1. Go on a walking tour of Baku’s Old City
The Old City of Baku is a walled city built between the 12th and 16th centuries and is locally referred to as Icheri Sheher. Because of its richness and value it is listed as a UNESCO site.
You can go on a guided walking tour or you can head to the tourism kiosk that is in front of the Maiden Tower and get the audio guide to follow on your own. Just like in a Museum, there are marked points and an itinerary you can just follow to hear more about the key sites in Baku’s old city. During the tour you will visit a lot of the landmarks that are mentioned in the next points. They are chronologically mentioned so you can follow the map and a logical route.
2. The Fortress Wall
The fortress wall that encloses the city dates from the 12th century but has been destroyed and restored several times through the centuries so most of the construction dates more from the 13th to 15th centuries. In the 16th century, a second fortress wall was constructed, lower than the 12th century one, as a means to defend from invaders who would jump the lower one only to find a higher wall and be trapped in the water-filled moat that was in the middle as an easy target. In the 19th century, the second wall was demolished as the city grew with the oil boom and the area needed to be expanded.
The original wall had only one entrance and one exit right along one straight road crossing the city. The original entry gate can still be seen today and I have marked it on the map. Above the opening look out for the shield of the city. You will see the head of an ox which represents the city of Baku. The ox is protected by two lion heads during the day and night, hence the picture of the sun and the moon.
The wall has 25 towers and five gates.
Caravanserais are the former version of an Inn. Nomads and traders traveling along the Silk Route needed a place to rest and eat through their travels and so caravanserais started to appear along the main trading routes. I have seen them from Morocco to India and they are often very beautiful buildings converted into historical, even luxury, hotels. The architectural design is always the same no matter the country. A courtyard in the middle was used to host the animals (camels, horses) and the rooms were around it. Some caravanserais have two floors.
There are a few caravanserais in the Old City but there are two marked in the map that are the most beautiful and well-kept caravanserai dating back to the 14th century (although have been restored to modern-day restaurants). They are located right in front of each other in a narrowing along the main street from the fortress entrance gate. One is called Bukara caravanserai and was used to host people who venerated one God only. That meant, for Christians, Zoroastrians and Muslims which were not the majority at the time. The other one, the Multani caravanserai, was open to people who venerated many Gods, that is Buddhists and Hindus who were the majority at the time. Although Multani looks half the size of Bukara, the majority of it is actually underground. Caravanserai are pleasant places to enjoy a drink under the shaded trees and arched rooms.
4. Maiden Tower
This interestingly shaped tower is believed to have been built in the 5th or 6th centuries but its exact construction date is unknown. The Maiden Tower is used as a symbol of the city of Baku and together with the Old City and the Shirvan Shahs Palace it is inscribed as a UNESCO site.
Although archeologists and historians are not sure about its origins and the purposes of its existence and shape, there are three theories to explain its existence and evidence to support all three.
A first theory states it was a defense tower that may have been part of the fortress walls of the city. A second theory asserts this was an observatory to the moon and the celestial bodies above. A third theory mentions that the Maiden Tower was a fire worshipping temple because its shape from above is that of a buta, the symbol that represents fire, the sun and light, similarly shaped to a number nine or a tear. It is possible that the tower was used for all three purposes. As per its cylindrical shape with a buttress like addition, it is possible that it had nothing to do with fire-worshipping but that the buttress part was added to support the tower’s foundations. Or that the tower was the key to the city as its shape can also be that of a keyhole, to the city of Baku.
Aside from the three possible uses for the Maiden Tower, there are several legends to explain its name. The most romantic one relates to the story of a young princess who threw herself from the top of the tower when asked to marry someone she did not love. A less tragic origin for its name alludes to the fact that the tower had never been conquered by enemies. Azerbaijani poets and writers have written extensively about the legend with variations and interpretations focused on tragic romances.
The Maiden Tower is made of eight levels that are filled with interactive screens, projections and explanations. Each level has a dome style ceiling. On the lower level, there is a well that was protected from invaders and provided water to the people who might be taking shelter inside. Today, the first level can be accessed via a spiral staircase but this ladder was originally replaced by a rope to avoid intruders from accessing the higher levels. Each level had a fireplace to keep it warm.
You can go up all the way to the top for a 360 degree of the city. At each level there are panels explaining the history of the Maiden Tower and the city at that time. Do not miss the chance to see a model of the Sabayil fortress, now under the water of the Caspian Sea.
From outside, check out the two types of stones that make up the building and which indicate that it may have been built in two phases. The tower has survived the years possibly because of its 5m thick walls and strong foundation.
5. The old market ruins – Kanegah Complex
The remnants of the old 15th / 16th market are some of the oldest parts of the Old City. Here is where the artisans and peasants used to bring their produce for sale. The market is today below street level but at the time was at ground level. For centuries, the market and church were covered underground and were only discovered in 1964.
Half of the market is always shaded so that the sellers could move their wares to the shade when it was very hot, as Baku does in the summertime.
The traders coming on their caravans and staying at the caravanserai were also selling their goods here. In the middle of the market there are tombstones and sarcophagi found in Sabayil fortress that is currently under the water of the Caspian Sea and relocated here. The tombstones have symbols on them that mark the person who died, Some have boots for a shoemaker. These relics are believed to be from the 14th to 16th century.
6. Hadji Haid Hammam
Right by the market is a hammam called Hadji Haid that today acts as a small museum and souvenir shop where lots of pretty gifts can be bought. The domes of the hammam symbolise the owner’s wifes. Each dome is for a wife and the size determines the love the owner had for each. Some are really large and some are tiny.
