The first thing almost everyone says when they visit Baku for the first time is — wow, I had no idea. The follow-on sentences, almost immediately thereafter: Baku is cool. Way cooler than I had ever expected. This is Baku now, the capital city of a country emerging onto the world stage. There to be discovered.

Baku, to draw an analogy, is the best part of a holiday — if your English is American, a vacation. You go somewhere. You turn a corner. You stumble on something you had no idea was there and, suddenly, you’re looking at a piece of sculpture or a painting that lights up your mind, or you’re eating something unimaginably great, and you feel 100 percent alive with life itself, the richness of all its possibilities, and you can’t wait to get back home to tell your friends about this secret that you’ve discovered.

That, in large measure, is Baku. And, indeed, all of Azerbaijan.

Right now, Baku is akin to Dubrovnik, Croatia, before “Game of Thrones” made seemingly everyone eager to re-create Cersei’s walk of shame. Baku is beautiful, too, and with its own walled city. It just hasn’t been on TV in the same way — yet.

A little geography. Where is Baku? Where, precisely, is Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan is bounded by the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, there in between Asia and Europe. It is one of the former Soviet republics, independent since August 1991. That is 27 years already. In a variety of significant ways since the 1990s, including politically, culturally and in sports, Azerbaijan has tilted way more toward Europe.

As an example: in Olympic sports, Azerbaijan belongs to — and competes in — the European confederation. Just like its neighbor Georgia.

Let’s be obvious here: Is any country perfect? Especially a state that is just 27 years into nation-building? And one that is emerging from years under Soviet rule? These questions answer themselves.

Baku is Azerbaijan’s sole metropolis. About 2.3 million people live there, roughly 25 percent of the population of the entire country. It is the largest city on the Caspian Sea and, for that matter, of the entire Caucasus region.

Let’s also get this out of the way: Baku is not going to be Ibiza. That is not the vibe.

Not when, say, the city has long been famed for that medieval walled city and when a 12th-century structure, the Maiden Tower, features prominently among things to check out, along with the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a restored 15th-century royal retreat.

For all that, the Baku skyline — of course, there are contemporary landmarks, and they are architecturally remarkable — includes the Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Center, and the Flame Towers, three pointed skyscrapers covered with LED screens.

To be obvious once more, the best part about Baku is precisely what it is not: It is not London, Paris or Barcelona. It is not Beijing nor Shanghai. It is not New York or Miami and South Beach nor LA and Disneyland. It is none of these spots with paths beaten to already.

But don’t be fooled. Baku has much to recommend. Moreover, it is plenty hip and trendy.

Lonely Planet, the hipster guide to know-it-all world travel, has included Baku on its world’s Top 10 destinations for urban nightlife.

In 2012, Baku staged the Eurovision Song Contest.

In 2015, the multisport European Games.

The last two years, it has put on an F1 Grand Prix — Daniel Ricciardo winning in 2017, Lewis Hamilton the 2018 race.

A 2020 UEFA men’s soccer quarterfinal match will be played at Baku’s Olympic Stadium.

Of course, the International Judo Federation makes an annual Grand Slam stop in Baku and, in 2018, the IJF World Championships come to Baku from Sept. 20-27 — a game of throws, as it were.

The Flame Towers are for sure gonna light up. You’d kinda want to be there to take a selfie to show your friends back home.

Discover more about Baku and Azerbaijan with the Judo for the World film:

Alan Abrahamson is an award-winning sportswriter, best-selling author and in-demand television analyst. In 2010 he launched his own website, 3 Wire Sports ( From 2006 until 2010, Alan served as columnist at, and For the 17 years before that, he was a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times; he spent his first nine years at the newspaper covering news and the final eight sports, mostly the Olympic movement. The 2016 Rio Games marked his ninth Olympics, Summer and Winter; he is a member of the International Olympic Committee's press committee.

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