At the Crossroads of Europe & Asia

A Traveler’s Tale: Baku, Azerbaijan and the Shores of the Caspian Sea

Jake Smith at one of his favorite old watchtowers, Mardakan Fortress, on the Absheron Peninsula near Baku
Jake Smith at one of his favorite old watchtowers, Mardakan Fortress, on the Absheron Peninsula near Baku

Having spent years living and working in Central Asia, I’ve flown over the Caspian Sea en route back to the USA countless times. On long hauls I’m a window-seat flyer; so when the sea was not obscured by clouds or the opaqueness of nighttime, I would look out and marvel at its vastness.

While technically a saline lake, the world’s largest, the Caspian is simply enormous and really lives up to the scale of a sea. Even from 39,000 feet, when you are in the middle of the Caspian, you can’t make out the shoreline in any direction.

A birds-eye view of the Caspian Sea off Baku. Photo credit: Inga Belova
A birds-eye view of the Caspian Sea off Baku. Photo credit: Inga Belova

The Caspian has been an emotional landmark for me. Passing over it meant I was returning to Central Asia, my second home, for another extended stay away from my friends and family back in my first home, the U.S., or that I was leaving that second home for some rest and recreation elsewhere. Going either direction was always bittersweet, and the Caspian always felt like the demarcation between the two.

Despite having seen it from the air so many times, I had never actually been down on the ground anywhere near the body of water. So last year when MIR presented me with the opportunity to travel between Yerevan, Armenia, and Baku, Azerbaijan, I jumped on the offer.

A view of the promenade. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
A view of the promenade. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

The highlight for me, though, was my final destination: Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, perched on the southern shore of a peninsula jutting out into the center of the Caspian.

Azerbaijan and its People


Azerbaijan is located where the Caucasus Mountains meet the Caspian Sea, with Central Asia to the east, Russia to the north, Iran to the south, and Georgia and Armenia to the west. The national language, Azeri, is closely related to and often mutually intelligible with the Turkish spoken in Turkey.

Baku’s Old Town with a backdrop of new modern construction. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
Baku’s Old Town with a backdrop of new modern construction. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Most Azeris adhere to the same Shia Muslim faith as their neighbors to the south, in Iran. This is in contrast to the Sunni branch of Islam that predominates in nearby Turkey, the Middle East, and Central Asia; and the Orthodox Christianity practiced in Russia, Georgia, and Armenia.

A friendly game of backgammon in Baku’s market square. Photo credit: Ana Filonov
A friendly game of backgammon in Baku’s market square. Photo credit: Ana Filonov

The country was under Russian and Soviet rule for much of its recent history. Even today most Azeris speak at least some Russian, and a substantial Russian minority still lives there. But the Azeri people’s deep historical roots lie to the east, on the steppes of Central Asia and Mongolia, the original homeland of the Turkic clans.

The Flame Towers alight in Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo credit: Peter Guttman
The Flame Towers alight in Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo credit: Peter Guttman

I arrived in Baku not totally knowing what to expect. Would it be like the Central Asia I was so familiar with? Like Georgia and Armenia, Iran, or Turkey? Would the Russian influence be as obvious as in other parts of the former Soviet Union? Would there be any readily apparent ties to Iran?

Designed by the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, the Heydar Aliyev Center is worth seeing for the architecture alone (Azerbaijan.) Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
Designed by the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, the Heydar Aliyev Center is worth seeing for the architecture alone. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

The answer to all of the above was yes. I felt a little silly spending so much time comparing what I was experiencing with other places I had been before, but honestly it was hard not to do so in Azerbaijan. Threads of the familiar were everywhere.

Threads of the Familiar


I heard Russian and Azeri on every street corner, the latter sounding just like Turkish to my ears. I was in the country right after the mourning holiday of Ashura, and I noticed black banners and flags adorning many mosques. The foods I ate had names familiar to me from Persian and Central Asian languages, but tasted much like the cuisine I’d had in Georgia and Armenia.

