Best of Armenia

Armenia is probably the country that I’ve explored the most, relatively speaking. It is not a very big country, at a mere 29.700 square kilometers, which makes it even smaller than my own tiny country of Denmark, so having explored almost every corner of the country is not as impressive a feat as you might think, but never the less it is the only country in which I’ve made meaningful visits to every single region. There’s a total of 11 regions in Armenia (+ Nagorno Karabakh) and I’ve visited them all during my 2 trips to the country.

Each region has its own unique attractions, and similarly the nature varies between each region as well. Some parts are rugged with mountains, other parts are entirely flat plains, other parts are majestic forests, lakes, highlands etc. Armenia has a lot of different scenery for a country of its size.

In the following article, I will list my favorite sites that I have visited in each of the 11 regions and Nagorno Karabakh, as a “Top things to do in Armenia” sort of thing. Be warned that many of these will be churches and monasteries, as this is one thing that Armenia is big on, and many of them are truly stunning and well worth visiting – monastery hopping is an excellent activity here! I will try to include some non-monastery sites whenever I pick a monastery too.

For visiting many of the places, I’ll strongly recommend checking out Envoy Hostel & Tours, as they offer great and cheap tours to many of the top sights of the country. If you stay at their hostel, based in Yerevan, you even get a discount on the tours. The guides and staff are all extremely friendly,  kind and knowledgeable. What makes their tours truly stand out however, is that they have a strong connection to many of the small communities across the country, and every single of their tours includes a lunch with a local family, where you get to meet the locals and taste delicious local food. It’s well worth it!

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Some of the staff at Envoy Hostel & Tours Yerevan and I.

So without further ado lets get started!

YEREVAN

Alright, let’s start out in the capital city, Yerevan, which is also its own region. Yerevan is of course the major urban hub of the country, and offers endless amazing sites for both culture and sightseeing. Picking just 1 here is difficult, but I will probably have to go with a very cliché site, but it is still great nevertheless.

Cascade, a grand architectural marvel, is probably the most visited site in all of Yerevan, and there’s many good reasons for this. First of all, it is stunning visually, being a giant staircase made entirely out of limestone, and featuring several levels where each level is honoring one aspect of Armenian history/culture. There’s also a nod to its former Soviet past, as the complex was a gift from the USSR, finished in 1980. The staircase raises a full 118 meters up over the city, giving a majestic view of the city center, with the opera straight ahead. From here you can also easily see mount Ararat in the distance, despite the distance of some 60 kms! It’s best to go mountain-watching in the spring though, before the smog becomes too thick during summer making it less likely to have a clear view.

At the bottom of the cascade there’s an art-park, with several sculptures that get’s changed every now and then. There’s also a wide array of restaurants and bars at the street right below the cascade.

The cascade also doubles as a romantic get away both for local and international couples, enjoying the sights at night, and the relative privacy you can get amongst the bushes that line the outer parts of the cascade. It is indeed a very romantic place!

A close runner up is the Republic square with its marvelous giant red buildings, the iconic clock tower and the romantic fountain show. Spending the evenings here people watching is great.

A final place that I’ll strongly recommend is the Blue Mosque – the only functioning mosque in the entire country. It is built in a rather typical persian style, and offers splendid colors and architecture. It is also a great opportunity to engage with the local muslim community, as the tenants will gladly show you around the mosque and its museum, and answer any questions you might have. A small piece of Iran inside Armenia.

KOTAYK

Beyond Yerevan, this is likely the second most visited region as it hosts some of the most well-known and visited locations in the country. The absolute classics of Geghard and Garni. One is a fascinating monastery partly carved straight into a mountain-side, and the other is a epic well-preserved Greco-Roman pagan temple. Geghard is definitely a very recommendable place, and one of the most beautiful and impressive monasteries of the country, but for the sake of not just picking monasteries, and from personal preference, my favorite of the two is the Garni Temple. It is the only standing pagan temple in the entirety of the former USSR, and it is more than 2000 years old, but still incredibly well preserved. As a non-believer from the pagan north, this temple had a natural attraction for me, and oh boy does it not disappoint. The story goes that it is in fact not a temple, but a burial site, which is why it has survived the fate of being destructed like all the other pagan sites in the region. Right next to the temple is also the ruins of a church, and the excavations of a turkish bath. The Temple sits right on the edge of an impressive canyon, making the place even more impressive.

