Written by Sirvard Amatuni
Yerevan is a lesser-discovered yet amazingly hospitable European capital boasting a rich cultural and historical heritage. With Qatar Airways launching flights later this year on May 15, Yerevan-based lifestyle and travel blogger Sirvard Amatuni invites Oryx readers to veer away from the well-known tourist destinations and savour something new.
Ancient cuneiform inscriptions tell us that back in 782 BCE, Urartu I, King of Argishti, had the fortress of Erebuni built at the site of present-day Yerevan ‘for the glory of Urartu’. Shortly afterwards, the fortress burgeoned into a bustling town. Centuries passed. The fortress stood tall against cataclysms, foreign invasions, and massacres to become the capital and symbol of independent Armenia in 1991. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Yerevan is truly a survivor city with a victorious spirit and genuine, warm aura.
To get the feel of the city and country overall, start your journey at the History Museum of Armenia. Standing majestically in the centre of Republic Square – the central ‘piazza’ of Yerevan and also home to the country’s governmental buildings – the museum features a large collection of Bronze Age items, cuneiform inscriptions (including the one on the Erebuni fortress), ceramics, arms, coins, and many more artefacts. History geeks, rejoice!
Continue your tour of Yerevan’s city centre on Abovyan Street – the oldest in the city. Here stands the five-star Golden Tulip Hotel, the first hotel built in Yerevan (in 1926), and a favourite haunt of writers, diplomats, and luxury-oriented tourists.
Sauntering farther along the street, stop at the Sayat-Nova–Abovyan intersection to behold the only preserved mediaeval church in Yerevan, Katoghike Cathedral, which dates back to the 13th century. The larger cathedral behind the mediaeval chapel has been recently built in the same style, providing a great contrast.
Right in the heart of Yerevan’s ‘Small Centre’ is the city’s iconic National Opera and Ballet Theatre: it has its very own Swan Lake, which is transformed into an ice rink in winter. The opening of the building in 1933 marked a new milestone in the country’s cultural life: this is where the most talented musicians of the time performed and continue to indulge locals’ and tourists’ music tastes. And excellent news: here you can enjoy performances by outstanding musicians at lower prices than anywhere else in Europe.
If you already feel like having a lunch break, head for The Club restaurant, situated a few metres away from the Opera. Genteel and cosy, the venue comprises a teahouse, marketplace, café, concert hall, and souvenir shop (another reason to visit). Whether you choose to have a long talk over a green tea or savour something nutritious, you’ll find many options here. Besides, The Club is part of Yerevan’s vibrant cultural nightlife: it hosts performances by Armenian and guest musicians as well as film screenings. Sounds inviting, doesn’t it?
From here, wander north across France Square, which houses Roden’s Jules Bastien-Lepage statue, gifted to Yerevan by France to symbolise their centuries-long friendship, then down Tamanyan Street to greet ultra-modern Yerevan, represented by the Cafesjian Sculpture Garden (the ‘Cascade’) and Cafesjian Center for the Arts (CCA).
The ‘Cascade’ houses an impressive array of international sculptures and monuments, carefully sited along bright, formal gardens that sit within cobbled streets, which are, in turn, dotted with inviting cafés.
On the ground floor of the complex sits the CCA Museum Store, which offers exquisite designer works, books, pop-art pieces, ceramics, and original items of Armenian arts and crafts. First, though, take time to explore the interior exhibitions of contemporary art via a series of escalators and an intricate network of halls, courtyards, and outdoor gardens embellished with numerous works of sculpture.
Once at the top, take the last few remaining 572 monumental ‘green’ stairs, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the city’s finest views from atop Monument Terrace. Here you’ll be exposed to an unrivalled panoramic view of the ‘pink’ city (as dubbed by the locals because of frequently spotted Soviet-era tufa buildings). From here you can see across the city to the dual summits of Mt Ararat: Sis (3,925m) and Masis (5,165m).
