Baku

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Baku
Population: 2.1 million (2012)
Main industries: oil, gas, construction, banking, rug making
Mayor: Mr. Hajibala Abutalybov
Interesting fact: Due to the often-relentless winds that whip through Baku throughout the year, it  is, unsurprisingly, known as the "City of Winds"
Sister cities: Amman, Jordan; Basra, Iraq; Bordeaux, France; Dakar, Senegal; Honolulu, USA; Houston, USA; Istanbul, Turkey; Izmir, Turkey; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Kiev, Ukraine; Konya, Turkey; Mainz, Germany; Naples, Italy; Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina; Tabriz, Iran; Vung Tau, Vietnam
Helpful contacts: Ms. Sevda Jafarova (PR Manager; sjafarova@azpromo.az) or Mr. Natig Madatov (Director, Investment Promotion Department; nmadatov@azpromo.az) at Azerbaijan Export and Investment Promotion Foundation (azpromo.az), a public-private partnership established by the Ministry of Economic Development.

BAKU — Do not waste your time trying to imagine what Baku is like. It is a city that has to be experienced to be understood. The celebrated Soviet poet Robert Rozhdestvensky once wrote, “If you haven’t seen Baku, then what have you seen?”

If you’re expecting a Dubai-like phenomenon of towering skyscrapers, then the capital’s several neo-baroque mansions are likely to catch you off-guard. Similarly, if you think Baku after 70 years of Soviet rule is dominated by rows of stalinkas and khrushchevkas, then prepare to be impressed by the medieval Old City. Baku’s rich architecture includes elements of all these styles, yet it doesn’t conform to any one in particular. There is, after all, a reason why the Azeri capital easily worked as a substitute for Buenos Aires in the Soviet classic film Amphibian Man as it did for a quintessential Middle Eastern city in The Diamond Arm.

This curious blend of tradition and innovation, of utility and elegance, makes Baku unique. But more than physical structures, the native bakinsty, as locals are called, stand as the greatest testament to the city’s variety: Across the wide pavements, yards and parks, one can discern older gentlemen playing backgammon and sipping tea from traditional armudu teacups, while young men and women add a splash of color to the streets wearing the latest fashion trends and fads. In the warmer months, this rising class of young professionals, strolling along the Boulevard and inhabiting its many benches, is also almost single-handedly responsible for transforming the promenade into the city’s premium dating venue.

The secret to the city’s diversity is found in its geography and history. Located on the Caspian Sea, Baku has always attracted merchants, artists, travelers and opportunists. Alexandre Dumas marveled at the everlasting fire in Atashgah, Marco Polo discussed qualities of Azeri oil, and the poet Sergei Yesenin dedicated his bittersweet Farewell, Baku to the city.

Major Companies

The State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic, or SOCAR (73 Neftchiler Avenue; +994 512-521-0282; socar.az) is the state-owned oil & gas company, which is involved in extraction, refining and transportation of oil and gas. It is one of the world's largest oil companies.
Akkord (20 H. Javid Avenue; +99 412-404-7777; akkord.az), established in 2005, is one of the biggest construction and civil engineering companies in the country. It is also the only one to have adopted the standards of the International Project Management Association.
Caspian Fish Company (21st kilometer of the Baku-Shamakhi highway; +99-412-447-2180; caspianfish.com) is responsible for fish and caviar production in Azerbaijan and several other CIS countries, and is one of the region's leading companies in the fishing industry.

Geography alone does not explain Baku. A Long history of occupation has left a legacy of its own. Over hundreds of years, Azerbaijan has been invaded by swarms of foreign armies, including Persians, Russians and Soviets. Except for its brief spell of independence in 1918, the country truly gained its freedom in 1991 as the Soviet empire crumbled.

