Armenia (Armenian Հայաոտան, Hayastan) is the only country remaining from 3,000 year old maps of Anatolia. It became the world's first Christian country more than 1,700 years ago in 301 AD, and has a large Diaspora all over the world. As a former Soviet republic lying in the Caucasus region, straddling Asia and Europe, Armenia has an ancient and rich culture. Armenia is very easy to experience, thanks to very hospitable people.
Landlocked, Armenia is bordered by Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Iran to the south, Azerbaijan to the east, and Azerbaijan's Naxcivan exclave to the southwest. Five percent of the country's surface area consists of Lake Sevan (Sevana Lich), the largest lake in the Lesser Caucasus mountain range. The many mountains and mountain valleys create a great number of micro climates, with scenery changing from arid to lush forest at the top of a mountain ridge.
Armenia (along with Georgia) is one of the easier countries of the Caucasus to visit; there are lots of road signs in English and one gets the distinct feeling that tourists are welcome. Police don't appear to be too crooked, at least not in Yerevan, and in general the country appears to be both reasonably safe and well-organised.
On a trip to Armenia, you will frequently be reminded that Armenia was the world's first officially Christian country. You will have a hard time forgetting this as a tourist, since countless monasteries are among Armenia's premier tourist attractions. Fortunately for those who might otherwise suffer monastery fatigue, many of these monasteries are built in places of incredible natural beauty, making the sites of monasteries like Tatev, Noravank, Haghartsin, Haghpat and Geghard well worth a visit even without the impressive, millennia old monasteries found there.
Since 2001, when Armenia celebrated the 1,700th anniversary of the nation’s conversion to Christianity, the growth in the number of tourists has grown by about 25% every year. Straddling Europe and Asia in the lesser Caucasus Mountains, an ex-Soviet state, with a culture over 3,000 years old and examples of ancient architecture and art all over the countryside, this beautiful country offers something exotic for many tourists.
Armenian history extends for over 3,000 years. Armenians have historically inhabited the "Armenian Highlands", a vast section of mountains and valleys across eastern Anatolia and the Southern Caucasus. Armenian vassal states, principalities, kingdoms and empires would rise and fall in different parts of this highland during history. They were only unified once, just before the time of Christ in the empire of Tigran the Great, stretching from the Caspian to the Mediterranean Sea. Much of the history was spent under the domination of the great powers of the region. The western parts of Armenia were for long periods under Byzantine or Ottoman Turkish rule, while the eastern parts were under Persian or Russian rule. These empires often fought their wars on Armenian territory, using Armenian soldiers. It was a rough neighbourhood, but Armenians managed to hold on to their language and church, and prosper whenever given a chance. Being located on the silk road, Armenians built a network of merchant communities and ties extending from eastern Asia to Venice. Eventually, with the onslaught of nationalism, Armenians paid a heavy price for their religion and their envy-inducing wealth.
After a number of protests by Western powers over their poor treatment of Armenians, Ottoman Turkey decided they did not want Armenians in Anatolia any longer, seeing the risk of foreign intervention or an independent nation rising in the middle of Anatolia. Their decision to kill and deport the entire Armenian population created the huge Armenian Diaspora community that exists all over the world today, and since that time has locked Turks and Armenians in conflict as one seeks to deny the crimes for which the other demands international recognition. To this day, Turkey refuses to establish diplomatic relations with its neighbour over this, and the Karabakh Conflict (see below).
In many ways, the Soviet period was a golden one for Armenians. The price they paid for it was extraordinarily high, with arbitrary borders being drawn between Armenia and Azerbaijan (setting the stage for future conflict), with hundreds of thousands dying in WWII, defending Russia and with countless Armenians lost to the GULAG and KGB. Economically however, the country boomed, and culturally, within the strict limits, there were heavily subsidized cultural education and activities. Those who did not toe the government line, however, were often victims of car crashes or worse. Yerevan mushroomed from a dusty garrison town of 20,000 to a metropolis of 1 million.
