From enjoying the world’s longest cable car ride through the mesmerising landscapes of Vorotan canyon to admiring some of the oldest monasteries on record, these are just some of the reasons you should travel to Armenia.
When you travel in Armenia you will often wonder, how come more people aren’t placing Armenia higher on their bucket list?
Not a lot of nations can boast to have preserved their rich cultural heritage dating far back as the ancient times. The perfect examples being the town Yerevan, that is 28 years older then Rome or, their 6,000 year old wine making tradition!
This small country will draw you in with it’s capturing landscapes, ancient monuments and unparalleled hospitality. If you’re up for discovering one of Europe’s best kept secrets travel to Armenia!
An Introduction On Travel To Armenia
Armenia is not a country that often rings a bell with tourists, which is actually surprising given that it is such an interesting country with an incredibly old, rich and eventful history, fascinating culture and beautiful nature.
The hospitable inhabitants, delicious food and cheap prices, together with a lack of (western) tourists make it a wonderful destination.
The history of Armenia has been nothing short of eventful. It has seen countless invasion as its strategic position was the reason for constant fights over this territory, especially during the Ottoman-Persian wars (from the 16th century).
Over the course of history numerous major conflicts afflicted the country. Already centuries ago Armenia was battling the Roman Empire (62), invading the Byzantine empire (1145) and losing west Armenia to Turkey while the rest of the country was being Sovietized (1920) to name a few.
Armenia has also been the subject of many mythical stories, like the stranding of the ark of Noach on Mt Ararat, the holy mountain of Armenia, or the conversion to Christianity.
Nowadays the country is mostly known for the horrors of the Armenian genocide and as the first country in the world that adopted Christianity as its state religion.
More presently, the current poor relations with Turkey stem from their role in the genocide and there is a still unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory operating as a de facto state that is an unrecognized ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan.
So over the centuries much has happened in Armenia, which is why it is so interesting in a cultural sense. Not only for culture buffs though, as the small country packs a great variety in magnificent landscapes that will surely satisfy nature lovers.
General Advice For Travelling In Armenia
If you’re thinking about travelling to Armenia, here are the general things you need to know before you go.
Outside of the capital you can easily assume that nobody speaks English. The language that is spoken is Armenian with its own alphabet.
You can get by fairly well with Russian though as it is the most common foreign language in the country and many Armenians understand it. Road signs are usually in English and in Armenian.
Try to learn a few words like hello (barev) and thank you (mersi), which is much appreciated by the locals. Most accommodation and tour providers speak just enough English to be able to sort things out (if not, try some self-invented sign language which usually works. Or not).
Armenians are very friendly and will try their hardest to help you out, even when they don’t speak a word of English. It’s not uncommon to attract a group of about 10 Armenians when asking for directions, everyone weighing in with one or two words in English and their take on the directions you should have.
Armenia has an interesting, varied and delicious cuisine, with some dishes being well known even beyond Armenia like Shashlick and Dolma.
A lot of the dishes are meat based and they throw everything on grills and barbecue, including vegetables. Soon you’ll notice that the delicious barbecue smell is present basically everywhere you go.
You will eat a lot of Lavish, thin flatbread that is made in a traditional ‘tonir’ oven and is complimentary with almost every dish but doesn’t bore easily.
Common ingredients in Armenian dishes are lamb, eggplant, yoghurt, cottage cheese, grape leaves and many fragrant spices.
There are too many dishes to list and specify if they are delicious or not. I recommended to just try out a lot of different dishes and ask the person who is selling the food what they like.
Armenians appreciate tourists taking an interest in their culture, including food, and asking questions about it usually gets you an excited Armenian and something tasty to eat.
In that way you get to try some new things and there aren’t any exceptionally weird dishes anyway so it is rather safe to do.
Most of the local beer is nothing special, except in Yerevan where there is a very new craft brewery called Dargett. They make absolutely delicious craft beer and the place is packed with young locals on the weekend.
But in terms of drinks the real speciality lies in wine and cognac. Armenian cognac is world famous, thus the Yerevan Brandy Company is proudly presented as a major attraction of the city with tasting tours and a museum (Ararat Museum).
Armenia and Georgia are one of the oldest wine producing countries in the world, with grape cultivation going back to ancient times. Well recognised within the wine world and producing some of the best quality wines there are, make sure to try out a few.
