The transformation of oil-rich Baku: Azerbaijan's gateway to the Caucasus

Baku's Flame Towers are visible from many parts of the city. 

Anthony Bourdain traveled the world for his television show “Parts Unknown,” so it’s a shame he never made it to Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan, boarded by Iran, Russia and Armenia in the South Caucuses.

From land-locked Uzbekistan, we flew across the Caspian Sea to experience one of the ex-Soviet Union’s most prosperous cities situated along the old Silk Road trade route linking China to Europe. Baku’s old city, hidden behind iron gates and medieval walls, evokes a colorful past. Representing a modern society of creative young designers are one-of-a-kind new office towers, museums, fountains and parks. 

Fountains Square

The government banned Bourdain from coming here because he spent time and filmed a TV show in the break-away state of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory Azerbaijan claims as its own, but has been controlled by Armenia since 1988 (a situation similar to the Russian take-over of Crimea in the Ukraine). After the Soviet Union collapsed, war broke out. Thousands of Azeris and Armenians were killed and displaced. 

Despite a cease-fire, the countries are still technically at war, and the Azerbaijan government prohibits anyone who visits Nagono-Karabakh from entering the country. It’s the first question the government asks on its visa application. Lie and they find out, you’ll be denied entry, even if your visa was approved.

Although we have never been to Nagorno-Karabakh, we were in Armenia during a previous trip to the region. We would have liked to visit Baku then, but couldn’t because the land borders between the two countries are sealed. Getting here this time was easier because we flew from Central Asia. 

The Old City

After prospering as a Silk Road stopover for traders carrying carpets and silk to the west, Baku’s fortunes rose again during an oil boom in the late 1800s. Wealthy merchants from Europe, Russia and the Middle East created a multi-cultural society where Muslims, Christians and Jews mixed an even inter-married. The country enjoyed just two precious years of independence between 1918 and 1920 after the fall of the Russian empire and before the rise of the Soviet Union. During that time, Azerbaijan established a parliament, and became the first majority-Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights with men. 

Preserved behind fortress walls is the old city, while just outside the walls are European-styled buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries and futuristic skyscrapers from the 21st. Arriving in the rain, we took refuge in a cafe while we figured out how to navigate the cobbled streets of the old town with rolling suitcases. Had streets not been blocked off in preparation for the Formula 1 Grand Prix later in the week (No, we didn’t know about it when we booked), it might have been easier to find the Seven Rooms Boutique Hotel in a century-old building a few minutes walk from the the Caspian Sea. Grand Prix planners constructed temporary concrete barriers and fencing to prevent racers from crashing into onlookers lining the route. The barriers blocked entrances to many businesses including a string of designer shops on the waterfront and the Four Seasons Hotel. 

Dinner at Dolma

Baku is surprisingly affordable for being an oil-rich city that attracts international business. Public transport was a bargain. Our hotel with all the mod-cons and a heated bathroom floor in a rennovated historlcial building was $100 a night. A half-hour ride on the new airport Express Bus to town was $1.60. A subway ride cost 15 cents. Dinner for two - olives, bread fresh from the clay oven, soup, salad, a platter of grilled vegetables, roasted chicken and wine -averaged around $17. Many restaurants and cafes are underground, entered down a flight of steps from the street. Our favorite was Dolma on Fountains Square, a lively pedestrian area just outside the walls. Diners relax underground in cozy nooks, eating from platters of grilled vegetables, chicken or lamb warmed over hot coals.

Icherisheher subway station 

Some call Baku the Dubai of the Caucasus, but I think it’s a far more interesting city, given its history and combination of Soviet-style, European and modern architecture. We took an excellent two-hour free walking tour with a volunteer from Baku Explorer. The majority of  people are Muslim, but most practice a version our guide called “Islam Lite.” Almost no one wears a head scarf, and cafes and restaurants serve alcohol. 

Above is the Icherisheher station in the old city. Underground, the station preserves the original Soviet architectural style, similar to what we saw in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, although customers use reloadable plastic cards instead of plastic tokens to pay for fares. Above ground, the design in more in sync with modern times.

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center

The carpet museum 

Museums showcase Azerbaijan’s history as a center for literature, art and textiles. There’s a national museum of literature, named for it’s most famous poet, Nizami Ganjavi; a Museum of Miniature Books filled with 3,000 titles displayed in glass cases; and my favorites, the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, shaped like a rolled-up carpet; and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, an art museum and exhibition center, known for its flowing, white curves, and excellent permanent exhibit on the history of art, music and crafts in Azerbaijan.

The "cocoon" area inside Baku's airport

Sleeping pods for quiet time 

Forward-thinking design also influenced amenities at Baku’s Heydar Aleyev airport. The airport commissioned an Istanbul-based studio to design wood-clad “cocoons” throughout the upper level of the international terminal. The 16 little huts house cafes, a champagne and caviar bar, a kid’s play area, spa and a bookstore. There also are several sleeping pods with pull-down lids for privacy. The designers compared the airport to “a huge playground” for a human-centered approach to hospitality design. Wouldn’t it be nice if U.S. airport designers thought the same way? 

Tea by the Caspian Sea

Anthony Bourdain got around, but it's a shame he never had the chance to visit a museum in a rolled up carpet, enjoy coffee in a cocoon, or sip tea by the Caspian Sea. 


  1. Such amazing architectural style in this city! I agree that it would be nice if US airports were designed with the same mentality and approach to design. The sleeping pods are an excellent feature. Thank you for sharing so much history and detail in your blogs, and the photos just help complete the story. Plus, it's cool to see pics of the locals in each country and how even just simple things like the dress of each area is so unique and different from other countries.

  2. Very cool! I almost went there a few years ago with a friend who loved it and the country. Thanks for sharing your experience.