Armenia is an absolutely incredible destination and I recommend visiting as soon as possible. It’s packed with great food, wine, hospitality, culture and history– as well as plenty of ruins, monasteries, and parks. I spent a few days there in 2012 and I wish I could’ve stayed longer!
Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, has several buildings made of the pink, flesh-colored volcanic rock (“Toof”), which–combined with some interesting Soviet-era architecture– gives it a unique feeling. I stayed at the Hyatt, directly across from the Government Building (a massive building made of Toof) on the Republic Square in the center of town. The central plaza has a dancing fountain that lights up and and “performs” in the evenings. Heading further into town, the Charles Aznavour Square is a lively spot — and it’s worth stopping by the nearby Freedom Square, which has the Armenian National Opera. Don’t miss the Holy Mother of God Kathoghike Catholic Church, which dates back to the 13th century and has a distinctive Armenian design (built of Toof, naturally). On the south side of town is the massive St. Gregory The Illuminator Cathedral.
One important site to visit is the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex, which provides a sobering reminder of a dark period of Armenia’s history.
On the north side of town, walking up an elaborate, decorative staircase with terraced gardens known as the Cascade Complex, you’ll reach the Victory Park, which offers great panoramic views of the city. There’s also a Mother Armenia statue on top, with an eternal flame, some military hardware, and informative war exhibitions.
Walking beyond the Victory Park, I came upon someone selling Kvass (a lightly fermented yeast-based soda) out of a large metal tanker. (I probably wouldn’t buy in bulk quantities, but it’s a decent beverage for a hot summer day : )
Armenia is famous for its brandy / cognac, and perhaps the most famous brand is Ararat. You can visit the Ararat museum, which is west of the city center. My taxi driver (Samvel) and I started discussing cognac (through broken language and hand-signals, since neither of us spoke the other’s language) and the next thing I knew, he took me to his house and we started drinking cognac! His wife made a large lunch of fresh vegetables, bread, cheese, and watermelon. When I eventually had to head out, he gifted me with a huge decorative bottle of cognac — such a great memory!
For dinner, I met up with some friends and went to The Club Restaurant, a cozy basement restaurant with delicious food and wine — I had (and highly recommend getting) the steak on a stone. Afterwards, we went out to the main square where people were celebrating in the streets as Armenia just won an international chess championship — so we joined in the celebration!
About 20 kilometers west of Yerevan is Vagharshapat, or Etchmiadzin, which is the seat of the Armenian Orthodox Church. To get there, I just hired a taxi driver for a half a day (Samvel — mentioned above); we agreed on a price and a few things I wanted to go see along the way, and we were off!
Be sure to see the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin and the Treasury House Museum, which has numerous religious artifacts and relics. There are numerous other impressive churches in the complex, as well as the Pontifical residence. Don’t miss the nearby Saint Gayane Monastery, as well.
About 25 kilometers southeast of Yerevan, on the western edge of the Khosrov State Forest is the Garni Temple, a pagan structure that dates back to the 1st century AD. It’s well-preserved with decorative columns built in the Greek style, with an ornate stone internal ceiling. The surrounding countryside is beautiful, as well — so it’s easy to combine a visit to Garni with a picnic and a day hike. You should also budget time to see the nearby Geghard Monastery (below). You can either rent a car and drive yourself or have your hotel arrange a (half) day trip from Yerevan.
About 10 km away from the Garni Temple is the Geghard Monastery, a medieval church built into the mountainside of the surrounding mountains of the Azat River Gorge. A chapel was formed in a cave in the 4th century when a spring was declared as sacred by Gregory the Illuminator (Remember him? There’s a large cathedral named after him in Yerevan). The cave chapel grew into a larger monastery complex built into the side of the mountain, with the main chapel being built in 1215. Atlas Obscura has a good piece on this monastery if you’d like to learn more. It’s possible to visit all the chapels–including the original cave portion– and drink from the spring. Inside the cave are old stone carvings of crosses and other symbols, and you have to step carefully to avoid water pooling from the flowing spring.
I encountered a few people selling Gata, a large decorative sweetbread, which was delicious and dense, but too much for one person! I kept it with me for several days, eating a little at a time with coffee or tea.
Vardavar: After touring around the country, I returned to Yerevan just in time for Vardavar — a Christian holiday (apparently with Pagan roots) where people drench each-other with water. On this day, it’s acceptable to throw a bucket of water on an unsuspecting stranger! Even though a friend told me about it the night before, I forgot about it the next morning until some kids started blasting me with a Super-Soaker from a second-floor balcony window shortly after I left my hotel. People of all ages perch in balconies and throw buckets of water down onto passers-by on the sidewalk — it’s really entertaining! If you happen to be planning a summer trip to Armenia, you might as well try to have it coincide with Vardavar.
Leaving Armenia: I took one of the Marshrutka buses– basically a minivan taxi– from Yerevan to Tbilisi, Georgia. It was a pleasant, scenic drive (appx 5 hours) and didn’t cost very much. (Note– the border with Azerbaijan is closed, so if you want to go there overland, you’ll have to first transit through Georgia.)
Something for next time: Lake Sevan is located in the middle of Armenia and is known as a great getaway for swimming, hiking, and relaxing. I didn’t make it last time, but it’s at the top of my list for the next visit. Also high on the list is the ancient Sanahin Monastery Complex and the Tatev Monastery, perched dramatically in the mountains.
Note that several Armenian tour operators also offer tours to the contested region of Nagarno-Karabakh, ranging from single day trips to multiple day packages. Important: I understand that if someone has visited this region (or other contested regions), they will be denied entrance to Azerbaijan.