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 Geghard Monastery, in a stunning gorge north east of the city, are also well worth seeing.
Events and Experiences
The main cultural events in Yerevan take place in the Opera House, and this autumn sees a host of musicals, operas and ballets taking place, including an intriguing interpretation of Macbeth by the Yerevan State Chamber theatre. 2019 sees the 3rd International Music Festival in Yerevan, between 17-24 September. The main mission of the European is to discover, promote, support and document new talent in classical and symphony music, local and international, but with a special focus on the Caucasus region. Jazz lovers should attend the annual Jazz Day held in Yerevan‘s Cascade Complex on April 30. It’s an International Jazz Day celebrated across the globe, and Armenia is no exception. The event brings together jazz groups from Armenia as well as international artists to highlight the music’s significant role as a method of communication that exceeds differences between cultures. For lovers of the grape, Yerevan Wine Days is a two-day event held on Saryan Street on May 11-12. The representatives of the 15 leading local wineries offer their products, while famous restaurants display corresponding dishes for visitors. Each day has a special program, so you don’t want to miss any of the events. For instance, on the first day of the festival, you can try white and rosé wine, while red wines are presented on the next day. Both days have songs and concerts accompanying the event. Finally, Film lovers should come to Yerevan and attend the Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival at the Moscow Cinema on July 7-14. The main aim of the festival is to encourage creativity and to establish a network between filmmakers and movie enthusiasts. The films shown during the festival address issues of human experience, people’s daily lives be they extraordinary or usual, and the joys and troubles of the nation.
The bar scene in Yerevan is a bit more exciting and inventive than Tbilisi, and also a bit cooler. An evening in Dargett Craft Brewery would be heaven for beer lovers. This first craft brewery in Armenia serves more than twenty different types of craft beer made with high-quality ingredients and the best technologies and traditions. Some of their staples include Bavarian Weizen, Bohemian Pilsner, Blond Ale, Munich Light Lager, Vienna Lager, American Pale and Wheat Ale, fruit-flavored ale like apricot, apple, and cherry, and Baltic Porter to name a few. Barcode Bar is a great place to enjoy a drink with good live music. With a comfortable, friendly, and cosy environment, Barcode is a favourite spot for many locals to hang out with friends, meet new people, and simply have a good night out. The dress code is strictly informal, and the atmosphere eastern and ethnic. You get a fair few Diaspora Armenians here too, so it’s a good place to get an insight into that scene. Nearby, you can pop into the Beatles Pub for some reliably English music – not easy in Armenia, where Russian pop rules – and some fun memorabilia. Slightly underground and off most tourists’ radars is Club 12. If sipping smooth wine and listening to relaxing jazz music sounds more appealing than fist-pumping to techno music, this is the place to be. This club’s target audience is older and more sophisticated than other clubs in the city, but it still offers a great time to its patrons. The décor is absolutely stunning and is reminiscent of a home in the French countryside. A couple of cafés worth a visit are Café Central and Artbridge Bookstore Café, both on Abovian Street, and both of which offer good menus, good atmosphere and friendly service.
Yerevan is famous for its khorovats (grills) and, come dusk, you can see the smoke rising over the city as a thousand roadside vendors and restaurants singe their kebabs to a crisp. Hit Paronyan Poghots (Barbecue Street) between 5 and 10pm for a host of smokin’ options. However, there is more to food here than barbecues. The fresh fruit and vegetables grown locally are delicious, as is dairy produce, fish, wine and of course brandy. There are a range of great soups too. Tastes vary slightly from Georgia, but it’s not a world away from there. For excellent traditional fayre, why not try Our Village. Dishing up hearty traditional Armenian dishes in ethnic surrounds and with live music, this is an excellent introduction to local cuisine. Khashlama – lamb stew cooked in beer – is delicious here. Another great traditional place, though a bit less cosy, is Old Erivan. Another great option is Black Angus Yerevan. Known for selling high quality burgers, this place really does do mouth-watering patties and some excellent fillings like avocado and shrimp and cheddar with bacon. Arguably the finest Italian eatery in town is Limone Cascade. Excellent crispy pizza and interesting pasta dishes for reasonable prices with great service. The above-mentioned Dargett Craft Brewery is also good for some very tasty snacks and informal meals: burgers, chips, wraps, salads and the like. For foodies who don’t want to splash out in a restaurant, go to Central Bazaar for some incredibly fresh fruit vegetables, sweet meats, spices, meats and cheeses.
Hitting the Hay
As Armenia is such a small country, a good strategy is to base yourself here for a week or so and do day trips from the city, so finding a good place to rest your head should be a priority. There are a range of options, from budget to high end, although it has to be said that budget options are a little thin on the ground. But the good news is that it’s not over-run with backpackers, so you should still just be able to turn up and get a bed should you wish - and the hostel scene is a heck of a lot better than it was just ten years ago, when you were limited to home stays with curfews if you wanted 'budget'. Probably the best of the city's hostel options is Domino Yerevan Hostel & Tours, featuring the usual modern hostel cons such as free WiFi and breakfast, it's also got a reputation for being friendly, welcoming and safe, particularly for female travellers. Also centrally-located and clean, and a snip at as little as €15 per person in a dorm. Another good option is Arm Hostel - close to Blue Mosque, History Museum of Armenia and Sergei Parajanov Museum. With a cheap laundry service, it excels at hospitality and gets rave reviews for its quiet and pleasant location and relaxing vibes. Dorm beds go from a bargain €7.50. If either of these places is inexplicably booked out, the Yerevan Hostel serves as a good fallback - reliable, inexpensive, central and safe. Very generous breakfasts and helpful tourist and tour information at reception.
Moving upscale a little, there is the extremely pleasant Nova Hotel Yerevan. This very centrally located hotel boasts modern design and bright colors. All the important landmarks are close by, including the Opera and Ballet Theater and Republic Square. There is a kettle in every room for an invigorating cup of tea at any time of the day, while many of the rooms also have comfortable sofas and armchairs for a relaxing stay. At the top end, The Grand Hotel is by far the most comfortable option in town, with all the usual mod-cons, and a swimming pool on its roof – a real bonus in the summer heat in a town where getting a swim can be difficult and expensive. Expect to splash out at least €150 a double though. Another expensive splurge is The Marriott. Located right in the center of Republic Square, referred to by locals as the Hraparak, this hotel is easily one of the best choices for staying in Yerevan. The Marriott is famed for attracting a wide range of guests, from tourists, business people traveling for work, and even the Kardashian family, and all for good reason. Sit outside on the patio and watch all of Yerevan go by, from newlyweds circling the Square in decorated limousines (a local custom) to street vendors selling figs and berries and, of course, the gorgeous fountain shows that take place in the evening.