Where: Armenia, a land-locked nation south of Georgia, east of Turkey, north of Iran and west of Azerbaijan.
Mostly we were based in the capital Yerevan, but J did a day trip down to Tatev Monastery, right down in the south, and I did a day trip to Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery, just to the east of Yerevan.
When: June/July 2018
Why: We visited Armenia as part of a wider Caucus trip. On this trip we also went to Sofia in Bulgaria (it was our stepping stone to get to the Caucus), Baku in Azerbaijan, and Tbilisi, Borjomi, Batumi and Kutaisi in Georgia.
We travelled from Tbilisi to Yerevan and then from Yerevan to Batumi, in western Georgia.
We arrived in Yerevan on Saturday and then left on Wednesday afternoon, so we had three full days to explore.
I’ve been wanting to go to Armenia for a long time as I’m fascinated by this country’s past. For such a small place, they have a lot of significant history: the oldest shoe and wine making tools have been found here and they were the first country to adopt Christianity, right back in 301.
Armenia wasn’t always such a small country, but as a pawn surrounded by huge empires its land has been moved and depleted. Armenia has suffered a lot over the last few thousand years, particularly during the last century when over 1.5 million people were killed in the Armenian genocide.
Even this year Armenia has had its upheavals, with a peaceful revolution taking place in April 2018. For a while we wondered if we’d be able to visit Armenia on our Caucus trip or whether we risked being caught up in the protests and mass-strikes, but luckily the situation resolved itself pretty quickly and by mid-May the country seemed to be calm again.
I really, really liked Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where we were based. I don’t know if it was just that it contrasted so well with Tbilisi, which I didn’t like, but I really enjoyed spending time in this elegant, pretty, easy to navigate city. What I loved about Yerevan was that it looked cared for; people had made an effort to make it nice. Walking from the metro to our hostel we saw people watering flowers, feeding the birds, even tidying up a park. The buildings looked well-maintained and the pets looked happy and healthy – such a contrast to what we had found in dilapidated Georgia.
Yerevan is small, it’s only the size of a small, English city, but it has lots of interesting things to see and do and downtown is well designed and well looked after. Yerevan is a great little city: there’s lots of pretty parks, cool art, interesting museums, great cafes and restaurants, everyone that we met here was really friendly and kind, and the city infrastructure was good. It’s a relaxed, relatively quiet, friendly city. I think I might get bored if I was staying there longer than a few days, but it was a thoroughly nice place to hang out. It’s also a good base for exploring the rest of Armenia.
The rest of Armenia (well, the parts that we saw) was very pretty and interesting. Some parts reminded me of Wales, some parts reminded me of Turkey. I loved the craggy, rolling hills and the hidden, white water, lush river valleys; Mount Ararat towering over everything, like a snow-topped god. The rest of the country didn’t seem to be as developed as the capital and the infrastructure not so good. Out in the countryside there did appear to be more dilapidated factories and poverty.
When we visited Georgia and Armenia it was the height of a very hot summer. Tbilisi had the hottest day on record whilst we were there (41 degrees Celsius). Also, I was four-months pregnant and so this definitely had an impact on our trip, as we had to limit what we did each day and try to stay out of the extreme heat as much as we could. We were also in Yerevan on a Monday, when most of the tourist sites are closed, so this also restricted what we did.
Many people we met loved Tbilisi and Georgia but didn’t like Yerevan and Armenia, and I have no idea why. Yerevan is a great little city at the heart of a great, little country. We really enjoyed our time here and although we saw most things we wanted to see in the city, we both said we’d like to go back to Armenia to explore further.
We travelled from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, to Yerevan on the sleeper train.
We booked a first class, private cabin for two. This cost us 20,000 dram each (£32/€36). I’ve detailed below how Jeff booked the tickets.
The cabin was very old-Soviet style, but we liked the crazy decor. There was a carriage-attendant to look after our carriage. She provided bedding, water and a comfort kit (slippers, toothbrush etc.) and told us when we had to do things, like go to customs. She also sold tea, though that was the only thing available on the train so if you do want drinks or snacks you should bring them yourselves. Our carriage had two toilets, which were not the best but which were clean and had toilet paper (something the Baku-Tbilisi train hadn’t had). There was a hidden toilet behind the carriage assistant’s compartment, which not many people used and so was nicer.
