Armenia is a country of many hats and has gone through its share of  trials and tribulations over the centuries, but much of its architecture, art and traditions have continued to thrive. Located in the caucuses east of Turkey and north of Iran, Armenia boasts breathtaking views of snow-capped  Mt. Ararat (the believed home of Noah’s Arc), lush green valleys, ancient sites and humble people. The country is proud to claim that  it was the first nation to adopt Christianity as it’s official religion. Throughout the capital of Yerevan and scattered across Armenia’s countryside you can find monasteries that date back to the 5th and 6th centuries. Armenia welcomes all with hospitality, good food and good culture.

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A view of Mt. Ararat and the church of the apostle St. Gregory the Illuminator

Getting There

The main airport of Armenia is the Zavartnots airport located in the nation’s capital, Yerevan. There are different options of flying into Armenia depending on where you are traveling from. I flew into London Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic and took a connecting flight on British Airways. Flying out of Vienna and Moscow with the use of airbuses like Aerofloat are popular choices, but the trip to Armenia is definitely not a short flight.

Transportation

The most common way to get around Yerevan is with a taxi or by walking. Taxi fare is usually not more than a few “drams,” less than $5. I highly recommend hiring a tour guide and bus to get to many of the popular attractions that are outside of town. Most tours have English-speaking guides and also provide hotel and food while you are traveling with them which I found to be convenient.

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Hotel and Lodging

Marriott

The Marriott in Yerevan is located in the prime location of the Republic Square. The hotel is one of Yerevan’s most luxurious with elegant rooms, high quality dining and city views of the Yerevan’s bustling city center.

Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card from Chase offers a lucrative deal for hotel savings. For one, it doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees there and there is no annual fee the first year. The credit card also offers a 50,000 point sign up bonus after making $1,000 in purchases in the first three months of enrollment, which can amount to 7 free nights at a Marriott hotel.

Congress Hotel

The Congress Hotel is located a few blocks away from the Republic Square and is also another luxury hotel in Yerevan. It’s also a part of the Best Western group, possibly the fanciest Best Western hotel in existence.

Through Barclay’s Best Western Rewards credit card, guests can earn up to 16,000 points for signing up which is good for a free night at Best Western locations, but if you’ve been racking up points with the card, then you may have earned yourself a few free nights. An average night at the Congress costs about $130 a night.

Things to Do

Shopping

True shopping finds are in the vernisage. The vernisage is an open bazaar where artisans and vendors display unique items like jewelry, purses, household items, miniature statues and instruments. Popular and relatively inexpensive items to snatch up are silver charm monograms in the Armenian alphabet, evil eyes of every shape and size, and pomegranates to be used as decorative pieces. Be ready to bargain, but be wary that you won’t find many English-speaking vendors–most only speak Armenian or Russian.

Eating

You will find delicious and aromatic food in Yerevan all in home style from different regions of Armenia. A strong influence of village culture can be felt in restaurants, especially in places that serve xorovatz (barbecue kebabs.)

Tumanyan Shawarma: Be sure to order their chicken shawarma wrap for a mouth watering lunch with tender chicken dripping in warm sauces. Believe me, after your first one you will absolutely be coming back for more, I ordered this a couple times a day.

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Chicken shawarma getting ready to be cut for a sandwich

Old Erevan: If you never have the opportunity to attend an Armenian wedding, I suggest dining at Old Erevan. A banquet style restaurant with traditional entertainment, the best part is that each floor has a different theme. Folk dancers, musicians and singers come in and perform during dinner–don’t be surprised if by the end of the night everyone is dancing and singing. Expect a four course meal with hot and cold appetizers like eggplant salad basturma, Armenian string cheese, tomato salads, soups such as xash (menudo), meaty portions like grilled fish, beef, chicken and lamb kebab options and of course sweet and decadent desserts.

Grand Candy: Once you walk in, you may have a hard time leaving this dessert and candy bakery. You will find rich chocolate bon bons with unique fillings such as plum and apricot–everything is handmade as well.  They are most famously known for their bonchigs–a soft, warm and sweetened bread coated with powdered sugar with either a chocolate or creme filling always made to order. You might have a hard time standing up after indulging in all their treats so maybe skip calling a cab and walk to your next destination to burn off those calories.