There are a lot of vineyards and factories throughout the country, the most famous one that is open to visitors is the Areni factory. I wouldn’t say it is really worth a visit unless you are passing by anyways, you can take a tour and taste some wines here.
Tap water is generally safe to drink, but as you’re in a different country there can always be different bacteria’s than that you are used to that upset your stomach.
In mountain areas (like Tatev) there are often many tap fountains in streets etc. providing delicious water from the mountains.
The currency is the Armenian Dram. It is very well possible to have a low budget holiday, whilst it is also tempting to splurge on food and stuff because it is all quite cheap.
For accommodation we paid on average 15 dollars per person a day which gets you rather nice accommodation. Food is inexpensive as well, in restaurants we paid around 6-8 dollar for a meal plus drinks.
Gas is around 0.86 dollar per litre.
Travelling in Armenia is completely safe. Never once did we feel unsafe somewhere. The only area prone to unrest is the Nagorno Karabakh border due to the before mentioned conflict.
The border between Azerbaijan and Armenia is closed and it is best to avoid the border area all together. Other than that the border with Turkey is closed (due to conflicts between the two countries) so you can’t cross it anyway.
Use your common sense and general precautions for petty crime etc. like you would anywhere.
Buses and share taxis (marshrutkas) get you to most of the major places for cheap but I always prefer to have my own car.
The landscape is just really nice to drive through with enough interesting stops along the way that you’ll want to decide yourselves when you get out.
We rented our car with Sixt and picked it up in Yerevan and dropped off in Tblisi, Georgia (other way around is not possible due to regulations).
If you rent with international companies like Sixt, Hertz e.g. the cheapest car would be around 40 dollar a day. Often you can get cheaper deals with local companies.
Make sure you get the full insurance as the roads can be in quite a bad shape. Unless you really want to go far up in the mountains there isn’t necessarily the need for a 4WD in Armenia as you can get to most places, albeit a bit bumpy sometimes.
The Best Places To Visit In Armenia
Now that you know the basics of the country, it’s time to check out the best places to visit in Armenia.
The capital is a great place to start you trip and spend a day or 2. Contradictory to what you might expect from a Soviet era city, it is quite metropolitan.
It has a lively nightlife scene with clubs, hip restaurants and European style bars. Mixed with the many remains of older days, like the typical pink colored soviet buildings and monuments or the 17th century neighborhood Kond,
Yerevan has its very own appearance. You won’t find any grand landmarks here, rather it is just a nice place to absorb the atmosphere and familiarize yourself a bit with the country you are in.
Things To Do In Yerevan
The Armenian genocide museum is well worth the visit if you want to learn and understand a bit more about Armenians, their history and relations with neighboring countries like Turkey.
There are a few other museums, like the History museum of Armenia and the National Gallery that are interesting as well.
Yerevan is incredibly old, 2800 years to be exact, which is 28 years older than Rome. Thus, it is drenched in interesting history.
A good way to learn more about this is one of the mentioned museum or a (free) walking tour.
A prominent feature of the city centre are the cascade stairs. It is a large stairwell that leads to the grim Soviet monument (not one for extravagant decorating those soviets) erected for celebrating 50 years of Soviet Armenia.
It provides great views over the city and to the massive statue mother of Armenia, supposedly placed defiantly in the direction of Turkey.
Underneath the stairwell is a contemporary art museum which you can enter for free and that you’ll pass through if you decide to take the escalator instead of the stairs to the monument.
You can wander around in the 17th century neighborhood ‘Kond’, that really feels like a separate part of the city where incredibly old and derelict houses sit on the narrow streets and alleys.
Lover’s park is a small park that is excellent for a bit of relaxing and watching the locals going about their day, grabbing coffee or playing chess and other board games, a favourite pastime activity of many.
Accommodation In Yerevan
There are enough hostels and guesthouses in the city. The Envoy Hostel is a highly recommended hostel and is small but good, the staff is helpful and the location is perfect. Homestays like Anahit Stepayan’s are quite popular as well if you’d choose for a more local experience.
Restaurants In Yerevan
The restaurant called ‘The Club’ is my favourite place. It is a bit hidden in a basement underneath a clothing store. The atmosphere, absolutely delicious (and cheap) food and the fact that there was not another tourist to be seen make it a great place.
