Armenia (Armenian: Hayastan) is the only country remaining from 3,000 year old maps of Anatolia. It became the world’s first Christian country 1,707 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. The country has Islamic and Christian neighbors and is one of the most homogeneous populations in the world. 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.
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 McDonald's-free 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 neighborhood, 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 neighbor 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 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 been held since 1994, with minor exceptions. This should not affect the average traveler who should avoid contact lines (obviously!). The only way to reach Karabakh is via Armenia, but if you plan to travel on to Azerbaijan after a visit to Karabakh, get the Karabakh visa on a separate piece of paper. The Armenian/Karabakh borders with Azerbaijan are closed, and Turkey has closed its land border with Armenia in support of its Turkic-Azeri neighbors.
As Armenia straddles Europe and Asia, East and West, so does the culture. Armenians without a doubt view themselves as European, 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, with a lot of pressure for early marriages and children. The people are across the land 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.
Almost all visitors arrive by plane, though some trickle at the border points with Georgia and Iran.
Citizens of Australia, Canada, Japan, USA and EU countries can buy a visa when they arrive at any entry point to Armenia. A 120 day visa costs 15,000 dram (about $50). A bill is under consideration to introduce a $10 visa, and plus there is a 3 day transit visa option.
Visitors from the CIS do not need a visa for up to 90 days. Visitors from other countries must apply for a visa at their nearest embassy/consulate before arriving.
For convenience at the Yerevan airport, there is a change booth and ATM before customs and immigration. There is also a hefty surcharge of approximately USD $10 for changing traveler's checks, which in general are not widely used in Armenia.
The national carrier is Armavia . In addition a variety of other airlines fly to Yerevan, amongst which are European airlines BMI (based in the UK), Czech Airlines, Air Arabia, Air France, Lufthansa, Aeroflot & Austrian Airlines. Syrian Airways from the Middle East also has direct flights.
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 train or bus, private car may be more comfortable and combined with sightseeing along the way.
There are no direct buses from Turkey due to closed borders, but there are direct buses to Yerewan from Istanbul passing Trabzon via Tbilisi, Georgia.
There is minibus (Marshrutka) service from Tbilisi for about $17.
There is daily modern bus service to Yerevan available from Tehran or Tabriz for about $60/$50; check travel agencies for that. Otherwise the only Iran/Armenia land border at Nuduz/Agarak is very badly served by public transport. On the Armenian side you can get as far as Meghri by one Marschrutka a day from Yerewan. In both directions the Marshrutka leaves quite early in the morning. Kaplan and Karajan are more frequently served by marschrutkas but it is a long and mountainous (and therefore expensive) stretch to the border from there. From Meghri it is around 8 km to the border and hitching or taking a taxi is the only option. On the Iranian side the closest public transport can be found around 50 km to the west in Jolfa, so a taxi (around 10-15$) 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 Farsi 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, but it is not necessarily clean, comfortable, fast or easy to navigate. 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 minibuses or buses. Yerevan has a few bus stations that serve the whole country so depending on where you want to go you must find out what bus station services the area to which you wish to go.
By taxi or car
For the average western tourist, you can hire a taxi to go most 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 cents) a kilometer. Most taxis have meters, and for day trips might negotiate a slightly lower rate.
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 hazardous undertaking. Drivers often ignore the lines on the road, or even stop lights and in rural areas livestock and large potholes are serious hazards. If you are undeterred, there are a growing number of car rental companies, including Europacar (office at Hotel Yerevan), Lemon Rent-a-car, Hertz, and others throughout the central Yerevan.
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.
Bicycling is not a common mode of transport, meaning that drivers can be surprised to see you. 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 slow and generally uncomfortable for travel. 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.
By tour operator
Aside from the plentiful day tours, you can take a package tour of Armenia.
Armenian is the native language of nearly everyone in Armenia, which is one of the most monoethnic states in the world. However, Russian is almost universally spoken as well, and English is becoming common throughout Yerevan, and to some extent in the outlying regions as well.
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 the ‘’dram’’, and the currency is abbreviated as AMD (Armenian Dram). 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, August 6, 2008):
Most shops/restaurants are open every day and offices and schools are open Monday to Saturday. Mornings usually are 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 checks, 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!
Try khorovats (BBQ) which can be pork, lamb, chicken or beef. Tomatoes, eggplant and bell peppers are also part of the khorovats meal. Try Aveluk (greens either fried or as a soup), kamadz matsun (strained yogurt) and other dishes new to you.
Khash, tpov tolma (stuffed grape leaves; a variety with stuffed cabbage leaves, bell peppers and eggplants also exists), piti (stew), tnakan smetan, dzvacegh (omelette), ajarski kachapuri (georgian pizza)...
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), local beer (Kilikia, Kotayk, Erebuni), wine (can also be made of pomegranate), brandy.
Other: Tan (yogurt combined with water and salt), Jermuk (carbonated water), masuri hyut (rose hip juice), chichkhani hyut (sea buckthorne juice), bali hyut (sour cherry juice), Armenian coffee, herbal teas.
Technically illegal in many places, but almost universally ignored. Armenia has the highest rate of cigarette smoking in Europe.
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. The best 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. Levon Travel is a reputable organization as well as many others in Yerevan. Other local agents such as 7Days can arrange serviced apartment stays. Be sure to speak with a few before you settle on one, or better yet, seek out the vast Diaspora in both United States and France as they can connect you with family and friends that run businesses in Armenia.
In Yerevan, there is a hostel called Envoy which offers reasonably cheap accommodation.
Outside Yerevan, there are a few main recreational areas that offer very reasonable accommodations but you will be required to live without some western conveniences. At the high end are the Tufenkian Heritage Hotels on Lake Sevan and in Northern Lori Marz (50 kilometers 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 $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 $20 a day. Take another $20 to hire a car for the day to visit the surrounding historical sites.
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.
Overall, Yerevan is not a particularly dangerous city. Theft and pickpocketing are on the increase, particularly targeting foreigners, utmost care is essential. Use common sense when walking on the street at night, especially after drinking. There are well knows scams operating on some ATM machines, particularly those acepting VISA cards, where no money is issued but the cask is nonetheless withdrawn from the account.
Female visitors should be aware that unaccompanied women are an unusual sight after dark. A single woman walking alone at night may attract attention.
As with any traveling 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 unless you are eating in the very rural areas of the country where food may not always be washed in clean water.
The traffic is dangerous and one should be both aggressive and defensive when crossing the street. Yerevan drivers expect you to charge into traffic like the locals and when you enter the street and stop, you can cause problems. When entering the street be aggressive and deliberate. Do not linger and do not trust the lights to tell when it is safe to cross the street, especially the big streets near the city center. When available, use the under passes especially on Baghramian near the Hayastan Market. These underpasses are marked with a stair sign.
The tap water is generally safe 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.
Armenia is much like any other European country, though still a bit more old-fashioned. Shorts are newly catching on for men, though skirts have been extremely short for years. Locals tend to be accommodating of visitors' differences.
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. Although widely taught at school for years, the Soviet Union officially recognized the genocide of the people of one of its republics in 1965.
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 1916, 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 USSR and are often proud of having been part of the USSR. Most Armenians will not be offended if you speak to them in Russian; some will automatically assume that tourists speak Russian.
When visiting churches, women are expected to dress modestly and cover their heads with a scarf, although this is not strictly enforced for tourists. Lighting a candle is always a nice gesture.
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 quite expensive for international calls. Try to find a phone office that uses the internet for much cheaper rates.