I was unsure about doing a “travel tips” post for Baku, since my visit was so brief. Eventually I decided to go for it because it is – relatively speaking – a much less visited city when it comes to tourism.
I flew with Buta Airlines from/to Tbilisi. Buta https://www.butaairways.az is the low cost brand of Azerbaijan Airlines. The cost was €78 return, in their cheapest category – no hold luggage and no “hand luggage”. The experience was (almost) ideal.
They operate Embraer 190s and being quite small planes, boarding and disembarking is quick and painless. They operate an unusual seat numbering plan. Seat rows start at 14 (front row) and rise from there to 20 something. Seats on the starboard side are L and M. I have never seen that before.
They put a lot of emphasis on passengers taking their allocated seats and – yes – they charge if you want to select your seat.
All of that is fine, obviously. Hand luggage rules are unusual too. A briefcase or handbag is allowed. My tiny backpack was permitted on the outward flight, but not on the return. They only allowed it when I said I would remove all the contents – camera, wallet, passport, phone & medication (all allowed as hand luggage) – and then they could check in my empty backpack.
Surprisingly – in this context – cabin service includes a free sandwich and water. You have to pay for their other goodies.
The airport in Baku (Heydar Aliyev International) has two terminals. A brand new one and what was the old airport building. Buta flights arrive at Terminal 2 (the new one) and leave from Terminal 1. The new one is excellent. The old one is not.
To get to the city centre the choice is between a taxi and an express coach http://www.aeroexpress.az. I suspect a public bus can be used too, but I opted for the coach service. It leaves from right outside Terminal 2 and is easy to find.
That is where the fun begins, of course. Naturally, having seen the bus you head straight for it. What you then miss, because they are behind you, are the machines which sell the BakıKart you will need so as to get on the bus.
Next, the driver sends you back to the terminal to buy your card http://www.bakikart.az/en/. As far as I can ascertain, you cannot buy the card anywhere else in the terminal. The machines are not signposted. I had some difficulty with the machines. I had a 10 manat note and I could not get it accepted. I did not have any coins. Eventually a cleaner (!) told me to get a 5 manat note and try it.
So, I bought a bottle of water at the cafe next door to get change, used the 5 manat note, and bingo!
By then the bus had left of course, so I had to wait for the next one. They run very 30 minutes during the day. Journey time is 30 minutes – depending on traffic. The bus also stops at Terminal 1.
Another wee tip – you have to go through a security control to re-enter the terminal after you have left it, so going back inside to an ATM or currency exchange desk is not a quick solution to the 5 manat problem.
The cost depends on your choice of card. I chose the paper “disposable” card as opposed to a rechargeable plastic one. The paper card can be bought loaded with one up to 4 journeys on it. I expected to need just need 2 journeys. The cost was 2.80 AZN, which includes 0.20 AZN to buy the card. The exchange rate was 2.05 AZN to £1 at the time.
The Aeroexpress terminates at the Central Railway Station.
It was a very pleasant walk of 3.5 km from there to the İçəri şəhər (Old City) via the Bulvar – I wanted to see the Caspian for the first time!
You can wander the Old City without paying to go into anything, but I did pay to visit the Palace of the Shirvanshahs (Şirvanşahlar Sarayı). It was 7.50 AZN – but only 2 AZN for locals.
The Azerbaijani language is Turkic and the people are mostly Shia Moslem, so it looks and feels totally different as compared with Georgia.
I believe Azerbaijan was like Russia and Belarus until recently, and visiting involved quite a bit of expense and inconvenience to obtain a visa. My experience was entirely comparable to visiting Turkey. I needed a visa but it was easy, cheap (US$20) and quick (3 days) to obtain through the government’s official e-visa website.
The visa form will ask if you have made any unauthorised visit to Nagorno-Karabakh. Usually the answer will be easy. If you do have an inkling to visit Nagorno-Kharabak, doing so via Azerbaijan counts as an authorised visit and via Armenia will be treated as unauthorised. My guess is your visa request will be rejected if you have done it the “wrong” way.
Passport control at the airport was quick, friendly and efficient.
Baku is 125 miles (200 km) from the border with Iran. It is the same distance going north to the border with the Russian Federation – the Republic of Dagestan. If you head east across the Caspian Sea you come to Turkmenistan.
A weekly train service operates between Baku and Moscow. It takes 59 hours.
A ferry service runs almost every day to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan. It takes about 17 hours.
ⓒ iain taylor, 2019