Special Guest Post by Vic Gerami
Armenia is one of the fascinating places in the world. An underrated nation for decades, until recently when European tourists found out about its rich millennias-old history, ancient monuments, majestic countryside, the lush highlands, and much more. I just came back from Armenia. It was my third time there and the most memorable.
One of the oldest nations in the world, Armenia is a destination for all kinds of travelers. The small country in the farthest part of eastern Europe has incredible natural beauty, cultural wealth, and artistic tradition.
Armenia is host to the oldest churches, cathedrals, and monasteries in the world. Most are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Mount Ararat and Ararat Valley, where Noah’s Arc landed. Pagan Temples such as Garni, 1st century, Worlds oldest winery 6,100 years old, Yerevan: 2,802 years old, capital of Armenia, vibrant & full of life. Jermuk: World-renowned natural hot springs, Music: Armenia has a rich music tradition, from symphonies to opera, jazz, to hip hop. Tavush: World’s longest zipline, 2,680 meters, World-class casinos, and ski resorts, Wine & Cognac: Armenia is known for its wine & cognac on the world stage, Ancient Astronomical Sites, Petroglyphs, Hiking, Caving, Paragliding, Rock Climbing, Hot Air Ballooning, Canyoning, Rafting, Lake Sevan: High altitude lake and a resort town with beautiful monasteries & nightlife, Annual Festivals, Museums, galleries, and of course incredible food for foodies with discriminating taste.
Best News? Armenia is very inexpensive for North American and European travelers. I highly recommend staying at the Grand Hotel Yerevan, the oldest hotel in the city with rich history, fully renovated recently. It is in the heart of Yerevan near Republic Square, the shopping district, the best restaurants, and nightlife. Armenians are very friendly, hospitable, and love visitors.
Most people in Armenia speak English to various degrees. A lot of ex-pats from the US live there, so language is not an issue. Below are my 15 favorite places to visit in Armenia and hotel recommendation, restaurants, and nightlife.
By far the largest city in Armenia, the capital Yerevan is a great place to start for anyone wishing to explore Armenia. The city is home to the grand Republic Square while climbing the Cascade to see the city’s monument to Soviet victory in the Second World War is a must. Yerevan is a deeply historic city and visiting the Armenian Genocide Memorial is a must to learn more about the nation’s troubled past. The vernissage flea market is worth visiting too – it is open at the weekend – while a walk through the Hrazdan gorge is also highly recommended. Much of what Armenia offers can be explored during day trips from Yerevan, known as the City of Cafes. Yerevan is also home to Levon’s Amazing Underground World, one of Europe’s most unusual attractions.
Lake Sevan, found in the heart of Armenia, is the country’s largest lake and a beautiful place to visit during a break in the country. The lake is surrounded by some stunning monasteries – the most impressive of them being arguably the Sevanavank Monastery – providing a glorious scenic backdrop to a relaxing trip. Windsurfing is among the recreation activities available at the lake, which also has a wide choice of excellent seafood restaurants along its shore. Lake Sevan has several famous beaches. As the country has no coastline, this is the best place in Armenia to sunbathe, with Sevan Bay and its surrounding mountains providing spectacular scenery.
The second-largest city in Armenia, Gyumri is well worth visiting for anyone heading to the country for the first time. Perhaps the best place from which to enjoy the sights of Gyumri is from the Black Fortress on the hill that overlooks the city, while the massive Mother Armenia statue can also be found nearby. Many of the most important cultural institutions of Armenia are in Gyumri, such as the Dzitoghtsyan Museum of Social Life and National Architecture of Gyumri and the Aslamazyan Sisters House-Museum and the Sergey Merkurov House-Museum. The Kumayri Historic District is Gyumri’s oldest area, with a thousand ancient buildings found here.
Dating back to the seventh century, Amberd Fortress is one of Armenia’s most stunning places to visit. Formerly among the Armenian Kingdom’s primary military-defensive points, the fortress can be reached about an hour from the capital city Yerevan. However, snowfall can make the fortress inaccessible during the winter months, with the weather usually improving by late May. The view from the top of the fortress is truly breathtaking, while the building itself is also stunning. Amberd Fortress is a short trip from the village of Byurakan, home of the Byurakan Observatory.
