Location: Armenia is in the Southern Caucasus, bordering Azerbaijan, Turkey, Georgia, and Iran. The country lies at the crossroads of the Middle East and Russia, making it a meeting point of world powers, diverse cultures, and fallen empires.*
Flight time: 16 hours from NYC to the capital, Yerevan (1 connection)
Population: 3 million
Armenia, thanks to its millenniums-old culture and tumultuous past, is a resilient nation with a strong culture and a beautiful landscape dotted with monasteries and crumbling Soviet structures.
The country is largely under-traveled, giving the adventurous traveler a rare opportunity to journey outside the realm of mainstream tourism. But because neighboring Georgia is rising on must-see travel lists, Armenia will become more popular—so now is the time to go.
Center your trip around Yerevan, the country’s capital. Severe, Soviet-era buildings dominate the main streets, but follow a side road and you’ll likely stumble upon a green courtyard alive with neighbors chatting. Beyond the city stands snowcapped Mount Ararat.
Mount Ararat technically falls within Turkey but remains the symbol of Armenian culture. The mountain hosted the gods in the country’s pre-Christian mythology. Then as Christianity spread in the region—Armenia became the first Christian nation around 300 CE—Mount Ararat became integral to Armenia’s culture; legends tell of Noah’s ark landing on Mount Ararat.
Now the mountain is a bittersweet reminder of a lost homeland and of a persecuted people. Mount Ararat and surrounding lands were ceded to Turkey in 1921, cutting off what Armenians viewed as western Armenia. The loss followed the 1915 Armenian genocide when Ottoman policies mandated an ethnic cleansing of the area. Armenia continues to mourn the lives lost: Musicians, artists, and politicians all long for the full restoration of Armenia.
Armenia was part of the Soviet Union until 1991, so most people speak Russian. Traveling around the country can be challenging if you don’t speak Russian (or Armenian), but carrying a phrasebook will help (look for one in eastern Armenian, if you go that route).
The city’s attractions, as well as most hotels and hostels, are mainly within the walkable city center. Exploring Yerevan fully takes three or four days. The city also serves as a good base for day trips. If you want to explore outside Yerevan, allow at least three additional days.
Where to stay
All types of accommodations in Yerevan are extremely affordable.
Airbnb: This option taps into Yerevan’s ability to lull you into its rhythm. Two days into your stay, and you’ll greet the local grocer by name. Renting a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen in the city center can cost as little as US$30 per night. But the average runs about US$60 per night.
Hostel: The Envoy Hostel provides a social atmosphere, organized trips outside Yerevan, and a helpful staff who will answer your questions. The cost of a tour depends on how many people join it, but the average price is US$40 per person. A bed at the Envoy starts at US$12, including breakfast and Wi-Fi.
Next door is the popular bar and lounge, Calumet. A night at Calumet will likely involve traditional Armenian dancing with locals (they’ll teach you) to a Calvin Harris remix, with shots of Calumet’s signature beverage in between.
Hotel: The Armenia Marriott Hotel is just off Republic Square, in the center of Yerevan (although farther from the nightlife). Republic Square is home to the Museum of Armenian History and the National Art Gallery of Armenia. Rooms start at US$100 per night.
Where to eat
Armenia’s cuisine draws from Russian and Turkish culture and from Armenia’s returning diaspora community. Eastern Armenian food leans more toward barbecue and pumpkins and eggplants stuffed with nuts, meat, dried fruit, and rice. Western Armenian food resembles Turkish cuisine: think kebab, dolma, beef kofta (a type of meatball), and cucumber-yogurt soup. And as diaspora Armenians return to Yerevan, they bring outside culinary influences (such as Iran and Syria).
Lunch: Join the crowd at Smak Salad Bar where your Soviet-influenced lunch comes with a good helping of people-watching. College students and lunching ladies spend time at this casual spot. The salad bar menu changes regularly and gives you a taste of the USSR: pickled vegetables, sausages, beef meatballs, a few mystery ingredients, and a hunk of bread to clean your plate. Nothing is labeled in English, so just point to what looks interesting.
Coffee: Settle in for coffee at Mirzoyan Library. The coffee shop is hidden inside a typical old Yerevan courtyard off a side street. Traditional Armenian coffee resembles Turkish coffee: finely ground coffee, sugar, and (sometimes) cardamom stirred over the stove. (Whether to call it Turkish or Armenian coffee remains a point of national contention.)
Mirzoyan Library is difficult to find, so block off some time to wander Yerevan’s neighborhoods, with men playing backgammon and locals setting up shop as you search.