The beds consisted of two bench seats, and a mat and sheets to roll out on top of these. They weren’t the most comfy, but we managed to sleep a little bit. We did note though that every time we travelled on a sleeper train we lost the next day as we were so tired. Even though we did sleep, it was broken up and disturbed. Our cabin was super hot. If we had air-conditioning it didn’t work very well and the windows in the cabins couldn’t be opened (though the windows out in the corridor could). However, I should note this was the hottest night on record that Tbilisi has ever had.
We left Tbilisi at 22.15. We arrived at the Georgian border at about 23.30 and then it took about two hours to cross the Georgian and Armenian borders. We arrived in Yerevan soon after seven.
Visas and borders
At the Georgian and Armenian borders the guards came onto the train to process passports, although Jeff (Canadian) had to get off the train at the Armenian border to go buy an Armenian visa. This cost him 3,000 dram ($6/€5/£4.80) and he paid for this in dram. J had had to go to four exchange shops in Tbilisi before he could find dram and the smallest note he had was a 10,000 dram note. Apparently they do accept other currencies, but they don’t like it as they have trouble making change.
You can apply for an e-visa before you go to Armenia at evisa.mfa.am. This costs $10.
I had heard stories of guards going through travellers things and questioning them if there is anything from Azerbaijan, but that certainly didn’t happen to us. They were all polite and efficient.
One thing to note, the toilets are locked when you go through the borders. As this can take over an hour it is worth making sure that you go to the bathroom before you reach the borders. Being pregnant, which I managed to explain to the cabin-attendant through sign-language, she kindly unlocked the door for me as I was desperate. Guys, I don’t think you’d be able to do the same thing though.
We arrived at Yerevan station slightly early. (We should have gotten in at 7.25). Yerevan station is simple but beautiful. It seemed to only have one platform. The entrance hall is huge and ornate. There is a cafe with a garden area. I think there might have been some shops too.
Just outside there is a large taxi rank and the Metro. In the Metro corridor there were lots more shops and in the square outside there were snack shops and I think a supermarket. We had very little hassle at the station. One or two taxi drivers approached us, but left as soon as we said no we weren’t looking for a taxi.
How to book train tickets
Jeff booked our train tickets online at the Southern Caucus Railway Website. Here’s some instructions on how too do this.
- If you have problems with their website then use Microsoft Explorer/Edge. I had problems in that it kept not accepting the security code that I’d typed in. As soon as I used Edge, this problem stopped.
- To look up trains and book you first have to register and make a log-in.
- On the registration form it asks you for information, including document series for your passport. This means the letters from your passport number. If you don’t have letter in your passport number, just put in your country.
- Completing this form will then give you a username (the one you have chosen) and then you can use this to look at the booking system.
- To make an enquiry or book you need to log in.
- To make an enquiry or book a ticket go to ‘book ticket’.
- Fill in the information for your enquiry.
- ‘Mode to and back‘ means return.
- In coach category select non-modernised.
- In Coach Class, soft seated carriage is first class (two person private carriage); compartment carriage is a shared compartment for four; carriage with numbered seats is the shared open carriage.
- You have to select the exact thing or it will say there is nothing available.
- Tickets can be booked 30 days in advance.
- They seemed to only accept Mastercard for payment.
- They will email you a confirmation email which you can print off and use as a ticket.
You can find out more about this service and how to book at stations at The Man at Seat 61 website.
At the end of our trip we caught the sleeper train again, but this time to Batumi on the Georgian Black Sea coast. We booked this via the same website.
Find out more about this on the Batumi page.
Yerevan’s Zvarnots International Airport is located to the west of the city. Worryingly, on the airport website the only transport they mention for getting to the centre of the city is taxis and it gives no guidance on price. Luckily, Wikitravel has more information and they suggest that mini-bus 18 runs from the airport to the city centre and costs 250 dram (40p/44c).
You can fly from Tbilisi to Yerevan and this only takes an hour. We decided not to do this as the times didn’t really work out (they were very early flights) and we like sleeper trains as they are accommodation and transport in one.
I’m really not a fan of mashruka mini-buses: they’re very unofficial, usually overcrowded, cramped and often the drivers and vans are pretty dangerous – so I would personally avoid travelling to Yerevan this way. It is faster than the train though (six hours), cheaper and you can just rock up and get on one. Lots of travel websites have information on how to get a mashruka from Tbilisi to Yerevan.