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ARARAT

The region of Ararat is the one that is situated closest to the Ararat mountain, as you might’ve guessed. It is mostly a flat plain, giving a clear, fantastic view of mount Ararat. The mountain is mere kilometers away across the border in Turkey, but due to the hostility between Armenia and Turkey, the border is fortified and you can’t get near the mountain from this side of the border. Instead you can go to the Khor Virap monastery complex, which is probably the most well known, and most pictured, place in all of Armenia, and chances are that if you’ve seen pictures of Armenia, this is the place you’ve seen. The monastery itself is rather mediocre, but with the backdrop of mount Ararat, it gets a serious boost in quality. The complex itself is elevated on small cliff, the only one in the entire vicinity, making it a great spot for pictures, and just taking in the stunning views. This is definitely a spot you cannot miss on a trip to Armenia! Beware of hordes of tourists though.

VAYOTS DZOR

This region is home to a few sites of interest. Amongst these there’s one of the oldest and biggest wineries in all of Armenia, the Areni brewery, located in the small town of Areni. Nearby the brewery is a cave where the alleged oldest wine-making tools in the world has been found, as well as the oldest shoe in the world was also found here. They are in sharp competition with Georgia on both of these claims though, but the shoe alone is claimed to be over 5500 years old. The items are not there anymore obviously, but this is the site of discovery.

But, in my opinion, the real star of this region is no less than probably my favorite site in all of Armenia: Noravank. Noravank is a nontraditional monastery, since it has 2 floors, with narrow staircases on the outside of the building. But it is not just the monasteries (there’s 2 here, an old and a new – the one with 2 stories) that are beautiful, but the location in itself is a big attraction. Noravank is nestled deep inside a canyon, which means that it is surrounded by steep cliffs on all sides, and these cliffs are tinted red, which is rather unusual for the country, and adds a special fairy-tale quality to the area. There’s also lush forests and deep valleys in the vicinity, that you get a great view of from the monastery complex. The whole place is extremely serene and tranquil, and I just adore it for its natural qualities. Not without reason I’ve visited this location 3 times! Like any other monastery in Armenia, this place does also feature beautifully carved khachkars (cross-stones aka armenian tombstones).

SYUNIK

Syunik is the southern most region, and borders both Nagorno Karabakh and Iran. It is quite a journey from Yerevan to get here, but the region has its share of sites to offer. The city of Goris is one of the largest cities in the country, and it is located very near the border with Nagorno Karabakh. The Tatev monastery complex is also located in this area – while it is a fairly mediocre monastery, the transportation to get there is what really put it on the map! The way you get there is by taking the Wings of Tatev, which is the worlds longest non-stop single-line cable car, taking you over deep valleys and stunning forests. It is nice, and definitely one of the top tourist attractions in the country, but I am going with my personal preference here, which might not be something everybody will agree on. My pick is Zorats Karer/Karahunj, which locally is known as the Armenian stonehenge, as it is a big site with hundreds of raised stones, that allows to observe and track the constellations and movements of stars and planets in the sky. While the scale of the stones are no where near as large as the ones at the actual stonehenge, it still displays quite an advanced knowledge and understanding of the universe from the ancient people who inhabited this region back in the bronze age when it is believed to have been constructed (making it at least a couple thousand years old! Actual I was told that it’s 8000 years old by our guide, but I haven’t been able to find any online source confirming this).

