London, Paris, Washington, Istanbul are the usual travel choices for holidaymakers. But let me add to the list a uniquely distinct city, Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. Jutting out from the western Caspian seaside, the metropolis is dotted with medieval structures and narrow alleys that still have snippets of a Persian past.
In the last few years, the historical city has hosted several international sporting events, including the 2015 European Games, the 2016 European Grand Prix, 4th Islamic Solidarity Games and the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in 2017. These days Baku is gearing up to play host again, to the UEFA Euro 2020.
I travelled to the city for my honeymoon and began by searching exhaustively for the cheapest airline, which I found was Fly Dubai. But there were immediate drawbacks to a lower fare. Since all airlines flew smaller aircrafts to the city, Fly Dubai did not offer free meals or entertainment on board. Thankfully that didn’t bother me or my wife, for the flight to Dubai from Karachi is merely two hours long.
As for the other costs, the visa was for around Rs8,000 per person, which is easy to obtain online within three working days. Before departing, however, do make sure to convert your currency. One Azerbaijani manat equals to Rs. 60-65. For a short trip, 1,000 manat should be good enough.
I also paid an additional USD 2,000 for a tour guide, 5-star hotel in three major cities (4 nights in Baku, 1 night in Xacmaz, 1 in Sheki). Since the hotels were booked by the tour guide, the final price tag was a little higher. There are, however, cheaper alternatives available. The name of our guide was Ilaha. I would highly recommend her as she is friendly, accommodating, honest and professional.
As for the weather, Baku can be very breezy, so do remember to pack a little jacket or shawl for visiting open-air touristy spots.
During our four day stay we had the following attractions marked down:
1) Nizami Street: A large pedestrian shopping centre in downtown Baku. It’s a traffic-free area, home to branded outlets as well as street cafés and restaurants.
2) Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre: Designed by the noted architect Zaha Hadid, the building is firm and stunning and one of the signature attractions in Baku. The outer area and park offers a beautiful view of the city. It is recommended to visit the centre before sunset so you can experience both the pre- and post-sunset view of the building.
3) Old City: Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the ancient city dates back to the 12th century. Within its confines are enough touristy gems, such as the Maiden Tower, Juma Mosque, Hamam Mehellesi public baths and the Palace of Shirvanshahs.
4) Flame Towers: The towers stand tall and proud amongst the old city walls. However, of the three flaming towers, only one is functional. Every evening the building is lit up in hues of yellow.
5) Upland Park: The park offers a zoomed up view of the flame towers and a panoramic view of the city. It is probably the highest point and the most scenic spot in Baku.
6) Mini Venice: This place is worth taking a stroll through for some good pictures. Around it, is a man-made lake resembling the one in Venice. A boat tour of the lake costs five manat per person.
7) Restaurants: When in Baku, eat like a king. Must-try eateries include the Shah Restaurant, Burger House (Nizami Street) and the Mado Cafe (Nizami Street).
Once we wrapped up our Baku stretch of the trip, we left for the city of Xacmaz. Unfortunately, this was a complete waste of time. I would instead recommend the northwestern city of Sheki, which is a six hours drive from Baku. Sheki is like Pakistan’s northern areas: lush green mountains and a photogenic topography.
Overall, Baku is a city not to missed for its proximity and rich offerings.