Dinner: At Gayane’s feels like an Armenian grandmother’s house, packed with antiques and kitschy knickknacks. The traditional eastern Armenian cuisine served here features adventurous dishes like tail khashlama (steamed ox tail) and old favorites like borscht. The restaurant is popular, so call ahead for a table.
Where to drink
Russian author Maxim Gorky once said, “It is easier to get on Mount Ararat than to get out of the Ararat [Brandy] cellars.” This statement rings true today. The brandy made here is close to 40 proof, but its smooth taste makes drinking glass after glass easy. Imbibe this rich spirit at Yerevan Brandy Company. You can schedule your tour and tasting online.
Armenia is one of the world’s oldest wine-producing countries. The grapes mainly come from the Vayots Dzer Province, home of the Areni cave where archeologists found evidence that wine was made more than 6,100 years ago. The vineyards surrounding Areni continue to make wine using ancient traditions. Enjoy wines of today at Wine Republic, which serves Armenian wine by the glass or bottle—try the Zorah Karasi Arnei Noir.
What to do
The Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts is proof of Armenians’ pride in their language. On display are intricately illuminated government and religious manuscripts that address Armenia’s cultural groundings and historical challenges.
Nearby, you can find English translations of Armenian literature and history at Bureaucrat Bookstore and Artbridge Bookstore Cafe. Look for anything by Yeghishe Charents, a celebrated Armenian poet of the 20th century. His lines wrestle with the expression of Armenian identity amid political turmoil.
From 1915 to 1923, 1.5 million Armenians perished at the hands of the Ottomans. The Armenian Genocide weighs heavily on the nation; purple forget-me-nots, the commemorative symbol for the Armenian Genocide Centennial, appear throughout Armenia. The Armenian Genocide Museum tells the stories behind the forget-me-nots. Block out at least half a day for the museum, which is located outside the city center.
Day trips from Yerevan are best done by car, which lets you stop at small villages that often have striking churches overlooked by tourists and provide a view of rural Armenian life. Public transportation can be infrequent and difficult with language barriers. Hitchhiking is possible—and even easy along main roads—but difficult in smaller villages.
Renting a car in Armenia averages US$50 per day. Major car rental companies such as Hertz and Europcar have offices at the airport and in Yerevan. To book a car with an English-speaking driver, expect to pay US$100 a day. This can be arranged through a hostel or hotel, even if you’re not a guest. The countryside can be mountainous, so if you rent, ask for a sturdy car.
Main roads and historic sites outside Yerevan are well marked.
A must-do day trip: Visit the three main churches near Yerevan—Etchmiadizn Cathedral, Khor Virap Monastery, and the Geghard Monastery—along with the Garni Temple. If possible, plan your trip on a Sunday. Listening to the Badarak (Divine Liturgy) of the Armenian Apostolic Church lets you experience a tradition that’s continued nearly two millennia. The Badarak involves soulful chants by the priest and a choir (the sound is reminiscent of Gregorian chanting).
Etchmiadizn Cathedral is said to be the oldest Christian cathedral in the world, dating back to the 4th century. Khor Virap Monastery sits atop a hill in the Ararat Plains, providing a fine view of Mount Ararat. St. Gregory the Illuminator, who is credited with converting Armenia to Christianity, was imprisoned here for 13 years. Geghard Monastery, is one of Armenia’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The monastery passages and chapels are carved directly into the cliffs, while wandering paths lead you around the Azat River valley.
Just down the road is Garni Temple, a Roman temple dedicated to the sun goddess Mythra. It is the only pagan temple left in Armenia, and it’s built atop an Urartian temple from pre-Christian Armenia.
Along the road through the countryside, locals at small stalls sell souvenirs, honey, sweet sujukh (a mix of nuts, thickened grape juice, and flour hardened into a chewy candy served on a string), and a variety of homemade liquors. Make your experience truly local by trying sujukh and homemade village vodka. Usually, vendors will let you have an impromptu vodka tasting. This alcohol (its proof is a mystery) is sold in unsealed, recycled plastic water bottles. That’s how you know it’s authentic stuff.
*Travel note: You cannot cross between Armenia and Azerbaijan or Armenia and Turkey. Armenia has a tumultuous relationship with both countries.
The border with Azerbaijan remains closed due to a dispute concerning Nagorno-Karabakh. The region is technically in Azerbaijan, but the primarily Armenian population that lives there is pushing for independence.
The border between Turkey and Armenia remains closed because relations between the two countries have not normalized. Armenia demands that the Turkish government acknowledge the genocide, and Turkey demands that Nagorno-Karabakh remain with Azerbaijan.
Neither conflict will affect your travel and safety within Armenia.
© 2016 AFAR Media