The Caspian Sea is glittering. All along the crescent promenade the sun illuminates the water as the city wakes up to a beautiful day. I can see gardens along the waterfront—and all of Baku, for that matter—from my room on the 20th floor of the Flame Towers. Azerbaijan has long been on my list of places to visit—it’s the 102nd country I’ve traveled to—and I can’t wait to spend the next 48 hours in Baku.
48 Hours in Baku
I’m straddling Europe and Asia in the Caucasus as a guest of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. They’ve invited me to Baku to experience their hotel in the aforementioned towers and see the highlights of the city.
The Fairmont Baku occupies one of the three flames, and my room not only has floor-to-ceiling views but also elegant decor and enough space to spread out as much as I desire.
Staying in such a luxurious hotel is fitting for this city, as oil wealth has meant that everything from the designs of world-class architects to the handbags of world-famous fashion houses has landed here in recent years.
Day 1 in Baku
When I’m done admiring the views, I head out with my group to explore the city on my first day in Baku. We start where any visit should: with a tour of the Old City.
The historic walled enclosure is full of Silk Road lore, from centuries-old mosques and palaces to narrow streets leading alternately to traditional market stalls and contemporary art galleries.
We duck into a few, admiring the ruins of the old hammam and thick fortifications surrounding the area as we go.
I like that while the city has been preserved, it hasn’t been over-restored. There’s still an enchanting sense of history in buildings like the Maiden Tower.
Soon we stop for lunch at Tendir Restaurant, a traditional Azerbaijani place in the Old City with printed fabric on the tables and photos of prime ministers on the walls. Lunch is a feast of delicious local dishes from warming soup to tender chicken, all served with fresh herbs and spices.
But the real winner is the bread, which is cooked in an Indian-style tandoor oven at the entrance and served hot with local cheeses. It’s further evidence of the Silk Road influence in Baku. By the time I leave the restaurant, I’m a full convert to Azerbaijani food and full of Azerbaijani food. Win-win.
Our last stop in the Old City is at the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a complex consisting of everything from intricately formed courtyards to mosques and burial chambers. It’s a nice way to get more context for Baku’s back story, which has a rich mix of trade routes, Islamic influence, and—more recently—membership in the Soviet Union.
After walking around the cobbled streets I’m ready for some down time. A massage at the Fairmont’s ESPA spa is just what I crave, and I head up to the immaculate relaxation area with its hanging cocoon chairs when I get back to the hotel. Soon I’m whisked off to a room where I zen out to one of the best massages I’ve had in a long time. My therapist, Adny, works all the tension from my back, and an hour later my shoulders barely remember lugging cameras all over the city.
In the evening, dinner is at the Fairmont Gold Lounge where Fairmont Gold guests can access an exclusive level of the hotel with a sitting area and restaurant. We tuck into a meal of international cuisine in a private corner as the sun sinks below the skyline, gilding the city below. Afterwards it’s drinks o’clock at the hotel’s chic Nur Lounge on the ground floor.
Day 2 in Baku
The next day we’re up and out early for a visit to the showroom of one of Baku’s innovative young fashion designers, Menzer Hajiyeva. She and her team serve us a traditional Azerbaijani breakfast of fresh cheeses, lavash breads, and crisp local fruits and vegetables. It’s another welcome initiation to the local culture, and a good precursor to the introduction to her designs.
Menzer is known for her scarves, which are inspired by traditional Azerbaijani styles. She’s taken a fresh approach, using silk in a nod to the historic trade route and applying bright bold colors and patterns to suit them to today’s tastes. I spend a bit more time than I’d like to admit ensconcing myself in them, twirling in front of the mirror and luxuriating in the feel of the soft fabrics on my skin.
But the feel of sun and wind—Baku is known as the City of Winds for a reason—beckons, and soon I’m outside on my way to the waterfront.
The promenade I’ve admired from my hotel room is finally in front of me, and I walk along the immaculately clean path and through the gardens as the breeze plays with my hair. Along the way I pass a Venetian canal complete with gondolas, a whimsical treat.
Next door is the equally playful Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, which—delightfully—is shaped like a carpet.
And speaking of museums, my next stop is one I’ve been looking forward to more than anything else on the trip: the Heydar Aliyev Center.
Designed by the late Zaha Hadid, it’s one of Baku’s most famous contemporary buildings—a true feat in a city full of new constructions. The pure white structure has sinuous curves—there’s not a single straight line here—and a feeling of openness and movement.
Inside I explore the ancient and historic treasures of Azerbaijan and peruse the models of Baku’s contemporary buildings. But the museum itself steals the show, and I want to stay here forever feeling inspired by its soft enveloping curves.
But there’s more to do in town, and after a stop at the Museum of Modern Art and lunch at the funky Pivnaya Apteka I’m off to a catwalk show for Azerbaijan Fashion Week.
The collections are by designers both local and regional—there are Kazakh and Ukrainian designers here in addition to Azerbaijanis. As a kaleidoscope of colors glides past, I come to the conclusion that fashion in this part of the world centers around two things: fur and side boob.
After the show I’m off to Buddha Bar, one of Baku’s international hot spots, then back to the hotel for a last night of sleep before I depart. Disappointingly, my room hasn’t been turned down for the second night in a row. A 5-star luxury hotel should be on it, but it’s the only snag in an otherwise lovely stay.
I sleep well despite the sound of the wind outside—I’m glad I’ve brought plenty of earplugs and hair bands on this trip—and wake up early for my flight back to London.
As I go through the sleek new airport—the wooden cocoons by Turkish architecture studio Autoban are lovely—I’m glad I’ve had 48 hours in Baku. I could stay a lot longer to see more of the city’s highlights, or until next month when it hosts its first Formula 1 race. But even with the quick glimpse I’ve gotten, Baku has thoroughly exceeded my expectations. Azerbaijan has been my 102nd country, but its capital ranks significantly higher among the ones I’ve visited.
Have you been to Baku? What were the highlights of your trip?