On the shores of the Caspian Sea, the outdated Soviet Union meets Dubai. Proper now Arsenal and Chelsea followers are racing to seek out flights to the Bolshevik-to-bling capital of Azerbaijan. The London soccer groups will meet within the Europa League remaining within the metropolis’s Olympic Stadium on Wednesday 29 Might.

Its location is excessive: Baku is the easternmost metropolis within the Caucasus, and the lowest-lying capital on the earth – practically 100 toes under ocean stage (the Caspian Sea, just like the Lifeless Sea, is under sea stage as measured in the remainder of the world). And it’s a deeply intriguing location, with a captivating Previous Metropolis and dramatic new structure.

Baku additionally has a spread of bizarre pure and man-made sights on the outskirts.

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What to do

Discover the Previous Metropolis

On the coronary heart of Baku, stout partitions rise to guard the Previous Metropolis. As you stroll by the Double Gate from the extra trendy metropolis centre, you instantly sense that that is manner past Europe – certainly, Baku is additional east than Baghdad. The caravanserais and retailers’ mansions have been repurposed as eating places, inns and galleries.

leftCreated with Sketch.
rightCreated with Sketch.

1/12 Baku skyline

Simon Calder

2/12 London Taxis at Baku Airport

Simon Calder

3/12 Lion Mural, Previous Metropolis

Simon Calder

4/12 Contained in the Previous Metropolis

Simon Calder

5/12 Bronze Sculpture, Fountains Sq.

Simon Calder

6/12 Palace of the Shirvanshahs

Simon Calder

7/12 Maiden Tower, Previous Metropolis

Simon Calder

8/12 Flame Towers

Simon Calder

9/12 Wall Ornament, Hearth Temple

Simon Calder

10/12 The outdated Dom Soviet

Simon Calder

11/12 Mosque within the Palace

Simon Calder

12/12 Bibi Heybet Mosque

Simon Calder

1/12 Baku skyline

Simon Calder

2/12 London Taxis at Baku Airport

Simon Calder

3/12 Lion Mural, Previous Metropolis

Simon Calder

4/12 Contained in the Previous Metropolis

Simon Calder

5/12 Bronze Sculpture, Fountains Sq.

Simon Calder

6/12 Palace of the Shirvanshahs

Simon Calder

7/12 Maiden Tower, Previous Metropolis

Simon Calder

8/12 Flame Towers

Simon Calder

9/12 Wall Ornament, Hearth Temple

Simon Calder

10/12 The outdated Dom Soviet

Simon Calder

11/12 Mosque within the Palace

Simon Calder

12/12 Bibi Heybet Mosque

Simon Calder

However the sense of medieval may is preserved within the form of the Maiden Tower, a 12th-century 100-foot stone guardian for town. The excellent cultural treasure is the Palace of the Shirvanshahs – a sandstone advanced of prayer and indulgence. 

Take a hike

Authorities Home aka Dom Soviet (Simon Calder)

Leaving the Previous Metropolis from the Double Gate, head downhill to Fountains Sq. – really an prolonged polygon that serves as Baku’s busy industrial and social hub. A sequence of fountains is augmented by public sculpture, particularly the life-size bronze of a younger girl chatting on a cell phone – one small indication of how liberal is that this nominally Islamic nation. (One other is the open-air consumption of alcohol throughout Ramadan.) 

Exit from the northeast nook, go one block east and lower diagonally throughout Molokan Backyard – one in all dozens of parks – to Uzeyir Hajibayov Road. Name in on the shiny new vacationer workplace, 4 blocks alongside, in order for you concepts on exploring Azerbaijan extra broadly, or simply proceed one other block to the monumental Authorities Home – higher identified again in the us because the Dom Soviet.