GEGHARKUNIK

This region is undoubtedly most known for the Sevan Lake, since it is by far the largest lake in this land-locked nation. Therefore people flock here in the summers to cool down at the beaches. There’s also a nice monastery complex here, the Sevanavank. The monasteries are however very mediocre. For swimming, the lake isn’t that welcoming, as sadly there’s a lot of littering on the beaches I’ve seen, which makes the water less appealing. Instead my favorite place here is the small hamlet of Noratus, or even more specifically, the Noratus graveyard. The village is situated on one of the banks of lake Sevan, granting a beautiful lake view on one side, and the Gegham mountain range on the opposite site, where you might be lucky enough to still catch snow on the peaks even during peak summer. The graveyard itself houses an almost endless collection of khachkars, armenian tombstones. These are extremely beautiful, and much more intricate than western tombstones, as they tell stories of the buried person, and conveys parts of culture. Trying to decipher what happened to the person can be fun, but just wandering around this site taking in the breathtaking views on all sides, and interacting with the local people who are trying to cash in a bit on the tourists coming here, by selling homemade handicrafts is a nice experience. There’s a lot to discover at this graveyard. Going here on a tour, fx. with the excellent Envoy Hostel and Tours company is recommended, so that you get a guided tour of the graveyard, and even offered a traditional local lunch with a local village family is well worth it!

ARMAVIR

The main seat of the armenian apostolic church is located here, not far out of Yerevan. The holy city of Etchmiadzin is also the main religious center of the country. The armenian patriarch is seated here. Etchmiadzin houses 3 different monasteries/cathedrals of note, that is always featured in the classic tours to this city. These are the St Hripsime monastery, the St Gayane monastery and the main Etchmiadzin cathedral. The Cathedral is extremely grand, and the religious schools are also located inside the cathedral grounds. It is likely to be the favorite site for most people, merely due to its sheer size and grandeur, but I like to be different, and my favorite is actually the St Hripsime monastery. Not only do I find the building itself more visually pleasing and imposing, but the story of saint Hripsime and her persecution and eventual execution is also a phenomenal tale of national tragedy, and one of the reasons why Armenia became christian in the first place.

ARAGATSOTN

This region is home to the tallest mountain of the country, in the Aragats mountain range. It is also here, in those same mountains, that the Yezedi nomadic people have their home, and if you travel around the region you’re likely to encounter some of them during summer when they’re out on the open fields and plains grazing their herds of sheep and other live stock. There’s a variety of different attractions in this region, and therefore I will highlight 3 different sites. A church complex, an old castle and a cultural monument. The first one is the Saghmosavank complex. Placed right on the edge of a majestic gorge, one of the most impressive in all of Armenia. The backdrop also includes the before mentioned mount Aragats range. The most impressive monastery of the region in my humble opinion.

Amberd castle is situated at yet another gorge deep into the Aragats mountains, and its isolation is part of its charm. You are highly likely to encounter some Yezedi people enroute out to this site, as you make your way through twisting mountain roads. The castle itself stands proudly in the landscape, mostly intact to this day. Imagining the poor armies that crossed these rugged mountains just to encounter this fortification back in the days makes for a grand story. It is possible, with some agility, to climb to the top of the castle where an armenian flag is proudly blowing in the wind, and enjoy the stunning views of the surrounding mountain and the gorge.

The Armenian alphabet monument, is exactly what it sounds like. Its a small park where big carved out letters of the armenian alphabet are placed all around. The letters are carved out of the classical red stone that I have special liking for. As someone who also tried to learn the armenian script at the time, this was definitely a quirky little place of great interest. It is also just wonderful to have a country that is celebrating their culture and language in this way! Whether you know, or even care about, the armenian script at all, this is still a great place to visit. Local people will come here and get pictures with the letters of their name, and it can be interesting to watch that happening.

SHIRAK

The biggest claim to fame in Shirak is undoubtedly the second largest city of the country, Gyumri. This city is rather far away from Yerevan, and as so is not that popular with tourists, even though it does have a good amount of cathedrals and monasteries, as well as a fabulous museum of the city history. Most of the city is fairly new however, as it was devastated in an earthquake in 1988. You can have a nice city get-away here for sure. But personally I didn’t find Gyumri to be all that captivating, and my pick for favorite place of the region will thus be a monastery a little ways out of the city. The Marmashen monastery complex hosts 2 classic armenian monasteries, one much larger than the other. They are both constructed from the classic red stone that you see all over the country, and which I seemingly have a big crush on! I love the tint of this stone! The placement of this site is another big appeal, as it is situated at the bottom of a mostly circular depression in the ground, meaning you have to go down beautifully lush hillsides to reach it. The whole surrounding area is in general fairly isolated and untouched nature, that during spring and early summer comes to life in a fantastic green bloom.