The Korean girl who was in our dorm in Yerevan got a nice coach to Tbilisi, but I have not been able to find any information about this service. Certainly VIP coach services are not currently operating in the Caucus, though hopefully this is starting to change. She told us that she had booked it through a travel agent in Yerevan. I’ll try to find out more and add it here if I find anything out.
Downtown Yerevan is surprisingly small and so we walked everywhere within the city centre.
We got the Metro from the train station (Sasuntsi David metro station (or satsuma David as we called it)) to Revolution Square (Hanrapaetutyan Hraparak station) and then back again later. We bought our tokens from the ticket office and they cost 100 dram each (16p/18c). The stations were quite grand, with interesting Soviet art work, and the trains were clean and good, with clear information signs.
Armenia Gogo has comprehensive information on the Yerevan Metro system, including information about each station.
To get to Yerevan Mall we caught bus 26/27. There was no clear bus stop showing where to get on the bus, but our hostel had directed us to where the buses stopped (just next to the cross roads of Tumanyan Street and Mesrop Mashtots Avenue). The buses weren’t the best: the drivers didn’t seem to want to stop and they never closed their doors; everything happened very fast and you were expected to know the system. We had to pay when we got off the bus and it cost us 100 AMD (16p/18c).
Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a bus map. I think the best thing to do if you do want to travel this way is just to ask your hotel or hostel which bus you should take.
What we did on our holiday
Looking back at our time in Armenia, I’m surprised at how little we did. However, it was 41 degrees whilst we were here, Armenia was experiencing some of the highest temperatures it had ever had, and so we spent quite a bit of time hiding in our air-conditioned room. Being pregnant, I had to be really careful with the heat, also travelling is tiring, so most afternoons I would have to stop to have a nap. This meant that most days we were only really able to do one thing. Had we visited at a cooler time of year and had I not been pregnant, I think we would have ventured out to explore much more of Armenia, the country.
Although it was extremely hot, Yerevan seemed to be prepared for the heat: most cafes had spray cooled patios, there were gardens and parks everywhere, the museums, shops and malls were air-conditioned.
Luckily for us, whilst we were in Yerevan it was the peak of the world cup – so most evenings we would find a restaurant with a huge tele so that we could watch a match. It was interesting seeing which teams the Armenians supported.
Opera House and Freedom Square
To be honest, our first day in Yerevan was a write-off, as we were both exhausted and stinky from our night on the sleeper train. We arrived in Yerevan at about 7.30, so we made our way slowly to our hostel where we left our bags, then we went to the supermarket and to get cash whilst we waited for Gemini French Cafe to open. When it did we had a lovely dawdle here, eating pancakes, drinking coffee and watching Yerevanis walking by.
After our late breakfast we went to explore downtown Yerevan a little and we ended up first in Freedom Square, which is actually a lovely park to the north of the city centre. In this park are loads of pretty, garden, outdoor restaurants, the Opera House, a square with people roller-blading in front, Swan Lake and, while we were there, a huge outdoor screen and seating area to watch the World Cup. This felt like the heart of the city, where people came to congregate and relax and play together. We later visited here at night and it had such a wonderful atmosphere, with all the city coming together.
Running from the south-east corner of the square is Northern Avenue, a pedestrianised shopping street that cuts diagonally across the city towards Republic Square. The shops were open and we had fun popping into Miniso, a Korean/Japanese style store that sold fun house-hold stuff.
By this time it was noonish and we were able to go check in at our hostel, so we went off for showers and siestas and spent the rest of the day relaxing and catching up on sleep.
So we really didn’t do much on our first day, we probably saw only six city blocks, but it was still nice to potter about this thoroughly lovely city on a Saturday morning and to get a feel for this place. We both felt really comfortable and relaxed in Yerevan.
History Museum of Armenia and Republic Square
On the Sunday we first went to Hyur Service’s offices, so that Jeff could pay for his Tatev Tour. On the way we got a bit lost and we ended up in the lovely Charles Aznavour Square, which had a cool statue and a wonderful fountain, that sprayed you with water if you got too close. In the heat, it was heaven.
We then went for an early lunch before making our way to the History Museum of Armenia, which is located in Republic Square.
Republic Square is a large square/plaza, with musical fountains, that is the other heart of Yerevan and a key gathering place in the city. In the recent revolution, this is where people congregated to protest. Around Republic Square are Government House, the History Museum, the National Gallery, the Marriott Hotel and the ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The History Museum of Armenia is a very grand, colonnaded building. It contains exhibits from archaeology, ethnography and modern Armenian history.
