“Visit Armenia, it is beautiful.” Coined as the slogan for Armenia by the tourist board, Armenia is a veritable treasure trove of incredibly beautiful old orthodox churches and monasteries tucked in the mountains in this tiny eastern European country. Armenia was in fact the very first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD.
Armenia is a landlocked nation bordering Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. With a number of micro climates due to the numerous mountains and valleys, summers tend to be warm and dry while winters are quite cold, with snow a common occurrence. However, the abundance of snow makes for exciting winter sport activities on the many mountains around the country.
Armenia is a land of beautiful scenery, and many of the country’s monasteries are situated in some of the most picturesque locations in the country. The stunning architecture, coupled with the fabulous surroundings, makes Armenia a popular choice for tourists who like to stray off the beaten track.
Ancient Christian churches and monasteries built over 1700 years ago can be found all over the country. In particular at Khor Virap not far from Yerevan, the monastery here overlooks the Armenian-Turkish border where you have a good view of Mount Ararat in all its beauty.
Khor Virap translates to deep pit or well; there are two pits inside the St Gevorg Chapel here, both of which can be reached by descending a ladder or stairway. Saint Gregory the Illuminator was held prisoner in Khor Virap for fourteen years and the pit in which he was kept can be visited by tourists.
Lake Sevan is a popular destination in the summer with its many resorts, cabanas (tavernas) and fish restaurants that attract visitors particularly during the summer. At around 2,000 metres above sea level, the lake is huge, covering 5% of this landlocked country. Much of it is still pristine and there are many lovely beaches.
Akhtala Monastery is located to the north of Yerevan, in the town of Akhtala, and it is a popular choice for visiting tourists. This inactive monastery is well preserved and once served as a fortress to protect the country’s north-western regions. Akhtala Monastery has a famous church full of decorative frescoes covering the walls, which are well worth seeing.
Don’t miss the peninsula or kghzi, (island) where you can see the ancient Sevanavank Monastery. Perched at the top of a hill overlooking the lake, as well as stunning views, inside the black stone building is a very beautiful old altar that is still used for services by the new seminary down the hill.
Nearby is Noratus, the largest khachkar cemetery in the world. Also here are several other monasteries well worth visiting: Hayrivank is another one overlooking the lake and rarely visited, and also don’t miss Makenyats Monastery and Vanevank Monastery. The north shore of the lake is a good place for hikes.
Northern Armenia, though a bit harder to get to, is well worth the effort. Here you find many more monasteries, churches and old fortresses and one of the best views in Armenia is looking across the Akhurian river canyon to the ruins at Ani. Now located in Turkey this was once the medieval capital of Armenia. Near this view point, you can also visit the 7th century Yereruyk Basilica. All around the Debed river canyon is particularly rich in monuments with the Kobayr and Surp Grigori Monasteries containing some of Armenia’s finest frescoes. The Haghpat and Sanahin Monasteries are a combined World Heritage Site, sitting facing each other on opposite sides of the Debed Canyon.
The History Museum of Armenia is another great place to visit. The museum is located in Yerevan’s Republic Square and has over 400,000 objects on display. Many of these objects have come from archaeological digs from around the country and these displays are constantly replenished as more objects are found and excavated. Current collections include bronze items from the 3rd to 2nd millennia BC as well as gold and silver coins from Armenia and beyond.
Nearly everyone flies into the international airport at Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. You can take a train from Tbilisi in Georgia (every other day), but cannot travel into Armenia from Azerbaijan nor Turkey. Buses also go from Georgia and Iran.
Travel to Armenia by car is possible from Iran or Georgia but borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed.
It is not necessary to apply for a visa to enter Armenia if you hold an EU or United States passport. Other tourists are required to obtain a tourist visa upon entry and pay an applicable fee.
Accommodation and hotels in Armenia
Several of the old Soviet hotels have been privatised and upgraded, including the Armenia Marriott Hotel in Yerevan. There are several heritage hotels across the country, in particular the Avan Dzoraget Hotel in the Debed Canyon. If you want something simpler, there are many homestays, usually offering a room in a family home with shared facilities. Staying in these couldn’t be a better way to get to know the local people.
Nonetheless, bed and breakfasts and hostels are often the accommodation of choice for many tourists who want to experience true Armenian culture.
Dining and Shopping:
However typical Armenian barbecue joints are the most popular places that you can find across the country, with standard menus of barbecued meats, vegetables, salads and appetisers (zakuzksi). Typical appetisers include cheese, bread and olives, strained yogurt with a salad of sliced tomatoes or cucumber.
Khorovats or BBQ’d meat can be made from pork, lamb, chicken or beef and is typically flavoured with onions and spices. Other items you might find on the menu include borscht, a beetroot soup that is usually served warm with fresh sour cream. Stuffed grape leaves (dolma), stuffed cabbage leaves, bell peppers and eggplants are also popular.
There is a very strong café culture and in the towns you will find many pavement cafés serving late into the evening. The Opera area of Yerevan has many and Vernisage is recommended for its cool shade under the tree and friendly service.
Armenia is a country rich in culture and history and is ideal for those who like to travel away from hordes of visiting tourists. This beautiful country has plenty to offer in terms of ancient sites, delicious cuisine, and friendly locals.
So if you feel like an off the beaten path type of vacation, somewhere different but rewarding then why not try Armenia? The cost of living is lower allowing for a cheaper holiday. With some great churches and dramatic scenery Armenia does live up to its slogan “Visit Armenia, it is beautiful”.
Armenia Travel Advice