A festive summer night stroll through Baku’s Old Town. Photo credit: Jake Smith
A festive summer night stroll through Baku’s Old Town. Photo credit: Jake Smith

The streets and urban planning, especially in the outskirts of the city, felt very Soviet. The presence of substantial sums of petro-dollars was also easy to pick up on. The city was booming, and felt very cosmopolitan.

The Highlight of My Trip: Beautiful Baku


Baku wraps around a semicircular bay, broadly oriented towards the south, with the downtown and old town areas largely situated in the western half of the semicircle on a hill sloping steeply down towards the sea.

A panoramic view of the Bay of Baku which leads to the Caspian Sea. Photo credit: Inga Belova
A panoramic view of the Bay of Baku which leads to the Caspian Sea. Photo credit: Inga Belova

Martyrs’ Lane and Spectacular Views


My exploration started at Martyrs’ Lane – a solemn stretch of walkways and gardens dedicated to those killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh War with Armenia, and during the turmoil Azerbaijan experienced immediately prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The views of the city and the Caspian are spectacular – this makes for a good first stop for orientation purposes.

Martyrs’ Lane (Baku, Azerbiajan.) Photo credit: Devin Connolly
Martyrs’ Lane. Photo credit: Devin Connolly
Eternal Flame memorial at Martyrs’ Lane (Baku, Azerbaijan.) Photo credit: Jake Smith
Eternal Flame memorial at Martyrs’ Lane. Photo credit: Jake Smith

The Flame Towers


I walked down past the Flame Towers – a triplet of flame-shaped modern skyscrapers designed to evoke the fires of Zoroastrianism, the pre-Islamic religion of the area.

The Flame Towers put on a colorful show at night (Baku, Azerbaijan.) Photo credit: Jake smith
The Flame Towers put on a colorful show at night. Photo credit: Jake smith
The sleek lines of the modern Flame Towers (Baku, Azerbaijan.) Photo credit: Jake Smith
The sleek lines of the modern Flame Towers. Photo credit: Jake Smith

Heart of the City


The heart of the city is its old town, the icharishahar. I spent several hours exploring the maze of narrow alleys, poking my head into carpet shops, handicraft stalls, little museums and monuments, and occasionally glimpsing the inside of someone’s courtyard or apartment through an open door. I visited the city’s most famous attraction, the 15th century Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a museum and architectural monument on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Outside and inside the 15th century Palace of the Shirvanshahs (Baku, Azerbaijan.) Photo credit: Ana Filonov
Outside and inside the 15th century Palace of the Shirvanshahs. Photo credit: Ana Filonov

I ended my first day in Baku with an evening stroll from the beautifully lit pedestrianized shopping streets around Fountain Square to the Maiden Tower monument just across from the Caspian. Dinner was a traditional Azerbaijani rice pilaf made with sour cherries, served in the courtyard of an old Azeri home that has been converted into a restaurant.

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Less Visited Attractions


Having seen the main tourist sites in the city on my first day, I spent my subsequent three days in the city seeing less visited attractions, and getting out of town.

Gobustan

The petroglyphs at Gobustan are UNESCO-listed and the trails yield great views of the countryside.

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The Heydar Aliyev Center

The Heydar Aliyev Center is an open, light-filled space that hosts rotating exhibits and events. A visit is worthwhile just to see the interior of the unique building, especially if one of the exhibits is of interest.

