Nicknamed the “pink city” on account of the widespread use of rose-coloured tuff rock in its architecture, the Armenian capital was founded way back in 782 BC. Modern Yerevan occupies a commanding position in the Ararat Valley straddling the banks of the River Razdan. The view of the city from the Akhtanak Bridge which crosses the river gorge is sure to be a highlight of any stay in Armenia. From the bridge, take a stroll along the charmingly named Mesrop Mashtots Prospect; forming the cultural heart of the city, it’s where you’ll find the pick of the museums, opera houses and theatres. At the opposite end of the street stands Matenadaran, a repository for ancient manuscripts, and a monument to Mother Armenia.
One of Armenia’s must-see sights, the archaeological site of Garni features the remains of the temple and Roman-style baths built in 76 AD on the foundation of stone walls constructed several thousand years earlier. The temple is dedicated to the goddess of the sun, Mythra, and its design follows the theories of geometry laid out by Greeks Plato and Pythagoras. But there’s more. Hike the canyons of the Goghi or Azat River that meet at Garni and watch the sun light up the stone of the temple, one of the most beautiful sights in the country.
North east of Garni, higher up the Azat Gorge, sits the Geghard Monastery. Its cathedral was constructed in 1215 though the monastery had been around for hundreds of years before that. Geghard is also known for its excellent acoustics. Climb the stone steps to the left of the church and enter a chamber. The sounds reverberate such that a single voice can sound like a choir. Geghard is predated by Airivank, translating as “cave monastery” and there are plenty of caves to explore in the vicinity though sadly nothing remains of the original monastery.
Khor Virap has immense significance to Armenian history. It was there that Grigor Lusavorich, or St Gregory the Illuminator as he later became, was imprisoned. Whilst behind bars, Lusavorich cured the sick King Trdat III - some say he was mad and others that his head resembled that of a boar - and as a result he converted to Christianity. Today, it’s possible to visit the underground prison cell at St Gevorg Chapel. You’ll find it close to the Turkish border along the Ararat Valley where the monastery dominates the cityscape of Khor Virap.
Archaeological excavations at Areni-1 in 2007 uncovered several interesting finds, notably three pots containing human skulls. Inside one was what’s thought to be the oldest known brain tissue on the planet. Other discoveries included the world’s oldest leather shoe and also the earliest known winery, over six thousand years old. Today, the village of Areni is still known for its wine production, though technically the bulk of the wine is from nearby Getap. Close by is the church of St Astvatsatsin, built in 1321 on a plateau overlooking Areni and the Arpa River.
The attractive town of Goris is located in central Armenia and is famed for its thousands of rock-hewn dwellings. It has a number of important tourist attractions, among them the Axel Bakunts Museum dedicated to the life and work of one of Armenia’s greatest writers of prose and its fruit-flavoured vodka. Nearby, there are a trio of fascinating monasteries: Tatev, Bgheno-Noravank and Tsitsernavank.
The monastery at Tatev is reached by the “Wings of Tatev” cable car, opened in 2010 and the world’s longest non-stop double track cable car. This 9th century Armenian Apostolic monastery dominates a basalt plateau overlooking the Vorotan River gorge. In the past, the University of Tatev was located there, making significant contributions to the fields of science, religion and philosophy before its importance waned in the 15th century.
With its backdrop of the terracotta cliffs of the Amaghu River gorge, this monastery must have one of the most picturesque settings in all of Armenia. The monastery features the two-storey Holy Mother of God church, Surb Astvatsatsin as well as St Gregory’s chapel with its vaulted hall. In the 13th and 14th centuries this was the home of Syunik’s bishops and therefore an important religious centre.
Renamed Vagharshapat a couple of decades ago, this is Armenia’s fourth largest city. The base of the Armenian Catholicos, it’s packed full of churches and has not one but five monuments listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO: the Cathedral of Echmiatsin, St Hripsime Cathedral, St Gayane Church, Shoghakat Church and Zvartnots Cathedral. If that’s not enough, there are also several interesting museums including the Khrimian Art Museum and the Alex and Marie Manoogian Treasury House.
