If you ask a travel blogger next door, they will give you the usual response about Armenia’s extraordinary mix of rich history, unique culture, delicious food and hospitable people that inhabit it. That is absolutely true, but it is hardly enough to help you make up your mind about a trip to Armenia, because after all there are other countries with plenty of good reasons to visit them. If you ask me, Armenia is worth visiting above all because not many people visit it in the first place, which means that there will be times during your trip when you are standing on a top of a mountain and watching the sunset in absolute peace and tranquility. Isn’t that a moment worth a flight? If you agree, read on and learn all the most important things you need to know about your next vacation destination.
How do I get there?
There are a bunch of options to consider, depending on your location. A handful of direct flights connecting Armenia with major European and Asian hubs, such as Paris, Vienna, Berlin (from Summer 2020), Milan, the Emirates, and more, make a trip to Armenia a hassle-free experience. Besides direct flights, a multitude of connecting flights are available from virtually everywhere in Europe. If you are a citizen of the EU, UK, USA, Qatar, Emirates, or Switzerland, you do not have to obtain an Armenian visa. Click here to find out if you need a visa for when you travel to Armenia.
Is Armenia safe?
Once you’ve looked at the map to find out where exactly Armenia is, a reasonable question may arise in your head: “is it safe to travel to Armenia?” The short answer is “yes, it is”. The country ranks pretty high in safety and security charts compiled by various international organizations, and there are no special precautions needed when traveling to Armenia. However, there are areas in the country, along the border with neighboring Azerbaijan, where traveling is not recommended by most governments, despite the absence of any incidents in the last twenty-six years. With crime rates historically low, everyone can feel safe at any time virtually everywhere in the country, although some common sense is still required to stay out of trouble. A recent study by Gallup International placed Armenia in the top ten safest countries in the world.
Geography and Climate
Armenia is a landlocked country with a continental climate and is located between the Black and Caspian Seas. The majority of the country is situated in the Highlands, where the towns and villages are at an altitude over 1,000 meters above sea level. The lowest point is 350 meters above sea level in the north of the country, whereas the highest point in the country is the Aragats Peak at 4,090 meters. Thanks to these geographic features, Armenia enjoys all four seasons, with warm and dry summers and cold and snowy winters. Autumn is mild, and it is the best time of the year to enjoy seasonal fruits. Spring comes early in Armenia and lasts for about two months, and it usually already feels like summer by the end of May. The best time to visit the country is from May until early November. If you are a winter sport fan, the skiing season usually begins in mid-January and lasts until early March.
Although Armenian is considered an Indo-European language, just like English, German, French, or Persian, it is, in fact, a branch of its own and bears no real similarities to other Indo-European languages. The Armenian language is one of the three European languages, along with Greek and Georgian, with its own unique script. Among other things, this means that it’s impossible to read any text in Armenian unless you’ve learned the language. Armenian is the official language of the country. Besides Armenian, almost everyone is Armenia can understand and speak basic Russian. Most people in the capital can also speak and understand some English; however, virtually no one speaks English outside Yerevan and Gyumri. All road signs on the highways and some street names are also marked in English, so you won’t get lost. In Yerevan and other major cities, most restaurants have menus in English, and shops and stores usually have signs in English.
The Armenian Dram (AMD/ ֏ ) has been the official currency of Armenia since 1993. As of 2019, 1 US dollar is worth approximately 490 dram, and 1 euro is worth approximately 570 dram. You can exchange currency in any bank or at a currency exchange office. Currency exchange offices can be found in most of the supermarkets in the city center. You can also pay with international credit cards, such as Visa, MasterCard, and American Express, which are accepted in all large outlets in Yerevan. When you’re outside of Yerevan, make sure to take cash with you, since international cards are less widely accepted in other regions.
To put it bluntly, public transportation in Yerevan is a mess. However, if you want to have a truly authentic local experience, you should try it. The public transportation in Yerevan consists of a single subway/metro line, a countless number of minibuses (commonly referred as “Marshutka”), and 24 trolley routes and bus lines. All of the public transportation in Yerevan costs 100 dram per one-way journey, which you can pay directly to the driver on buses, marshutkas, or trolleybuses. Despite the less-than-desirable standards, public transportation routes are actually very well connected, meaning you can theoretically get from any point in the city to another without having to transfer, as long as you know the correct route number for the Marshutka or bus that you need to take. Alternatively, you can take a taxi, which is actually the preferred mode of transportation for many locals. A taxi ride in the city center should not cost more than 1,000 dram (about 2 US dollars). However, beware of scammers; always make sure to take taxis with a counter, or use one of the taxi apps on your mobile device (GG, U Taxi, or Yandex Taxi). For complete transport freedom, you can also rent a car from a well-known international provider or a local rental agency.
Food and Drink
When it comes to eating and drinking in Armenia, get ready for a kaleidoscope of colors and tastes. Armenian cuisine is eclectic, with Middle Eastern, Turkish, Persian, Russian, and Eastern European influences. It is incredibly seasonal, since it’s predominantly based on local produce. The cuisine is very simple and straightforward, and, at times, even stark. Meat is a dominant element, although vegetarians can also find lots of meals suitable for their diet, especially from May to October, when there is abundant produce. As in many other cultures, eating together with friends or family is almost a ritual and is a distinctive feature of socializing. Moreover, as far as socializing is concerned, alcohol is, of course, an essential element. Beer, wine, local brandy, and Schnapps-like homemade vodka from fruit are the main alcoholic beverages. Local wine-making is a very long-standing tradition that has lately been revived by enthusiasts, and some wines have gained a very good reputation.
