Baku for architecture buffs: the ultimate self-guided tour

It’s known as the ‘City of Winds’, but while Azerbaijan’s capital is indeed among the world’s breeziest, the nickname can also be applied its eclectic architectural landscape, shaped as it has been by the various winds of change that have swept through Baku over the centuries. 

From its medieval fortifications to the lavish palaces commissioned during the city’s first oil boom, Soviet-era relics to post-modern skyscrapers, Baku’s architecture is, for many travellers, the top reason to visit this quirky Caspian Sea city. Here’s where to experience the four major periods that define its architectural legacy. 

The Palace of the Shirvanshahs offers a glimpse into medieval Baku © Sarah Reid / Lonely Planet

Medieval Baku

Two millennia ago, Baku was a major centre of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion known for its fire temples. It’s during this period that construction is thought to have begun on the 29m-high Maiden’s Tower, Baku’s foremost cultural icon and a great first stop on a self-guided architectural tour of the city. Fortified in the 12th century, when Baku was the capital of the historical region of Shirvan, the sandstone tower (which is thought to have once been used a Zoroastrianism fire temple) now forms part of Baku’s Old City. 

While the restoration of Baku’s compact historic quarter at the turn of the 21st century can perhaps be described as overzealous, the 15th-century Palace of the Shirvanshahs with its attractive murqarna (stalactite vault) doorways and moody mausoleums still offers a fascinating glimpse into an era of Baku characterised by endless conflicts between the Persians, Ottomans and Imperial Russia. In 1918, the Bolsheviks left their own mark on the Palace by firing rounds into an ancient sandstone wall near the entrance; the bullet holes are still visible today. 

Don't miss the beautiful Nizami Museum of Azerbaijani Literature © Sarah Reid / Lonely Planet

The oil boom years

Baku’s incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1806 marked the start of a new phase in the city’s development, but things didn’t really get going until the Persians lost their grip on Azerbaijan for good at the conclusion of the Russo-Persian War (1826–1828). As Tsarist Russia set to work tapping the nation’s black gold, oil barons with cash to burn began building lavish homes and palaces in downtown Baku. Among the most beautiful, the Ismailiyya building (1913) also has the most tragic backstory. One block north of the Old City, the ornate Venetian Gothic palace (now home to the Academy of Sciences) was built by an Azeri oil magnate to commemorate the untimely death of his son.

Other nearby buildings of note from this period include the Palace of Happiness (also inspired by its former owner’s travels to Venice), the Art Nouveau Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall (modeled on Monaco’s Casino Monte-Carlo) and the Secession-style Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, which was reportedly funded by oil magnate Zeynalabdin Taghiyev after losing a bet with fellow tycoon Daniel Mailov that it couldn’t be built within a year (it was completed within 10 months). And while it wasn’t completed until the Soviet era, the Art Nouveau Nizami Museum of Azerbaijani Literature is another great example of late 19th-century Baku architecture. 

Nizami Metro Station is a Soviet-era architectural gem © Sarah Reid / Lonely Planet

Soviet era

Baku’s architectural story took another turn when Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union in 1922. Between the hulking high-rise apartment blocks that shot up during this era, there are a few more unique buildings worth seeking out. 

A classic example of the Stalinist style of architecture prominent from the 1930s to the 1950s, the palace-like Government House (84 Uzeyir Hajibeyov) – which was completed in 1952 with the help of German POW labour – is the key landmark. Opened in 1967, the Baku metro is another impressive feat of Soviet engineering. While newer stations and carriages have since been added, some retro carriages are still in use, and older stations like Ulduz with its futuristic ceiling and Neftchiler with its mosaic art depicting oil workers will transport you straight to mid-century Baku. Don’t miss Nizami station – decorated with mosaics depicting scenes from ancient Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi’s quintet of narrative poems known as Khamsa, it’s easily the city’s most beautiful metro station. 

Got a thing for socialist realism? Built in 1959, the waterfront Pearl Cafe (now known as Mirvari Cafe) with its oversized sail-shaped awnings is arguably Baku’s best remaining example, while fans of Brutalist architecture would be wise to swing by Heydar Әliyev Palace, Baku’s imposing main concert hall, which opened its doors northeast of the city centre in 1972. A more unusual addition to Baku’s Soviet-era landscape is the Museum Centre. With its neoclassical colonnade, it’s easy to think the former Lenin Museum (which now houses Baku’s Museum of Independence) was built much earlier than the 1960s.

The Flame Towers rise above Baku's Old City ©  Sarah Reid / Lonely Planet

Modern Baku

Upon gaining independence in 1991, Azerbaijan began to attract foreign investment. Dubbed the ‘contract of the century’, the signing of a multi-billion dollar deal to develop the nation’s biggest oilfield cluster set off its second oil boom – and an ambitious spate of development that defines Baku’s skyline today.

Breaking from the rigid style that dominated the twilight years of USSR architecture, the fluid wave-shaped Heydar Әliyev Centre (opened in 2012) was designed by the late Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid to express the optimism of a nation looking to the future. Hot on its heels was the 2013 opening of the Flame Towers. Inspired by Baku’s history (Baku means ‘protector of fire’ in Persian) and ongoing connection with natural gas, its trio of sinuous towers appear to flicker at night thanks to an integrated LED system. 

The Heydar Әliyev Centre is one of architect Zaha Hadid's most famous works © Sarah Reid / Lonely Planet

Down by the waterfront, the striking Crystal Hall was built to host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. In the lead-up to the 2015 Baku European Games, the crystal-shaped entertainment venue was joined by equally ultra-modern sporting venues around the city including Baku Olympic Stadium, the Aquatic Palace, and the National Gymnastics Arena, with the Soviet-era Heydar Әliyev Arena retrofitted with a crown-shaped LED-integrated outer cover that, similarly to Crystal Hall, makes it appear to twinkle at night.

Other notable additions to Baku’s futuristic skyline include the Carpet Museum (2014) resembling a giant half-rolled carpet, the huge SOCAR building (2016) designed around the concept of wind and fire, and the waterfront Crescent Development, a giant upside crescent moon-shaped building due to be completed in 2020. And while many of Baku’s modern developments have been plagued by controversy, the unfinished Trump Tower – a sail-shaped tower abandoned near-completion in 2015 by then-owner Donald Trump in a move that has been described as a ‘housecleaning’ exercise – takes the cake.