From the CCA, head to the Vernissage flea market, where Armenian craftsmen have long sold their famed crafts. This open-air exhibition of craftsmanship is the best place to splurge on some souvenir shopping in Yerevan. Wood and stone carvings, clay pottery paintings, embroideries, carpets, and traditional khachkars (cross-stones), silver jewellery, and many more enticingly beautiful items will leave you wondering: is it craft or art? While bargaining over a price with the salesmen or craftsmen, you’ll feel part of the local life. Just don’t forget: the market is open only on weekends.
And now it’s time to again savour the delicacies of the local cuisine. One of the locals’ favourite choices is Tavern Yerevan, which serves traditional Armenian fare. Whether you’re a meat lover or a keen vegetarian, you’re sure to find a mouth-watering dish on the local menu. Don’t forget to follow up your fiesta with gata – genuine Armenian pastry filled with khoriz (a stuffing made of flour, butter, and sugar).
Close to the end of your tour, you should view yet more masterpieces. No, it’s not a gallery – it’s Megerian Carpet Museum, housing state-of-the-art gems of modern Armenian tapestry (unlike the pieces in Vernissage). Besides the unique collection of carpets, you can plunge into the process of rug-creation – from the dyeing of the yarns by using vegetable dyes, to weaving, shearing, and finishing.
And, here you are – back at Republic Square. It’s getting darker: when the chimes of the square strike nine o’clock, the fountains turn into colourful fairies who sing and dance to the music. A folk song, praising the charms of the city, says, “Yerevan is beautiful, especially at night.” Here you truly get the whole meaning of the song.
Admire a bird’s-eye view in Armenia
Did you know that the world’s longest ropeway is located 250km south of Yerevan, in an enthralling mountainous landscape called Tatev? At over five kilometres long, it’s been one of the country’s top tourist attractions since 2010. The 12-minute ‘flight’ takes you over the picturesque Vorotan Gorge, where you’ll be exposed to the stunning view of Tatev Monastery, one of Armenia’s mediaeval gems. If you enjoy it, there’s more, as it’s not the only one in this area. However, if you’re keen on more of an adrenalin rush, set off to the enigmatic depths of the gorge to explore a bunch of enticing sights – the Devil’s Bridge, cave settlements, small hermitages, and mineral springs. Book your ticket online in advance to enjoy an unforgettable experience in Tatev.
Where to stay?
Yerevan’s hospitality infrastructure offers a variety of accommodation options for any budget. However, for all the delights of excellent service and location, my top three recommendations are: Armenia Marriott Hotel, Golden Tulip Yerevan Hotel, and Tufenkian Historic Yerevan Hotel.
How to get around?
The city’s compact size makes it perfect for exploring on foot: everything you’d like to discover lies within walking distance from downtown. Alternatively, you can always hail a taxi in the street, or opt for the underground or bus, which run until midnight (by the way, a recent survey says Armenia is among the top-10 safest countries in the world).
When to visit?
With over 300 sunny days in a year, Yerevan is inviting even on a chilly January morning. Winter and summer are the longest seasons, with maximum and minimum temperatures of 40?C and -10?C. Tinted with white and pink, spring in Yerevan is mesmerising; however, my personal favourite is autumn (dubbed ‘velvet’ by the locals because of the benign weather). So, mid-September to early November is the best time for nonchalantly sauntering the streets and savouring the delicious seasonal fruit and vegetables the country boasts.
Join the fiesta of ‘Singing Fountains’
Yerevan’s ‘Singing Fountains’, the beauties of Republic Square, are sure to become your family’s favourite evening destination. The colourful ‘singers’ perform to modern and classical music at 9pm daily.
Savour local delicacies
Armenian cuisine abounds in gourmet choices. Indulge at one of the classic local restaurants (The Club, Ararat Hall, Tavern Yerevan) filling up on Armenian tolma (stuffed vegetable dish), spas (soup made of fermented milk), bread with zhengyal (greens), harissa (porridge-like soup made of cracked wheat and chicken), and other must-taste Armenian dishes.
Immerse yourself in the city’s cultural life
Yerevan is abuzz with a vibrant cultural life, especially high-class jazz, rock, and classical music concerts, featuring guest and local stars. It’ll be a real bonding experience for your family.
Distance: 1,791 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 55 minutes
Frequency: 4 times a week