In the early 1990s, the Armenians in Karabakh fought for independence from Azerbaijan with support from Armenia, and the Armenian Diaspora. The war was won militarily, but with no diplomatic solution reached. A ceasefire has held since 1994, with minor exceptions. The Armenian/Karabakh borders with Azerbaijan are closed. Turkey has also closed its land border with Armenia in support of their Azeri-Turk kinsmen.
As Armenia straddles Europe and Asia, East and West, so does the culture. Many Armenians refer to Armenia as a European nation, but their social conservatism in some realms hasn't been seen in Europe proper for a few decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union has opened up many of these channels again, and change is coming rapidly, but much more so in Yerevan than in the rest of the country. The small and very homogeneous (about 99% Armenian) population is strongly family oriented. The people across the land are very hospitable, and place a lot of pride in their hospitality. Show up in a village without a penny, and food and a place to stay will flow - along with drinks and endless toasts.
Many visitors will be surprised to know that Armenia is not just a Christian nation, but it is the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion. It took place in 301 AD. One can find thousands of churches and monasteries in Armenia. Armenians are Apostolic Christians and have their own Catholicos (religious leader, like the Pope for Catholics).
A small and mountainous, landlocked country, Armenia almost never fails to surprise visitors. The mountain passes, valleys and canyons make it feel much larger, and Lake Sevan provides a welcome sight, with endless water in sight when you're on the southern shores. With all of the geographic variation, the climate varies a great deal as well - be ready for everything from barren lunar landscapes to rain forests to snow-capped peaks and a vast alpine lake. There are places where a few of these are visible at once.
European Union passport holders and nationals of Schengen Agreement member states can now enter Armenia without a visa and stay for a period of up to 180 days per year. Together with other countries, that means the list of passports that don't need a visa now includes: Argentina, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan.
Citizens of the USA and most other countries may obtain single-entry tourist visas at any border control point. 21/120 day tourist visas cost 3000/15000 dram. Alternatively, those eligible for a visa on arrival can arrange an e-Visa beforehand. They cost US$40 and are generally approved within two business days. Travellers arriving with an e-Visa can enter Armenia at Ayrum railway station, Bavra, Bagratashen, and Gogavan land borders with the Republic of Georgia, Zvartnots International Airport, and Meghri land border with Iran.
Passport holders of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana, Iraq, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, and Vietnam require an invitation, and must apply for a visa at the nearest embassy/consulate before arriving.Passport holders of India & china are now exempt from invitation requirement but E-visa facility is not available to them.
Border guards at land crossings do accept other currencies, but they may not give you a good exchange rate. It is best to have Armenian dram before you arrive at the border. Some travellers have been charged as much as US$20 to purchase the visa. Border guards and customs officials cannot make change for large foreign notes.
Visas bought in the Yerevan airport must be paid for in local currency. There is both a change booth and ATM at the Yerevan airport before immigration control. There is also a hefty surcharge of approximately US$10 for changing traveller's cheques, which are not widely used in Armenia.
The national carrier was Armavia (now defunct), and served destinations across the CIS, Europe and the Middle East. Some West Asian airlines (Syrian, Iranian, etc.) also serve the airport.
There are very frequent flights from across the CIS. Russian airlines include: Aeroflot, S7, Ural, Polet, Kuban Airlines, Saravia, Tatarstan, UTAir and Yamal. Others include Belevia (Belarus), Dniproavia (Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine) and SCAT (Kazakhstan).
Several European airlines also serve Yerevan: Czech Airlines, Air France, Austrian, LOT.
It is possible to drive to Armenia via Iran or Georgia. The borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed. Local travel agents can arrange transport to the border; some Georgian agents can arrange transport all the way through to Tbilisi. Although more expensive than a train or a bus, a private car may be more comfortable and combined with sightseeing along the way.
There is minibus (marshrutka) service from Tbilisi to Yerevan for about US$17 (30GEL). From this service, it is also possible to get out at Alaverdi (closest major town to Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries).
