For whatever reason, the Caspian Sea always conjured up images of a dark, cold, unforgiving sea full of rusty oil tankers and biting winds. Perhaps it was the product of a Cold War-era primary education, but I had always imaged the Caspian and its surrounding cities to be dark industrial wastelands covered by oil refineries and ripe with the dank smell of rotting fish. Baku, I was happy to discover, is anything but, especially on a sunny March day.
One part of my preconception did hold true, and that would be the winds. Baku, it turns out, is famous for its howling winds that come rolling off the Caspian and sweeping through the streets of the city. All the residents talk about it with a sense of odd pride, but the winds are the only thing that seem to ruin the otherwise warm atmosphere of the city. The area around Baku has been inhabited for millennia, and evidence of its ancient history (like the nearby petroglyphs) is all around, but within the city itself, it is the towering walls of Medieval Baku that constitute the city’s best attraction.
In recent years, with wealth generated from Azerbaijan’s oil boom, the city has invested a lot of money in refurbishing the old city. They have repaired the walls and houses and installed electricity, water, and all the modern conveniences. All of this has created a sort of sterile museum-like atmosphere that makes the old city of Baku not nearly as culturally interesting as the ones you will find in the Middle East, but its sandstone walls and cobbled streets that slope towards the Caspian still give it a quaint feel and act as a shelter from the oil boom towers of the modern city.
Like all good old cities, the best way to approach old Baku is to just walk. There is a metro stop just outside the walls, and a large gate will take you into the northern part of the old city. From here you can just walk and enjoy the lovely streets and occasional views of the blue-green Caspian.
In terms of sights, the old city has a few major ones. The first and foremost is the Kiz Külesi, or Maiden’s Tower, a Medieval tower with a strange “ying” shape. A set of stairs will take you to the top, where you will find the best views of Baku and the Caspian. Beware of the wind.
Next to the tower there are the remains of an old bathhouse that now contains a number of souvenir stands mainly specializing in carpets.
Farther back into the city you will find an old Persian Palace dating to around the 17th century. A lot of restoration has gone into the palace, and some of it is still continuing, but the amazing stonework on the doorways and the great views of the Caspian make the palace well worth a visit. Guides are available in English, but many rooms are labeled, so you won’t really need them.
That about does it for historical sights in the Old City, but that is not all it has to offer. The Old City is still the hub of Baku nightlife, and you will find most of it found around Fountains Square, a landmark you should learn quickly ,as almost anytime you meet someone in Baku, they will say, “Meet me at Fountains Square.” Thanks to Soviet ideas of modernization: much of the old city was forcibly modernized during the Soviet era, and Fountains Square is the best example. A large park and fountain complex, Fountains Square is the real heart of Baku. Here you will find the best shopping in the city, as well as some of the best restaurants, although the first thing you will notice is the large McDonald’s in the center. It is home to a wonderful Indian restaurant, Maharajah, as well as some jazz and dance clubs and the inevitable expat pub. All around the square you will find shops selling illegal DVDs and CDs as well as numerous street vendors selling trinkets for tourists. Another thing you will surely notice, especially on a warm Sunday afternoon, is the parade of chic young Azeri girls strutting by in their short skirts, heels, and tank tops.