Our favourite exhibits at the museum were the ones next to the air-conditioning units. I also loved seeing the world’s oldest shoe (it’s a left shoe that was found under a pile of poo) and the neolithic remains. A lot of the rest of the museum I passed through quite quickly though, especially the religious remains and the traditional clothes bits.
The museum is well laid out with good information. The curators in the rooms were pretty friendly, but the ushers directing us where to go were very strict. You have to follow the allocated route around the museum.
Our entrance ticket was 2000 drams (£3.20/€3.60).
Mall and Cinema
We’d originally hoped to go to visit Echmiadzin on the Monday, but the company we went to book with, Oneday Tours, who advertised that they did this trip on a Monday didn’t do this trip on a Monday after all. To show us what tours they offered they handed us the list of tours which we already had, which said this tour ran on a Monday!
Anyhoo, the reason we wanted to get out of town is that in Yerevan all of the tourist sights are closed on a Monday. That meant we were stuck with nothing to do, so we decided to go to the mall and J decided to go to the cinema to see Tag, which I wasn’t that fussed about. It was 40 degrees outside so we really wanted to find somewhere air-conditioned that we could spend a few hours in – and so the mall seemed like the best option. Also, I always kind of like to pop into malls when I’m travelling as they usually offer food and the familiarity is comforting.
We caught mini-bus 26 or 27 out to Dalma Garden Mall. It had a nice food court, cinema, lots of Western shops and a supermarket. Most of the clothes stores were Spanish high street brands. It wasn’t huge, but it was a nice, cool place to potter about for a few hours. www.dalma.am
The cinema at Dalma Garden Mall is a ‘Cinema Star‘ cinema. Their website is only in Armenian or Russian but Tomsarkgh has a list in English of what films are on in all the Yerevan cinemas and you can break this list down by individual cinemas. It says in red if the film is in English. They also list what concerts are taking place and you can buy tickets here too.
Another option is to go to Yerevan Mall, which is the largest mall in Armenia. This has a large Carrefour. www.yerevanmall.am
The cinema at Yerevan Mall is called Kino Park. You can get cinema times and ticket prices (in English) from www.kinopark.am (you can select English in the top right and the film has a little UK flag next to it if the showing is in English). An adult ticket costs from 1,500 to 5,500 dram (£2.40 – £8.90 / €2.70 – €10).
Day trip to Noravank, Tatev – Ropeway, Karahunj (Zorats Karer)
On the Tuesday, J went on a tour to see the major sights in the south of the country. I really, really, really wanted to go too, but just felt it would probably be too much for me whilst pregnant. This tour covered half the length of the country and lasted over twelve hours.
The first stop on J’s tour was Noravank, which is a thirteenth century monastic complex, with the only two story church in Armenia. The monastery has a really dramatic location, in a narrow river gorge, with craggy red cliffs towering overhead.
The complex includes Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) Church, a.k.a. Burtelashen (Burtel’s construction); Surb Grigor chapel and Surb Karapet church.
The tour spent about an hour at the complex: they had thirty minutes to themselves and then a thirty minute tour with their guide. Apparently the guide was pretty good at pointing out detail and things J hadn’t noticed. Apparently there is also a well that you can climb down (by ladder) but there’s nothing at the bottom. Of course, J did this.
The tour then travelled down through Armenia to Halidzor where they caught the Tatev Ropeway over to Tatev Monastery.
Tatev Ropeway (a.k.a. The Wings of Tatev) is the longest double ropeway cable car in the world at 5.7km (I’m not actually sure what a double ropeway is, but it sounds good). It was this that I had been dreaming about visiting for years. The cable car takes visitors from the village of Halidzor, high over the Vorotan Gorge, across to the isolated Tatev Monastery. The longest section of the cable car rope is 2.7km and it reaches a height of 320 meters. The journey takes about fifteen minutes and an adult return ticket costs 5,000 dram (£8.10/€9.10) in summer and 3,500 dram (£5.60/€6.40) in winter. You can book tickets in advance at the TaTever website.
Tatev Monastery is a 9th century monastery in a truly dramatic location, at the edge of a cliff, overlooking the Vorotan River Gorge. You’d think you’d get bored of all the monasteries in Armenia, but somehow they all seem to have unique, stunning locations which just makes all of them world-class. The Tatev complex has ravines on two sides and defensive walls on the other two sides, so it is well-protected.