Often referred to internationally as Armenia’s version of Britain’s Stonehenge, Karahunj is one of the most fascinating places to visit during a break in Armenia. Located close to the city of Sisian in the Syunik province, Karahunj is made up of well over 200 massive stone tombs. At the same time, the main area sees 40 stones standing in a circular formation, supposedly built-in honor of the Armenian main God, Ari, named after the Sun. A small museum in Sisian is dedicated to findings that have been made at Karahunj, which is claimed to be the oldest observatory of its kind in the world.
KHOR VIRAP MONASTERY
Views of Mount Ararat can be enjoyed from all over Armenia. Still, perhaps the best scenery of the mountain can be found from the Khor Virap monastery, which is also worth visiting in its own right. This location is one of the most important historical sites in Armenia’s history. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 14 years before he cured King Trdat III of his disease. The King then converted to Christianity, paving the way for Armenia’s religious future. As such, Khor Virap is a popular spot for Armenian weddings today, while the underground chamber in which Gregory the Illuminator was held can be visited during a trip to Khor Virap, which is among Armenia’s most visited pilgrimage sites as a result.
ARENI WINE COUNTRY
As grapes and vineyards have been cultivated here for over 6,000 years, it should come as no surprise to learn that the Areni Wine Country boasts some of the nation’s most delicious wines. Set among some stunning mountainous scenery, the vineyards blanket entire mountainsides and valley slopes, with charming little farmhouses and wineries punctuating the countryside.
While its fantastic local produce is what most people come for, the region also has some fascinating sights for you to enjoy, such as the ancient church of S Astvatsatsin and the Areni-1 Caves, which are home to a fascinating archaeological site.
Located just a short distance away from Yerevan at the foot of the Khosrov Forest State Reserve, Garni is an enjoyable place to spend some time. Most people visit primarily to see its magnificent first century AD pagan temple and delightful monastery. Perched atop a cliff edge overlooking breathtaking hills and mountains, the Temple of Garni displays some beautiful Hellenic architecture.
Lying on the outskirts of the picturesque town of Garni, Geghard Monastery is a very popular day-trip destination from the capital. It is certainly worth visiting if you have the chance. Carved out of the mountainside, with majestic peaks overlooking it, the famous monastery has a beautiful church for you to wander around.
Several gorgeous chapels showcase some elaborate and intricate carvings, with some parts of the complex dating back to the fourth century.
The monastery’s scenic setting is stunning. It’s no surprise that it has long been a place of pilgrimage, with people having visited the site long before Christianity first found its way to Armenia. A must-see when in Armenia, Geghard Monastery certainly won’t disappoint with its incredible rock-hewn churches and chapels and beautiful setting in the Azat River gorge.
Yet another one of Armenian monasteries with a spectacular location in Southern Armenia, the fortified Tatev Monastery, was built in the early 9th century at the edge of the deep gorge in the southern part of the country. It always played an essential role in the spiritual, cultural, and educational life of the country.
Tatev Monastery used to be the seat of a bishop. At the end of the 14th century, the most prominent university in Southern Caucasus was established, teaching students numerous sciences. You can visit three churches (Saints Paul and Peter, Saint Gregory the Illuminator, and Holy Mother of God), a library, a refectory, a bell tower, mausoleum.
WINGS OF TATEV
The world’s longest nonstop reversible cable car soars through spectacular scenery to the medieval Tatev Monastery. Wings of Tatev stretches over 3.5 miles between the Armenian village of Halidzor and the famous Tatev Monastery, a center of education and religion in the Middle Ages. The aerial tram holds the Guinness title as the longest nonstop double-track cable car in the world.
The cableway soars over the deep Vorotan River Gorge, offering breathtaking views of the landscape as you approach the monastery, which sits perched on a large plateau at the edge of a cliff over the stunning gorge. The monastery complex dates back to the 9th century. It is an architectural and historical icon of Armenia, though the structure itself can be overshadowed by the out-of-a-fairytale natural landscape surrounding it.
