Looking for things to do in Baku? Read on for Time Out’s pick of the city’s top restaurants, parks, museums, galleries and more.
Be moved by martyrs
Once an amusement park – and before that, a cemetery – Martyrs’ Alley is a moving and tastefully conceived memorial to the 130-plus victims who died as a result of Black January, the massacre in Baku by Soviet troops of demonstrators seeking Azeri independence in early 1990. Each victim, including the woman who committed suicide after the loss of her husband, is honoured with a stark, marble slab with a likeness of their face etched upon it. Small rows of tulips add colour to the pathos.
See the city’s arty side
Baku’s Museum of Contemporary Art (Yusuf Safarov Street 5, 012 490 8404) consists of 900 works of fine art, graphics and sculpture covering the period 1943 to 2009. Its concept, as well the museum’s impressive design, can be accredited to Baku-based artist Altay Sadigzadeh, whose work made waves at the Azerbaijan Pavilion of the 2011 Venice Biennale. Two storeys of stark white, connected by a see-through lift, feature the finest work to emerge from Azerbaijan, or from Azeri artists, over the last seven decades. Paintings, the main focus, are given room to breathe as you wander through interlinked spaces that appear to present no limitations or awkward angles.
Face a famous spy
As if in keeping with his reputation and achievements, the sculpture of super-spy Richard Sorge in the park named after him, in the embassy district of Nasimi, gives you the impression that he’s observing you, even now, nearly 70 years after his death. A curved slab of concrete dotted with fake bullet holes depicts a narrow cross-section of Sorge’s facial features, as far up as the furrows on his forehead and as far down as just before tip of his nose. At the centre of the likeness are hollow, piercing eyes that glow faintly and eerily in the dark. No other detail is given – and perhaps none is needed.
Visit the home of a musical maestro
There’s something very personal about a visit to the Museum of Vagif Mustafa-Zadeh (Vagif Mustafa-Zadeh Street), the remarkably modest flat where the master of mugham-jazz once resided and practised. It’s not just the piano in the corner or the photographs of his mother, who worked in music and theatre, and of his daughter, the current jazz star Aziza. It’s the Soviet-era furniture that would have accommodated Mustafa-Zadeh’s guests, probably also notable musicians of the day, and the Rossiya record player he would have played his vinyl on. With a little Russian, you might glean from the kindly lady running the place that the woman on one of the album sleeves later became Mustafa-Zadeh’s second wife.
See some fiery architecture
It’s an architectural undertaking that would beggar belief in Las Vegas or Dubai. Stand on Baku’s downtown seafront or in the Old City, and you’ll see them rising in the distance, three tapering towers reaching up, combining to form the shape of a vast fire. Begun in 2008, at an initial cost of $350 million, the Flame Towers comprise a trio of buildings, each with a different function. The first, southern tower, 33 storeys high, will be residential and contain 130 apartments. The second, western edifice is the Office Tower, set over 28 floors grouped into four tiers, each with an atrium and sharing a sky garden. The third, northern tower is the site of the soon-to-open Flame Towers Fairmont Baku Hotel, (012 437 3162) a 30-floor luxury destination incorporating guest rooms, serviced suites, a spa and fitness centre.
Cruise the Caspian
Every hour in summer, a robust passenger boat leaves the quay just outside Baku’s main harbour terminal to take tourists around the Caspian Sea for half an hour. There’s no commentary, no bar or restaurant and nothing by way of any safety demonstration, but your chain-smoking captain will assuredly point the General Kerimov or the Salatin Asgarova towards Bayil. You won’t go out too far, but far enough to make out structures and appreciate the ever-changing cityscape of Baku as you take it in from east to west. Tickets cost AZN2 (AZN1 for kids from five to 12, and 30q for toddlers) and are available from the by the quay.
Eat a superior kebab
With an open-plan grill for cooking kebabs along one wall and bread ovens along another, Sultan’s (Khagani Street 10, 598 0555) produces mouthwatering dishes and also provides ample people-watching potential. Order a selection of wonderful meze dishes by pointing at the trolley, but be aware: they are accompanied by hot, puffy bread straight from the oven, which is delicious but invites serious over-indulgence. Follow this with a kebab from the main menu – liver kebab threaded with lamb-tail fat is particularly good and a well-known local delicacy. Drinks are reasonably priced and the meal is always finished with chay, which does not appear on the bill. The service is especially good.
Try the local brew
A short walk from the Old City's metro station, the Brewery (Istiglaliyyat Street 27, 012 437 2868) is, as its business card suggests, ‘the Home of Good Beer’. Three varieties of beer – light, dark and medium – are brewed on the premises, a first for Baku. An Austrian firm had the good sense to set up this operation, a dark basement warren of sleek copper vats and piping. Western touches include tours and samplings, and the humorous decorative fixture of separate urinals for each beer. The parent company flies in professionals from Vienna every six months or so to make sure all is running cleanly and smoothly. There’s a full, inevitably pricey menu, with extensive beer snacks, but people come here to sup not scoff.
Haggle for veg
The Yashil Bazaar, (or ‘Green’ Bazaar) on Khatai Prospekt, sells mostly fruit and vegetables, transported from the countryside in the back of whatever vehicle happens to be to hand. An old Lada full to the brim with apples, with only just enough space for the driver, jostles for space with an ancient lady perched on a motorbike of similar vintage, its panniers full of onions. These mounds of precariously balanced fresh produce are hazards for the unwary, as are the mud and dust underfoot, so stout footwear is essential.
Shoot some pool
Nearly every bar in Baku has a pool table. As well as providing easy entertainment, pool is taken seriously in key bars around the city. The Baku Pool League involves some two dozen teams who play in games of singles and doubles – some bars put out two teams. Breaking is decided on the toss of a coin, and players nominate where they should pot the black. Teams are typically comprised of enthusiastic young Azeris and cheery older Brits, with at least one woman in many teams. Try pirate-themed Tortuga (Tarlan Aliyarbeyov Street 9, 050 405 0778) for a game in a lively atmosphere.