I’ve been meaning to write a piece about Yerevan for some time. Life has, however, gotten in the way. The relative calm of a cold, wet and windy Sunday in Manchester seemed like as good a time as any to write down a few thoughts about the Armenian capital – and a few things you may wish to do if you are considering visiting for the first time.
I have had the privilege of visiting Yerevan on four occasions now; three times as a complete ‘outsider’ with nothing more than a guidebook and a scribbled list of things I’d like to see and once with a friend who lived in the city for many years and is currently based in London. My only ‘guided tour’ of Yerevan was this August, so I’d like think my perspective of what it was like to approach the city as a first time visitor remains at least partially intact.
Yerevan is a truly unique city – vibrant, exciting, welcoming, hopeful and globally-facing. It is the capital city of a country but it is so much more than that. It’s the global centre – and a safe haven – for Armenians living across the world; from Beirut to Buenos Aires, London to Los Angeles. There are tens of thousands of diaspora Armenians who regularly drop in and out of the city, giving it the air of a city in flux.
Getting in – my advice: start in Georgia
I am in the slightly odd position of having visited Armenia on a number of occasions but having never arrived in the country after flying into Yerevan’s main Zvartnots airport. Instead, I have always entered Armenia via its northern neighbour Georgia to which flights from Western Europe cost roughly half of those to Yerevan and then continued my journey either by railway or road.
If you are visiting the South Caucasus for the first time, I would recommend you follow the same path. Georgia and Armenia are small enough countries that getting from Tbilisi to Yerevan (and back) is relatively quick and easy. It’s now unthinkable for me to travel to the region without visiting both Georgia and Armenia. To see one but not the other would, in my opinion, make any initial introduction to the Caucasus feel oddly incomplete. The language, food, spirit, architecture, landscapes and, most importantly, history of the two countries are wildly different (and that’s before you encounter the so-called “enigma wrapped up in an enigma” known as Nagorno Karabakh).
If you’re an adventurous traveller who isn’t pushed for time, I’d recommend that you take the overnight sleeper train from Tbilisi to Yerevan. The experience is unforgettable – but be prepared for every Georgian and Armenian you encounter to try and talk you out of it! I’ve done the journey with friends a couple of times and it’s great fun.
The train runs each evening during the summer months (and every second day during winter), departing Tbilisi at around 20:00 and crawling into Yerevan at around 07:30 the following morning. A 1st class ticket costs around £30 with two beds in each cabin. There is no buffet car so it is important to stock up on water and food before you travel.
The carriages themselves are glorious relics of the Soviet era, decked out in shades of brown and brass with ornate images of Mount Ararat on the walls of each cabin. Shortly before you depart a middle-aged baboushka provides you with clean linen for the night and helps you take care of all the passport formalities at the Georgian and Armenian border (which you reach just after midnight). The only downside of the train is that, due to the journey taking place at night, there is no real view to speak of until about 90 minutes from Yerevan when you may be lucky enough to see the slopes of Mount Ararat if the day is clear enough.
After you arrive in Yerevan, you can easily pick up a taxi outside the front door of the main station. Don’t rush straight off thought as the station itself is well worth looking around for a few minutes – it’s a superb example of opulent Soviet-era architecture. After that, you need not worry too much about having Armenian Drams on you prior to arrival as, from my experience, taxi drivers will happily take Euros or Georgian Lari.
If you are pushed for time, driving from Tbilisi to Yerevan is a fast and stress-free option. The driving time between the two cities is between four and five hours and the journey is an attractive one, passing over the attractive Southern Georgian and Northern Armenian plains, through lush hills and down into the more arid Yerevan valley.
If you want to attempt the journey by taxi then the best thing to do is to ask your hotel to arrange a driver for you. They may be able to arrange for you to share a taxi with somebody else heading to Yerevan, something that will cut your costs (a place in a taxi from Tbilisi to Yerevan costs less than a 1st class train ticket). If your hotel can’t help, just head to Didube Bus Station on the outskirts of Tbilisi where you will find hourly buses (before 4pm) to Yerevan, as well as a number of taxis trying to cobble together enough passengers to make the drive to Yerevan worthwhile. Just look out for the Russian word for Yerevan – ‘Ереван’ – in car windows. Be prepared for the fact your taxi of bus will have no idea where they’re going when you reach Yerevan. Don’t worry about this – just disembark at the central bus station and pick up a local cab to your ultimate destination inside the city (you’ll never be more than ten minutes away from where you need to go).
The language barrier
Visiting Yerevan for the first time can be a fairly daunting experience. Knowledge of the English language remains relatively limited, although younger people working in hotels, cafes and restaurants can usually speak English to good standard. Almost all Armenians speak Russian fluently and you will notice a substantial a number of signs on businesses across the city are in both Russian and Armenian.