No mention of the city or, for that matter, the country, can escape the ever-looming subject of Azeri “black gold.” As one of the birthplaces of the petroleum industry, Baku and its fortunes have been intricately intertwined with those of oil. At the turn of the 20th century, major European players, including the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers and the Nobels had set up shop in the Azeri capital, which at the time was producing half of the world’s oil.

With the Soviet annexation of Azerbaijan, the oil was redirected to fulfill the needs of the U.S.S.R. During the Second World War, Adolf Hitler, recognizing the city’s significance to the Soviet war effort and its potential advantages for the Third Reich, specifically targeted Baku and its natural resources. A video clip on the Internet shows the Nazi leadership being presented with a cake depicting the Caspian Sea and Baku.

There is no question that the newly independent Azerbaijan, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2011, benefited tremendously from its vast oil reserves. The intense and rapid development the country has witnessed over the past two decades — Azerbaijan is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, with GDP growth hitting 34.5 percent in 2006 — has been overwhelmingly bankrolled by natural resource revenues. The government, however, aware of the trap of an oil-dependent economy, is determined to diversify and promote other industries, such as tourism, defense manufacturing and metallurgy.

For MT
Mr. Samir Nuriyev,
administrator of the
Old City of Baku
Q: What are your responsibilities as the administrator of the Old City?
A: The main task of the Administration is the management of the historical reserve we call Icheri Sheher, or Old City. This involves responsibilities that range from functions of any local authority, such as regulation of communal services, to preservation and promotion of the reserve's cultural legacy. Along with these, we work toward establishing Icheri Sheher as a global tourist destination.

Q: What are some of the recent changes introduced to the Old City?
A: Our projects, many of which are ongoing, have included the replacement of outdated utilities and the introduction of a new transport management network. New gardens, cafes and restaurants operate on the streets of the Old City; and there are now more souvenir shops than ever.
We have also succeeded in creating a world-class tourist infrastructure. For instance, information points, offering comprehensive audio-guides in five languages, are currently available throughout the Old City. In addition, various cultural events, such as the international arts festival "Qiz Qalasi," are now regularly held.

Q: Have these affected the growth of tourism?
A: Undoubtedly. The measures outlined above have had a direct impact on the increase of both local and foreign tourists. We are also working on a number of projects, including the launch of exciting new exhibitions at the Maiden Tower and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, which should further contribute to tourism.

Q: How would describe the Old City in three words?
A: Eternity, life, inspiration.

— Aylan Aliyeva

In this bid to build a sustainable economy, tourism holds a special place. Extensive construction projects, high-end hotels, ski and beach resorts stand testament to this. Supported by these efforts, and given Baku’s balmy weather, rich culture and growing economy, the Caucasus’ largest city is poised to once again become a popular destination for tourists and investors alike.

What to see in two hours

No journey to the city is complete without a visit to Icheri Sheher, the local term for the Old City, or a stroll along the Baku Boulevard. The Old City, a Unesco-listed world heritage site, dates back to at least the 12th century AD, and accommodates some of city’s main landmarks. Begin at the Palace of the Shirvanshahs (open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m; icherisheher.gov.az), a key monument of the Shirvan-Absheron dynasty, which reigned from the mid-9th to the early 16th century, and be sure to explore its gardens, bathhouse and the Mosque. Once your tour is over, walk over to the Maiden Tower and climb up to its roof for spectacular views of the Old City and the Boulevard. A self-guided tour is recommended — the Icheri Sheher administration has put a considerable amount of effort into modernizing its tourist infrastructure by providing guidebooks and wireless headphones at information points — there’s one by the Qosha Qala main gate — and by labeling key sites. After visiting the two sites; spend some time wandering around the winding streets and cobblestone pavements of the endlessly charming Old City.

End your tour by the Maiden Tower and then cross the street for a walk along the Baku Boulevard. Recently renovated, the now more-spacious promenade is ideal for a breezy stroll along the Caspian. If you’re tired of walking, rent a bike at one of several stations scattered along the promenade ($2.50 for the first two hours, $1.20 after that) or a go on a boat ride at the Yacht Club 108 Neftchilar Avenue; a 40-minute round-trip costs $5.10).

