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; firstname.lastname@example.org), who is fluent in English, Russian, Turkish, and Azerbaijani.