There is a daily modern bus service to Yerevan available from Tehran or Tabriz for about $60/$50; check travel agencies for that. Otherwise, the only Iran/Armenia land border at Norduz/Agarak is very badly served by public transport. On the Armenian side, you can get as far as Meghri by one Marschrutka a day from Yerevan. In both directions, marshrutka leaves quite early in the morning. Kapan and Kajaran are more frequently served by marschrutkas, but it is a long and mountainous (and therefore expensive) stretch to the border from there. From Meghri, it is around 8 km to the border and hitching or taking a taxi is the only option. On the Iranian side, the closest public transport can be found around 50 km to the west in Jolfa, so a taxi (around 10-15$) again is the only (commercial) choice. The border is not busy at all, so when hitching, you have to mainly stick with the truck drivers and Russian or Persian helps a lot here. Consider for yourself whether this is a safe option.
By day tour
One of the best options for getting to the major tourist sites - some of which have infrequent public transport - are the many day tours advertised throughout Yerevan. Starting at $6, you can choose from a variety of half to full day trips which include a good number of the country’s major attractions. Some of the more remote and exotic destinations, such as the Petroglyphs of Ughtasar and many of the caves, for example, require special planning.
By mini-bus or bus
Public transportation is very good and inexpensive in Armenia. It can also be tough to get to more remote sites outside of populated areas. The system could be described as a hub and spoke system, with each city offering local transportation to its surrounding villages and each city offering connections to Yerevan. Most inter-city travel is by 14-seat minibuses or buses. Yerevan has a several bus interchange stations that serve the whole country, so depending on where you want to go, you should find out which bus interchange station services the area of your destination. Note, that unlike many countries in Eastern Europe, Armenian mini-buses do not sell tickets beforehand, and do not issue tickets at all. You simply pay the driver, at any point in the trip (though some will collect at the beginning). Exact change is never required, but a 20,000 note for a 1,000 dram ride might present a problem. Tips are unheard of on public transportation.
By taxi or car
For the average western tourist, you can hire a taxi to go almost anywhere in the country on very short notice. If you have decided to travel heavy by bringing big bags, then going by taxi will be the best option. Prices are about 100 drams (33 US cents) per km. Most taxis do not have meters though, so you should negotiate a price before you leave. Anyway, taxi is a good option in longer trips, especially if you don't like waiting a minibus for hours.
You can rent cars, but if you are used to driving in the West and have not driven outside of America, Western or Central Europe, you should hire a driver when you rent your car. Driving in Armenia for the average tourist can be a different undertaking. But if you decide to rent a car, there are a growing number of car rental companies, including SIXT (office at Zvartnots airport), Europacar, Hertz, Naniko rent a car and others throughout the central Yerevan.
Most main roads around Yerevan are in decent to fair shape with some being in unusually good condition. When you travel north (Dilidjan) or south (Jermuk), roads are less maintained and rather bumpy and you can feel it especially when using public transport! (Minibuses are often in bad condition too) Pot holes are very much a part of the experience and can test your driving skills. Be careful and consider getting an all wheel drive or sport utility vehicle when renting if available.
Not as common as in the days of the post-Soviet collapse, hitching is still perfectly safe and acceptable. Drivers often don't expect anything, but offer anyway, and sometimes they'll take the marshutni fare. Flag cars down by holding your arm in front of you and patting the air. This is how taxis are flagged and buses and marshutnis as well. During your ride, don't be surprise, if you befriend a driver and eventually will end up staying a few days in driver's house with his family.
Due to mountainous location and hills, bicycling is not such a common mode of transport in Armenia, as it is in the rest of Europe. Otherwise, it's a great way to see and experience much of the countryside if you can handle the inclines.
There are trains that move around Armenia, although they are Soviet style trains and a little slow means of transport to move around the country. Trains can be taken up to Gyumri and from there on to Alaverdi and Georgia, or they can be taken up to Lake Sevan, all the way to the far side.