Echmiadzin is the equivalent of the Vatican for the Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenia is very proud to be the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion. Today, over 90% of the residents are of the Christian faith. Echmiadzin, also called Vagharshapat, is the center of the religion. The priests come to study here. It’s also a UNESCO site.
The main church contains the Treasury, which holds the most valuable relics owned by the Armenian church. Amongst the items on display is the ‘Holy Lance,’ the spear that pierced Jesus’ side, a bit of Noah’s Ark, illuminated bibles, and two wall hangings that had small bits of the cross.
Several other churches make up the Echmiadzin compound, including two churches named for women and the ruined Zvartnots Cathedral.
It’s effortless to visit Echmiadzin from Yerevan. There are inexpensive and very regular marshrutkas (minibuses) that leave from the western bus station. They will drop you in the center of town, and the churches can be visited on foot.
A spa town and home of a mineral water factory, Jermuk has plenty of posh hotels and wellness centers. It’s the site of the largest waterfall in Armenia, known as the Mermaids Hair Waterfall.
A windy road reaches it into the river valley, followed by a short walk along the riverside. The waterfall runs down into the river, and you can climb several meters up the side of it.
In the town itself, you can take a walk past the Hyatt Hotel and Verona Resort and fill your water bottles free from the streams that go into the valley. One spring gives warm water.
Not to be missed is a trip to the geysers up in the hills above the town. There are plenty of drivers with 4x4s who will drive you up there. It’s a bumpy journey up rutted tracks, across stony fields, and through streams with rocky beds.
There are no facilities there, just fresh air, bubbling water, a stream, and trees. The geyser is a pool with a rock in it, and it’s from there that the water bubbles up, creating a jacuzzi every few minutes or so.
The water wasn’t that warm (compared with Iceland), and it’s rust-colored. You can wild camp nearby, but be aware there may be bears!
On the way back, you can ask for a detour to see the Jermuk Deer statue, which overlooks the town and gives good views.
DILIJAN NATIONAL PARK
Dilijan, 100km northeast of Yerevan, is the greenest place we have been in Armenia. This small town is surrounded by lush vegetation and alpine forest and is a great place to kick back for a day or two.
Dilijan was a peaceful retreat for creative types (composers, writers, etc.) when Armenia was part of the USSR. Several Soviet-era memorials are scattered around town, including one of the most impressive war memorials we have seen to date.
MUSEUM COMPLEX OF THE MATENADARAN
Matenadaran – The Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts is an incredibly rare and exclusive treasure due to its collection of manuscripts and the activity that it now exercises. It holds the history of Armenian and foreign nations’ written cultures.
The word “Matenadaran” means “holder of manuscripts,” or “manuscript collector”. Today, however, the Armenian public associates the word “Matenadaran” with our nation’s spiritual and cultural richness and pride, embodied in the structure of the manuscript repository.
The Matenadaran has consolidated about 23,000 manuscripts, including almost all ancient and medieval Armenian cultural and sciences – history, geography, grammar, philosophy, law, medicine, mathematics, cosmology, chronology, divination literature, translated and national literature, miniature painting, music, and theater. The Matenadaran also holds manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Greek, Ethiopian, Syrian, Latin, Tamil, and other languages. Many originals, lost in their mother languages and known only by their Armenian translations, have been saved from medieval translations.
The Matenadaran’s museum complex is in the institute’s old, original building. What was formerly a single exhibition hall now consisting of fifteen halls in which thousands of temporary, changeable, and exclusive exhibits are on display. Manuscript, fragments of manuscripts, documents, old, printed books, precious bindings, individual miniatures, and more are shown from Matenadaran’s database of roughly 23,000 manuscripts.