1966 and all that

The “Russian linesman” who awarded England their controversial third aim within the 1966 World Cup remaining in opposition to West Germany was, actually, Azerbaijani. Tofiq Bahramov has had the Lenin Stadium renamed after him. It’s near the sweeping curves of the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Heart – named, just like the airport, after the previous president. (His son is now in management.) However the Europa League remaining is happening additional northeast on the huge Olympic Stadium.

Wall decorations on the Hearth Temple (Simon Calder)

Hearth stations

Take bus 184, passing dozens of nodding wells within the Suraxani oil fields, to the tip of the route. You arrive virtually on the Hearth Temple, with an everlasting flame within the fireside on the centre. The courtyard was created by wealthy Indian retailers on the location of a Zoroastrian place of worship. Whether it is lunchtime, ignore the vacationer eating places within the advanced in favour of the Nafis Dad, simply alongside the street overlooking a shady sq..

About 15 minutes away by taxi (pay not more than 10 manats/£5) is a 20th-century curiosity, Yanar Dag – the place pure fuel burns continuously. Amusingly, it was ignited in 1950 when a careless shepherd dropped a cigarette that was nonetheless alight. So widespread is it that, for 2019, it has been changed into a totally fledged vacationer attraction full with viewing space.

Guided Azerbaijan gives a spread of bespoke excursions with English-speaking guides that may cowl all these sights in addition to the “mud volcanoes” and petroglyphs south of town. I paid $140 for a day’s tour. 

The place to remain

Due to Azerbaijan’s oil wealth, there are many shiny new upscale inns. However the supreme location is inside the partitions of the OId Metropolis – apart from characterful lodgings, additionally, you will discover some tranquillity from the always-buzzing visitors exterior.

The choose is the Shah Palace, a boutique lodge organized round a peaceable courtyard. Charges hardly ever exceed 200 manats (£93) for a double with out breakfast; pay with money to keep away from a swingeing credit-card surcharge.

Baku will host the Europa League remaining (Getty)

The Museum Inn is smaller and fewer indulgent, but additionally wonderful worth at 150 manats (£70) or much less for a double room.

Exterior the Previous Metropolis, the Baku Palace Resort, north of Fountains Sq. on Islam Safarli Road, is nice worth. Name +994 12 497 62 71 for the most effective deal – usually 120 manats (£56) double.

Price range lodging is rarer, however – as with the World Cup in Russia in 2018 – many Baku residents are prone to hire out rooms at fairly modest charges to soccer followers.

The place to eat

Begin the day on the Vacation Inn – actually. The breakfast buffet for 21 manats (£10) on the 18th-floor restaurant is as spectacular because the views over the Caspian Sea and town. You attain it on a glass-sided raise. And you may feast on well-prepared Center Japanese and western dishes.

For lunch, make it the Qaynana Restaurant, simply to the best of the Double Gate into the Previous Metropolis. Order a qutab or two – the pancake turnovers stuffed with meat or greens, and a contemporary and spicy salad.

For dinner on a summer season’s night, the place to be is the Dalida Restaurant, the open-air terrace on the third flooring of the advanced on the northeast nook of Fountains Sq. (it’s above McDonald’s). Dine on pilaff – lamb and rice dressed with spices, greens and fruits, all yours for 14 manats (£6).

The place to drink

The Dalida can also be an excellent name for a sundowner, with Xirdalan beer (4.50 manats/£2) the drink of selection.

The Previous College Cafe on Topcubasov Road is filled with the Azeri approximation to hipsters, with interesting snacks and good espresso in addition to a full vary of unique booze.

Watch out for bars geared toward westerners. The Overseas Workplace warns: “Muggings do happen every now and then after darkish within the centre of city across the western bars and golf equipment.”

The place to buy

To be amazed by the wealth of some on this oil metropolis, head for Port Baku – a glittering new assortment of designer boutiques with all of the acquainted upmarket manufacturers. Subsequent door the Emporium Mall does a lot the identical, but additionally contains Bentley and Ferrari showrooms

Palace of the Shirvanshahs (Simon Calder)

Architectural highlights

Even on the drive in from the airport, look out on the best for what seems to be like a stack of Rubik’s Cubes, which is the almost-completed tax workplace, and shortly afterwards a glass and metal constructing within the form of a teardrop – the water utility HQ.