Domestic flights are not an option as there are only two working airports in the country and there are no internal flights in this small country. Intermittent service to Karabakh has been available in the past and scheduled flights from Yerevan to Stepanakert may start up again - if passengers can be assured that Azerbaijan will not shoot them down!
By tour operator
Aside from the plentiful day tours, you can take a package tour of Armenia.
Armenian is the only official language in Armenia, which forms its own language group in the Indo-European language family. However, almost all Armenians can speak some Russian because Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. English is becoming more widely spoken, particularly in Yerevan; however, outside the capital, very few people speak any English.
Consider seeing churches and other religious buildings, that are built more than 1700 years ago. Such constructions are almost everywhere. One particularly interesting Church is in Khor Virap, located a short drive from Yerevan. Close to the Armenian-Turkish border, this ancient monastery is a perfect place to observe Mount Ararat in its full beauty. And of course, one should visit the famous Etchmiadzin Monastery, a World Heritage Site.
For a sample tour itinerary of Armenia, see Armenia in 9 Days
Armenian carpets, cognac, fruits, handicrafts and Soviet memorabilia are some of the most popular things people take home from Armenia. Most of these are plentiful at Vernissage, a seemingly never-ending weekend flea market next to Republic Square with the more touristy stuff in the back half, further from Republic Square.
The Armenian currency is known as "dram" and the currency code often used in exchange rate terminology is AMD. The dram is accepted everywhere, and often the dollar will be accepted for larger purchases - though the dram is the only legal currency for commerce. Dollars, Euros and Rubles can be exchanged almost anywhere in the country, with other major currencies also easy to exchange. Exchange booths do not charge a commission and rates are almost always quite competitive.
ATMs (Bankomats) are widely available in larger towns; though outside of Yerevan, you should have a major system such as Visa Electron on your card for it to work.
Credit cards are not widely accepted yet, though they will get you pretty far in Yerevan.
Exchange rates (approximate, January 2014):
Most shops/restaurants are open every day and offices and schools are open Monday to Saturday. Mornings are usually slow, and places don't tend to open early, or even on time.
Included in prices (except sometimes hotels).
Bargaining is uncommon in Armenian stores, though when purchasing expensive items or bulk, they may be amenable to it. In markets, however, bargaining is a must!
Tipping is increasingly common in Armenia, especially at cafes and restaurants. Many Armenians will simply round up their cheques, or leave ten percent. Some café staff are only compensated in the tips they earn, though you cannot always tell by the service they provide. Many restaurants have begun to charge a ten percent “service fee” which they usually do not share with the waiters, and it is not clear for what it is used. This fee is often not clearly stated on the menu, so you should ask if you want to know. Tipping is usually not expected in taxis, but again, rounding up is not uncommon.
Vernissage - every Saturday near Republic Square, there is an open market with great shopping for tourists and locals alike. You can buy everything from a 300-year-old carpet to a 1970s Soviet phone to Russian nesting dolls.
The "covered market" on Mashtots Street has fresh fruits and vegetables along with great dried fruits.
For Armenian- and Russian-speaking visitors, a visit to the underground book market can be quite interesting. Located in an underground passageway under Abovyan Street, close to the medical school and the Yeritasardakan Metro Station, vendors sell thousands upon thousands of books. Bargaining is a must!
Khorovats (BBQ) which can be pork, lamb, chicken or beef. Usually, it is flavored with onions and other Armenian spices. Tomatoes, eggplant and bell peppers are also part of the khorovats meal.
Borscht is a vegetable soup. It is traditionally made with beetroot as a main ingredient, which gives it a strong red colour. It is usually served warm with fresh sour cream.
Khash is a traditional dish, originating in the Shirak region. Formerly a nutritious winter food for the rural poor, it is now considered a delicacy, and is enjoyed as a festive winter meal.
Dolma (stuffed grape leaves; a variety with stuffed cabbage leaves, bell peppers and eggplants) also exists.
Armenian fruits and vegetables are special. One should definitely try them and will never forget the taste of Armenian apricot, peach, grapes, pomegranate, etc.
