Armenia (Armenian: Hayastan) is a republic lying in the Caucasus region of southwest Asia, which was part of the former Soviet Union. It is a landlocked country surrounded 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.
It contains Sevana Lich (Lake Sevan), the largest lake in the Lesser Caucasus mountain range.
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.
The national carrier is Armavia in addition a variety of other airlines fly to Yerevan, amongst which British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, Aeroflot & Austrian Airlines from Central Europe and Syrian Airways from the Middle East have good connections.
It is possible to drive to Armenia via Iran or Georgia. The borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed.
There is modern bus service available from Tehran for about $60 and minibus service from Tbilisi for about $17.
Public transportation is very good in Armenia. 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 you wish to go to.
For the average western tourist, you can hire a taxi to go most any where 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.
There are trains that move around Armenia, although they are slow and generally uncomfortable for travel. They do, however, provide a lovely view of the Armenian countryside.
Domestic flights are not an option as there are only two working airports in the country and Armenia is a very small place.
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 is a very dangerous undertaking. For example, drivers rarely obey the lines on the road, and in rural areas livestock and large potholes are serious hazards.
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.
It is now required by law to convert your currency to Armenian drams.
Exchange rates (approximate, mid-December 2007):
It is possible to use credit cards in Armenia. Visa and Mastercard are accepted at many mini banks and shopping centers.
Be prepared to bargain, bargain, bargain!
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.
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)...
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 (Buttermilk), Jermuk (carbonated water), masuri hyut (rose hip juice), chichkhani hyut (sea buckthorne juice), bali hyut (sour cherry juice), Armenian coffee, herbal teas,
Accommodations in Armenia are interesting in a "what am I getting for my money" kind of way.
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. 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 connivances. At the high end is the Tufenkian Heritage Hotels on Lake Sevan and in Northern Lori Marz (50 kilometers from the Georgian border). Here you will want for 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 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 to be based in 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 surround 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.
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. The Soviet Union recognised the Genocide of the people of one of its provinces in 1965. It is a Great opportunity to find our more on the Armenian Genocide, by visits to the Genocide Memorial 'Tzitzernagapert'as there is a museum near the memorial.
Partly because of being liberated by the then-Russian Empire in 1916, Armenians are explicit Slavophiles: ask as many questions as you like about football teams such as Spartak, Dynamo, and Soviet tv programmes. They tend to show great respect to the Slavs, including the Russians. People have no problems talking about its succesor state, the USSR: in fact, they are proud of being part of the USSR get often nostalgic over it.
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.