However essentially the most dramatic buildings are the Flame Towers, a trio of luminescent turquoise towers that sparkle in daylight and are reworked after darkish by a dazzle of lighting. Beneath them, the ending touches are being made to the Caspian Waterfront constructing, resembling a blossoming flower, was supposedly impressed by the Sydney Opera Home.

The flame towers are a particular function (Getty Photos/iStockphoto)

Nuts and bolts 

Will I want a visa?

Sure, however luckily it’s far simpler and cheaper to acquire now than it has been for a century. Apply on the Asan Visa web site, and pay $21 for regular processing (formally three working days, however in follow 24 hours) or $50 for the three-hour specific visa. The Overseas Workplace says: “When you’re making use of for an e-visa to come back to Azerbaijan for the Europa League remaining on 29 Might 2019, please notice within the “Goal of go to” of your e-visa utility it is best to choose ‘Europa League Closing’.” Nevertheless it most likely doesn’t matter if you happen to simply put “tourism”.

What forex do I want? 

The manat, confusingly generally represented as AZN in quoted costs. The speed is about £1 = 2.15 manats. Change a couple of on arrival on the airport (the speed shall be poor) after which extra at one of many many bureaux de change on the town.

Playing cards are broadly accepted, although generally a steep surcharge is added.

What language do they communicate?

Azeri, which is carefully associated to Turkish. The commonest international language amongst older folks is Russian, and amongst youthful individuals English.

Ought to I tip?

In fancier eating places it’s regular to depart a couple of manats, however hardly anybody suggestions as a lot as 10 per cent. When you by no means tip, no-one will notably thoughts.

What’s the time distinction?

GMT +4.

What’s the typical flight time from the UK?

Baku is as removed from the Emirates Stadium and Stamford Bridge as it’s potential to be and nonetheless be inside the confines of “Europe”: precisely the identical latitude as Madrid, however additional east than Baghdad, and a pair of,469 miles from London.

At 10.05pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, Azerbaijan Airways flies a Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Heathrow to Baku, taking 5 hours and 30 minutes, and touching down at 6.35am the subsequent day. The usual fare is round £500 return, however all flights in Europa League remaining week are full.

I travelled on Wizz Air from Luton through Budapest for £101 one-way in whole. 

Public transport

From the airport, the most cost effective possibility is to get the Airport Specific bus, which leaves each half hour (much less regularly between 7pm and 6am) for a fare of 1.50 manats/70p (purchase a ticket utilizing money from the machines on both aspect of the exit from arrivals).

The Metro underground railway is restricted, however – for a largely Soviet system – environment friendly and dependable. Essentially the most helpful stations are Icarishahar, on the southwest fringe of the Previous Metropolis, and the cease referred to as 28 Might – which is definitely at Baku railway station. 

To make use of the system, spend 5 manats (£2) on a BakyCard from one of many machines. This entitles you to 4 rides, and may be topped up as you want.

Greatest view

Baku’s oldest Shia mosque, Bibi Heybet, survived at its clifftop location south of town centre from the 13th century to the 20th – when it was demolished to make room for a brand new freeway winding south from town. A substitute was accomplished in 1998.

You might be free to wander in and across the mosque (footwear off, wraps offered for some to cowl their heads and arms) to understand the spectacular dome. Afterwards, take within the excellent view of the Caspian shore from the mirador.

Insider tip

Whereas Azerbaijan isn’t on the low-cost airline community from the UK, neighbouring Georgia is. To return, I took the in a single day prepare to Tbilisi (£25 for a berth in “Gentle” class), a bus throughout to Kutaisi (£5), from the place a Wizz Air flight to Luton value £26.