Weekend trip to Armenia
If you live in Dubai, Yerevan is less than 3 hours flight away from Dubai and FlyDubai offers cheap fares on this route. I really like exploring not so common destinations and once again for my family and friends back in Germany it sounds crazy to go to Armenia just for two days - but hey that is one of the main advantages living in Dubai that you are so centrally located. Well, I had some struggles before that trip as my travel passport broke (German quality :-)) and the temporary one that they issued me looked like I printed that myself. So I reached the immigration counter with quite a heart beat. I earned some strange looks from the female immigration officer and she turned the passport I don't know for how many times - so I already saw me flying back to Dubai without seeing Yerevan - but in the end she decided to put her almost not noticeable stamp (which created some problems for me exiting the country) into my passport and I was set for a great weekend in the Armenian capital.
I had the year before on another spontaneous weekend trip to Azerbaijan a not so nice experience as the visa that the travel agent issued me was only valid a month after my actual travel date and yes I also have to blame me here not to have checked that properly before travelling. So I ended up with a terrible experience at the airport in Baku, where they have treated me like a criminal and deported me back to Dubai - but as there was no immediate flight I had to wait 12 hours at the airport. As I did not want to repeat that experience a second time which already created a trauma from me and I am now checking always all my details many times :-), but in the end it was good not to have a stamp from Azerbaijan in my passport as that could mean some problems for travels to Armenia due to the political situations - so be aware of that if you have been in said country before.
So now back to my current trip: by coincidence I found a travel agent in Yerevan through which I booked my hotel as well as a tour to the countryside for one half-day. The agency turned out to be very good, all the bookings were confirmed properly and their driver and the tourguide was very nice. So if you need help to plan your trip to Armenia I can really recommend them: Armen Tour / www.armeniatour.com / www.dmc-armenia.com - email@example.com
Where to stay
The Doubletree Hotel was our choice for accommodation and we really did a good selection here. The hotel is new, very modern and clean. The check-in was sufficient and as in all Double Tree Hotels you get a cookie for welcome. All the hotel staff was very friendly throughout our stay and helped us with any question that we had and we had many. Breakfast was good with a lot of options. Ask for a room in a higher floor on the side of Mount Ararat - and if you are lucky and have a clear day you will have spectacular views on the symbol of Yerevan - however the mountain even if it seems like it belongs to Yerevan and Armenia as you can see it in many pictures and emblems belongs to Turkey. The hotel has also a good location in walking distance to the center and its main attractions. For some relaxation the hotel has a Spa that offers various massages and treatments www.doubletree3.hilton.com.
A walk through the city
We basically had two half-days to explore the city center - first part on our arrival day in the afternoon and on the next day after the countryside tour. That time was enough to have a nice stroll through the city and see some of the main sights - the city center is quite compact and you can reach everything easily on foot. If you want to see some of the excellent museums like for example the Museum of Genocide (www.genocide-museum.am) or the History Museum (www.historymuseum.am) you will require some more time.
A good start for a walk is at one of the main landmarks of the city the Republic Square.
You can also find the above mentioned History Museum as well as the National Gallery of Armenia (www.gallery.am) here. If you like to reside in a luxury hotel the Marriott Yerevan (www.marriott.com) is directly at the Republic Square.
And no, we are not in Cuba now - this is still the Republic Square in Yerevan....... :-)
Just around the corner of Republic Square you can find the beginning of the main shopping street of Yerevan the Northern Avenue, here you have shops on street level as well as a huge underground Shopping Mall. Some buildings around that street have gone through a modernization, but still have the face of the communistic housing blocks. You can also find many restaurants and cafes for a break along Northern Avenue.
At the end of the avenue you will reach the Grand Concert Hall with the Opera and Ballet Theater- the Square around the hall is very lively in the late afternoons with people going for a walk, kids playing and young people enjoying a drink in one of the garden cafes around.
Roller anyone? :-)
If you cross the large junction behind the Concert Hall you will reach one of the main touristic sites of Yerevan the Yerevan Cascade, which is a giant stairway. The Cascade was launched in 1971 and then finally completed in 1980 and got lately some new features and renovations. Before you reach the bottom of the stairs you cross a small park with a very nice restaurant for lunch or a drink - Santa Fe restaurant & bar.