Cafes and restaurants are spread along the length of the Boulevard and designer boutiques run parallel to it. The newly built Park Bulvar shopping mall (1 Neftchilar Avenue; open Monday through Saturday, 12 p.m to 1 a.m.; Sundays 12 p.m. to midnight; parkbulvar.az) is also a short walk away, as are the five-star hotels Four Seasons, Hilton and JW Marriott.

What to do if you have two days

Boasting nine out of 11 existing climate zones, weather is one of Azerbaijan’s greatest advantages. While winters are relatively mild in the city, there is plenty of snow in the mountains. The new Shahdag Mountain Resort (2b, J. Hajibeyli Street; +99412-465-0945; approximately 200 km from Baku, shahdag.az) makes a great escape, especially in the winter months. The only ski resort in the country, it is equipped with 19 slopes and offers a range of other activities, including snowboarding, snow jet skiing and ice-skating. For those who prefer to stay warm indoors, there is an on-site spa.

Summers can be incredibly hot, so take advantage of the many beaches and seaside retreats in and near Baku that provide a chance to cool off. Choose Jumeirah Bilgah Beach Hotel (94 Gelebe Street, Bilgah; +99412-565-4000; jumeirah.com), where rooms start at $250 per night June through August, for the most luxurious experience.

There are also places that are great to visit year round. Sheki is one of the country’s most beautiful cities. With its historic Castle, Palace and Caravanserais it is ideal for cultural excursions (azerbaijan.travel/en). The Laza village in Qusar is noteworthy for its breathtaking views, mountains and waterfalls. Both places, however, are approximately a five-hour drive away from the capital, and for those pressed for time, the country’s ancient capital Shamakhi — less than two hours away from the center — might be a better option for a quick getaway. One site in particular that deserves a special mention in Shamakhi is the Astrophysical Observatory (Shamakhi — Pirquli Road; +99412-439-8248; shao.az). Although there are bus routes to all of these destinations, these are often time-consuming and crowded, and hiring a car and driver or renting are the most efficient forms of travel. Avis (528 Huseyn Javid Avenue, +99412-497-5455; open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; avis.az) and Baku Rent Service (+99450-399-2266, brs.az) are two options, with daily rentals starting at $50 and a chauffeured vehicle costing from $60 per day. The self-described “reference service” 118 (118.az/en; dial from any local operator) provides callers with valuable information about cars, taxis and bus routes, among other things, in English.

For MT
Ms. Aneta Kacėnaitė,
attaché for Commercial Affairs in the Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania to the Republic of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan
Q: What attracts foreign investors to Baku?
A: Azerbaijan is a country of wide investment opportunities: abundant resources, well-developed infrastructure, a favorable location and a good climate. From my point of view, the most important attraction is a welcoming culture. Traditional Azerbaijani hospitality together with the reasons I've mentioned play an important role in bringing in foreign business.

Q: What should foreign investors be aware of before they start working here?
A: Wherever you invest — in agriculture, tourism, construction, alternative energy or ICT sectors — you need to know that you will work in the country on the crossroad of Eurasia — in a country with warm, honest, open, hardworking people.

Q: What do you like about Baku as a resident?
A: After my first visit to Baku in 2007, I went home with a big impression of this town. People, history, culture, weather, food … After six years I can say the impression hasn't changed. I call this town spicy!

— Aylan Aliyeva

There’s plenty to do in the city’s immediate vicinity. Qobustan, located about 50 kilometers from the capital, is ideal for family trips. An ancient settlement, its petroglyphs carry historic value, while the mud volcanoes add a fun factor for the kids. The Qobustan Petroglyph Reserve (tickets cost $2.5; tour $7.60; open daily 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) is also worth a visit. Once again, renting a car is the easiest option, but you could also take a cab at a cost of around $50-60 for a day trip (might have to negotiate the price if you are taking a private cab), or the 195 Alat-bound bus (tickets cost $1) on the Bibi-Heybat Road (stop number 20).