Tatev Monastery has played a significant role in this areas history, being an religious, economic and political centre. It has also, like many places in Armenia, been a victim of powerful neighbours and earthquakes, with many treasures and buildings destroyed by marauding armies and mother-nature.
Tatev Monastery used to house Tatev University in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and this university played an important role in preserving Armenian culture at a tempestuous time in their history. You can find out more about Tatev at Wikipedia.
There is a viewpoint overlooking Tatev Monastery and J recommends that you go to it. You can walk there but J wouldn’t advise it as it’s a weavey road that takes a long time to walk. There are ‘taxis’ there waiting to take visitors up to the viewpoint. It should cost 1,000 DRAM per car, but they were actually charged 1,000 dram per person (about £1.60/€2).
There are kiosks by the monastery, to buy drinks and snacks, and a restaurant. There’s also free wifi.
The church is nice and there were priests blessing people. The church was being maintained when J was there. You can go into a part of the complex and this has a window with nice views overlooking the valley. The window had a huge drop next to it.
Finally, on the way back from Tatev, the group stopped at Zorats-Karer, a.k.a. Karahunj, a 7,500 year old stone circle. Some people call it Armenia’s Stonehenge, though in fact it is possibly 2,500 years older. Zorats-Karer consists of a stone circle, ‘lanes’ running across this and individual menhirs. There are 233 stones and 80 of them have a hole in them. It is thought the site was used for astrology, as certain stones align with equinoxes. J says it’s a nice place just to have a rest and relax and that the valley is very pretty.
J highly recommends the Hyur Service Tatev tour. He said the guide was good, though he talked for twelve hours straight. They left at nine a.m. and he got back about 9.30. The bus was air-conditioned, it had wifi and they got free water. Close to Yerevan the highway was a proper express way, but at the moment the rest of the road is not so good. They are building a new highway though, down to the Iranian border, and the hope is that soon people will be able to get to the border within two to three hours.
The tour cost 18,000 dram (£29/€32), but this included all entrance fees and lunch. In total it lasted for about twelve hours.
Day trip to Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery
Garni Temple is a Greco-Romano temple about an hour outside of Yerevan. Geghard Monastery is located at the tip of the same valley and this is a beautiful rock-cut monastery, in a beautiful setting. I (Jen) took a day tour to see both of these sites.
Our first stop on this tour was at Charents Arch, a monument overlooking Mount Ararat. This simple arched structure gave the perfect framing for the holy, snow-topped mountain that so dominates this landscape; although on the day we were there it was very hazy and our view of the mountain wasn’t very clear. What was lovely was that at the Arch there were a group of Armenia acapella singers and their voices and harmonies were so wonderful and majestic. What was also lovely was that they weren’t singing for money, or at least they weren’t indicating that they wanted anything, they seemed to just be there to perform.
Garni Temple is so cool: it’s a colonnaded, stereotypical Greek temple, located on a plateaux overlooking a rocky, craggy, dramatic valley. It was probably built in 77AD by Tiridates 1. It collapsed in an earthquake in 1679 and then was reconstructed in the 1970s. Also on the site of the temple are the remains of a 7th century Christian Church and the remains of a Roman bathhouse, complete with mosaic.
The site is very well maintained, with pretty flower beds, clean toilets, information boards and water fountains. The actual temple was pretty busy with school groups when we arrived, but I did manage to get some time to myself inside, on the steps and by the colonnades. I think we had about an hour to explore and that was more than enough time.
After visiting the temple we all met up at a restaurant next to the temple where some local ladies showed us how they made lavash bread. It’s made by pressing the dough onto the sides of an oven under the ground. The poor ladies looked so hot, sitting over the oven making this demonstration bread for us. The tour group were then given the bread along with local cheese and greens, to have for our lunch. It looked lovely, but being pregnant I wasn’t able to indulge – apart from having some of the lovely, smoky flat-bread.
I’d noticed when I entered the restaurant that it had the most wonderful terrace overlooking Garni Temple from afar and I asked if I could go sit there, to sit in the breeze, look at the view and have a cool drink – and they said of course, though they did appear to be setting up this area for a large party. No one else came to join me and I can’t help but feeling they missed out as the views over the temple and the valley were simple stunning.
After lunch, we continued up the valley to Geghard Monastery, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Geghard means spear, and the monastery is named thus as the spear that pierced Jesus’ side at the crucifixion used to be housed here, brought here by the apostle St Jude. The spear can now be seen in the treasury at Echmiadzin.