I know only a few basic phrases in Armenian and have a skeletal understanding of Russian but have never had any problems getting around in Yerevan. If you’re patient, speak slowly and smile then you’ll get where you need to go eventually. Most restaurants in the centre of Yerevan offer menus in all English, Russian and Armenian.
Do try and learn how to say “thank you” in Armenian. Given that “thank you” is the rather difficult to pronounce “shnorhakalutyun“, locals will appreciate you trying!
Where should I stay?
Yerevan is no exception from this rule. That’s why I was so pleased to discover the Yerevan Deluxe Hotel on Komitas Street.
Owned and operated by an Armenian diaspora family, it’s located a seven to ten minute taxi ride from the central Republic Square but is genuinely excellent. Located on a quiet street, the rooms are very reasonably priced at around £35 a night for a double, extremely comfortable and have excellent air conditioning. The staff are could not be more courteous or helpful, especially if you need to organise onward travel to other parts of the country or need advice on visiting tourists attractions.
It may seem a bit annoying to stay a little away from Republic Square but, with a taxi to the centre costing only £1.20, it’s well worth it. You won’t find anywhere better in the city.
This is a rather simplistic thing to say but one of the best ways to genuinely get to know Yerevan is to set off on foot with no clear plan as to where you are going. By wandering aimlessly in Yerevan, I have found some fantastic places off main streets that I’d never have found if I’d stuck to a rigid tourist agenda.
I’ll never forget the searing heat during my first visit to the city. During the entire time I was in Yerevan the temperature rarely dropped below forty degrees during the day and the only way to see the city during the blistering August heat was by stopping for regular breaks at many of the cafes found in the shady, immaturely landscaped parks that line Yerevan’s main avenues. If you’re visiting in the summer months, you are almost guaranteed to stumble across live music – from jazz to electro – blaring from bars and restaurants across the city.
Aside from some of the poorer Soviet-era housing developments on the outskirts of the city, there’s nowhere unsafe for tourists to go in Yerevan. If you get lost, so what? A taxi back to the city centre (just hail one from the side of the road – they’re in plentiful supply) won’t cost you any more than £1.50. Give it a go.
When I think of Yerevan, I always think of the city’s chaotic and charming central plaza, Republic Square. Lined with imposing examples of neo-classical Soviet buildings made out of Yerevan’s trademark pink stones, the square is home to the Armenian Foreign Ministry and several other government buildings. Republic Square can be a loud and chaotic place with heavy traffic lining the square at all times of day; the sound of tooting car horns ever-present.
Republic Square has two very different faces.
During the day, it brilliantly plays the part of the imposing central square and centre of governmental power. The powerful-looking buildings and endless comings and goings of suited and booted Armenians going about their business speak to the country’s pride and (increasing) self-confidence.
By night, it takes on a far more romantic quality as thousands of people head to the pedestrianised area of the square to watch the multi-coloured ‘singing fountains’ synchronised in tune with various hits from local favourite Charles Aznavour. If you want to enjoy the light show over a cold beer, my advice would be to head to the top floor of Diamond Pizza in the square’s North West corner – it has great panoramic views.
In short, you cannot visit Yerevan and not see both faces of Republic Square.
Located just a short walk from Republic Square are the Sculpture Park and Cafesjian Museum – colloquially known as ‘the Cascades’. To get there, just say “Cass-cadh” to any taxi driver.
Arriving at the Cascades, you will notice what appears to be a giant staircase heading up the side of the valley. This is the ‘Cascades’ itself. Constructed in the early 1970s, the stairway is actually a vast warren of subterranean art galleries dug into the hillside. If you walk to the entrance, you are able to go inside and take a series of escalators up to each level of the complex, occasionally stopping at one of the ‘steps’ in order to take in the impressive views of the city below – including the beautiful opera house that is located just in front. Each of the ‘steps’ has its own small garden and waterfall, as well a series of modern art objects – my favourite being a lion crafted out of reused tyres.
When visiting the Cascades, I would recommend walking all the way to the top and continuing up to now rather tired concrete viewing platform from where you are able to take in some breath-taking views of Mount Ararat and the city below.
If you continue to walk up the hill from the viewing platform, you will see the gates to Victory Park about 300 metres away on the right-hand side of the road. While the park itself is nothing special, it’s well worth walking through it in order to reach the fantastic Mother Armenia monument which stands defiantly, sword-drawn looking over Mount Ararat and the lost Armenian provinces found in modern-day Turkey. Under the statue is a small but extremely interesting museum dedicated to the Nagorno Karabakh war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.
Located below the Cascades and Victory Park is the Sculpture Park which is home to a piazza filled with a collection of interesting statues, some of which are rather bizarre to say the least. The park is lined with bars and cafes on either side, many of which are frequented by ex-pats and members of the Armenian diaspora who have headed to the city from as far away as California, Buenos Aires and Lebanon – all of whom are very willing to chat and offer you their rather caustic opinions on local politics.