GRAND HOTEL YEREVAN
I would typically give you a few options for hotels, but it would do you a disservice. I’ve been to Armenia before and stayed at fine establishments, but nothing can compare to the Grand Hotel Yerevan. It is an elegant and modern hotel for travelers, sightseers, and those who are ready for an unforgettable experience. The charm of the 1928 neoclassical building that houses the hotel is timeless. The luxury hotel is located in the center of Yerevan. Due to its prime location, Grand Hotel represents the embodiment of modern and ancient Armenian history and culture. Despite being an exceptional hotel and ideally located in the heart of town, their rates are very reasonable.
The private open-air pool (seasonal), situated on the hotel’s roof, is a perfect place for relaxation. Here you can enjoy the sunny Yerevan while lounging in our comfortable deckchairs, having a cocktail, and trying delectable hot and cold dishes from the bar. This magical place with a beautiful and picturesque view of Yerevan is perfectly suited for romantic dinners, private events, and cocktail parties.
The luxurious rooms of Grand Hotel Yerevan, with their stylish furniture and attention to the smallest detail, provide you with all the services necessary to have an unforgettable trip. The staff is incredibly professional, friendly, and the service is top-notch. If you are planning a trip to Armenia, look no further than the Grand Hotel Yerevan.
NAIRI RESTAURANT at THE GRAND HOTEL
Nairi Restaurant offers an enjoyable and classy atmosphere where you can unwind and enjoy the panoramic view of Charles Aznavour Square. Room service is available 24/7.
While creating the menu of the Nairi Restaurant, they set out to introduce the guests to traditional Armenian cuisine. They set up a unique gastronomic experiment – to find harmony in the tastes of Armenian and Italian cuisines. The goal is achieved with special dishes that combine tradition and innovation. Italian Michelin star-rated chef revised the most colorful Armenian recipes and created for you a one-of-a-kind experience based on a careful selection of Armenian ingredients. This mix of tradition and innovation will delight you with unforgettable taste and exclusivity.
The best way to describe Dolmama is to say that it is the Spago of Yerevan. I’m not very particular with food and don’t make a big fuss. It’s rare for me to say that one specific dish was extraordinary. But Dolmama just did just that for me. I am a vegetarian, so there aren’t many options for us no matter where you go. It’s easier to eat in Armenia for vegetarians than in most other nations.
Jirair Avanian founded Dolmama. He set out to recreate classic Armenian dishes with a modern twist without disappointing the connoisseurs of traditions. As Einstein once said, only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible – and Jirair has managed to balance the tastes and feelings embodied by centuries of tradition while bringing in a new look and feel for Armenian food. Jirair has invented new ways to serve the traditional Armenian stew khashlama, how to give new meaning to the beloved Armenian dolma, and how to make people really pause in awe after biting into well-known dishes!
THE BEACH YEREVAN
The Beach is Yerevan’s newest hotspot where the who’s who of the city’s crème de la crème gathers nightly. It is in the penthouse of a building overlooking the Vahakni Neighborhood of Yerevan. Vahakni is an American-style suburb built on the northwest edge of the city by American-Armenian homebuilder Vahak Hovnanian.
Although on the top floor of the building, sand is poured throughout the bottom to make you feel on the beach. There are fire pits, lounge chairs, small bites, and plenty of cocktails.
EL SKY BAR
El Sky Bar is a perfect spot for those who like to spend their evenings in glamorous places with panoramic views over the city. Located on the 7th floor of Yerevan Plaza Business Center, El Sky Bar includes indoor and outdoor rooms and frequently organizes various thematic parties with cool DJs. If you happen to visit Yerevan during the hot summer months, El Sky Bar is a great place to unwind and enjoy a refreshing drink on the rooftop terrace.
I had flown to Armenia and other Transatlantic destinations many times through different routes and airlines. But my most recent flight experience stands out as the best overall. I flew Air France business class, and it made all the difference. The route, through Paris, was short and effortless. The plane was brand new and state-of-the-art. The service was impeccable and the food delicious.
Armenia’s beautiful four-seasons make it a place to visit year-round. Whether you are a history buff, antique enthusiast, skier, wine & cognac connoisseur, outdoorsy, foody, or want to see one of the most magical places on earth, Armenia has it covered.