The Maiden Tower, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Baku, Azerbaijan, was built in the 12th century. // © 2015 Mark Edward Harris
Feature image (above): The Baku Museum of Modern Art looks nothing like the architecture from the Soviet past of Baku. // © 2015 Mark Edward Harris
Looking out the window from the Sahil Bar & Restaurant at the geyser jetting out of the Caspian Sea, I could be on the Lake Geneva shoreline. Walking along Seaside Boulevard, I could be strolling through the streets of Cannes. But I am actually in Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan.
Turkey’s Bosphorus strait has traditionally served as the dividing line between Europe and Asia, which therefore makes Azerbaijan an Asian country. But Azerbaijanis say otherwise, considering their country, which is located in the Caucasus border region, as part of Europe.
They’re not alone in this belief. Azerbaijan was named host country for the inaugural European Games to be held June 12 to 28, 2015, in Baku, bringing together more than 6,000 athletes to compete in 20 sports. The games will be held every four years, one year ahead of the Olympics, and will serve as a tune-up for the world event. Eleven of the sports at Baku 2015 European Games will offer qualification opportunities for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Like the dramatic architecture of the games’ venues, recently constructed objet d’art structures reflect the city’s desire to throw off the shackles of the Soviet Era that ended in 1991 when Azerbaijan regained its independence.
The Baku Flame Towers, completed in 2012, are shining beacons in Baku’s skyline. The three buildings consist of apartments, offices and a hotel. On many evenings, the facades of the towers are turned into gigantic displays with the use of more than 10,000 LED screens. Other architectural highlights include the Baku Museum of Modern Art, the building a work of art in itself, and the new carpet-like structure housing the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, which claims the world’s largest collection of traditional Azerbaijani carpets.
Ancient architecture is still cherished, however. The Maiden Tower, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built in the 12th century, is still considered one of Azerbaijan's most famous landmarks. It’s located in Baku’s Old City, enclosed within fortress walls.
To explore historical institutions from even further back in time, visitors can take a half-day trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, also known as Gobustan National Park. There, they will find petroglyphs dating back from about 5,000 to 40,000 years ago. The ancient rock engravings, about 6,000 of them, are located in their original environment, located 40 miles southwest from Baku.
Baku has plenty of places to stay, due to the city’s solid tourism infrastructure. Many of the top hotel brands service the area, including Four Seasons Hotel Baku, Hyatt Regency Baku, JW Marriott Absheron Baku Hotel, Hilton Baku and Kempinski Hotel Badamdar. Other options include Jumeirah Bilgah Beach Hotel and Grand Hotel Europe Baku.