If you choose to stay in Baku, then get to know the city better by visiting some of its museums. If you’re curious to learn more about world-renown Azeri carpets, stop by the State Carpet Museum (123a Neftchilar Avenue; +99412-493-0501; Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; tickets $6.35; azcarpetmuseum.az). To see what Azeri art has to offer, decide whether you’re more interested in modern or traditional and then head over to either The Museum of Modern Art (5 Yusuph Safarov Street; +99412-490-8404; Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m; tickets $6.35; mim.az/en) or The National Art Museum (9/11 Niyazi Street; +99412-492-5019; Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m; tickets cost $6.35). In the evening, take a walk on the Fountains Square before stopping at one of its many cafes and bars for a nightcap.

Where to eat

For Azeris, eating is more than just a biological necessity. They love to eat well and share the experience with friends and family. Meals, and especially dinners, often last several hours. Given the city’s booming restaurant business, you’ll be spoiled by the choices.

One of the restaurants that stands out for quality is Sahil (Neftchilar Avenue, next to the Park Bulvar shopping mall; open daily from 10 a.m. to midnight; +99412-437-0123; main dishes start at $12; sahil-dining.az) on the Boulevard. Do not leave without indulging in their desserts — ask for their signature selection and seek out the crescent-shaped shekerbure and the honey-nut pakhlava. Another place that combines comfort and good food is Art Garden (22 Asef Zeynalli Street, Icheri Sheher; open daily 11 a.m. to midnight; +99412-492-1331; artgroup.az; main dishes from $10). For those who value their personal space, the latter also offers private rooms.

For traditional Azeri breakfasts try the cozy Sehrli Tendir (19 Kichik Qala Street) in the Old City. Its freshly baked bread is good enough to make its fiercely loyal customers fight their way through morning traffic. At an average bill for two people of $15 to $25, it should be a priority on any visitor’s list.

No Baku experience is complete without a meal at one of the capital’s many Japanese restaurants. For mouthwatering choices try the up-market Chio Chio San (98 Shamsy Badalbeyli Street; open daily noon to midnight; +99412-498-0272; chio-chio-san.az) and Zakura (9 A. Alizade Street; open daily 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; +99412-498-1818; zakura.az/en) restaurants. The two venues are also similar in terms pricing, and a meal for two with gratuity costs $120-170.

Nightlife / Entertainment

For dazzling views of city, stop by the trendy Eleven Restaurant & Lounge (Neftchilar Avenue, Park Inn Hotel, 11th floor; Monday through Friday, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m, Saturday and Sunday until 3 a.m.; +99451-510-0011; drinks from $10; eleven.az) that holds regular events and parties. The tremendously popular Chinar (1 Shovket Alakbarova Street; +99412-492-0888; open daily from 10 a.m. until the last customer leaves; drinks from $12: chinar-dining.com) restaurant turns into a fashionable nightlife venue after dark, and Opera SKY (15 Nobel Avenue, Azure Business Centre, Floor 29; Sunday to Thursday 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday until 3 a.m., +99412-480-8888; drinks from $8; facebook.com/operaskybaku) is a new lounge bar that hosts some of the city’s best DJs.

Lovers of Jazz should be pleased to find out that the music is one of the city’s most enduring passions, having first gained its popularity in the 1950s as underground records the then-censored genre became more widespread throughout the U.S.S.R. The Baku International Jazz Festival is an annual event that attracts talented musicians from around the world, including jazz legends Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock and Al Jarreau. This year’s festival is planned for October, and tickets are expected to cost from $12 to $65. Otherwise, for a relaxing evening and good music, check out Baku Jazz Centre (19 Rashid Behbudov Street; +99412-493-9941; tickets from $10; jazzcenter.jazz/az) for regular concerts and gigs.