This dramatic monastery is built into the mountain-side and surrounded by cliffs full of hermit caves. The monastery is located in the most beautiful place at the tip of the Azat River Gorge, an Eden like paradise of peace, bubbling white water, bees, butterflies and flowers. If you go to the toilets at the back of the complex you come out into the river valley, in the most idyllic spot. I can see why people would want to be hermits here: it’s beautiful.
The complex was founded in the 4th century by Gregory the Illuminator, who built the original monastery on the site of a holy spring. You can see and drink from the holy spring, which is located in a side cave chapel. The original monastery was destroyed by the Turks and the current church was built in the 13th century.
On our visit we went into the main chapel of the church, with our guide, she then took us to the candle and spot-lit, rock gavit (a kind of meeting room), a cave chapel at the back of the complex and to the jhamatun, an upper room with a hole through to the cave chapel below, which is supposed to have perfect acoustics. Apparently Geghard used to be a famous music school. Our guide tried to encourage us to sing to test out the acoustics, but we all declined (though I secretly wanted to).
We were then left alone to explore the rest of the site and I went to look at the sacred spring, the river at the back of the complex and some of the caves. We spent about an hour here in total (which in the heat was enough time).
Wikipedia has more information about the history of both Garni and Geghard.
Both sites are about 40 minutes drive out of Yerevan. You can get to Garni on public transport and then get a taxi from Garni to Geghard. I spoke to someone in the hostel who had done this, and it seemed that overall he paid the same amount as I did for the tour but that it was a lot more hassle to get to these places and his trip involved a lot more hanging around at hot road sides.
I travelled to see both places on a tour with Yeranitravel. They were a great company to tour with: their mini-bus was modern and air-conditioned, had wifi, a fridge with cold bottles of water and snacks, they collected me from my hostel and the guide was really knowledgeable. I was also able to book online. The only downside was that they didn’t confirm my booking as they said they were going to and I had to phone them to check what time I was going to be collected and to confirm. Other than that, they were great and they would definitely be my first choice for Armenian tours.
Our bus dropped us off next to the Cascades after our tour, so I went to have a look at the sculpture park at the base of the building. Here they had some cool and funny statues.
The Cascades is an interesting building: the exterior is a set of 572 steps with water cascading down the side (these have now sprouted vegetation, so the steps look quite green). Inside is the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, a contemporary art gallery.
Because they were setting up for a concert and I was tired after my tour, I didn’t actually go inside – but if I go back to Yerevan this is somewhere that I’d like to visit again to explore further.
What we didn’t do on our holiday
Echmiadzin is the centre of Christianity in Armenia. It is where the first mother church of Armenia was built, by Gregory the Illuminator. Echmiadzin was the capital of Armenia from 180 to 340 AD, which is when Armenia became the first Christian nation (301AD).
The main cathedral is called Mayr Tachar. This was originally built in 303, making it the oldest cathedral in the world, although it has been ruined and rebuilt over the centuries. Apparently the church has beautiful frescoes and the alter is where Gregory the Illuminator saw the divine light strike the ground.
Also in the building is the Cathedral Museum, which contains amazing religious treasures, such as the Holy Lance, the spear used to pierce Jesus’ side when he was on the cross, a hand-shaped reliquary of John the Baptist, and a gold reliquary that is said to contain part of the True Cross. The Holy Lance was originally housed at Geghard Monastery, said to have been brought there by St Jude. www.armenianchurch.org
Echmiadzin is located in the city of Vagharshapat. Also in Vagharshapat is the church Surp Hripsime, built in 618 on the site where St Hripsime was killed. St Hripsine was a nun who fled to Armenia to escape marriage to the Roman emperor Diocletian (see the Split, Croatia page for more about Diocletian). She was then stoned to death after she refused to marry the pagan King Trdat 3, because she wanted to stay true to her faith.
For some reason, Lonely Planet is pretty down on Echmiadzin – we still wanted to go though. We tried to book a tour to visit the sights in Echmiadzin on the Monday, but sadly that didn’t work out.
Echmiadzin is thirty minutes from Yerevan.
Incidentally, whilst researching this page I found this cool list of oldest churches on Wikipedia. I’d love to go see some of these places.