The Heydar Aliyev Center includes an innovative performing arts auditorium and spaces for major art exhibitions. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
The Heydar Aliyev Center is a swooping architectural work that has become a landmark of modern Baku. Photo credit: Jake Smith
Hares and snails populate the grounds of the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center (Baku, Azerbaijan.) Photo credit: Jake Smith
The Heydar Aliyev Center was designed by one of the world's most influential female architects, Zaha Hadid (Azerbaijan.) Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
Red and blue rabbit face-off at the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center (Baku, Azerbaijan.) Photo credit: Jake Smith
  • The Heydar Aliyev Center includes an innovative performing arts auditorium and spaces for major art exhibitions. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta The Heydar Aliyev Center includes an innovative performing arts auditorium and spaces for major art exhibitions. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
  • The Heydar Aliyev Center is a swooping architectural work that has become a landmark of modern Baku. Photo credit: Jake Smith The Heydar Aliyev Center is a swooping architectural work that has become a landmark of modern Baku. Photo credit: Jake Smith
  • Hares and snails populate the grounds of the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center (Baku, Azerbaijan.) Photo credit: Jake Smith Hares and snails populate the grounds of the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center. Photo credit: Jake Smith
  • The Heydar Aliyev Center was designed by one of the world's most influential female architects, Zaha Hadid (Azerbaijan.) Photo credit: Martin Klimenta The Heydar Aliyev Center was designed by one of the world’s most influential female architects, Zaha Hadid. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
  • Red and blue rabbit face-off at the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center (Baku, Azerbaijan.) Photo credit: Jake Smith Red and blue rabbit face-off at the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center. Photo credit: Jake Smith

(click on photo to view larger version)

National Museum of Azerbaijani Carpets

The Carpet Museum is in a new building, shaped like an immense rolled up carpet, on the shore of the Caspian. The carpets inside are spectacular, but the highlight for me was watching the weavers stationed throughout at work. You can hear the sounds of their shuttles clicking back and forth all through the museum.

(click on photo to view larger version)

Locally Grown Fruits at the Market


I visited the central green market with a guide one afternoon to get a feel for the vegetables and fruits available. The pomegranates, melons, walnuts, and other produce were all beautiful, but one fruit in particular caught my eye.

Colorful displays of fruits and nuts at the Green Market. Note the green feijoa in the middle (Baku, Azerbaijan.) Photo credit: Jake Smith
Colorful displays of fruits and nuts at the Green Market. Note the green feijoa in the middle. Photo credit: Jake Smith

It was the pineapple guava, or feijoa. I had seen this fruit before in specialty stores in the U.S., but I had always thought it was grown and eaten mostly in tropical climates, in South America. I was surprised to see stall after stall of them in Azerbaijan, on the Caspian, in the former Soviet Union, of all places.

My guide explained that the fruit had been introduced decades ago and that they were now common and quite popular in Azerbaijan. I bought a kilo to eat over the next few days.

Absheron Peninsula: Fire Temples, Watchtowers and Oil


My last full day in town I visited the Absheron Peninsula. Absheron means “place of salty waters” in Persian, and, sure enough, it is low, salty, and dotted with reedy marshlands. Interesting stops along the way include the Ateshgah Fire Temple, with Hindu and Zoroastrian roots, and Yanar Dag (“burning mountain”), a natural gas fire emerging from a hillside.

On the way to the Absheron Peninsula, I visited the Ateshgah Fire Temple. Photo credit: Jake Smith
On the way to the Absheron Peninsula, I visited the Ateshgah Fire Temple. Photo credit: Jake Smith

My favorites, though, were two old watchtowers, Mardakan and Ramana. The Ramana tower overlooks a bleak, post-apocalyptic field of oil derricks, not beautiful by any stretch, but transfixing.

There were once more than 30 fortresses dotting the Absheron Peninsula, but the tower at Ramana is the most impressive (Azerbaijan). Photo credit: Jake Smith
There were once more than 30 fortresses dotting the Absheron Peninsula, but the tower at Ramana is the most impressive. Photo credit: Jake Smith

For those not discouraged by steep, dark stairs, a fear of heights, or a lack of any safety precautions whatsoever, the climb to the top of the Mardakan tower yields gorgeous views of the surrounding village, countryside, and Caspian.

