Exploring Old City
Narrow alleys, dozens of small, forgotten little mosques some barely distinguishable from the houses that surround them, a handful of old caravanserais and plenty of quirky, overhanging balconies. This delightful and evocative pastiche nestles in the long, powerful curve of the restored Old City wall, bustling with towers and battlements, but you'd better hurry to see it while any of its antique character remains. Durig the mid-1990s the mini oil boom seemed in danger of turning every building into an oil company HQ. This trend reversed noticeably for a while after the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and as bigger companies moved out.
Sadly in the last couple of years the builders have returned once more While most new structures have been very carefully designed and stone-clad to fit tastefully within the city's stylistic cocktail, some of the most recent constructions are unforgivable travesties - such as the two new houses behind Baylar Mosque. Still, there remain homely 'lived-in' corners to discover and it's worth simply launching yourself into the alleys and wandering aimlessly.
Old City mosques
The Old City is polka-dotted with mosques which add a lot of character to the area, though few are actually open to visitors or worth a special visit. Indeed, some are interesting for their very invisibility - often indistinguishable from neighbouring houses except for the little 'historic monument' plaque rusting quietly on a wall. The most visible mosques have old stone minarets topped with rounded, fluted mini-domes.
If you're lost in the maze it is not necessarily wise to use these minarets as triangulation points as there are three that are virtually identical. The oldest in Baku is Mohammad Mosque whose 1079 Sinik-kala minaret has a typical stalactite-vaulted parapet support and is encircled by kufic Koranic quotations. The minaret's staircase was built so small that an apocryphally rotund muezzin once got stuck on the way up and couldn't call the faithful to pray.
The most ornately-carved mosque is the Juma Mechid. Also 11th century in on gin, it was for a long time the most important place of worship in the city and has been rebuilt several times. A total rework in the early 20th century was paid for by an oil baron. For the best view of its finely-carved facade you'll need to walk around the back and into the surrounding courtyard.
Other Old City mosques include Sheikh Ibrahim (1415), Haci Heybat (1791, now a house), Gajibani (16th century, also a house), Kileli (1309), Lezghi (1169) (Lezghians are mostly Sunni rather than Shiite Muslims), Madrassa Mosque, and Baylar (19th century but with an old-style minaret).
Half a dozen historic caravanserai buildings are crammed within Ichen Shahar. The 14th-century 'Hindu Caravanserai' is now the atmospheric Karavansaray Restaurant whose cavernous 15th-century 'Bukhara' annex just across the passage is well worth peeping into. Others hold the Silk & Spices and Mugam Club restaurants, Old City museum offices, and subterranean glimpses of a sixth help to pass the time if you are delayed in the waiting room of the Georgian Embassy visa section
Both within and beyond the Old City walls are some superb turn of the 20th-century mansions. Perhaps the most eye-catching extenor is the ornate 1912 Gothic Hajinski Mansion decorated with a selection of stone-vines, gargoyles and animal heads, as well as distinctive overhanging corner windows. It was here that Charles de Gaulle (then an outspokenly independent-minded resistance leader) stayed on 26 November 1944. He was en route to see Stalin to discuss the anticipated post-war carve-up of Europe. The Baku stop off was necessary as he flew via Tehran avoiding the dangerous direct flight to Moscow across enemy airspace. For reasons unexplained, however, he stayed on an extra night in Baku for a performance of Hacibayov's classic Azen opera 'Koroglu'.
Before merging with Exxon, Mobil spent millions recreating the Pre-Raphaelite/art nouveau interior of the Gani Mammadov residence (now private, not open to visitors). It was built on the site of a 1646 madrassa of which only one stone portal remains - now preserved as a diminutive Keyla Dukani souvenir shop.
Mir Movsum's House
Sit for a few minutes beside the tiny fountain in the little stone patio area opposite 3 Firdowsi St and watch the people passing the house. At least one in three will touch the stone doorway as they pass. Coincidence? Not really. Though there is absolutely no sign this was the Baku residence of Mir Movsum, the 'Meat Lord', and in the deeply superstitious Azeri form of Islam, his spirit remains a powerful source of good luck. Though a private house, you will be quite welcome to go into the tiny room where the 'boneless one' used to sit. Make a prayer (and a token donation) at the makeshift shrine and feel free to kiss the door on the way out.
Other Old City attractions
For 'local flavour there's no beating a good rub down at the Old City hamam. There are several fine art galleries, a curious private museum of miniature books and for jazz fans, the appealing house museum of Vagif Mustafazade.
Icheri Shahar has some interesting carpet, 'antique' and souvenir shops, often tucked away in stone nooks and corners. Browsing can be fun but before you buy carpets or art (read in the menu on the left), leave plenty of time (preferably two weeks) to certify your purchases for export. Dealers on Zeinalli St claim they can sort out the paperwork and mail on carpets to you (albeit for a hefty fee).