LORI

The northern most region, which has the most popular land-border crossing into Georgia. It is also a very rugged and mountainous region, that is rich in earth minerals and metals, and as such is home to a fair amount of heavy industry and metal-forges from the Soviet times, leaving the occasional smoke-stack scattering the area. The region is also home to a deep canyon, the Debed canyon, which leaves you with a stunning view as you drive through scattered villages with mountains on all sides. Beyond these Soviet leftovers and natural beauties, there’s also (like everywhere else in this country) a plethora of monasteries and churches, located on top of mountains and nestled away. The classic route here is to visit the Sanahin monastery, then the Haghpat monastery and finally the Akhtala cathedral before continuing on into Georgia. My favorite place here would be Sanahin Monastery. What sets Sanahin apart from the others for me, is the fact that it is mostly hidden away in a dense forest, and the monastery is perfectly blended into the surrounding nature, making it appear almost as an integrated part of nature rather than a human creation. It is hard to explain, but the site oozes a special aura to me, giving me great vibes of epic history. The atmosphere is definitely whats drives this one home for me.

TAVUSH

Another very rugged and mountainous region of the country. I’ve visited the arguably 2 most famous monasteries of the region, which definitely is the classic tourist-destinations. Both of them has their unique features and appeals and thus I’m going to pick both of them for the top destination of the region. Goshavank is a rather large monastery complex, that also includes ruins of fortification walls. It sits neatly in the mountains, and features grass and other vegetation growing on the roofs, walls and fortifications. This sets it apart from most other monasteries in the country where decades and centuries of natural invasion has been fought off. But this feature definitely gives a very unique and interesting look to this place, and makes it blend neatly into the surrounding nature. There is a downside to this unique feature however, the plants is erroding the buildings at a faster rate, so by the time i visited they had started a program of cleaning off the plants from the roofs to keep them from caving in. Still well worth a visit when in the region. The second site, Haghartsin monastery features numerous white monasteries in a single complex. It sits out in the middle of a pristine forest on a cliff-side giving great views of the surrounding forest-clad mountain-sides. Due to it’s location, you are unable to drive all the way out there (atleast in a bus), and so you have to hike the last bit along the forest-covered roads, which offers a great opportunity to soak in the natural wonder here. The monastery complex itself is also fairly impressive, but as is the case for so many monasteries in this country, the surroundings and location is what really makes the location appealing.

In addition to these monasteries, the region is also home to the town of Dilijan, which is a mountain town, offering a great location for the locals to cool down in the cool mountain air during summer. It is typically called “Little Switzerland” because of the mountainous terrain. I didn’t spent much time in Dilijan however, and am therefore blissfully unaware of its wonders.

NAGORNO KARABAKH

This region is rather large, and acts as its own mini country, so picking just one site here is next to impossible. I wont go into too much detail right here about what this region has to offer – if you are interested in reading much more about what there is to do and see, then read my blog about my trip to Nagorno Karabakh right here!

But I will still highlight my favorites site(s) here! The best church was undoubtedly the cathedral in Shusi, with its magnificent white color, iconic exterior and intriguing interior, it has become one of the main symbols of Nagorno Karabakh.

As for the non-church site, I simply have to go with the “We Are Our Mountains” monument, right outside the capital city of Stepanakert. This is THE iconic symbol for Nagorno Karabakh and armenian identity in general, and the momument is not just grand in scale, but also excessively beautiful yet simplistic.

 

 

And thats covers all the regions of Armenia. As you can tell, there is a lot to see and visit in this country. Every region can occupy you for days with their splendor. Armenia is waiting for you!

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