Lake Savan is so big it covers a sixth of Armenia. Apparently it is very pretty and somewhere that people go to for summer holidays. There are the remains of two pretty 4th century churches on the banks of the lake at Sevenavank. You can catch a train to Lake Savan from Yerevan. It leaves about 8.30 in the morning.
Genocide Museum, Yerevan
From 1915 – 1922, 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Turkey in what is called the Armenian genocide. The Genocide Museum in Yerevan tells the story of these terrible events, through contemporary photos and media.
The museum sits in the hillside below the genocide monument. The monument consists of 12 basalt slabs that lean over an eternal flame and a wall which lists the names of those massacred.
J wanted to go to the Genocide Museum, though personally I wasn’t sure that this was something I wanted to visit whilst on holiday. It’s not that I don’t want to learn about these events, just that I felt that for me this wasn’t the time.
Lonely Planet has more information on how to get to the site. The site is closed on a Monday, which is why we were unable to visit.
Erebuni Palace, Yerevan
The Erebuni settlement was a palace complex founded in 782BC by Argishti 1 of Urartu. This excavation site sits on a hill in a suburb to the south-east of Yerevan. Archaeologists have uncovered the ruins of the fortress, including temples, courtyards and parts of the royal palace. They have unearthed tombs and relics, including mosaics, wine jars and cool drinking horns (I like the one with the horse rider sitting on it).
I really wanted to go here, but sadly the archaeological park and museum were closed on the Monday, our only spare day.
Brandy Tour, Yerevan
You can take a tour of the cellars and tasting rooms of the Yerevan Ararat brandy factory. You can have a tour with a tasting where you get to try different kinds of brandies. brandy.am/eng/tours
Levon’s Devine Underground
I didn’t hear about Levon’s Devine Underground until I started writing this page, but if I had known about it I think I definitely would have visited this strange place. Basically, in 1985 Levon Arkelyan was asked by his wife to build a potato storage under their house. Instead, he spent the next 23 years digging out a series of caves as a temple. He did all this using only a hammer and chisel. Sadly, Levon died in 2008, planning to expand the caves even further. Today, his wife Tosya will take people on tours of the caves and a small museum that has been set up in their home.
The caves are located in the village of Arinj, about fifteen minutes north of Yerevan. Some tours stop here or you can come here by taxi.
The Vardever Festival is an Armenian festival where people soak each other with water. Sadly for us, we missed it by days. I would have loved for people to come out and soak me in the extreme heat here. The festival moves around with Easter. Wikipedia has more information about the festival and dates for upcoming years.
Where we stayed
Bivouac Hostel is one of those hostels that just know what they are doing. In the dorms each bed has a light, plug socket and curtain, plus a lockable drawer under the bed for each guest to store their things in. I love these huge drawers that are being introduced as usually they are big enough to store whole backpacks in, you can store all your stuff together and they help reduce random stuff being left around dorms, which can sometimes be a little annoying.
There was a lovely, sunny common area where we could watch World Cup matches and chat to other guests. The whole place was air-conditioned, which was heaven when it was 41 degrees outside. Reception was 24 hours and the staff who worked here were super helpful and lovely. And they had a kitchen where they served a free breakfast each day (bread, jam, cheese, coffee) and where you could wash your clothes for a small fee.
The hostel wasn’t super cool and snazzy, it wasn’t a loud party hostel, it was just good, grown up hostel, and we enjoyed our time here. We chose to stay in Bivouac, even though we’re a married couple and I’m pregnant, as it just looked like the best value, easy to stay in accommodation in Yerevan and we wanted to have the opportunity to meet other travellers, something you don’t get so much in hotels.
Bivouac is located just outside the city centre, on a side-road one street up from the Opera House. There is a wonderful French cafe on the corner of the street (Gemini) and a good supermarket just around the corner (SAS).
We paid 30,000 Dram each (£48/ €53) for four nights in a dorm bed; so about £12 per night. We booked it through booking.com.
Where we ate and drank
Yerevan is a great place for eating and drinking, with hundreds of wonderful flower-bedecked, pavement cafes, funky bars and international dining options. The range of food and drinks and the high quality of the places to eat was one of the things that surprised and delighted us most about the city.
SAS Supermarket, Tumanyan Street
We self catered for one or two of our lunches and we got all of our supplies from the great SAS supermarket on Tumanyan Street, which was just around the corner from our hostel. This small supermarket had a huge range of products, much more than in Georgian or Spanish supermarkets, and we had loads of fun looking at all the interesting things they sold.
