If it wasn’t for my quest to see a few select places along the Silk Road this year, I have to admit that I would have been hard-pushed to find Yerevan on the world map. I am quite embarrassed about that because not only is Yerevan one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, but I also heard much about its border issues with Azerbaijan and Turkey, yet I’d never bothered to learn more.
Arriving in Yerevan, located to the south of the country which borders Georgia (the only open border), Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran, it was pretty much love at first sight. The weather was sunny but the imposing Mount Ararat with its two peaks was snow-capped, making it look even more volcanic. The tree-lined streets were filled with people strolling along and sitting in cafés, and there was art and architecture waiting to be discovered at every corner.
There is so much history evident everywhere, as well as a strong national pride. Here are my personal reasons why you should be putting Yerevan on your “to-travel-to” list.
1. The Art And Architecture
I know, I know. Really, the number one spot should have been taken by something historic, but bear with me. The first place everybody visiting Yerevan should go to first is the Cascades Complex. This is a set of steps, an incredible 572 of them, leading up the side of a hill, and once at the top (don’t worry, you can take the escalators within the Cafesjian Center for the Arts next to the steps) the views are incredible. Yerevan spreads out below you and Ararat fills the horizon. The step complex is typically Soviet in style, with fountains and sculptures all the way up.
At the bottom of the Cascades, you’ll find the wonderful sculpture park, part of the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. World-class artists are represented here, all part of a private collection made available for the city to enjoy. The art center itself is a marvelous construction of what would normally have been a boring set of escalators leading up the hill. Instead, it has been cleverly utilized as a quirky gallery space.
2. The Museums
There are some fantastic museums in the city, with the Genocide Museum — which consists of a museum, the eternal flame, and the imposing Tsitsernakaberd Memorial — leading the pack. It is the most insightful and powerful of the museums but a must-see to understand the country and its people.
On Republic Square, there is the State Museum of Armenian History, showcasing finds dating back from the Stone Age to more modern cultural heritage such as local carpets. In the same building, you have the National Art Gallery, always running temporary exhibitions by local artists with an amazing array of superb talent on display. The modern art museum had a Banksy exhibition when I visited and generally has mold-breaking contemporary art in its rooms.
3. Republic Square
If you want to stay in the heart of the city, I can recommend the Marriott Armenia Hotel right on Republic Square. With its museums, fountain, and Government House, the square is a site for celebrations as well as demonstrations. It is beautiful, and from the hotel’s windows, you have the chance to see Republic Square in the changing daylight and all lit up at night when it is stunning. It is a truly great spot for a hotel, with absolutely everything in Yerevan within walking distance.
4. The Blue Mosque
This 18th-century Persian Shia Mosque, also known as the Persian Mosque or the Mosque of Shah, is the last mosque operating in the whole of Armenia. It’s a reminder that Armenia was the first country in the world to embrace Christianity as a state religion. Maybe not quite as striking as the mosques of Isfahan or Samarkand, but its blue and green tiled exterior is beautiful, as is the little garden it is located in.
5. The Café And Restaurant Culture
As I already mentioned, walking around Yerevan, you’ll stumble across restaurants and cafés everywhere. They have plenty of outdoor seating, making the most of the warmer months with people lingering over coffee and enjoying the green spaces. The green areas between the Armenian National Opera, Ballet Theatre, and Cascade Complex are filled with great outdoor cafés, as are the sides of the sculpture park.
Head along Moskovyan Street for an international selection of cuisines and types of restaurants. From wine bars to fine dining, street food to relaxed student hangouts, it’s all there. Must-try foods include all things lamb and eggplant, plus the lovely fresh flatbread called lavash, which is baked in clay ovens and stuffed with all sorts of things. For a wide variety of foods and some local entertainment, try Sherep Restaurant just off Republic Square next to the Marriott. Hugely popular with locals, make sure you book ahead.
6. Vernissage Market
You always need a souvenir to bring back and there is no better place to search out some local arts and crafts than the open-air Vernissage Market — a short walk from Republic Square. Here, you’ll find a wide range of traditional Armenian crafts, souvenirs, artwork, jewelry, and antiques. It’s a great place to explore and purchase unique items, with blood-red ceramics featuring locally grown pomegranates, a firm favorite.
7. The Pride Of Armenians
What really struck me is the fact that everywhere in Yerevan, as well as outside the city limits, there are huge pictures of Armenians who live abroad. These individuals have helped their country with money or celebrity status to either build infrastructure, restore historic sites, donate art, or simply help out with some funds for the people.
From Charles Aznavour to Cher, and even the Kardashians, all have Armenian roots. And here is something I learned about how to spot someone with Armenian roots: the names all end in –ian, –jian, or a similar derivative. I spent a long time looking at the names of the artists in the Art Gallery and loved that there is such an easy way of connecting, wherever you find yourself.
8. The Day-Trip Opportunities
However lovely, Yerevan should never be just a city trip. The true beauty of Armenia lies outside of the city limits. A mountainous country with huge peaks, high lakes, and mountain passes, everywhere you look, ancient monasteries are perching atop cragged hills. Probably the closest and most impressive monastery is Khor Virap Monastery, situated near the border of Turkey. Khor Virap offers breathtaking views of Mount Ararat. This little monastery, originally dating to the 600s (with the current church dating to the 1600s), is a significant religious site. It’s the place where St. Gregory the Illuminator — the Patron Saint of Armenia and reason behind Armenia embracing Christianity — was imprisoned.
A natural beauty is Lake Sevan, located about 37 miles northeast of Yerevan. Lake Sevan is the largest lake in Armenia and one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. On its shores lies the Sevanavank Monastery, but the lake is lovely just for its serenity and mountainous fringes. If you are also looking for Silk Road sites, the Orbelian’s Caravanserai not far from the lake is a must. The former overnight resting point during travel along the Silk Road, weary merchants had a chance to sleep, have their animals looked after, and meet other travelers along the way, while doing a bit of business as well.
For a way to see two countries at once, why not get a driver to take you across the border to Tbilisi in Georgia, a mere 4-hour drive from Yerevan?