Dedicate a night to traditional Azeri music, mugham. To truly appreciate it, make dinner reservations at Mugham Club (9 Rzayeva Street; open daily 11 a.m. to midnight; +99412-492-4085), which is unparalleled in terms of both ambiance and authenticity. A meal for two with gratuity costs around $150-200.

The magnificent Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall (2 Istaqliyat Street, +99412-497-29 04/5; filarmoniya.az), the country’s main concert hall, is the obvious choice for classical music. Concert season is from September till July, and tickets typically range between $5 and $20.

Where to stay

Supported by government’s efforts to develop tourism, recent years have seen an unprecedented growth of the hospitality sector. Baku now offers more choice than ever, and options range from world-class chains to boutique venues to purse-friendly alternatives.

Most hotels are concentrated in the center, but there is variety in terms of what they offer. The luxurious Hilton (1B Azadliq Avenue; +99412-464-5000; rooms start at $250; hilton.com/baku) and JW Marriott Hotel Absheron (674 Azadliq Square; + 99412-499-8888; rooms start at $250; marriott.com) are high-rise towers, whereas Four Seasons (77/79 Neftchilar Avenue; +99412-404-2424; an overnight stay begins at $350; fourseasons.com/baku) pays homage to grand European architecture.

Located further from the city’s bustling centre are Park Hyatt Baku (1033 Izmir Street; +99412-490-1234; rooms from $200; baku.park.hyatt.com), Hyatt Regency Baku (1 Bakikhanov; +99412-496-1234; rooms start at $180; baku.regency.hyatt.com) and Kempinski Hotel Badamdar (1C Mushfig Street; +99412-538-9090; rooms prices begin at $200; kempinski.com/en/baku), which are perhaps better options for business trips.

If you’d prefer to stay in a homegrown venue, your two best options would be the opulent Excelsior Hotel (2 Heydar Aliyev Avenue; +99412-496-8000; rooms from $150; excelsiorhotelbaku.az) or the romantic Sultan Inn (20 Boyuk Gala, Icheri Sheher; +99412-437-2305; rooms from $150; sultaninn.com) in the Old City, which is perfect for getaways.

For more affordable choices, try Hotel Hale Kai (18 Mirza Ibrahimov Street; +99412-596-5056; rooms from $100; hotelhalekai.com) or Old City Inn (16 Kichik Qala Street, +99412-497-4369; rooms from $80; oldcityinn.com)

Conversation Starters

Azeris are remarkably hospitable. If anything, it would probably take more effort not to strike up a conversation with your taxi driver, waiter and guide. And don’t be surprised to find yourself invited home for dinner. For an animated discussion, refer to recent Azeri history, US foreign policy, soccer and the nation’s own brand of liberal Islam.

How to get there

Citizens of former Soviet republics do not have to obtain visas to enter the country. The process for Western visitors, on the other hand, may take up two weeks so its good to plan ahead. Refer to this website of the national visa center in London for the list in English of documents required: visaforazerbaijan.org.uk/requirements. An online application form can filled out here: evisa.mfa.gov.az/Azal. Aeroflot, S7 and UTair offer daily flights from Moscow’s main airports to Baku’s Heydar Aliyeva International Airport. The flight is approximately two and a half hours long and a round-trip in economy class costs on average $516. Try to organize your transfer beforehand either through your hotel or the airport’s own services (airport.az). A number of new, legitimate taxi service companies now ensure that you don’t have to haggle with individual drivers. London-style taxicabs operate throughout the city and are available at the airport ($0.90 for the first 10 kilometers; Dial *9000 from any local operator); Royal Taxi drivers (+ 99451-880-2009; +99412-418-2049) usually charge $20 to $30 for a transfer to the center, without gratuity.

Contact the author at bizwriter@imedia.ru