In the evening the city comes a bit more alive around the square, where there are many (trendy) bars and restaurants and well-dressed locals making their way for an evening of dining and drinking, a seemingly favourite activity of Armenians.
Nightlife In Yerevan
There are plenty of Western style bars, like an Irish, Beatles and 90’s bars. Most of the bars have a very unobtrusive entrance and are in the basement of the residency buildings.
Around the big square there a few more, but rather tacky looking, bars. I can absolutely recommend the Calumet Bar.
A small, warm bar filled with very lively locals. We spent two nights in a row there and had a great time.
On one occasion we met a group of guys who looked equally bewildered, out of place and fascinated as us. They turned out to be pretty much the only western people we’ve seen on our trip and together we enjoyed looking at the Armenians getting their groove on that night.
The bar goers were very friendly and interested in our country like we were in theirs. The level of English is notably better with young people in the capital.
Like mentioned before, if you like craft beer head over to Dargett to taste some great homemade craft beer and have a meal. It is quite western but rather popular with (young) locals.
Tatev has become known mostly for the longest cable cart in the world, the wings of Tatev, that lead to the Tatev monastery.
Most people arrive in Tatev by cable cart, have a look at the monastery and return. However, there is plenty to see and the drive alone through the Vorotan canyon is worth it.
If you leave from Yerevan it is a 4 to 5 hour drive, that takes you through an incredible varied landscape, starting with arid, desert like surroundings when you leave the capital.
It’s not too long before some thin pasture appears and many fruit and vegetable stalls alongside the road.
After a while the road climbs up into the mountains, 2 hours or so later you’ll cross a mountain pass and suddenly the landscape has changed to green hills and endless fields with blooming wildflowers, while the air is substantially colder due to the elevation.
The vendors have changed as well, now there are people selling honey on the side of the road. The road eventually leads to a junction where the main road continues to Goris (another destination worth checking out) and the secondary road to Tatev.
This road goes through a few old and derelict villages. Some of them look like a war has struck with streets full of rumble and scrap metal. Rusty old decaying cars, trucks and tractors are parked everywhere.
A man is sweeping up big pick piles of rocks, with a broom (probably still working on that I assume). The side streets are unpaved, rocky and full of holes. People stared at us unabashed, I don’t think they have seen many western tourists passing through here.
Granted, our shiny red Nissan Micra didn’t do a good job in hiding the fact that we were tourists either, as old Lada’s really are the only cars locals drive.
After passing through those villages, a zigzag road takes you along the edge of the canyon, providing magnificent views from several nice viewpoints, like the medieval bell chapel.
The road winds all the way down to the canyon to cross the river, only to go right back up the mountains again on a gravel road to reach the village of Tatev.
It is a very small village and pretty quiet, with most tourists concentrating in the area around the cable cart and the monastery.
Things To Do In Tatev
There are a number of short and longer hikes in the area. We hiked to Mount Petroskhach, which takes you through the old part of the village up into the hills, providing magnificent views across a large part of the steep canyon, which seems to have an almost straight drop from the plateau.
The trail is sometimes a bit difficult to follow as there are a number of trails leaving from the area. We asked a few locals for directions, ignored their advice anyway and went the wrong way (obviously).
Down in the canyon where you crossed the river by car, there is a small parking spot. From here you can follow the footpath alongside the river which takes you through bushy, shrubs and across the river.
In summer the area around the river is teeming with life, lots of butterflies, dragonflies, other insects, fish, birds and many flowers. Be aware that there are snakes as well, take caution when walking into thick grass.
The path leads to the Tatevi Anapat monastery, a complex dating from the 17th century, which was abandoned by the monks due to an earthquake in 1658 resulting in the ruins that you see here today.
It has this amazing Indiana Jones feeling to it, as an ancient complex slowly taken back by nature, barely visible from the road. Upon entering the main building, which is still quite intact, a soft voice filled the room.
Near the altar there was a monk praying, dressed in his long black robe. Apparently he is still living here all by himself.
The path continues along the river, we didn’t take it due to lack of time but it looks very promising. Following your way back to the parking lot there are a number of viewing platforms over the river.
They call this area Devil’s bridge (Satani Kamurj), named like that because the formation of it seemed improbable, therefore it must be the Devil’s work.
From the viewing platforms you can’t really see that much of it, however you can get down in the river and explore the incredible caves alongside it.
Down in the river it really looks like a scene coming straight out of a fairy tale.
