.
The “New Bazaar,” north of the historic center, is where one can shop for and acquire “illegal” beluga caviar, straight from the Caspian Sea. I don’t know how/why it’s illegal as people sell the stuff right out in the open.
An important stop is the Gulluoglu Bakery, in business since 1871, where heart-quickening baklava and other treats are available. I’m not kidding, you must stop here.
About 60kms (37 miles) south of Baku is Gobustand National Park and Museum. The park has cave carvings believed to be 5,000 years old. It is very much worth the journey.
Finally, you’ll be in good hands, in terms of cuisine. It’s all lamb, mutton, chicken, vegetables (pureed and whole), sauces, bread, cheese and that sweet, sweet baklava. Several international chains are represented here too, if, for whatever reason, you need a break from that wonderfulness.
Though they may have it sorted out by the time the Games begin, Azerbaijan’s visa application process is still pretty arduous. Plan far ahead for that task.
Traffic gridlock in Baku is legendarily bad. Generously pad driving times or stick to the metro system.
Though there are a few mid-range and budget hotels in Baku, options mostly run to four and five star properties. Book early to snag the former, a few of which are located right in the historic center.
Baku Airport is very far outside of town. Unless someone else is paying for your taxi, I recommend catching the mini-bus into the city.