Baku is a city that keeps on giving. I had the opportunity of visiting it for a second time earlier this year and, as soon as I stepped out of the airport, it felt like I was returning home. Already being somewhat familiar with the city and its surroundings allowed me to wonder more and, besides discovering new places, I got to re-discover some from a different perspective, a more instagrammable one.
1. Flame Towers
A group of three skyscrapers in central Baku, the Flame Towers are one of the most recognisable landmarks of the city. The shape of the project is not by chance, it reflects Azerbaijan’s nickname of the Land of Fire. The façades of the buildings are completely covered with LED screens, so the towers come alive at night, turning into dancing flames.
They were built between 2007 and 2012 and the cost of construction is estimated at $350 million. Each of the towers serves a different purpose. The tallest one, on the south, is a luxury apartments residential building. The tower on the north houses the Fairmont Hotel, while the third one, on the west, is an office building.
2. Heydar Aliyev Center
Yet another landmark of the city, the Heydar Aliyev Center opened on what would have been the former Azerbaijani president’s 89th birthday, on 10 May 2012. The museum was designed by Iraqi-British architect Dame Zaha Hadid, a major figure in the post-modern architecture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, nicknamed “the Queen of curve”.
The museum perfectly reflects this title, having no straight lines and no corners anywhere in its construction, flowing into the shape of a wave. It mirrors the Caspian Sea and symbolises, at the same time, an eternal cycle.
3. National Carpet Museum
In Azerbaijani culture, the carpet is more than just an element of home décor, it is a symbol and an integral part of celebrations and ceremonies. The National Carpet Museum was established in 1967 to store, research and exhibit the art of carpet weaving in the country, which was inscribed on UNESCO’s representative list of intangible cultural heritage in 2010.
The new building of the museum was commissioned to celebrate the UNESCO status. Austrian architect Franz Janz took the brief and ran with it, offering up a love-it-or-hate-it structure that resembles an unfurling patterned carpet.
4. Baku TV tower
Before the modernisation of the city began at the beginning of the century, the Baku TV Tower was the most recognisable landmark on the city’s skyline. The construction of the free-standing telecommunications tower was completed in 1996 and, at 310 metres tall, it is the tallest structure in Azerbaijan and the tallest reinforced concrete building in the Caucasus.
5. Taza Pir Mosque
The Təzəpir (Taza Pir) Mosque is the first religious building made out of white stone in Baku and, at the time of construction, it was a completely new stage not only in the urban structure of the city, but also in the religious buildings of the entire Absheron Peninsula, for its spatial unity and architectural feature.
The mosque, financed by woman philanthropist Nabat Khanum Ashurbeyova, who insisted that the architect for Taza Pir be Azerbaijani, so he would understand and integrate traditional elements into the temple.
6. Shirvanshahs Palace
Called by UNESCO “one of the pearls of Azerbaijan’s architecture”, the Şirvanşahlar Sarayı (Shirvanshah’s Palace) complex is located at the highest point of the Inner City. Built in the 15th century, the complex houses the Divankhana (reception hall), the residential building of Shirvanshahs, the remains of Key-Kubad Mosque, the Tomb of Seyid Yahya Bakuvi, Murad’s Gate, the Tomb of Shirvanshahs’ Family, the Shah Mosque and the Palace bathhouse.
7. Sheki Khan’s Palace
The Khan Palace is situated in the historic centre of the city of Sheki, not exactly in Baku, but definitely worth the drive. Inscribed on UNESCO’s world heritage list in 2019, the Palace walls are adorned with windows and doors made of coloured glass set in a wooden latticework, called shebeke, that let the light in through mesmerizing vibrant twinkles.
The methods for creating these masterpieces, without any glue or nails, are specific to Azerbaijani folk craftsmen. One square metre of these works of art can incorporate from 5,000 to 14,000 wood and glass pieces and weigh up to 40 kg. The whole process is similar to making a jigsaw puzzle that only a master who already knows what the final picture looks like can complete.
8. Mud volcanoes
The Gobustan State Historical and Cultural Reserve was established in 1966, when the area was declared a national historical landmark of Azerbaijan in an attempt to preserve the prehistoric rock carvings, mud volcanoes and musical stones in the region.
The mud volcanoes site seems a Moonlike landscape on earth, with endless plains and gey mud bubbling and spurting from little hilltops. The area still looks like it has yet to be touched by humans, but that will soon end, as a mud spa resort is set to open there by the end of 2025, complete with a quad bike path, footpaths, a zip line, an observation tower, a parking lot, a souvenir shop, as well as therapeutic baths.
Just a short drive from the city centre, you will find Yanardag – the burning mountainside, Azerbaijan’s undying flame. Nobody knows exactly how long the ridge at Yanardag has been burning for, some believe forever, but the earliest concrete mention is around the 1st century CE.
Gas resurfaces naturally here from under the ground and while the circumstances under which it caught fire are a mystery, it was probably a chemical reaction of the sulphur and methane with the air.
10. Ateshgah Fire Temple
The Ateshgah Temple, also called the Fire Temple of Baku, is a historical place of worship for Zoroastrians of north-western India. Its name, coming from Persian (Atashgah), literally means home of fire.
The pentagon shaped complex features a central temple where, similar to Yanardag, a natural flame used to burn, along with six others, one in the courtyard and five in the adjacent cell dwellings. Due to extensive exploitation in the area, the pressure of the natural gas subsided so much the flames went out in 1969. Now, they are supplied by a gas pipe and kept alight for visitors to envision what the place of worship was like.