Room with a View


A last highlight for me was the hotel I was based out of. I was very fortunate to be able to spend my nights in the city at the Four Seasons Baku, in a balcony room overlooking the old town.

A view of the Flame Towers evening light display from the window of my hotel room. Photo credit: Jake Smith
A view of the Flame Towers evening light display from the window of my hotel room. Photo credit: Jake Smith

This is not a budget hotel – it is quite expensive, in fact, even by the oil economy standards of AzerbaijanIf one wants luxury though, it is the place to stay. Everything felt well designed, luxurious, and extremely comfortable, from the palatial sauna and swimming pool areas, to the plush room furnishings, to the enormous breakfast buffet spread each morning. Watching the sun set over the old town from my balcony each evening is a sight I will not soon forget.

The Flame Towers, the tallest skyscrapers in Baku, emerge from the fog. Photo credit: Jake Smith
My room during my stay at the Four Seasons Hotel. Photo credit: Jake Smith
The Four Seasons Hotel is located on the edge of the Old City very near the Caspian shore. Photo credit: Jake Smith
The sky-lit indoor pool of the Four Seasons Hotel in Baku. Photo credit: Jake Smith
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The facades of the three Flame Towers contain more than 10,000 high-powered LED lights. Photo credit: Jake Smith
  • The Flame Towers, the tallest skyscrapers in Baku, emerge from the fog. Photo credit: Jake Smith The Flame Towers, the tallest skyscrapers in Baku, emerge from the fog. Photo credit: Jake Smith
  • My room during my stay at the Four Seasons Hotel. Photo credit: Jake Smith My room during my stay at the Four Seasons Hotel. Photo credit: Jake Smith
  • The Four Seasons Hotel is located on the edge of the Old City very near the Caspian shore. Photo credit: Jake Smith The Four Seasons Hotel is located on the edge of the Old City very near the Caspian shore. Photo credit: Jake Smith
  • The sky-lit indoor pool of the Four Seasons Hotel in Baku. Photo credit: Jake Smith The sky-lit indoor pool of the Four Seasons Hotel in Baku. Photo credit: Jake Smith
  • The facades of the three Flame Towers contain more than 10,000 high-powered LED lights. Photo credit: Jake Smith The facades of the three Flame Towers contain more than 10,000 high-powered LED lights. Photo credit: Jake Smith
  • Overlooking Old Town Baku from my hotel room. Photo credit: Jake Smith Overlooking Old Town Baku from my hotel room. Photo credit: Jake Smith

(click on photo to view larger version)

The Caspian Up Close


Of course, the thing I had anticipated the most before arriving in Baku was seeing the Caspian Sea up close for the first time. Every day I found time to stroll the pedestrian walkway, called the promenade, that follows the shore along the semicircular bay around which the city is built.

Baku Boulevard, the 100-year-old seafront promenade, is a modern national park. Photo credit: Jake Smith
Baku Boulevard, the 100-year-old seafront promenade, is a modern national park. Photo credit: Jake Smith

A park-like space filled with grass and trees separates the road from the walkway, and in the fall, when I was there, the changing leaves are beautiful. My most vivid memory from the whole trip is of one particular rainy, windy afternoon, on which I spent over an hour sitting on a bench looking out over the sea, thinking of all the times I’d seen the same water from so high above, on my way to or from home.

Travel to Azerbaijan with MIR


I traveled through the South Caucasus on a portion of the Golden Eagle Caspian Odyssey rail journey by private train. The whole trip was fantastic, and I can’t speak highly enough about the comfort and class of a rail journey by private train with Golden Eagle.

You can also experience Baku, Azerbaijan, and the Caspian on these small group tours:

Or opt to travel on your dates and at your pace on MIR’s Essential CaucasusEssential Azerbaijan, or on a custom private itinerary.

MIR has 30 years travel experience to the South Caucasus, with on-the-ground support and tour managers that clients rave about. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

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