Moss and plants gracefully decorate the walls, while stalactites in all kind of shapes and colours hang from the cave ceilings and form weird terraces around pools, the water containing (supposedly) healing minerals. It gives the impression that you’re walking in a movie set or a themepark attraction.
From down in the river you can also see the Devil’s bridge much better. To get down there you follow the footpath from the viewing platforms all the way to the end, where there is a small hanging rope to get you down onto a wobbly ladder and finally in the river. This rope is a bit hidden between the bushes.
Be aware that it is all a little bit treacherous and one could easily fall and slip and you also have to wade through the river.
At some points the river flows quite fast, we decided to plunge in and let the river takes us somewhere, which landed us at another amazing spot.
Getting back upstream proved a bit more difficult, but also guarantees some hilarious videos of your travelmates struggling to return while the river keeps pushing you back.
It is not a very big or deep river so nothing too dangerous. It is absolutely worth it to get down in the river, this really made us feel like true explorers.
Back in Tatev the monastery is well worth a visit of course. If you continue down the road for a bit there is a nice viewpoint that looks out over the monastery and canyon. The monastery is perched beautifully on a rock overlooking the whole canyon.
We stayed for 2 days but it is an area that begs to be explored. The beautiful canyon has walking paths following the river that you just want to follow and see where it ends up or take one of the small unpaved roads and just see where it goes.
At this point we turned back in the direction of Yerevan, if you continue the road it will take you to even higher mountains and eventually to the border crossing with Iran.
Accommodation In Tatev
I highly recommend Saro’s Bed and Breakfast. We were welcomed by Saro’s sister Maro, who is very friendly and hospitable and made sure we were provided with everything we needed, like homemade lemonade, cakes, coffee and she even brought us some lunch to take on a hike at no charge.
Most of the dinner is prepared on the big barbecue and delicious as well. Dolma, rabbit stew and a bottle of homemade red wine make for a great meal.
Maro’s dad also takes guests on a little excursion into the mountain in his old jeep. There are a number of options for guesthouses and bed and breakfasts in Tatev though.
Restaurants In Tatev
On the drive from Yerevan you’ll pass the Areni Wine Factory. There are also people selling wine everywhere at the side of the road in plastic cola bottles, apparently for Irani truck drivers (as they are not allowed to drink alcohol in Iran thus have to hide it).
There are no supermarkets in Tatev. Stock up on some items and make sure your accommodation can provide all your required meals. There is however a small information centre with a small café. They can also provide with you with hiking routes, maps etc. Saro’s bed and breakfast is also a restaurant for non-guests.
Garni is a town close to Yerevan and for a rather big settlement the road leading to it from the capital is quite strange (or we took a wrong route).
Leaving Yerevan the road suddenly consists of more dirt and holes than actual tarmac. The landscape is incredibly dry for a bit, although it still is a habitat for quite some birds.
Garni itself is a small town with the major attractions being the Garni temple, the only pagan temple in Armenia, the Geghard monastery and the beautiful Garni gorge with the adjacent Khosov nature reserve.
You can enter the Garni gorge from both side of town by car or on foot. Inside the Garni gorge you’ll find this incredible miracle of nature called the Symphony of Stones, a rather fitting name for stone walls that are carved out in perfect cube like pillars.
You can drive the dirt road all the way to the other entrance but after a while we were afraid our Nissan Micra couldn’t take it anymore with all the massive bumps and holes in the road.
There are many hiking trails in the Khosov nature reserve. If you come from Garni the entrance is quite unclear. I drove to the entrance on google maps, a dirt road climbing up the hill.
Eventually a guarded gate signed the entrance and that you could not go further with car, however there was no real parking place either. Thus from Garni it is best to walk to the entrance or enter from the other side.
The Geghard monastery is amazing, but very touristic. Like tour buses touristic, so be there early to avoid crowds and marvel at this dark coloured, ancient complex without too many tourists.
The Garni temple is beautifully perched on top of the ridge overlooking the gorge, best to visit it at the end of the day for nice lighting.
The nearby restaurant is excellent, and also has one of the best terraces I have ever seen, overlooking the gorge and the temple.
Accommodation In Garni
We had rented a whole house (called ‘Dinadav House’) for ourselves for around 50 dollar in total. There are a number of options on booking.com and It is quite nice to stay in a residents house back in a neighbourhood to get a more local feeling.