In front of the market ruins and visible from the hanging metal walkways that connect it to the Maiden Tower are the remains of a church built by Christ’s Apostle Bartholomew in the 1st century. Little is known of this church other than the Apostle visited Baku and decided to build a church. What is left of it is very little as it is mostly in ruins but the original cross-shaped apses can still be seen.
8. Djuma Mosque
Djuma Mosque was erected on the site of a fire-worshipping temple and is beautifully painted inside. Its minaret is tall and has pretty bas reliefs worth admiring even if you have to walk around several back streets to get there as the area is very labyrinthic today. The mosque was originally built in the 14th century and the minaret added in the following one. However, the mosque standing today is a construction built in the 19th century. There are mosques called Djuma or Jummah across Azerbaijan because this is the name for Friday, the day of worship.
9. Miniature Book Museum
The miniature book museum is a private collection of over 2,000 books owned by a lady who will most likely be there when you visit. She does not speak English but she usually has an attendant who can say a few words and is there to help. The owner’s passion for her collection is contagious. The museum is free of charge but if you want to make a donation you can. Some of the books are so small they measure less than one millimeter. She has books in all languages. The collection has been inscribed in the Guinness World Records Book.
10. The Palace of the Shirvan Shahs
This is a 15th-16th century palace built by the Shahs who ruled Azerbaijan since the 9th century when the capital was moved from Shemakha to Baku as Shemakha suffered from earthquakes and Turkish invasions. The complex is made of nine buildings including the Courtroom, the Dervish’s Tomb, the Eastern Gate, the Shah Mosque, the Keygubad Mosque, the palace tomb, the bathhouse and the reservoir. At the entrance to the palace there is a map outlining all the rulers under the Shirvan Shahs and how far their empire expanded.
Limestone was used in its construction and due to the Shirvan’s state suffering constant attacks from the many armies, the palace was damaged and looted several times until it became the headquarters of the Russian Army after the Empire’s invasion in 1828. The buildings were restored in 2003 to what is perhaps better than their former glory. The Palace and the Maiden Tower are the two key buildings in the UNESCO-listed Old City area.
The main palace has two floors and the Shah’s family used to live in the upper floor while the servants occupied the lower level. The entire complex is irregular and constructed over several levels as it was originally built on a hill above Baku.
Another important building in the complex is what is called the Courtyard but was most likely the tomb built by the Shirvanshah Farrukh Yasar. The tomb consists of an octagonal rotunda, completed with a dodecagonal dome. Its octagonal hall is surrounded by an open balcony or portico. You can go inside and see the tombstones and you can see the dungeons underground through fences placed on the floor. Our guide told us that this is where the prisoners got to defend themselves before trial and if they succeeded they were released. While underground, they could not see the judges and only hear their own voice.
The mosque was also used as a madrasa (school) and is today in ruins. Another of the most important buildings in the complex is the Tomb of the Shirvanshahs and the Shah Mosque. There is a separate part for men and women but today the mosque is not in use.
The Palace is the most beautiful building in the Old City of Baku and definitively worth a visit. Inside, there are lots of relics and artefacts exhibited, including jewelry and clothing from the Shahs. It is a living museum of Azerbaijani history.
11. Agha Miyakil bath house
I marked this on the map but it is not on Google or Google maps. Although hammams used to be very popular in the past, there are not a lot of them left in their old stage. This one is open and operational just as it used to be. Hammams in Azerbaijan are open on alternate days for men or women so be sure to check the days it is open for you.
12. Heydar Aliyev Center
Not to confuse the name with several other buildings and constructions which also carry the name of the first President after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Heydar Aliyev Center is an award-winning Zaha Hadid design chosen as the best building in 2014. The building was awarded after a contest launched in 2007 and opened in 2012.
It is a construction reminiscent of the Guggenheim or the Sydney Opera House but has difficult to photograph aesthetics with large proportions, flowing lines that undulate and seem to merge inside and out. On the exterior, the building feels like it’s hugging and embracing the large plaza it’s found in. There are snails and other colorful sculptures that add a dash of color to the otherwise white and green grass space. It is this fluidity in the construction that creates a truly unique emotion in the visitor and was chosen to reflect Baku’s Islamic past where calligraphy and elements tend to flow into infinity.
Inside, the center was built to showcase Azeri culture and exhibitions hosted tend to talk to local culture. A series of international exhibitions are also regularly shown. Although you might be tempted to visit it only from the outside, I would suggest going in. The main stairs going to the upper floors will make you feel like you are inside the belly of a large white whale.
There is a hip cafe following the same architecture as the building and free water is available at the ticket counter office from a water tank. Expect to spend a couple of hours at least visiting the center.
13. Mini Venice
As the name indicates, this is a Venice replica with canals and small boats manned by the staff for a leisurely evening. As the area is mostly under the sun, avoid the hot hours of the day in the summer months.
14. The Carpet Museum
The Carpet Museum houses thousands of carpets accumulated over 50 years since its inception during Soviet times and is housed in a purpose-built building shaped in the form of a rolled up carpet. Carpet weaving is one of the country’s oldest and most priced skills and traditions. The museum is very active and regularly hosts talks, lectures and workshops.
The most pleasant way to spend an evening in Baku is having a stroll along the Bulvar, the sea boulevard that stretches over a couple of kilometers along the Caspian Sea. The area is permanently packed with people, especially in the balmy evening in the summer months. There are families strolling, friends having a chat, teenagers playing, people eating, relaxing on the benches…it is a very nice way to enjoy Azeri life.