Armenia is a small but charming country, with a rich and strong culture. Not many other countries have such a long, laced history as Armenia. However, in Armenia tourism is still having its first steps and slowly becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination.
When planning to travel to Armenia one has to remember that the country is in its early stages of development and not fully ready for tourists. The roads are rough, transportation is often hard to navigate and many places only speak Armenian or Russian which makes communication harder. But, like many other things in life, difficult things are the most rewarding! If you don’t mind these (or actually enjoy them) visiting Armenia is a must!
If you are asking yourself: is it safe to travel to Armenia? In our opinion: Yes, it is. Despite being still relatively poor, Armenia feels like a safe country and the Armenians are usually very welcoming.
In this article, we assembled the 10 best places to go in Armenia collected during our travel to Armenia. Despite the difficulties with traveling within Armenia, the country is relatively small and therefore most of these attractions can be covered in a few days. Nonetheless, some of the best places to visit in Armenia are very isolated, particularly the old monasteries.
Best things to do in Armenia
Yerevan is the capital and by far the biggest city in Armenia and usually the place where your travel to Armenia starts and/or ends. Yerevan is very different from the rest of the country. Particularly the city center, sometimes it looks like an entirely different country. It’s much more developed and rich as if all the country’s money has been invested only in Yerevan. Yerevan’s town center is home to most of its landmarks like the Republic Square, the Opera House, the beautiful gardens, the 18th century Blue Mosque, most of the museums, and the famous cascade complex.
The easiest and best way to get immersed in Yerevan’s culture, history and cuisine are by walking around. Yerevan is a big city, but it’s perfectly possible to walk around its city center. By wandering around you’ll be able to see the history of Yerevan, from the ancient times to the Soviet and post-Soviet periods.
You can also enjoy Yerevan’s modern side, with some contemporary architecture, trendy restaurants, and coffee shops. The coffee shop culture in Yerevan seems to be growing with esplanades popping everywhere, which will feel like a piece of heaven after a few hours of walking in summer.
Climbing the Cascade
Climbing the Cascade to see the city’s monument to Soviet victory in WWII is a must. Moreover, the views of the city while climbing the stairs are breathtaking! On clear days you can even see Mount Ararat.
It’s difficult to define what the Cascade is, it’s not really only a monument or even a building. We would call it an urban decoration in the form of a staircase connecting the city center with a higher residential area.
The Cascade is formed by multiple levels adorned with fountains and modernist sculptures gracefully connected by huge staircases. The stairs themselves are decorated with several tiers of grass, flowers, and bushes, reminding us of a Babylon garden. All together it looks like an enormous spectacular modernist sculpture.
The Republic Square is a beautiful square that took nearly 50 years to complete, though most of it was built in the 1950s. Yerevan is often dubbed the pink city, and in the Republic, Square is easy to understand why.
You can easily spend a few hours at the Republic Square, as it is home to numerous landmarks, like the History Museum, the National Gallery, and the Government House. It is worth a visit both during the day and at night when it is all lit up.
Pro tip: From early spring to late fall there is a fantastic fountain and light show that is accompanied by some great music of various genres. You can really have a nice time here with people watching and listening to music.
Fly in the wings of Tatev
The wings of Tatev and the Tatev monastery are probably the best place to visit in Armenia. Or at least it was our favorite. They are located close to the city of Goris, 250 km from Yerevan. While there are day tours from Yerevan, we believe it’s a very long journey and it’s much better to do it in 2 days and be able to take your time.
The Wings of Tatev is considered to be the longest reversible cableway in the world with 5752 m. The full journey takes about 12 remarkable minutes over the ravine of the Vorotan River. It’s the shortest, fastest, and most dramatic route to the Tatev Monastery. Riding the cableway enables you to fly over the Vorotan Gorge and experience unforgettable views 320 meters above the ground.
Besides building the world’s longest reversible tramway, the region is creating a net of hostels, local food traditions are being revived, touristic paths, and museums created.
The monastery of Tatev is the destination of the tramway and is considered the pearl of Armenian medieval architecture. It was a major cultural center with a library, scriptorium, and one of the most famous medieval universities.
