In early August, the small Caucasus republic of Armenia announced it was reopening to international tourists – once you’ve had a negative Covid-19 test. In celebration of Armenia’s reopening, we’ve gathered a list of the top sights and activities in this beautiful, historic country.
The capital city, Yerevan, is the best place to begin your exploration of Armenia. It’s a city with a long history, having been founded some 2800 years ago, and traces of its ancient past can still be seen at the remains of Erebuni Fortress to the east of the city centre. More recent structures include the Cascades, a open-air art gallery on a white marble staircase stretching up the hillside, populated by wonderfully bizarre sculptures including a shiny blue penguin and a hugely fat cat. From the top of the Cascades, the views of the city with Ararat in the background are splendid.
Museum-goers are well catered for: the History Museum, with its huge range of fascinating and quirky exhibits (the world’s oldest shoe, anyone?), is arguably the best museum in the Caucasus region; the Matandaran offers a beautiful collection of ancient illuminated manuscripts; and there are numerous house-museums dedicated to the memory of Armenia’s many talented writers and artists.
If all that seems heavy going, though, a perfect contrast is a visit to the Ararat Brandy Factory: Winston Churchill was a fan, so who are we to argue? After an interesting tour to glimpse the process and a chance to sample the wares, relax in one of the city’s many restaurants, cafes or wine bars and enjoy further excellent local produce such as stuffed vine leaves and deliciously juicy pork kebabs.
As the world’s oldest Christian nation, Armenia has more than its fair share of monasteries. Built in a unique Caucasian style, and often located in stunningly beautiful locations, it’s virtually impossible to pick the best. Sevanavank, on the shores of the enormous Lake Sevan, is a strong contender; or perhaps Tatev, reached by one of the world’s longest cable car rides.
But in terms of historical significance, Khor Virap perhaps edges into the lead – it’s where the country adopted Christianity in 301 AD, and you can still climb down into the pit where the monk who brought the religion to the country was imprisoned for fifteen years. It’s not bad to look at either, standing proud beneath the snow-capped peaks of Mount Ararat. For sheer isolation, try the often wind- and rain-swept Vorotnavank: it’s gorgeous, yet rarely visited by tourists, so it’s easier to imagine life as a medieval monk here. But our pick for the most picturesque monastery in Armenia is Noravank: built of striking pink-orange stone and set atop a rocky outcrop in the Amaghu Gorge, it’s arguably the pinnacle of medieval monastic architecture, and is particularly stunning at sunset.
The best news, though, is that you don’t necessarily have to choose: Khor Virap, Vorotnavank and Noravank can all be visited in one (long) day trip from Yerevan.
Rather unexpectedly, Armenia is home to a magnificent Roman temple. Garni is thought to have been built in the 1st century AD by the Armenian king Tiridates I, who had visited Rome and been crowned by the emperor Nero – it’s likely that Tiridates then returned home to Armenia and embarked on a construction project inspired by his trip. The temple stood for approximately 1500 years before collapsing in an earthquake, but was restored to its former glory by Soviet archeologists in the 1970s.
While at Garni, check out the other ancient ruins on site: you’ll find the remains of an unusual circular cathedral and a fairly well-preserved bathhouse. Garni is also the start point for an excellent trek past Giant’s Causeway-esque basalt columns to the magnificent Geghard monastery, which is one of the country’s holiest pilgrimage sites.
Nestled in the Lesser Caucasus mountain range, Armenia boasts some stunning outdoor scenery and offers great opportunities for hiking in a largely undiscovered part of the world. Perhaps the most obvious trek is the ascent of Mount Aragats, which at more than 4000 metres is the highest point in Armenia, but can still be tackled in a single day starting from the town of Ashtarak. You’ll be rewarded with fine views across the Armenian Highlands, perhaps stretching as far as Yerevan and the sister peak, Mount Ararat, across the border in Turkey.
Other options include the well-established walking trails in the northern Dilijan National Park, which has in recent years been described as the Switzerland of Armenia. Part of the ambitious Transcaucasian Trail, the multi-day routes here take you through lush forests and along magnificent gorges, with side trips possible to the gorgeous monasteries of Haghartsin and Goshavank. If you prefer day hikes, consider the 8km walk from Shirakamut village to Trchkan, the highest waterfall in Armenia.
Armenia – along with its neighbours Georgia and Azerbaijan – spent much of the 20th century as part of the USSR, and there’s a considerable Soviet legacy still in evidence here. Plenty of Yerevan’s landmarks are grandiose Soviet projects, including the attractive Republic Square and the imposing Mother Armenia statue, as well as the Cascades and the striking Opera House.
But it’s outside Yerevan, across the rest of the country, where you’ll find some of the most interesting Soviet leftovers. Monuments to the Great Patriotic War can be seen atop hills above many towns – these often bleak, monolithic structures have a bizarrely enthralling beauty of their own. Our favourites among these brutalist concrete behemoths include the World War II memorial above the town of Sisian, and Spitak’s unloved and neglected tribute to the 1988 earthquake.
If you want a slice of Soviet memorabilia to remember the USSR by, make sure to visit Yerevan’s Vernissage Market, where you can pick up anything from hammer-and-sickle pin lapels to clocks emblazoned with Stalin’s face.
Some of Armenia’s attractions defy easy categorization. Where else, for example, can you visit a monument dedicated to an alphabet? In the 5th century AD, the monk Mesrop Mashtots invented an alphabet specifically designed for the Armenian language; 1600 years later, the alphabet is still revered as an important part of the national identity. In 2005, a monument to the alphabet was constructed, consisting of enormous stone replicas of each letter. It’s a fantastic and different place for a quick stroll.
Elsewhere, you may find the town of Jermuk also rather unusual: it’s a spa town that was popular among Soviet holidaymakers, and it’s still frequented by visitors from across the former USSR, who come for medical tourism. The town’s centrepiece is a grandiose colonnaded arcade, which is packed full of taps dispensing the local mineral water – which comes warm, salty and fizzy. Visitors buy cups and help themselves to the water: it’s a great spot for people-watching. Jermuk is also home to a gorgeous waterfall and a lovely walk in the Arpa gorge.
Armenia packs a great deal into its small size: its fascinating history and stunning scenery make it a must-see destination. Having reopened to tourists, now could be the ideal time for you to explore.
Note that currently on arrival, tourists must enter a 14 day quarantine, with the option to take a Covid-19 test. If the test comes back negative, you’ll be free to travel at will through this beautiful country
Top image: Khor Virap church with Ararat Mountain in the background, Armenia © MehmetO/Shutterstock