Approaching further to the stairs you pass by a kind of art park with many nice sculptures and pieces of Modern Art. This is also a famous meeting point for the young people of the city.
The Cascade itself consists of various levels and on each level you will find further pieces of Modern Art. To go up to the top you can use the electrical stairways inside the Cascade which are also housing many art objects as well as the Cafesjian Centre for the Arts (www.cmf.am).
Once you reach the top of the Cascade you have a real nice view over the city. You can even go further up, following a small street and then climb some adventurous looking stairs in the middle of an abandoned construction site to reach an elevated Square that reminds a lot of the Communism times and now is not much looked after - but the view on a clear day is great. Beside there you have the Haghtanak Park with the Mother Armenia War Museum.
A nice afternoon activity during weekends is a visit to the lively open market called "Vernissage" - it is a very nice place to get yourself a souvenir as well as they are selling many handcrafted items there. Beside that you can also find carpets, pictures and some memory items of communism times - we also came across a curious corner of the market where used surgery cutlery was sold - I am just wondering who is buying that! :-) :-)
Leaving the market on the side of the Khandjyan Street you can already see the clock tower of the famous St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral on your right side, which is currently the largest cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the world and the largest cathedral in Armenia. You have to cross through a neglected park and some communist looking wasteland before reaching the church.
On one side of the Cathedral you can also see a gypsy shanty - rich and poor as well as old and new are close beside each other in a city like Yerevan and are creating an interesting mix for visitors - and you can literally feel the wind of change and the efforts of a westernized modernization of the city.
Outside of Yerevan
As we also wanted to see a bit of Armenian countryside and one of the famous Gregorian monasteries we have decided to book a half-day tour to Garni and Geghard. That is one of the most common tours and you can get them in any tour agency or also with private taxi drivers, but as group tours are not our thing and the taxi is a bit of a risk not to get cheated we have booked this tour through Armen Tours and had an excellent driver and guide.
It was also a good opportunity to learn a bit of the hardship of Armenian history. To be honest as Armenia never was in the top of my travel list I did not know too much about the country, but our guide gave us a brief glance of the horrific Genocide which still traumatizes the country and also the tough years after the collapse of the Sowjetunion when Russia cut them off from electricity and other essential goods. Armenia's history is also a repeating history of war and disputes with its neighbor countries that lasts until today and Armenia is still facing a blockade of its borders to Turkey and Azerbaijan - only the relation with Georgia and Iran has improved and borders are open. The history of Armenia is long and severe and it would take too much space to go into details here - but for sure plays an important role of how Armenians think and act nowadays.
Yerevan is not a very big city so driving out of town brings you quickly to the vast countryside plateaus that offers you great views on the holy Mt. Ararat. Mt. Ararat is on the Turkish side and can not be reached from Armenia.
Armenia is also a fertile country so many fruits and vegetables are grown up here - farmers are still struggling with the tough laws of an open market and the old generation still believes more in the former communistic collective farm system. Many of the young people therefore prefer to move to the city to look for other opportunities rather than taking over the farm of their parents.
Try to taste some of the local produces en route which are simply delicious and purely organic.
Just a 50-minutes drive away from the city on a scenic route, you reach the medieval monastery of Geghard, which is partially carved out of the adjacent mountain, surrounded by cliffs. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The spectacular towering cliffs are part of the Azat River gorge. Some churches of the complex are entirely dug out of the cliff rocks, others are little caves and the rest are elaborated structures.
As this is one of the most important touristic sites of the whole country you can be sure that you will be not alone there. We were surrounded by tourist groups and noisy school classes which unfortunately took a bit away the magic of this place. However we had the luck to see in one of the caves a live performance of a small Gregorian choir and the music together with the surrounding cave church threw us back into ancient times.
In the parking area in front of the monastery you can find a couple of women selling some typical Armenian food items. Try the Gata bread, which is an Armenian special pastry with a sweet taste or the Churchkhela, originally from Georgia, which is a candle-shaped candy. The main ingredients are grape must, nuts, and flour. Almonds, walnuts and hazel nuts and sometimes raisins are threaded onto a string, dipped in thickened grape or fruit juice and dried in the shape of a sausage.
