My husband, an avid Formula 1 racing fan, had the good fortune in 2012 to marry me, an accomplished travel agent, eager for new challenges and adventure. I wasn’t expecting Azerbaijan to make an appearance on my bucket list but Steve’s enthusiasm for the sport, and specifically the Baku City Circuit, was infectious, and that’s how I came to be skilfully manoeuvred into putting together one of the best trips of our life for a mutual wedding anniversary gift to each other.
The Baku Grand Prix has a late April slot in the F1 racing calendar and I set about meticulously researching and piecing together the necessary logistics.
Baku is reached either by a direct five and a half hour flight from London with Azerbaijan Airlines or indirectly with several others. I chose to fly with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul, having had a great experience with them previously, and with the business fare for this route reasonably priced too, an upgrade was easier to write-off as a special treat.
My initial hotel groundwork drew me to the small, boutique hotels located in Icherisheher, Baku’s Old City, but with the race circuit running through it and many roads closed to traffic, I settled on the Fairmont Baku Flame Towers perched above the city and a short walk from the circuit.
I was initially intrigued by the iconic architecture, then seduced by the opulence and style, but as first-timers to the city and event, I also wanted the reassurance of the Fairmont brand behind me.
The best-laid plans and the adventure of travel! A last-minute change to our flight schedule presented us with a lengthy connection time at Istanbul’s new mega-airport and meant that we’d miss the Pit Lane Walk on day one.
The Turkish Airlines Lounge is legendary, but 14 hours would challenge even the hardiest of travellers, so we took the opportunity to check out the spanking new YOTEL Air and get some proper rest.
The YOTEL is located both airside and landside, so there’s no need to waste valuable time clearing immigration, and we were checked into our hi-tech cabin half an hour after landing and managed a blissful six hours of sleep.
I’d been wanting to show Steve the Turkish Airlines Lounge since my first experience in 2016. We took advantage of the endless dining opportunities and were so stuffed that we couldn’t make the most of the fabulous catering onboard our onwards flight.
We were met at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport by Fuad, our contact for all ground arrangements. The private transfer was a little hair-raising but despite this, our host’s patriotism plus his music cheered us, and we embraced the horn-beeping, flashing headlights and gesticulations as the local norm.
We concluded that car hire was not something I would be recommending clients, as the general style of driving is akin to an actual F1 race but without any of the regulations! The drive to the city is however very scenic with amazing architecture to be seen ranging from 12th century through Russian Imperial, Azerbaijan Republic, Soviet and ultra-modern.
On arrival, we upgraded to a luxurious Fairmont Gold Room on the 26th floor which in addition to a spectacular view of the city included a daily complimentary cocktail hour amongst its benefits.
From our room, we could see the Maiden Tower, the Caspian Sea and huge promenade, the Baku Eye and even our own F1 Grandstand.
We ate at the hotel that evening, enjoying watching folk from all over the globe arriving for a full-on race weekend. The buzz in the hotel was palpable and bonus wife points were quickly acquired when we found ourselves sharing the elevator with mechanics from the Mercedes and Red Bull teams on returning to our room.
Fortunately, the weather was excellent for the duration of our stay but be prepared to wrap up warm on occasion. Baku translates as 'Windy City' and the stiff breeze alongside the track is a godsend when the sun is on you but take a fleece or lightweight jacket for when it isn’t. And don't forget that sunscreen!
In addition to rubbing shoulders with mechanics and drivers at the hotel, it was refreshing to get close-up to the F1 paddock and feel fully part of the event.
We also spotted Bernie Ecclestone eyeing up souvenirs in the Old Town and accrued more scorecard points when I persuaded Eddie Jordan to have his pic taken with Steve as we were walking along the waterfront.
We had booked seats in the wonderfully scenic Azneft Stand with views of the walled Old Town, the Caspian Sea, the beautiful park area that flanks it, a huge Azeri flag behind us and the sun on our faces all day; it really was the perfect spot.
As the cars exited from an extremely tight and winding part of the Old Town, they accelerated down the hill towards us before heading off to our right towards the start/ finish line where the track is flanked by other grandstands offering a different view of the race and city, so I'd recommend picking where you sit carefully.
The Fairmont is on an elevated section of the city with the Funicular Railway just across the road. Access to our stand was easy on the way down, a 15-minute walk via a series of steps and terraces with great views of the city but harder work on the way back up which gives the railway the edge after a 20k step day at the circuit.
Outside of F1 activities, there is much to see and do with the Old Town a delight to wander around with its stalls, cafes, restaurants and medieval attractions, and whilst exploring we checked out those hotels which had appealed to us during our research.
The Museum Inn, The Shah Palace Hotel and the Sultan Inn all lived up to expectations and I’d highly recommend them. Many of the roads around the city are closed and pedestrian access within the confines of the circuit is good, with tunnels under the track and temporary bridges over it.
A short walk downhill from the hotel is the vibrant Fountain Square with excellent places to eat and drink or indulge in a spot of retail therapy. We loved an authentic restaurant called Dolma where Steve had the Dushbara, little beef and lamb dumplings in a lovely broth, whilst from the vegetarian options, I got stuck into the Dolma, Azerbaijani stuffed grape leaves and an enormous pilaf.
There was still a buzz about the city in the couple of days we stayed after the race weekend and it was fascinating to see the dismantling of all the facilities. Many roads remained closed while the breakdown was in progress, giving us the amazing opportunity to walk large sections of the track, something that would not be possible at a more formal circuit, further adding to the feeling of being part of the event rather than merely a spectator.
Beaches weren’t a priority for this trip, but the best are Shikhov, Crescent and Bilgah - all easily accessible by public transport or taxi.
Zhala, our incredible tour guide, recommended a visit to the Atashgah Zoroastrian Fire Temple, originally built in the 17th century around an eternal flame which expired in 1969 when the gas source dried up. We did witness a continuously burning fire on a hillside at Yanar Dag, 30 minutes outside of Baku. Given that oil and gas make up 95% of Azerbaijan’s export revenues, we shouldn’t have been so surprised at how many wells were visible across the landscape.
To conclude our adventure, we took a Baku London Taxi to the airport. Many of these are purple painted ex London black cabs which we were assured the president is very fond of.
It was with a heavy heart that we departed for the airport but our F1 experience quickly shifted to top gear and provided us with a spectacular finish. The roads were now open and our 'Baki Taski' left the city at a decent rate using the F1 race circuit down Niyazi Street, past our Azneft Stand, all the way along the Neftchilar straight, past the pits and across the start/ finish line, where I was disappointed not to see a chequered flag.
One day soon we will undoubtedly return. I have made some key notes to self as follows:
Don’t miss the Pit Lane Walk on day one because your airline changes your flights
The Azneft Stand was perfect for our hotel and F1 experience
Stay at the Fairmont Gold Club Rooms for the style, view and funicular access to the seafront and circuit
Or stay in the Old Town for easier access to restaurants, seafront and circuit but be aware that many roads are closed off
Be careful crossing the road
Don’t pay 30 manat for a 5 manat taxi fare from downtown to the hotel