Armenian bread is very tasty as well. There is a wide range of different types of bread, starting from black and white till lavash (a soft, thin flatbread) and matnaqash.
Don’t miss trying milk products! Along with ordinary milk products, there are some traditional and really tasty and refreshing ones. Matsun (yogurt) is a traditional Armenian dairy product that has centuries of history. It contains a number of natural microelements, which have high biochemical activity. It’s really refreshing, especially when you try it cold during hot summers. Okroshka - cold soup with kefir and cucumber and dill; it is a healthy and refreshing dairy product. Spas is really tasty hot kefir soup with grains in it.
Café culture rules in Armenia, and the best places to have a cup of coffee and people-watch are sidewalk cafés. Any place near the Opera is certain to be jumping late into the summer nights. A popular chain is "Jazzve" (several locations throughout the city, including near the Opera and off Mesrop Mashtots Avenue), which offers many varieties of tea and coffee as well as great desserts.
Alcoholic: Vodka, tutti oghi (mulberry vodka), honi oghi (cornelian cherry vodka), Tsirani oghi (apricot vodka), local beer (Kilikia, Kotayk, Gumri), wine (can also be made of pomegranate), and brandy.
Other: Tan (yogurt combined with water and salt), Jermuk (mineral water), masuri hyut (rose hip juice), chichkhani hyut (sea buckthorne juice), bali hyut (sour cherry juice), Armenian coffee, and herbal teas.
Across Armenia, you can find bed and breakfasts that are pleasant and will give you a true taste of Armenian culture. The language barrier will be significant in the rural areas of Armenia if you do not speak Armenian or Russian, but if you take a phrase dictionary with you, you should have no trouble, as people are patient. If you don't personally know any Armenians, one way to access the true Armenia, away from the Westernized hotels and "Armenian branded" hotels is to find a reliable travel agent based in Armenia.
In Yerevan, there are a couple of hostels. Outside Yerevan, there are a few main recreational areas that offer very reasonable accommodations, but you will be required to live without some conveniences. At the high end are some hotels on Lake Sevan and in Northern Lori Marz (50 km from the Georgian border). Here you will miss nothing, but you will pay Western prices for the accommodations. Around Lake Sevan, there are numerous types of cottages and hotels. Prices are reasonable and start at about US$10 per day for a cottage with electricity and within walking distance from Lake Sevan. The city of Sevan, due to its proximity to Yerevan, is the most popular place on Lake Sevan but the history, culture and non-Western feel of the accommodations change as you go south on Lake Sevan.
Tavush Marz is a wonderful place to summer. Dilijan and Ijevan are wonderful towns in which to be based, with day trips to the many ancient churches that pepper this remote region. Costs are very reasonable and Dilijan is known for its sanatoriums from the Soviet era. Do not expect hot water all hours of the day, but you can have a lovely room that will accommodate a family, including food for about US$20 a day. Take another US$20 to hire a car for the day to visit the surrounding historical sites.
Lori Marz is the second most beautiful region after Vayots Dzor. It has many health resort areas such as Stepanavan, Dendropark (Sojut) next to village Gyulagarak. Lori is considered to be the Armenian Switzerland. It has numerous churches, monasteries, medieval bridges and monuments. The Stepanavan area is great for hiking, tasting fresh diary products, etc. Small hotels and B&Bs are available in the area of Stepanavan, Odzun, Tumanian, etc.
Tzaghkadzor is a well-known winter retreat. It has many lovely hotels and is popular year round. Check with a travel agent to find the best deal depending on what activity you are looking to undertake. Jermuk, made famous by the bottled water of the same name, is a wonderful get away, but will again require you to leave your western expectations behind.
The Armenian language and history. Since Armenians are very proud to be the first nation to adopt Christianity as a State religion, nearly everyone is almost an expert of Armenian history, which goes back more than 3,000 years. The Museum of Ancient scripts, "Matenadaran" , which is located in central Yerevan is where one can learn about history and see really ancient manuscripts.
