Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is a burgeoning city, fuelled by energy resources and industry. American and Europeans are investing heavily in its oil industry, Turkey, Russia and South Koreans in the construction sector. After 2015 Azerbaijan will receive 100 per cent of its oil revenues and then it will really start motoring. Already, Mercedes and Bentleys glide along the 9km-long Baku Boulevard (also known as the Avenue of Independence) that fronts the Caspian Sea, against the backdrop of the majestic villas that oil barons built in the 1850s when 50 per cent of the world’s oil production was sourced here. Today, it’s 20 per cent. Oil, the source of the country’s wealth – 70 per cent extracted from the Caspian Sea and 30 per cent from land – is clearly visible; the land-based ‘pumping jacks’ are on the outskirts of Baku. The Azeri people are easy to do business with, staying 100 per cent focused on business first then happy to relax afterwards, most often with a lunch, but don’t be late; they appreciate punctuality
The ten-storey Beaux Arts Four Seasons fronting the Caspian Sea takes some beating (www.fourseasons.com/baku); with its marble interiors, amazing spa, Zafferano’s all-day dining with terrace plus Caspian seafood venue on the 9th floor, whisky bar and sublime rooms. Any client would be impressed. The ultramodern Fairmont Baku Flame Towers, rising 34 storeys on the hill overlooking the city near Parliament and in the shape of a flame, is a good alternative (www.fairmont.com/baku). It has seven restaurants, including a steak house, and bedrooms with floor to ceiling windows and amazing views.
Cruise along Baku Boulevard for any number of buzzy places. Pacifico is the place to try and get into (Tel +994 12 493 1221) on the top floor of a building overlooking the Caspian. It’s where the beautiful set hang out, draping themselves over the open-air terrace seating or inside bar, snacking on European cuisine. Alternatively, the cavernous Tosca is easier to get into (Tel +994 12 404 8212) further along the boulevard, offering hearty Italian food.
Azeri’s let their hair down on Friday and Saturdays and the bars in town – most popularly those dotted along the promenade – are heaving so it’s best to reserve a spot well in advance. Book a table on the open-air terrace of Opera Sky on the 29th floor of the Azure Business Center (www.operasky.az). There are fantastic city views to soak up, shisha pipes to sample and a disco and restaurant.
British Airways operates a daily service from London Heathrow to Baku. The lead-in fare is from £467.95 including taxes/fees/carrier charges.
The airport is just 30-40 minutes from downtown and a 20 Manat taxi ride (around £15). The city is compact enough to walk around, though there's a Metro network with three lines and 24 stations. Alternatively, purple-coloured London-style taxis ply the streets but heavy traffic can slow your journey.
The time zone in Azerbaijan is GMT +4hrs. English is widely spoken at larger hotels and restaurants. The currency is the Manat which is pegged with the Euro (1 Euro = 1.08 Manat / £1 = 1.28 Manat).
Baku is broadly divided into three areas: the old town, the Soviet-built area and the modern area. Within the 12th century walls of the historic Inner City (Icheri Sheher) lie the Maiden's Tower (Giz Galasy) and the impressive medieval Palace of the Shirvan Shahs, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors should not leave without a taking a turn of Baku Boulevard, stretching along the shores of the Caspian Sea.
“Baku is very Westernised and you’ll find live music in every restaurant and bar. Don’t remind Azeri’s of the 200 years they lived under Russian rule – they are doing all they can to demolish the memory of it, including Soviet architecture”
Tour Guide Balash