ArtBridge: A cozy cafe bistro where travelers and locals can meet and and look at artwork displayed or read through books. The intimate location serves anything from BLT’s to hearty soups or (dolma) stuffed vegetables. They also serve various types of coffee and teas.

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Drinking

Brandy, Brandy, Brandy: ArArAt Brandy is famous around the world, especially among brandy aficionados. Winston Churchill once said that it is even his favorite brandy and ordered several cases a year. The Yerevan Brandy Company offers tours inside the facility, which I definitely recommend doing if you’ve ever wanted to see how brandy is made!

Ararat Brandy

Fruit Wine: Mulberry, walnut (yes, walnut) and pomegranate wine are a must-try. Many people make the liquored wine at home, but they could be found bottled at a grocery store.

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Jazzve: Armenian coffee is strong and sweet, but for the coffee drinker or for anyone who wants to have their fortune read must try a cup. For a buzz, pick up one of these little espresso shot sized coffees. Jazzve is Yerevan’s most popular cafe` and it can’t be missed with the giant jezzve (coffee kettle) outside the cafe. If you’re looking for a more sweeter coffee drink, order the cafe glasse which is regular coffee served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

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Cheers: It’s where everybody knows your name! It’s also one of the only dive-bar style pubs in Yerevan which serves beer from all over the world including Armenia’s Kotayk lager beer. The pub is also a place where not many tourists know about, but when they do find it they have the chance to meet and mingle with many  expats living in Yerevan from Sweden, America, Canada, Argentina and other countries over music and cold drinks.

Things to See

Whenever I would end up at a different historical site, I was convinced that I would stumble upon an untouched ancient artifact especially walking through rooms of a 5th century fortress in the secluded mountain sides. Much of Armenia’s historical areas are outside of villages in lush green valleys and are very accessible with tour buses or rental cars, but for an adventure you’re going to have to do some hiking.

Garni Temple: In the 1st century Garni temple was built after the king had visited emperor Nero in Rome. The pagan temple was constructed to honor the sun-god, Mithra and is similar to many Roman Parthenon. The temple is built above a gorge with breathtaking views of the land below. It was once used for pagan worship, but after Armenia declared Christianity as its official religion, Kings would use the location as a summer retreat.

Garni Temple

Etchmiadzin:  Equivalent to the Vatican, the Etchmiadzin is the holy cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the city of Etchmiadzin and is also where the Catholicos resides. Service has been conducted here since its construction, but was halted while Armenia was under Soviet occupation. If possible, a private tour may be able to be organized and is highly recommended because it reveals beautiful treasures of Armenia’s biblical history.

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Zvartnots: Built in the 7th century, this complex housed Armenia’s main cathedral but was destroyed to ruins a few centuries later leaving only the lower walls and columns. It’s a good example of traditional Armenian architecture from the 6th and 7th centuries with respect to design.

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Armenian Opera Theater: For classical entertainment, the Armenian Opera Theater is the home of Armenia’s ballet and famous composers. Well known for his composition of the “Four Seasons” Aram Khachaturian made many appearances at the Opera Theater. The Opera Theater was built-in 1933 and has been Armenia’s official center of the fine arts.

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Lake Sevan: Lake Sevan is one of the largest freshwater lakes at high altitude in the world. It is also home to a monastery that was built-in 874 AD on a small island, however the island became a peninsula after Soviet engineers changed the ecology of the area,  significantly dropping the water level.

State Museum of Armenian History: The museum captures Armenia’s history with artifacts dating back to the Urartu dynasty. With over 40,000 items in the museum’s collection, it is a great way to step back into another era and learn about Armenia’s ancient history.

National Park Dilijan: One of Armenia’s national parks that is popular for relaxing, health vacations, hiking and visiting historical sites is Dilijan. Within the forest of Dilijan is Haghartsin. Haghartsin is a 12th century monastery built hidden deep within the forest of Dilijan, that I highly recommend visiting. Despite it’s location it’s been the target of Mongol attacks, but has survived over the  centuries. The forest surrounding the monastery is a great place to explore and go for day hikes or picnics.

Depending on your interests, Armenia could be explored for weeks and still not be a sufficient enough to see everything. Starting your trip in Yerevan is the perfect way to set off on an adventure to a place not many tourists have seen or experienced!

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The endangered Armenian Ipex in the highlands