Azerbaijan's ancient capital, founded 1,500 years ago, has nice beaches, spas and a striking setting on the salty Caspian Sea (the world's largest inland body of water). Once one of the Roman Empire's easternmost cities, Baku is 55 ft/17 m below sea level (the Caspian Sea lies below sea level). The climate is usually sunny and surprisingly arid, though khazri, or gale-force winds, do sweep through on occasion. Over the past few years Baku (pop. 1,936,000) has undergone something of a renaissance, thanks to oil money pouring into government coffers. Potholes are now being filled, streets and buildings renovated and the once erratic water supply is being repaired.

Once home to a cosmopolitan population, Baku is now far more homogeneous—its Armenian residents were driven out of the city by violent mobs in 1989. (The event helped spark the fighting between the republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan.) As the center of the region's richest oil fields, Baku is really three cities rolled into one—the Old Town, the New Town and the Soviet-built town. (The Soviet-inspired portion of Baku is for those who enjoy massive concrete piles with names like "Presidium of the Academy of Sciences.")

In the wall-girded Old Town, stroll the cobbled streets past the Palace of the Shirvans (the two-story home of Azerbaijan's former rulers), two caravansaries (ancient inns), the 11th-century Maiden's Tower (nice view of the harbor) and Dzhuma (or "Friday") Mosque (houses the exquisite Carpet and Applied Art Museum).

The New Town, south of the old city, was built after massive oil exploitation began more than a century ago and has interesting art-nouveau architecture. Fine arts, history and literature museums are located there, all housed in the mansions of prerevolutionary millionaires.

For a relaxing walk, head for the western bay area of the city, where there are many pavilions, parks and outdoor chess-playing areas. (World Master Garry Kasparov practiced his craft in Baku as a boy.)

Two days should be enough to see Baku's sights unless you want to take some excursions out of town. Medieval castles, spas and the country's best beaches can be found along the 45-mi-/70-km-long Apsheron Peninsula, which stretches to the northeast of Baku. Day trips from the city include the Shakhov Bank Nature Reserve and the Surakhany Temple (where fire worshipers used to watch flames shooting up from natural gas vents). Other possibilities are Kobustan, Quba and Sumgait.

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