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Baku, AZ

Two and a half days in Baku, Azerbaijan

In March 2023, I added Baku and Azerbaijan to my list of visited countries, now reaching 37 nations. Not a considerable number, but I have explored South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Azerbaijan for the first time, hopefully adding more destinations later in the year. So here’s what I have to share about my short experience in Baku.

Flying to Baku. I flew FlyDubai from DXB to Baku, a three hour-direct flight on a very comfortable Boeing 737 Max, initially crossing the Persian Gulf and then cutting Iran vertically (I had a chance to see Tehran surrounded by its mountains covered by snow), eventually starting our descent immediately after reaching the Caspian Sea southern coasts. The airport seemed small, and not many flights arrived or departed when I was there.

Preliminary research. Before flying, I did some online research and watched several videos on YouTube. While generically informative, most of these contributions are incomplete, often created to generate some online views and the consequent monetization rather than providing detailed insights on a location and how to enjoy the time spent there. So here are my findings based on my personal experience. Before getting there, some disclaimers:

  • I traveled alone, and therefore I entirely skipped the gastronomic and culinary part of the experience
  • exploring the city and taking pictures was my primary objective
  • I had a total of 48 hours effectively, and my entire time revolved around my desire to take as many “memorable” photos as possible.

So, due to my objectives and the time of the year, no shopping, no trips outside the city, no evening parties, and no cruises on the Caspian Sea. It might sound boring, but I have already committed to returning with family and friends in 2024, spending more time and acting more like a generic tourist and not as a “bulimic” photographer. That said, landing in Baku on March 20th was a lucky decision because it was Nowruz, the Iranian or Persian New Year celebrated in this part of the world. It is a festival based on the Iranian Solar Hijri calendar on the spring equinox. So, that week was a public holiday, with the downtown adorned with lights and ornaments reminding me of the typical Christmas atmosphere in Western countries. A sort of unexpected bonus that made everything even more glamorous and colorful.

Baku, AZ
What to photograph in Baku

Let’s focus on my photographic goals in Baku. As shown in the header image, I covered the downtown area primarily and a location North of where I was staying, but I’m sure there are several other spots worth exploring. Once again, I had a very tight agenda and limited time on this first visit to Baku. In general, I consider myself satisfied if I can extract 20-30 keepers from my shoots, which I often achieve when spending more than two days on a location. Therefore, I focused my attention on the following areas:

  1. The Old City or Icherisheher
  2. The Flame Towers
  3. The long Boardwalk
  4. The central shopping area
  5. The Azerbaijan Carpet Museum
  6. Dəniz Mall
  7. The Formula 1 circuit
  8. The Heydar Aliyev Center

The first seven attractions and landmarks are almost entirely concentrated in the Southern part of the city, with the Heydar Aliyev Center the only place requiring a 2km walk or a 15 min drive across a residential neighborhood of Baku. When exploring a new location during the daytime, my photography interests are primarily captured by the local architecture, people, and anything else I might find unusual or different from my previous experiences. Pictures taken in the 10:00 am to 6:00 pm range rarely generate some keepers, but over the years I realized that carrying a camera with one or two lenses is always necessary. It is better to be tired at the end of the day than to regret missing a shot! The final gallery is accessible here. I like the 30+ photos I shared but regret not spending more time in the Old City and taking a panorama of beautiful Baku from the water. Next time!

Photo gear, suggestions, and stats

I brought my inseparable Canon EOS R5 and 4 RF lenses, plus a tripod. At that time, my 24-105mm f 4.0 and 24-70mm f 2.8 were in London, and that partially justifies my unorthodox choices:

  • 14-35mm f 4.0
  • 50mm f 1.2
  • 70-200mm f 4.0
  • 135mm f 1.8

Two prime lenses, especially the 135mm, might not be considered a wise decision. My rationales were simple. The 135mm is a brand-new lens, and I love it. So, more a sentimental rather than a rational selection among my arsenal. The 50mm at f 1.2 delivers incredible results under any light conditions. Despite the apparent gap due to the two lenses not being with me before boarding, the two zooms covered a broad spectrum of focal lengths, simultaneously ensuring flexibility and creativity. Tall and wide buildings such as the Flame Towers and the Heydar Aliyev Centre were perfect for the 14-35mm and for panos to be stitched in Light Room Classic, while the 70-200mm proved ideal for panoramic shots from the hill behind the downtown area and for some distant landmarks along the coastline. Almost 50% of my keepers were taken with the two prime lenses, with the other half with the wide lens.

The Heydar Aliyev Centre is a magnificent piece of architecture. Capturing its beauty and majestic size requires perfect lighting conditions and possibly paying a visit in April-May rather than early Spring. I went there early in the morning to avoid crowds and a second time at sunset. I was fortunate to meet only a few pedestrians. I like clean pictures, even though the presence of humans adds a touch and meaning to a shot. The building is exceptionally photogenic, with an aerial photo almost certainly the perfect perspective to capture its entry beauty, size, and elegance. I did several panos, and eventually i was pleased with the outcome and how I was able to document this incredible structure.

The Flame Towers are the second main photo attraction in Baku. I spent quite some time in that area, and these are my reccomendations:

  • the best spot to take a shot of the three flames is here: 40.36037865655065, 49.83430381840575
  • a focal length between 35 and 50mm delivers the best results
  • taking the funicular (or better climbing on the long staricase) offers intereting perspectives on the bay, the Boardwalk,  the Dəniz Mall and the Flame Towers. This spot (40.357629370502636, 49.830273423405025) is excellent to capture the flames on the back and the magnificient view of the bay underneath.
Some travel suggestions and final thoughts

Based on my short experience on the ground, these are my generic recommendations:

  • Install the Bolt app (Uber equivalent) to travel across the city easily.
  • I managed to do everything I needed without using cash.
  • I roamed because adding an esim for two days wasn’t financially and technically viable. For more extended stays, I would explore what local carriers offer.
  • Apple and Google Maps work fine, offering a detailed view of how to reach the various attractions.
  • Contactless payments and Apple Pay are widely accepted, and I used this payment method at grocery stores and supermarkets, even for minimal amounts.
  • Communicating in English is complex, and do not expect even a basic conversation with a Bolt driver.
  • It’s a windy place. While weather conditions vary during the year, check the monthly temperatures and wear in layers.
  • I walked extensively across the city, even at night, and always felt safe with my photographic gear in my hands.
  • If you plan to explore the city by walking, choose wisely where to stay. I ended up at the JW Marriott Absheron, not downtown, but strategically located for my purposes. It was a perfect choice in many aspects, even thanks to a super courteous staff.

As mentioned, I will return to Baku because it is almost a hidden gem with much to offer, friendly people, and an intriguing mix between Western and Middle Easterner culture with a hint of Eastern Europe influence due to the Soviet days. Visiting the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum and the Heydar Aliyev Centre is on my bucket list, together with a sea cruise to experience what the Caspian Sea offers. Baku is a balanced mix of traditions and modernity, a fascinating cultural pot reflected in its architecture and people, and it is worth a visit.

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