There was also an exchange booth and a HSBC ATM in the market.
Gemini French Cafe
On the corner of our street and Tumanyan Street was this wonderful Parisian style pavement cafe, so realistic it even had a flower seller. Gemini Cafe is connected to Gemini coffee shop and they serve wonderful coffees and pancakes (no decaf though, sadly). We visited twice for breakfast and we loved dawdling outside, watching all the people go by.
More info can be found at Lonely Planet.
Also of note is Queen Cake, the scrumptious, drool-worthy cake shop that is two doors down from Gemini. I just wanted to splat my face in their cream cakes. Maybe it’s a good thing for them that we never went in – we just stood at the window and drooled.
Cactus was a fun Mexican restaurant located on Mesrop Mashtots Avenue. It was a fun and easy place to eat, with lots of vegetarian options, a large screen TV so we could watch the football and spray-cooled air. The food was standard, but okay and the servings were good. They had an interesting and varied menu, which included cheese and pineapple on sticks, which I love!
The only downside was that the waiting staff were a little rude and when Jeff asked them for a refill of his beer, they brought him the most expensive beer, rather than the one we had initially had. We enjoyed eating here but didn’t want to go back again.
Khinkali is a specialty of Georgia and Armenia. They are wonderful steamed dumplings full of meat, mushrooms or cheese. Jeff loves these so we went to Khinkali, a nice street-side restaurant to try some Armenian versions. The problem was, the waiter wanted to talk at us and didn’t listen to what we said. Jeff said he was interested in trying the khinkali and the waiter took this as an order – didn’t ask him what type he wanted and took no order from me, just talked at us about Armenia and Armenian culture – which was interesting, but we wanted to order food. Suddenly a plate of meat khinkali arrived, which neither of us could eat (me because I’m pregnant and J as he’s vegetarian), but we hadn’t ordered this. J, rather than waste the meat, ate them. I got another waiter’s attention and then got to order my food, which was another local specialty: chopped pork with gravy and potatoes – which was perfect and delicious for a Sunday lunch.
It was a very disjointed meal and although the food was good, I don’t think I’d go back here. The service was too slap dash, the bill was split into two (apparently it was too restaurants running together as one), and the patio was too smoky.
Another place that was quite smoky was Jazzve. People still smoke inside in Armenia and in most places we didn’t really notice this, but in Jazzve we did. However they did also serve absolutely delicious coffees and desserts.
We went to the Jazzve located next to the Armenian History Museum and it was a lovely, sophisticated coffee shop which had wonderful, cool fans.
Dargett Craft Beer
This was my favourite bar-restaurant in Yerevan. Dargett Craft Beer served pub food and beer brewed in their basement. We went here to watch the Spain-Russia World Cup match and the place was packed, but with a really good atmosphere. Despite the crowds we managed to get a table and the service was still pretty quick. J enjoyed trying three of the beers and had a Greek wrap, I had chicken wings and onion rings. The food was good pub food and good value.
The pub had a huge basement area and a terrace, which also had screens.
Dragon Garden Restaurant was a Chinese restaurant located next to Dargett Craft Beer. I went here on my own whilst Jeff was off on his Tatev tour. I went early, to try to reduce disruption, but like may restaurants they weren’t happy about having a single-diner. The staff also struggled with me being English and seemed to keep hiding from me.
I first tried to sit in the empty interior, but there was no air-conditioning and it was so hot, so I moved to an outside table on the terrace. It was still pretty empty at this point so I wasn’t getting in anyone’s way. They also had exterior TV screens, so I was able to watch the football and the following programmes whilst dining, which was nice as a solo diner.
The portions were enormous, obviously designed for sharing, but good, standard Chinese fare.
Afterwards, I tried not to dawdle so they could have my table (a big group was trying to cram themselves onto a smaller table next to me), but it took forever to get the staff’s attention so I could pay.
Cafe La Boheme
Cafe La Behome is a bog-standard, Italian style, chain-restaurant, located on Northern Avenue, that we stopped at on the way to the train station. The great thing about Italian restaurants is that they almost always offer vegetarian food, which is great for J. It was quick and efficient, meh kind of food. Nothing overly special but good for a quick lunch.
Rough Guides has two good articles about Armenia: Five ways to experience Armenia and an article about Yerevan.
wikitravel.org/en/Yerevan and en.wikivoyage.org/wiki/Yerevan
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.