First Impressions of Yerevan
Quite the Soviet looking city, Yerevan has no shortage of concrete block buildings and imposing Communist statues. Looming in the distance is snow-capped Mount Ararat, Armenia’s national symbol, although it’s no longer within Armenia’s borders today.
Yerevan is small. You can see all of it in two days. Wifi is fast and tap water is safe to drink. You’ll see many water fountains around the city. Some places accept credit card, others only cash. While educated young people speak English, the older generation mostly speaks Armenian and Russian. Even American movies are dubbed over in Russian.
Cascade and Republic Square
Two of Yerevan’s landmarks are the Cascade steps, which you can climb up for a view of the city with Mount Ararat in the distance. We recommend going for sunset.
Republic Square is in the center of Yerevan, with rose-colored buildings and a water fountain that puts on a musical light show every evening at 8pm.
How to Say Thank You
In every new country we go to, we learn how to say thank you. In Armenian it’s shnorhakalut’yun. If you can’t pronounce it, we were told merci is perfectly acceptable too.
Qatar Airways flies in and out of Yerevan with a subsidized layover in Doha for pretty reasonable prices. A sleeper train also connects Yerevan with Tbilisi, Georgia, but we don’t recommend it. It’s so uncomfortable you’ll hardly get any sleep. You can fly for $50 more.
Armenia’s version of Uber, gg, is very cheap – only a dollar or two USD to get around Yerevan. We recommend gg even for day trips outside of the city. Rental cars are also pretty cheap but gas is high, and most gas stations only take cash, especially outside Yerevan. They won’t have an ATM either.
In terms of public transportation, there’s a metro, city buses, and marshrutkas, a sort of minibus, all costing about 100 Armenian drams, or 21 cents USD.
Armenia may be one of the most affordable places we’ve ever been. You can get a kilo of beets for 25 US cents, or a lunch for two in a food court for less than $5 USD. Taking a gg rom the airport to the city center is only $3. Our modern one-bedroom Airbnb right by Republic Square cost $455 for two weeks. Outside of accommodations, we spent $294 for both of us. Overall, that’s $27 per person per day.
We did some research and found out Armenia’s GDP per capita is on par with the Philippines, lower than Thailand, China, Serbia, and Bosnia, and only a little higher than India. Estimates vary, but 1/4 to 1/3 of Armenians live in poverty. Some of the buses, marshrutkas, and even ambulances say China Aid on them. Unfortunately these seem to be old and heavily polluting vehicles.
Our Airbnb host makes about $1500 USD a month as chief accountant of a swimming pool company, which he said is considered a pretty good salary in Armenia. He said police officers and doctors for municipal hospitals make only $400 a month.
Armenian food is very diverse, blending Middle Eastern, Russian, Georgian, and Asian elements in with their own. Herbs and salt are abundantly used in Armenian cooking. You’ll see lots of khinkali, borscht, lahmacun, lavash, grilled meats, braided cheese, dried fruits with nuts, and churchkhela, which are strings of walnuts covered in thickened dried grape juice, known as churchkhela in Georgian and sujuk in Armenian. The Armenian kind is better than the Georgian kind – the grape wrapping in softer and cinnamon spiced – so stock up on it here. A word of warning on Armenian cheese – it can be inedibly salty and gamey tasting.
Our favorite place to eat in Yerevan was Wooden House, a cafeteria style establishment with a new selection of homemade dishes every day and very friendly service. Lavash is one of several higher end restaurants near Freedom Square – their red pepper walnut dip is amazing. At SAS Food Court, you can see lavash being made in traditional ovens. For healthier options like wraps and smoothies, try Eat & Fit Healthy Café.
Best Grocery Store
Yerevan City is a huge grocery store in a historic building downtown. It carries everything – fresh lavash, an abundance of produce, Armenian wine, and weighable sections for nuts, dried fruit, spices, candy, coffee, grains, and cookies. The coffee department alone is worth seeing (and smelling).
One place you must visit is the Mergerian Carpet factory and museum. You need to call ahead to make a reservation for a tour in English. The Armenian rugs made here are dyed with all natural dyes, mostly from Armenia. Only indigo is imported from India. The yarn is spun, dyed, woven, and finished at the factory all by hand. Don’t feel pressured to buy anything in the showroom, but if you do, you can bargain heavily. You should be able to shave 40% off the asking price. Our favorite ones were silk rugs that were priced at $75,000 USD. The silk knots are much tinier than wool yarn, so it takes a lot longer to make. The colors are more vivid and the silk feels really nice to the touch.
The museum has some interesting old rugs in it. There is one rug that was cut in half by a mother during the Armenian genocide and each half was given to her two daughters in the hopes that it would help them find each other. 50 years later the two sisters finally found each other in NYC with the help of this rug.
We even met the owner, who offered us coffee. He is Armenian but grew up in New York.
Another place you can find carpets is the Vernissage outdoor market. All along one wall of the market perimeter are individual carpet sellers with rugs from Iran and Turkmenistan, old carpets from Armenian homes, some with the year woven into them, and extremely soft and rare ones from Afghanistan. You can learn a lot by talking to the carpet sellers, not just about carpets but about their lives. We met one couple who felt that life was more stable in Soviet times, and another man who had a flourishing carpet business in Syria but had to escape the war.
The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is one of Yerevan’s highlights. It has a turquoise blue dome with intricate Iranian patterns. Boasting lush gardens and benches to sit on, it’s a very peaceful place.
There used to be ten mosques in Yerevan, but now the Blue Mosque is the only one remaining in Armenia.
Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum
The Armenian Genocide Museum is a must visit to learn about Armenian history both here and abroad. Give yourself at least 3 hours because there are over 40 long placards to read in the museum. I had to skim through some of them to finish before closing time.
We learned that what is now Eastern Anatolia in Turkey used to be Western Armenia. There are also many nostalgic old photos of Istanbul, where there was a large Armenian community before they were forced out. The museum explains how Armenians fleeing or displaced by the genocide resettled in Syria, Georgia, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and even Canada, creating today’s Armenian diaspora.
Some of the documentary photography of the genocide is quite brutal and shows that a genocide clearly occurred. My only critique of the museum is how it portrayed the Ottoman Empire prior to the genocide, calling Ottomans “backwards” and presenting Armenians as intellectually superior.
I recommend reading Encyclopedia Britannica’s account of the Armenian Genocide before visiting the museum to get your bearings first, since it’s so much information to take in.
Brandy Factory Tour
There are two brandy factories in Yerevan offering a tour and tasting for 5000 Armenian dram ($10.50 USD), or a tour without tasting for 3500 dram. They used to be one factory but the state split them into two. One is called Noy and the other is Ararat. Noy is Armenian owned by an arm-wrestling world champion, and Ararat is French owned. We went on the Noy tour but also tasted Ararat brandy later. Both are very strong.
Noy has a cellar full of wine casks from the early 1900s, which were saved despite the factory being left in a state of abandonment before new ownership rebuilt it. The barrels are so large that wine is still being bottled from them. You can smell the grapes in the air. We thought this part of the tour was the most interesting.
You can also enter a tunnel from the cellar that runs all the way through the city to the American Embassy. Grapes used to be transported to the factory through these tunnels to keep them cool. There are also old black and white photographs of workers at the factory and the restoration work, as well furniture from prior owners and stories about them. The tasting at Noy includes a fortified sweet red wine and two pours of brandy, aged 5 and 10 years, water, chocolate, and apple and orange slices, which Aaron said made the brandy easier to drink.
There is a lot of national pride in Armenia and certain things are claimed as exclusively or originally Armenian, such as the “Armenian double knot” in carpet weaving, which is the same as the Turkish double knot. A saleslady in a nuts and dried fruit shop claimed churchkela is Armenian. She was very surprised when we said it’s common in Cyprus and Turkey too. She admitted that it’s made in Georgia, but apparently “only with hazelnuts and not very good.”
To understand this, keep in mind that Armenia is a small country bordered by two nations which were past aggressors, Turkey and Azerbaijan. It’s also still trying to throw off Russian influence and emerge from a dark period in the 90s after the Soviet Union dissolved. Our Airbnb host hopes that Armenia will be “the next Singapore.”
Visiting in the Spring
We visited for two weeks in late April. The weather was cool but sunny and dry, with poppies blooming all over. It can be quite windy though, which blows pollen around, so if you come in the spring, bring allergy meds.
Day Trip to Garni and Geghard
Garni and Geghard can be done as a half-day trip from Yerevan. We took a gg, which cost 9800 Armenian dram plus a 1000 dram tip, including wait times at both sites. The meter on the app continues to run during wait times but at a reduced rate.
We skipped the temple at Garni because we read that it was completely rebuilt in 1970. We could see it from outside and it looked way too intact. We like our ruins to be in ruins. Instead, we walked down to Garni Gorge to check out the geological formation known as Symphony of Stones. Go down the path to the left of the Garni Temple entrance if you’re facing the entrance, then through a gate until you reach the part of the stone wall where there is an overhang. It makes for dramatic photos.
On the way to Garni, we stopped for a fill-up at a natural gas station. Some cars in Yerevan have been converted to run on natural gas. As a safety precaution, you have to get out of the car while it’s being filled. Our driver said the natural gas is coming from Russia and is cheaper than petrol.
After Garni we drove to Geghard, one of Armenia’s famous churches. Armenia is known as the land of churches, with over 4000 monasteries and churches. Religion is very important here, with most people belonging to the Armenian church, one of the oldest Christian churches.
Day Trip to Lake Sevan and Dilijan National Park
Another day trip you can take is to Lake Sevan and Dilijan National Park. We actually did these two in the same day, but if you want to go for a long hike in Dilijan, you should devote at least an entire day to it.
We rented a car from Hertz. Driving through the city was crazy. Armenian drivers don’t respect lanes at all. If you prefer a private driver, Hertz can provide one for an extra $20 USD – just make sure to let them know in advance.
Once you get out of Yerevan, driving on the highway is fine and it’s just one road to Lake Sevan. We climbed to the monastery overlooking the lake. The snow-capped mountains on the opposite shore of the lake were really beautiful. It’s much colder at the monastery and very windy, so bundle up.
From Lake Sevan we drove to Dilijan National Park. There’s a new tourist information office in the town of Dilijan, but it’s on a bad road with huge holes, so just park and walk there. They can give you a hiking map and tell you how long each hike will take.
We drove up to Haghartsin Monastery but parked a little ways before the monastery in a spot with a very old original looking church. If you walk up the hill behind this church, you’ll get a clear view of the mountains and valley in Dilijan National Park on one side and Haghartsin Monastery from the other.
Even More to See
If you have more time, you can stay overnight in mini resorts or village homes in Dilijan. If you want to go even further afield from Yerevan, here are some places my Armenian friend suggested – Lastiver, Harsnadzor Eco Resort, Tatev Monastery, Wings of Tatev, the longest cable car in the world, and Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the religious center of Armenia, where the head of the church resides.