Overall, Yerevan is not a dangerous city. Theft and pickpocketing are not unheard of, particularly targeting foreigners; utmost care is essential. Use common sense when walking on the street at night, especially after drinking. There are well known scams operating on some ATM machines, particularly those accepting VISA cards, where no money is issued but the cash is nonetheless withdrawn from the account.
Female visitors should be aware that unaccompanied women are an unusual sight after dark. In the outskirts of the city, a single woman walking alone at night may attract attention.
There are also people at the Zvartnots International Airport who ask you if you need a taxi. They escort you to one of them and claim that they are airport taxis which cost two or three times more than regular taxis. Never trust those people, even if they have already put your luggage in the trunk! You can find a taxi which costs 2,000-3,000 dram instead of the c. 10,000 dram they are asking. That's definitely a scam and many tourists have fallen into that trick.
As with any travelling experience, eat well, but do not overeat. If you are dining with Armenians, they will feed you until you cannot eat any more. The food is generally safe, even from the roadside khorovats stands. There is little worry about food safety in Armenia.
The tap water is generally safe, as it comes directly from mountains, but you may also purchase bottled water. You can get both mineral water with gas and normal spring water on almost every street corner. This water is available in both the rural areas and the capital.
Smoking is illegal in many public places. But bear that in mind that Armenia has the highest rate of cigarette smoking in Europe. Open air cafes will generally have a smoking area; if you see an ashtray on the table, you can smoke there.
Armenians are much like any other Europeans in their manners and lifestyle.
Avoid discussing Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, because due to the frozen but still ongoing very bitter conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, it is an extremely sensitive subject.
The issue of the Armenian Genocide, in which the Armenian people and a majority of Western scholars believe up to one and a half million Armenians were killed by the Young Turk government during World War One, is a sensitive one, and respect should be shown when discussing the subject. One can find out more about the Armenian Genocide by visiting the Genocide Memorial 'Tzitzernakabert'. There is also a museum near the memorial.
Having been liberated by the then-Russian Empire in 1828, Armenians are partly Slavophiles; ask as many questions as you like about soccer and Soviet TV programs. Respect is generally shown for Slavs, including Russians. People often have no problem talking about the Soviet Union. Most Armenians do not mind if you speak to them in Russian.
It is very common to give up your seat for an elderly passenger on the public transport. Usually, men will give up their seat to women too. It is also considered polite to let women first to the bus or train or to enter a room, and the "ladies first" rule is considered important.
When visiting churches, both men and women are expected to dress modestly (i.e. no shorts, miniskirts, sleeveless shirts/tops etc.). Lighting a candle is always a nice gesture, but it is optional. You should always talk quietly when you are visiting a church.
Yerevan is full of internet cafes and internet phone offices. These are beginning to pop up in a number of towns outside of Yerevan as well. International calling is available through prepaid mobile phone cards. Short-term mobile phone rental is also possible. Regular calls can always be made from the post office, and is cheap within Armenia, but a bit expensive for international calls. Try to find a phone office that uses the internet for much cheaper rates. Local calls can be made from kiosks or the rare payphone.
Mobile phone providers
There are three 2G, 3G and one 4G service providers operating in Armenia. You're strongly advised to acquire a temporary pre-paid SIM card as they are cheap and convenient, allow both local and international calls, do not charge for incoming calls and there's no monthly fee. Mobile internet and UTMS are also offered from all companies, as well as the normal full range of wireless services.
VivaCell and Orange have booths offering free SIM-Cards to incoming visitors at the airport. They are also easiest to top-up (at pretty much any store or kiosk in the country) and have better English services, rates and coverage.
The majority of foreign visitors find their unlocked mobile phones compatible with Armenian SIM cards (GSM 900/1800). GSM coverage maps of Armenia.
All three networks cover 90% of the population with 2G and 70-80% with 3G so having network signal is not often a worry. Orange and Viva Cell MTS are recommended to foreigners or tourists as they have a helpful variety of languages for tourists such as Armenian, English, French and Russian.