Built during the 9th century this historical monument is one of the oldest and most famous monastery complexes in Armenia. Throughout medieval times, it played a central role in the country’s history as a vital scholastic, enlightenment, and spiritual center.
Besides its historical importance, visiting the Tatev Monastery offers an opportunity to see the wonderful Vorotan Gorge and how amazingly located these medieval monasteries were. Here you will notice the mighty fortress walls upon massive cliffs making it almost impregnable. Other important features you will notice during your visit are:
- The Swinging Pillar, which is a unique medieval structure;
- An 18th-century oil mill with stone grinders;
- Ancient frescoes by European masters.
- The tomb of Grigor Tatevatsi, the last saint of the Armenian Church;
Discover Karahunj Observatory, aka Zorats Karer
From all the tourist places in Armenia that we have listed here, this is probably the least known and least visited. However, this doesn’t mean you should skip it. Zorats Karer is located in the south of Armenia, 4 km from the town of Sisian and it’s perfectly located as a stop when visiting the Tatev.
The Karahunj observatory is known as the Armenian Stonehenge however you should note that it is much older and cruder. It is estimated that it was built around 3500 BC, making it 5500 years old and considered one of the most ancient megalithic constructions in the world! The site is rich with stone settings, burial costs, and standing stones – Menhirs. We really appreciated freely walking around the site, enjoying the views and the incredibly old stones.
Please note that the real Zorats Karer is on the right side of the road (direction to Sisian), on the left, there is a reproduction of what has believed what the site looked like. Don’t be fooled and think the site is only the one on the left.
Enjoy the view of Mount Ararat from Khor Virap
Mount Ararat is the national symbol and a central figure in Armenian history and culture! The problem? Mount Ararat is in Turkey… Despite this, you can see the Mount from Armenia, and arguably the best place to look at it is in Khor Virap. The monastery is only 30 km from Yerevan and easily accessible with a highway passing very close to it.
The iconic location at the foot of Ararat is the main tourist attraction. According to Genesis 8:4, Noa’s Ark came to rest “on the mountains of Ararat.” So Mount Ararat is a mythical place for Christians, and particularly for the Armenian Orthodox Church. There’s also kind of a tradition of releasing doves from Khor Virap, with the hope they will fly to Mount Ararat, reminded of the Bible’s story.
Khor Virap’s notability as a monastery and pilgrimage site is attributed to the fact that “Gregory the Illuminator” was initially imprisoned here for 14 years by King Tiridates III of Armenia. Saint Gregory subsequently became the king’s religious mentor, and they led the proselytizing activity in the country. In the year 301, Armenia was the first country in the world to be declared a Christian nation.
However, as a tourist and mountain lover the imposing and mythical Mount Ararat was our main attraction. Unfortunately, the day was slightly foggy making the view less impressive and ruining the pictures…
Drive the Selim Pass, now known as Vardenyats Pass
We strongly suggest you drive through Selim Pass and maybe stop and visit the 14th-century old Caravanserai of the Silk Road, built by an Orbelian family to accommodate weary travelers and their animals as they crossed from, or into, the mountainous Vayots Dzor region. This is the best-preserved Caravanserai of all Armenia.
The Selim pass in central Armenia was one of the most impressive mountain passes on the silk route. The road goes to an altitude of 2410 meters above sea level. Usually, roads in Armenia are quite bad, but this portion was smooth. The road encompasses miles of stunning views through twisty hairpin corners, high elevations, and steep grades which makes driving a true pleasure. The winding mountain road and hairpin turn provide breathtaking views of the surrounding steep rocky hillsides and lead to the highland steppe just beyond the pass. Nowadays the Pass provides access to Sevan Lake.
6. Find Garni Temple
Garni Temple is an ionic temple located in the village of Garni. It is the best-known structure and symbol of pre-Christian Armenian and the only remaining pagan temple in Armenia! It was built in conformity with the canons of classical Greek architecture and it is very similar to the well-known Temple of Athena in Greece.
Note that the original temple was built in the 3rd century BC and destroyed by an earthquake in the 17th century. However, it was rebuilt in the 1970s using most of the original stones! The temple stands on the hill with vineyards surrounded by a beautiful mountain gorge on three sides. Like many other Armenian tourist attractions, The Garni temple is a point of interest by itself, but also because of its amazing surroundings, usually beautiful mountain ranges and impressive gorges!
7. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Geghard Monastery
According to UNESCO themselves, Geghard Monastery contains several “churches and tombs, most of them cut into the rock, which illustrates the very peak of Armenian medieval architecture. The complex of medieval buildings is set into a landscape of great natural beauty, surrounded by towering cliffs at the entrance to the Azat Valley“.
Geghard monastery takes the integration with nature to a whole new level, a big part of the monastery is entirely dug out of the cliff rocks, while others are elaborate structures, with both architecturally complex walled sections and rooms deep inside the cliff. All together they make Geghard monastery quite unique and a very pleasant view.
It represents the peak of medieval Armenian architectural achievement and comprises a walled complex set in stunning mountain scenery in the upper Azat Valley. Geghard both accents and rivals the natural beauty all around it. The Geghard monastery and the Garni temple are close to each other, meaning they can and should be visited together from Yerevan.
8. Make a side trip to Noravank Monastery
Noravank Monastery was built in the 13th-century, about 122 km from Yerevan on the edge of the narrow winding gorge of the river Amaghu, close to Yeghegnadzo. This gorge is known for its tall, sheer, brick-red cliffs, directly across from the monastery. The Monastery is included in the UNESCO heritage list since 2002.
Armenians really knew where to build their monuments, they are great tourist attractions not only because of their architecture and history but also for their harmony with the surrounding nature.
When visiting Noravank Monastery you really should notice two important features. First, don’t forget to go to the second floor by way of a narrow stone-made staircase jutting out from the face of the building to take a closer look at the dome.
Finally, you should also notice the several exquisitely carved khachkars (stone crosses) and khachkar fragments on the south side of the old church. A Khachkar is a carved, memorial stele bearing a cross, and often with additional motifs such as rosettes, interlaces, and botanical motifs. These hold a special place in Armenian history, worshipped by pilgrims from the very beginning of their tradition.
9. Sevan Lake
Sevan Lake is the biggest lake in Armenia and the Caucasus Region occupying 5% of all Armenian Territory. This natural landmark in Armenia is located at 1900 meters altitude making it one of the biggest freshwater high-altitude lakes in the world.
Lake Sevan is the biggest fish source in Armenia, hence if you like to fish here you have a great opportunity, particularly trout and crayfish. There are several restaurants on the shore of the lake for you to choose from.
Armenia is a landlocked country which means that this lake is their best chance of going to the beach. However, we didn’t find the beaches appealing and you should note that being at 1900 meters of altitude means that it’s significantly colder than other places.
There are several Monasteries on the shores of the lake with the most interesting one being Sevanavank Monastery. The monastery is on top of the peninsula hill and is built of crude black stone on the exterior, although in our opinion clearly not as impressive as the others referred here.
10. Try the Armenian food
The base ingredients of Armenian cuisine are lamb, eggplant, and lavash. Lavash is a soft, thin, unleavened flatbread made in a cylindrical clay oven called tandoor. This bread is typical in the south Caucasus region, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran. “The preparation, meaning, and appearance of traditional bread as an expression of culture in Armenia” is inscribed in UNESCO’S intangible cultural heritage.
Armenian cuisine was influenced by European and Levantine (the region in Eastern Mediterranean) cuisine. The most traditional dishes are Harissa (porridge made of wheat and meat), Khash (slow-cooked meat or lamb), and Dolma (minced meat wrapped in grape leaves). But, our favorite dishes were dolma, Zhingyalov hats, and khorovats. Although it is very cheap to eat in Armenia, it is a bit difficult to find places to eat on the go. At least when compared with its neighbor Georgia.
Besides the food, Armenia has a strong tradition of wine. It is known as the cradle of winemaking. We aren’t appreciators but for those who love good wine, Armenia has plenty good, as has Georgia.
Our Recommended Armenia Travel Guide Books
Armenia: with Nagorno Karabagh (Bradt Travel Guide) – if you are only traveling to Armenia!
Alternatively, Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan (Travel Guide) – in case you are planning to travel to more than one of the Caucasus countries.