All excursions to Geghard are followed by a visit to the nearby historical site of Garni. The Temple of Garni is an Ionic temple. It is the best-known structure and symbol of pre-Christian Armenia and the only standing Greco-Roman colonnaded building in Armenia and the former Soviet Union. Even if you are not too much interested in history it is a nice place to visit as the mountain scenery around and the river valley below is very picturesque.
What to eat, drink and where to go out in Yerevan
I already mentioned it in my Blog about East European cities that they are the new trendsetters of the future. Now we are much further East, and I can feel the same spirit - of course compared with the big metropolis cities of the West, Yerevan is still ways behind, but also here you can feel the spirit of change and I have noticed a lot of very nice and modern new restaurants and bars popping up.
Let's first have a look on traditional Armenian food - and that means a lot and I really mean a lot of meat. A nice place to taste that is the Kavkazskaya Plennitsa, 4/6 Amiryan Street (www.kavkazskayaplennitsa.am) - at a first glance it maybe feels a bit like Disneyland when you enter this place as all the decoration is dedicated to the movie "The Caucasian Captive" - and they might have overdone that a bit - but if you think that place is only made for tourists you are wrong and the large tables of Armenian families and groups of friends proof the opposite. Let the hotel make a reservation for you as otherwise you might not get a table there. The menu is huge and they have a large variety of mixed grill plates there, the carnivore lovers heart will bevery happy, but don't miss to try out their excellent starters and salads as well. This place is loud, full of smoke and has the real Armenian vibe - great experience.
Another great Armenian restaurant with a bit less show factor is the Tavern Yerevan, which has couple of outlets in the city (www.pandokyerevan.com). We visited the one in Teryan street, which is quite big and during the weekends they have some live singer and folkloric dance performance there. You can also observe the local women in the baking room preparing the deliciously fresh bread over the traditional oven. Also here it is all bout the grilled meat. For starters I tried out the beetroot soup, which was sooooo good and the famous Yerevan filled wine leaves.
The same restaurant chain is also running the Lavash Restaurant in 21, Tumanyan Street which I can very much recommend for breakfast.
Apart from the traditional restaurants you can find all over the city interesting new concepts - and Yerevan is a night city, so you can also get food later in the evening. Here are some places that I came across and that looked very nice to me, however I did not eat in them:
- The Wine Republic / www.winerepublic.am
- Trapeza Cafe Restaurant / www.facebook.com/TrapezaCafe
- Epicure / Modern European Cuisine - 40 Pushkin Street
- The View Lounge / 2 Hin Yerevantsi St.
- The Wine House / www.facebook.com/thewinehouse7
- Moscafe / Abovyan Street 18
For Clubs and nightlife it still needs some time to really develop international hotspots, but Jazz is a big thing in Yerevan and you can find some real good Jazz Clubs around. In most of them you can also have a dinner. A well known one hosting international artists is the Malkhas Jazz Club (www.facebook.com/MalkhasClub). Nice ambiance and at the evening of our visit a great Bossa Nova inspired Jazz band.
Also a very nice place in the summer is the El Skybar (www.facebook.com/ElSkyBarYerevan) catching up with the international trend of rooftop bars. Compared to other bars in the city their cocktails are a bit more pricey, but you can enjoy great views over the city on their terrace and listen to cool DJ music. Afterwards I can recommend the Kami Music Club (www.kami.am) - where you can enjoy a mix of live bands and Dj music. In our night they had some real great Armenian Rock musicians on stage and the DJ sets in between where a cool mix of international and local music - we loved it. The bar there is very small, so better to call ahead and reserve a table - you can also have dinner at that place.
In all restaurants and bars in Yerevan you will come across Ararat Brandy - the beloved Armenian drink that has been produced by the Yerevan Brandy Company since 1887. It is made from Armenian white grapes and spring water, according to a traditional method. Quiet strong but part of every real night out in Yerevan. If you want to bring some memories back home you can visit the Ararat factory, where you can go on a tour and afterwards buy your Brandy souvenir directly there (www.araratbrandy.com).
This time it was only a very quick trip, but it gave me an interesting insight in the city life of Yerevan and some Armenian countryside spirit and made me curious to come again and explore more - next time maybe in combination with Georgia.