In early March 2018, the leader of a minority faction in the parliament started a march from Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, in protest against the nomination of then-President Serge Sargsyan as a candidate for Prime Minister. By the time the march reached Yerevan on April 12, it had grown exponentially. People marched, rallied, blocked the streets, and chanted for days, putting life in Yerevan and other cities at a standstill. The scale of the peaceful protests led to the resignation of Serge Sargsyan on April 23. In early May of that same year, Nikol Pashinyan, the man leading the protests, was elected Prime Minister of the Republic. This peaceful revolution catapulted Armenia into the headlines of international media, and it was even named Country of the Year by The Economist. The revolution has had a profound impact on the mentality and identity of Armenians, so don’t be surprised by the frequent references to the Revolution when talking with locals, or the endless merchandise with Nikol Pahinyan’s face on it.
During the last years of the Soviet Union, several local conflicts erupted in its territory. Following ethnic cleansing attempts in Azerbaijan in 1988-1990, an armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan began. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the conflict evolved into a full-scale war, leaving thousands dead and displaced. In 1994, a ceasefire was signed among Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh). In the years following the agreement, the situation in the former war zone was calm and did not involve any more major armed incidents, but in 2016, the ceasefire agreement was brutally violated by Azerbaijan. It took serious international diplomatic efforts to stop the aggression in what is now referred to as the 4-Day War. Today, the border and the former war zone are once again relatively peaceful. All of Armenia and the vast majority of the Artsakh territory are officially recognized as “safe” by various international authorities. If you are planning a trip to Artsakh (which we definitely recommend), please consult the safety instructions of your country’s embassy or foreign affairs ministry.
The Soviet Heritage
The “evil empire,” as Ronald Regan once called the Soviet Union, included an area from the Far East to Berlin (including Armenia) from 1922 until 1991. Almost 70 years of Soviet rule have had a truly profound impact on the country. Electricity, basic infrastructure, a 98% literacy rate, advanced science, a rich cultural heritage, and a sense of equality among citizens are all virtues inherited from the “evil empire, “ although it can’t be denied that there have been some problems, including mass deportations, restrictions of free speech, and other classic elements of totalitarianism. In any case, one thing is clear: the Soviet heritage is impossible to ignore, from the cars on the streets to the brutalist architecture, and Yerevan itself is, to a large degree, an ode to that era. Everywhere you go in Armenia, traces of the Soviet regime can be found, but today, even though they are irrelevant and abandoned, they are still charming.
Founded 2,800 years ago, Yerevan is one of the oldest settlements in the world that is still inhabited. However, despite its age, most of the city as it is now was built in the 20th century. According to the construction plan, the center of the city was meant to be surrounded by a park (which is still known as the Circled Park), but construction was never completed. Since then, the master plan for the city of Yerevan has expanded, and the original city designed in the 1930s can still be seen in the Kentron district. As the administrative, financial, and cultural center of Armenia, Yerevan has a lot to offer to visitors. There are many things to do in Yerevan from museums to numerous wine bars and other attractions.
Located in the northwest of Armenia, Gyumri is the second largest city and the former capital of Armenia. During its long history, Gyumri has been renamed several times. The devastating earthquake of 1988 all but wiped out the city, and much of what you’ll find in Gyumri is either post-earthquake architecture or traces of Russian imperial rule, such as the magnificent classicist architecture in the Kumayri district. Apart from the architectural heritage, there are some sights that are definitely worth a visit, such as the old barber shop, which has remained unchanged since it was constructed in the 1950s, as well as the Soviet Arcade game hall.
Garni & Geghard
This is probably one of the most popular attractions in Armenia, thanks to its unique historical and cultural significance, as well as the beautiful nature surrounding the area. If you are traveling from Yerevan, your first stop will probably be in Garni, which is the only remaining pagan temple in Armenia. It is about 30 km east of Yerevan and is situated on the banks of the Azat River. The temple was built in the first century AD and is devoted to the goddess Mitra. The architecture has very clear Hellenic influences and is the only monument of its kind in the region.
Make sure to stop by the Charentsi Kamar outlook on the way to Garni near the village Voghjaberd, where you can enjoy the serene landscapes and an unparalleled view of Mount Ararat.
Another sight you can see on a one-day trip is the famous lake Sevan, which is located about 70 km northeast of Yerevan. Located at an altitude of 1,900 meters, it is one of the world’s largest freshwater reservoirs. If you happen to be in Sevan in July or August, you can even go swimming. While you’re there, you should also visit Noratus, a medieval burial site with hundreds of stone-carved tombs known as khachqar, a unique example of Armenian stone-carving art. Noratus features around 900 stone-carved tombs, some of which have strange and fascinating motifs. One of them, for example, features a scene from a wedding. Another activity in Sevan that is good for any time of year is the Sevanavank, an eighth-century monastery on the Sevan peninsula. Make sure to bring a warm jacket with you, as there are often strong winds in the area, even at the height of summer.
Try local fish or crayfish dishes in one of the nearby restaurants while enjoying the view of the lake.
Ejmiatsin & Zvartnots
The quickest and easiest day trip you can take outside of Yerevan is to the nearby town of Ejmiatsin, a small town 30 km west of Yerevan. As the religious center of Armenia, Ejmiatsin houses the residence of the supreme religious leader of all Armenians, the Catholicos, in the fourth-century Holy See of Etchmiatsin. There are a number of early Christian churches in the town, such as St. Hripsimeh Church. There is also a museum in the Holy See area that has a collection of religious and spiritual art, which is definitely worth seeing. Just keep in mind that the museum is only open until 18:00 every day, except Monday. On your way back to Yerevan, make sure to stop by the ruins of another church, the Zvartnots. It was built in the seventh century, and its architecture was very ahead of its time. Unfortunately, the church was destroyed after a devastating earthquake, but you can still experience some its magnificence, as the pillars of its circular exterior have been restored.