Yerevan is an ancient city founded 2,800 years ago on the hills of Erebuni. The remains of that first settlement are still standing; however, Yerevan has by far outgrown them and become a large modern city with a lot of things to see and more than 1 million inhabitants. Over the past 28 centuries, Armenia’s capital has suffered wars, sieges, and earthquakes. At the beginning of the 20th century, Yerevan underwent a massive reconstruction. For the first time, the city got its own general plan, conceived by Alexander Tamanian. The architect’s vision and heritage is still visible in the city’s skyline. Some of his iconic and revolutionary designs have made it onto our list of the top seven must-see sights in Yerevan.
The Republic Square
The centerpiece of Tamanian’s urban design is the Republic Square in Yerevan. The square is surrounded by a magnificent architectural ensemble comprised of four buildings designed in the same style and the building that hosts the National Gallery and the History Museum. The building with the clock tower is the seat of the Armenian Government. Across the street is the office of the Post, featuring a tall arch. According to the original concept, if you look straight into the arch from the opposite side of the street, you can see Mount Ararat framed by it. Two other buildings in the ensemble are the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Marriot Hotel. The fifth building, which differs somewhat from the rest of the ensemble, houses the two largest museums of Armenia. In front of the museum building is an artificial pond with water fountains. From April to November, as dusk settles in, the fountains start to twist and turn, performing a sort of a choreography accompanied by a light show and music.
The gigantic staircase in the very center of Yerevan is one of the most popular sights and is the number one thing to see in Yerevan. The staircase serves a number of functional purposes. It connects the hilly northern boroughs of Yerevan to the city center, which lies in a valley. The staircase consists of 572 stairs. Once you reach the top of the staircase, you’ll see a mesmerizing view of the city and Mount Ararat. If climbing the stairs is not exactly your thing, you can take the escalator located inside the staircase. The entire Cascade complex (the staircase, the interior, and the garden in front of it) is actually also a gallery of modern art. The artwork is the private collection of Gerald Cafesjian and features the works of Fernando Botero, Dale Chihuly, Joana Vasconcelos, and Grigor Khanjian, among others. On the last floor of Cascade, there is also a collection of works by the world-famous Swarovski Crystals. Take your time while exploring the Cascade and its surroundings, since it’s definitely worth your while. Afterwards, chill in one of the adjacent cafes at the bottom of the staircase.
Northern Avenue & Abovian Street
Built in the early 2000s, Northern Avenue was yet another idea conceived by Tamanian. It was meant to connect the Republic Square to the Opera House and its adjacent territories. The pedestrian boulevard is full of post-Soviet modernist architecture of questionable taste. However, the boulevard is loved both by locals and visitors, since, after all, it’s a very practical route. Apart from the modernist architecture, Northern Avenue is also a hot spot for high-street shops and eateries. It is worth mentioning that the street that merges with Northern Avenue, Abovian Street, is conceptually the complete opposite of Northern Avenue, since it’s actually one of the few streets that features pre-Soviet architecture. There, you can find dozens of cozy cafes nestled in beautiful historic buildings, as well as some souvenir shops and other attractions.
The Blue Mosque
As part of its long and tumultuous history, Armenia was, over a span of several hundred years, part of the Persian Empire. During that time, Persian culture had an enormous impact on Armenia’s architecture, language, and culture in general. Today, there are only a few things to see in Yerevan of that influence still standing. The most prominent of those is the Blue Mosque. It is the only functioning mosque in Armenia, and it was built in the 18th century. During Soviet rule, the mosque stopped functioning as a religious site and used to be a military barracks, then a museum. Things changed in 1996, when the mosque was completely renovated, and it opened its doors as a mosque again in 1999. Tucked between Soviet-era residential buildings, the mosque is an oasis of quiet and serenity. Once you enter the gates of the mosque, you are taken away from the noise of the streets, and you find yourself in a serene garden where you can enjoy beautiful architecture and the typical blue mosaics used to decorate the mosque.
The Genocide Memorial and the Demirjian Concert Hall
Not far away from the city center is a large park with two very significant buildings. The park is called Tsitsernakaberd (“fortress of swallows”) , and it contains the Armenian Genocide Memorial and the Genocide Museum, as well as the Karen Demirjian Concert Hall. Although completely different in their purpose, both sights are worth a visit. The Concert Hall, referred to as “Hamalir” (pictured above) by the locals, is a gigantic constructivist building – a place where large-scale concerts and events are held. It looks like a spaceship that landed in the mountains and has a long staircase leading to its main entrance. The other sight worth visiting in the same park is the Genocide Memorial. Another Soviet-era structure, built in the 70s, this memorial commemorates the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey in the early 20th century. The monument is truly magnificent and offers a great panoramic view of the city. The park itself is rich with greenery and is a perfect place for jogging.
The Opera & Ballet Theater
Located at the junction of Sayat Nova and Mashtots Avenues, the Opera & Ballet Theater, commonly referred to as “Opera,” is the most popular place among locals for meeting up with friends. Everyone knows where the Opera is, and thanks to its location, it is very easy to get there. There are also a lot of things to see and do around it. The building was designed by Yerevan’s chief architect, Alexander Tamanian, in the 1930s, primarily as a “house of culture.” It was supposed to have multiple concert halls, a library, and other facilities in it, plus a statue of Lenin on top of it. Luckily, the project was later modified to a somewhat more modest scale, and today, the building hosts a concert hall for the Philharmonic Orchestra of Armenia and an Opera & Ballet Theater without Lenin’s statue on the roof. In the evenings, you can see locals strolling around the concert hall, sometimes making up to 3-4 rounds per evening. Right behind the concert hall is a small artificial pond where swans can be seen.
There are actually two places in Yerevan with the same name. One of them is a hangout place for artists, while the other one is a weekend flea market, where you can buy not only Soviet-era collectibles but also handcrafted jewelry, carpets, and souvenirs. The Vernissage for artists is also mostly a weekend thing and is located not far away from the aforementioned Opera, next to the Saryan statue. Artists sell their paintings or sculptures there and like to discuss current political and world affairs. After their work is done, they usually gather in one of the adjacent cafes to continue their discussions about politics. The flea market Vernissage is also a very lively place to be, with rows of salespeople selling their crafts and souvenirs. Be aware that bargaining is an essential part of the ritual in both places; never agree to pay the first price offered by the sellers.