Moving up north, Dilijan presents a completely different landscape again. Also commonly referred to as the Switzerland of Armenia, this is a small town in between lush green forests and hills.
There is not much to do other than hike the beautiful surroundings and visit some monasteries like Haghartsin, which can keep you busy for a few days though.
A bit further there is also a zipline but we stuck with the hiking. We hiked near the Haghartsin monastery, which can be reached by a road with twists and turns that begs to be driven with an old school convertible and a hot girl next to you, unfortunately we had to do it with a Nissan Micra and two dudes.
The forests are just like how I expect a real forest to be: lush, plenty of variation in the vegetation and full of blooming flowers.
It is a forest where you just expect to see a bear, or some creature from a fairytale pop up from behind a tree any minute.
Accommodation In Dilijan
We stayed in the Belvedere Eco Rest Zone, located 10 minutes out of town, and beautifully situated near the river. The food is nice, staff is friendly and the rooms are perfectly fine and very cheap. There are a few hotel/hostel options in town as well.
Monasteries In Dilijan
Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion. The story goes that after a Christian (Gregory the Illuminator) cured the Armenian king of a grave illness, he agreed to convert to Christianity, which happened in 301 AD.
Around 95% of the population nowadays is Christian, while Armenia is surrounded by Muslim countries except for Georgia.
As the country had such a major role in establishing Christianity, you will encounter a lot of monasteries and other religious sites.
All these incredibly old buildings and associated tales and myths instil a mysterious and ancient atmosphere to many of the sites that we visited.
You’ll notice one common denominator among the monasteries and that is they sure knew how to pick spectacular locations to build them, usually perched on some cliff surrounded by a dramatic landscape. A few noteworthy monasteries that I visited are listed below:
This 13th century monastery is located on the way from Yerevan to Tatev, close to Areni, which is a nice little detour. It is beautifully situated in a landscape that most closely resembles the Grand Canyon; hot, dry, and with red dirt mountains.
The complex has a few different churches and chapels and it was the residency of Syunik’s bishops in the 13th century. It is however, very busy with tourists.
A 9th century monastery in Tatev (obviously). It is located on the edge of a plateau overlooking the gorge set in a spectacular landscape.
You can go inside the complex, but if you follow the road for a little bit there is a great viewpoint of the monastery. If you venture a bit through the bushes you can see a waterfall coming down as well.
The monastery played an important role as an spiritual centre and medieval university in Armenia.
Founded in the 4th century in Garni, this dark coloured monastery complex is surrounded by cliffs and located next to a gorge.
The inside, and especially the cave chambers, feels so old (well they are, 4th century!) and it has a bit of mysterious vibe to it, like you are stepping back in time.
The vendors and tour buses at the entrance detract the atmosphere a bit, but it is definitely worthwhile.
We did not visit one of the most famous monasteries, as there were thick clouds that day and it is famous for having the snow-capped peak of Ararat in the background.
We were also out of time and guessed it would be another busy monastery as well, as this is one of the most popular landmarks in Armenia.
Gregory the Illuminator was 13 years imprisoned here by the king before he cured him of an illness after which the king and country converted to Christianity.
The construction of a chapel already began in 642, the current church was however finished in the 17th century. It is located a few kilometres of the main highway around Yerevan.
A 13th century monastery in Dilijan beautifully located in the lush green forests. It is small and not completely intact anymore but worth a visit. It is quite nice and the main building (church) is still intact.
Also the starting point from a number of trails in the forests so perfect for combining those activities.
There are many more monasteries, churches and other religious site of interest. Many can be done in a day tour from Yerevan (hostels organise these).
Note: When I say busy with tourists, these are almost exclusively domestic Armenian and Georgian tourists. No tour buses with Asians or Europeans here. Best to get there early to avoid crowds. There are no entrance fees to the monasteries. The more popular ones will charge you a very small fee for parking.
These places will take you around the country, which we did in 8 days. It is not very big but there is plenty to see, I’d recommend to take at least 8 days to explore Armenia.
It is still a rather underrated destination, apparent by the low number of tourists that visit the country. It should however receive much more attention, as I have never been to a country before that made me feel like a true explorer without the discomfort of one.
The history is endlessly interesting and the landscapes fascinating. I’d say the country is the perfect introduction to one of the most interesting corners of the world, standing at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia.