Baku, Azerbaijan

In a place where traditional Islamic values blend seamlessly with the industrial nature of its Soviet past, it can be easy to forget where you are in the world on a trip to Baku.  The Azeri capital's fast-paced effort to shed all of the grey, bleak reminders of the USSR's former firm grip makes this one of the most rapidly changing and growing cities in the world (as evident in the incredible triage of the Flame Towers, which are visible from all points in the city).  I think the next time I come back, the place will look totally different.

One of the areas that's sure to keep its old charm and style, however, is the walled old town, in the heart of Baku.

The more modern parts of the city are lush with fountains, parks, and plenty of high-end shopping to whet any Gucci-loving appetites.

One of the most incredible works of modern architecture in Baku is the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, designed by famed female architect, Zaha Hadid.  The building is a complex work of art itself, and I highly recommend a visit, even if there isn't an excellent Andy Warhol exhibit on at the time!

Really no trip to Azerbaijan is complete without a carpet-buying experience, as the Azeri's produce some really gorgeous designs.  Proper carpet-buying should consist of plenty of tea, conversation, rolled out rugs, and haggling.  It's a good 2-hour affair--one that I was happy to have at the Flying Carpet shop in Old Baku with Remi and his brother.

Even with all of the oil money and change running throughout Baku, fast fried chicken still has a surprising and prominent role to play.  Here, the World's Largest KFC has completely infiltrated the historic 1926 Sabunchu train station.  This seemingly tragic comedy does have a bit of a silver lining--the chicken company poured millions of euros into completely restoring the once crumbling and doomed building (signs of the times?), and the Moorish design and intricate interior (with cathedral ceilings) are quite lovely to gaze at.  Another blending of old and new that they seem to have mastered here.

Baku really has of yet to make it onto the must-do travel scene, which may just be reason enough to head there.  If the city has anything to say about it, it's almost a guarantee that no repeat visit will yield the same views, much less the same experience!