The collapse of this ruined 7th century cathedral located just a few kilometres from Yerevan’s international airport remains a mystery. It was built at the place where King Trdat and St Gregory the Illuminator were supposed to have met. Built by Catholicos Nerses III, or Catholicos the Builder, and consecrated in 652, its remains were uncovered at the start of the 20th century. Excavations revealed a winery and palace as well as the cathedral. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the cathedral was depicted on the first 100 AMD banknotes.
Lake Sevan is a popular summer beach resort. Visitors flock to its shores to enjoy the country’s only beaches and to take to the water for swimming, jet skiing, windsurfing and sailing. It has the distinction of being the largest lake in Armenia and lies at an altitude of 1900 metres above sea level. Unsurprisingly, it’s a good place to eat fish, providing 90% of the country’s fish catch and 80% of the crayfish caught. There’s also a mediaeval monastery on the lake’s sole island.
Little Switzerland as it’s dubbed is a pretty resort and spa town located in the Dilijan National Park. Surrounded by the forested hills and Alpine meadows of the Lesser Caucasus and strung out along the banks of the Aghstev River, its charming old town centred on the restored Sharambeyan Street is delightfully brimming with craft workshops, an art gallery and a museum. It’s the perfect base for exploring the surrounding countryside on foot or by mountain bike.
Located in the north east of the country and easy to reach by train from neighbouring Georgia, Alaverdi is an important commercial centre located on the Debed River gorge. Culturally and historically important, it’s here you’ll find the 5th century Odzun Church, 7th century Horomayr Monastery, Kaytson Castle, Kayan Fortress and the mediaeval bridge of Sanahin, as well as a theatre, a cultural palace and a satellite of the National Gallery of Armenia.
Connected to Alaverdi by a cable car said to have the steepest ascent of any in the former USSR, Sanahin village houses a 10th century monastery complex which is UNESCO-listed. The village is the birthplace of aeroplane builder Artem Mikoyan, one of the creators of Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG, and also long-serving politician Anastas Mikoyan, who played a major role in the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s.
Along with nearby Sanahin Monastery, the Haghpat Monastery shares a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. This mediaeval monastery was founded by Queen Khosrovanuysh around 976 and occupies a site halfway up a hillside where it could offer its monks privacy and solitude. As a result of this lofty location it’s often atmospherically shrouded in cloud. At its heart is the Cathedral of Surb Nishan; other important structures include the domed church of St Gregory.
Frequented by locals more than foreign visitors, the church at Oshakan contains the tomb of Mesrop Mashtots, the creator of the Armenian alphabet. Built in the 5th century AD but rebuilt since then, it’s been a popular destination for pilgrims over the centuries. The current church dates from 1884 and contains modern paintings by the artist Minasian, giving it a more contemporary feel than many of the nation’s religious buildings.
The Monastery of Psalms is the setting for one of Armenia’s best known legends. Tamerlane, a violent invader, fell ill soon after invading Armenia and capturing important historic manuscripts. A priest from Saghmosavank Monastery came forward offering to cure him. The conditions? Return of the stolen manuscripts plus the safe passage of as many hostages would fit into the monastery and a promise from the invader to leave the country. Fortunately, the combination of administered herbs, prayers and charms did the trick and Tamerlane was forced to capitulate but he couldn’t work out how so many people had fitted into such a tiny monastery. The priest had turned them into doves so they could fly home.
This 7th century fortress on the slopes of Mount Aragats is colloquially known as the “Fortress in the Clouds”. Invaded by the Turks and captured by the Mongols, the site was abandoned in 1236 and lay untouched until excavation and reconstruction began in the 20th century. The basalt castle walls, once lavishly filled with silks, brocades, oil lamps and glistening precious metals, draw many visitors today, as does its bath house.