Things to Do in Azerbaijan
In December of 2000, this popular destination became the first ever UNESCO World Heritage-listed site in Azerbaijan. Home to the Palace of the Maiden Tower and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, the famous Old City is an epicenter of history, culture and tradition that attracts travelers from across the globe.
Age is evident in the surrounding architecture—not just in design, but because many of the buildings are in disrepair—and the picturesque streets of Old City are ideal for exploring. Whether it’s the back alleyways, souvenir shops, museums or the palace interior, there’s plenty to see on these ancient walkways. Visitors can hire a guide or strike out on their own. All that’s required is a sense of adventure and some comfortable shoes!
Located in Baku, the Heydar Aliyev Center challenges traditional concepts of architecture with swooping shapes and a distinct lack of right angles. The structure—which takes it name from the man who governed Azerbaijan for almost 20 years—was designed by the prestigious architect Zaha Hadid and hosts cultural events such as exhibitions and concerts.
Azerbaijan is nicknamed the land of fire, thanks to its numerous natural gas vents and a long history of fire worship in the country. The Baku Ateshgah (Fire Temple) was built during the 17th and 18th centuries as a monastery and place of worship for Zoroastrian monks as well as Indian devotees of Shiva. The pentagonal castle like structure was constructed on top of a natural gas vent where fire rituals were practiced, like lying atop hot coals.
Modern visitors will still see a flame rising from the main alter and four smaller flames, but they’re no longer natural. Exploitation of the area’s natural gas reserves exhausted the subterranean natural gas field long ago, so the new flame has been tapped in to Baku’s main gas supply piped in from the city.
If you want to know why Azerbaijan is called the Land of Fire, take a trip to Yanar Dag. While many of the nation’s natural gas flames were extinguished due to extensive drilling into the natural gas reserves in the early twentieth century, the fire at Yanar Dag (also called Fire Mountain) still burns, making it one of the country’s most interesting attractions.
According to local legend, a shepherd smoking a cigarette accidentally ignited this natural gas vent in 1958, creating a 33 foot (10-meter) wall of fire licking its way up a small hillside. Enterprising Azerbaijanis have opened a teahouse nearby, where visitors can stare into the flames over a warm drink.
Baku Boulevard, a breezy promenade hugging the Baku seafront, was established in the early 20th century when local oil barons began building grand waterfront mansions along the shores of the Caspian Sea. Extending 3 miles (5 km) from National Flag Square beyond Freedom Square, modern-day Baku Boulevard offers a wide swatch of sidewalk lined with trees, shops and al fresco cafes.
Popular with both visitors and locals, it’s common to see walkers, joggers, cyclists and rollerbladers whizzing along the promenade. Bicycles and pedal cars are available for rent along the Baku Boulevard.
Other attractions along the boulevard include the 197 foot (60 meter) Baku Ferris Wheel and the Park Bulvar shopping mall, which houses a movie theater, planetarium and playground.
Gobustan National Park, officially designated Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, encompasses three rocky plateau areas in central Azerbaijan where more than 6,000 rock engravings were discovered, some dating back to 40,000 years old. Rich in archaeological monuments, this UNESCO-World Heritage Site is also home to remains of inhabited caves, burials and other human settlements from just after the last Ice Age through to the Middle Ages.
A small museum offers a brief introduction to the park’s human and ecological history, and a trail leads visitors to some of the most interesting petroglyph sites. The area is also famous for its natural mud volcanoes.
Boasting a prime location on a boulevard overlooking the Caspian Sea, the Baku Ferris Wheel (Baku Eye) offers panoramic views of the city and its coastal surroundings. The wheel was originally built for the Eurovision Song Contest, which Azerbaijan hosted in 2012, and has since become one of the city’s most visible attractions.
The popular Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, located in the heart of Azerbaijan, is hometo one of the most extensive rug and carpet collections in the world. Travelers can wander the well-currated halls lined with colorful tapestries that showcase various weaving techniques and materials collected throughout the nation’s history.
Since 2014 this incredible destination has been operating out of its newly renovated home, where some 10,000 items - including more than just carpets - are proudly displayed. But it’s the collection from the Shusha Museum of History, which includes some 600 carpets from a city that was crushed by Armenian troops in the early 1990s, which really steals the show. A well-stocked bookstore and occasional public lectures bring this unique attraction and its colorful history to life.
Relatively new to the skyline—they were only completed in 2012 the three glass skyscrapers that comprise the Flame Towers have already become iconic. The three towers sit atop a hill overlooking the old city center and Baku Bay and were inspired by the ancient practice of fire worship in Azerbaijan.
By day, the blue-tinted reflective towers are impressive, but they’re truly spectacular after dark, when their surfaces become a giant display for more than 10,000 LED lights that paint the towers with colors of fire, water or the national flag. The buildings’ interiors house mostly offices and residences, but also notably the Fairmont Baku Hotel.
During the 13th century Shirvanshah Farrukhzad II Ibn Ahsitan II built a beautiful mosque in the city now known as Baku. Alexandre Dumas paid a visit to the mosque in the 1840s and gave it the nickname “the mosque of Fatima.”
After it was completely destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1936, the mosque was rebuilt in 1994 on the same site and is today the spiritual center for Muslims in Azerbaijan. Ukeyma Khanum, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, is entombed within the mosque, adding to its religious significance.
Architects used photos and traveler descriptions to recreate the mosque’s classic Shirvan architecture, including its three domes and two minarets. Gilded inscriptions from the Quran border the interior of the domes, which are covered in green, teal and gold tiles.
More Things to Do in Azerbaijan
The Maiden Tower, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, is located inside the walled-city of Baku and known by locals as Giz Galasi. Built in the 12th century, this iconic structure, which rises up into the otherwise empty skyline, is one of the city’s most
Travelers who head to the Maiden Tower can visit the museum that’s housed inside and learn about the walled city’s history, culture and revolution. Ambitious adventurers can climb the stairs to the top of the tower where they’ll be met with incredible views of the Caspian Sea and the surrounding city.
Fountains Square, also commonly called Parapet in reference to its old name, sits in the heart of downtown Baku, where it attracts locals and visitors alike to its shops, restaurants and cafes. The tree-lined plaza gets its name from numerous fountains located throughout the square, many of them built during the Soviet rule of Azerbaijan.
Since it’s so close to the city center (and since most of Baku is walkable), chances are most visitors will end up in Fountains Square at one point or another. It’s a great place to kick back and feel the pulse of the city.
This famous palace, which dates back to the 1400s, is comprised of five distinct sections. Its complex is an ideal place for travelers who want to learn more about the area’s culture, architecture and traditions to visit.
Construction on the palace’s main building began in 1411. Visitors can enter through its portal and make their way to the Divankhana—a stone pavilion inside the courtyard. The towering mausoleum serves as a burial space and was designed by the architect Memar Ali. Travelers can also make their way to the Palace Mosque, which is part of the palace that was later built in the 1430s, as well as the bath house, which is complete with 26 unique rooms.
In the early days of 1990 during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Baku was the site of a violent crackdown on the Azerbaijani independence movement, leaving hundreds of civilians dead. Built atop a former cemetery destroyed after the Bolsheviks came into power, Martyrs’ Lane is a memorial to some 15,000 Azerbaijani heroes, including those who lost their lives during the Black January massacre.
Rising from the center of the memorial is the Eternal Flame; it’s common to see fresh wreaths here left by Azerbaijani citizens who’ve come to honor the dead. The main “lane” of the memorial has marble walls to either side bearing the names of the martyrs buried there. Also of interest is the British memorial stone honoring British servicemen who died there toward the end of World War I.
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