Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Welcome to the Cognac Capital
In the shadow of the fabled Mount Ararat, Yerevan stands at a crossroads between Asian and European civilization, and for centuries has been a battleground between Christians and Muslims. Armenia was once a vast empire stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian, but now it’s a slice of land not much bigger than Belgium, hemmed in by Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, its sworn enemy. Under the yoke of Soviet control for seventy years, it stumbled through one crisis after another during the 90’s, but finally it is starting to look confidently to the future with genuine economic growth and a developing tourist industry, as many of the Diaspora Armenians who left the country in the past either return or pour money back into their homeland. Yerevan, with a population of around a million, is a relaxed and friendly capital, with a strong European café culture and lively nightlife scene. A mainly Soviet-era city, its architecture provides a sense of grandeur, and although not always photogenic, it does have some lovely 19th-century edifices in its central core. It’s the kind of city that does not immediately impress, but which grows on you as you peel away its layers and begin to understand its expressive, passionate people. Engaging, friendly, and very hospitable, Armenians, like their Georgian neighbours, have a reputation for enjoying life – and especially their most famous export, cognac...
Best of the Beaten Track
…and where better to start your sightseeing in Yerevan than in the premises of its celebrated tipple, the Yerevan Brandy Company. The company runs English-language tours which are a lot of fun and very informative, taking you through the whole distilling process, from grape to glass. There are cellars dating back to the 19th century, and barrels with the names of countless famous foreign dignitaries who have visited. The best part of the trip is of course the tasting at the end, and you get to sample three delicious blends, ranging from 5 to 30 years in age. The tour lasts about 90 minutes and costs €30.
For a more serious and moving experience, go to the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum on a hill above the city, which documents the agony of the 1915-22 genocide of the Armenians during the death throes of the Ottoman Empire. There is no attempt to demonise the Turkish authorities here; just facts and photographs, starkly presented, of the first documented holocaust – which, to this day, is denied by Turkey, and not officially recognized by the U.S or U.K. Truly, a moving experience, and one you shouldn't miss during your visit to Yerevan, if you wish to understand Armenian history.
For great views of the city, climb the soviet-era ‘Cascade’ – a vast flight of steps and flower beds at the north of the city centre. From here you can walk through Haghtanak Park to the Statue of Mother Armenia – defiantly facing south to Turkey, sword in hand. For culture-vultures, Matenadaran – Armenia’s ancient manuscripts library - sits just below this hill. Preserving more than 17,000 Armenian manuscripts and 100,000 medieval documents, this is a good place to get a good feel of the history of the country. A few blocks south west is the Opera House – the landmark of this part of the city. Admittedly it's not exactly going to rival the Balshoi or La Scala, but this is a Soviet-era city after all. Surrounded by parks, nightclubs, outdoor cafés and shops, this is the perfect place to sit and people-watch. And if you’re feeling up for it, perhaps catch a show; frequent orchestras, ballets and performances take place here. The Blue Mosque in Yerevan is an 18th-century Shia mosque located in the city center. During the Soviet era, when religion was shunned, the mosque was used to house the History Museum of Yerevan. When Armenia became an independent country, the Blue Mosque converted back into a mosque, and is used today by the many Iranians living in Yerevan. It is the only mosque in Armenia today. Iran is the current owner of the mosque and will be for several decades to come.
Away From the Crowds
For art enthusiasts, a trip to the Sergei Paradjanov Museum should be rewarding. Not your run-of-the-mill artist, Paradjanov spent his life flitting in and out of prison during Soviet times, still producing some of the most brilliant, inventive and amusing avante-garde collages, sculptures and films to have come out of this grim period. There’s real flair and originality to his work, and a visit to the slightly out of town house-museum is well worth it.
The Vernissage (art market), showcases both local avante-garde and traditional talent. A second place you really need to go to understand the Armenian soul is a half-hour taxi drive from the city. Vagharshapat, 20km west, is something akin to the Vatican, or spiritual centre, of the Armenian Apostilic Church. You can admire two important religious artifacts here: a piece of wood from Noah’s Ark (which is said to have come to rest on nearby Ararat) and a piece of the lance used by a Roman soldier to stab Jesus’ side as he was hung from the Cross. Also, if you go on a Sunday, you get to see an Armenian service in action, a rare treat with lots of men in hoods, swinging thuribles, incense, candles and beautiful chanting. Another very worthwhile monastery to visit is 30km south of Yerevan, Khor Virab. Framed by Ararat, the setting is superb, and clambering around the ancient site, high on a stony hill, is great fun. For an equally enchanting, but more beautiful excursion, take the bus to Lake Sevan. Lying 60km north of Yerevan, and a few hundred metres higher up, this is the perfect place to escape the intense summer heat. With stunning churches lining its banks, watersports, pristine beaches and plenty of bar life for party-goers, there is something for everyone here. Hiring a car is a good idea, as you can easily escape crowds this way and get to some hidden spots where public transport is not available. Garni Temple, a Hellenic construction dating back to the 8th century, and