Smart Guide #2 Baku

Azerbaijan's economy is one of the most accelerated on the planet right now, and its capital offers Caspian views and modern hotels.

The fertile oil fields just a ten-minute drive from central Baku, Azerbaijan, have shaped the city's for­tunes for centuries. The fire-worshipping Zo­­ro­as­trians, a Persian sect, revered the eternal flames that leaped from the ground (Azerbaijan means "land of fire" in ancient Persian). Baku's pure, light petroleum was first exploited in 1873, and by the turn of the century the city was producing more than half the world's oil. The Nobels and the French house of the Rothschilds accumulated enormous wealth here, and Baku be­­came a boomtown of stately Beaux-Arts man­sions. In 1920 the Red Army seized the city and turned it into the hub of the Soviet oil industry for the next 70 years, leaving a legacy of cinder-block apartments, Socialist Realist murals, and the Russian language, which is still universally spoken. In 1994, three years after Azerbaijan's independence, BP, along with a consortium of foreign oil com­panies, arranged a transaction that could qualify as the deal of the century, securing $8 billion in oil investments. Now the skyline has been transformed into a forest of skyscrapers as the economy has become one of the most accelerated on the planet.

World-class accommodations are limited, but the 159-room Park Hyatt Baku (from $390; 1033 Izmir St.; 994-12/490-1234; baku.park.hyatt.com) has slick service and a full spa. Sultan Inn (from $230; 20 Boyuk Qala St.; 994-12/437-2305; sultaninn.com), Baku's first boutique hotel, in the Old City, features 11 charming rooms. Its top-floor Ter­race Garden (dinner, $70) is a favorite among oil work­ers and expats who come for the spicy lentil soup, sturgeon carpaccio, and Azeri Chardonnay, the only local wine of note.

Traditional cuisine is a mixture of Turk­ish and central Asian flavors, consisting of lamb kebabs (shashlik), mutton, and meze. Pancara (dinner, $100; 245 Abdulla Saiq Küç; 994-12/510-3700), which has none of the de­­sign horrors of most Baku restaurants?think murals of bears, deer, and vultures?is both popular and authen-tic; Mediterranea (dinner, $70; 11 Hagigat Rzay­eva St.; 994-12/492-9866), in the Old City, has a splendid 17th-century set­ting, though it is a bit touristy. In the sum­mer months, have lunch at Restorant Sahil (127/1 Milli Park, Neftchilar Prospekti; 994-12/497-6455), on the waterfront over­look­ing the Caspian Sea. Fountain Square is where Baku's upper class shops and enjoys the sunshine. Stop for lunch at Azza Kafe (1 Islam Safarli St.; 994-12/437-0111; azza.az). For cock­tails with the local intel­ligentsia, head to the eccentrically dec­o­rated Kishmish Klub (108 Kichik Gala St.; 994-12/492-9182; kishmish.az), where you'll be serenaded with arias.

The State Museum of Carpets and Applied Arts (123 Neftchilar Prospekti; 994-12/4930-501) is one of a handful of cul­tural high­lights. And if you feel inspired, consult Ilham at Magic Carpet (8?10 Gulle St.; 994-12/493-6685) or Mehman at Flying Carpet (67 Asaf Zeynalli St., Uchan Khali; 994-50/392-5550). For exquisitely crafted Azerbaijani and Uzbek ceramics, visit the small boutique Silk Wind (12 U. Haj­ibekov St.; 994-12/498-0401), and for bespoke suits call on the Imperial Tailoring Company (99-450/414-0467; mytailor.ru), which will come to your ho­­tel.

The Unesco-listed Old City?with its Ottoman-inspired architecture, cob­ble­stoned streets, and 15th-century Pal­ace of the Shirvanshahs?is Baku's main attrac­tion. The most ancient monument is the Maiden Tower, allegedly built by the Zoro­astrians, who laid out their dead on its sum­mit to be devoured by vultures. Two premier art gal­ler­ies are also found here. Qiz Qalasi Art Gal­lery (6 Gulle St.; 994-12/ 492-7481; qgallery.net) sells canvases and bronzes by estab­lished local artists, while artist Bahram Halilov has a collection of cutting-edge work at the Center of Contem­porary Art (15 Gulle St.; 994-12/492-5906). For English-speaking guides and drivers, turn to superfixer Halida Nov­ru­zova (944-50/250-4378; khalida.novruzova@gmail.com), who is fluent in English, Rus­sian, Turkish, and Azerbaijani.