Genocide Monument and Museum
It is hard to visit Armenia and not come into contact with the legacy of the genocide. Indeed, the city of Yerevan was little more than a provincial town prior to the murder of roughly 1.5 million Armenians and expulsion of many hundreds of thousands of others from the Ottoman Empire. Following the genocide, the population of Yerevan exploded as expelled Armenians rebuilt their lives in this corner of Armenia.
There can be no more powerful symbol of the profound loss Armenians have experienced than the looming presence of Mount Ararat which dominates the city’s skyline and is central to the country’s culture and mythology yet is now located behind a fence in Eastern Turkey, entirely off-limits to Armenians.
Located on a bare hillside just outside the city centre, the Genocide Monument and Museum is a place of incredible solemnity and reflection. There is no attempt to demonise the Ottoman Empire or present-day Turkey but rather the focus is on remembering the victims of one of the darkest episodes of human history which, to the eternal shame of the international community, remains largely unrecognised.
While the paintings, manuscripts and letters on show are all moving, the part of the monument that sticks most vividly with me are a series of glass containers close to the exit containing earth samples from the twelve lost Armenian provinces. If you want to understand Armenia, the psyche of its people and the context of so many of the country’s recent and current challenges, this monument cannot be missed.
There are few things I enjoy more when travelling than visiting old flea markets. If you’re looking to buy items as diverse as old communist memorabilia, traditional Armenian carpets and paintings then you should visit Vernissage. Ninety minutes or so should be more than enough time to get around.
Outside Yerevan – Etchmiadzin Cathedral and Zvartnots
Yerevan isn’t a particularly large city and, as such, you are able to see most of its main tourist attractions in just a couple of days. Getting out of the city can, however, be rather complicated if you’re not sure where you are going. I am therefore exceptionally grateful to have had the chance to have seen some of the ancient religious sites that can be found in the provinces immediately surrounding Yerevan.
Of them, the most impressive are the Etchmiadzin and Zvartnots Cathedrals.
Located in the town of Vagharshapat, roughly one hour from Yerevan, the Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin is the oldest state-constructed church in the world having been consecrated in the year 480. While Armenian churches are usually fairly simply decorated inside, the interior of Etchmiadzin is covered in elaborate murals. Along the perimeter fence of the church is a series of ornate cross stones (“khachkars”) that date back more than 1,000 years.
Just across the courtyard from the cathedral is a modern chapel constructed by the former Armenian Prime Minister and Ambassador to London Armen Sargsyan. I am usually hugely sceptic of modern constructions in close proximity to historic sites but the new chapel is entirely in keeping with the architecture and solemnity of the surrounding area.
Close to the main cathedral is Saint Hripsime Church which was constructed in the year 618. While its surroundings are not as ornate as the cathedral’s, I found the relatively peace and quiet of the place incredibly appealing. Unlike the main cathedral which seemed to be swamped by a large number of tourists, Saint Hripsme appears to be much more of an active place of worship with many clergy going about their business away from the maddening crowds.
Not far along the road from Etchmiadzin is the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral, a 7th century church that has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The church has been battered over the years by the ravages of invading armies and earthquakes, yet large parts of its husk remain intact, including some incredibly impressive pillars which still depict ancient carvings from 1400 years ago.
One of the most striking things about Zvartnots (as with so many other sites of interest in Yerevan) is the looming presence of Mount Ararat behind it. Rather uniquely, however, the view towards Ararat has not been cluttered with other buildings but rather stretches out along an open plain giving you a great view of the mountain.
If you were to set off early, it would be possible to see both Etchmiadzin and Zvartnots in half a day – allowing you to get back to Yerevan in good time for lunch.
In the evening
Yerevan’s summer lends itself perfectly to socialising. While temperatures during the day can climb so high as to be unpleasant, as soon as the sun starts to come down the city is filled with a warm breeze that makes seeking out an outdoor table to enjoy a cold beer or two almost compulsory.
If you are looking for a great place to grab a few drinks in the open air then you can do no worse than to head to the area close to the Cascades and Opera House in the city centre. After heading here you will find scores of great places to visit; from relaxed cafes playing jazz music to elite-looking bars where cocktails and table service are the order of the day. Most of the bars stay open until around 02:00.
Where else should I look for information?
When it comes to visiting Yerevan, I’m no expert. Rather, I am an enthusiastic amateur whose knowledge of the city is growing with every visit.
For more information, I’d recommend you take a look at the excellent Wikipedia guide to Yerevan (and Armenia) itself as well as the TripAdvisor forums. If I can be of any help, though, please do drop me an email and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction.