In the fall of 2022, I visited Armenia with few expectations. At first glance, tourism in Armenia seemed limited to the Armenian diaspora or Russians who were coming in by the droves to escape the Ukraine war draft.

I hadn’t expected it to be such a delightfully easy country to travel around, and I didn’t plan to fall in love with it.

Screen shot of a Google map of Armenia
Armenia map courtesy of Google

Extraordinary Travel Festival

Although I had initially planned on visiting in 2008, what finally brought me to Yerevan was the inaugural Extraordinary Travel Festival.

The brainchild of Ric Gazarian and the Every Passport Stamp travel community, the event brought together extreme travel enthusiasts from around the world who want to go to every single country.

Four musicians playing traditional Armenian musical instruments, in front of the room at the Extraordinary Travel Festival
Traditional Armenian music opened the Extraordinary Travel Festival on October 14, 2022 in Yerevan

I can work remotely anywhere in the world there’s WiFi, so I mixed travel and business within the 39 days I was in the region. About half of that time was spent traveling around Armenia, which was my primary focus. I wanted to explore deeper, and as a relatively small country it seemed doable.

My Itinerary

Having not been familiar with much beyond its iconic views of Mount Ararat (actually in Turkey), my curiosity piqued. After doing some preliminary research on what there was to see, I was impressed and simply had to experience it for myself.

Bags of different coffee beans for sale at a market
Coffee lovers rejoice! Coffee is a staple in Armenia, and beans like these in a Vanadzor market are widely available

Daily Schedule

The day-by-day itinerary below is what I ended up doing in Armenia. I planned some in advance while other things were more spontaneous. This post will get into details of each place.

  • October 11: Late night arrival from a long Brussels layover
  • October 12-13: Yerevan sightseeing
  • October 14-16: Extraordinary Travel Festival (in Yerevan)
  • October 17: Organized day trip to Garni and Geghard with Hyur Service
  • October 18: Day trip to Zvartnots and Vagharshapat (public transportation and ride share)
  • October 19: Drove rental car to Sisian, stopping at Khor Virap on the way
  • October 20: Day trip from Sisian: Goris, Tatev, Zorats Karer
  • October 21: Day trip from Sisian: Vorotan Valley sights
View of Darbas town from the hilly roadside above the town and valley
View of the town of Darbas from S-8-48 as it curved around the valley
  • October 22: Drove from Sisian to Yeghegnadzor, with stops in Areni and Noravank
  • October 23: Drove from Yeghegnadzor to Dilijan with stops along Lake Sevan
  • October 24: Day trip from Dilijan: Haghartsin Monastery and Ijevan
  • October 25: Drove from Dilijan to Yerevan, stopping at Vanadzor and sights along Hwy. 3
  • October 26: Yerevan “rest day”
  • October 27: Took train to Gyumri
  • October 28: Hitchhiked to Vanadzor
  • October 29: Taxi from Vanadzor to the Georgian border (and on to Tbilisi)

Even though I spent more time in Armenia than most people do, I still missed several things. I also would have loved to linger longer in most of the places I did see.

Bench and stone sculptures with pine trees in the back
I wish I’d had time to savor the crisp autumn weather on this bench in the Ijevan Sculpture Park

Due to a cold, a few rainy days, and the sheer number of stops, I didn’t see the old cave city of Khndzoresk near Goris, hiking spots in the Dilijan National Park, the Debed Valley and its UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and museums in Yerevan.

There is always something for next time!

Vertical bursts of water from a fountain in the 2800th Anniversary Park
Yerevan has many fountains

2023 Update

In September 2023, the Azerbaijani militia overtook the nearby ethnically Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh. That was the final blow to its de facto independence. On January 1, 2024, the Republic of Artsakh formally dissolved and integrated into Azberbaijan.

Due to concerns of ethnic cleansing, there has been an influx of ethnic Armenian refugees to the Syunik Province of southeastern Armenia in particular.

While this should not impact tourists visiting Armenia, it’s helpful to be mindful of how tourism may displace needed housing for people in crisis.

Yerevan

Armenia’s capital city is one of my favorites in the world. The Kentron is the compact and very walkable central core of the city.

Train station with statue and fountain in foreground
Yerevan Train Station & David of Sasun Statue (Sasuntsi Davit)

The Kentron includes not only the majority of landmarks and museums, but also the best array of restaurants and bars. Yerevan is fairly affordable, and most costs are cheaper in the rest of the country.

I learned from people who visited just five years ago that it has changed a lot, making now the perfect time to visit.

"Love" monument at the Cafesjian Sculpture Garden in front of the Yerevan Cascade
Love is in the air at the Yerevan Cascade

Yerevan captivated me with its many fountains, public art, and statues. There are so many outdoor spaces to enjoy coffee, drinks, or a meal.

Statue of two hands in a park space
Yerevan is a statue and park lover’s dream come true

Strolling through the many pedestrian walkways on a pleasant autumn afternoon watching people come and go may seem dull, but it takes on its own life here.

Now I’ll share my recommendations for this pleasant city.

Tsitsernakaberd: The Armenian Genocide Memorial

I started my exploration of the city with the Genocide Memorial. Located on a hill overlooking the city and with clear views of Mount Ararat, the memorial complex provides context for the country’s history, demeanor, and even its current state of affairs.

Eternal flame inside Armenian Genocide memorial with the monument in the background
Armenian Genocide Memorial monument, memorial and eternal flame

The first thing visitors see are the memorial and monument. The actual museum is underneath and quite extensive. Trigger warning: some of the displayed images are very graphic.

Panels tell the story of the gradual and often brutal murder of ethnic Armenians during the Ottoman Empire.

John The Traveler with Mount Ararat in the background
Mount Ararat in all its beauty, from the Armenian Genocide Memorial

While this may seem like a somber way to kick off a trip, I think it’s important to absorb the impact of the genocide.

I would argue that the museum provides a crucial foundation to frame any visit to this country. This is especially true considering the historical context and lack of widespread knowledge about it. Some countries don’t even recognize that it happened!

The Cascade Complex: Cafesjian Center for the Arts

One of the most iconic things to see in Yerevan, the “Cascade” doubles as an art museum and fountain-rich gardens. Public art displays cover an entire block before reaching the bottom steps leading up the hill.

Behind the steps is the multi-level art museum, which is accessible from most of the levels as you walk up or via escalator from the ground floor.

View of the Cascade from towards the top, overlooking Yerevan city
The Cascade overlooking the Cafesjian Center for the Arts and Yerevan

Each set of steps leads up to a level with a different fountain and garden arrangement. The views keep getting better, too.

At the top, you can continue along a ramshackle pathway, sidewalk, and then up through a metal platform to get to the very top of the hill, which opens up an entirely different section of the city.

Overlooking the Cascade is the Monument to 50 Years of Soviet Armenia. Built in 1967, the government decided to leave it standing after the fall of the Soviet Union because the symbols on the top remain culturally relevant.

Monument to the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, with the sun behind it
The Monument to 50 Years of Soviet Armenia still stands

Victory Park and Mother Armenia

Across a busy intersection is the Soviet-era Victory Park, which stretches across upper Yerevan to the towering Mother Armenia statue. The statue replaced the former statue of Josef Stalin, which had been there from 1950 to 1962.

There is a military museum inside the statue’s base focusing on the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) War. The plaza surrounding the statue contains the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a Soviet rocket launcher, and a surface-to-air missile.

Statue of Mother Armenia with the eternal flame in the foreground
Mother Armenia and the Military Museum, and an Eternal Flame

The walk along the southern side of Victory Park passes by the historical and now-abandoned Aragil Restaurant, a decaying, graffiti-covered eatery and portico overlooking Yerevan.

Abandoned shell of Aragil Restaurant with graffiti
Aragil Restaurant, built in 1960, remains abandoned and graffitied in Victory Park

The park itself has a ferris wheel, amusement park rides, and a few cafes. The main reason to visit is definitely the views over the city and a look at post-Soviet decadence.

The Matendaran: The Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts

Located at the end of Mashtots Avenue in the foothills beneath Victory Park, the Matendaran is the world’s largest collection of Armenian manuscripts. It contains some ancient writings, colorful hand-painted books, and ornately covered gospels.

View of the Matendaran museum and Mashtots statue from the parking lot
Matendaran museum and statue of Mesrop Mashtots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet

The Lazarian Gospel is one of the oldest pieces in the collection, dating back to 887 AD. The largest Armenian-language manuscript, the Homilies of Mush, sits protected by glass and the watchful gaze of the security guards on duty.

The building that houses the collection is itself a national monument. Pass by the statue to pay homage to the inventor of the Armenian alphabet.

Painting of a stylized older version of the Armenian alphabet as found in the Matendaran museum
This painting illustrates that the Armenian alphabet once doubled as a numeric system

Republic Square

Yerevan’s centerpiece is undoubtedly Republic Square, surrounded by five imposing buildings of similar construction. This ubiquitous material is tuff, a volcanic rock that is almost exclusively Armenian in use.

This is the location of a large musical fountain, government buildings, the Armenia Marriott, the central post office, the National Gallery of Armenia and the History Museum of Armenia.

Fountain in Republic Square with the museum in the background
Republic Square fountain and the History Museum of Armenia

During the sweltering summer (the 14th Sunday after Easter to be precise), this is also where Vardavar takes place. Stretching to Swan Lake, it’s an all-out party where the objective is to drench each other with buckets of water. Be forewarned!

At night, the buildings are lit up and are at their most impressive. From here, all major roads emanate and just about everything is walkable. It’s a good place to just hang out and people watch.

Clock tower lit up at night
Republic Square clock tower at night

Charles Azvanour Square

Named after a famous French-Armenian singer, this relatively small square is one of my personal favorites.

Located on Abovyan Street just a few blocks north of Republic Square, it’s where you can find the historic Moscow Cinema, a zodiac fountain with all the horoscope figures, a large chess board, several coffee kiosks, hotels, bars, and restaurants. Across the street is the Russian Drama Theatre.

Metal spider statue in front of the Moscow Theatre
A giant spider lurks at Charles Azvanour Square

My favorite part about Charles Azvanour Square is the giant spider statue. It is a work of art composed of car parts and other mechanical scraps, inspired by the 1988 earthquake that destroyed many buildings and nearly leveled the city of Gyumri.

Freedom Square & Swan Lake

Better known as Opera Square, this large plaza just off of Tumanyan Street is the location of the Armenian National Opera and Ballet Theatre.

Flanked by statues of writer Hovhannes Tumanyan and composer Alexander Spendiaryan, the spaciousness provides a natural venue for demonstrations and has hosted several political protests since 1988. Behind the opera house is the Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra.

Statue and opera
Opera Square at dusk

Swan Lake is appropriately located in the southeastern corner of the square and is a popular place to hang out in warmer weather.

Fun fact: Kanye West (then-husband of one of the world’s most famous people of Armenian descent, Kim Kardashian) put on a free concert in 2015 that resulted in him jumping in the lake. It is endearingly called Swanye Lake now.

Yerevan Markets

You can indulge in shopping at the Vernissage Market, an open-air market with several vendors selling mostly artwork and collectibles such as wood carvings, chess sets, carpets, musical instruments, and books. It is close to Republic Square and the Metro station.

Fountain in front of Vernissage market
The Vernissage Market

Another market more popular with locals is the GUM Shuka. This former Soviet style department store brims with fresh food stalls, while the upper floor has things like suitcases and home furnishings.

Walking through the GUM is a journey through scents. Freshly ground cumin, pickled cabbage, fresh pomegranates, pungent cheese—it’s quite a ride for your nose.

You will notice a plethora of dried fruit and nuts, often hanging by a string and coated in a sticky-looking substance. This is sweet sujukh, which makes for a great portable snack that can last for days. The vendors are usually kind enough to allow you a taste before buying.

Corridor with people walking and shopping inside the market
A busy hallway at the GUM Shuka

If you want to see where the locals shop for a deal, check out Rossia Mall across from the St. Gregory Cathedral (see next entry) or the Tashir Trade Center next to the GUM Shuka. There are several other shopping centers and malls across the city as well.

Churches and Armenia’s Only Mosque

Katoghike is one of Yerevan’s more intriguing structures, dating back to 1264. Only since the collapse of the Soviet Union has it emerged from being incorporated into other structures.

The 1679 earthquake and communist governments left it untouched. It serves as a chapel since the construction of the modern Saint Anna Church in 2014.

Katoghike chapel and Surp Anna Church and surrounding square
Katoghike (foreground) and Surp Anna (background)

Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral (Surp Grigor Lusavorich) is what I would like to call the Taj Mahal of Armenia because it is such an imposing structure with a long important-looking walkway to the entrance. It is officially the largest Armenian Apostolic Church in the world, built in 2001.

The Blue Mosque was built in the 1700s when Persia controlled Armenia. It is the only active mosque in the whole country. Armenia is officially a Christian country and was the first in the world to become so in 301 AD, so most religious buildings are affiliated with the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Front of the mosque showing tiles in mostly blue, but also bronze and burgundy
The only active mosque in Armenia

Zoravor Church (Surp Zoravor Astvatsatsin) is said to be the oldest church in Yerevan, named after a 13th century bible that was stored there.

The present day structure was completed in 1694, having been rebuilt from the ruins of a short-lived monastery, although the site has a history of other construction.

Other Sights

Erebuni Historical and Archaeological Museum Reserve is on the site of the ancient Urartian fortress from where modern Yerevan gets its name. The fortress was built in 782 BCE, but the museum only opened in 1968 when Yerevan celebrated its 2,750th anniversary.

Mural of two figures huddled under an umbrella with colorful buildings in the background
Mural in the Kond District

The Kond district is Yerevan’s oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood, filled with historic homes and quirky artwork display. It’s a good place to see what much of Yerevan might have looked like before the quake.

Yerevan Brandy Company is perched regally at the top of a hill overlooking the Hrazdan River and the main entrance to the city. It produces what is arguably Armenia’s most popular drink: ArArAt Armenian brandy. Tours are available for brandy tasting and seeing the facilities.

View of the Yerevan Brandy Factory and its "ArArAt" sign on the hill above a traffic circle
ArArAt brandy is made in this imposing building overlooking the city and Mt. Ararat itself

Levon’s Divine Underground is one of the city’s most unusual attractions. Located in the rather remote suburb of Arinj, this is a series of intricate caves that were hand-carved by a man whose wife just wanted a cellar to store her potatoes. Twenty years in the making, she got more than that! The cave’s creator has since passed away but the site is open as a museum.

Yerevan Card

It is worth mentioning that if you will be visiting several museums or just want to maximize your time in Yerevan, you may wish to purchase the Yerevan Card.

The card offers packages that include entry in over 40 museums, guided tours, transportation, and some discounts on food and shopping. There is even an app and a free SIM card included. [Note that I have no affiliation with the card.]

Long pathway and the church, showing the trees and light poles along the path
St. Gregory the Illuminator Church is the largest Armenian Apostolic cathedral in the world

Garni and Geghard

One of the most popular and easiest trips to make from Yerevan is to the temple of Garni and nearby Geghard monastery. There are a number of tour operators that do day or half-day trips there, some of which will include a few additional stops.

Side-front view of the temple with distant mountains
Garni pagan temple

I saw an ad on a tourist map of Yerevan for Hyur Service, which had an opening on a day that I was free and the price was cheaper than other tours I’d seen. For a full-day tour, I paid around $22 USD. Walking to the office where I picked up the bus took only 15 minutes. They gave me a courtesy call in the morning to remind me.

Garni

Our first stop was at the Charents Arch, a double stone arch that was built to frame the view for Mount Ararat and the surrounding countryside. A hazy morning and clouds covering the mountain made it difficult to discern Ararat, but a clear day would have revealed a spectacular sight.

An off-center view of the arch with some vendor stalls
Charents Arch

The pagan temple of Garni is part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Azat River Valley. Built in the 1st Century AD by King Trdat I, this temple was dedicated to the sun god Mitra.

Once Armenia converted to Christianity in 301 AD, temples such as this were destroyed. However, the queen at the time pleaded to keep the temple because of its beauty.

The 1679 earthquake completely destroyed the church that Trdat built next to the temple. The temple was not destroyed as badly but sat in ruins until 1975, when it was reconstructed and opened for tourism.

Remains of pillars that were in the cistern of the bathhouse
The bathhouse at Garni contained natural hot water that flowed through this cistern

On the site was a bathhouse with original mosaic tiles and amidst the church ruins was a stone with markings on it dating back to the 8th century BCE. The Symphony of Stones rock formation of basaltic columns is easily visible from the edge of the ruins.

View of expansive mountains across the gorge and the basalt columns
Symphony of Stones and the surrounding Garni Gorge

Geghard

The Geghard Monastery was founded in the 4th century, and its oldest chapel dates to the 12th. The main Holy Mother of God Church (Surp Astvatsatsin) was completed in 1215. Passageways through the chapel and even the choir loft are hand-carved directly from the rock.

Mountains behind and leading up to the entrance of the monastery
Carved into the rock, Geghard Monastery was founded in the 4th century

Lighting is sparse, but that just made the experience more impressive. The sooty looking tuff produced an oddly ominous yet reverent atmosphere inside the antechamber.

Main entrance to the apse of the main church, showing candles lit in the back
Dark interior tuff stones add to the allure of Geghard

The grounds were great for exploring, from the quaint arched footbridge behind the monastery walls to the monastic caves in the hills just above the main entrance. The detail on the khachkars (Armenian cross-stones) dotting the premises impressed me.

Naturally illuminated stone cross with intricate designs within and surrounding the cross
One of the many intricately carved “khachkars” or stone crosses at the monastery in Geghard

Lavash Making

The tour made a final stop at a small family owned farm called Abelyan’s House. Two women were baking lavash (Armenian flatbread) in traditional clay ovens built into the floor. They knelt in small holes where they had enough slack room to reach across to put the rolled out bread into the ovens.

The proper way to eat lavash is to roll it up with fresh vegetables and cheese inside. The warm bread tasted so much better than the room temperature version I’d been eating. They let a few of us pose in the knee-holes with the long piece of lavash.

Armenian women rolling dough to put into the underground ovens for baking
Traditional lavash making process

There was no lunch provided and we didn’t have time to stop anywhere (and I didn’t see many options), so the warm bread was a welcome treat. If you go, I suggest bringing some snacks.

Vagharshapat & the UNESCO World Heritage Sites

The city of Vagharshapat (often referred to as Etchmiadzin) lies 45 minutes west of Yerevan and can easily reached by public transportation or ride share taxi. There are a number of sites worth visiting that collectively fall under the UNESCO World Heritage designation.

Zvartnots

I hired a GG taxi (Armenia’s Uber, though it’s a cash only payment) to take me to the first stop, just past the airport of the same name: the 10th century ruins of the Zvartnots Cathedral.

Pillars encircling the apse of the ruins of the cathedral
Ruins of the once grand Zvartnots Cathedral

In the 7th century, this church was commissioned by Catholicos Nerses III, who is known as the “Builder” due to his many construction projects. The building once contained holy relics of Armenia’s first Catholicos (the Armenian Apostolic religion’s equivalent of “pope”), Saint Gregory.

The site includes ruins of not only the cathedral, but also the Catholicos palace and a winery. The on-site museum has several artifacts and a model of what the cathedral must have looked like in its glory. This became a UNESCO site in 2000.

The Ferris wheel surrounded by some shrubs in the park, with apartment blocks in the background
Abandoned Ferris wheel in Zvartnots village

The nearby village also called Zvartnots is a sleepy place notable for its abandoned park and rusted Ferris wheel, iconic of the bygone Soviet era.

I walked from there to Vagharshapat, but it took about 45-50 minutes and I had to play chicken on the highway. Minivans or GG taxis would be preferable if you don’t have your own rental car.

Statue of a right hand with thumb and index finger touching, overlooking the countryside and skies near Vagharshapat
The right hand of St. Gregory the Illuminator—depicted in this statue—has become a spiritual symbol of Etchmiadzin

Vagharshapat UNESCO Sites

Saint Hripsime

The church of Saint (Surp) Hripsime was built in 618 and is the location where she was martyred for refusing to marry King Trdat III. She had already fled from Rome to evade another marriage proposal from emperor Diocletian. Her willingness to die for her faith has made her a very popular religious figure in Armenia.

Church and courtyard
St. Hripsime Church, constructed in the year 618

A mausoleum for St. Hripsime had been on the site since 395 AD. She was killed in 290. A small room in the back of the church has an ornately painted coffin supposedly representing her remains, although it’s unclear whether they are still there after all that time and reconstruction.

Saint Shoghakat

Nearby another UNESCO church referred to as Saint Shoghakat was built in 1694 in honor of the nuns who were martyred for following Hripsime and another saint, Gayane. The name Shoghakat means “drop of light” in Armenian.

Stylized door and arching entrance with Armenian written on it
Saint Shoghakat Church entrance
Etchmiadzin

The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin (yes, another UNESCO site) is the crown jewel of Vagharshapat and is basically the Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Its campus is the site of the main cathedral, several other churches, buildings, museums, and the official residence of the Catholicos.

Cathedral with two priests walking
Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin Cathedral

Construction closed both the museum and cathedral (Mayr Tachar) when I visited. However, there were many buildings to look at and a few other churches were open.

The paving project in the centrally located cathedral plaza prevented me from entering, but I saw a few priests dressed in their black garbs walking across the area. The leafy grounds made for a pleasant stroll. There are at least two gift shops that were open.

Entrance gate with two clerics exchanging a cross, etched into the stone above the gate. Through the gate, the campus and steeples are visible
A side entrance to the campus of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin

Founded in 303, just a couple years after Armenia adopted Christianity as the state religion, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin dominates the city. The downtown location makes it convenient to visit.

The Catholicos since 1999 is Karekin II. His Palace, known as the Veharan, was out of sight due to construction, but is not open to the public in any case.

Archway entrance with church in the background
Entrance to St. Gayane Church
Saint Gayane

The last of the UNESCO churches is located just south of the Etchmiadzin campus. Saint Gayane is another Roman nun who refused to marry Kind Trdat, who subsequently tortured and martyred her. She encouraged Hripsime to stay strong in her faith, and for that paid the ultimate price.

The church dates from 630 at the site where Gayane was eventually killed, and has remained mostly intact without much reconstruction.

Khor Virap

Renting a Car

I decided to step a little outside of my comfort zone and rent a car in Armenia. I’d never driven in a foreign country by myself, and I was a little worried about the road conditions, driving, signage, etc. Renting a car turned out to be the best decision of the trip.

A bright red Chevy Aveo with John The Traveler pointing at it with a shocked expression
Getting ready to drive my first international rental car alone! I ended up loving this car, which I named Argo.

Surprisingly, I was able to rent an American car with automatic transmission. This is typically unheard of, even in Western Europe.

The cost was a little more, but not much different than a week-long rental would cost in the US. The value was well worth it to be able to see what I did, which would have been impossible without a vehicle.

Countryside view from the road, overlooking valleys, mountains, and the road. Taken near Lanjanist, Armenia.
One of the many spectacular views that justified renting a car

Swift, the local rental car agency, impressed me much. The customer service sold me, as David was very responsive and answered all of my questions.

Other agencies I’d contacted didn’t reply at all or didn’t have the kind of car I was looking for. Prices were competitive and Swift had a lot of options.

Archway entrance to church with Little Ararat framed in the background
Little Ararat as seen through the archway at the main church

Khor Virap Monastery

My first stop was the famed Khor Virap, possibly the most sacred of all the monastery sites in the country. That’s because it was where Saint Gregory the Illuminator—the first Catholicos of Armenia—spent a dozen years in a dungeon beneath one of the chapels.

Even though King Trdat III tortured St. Gregory, eventually he cured him from mental instability. The newly healed king then converted to Christianity.

Church and surrounding courtyard
Surp Astvatsatsin Church at Khor Virap Monastery

Pilgrims and curious tourists often visit the subterranean well that served as St. Gregory’s prison. This requires climbing down a rickety ladder in the dark to a small, enclosed space. I had planned to do just that, but there were too many visitors at the time.

When I first entered the chapel, I heard an angelic voice singing from below, probably one of the many devotees who pay their respects to the saint and unintentionally provide a reverent yet eerie soundtrack.

Trays of water and sand with long, thin yellow candles lit sticking in them
These long, thin candles (called “momer”) are everywhere in Armenian churches

Khor Virap was first built in the fifth century on top of the ruins of King Trdat’s old capital city of Artashat, dating back to the second century BC.

You can climb from the monastery to the hilltops behind for an idea of the grandeur of Artashat. You’ll also get picturesque views of Mt. Ararat, a stork nesting site, a modern cemetery, and the Araks Valley along the Turkish border.

For those who fly drones, this place is your money shot.

A priest under a tree looking over the cemetery below
A perfect place for monastic contemplation

Leaving Khor Virap

I poked around the village of Lusarat (for more photo shots of Ararat) and had lunch in the town of Pokr Vedi before continuing on to my destination of Sisian.

The route took me through the province of Vayots Dzor, which I would visit later when I returned to Yeghegnadzor.

Mt. Ararat in the far background with a faraway view of Khor Virap, taken from a road nearby
One of the iconic views of Khor Virap (right) and Mt. Ararat, near the village of Lusarat

Syunik Province

Armenia’s current geography includes an appendage that lies between the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan and the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. This is the province of Syunik.

Historical Context & the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Before delving into the region’s points of interest, I should mention the conflict. The United Nations officially recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. However, Armenians knew it as the Republic of Artsakh. The region has been ethnically Armenian for centuries.

Flag with government building
The flag of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) displayed with pride in Goris

Artsakh formally declared independence in 1991 and had seen a series of conflicts from 1988 to 2023. As of January 1, 2024, it ceased to exist when Azerbaijan formally absorbed it, much to the dismay of Armenians everywhere.

Just weeks prior to my arrival in 2022, there were many casualties at the border after troops opened fire on each other. Despite the ostensible volatility, the region was safe for tourism. Due to the exodus of refugees from Artsakh, it may be experiencing demands on its resources.

If you decide to visit this region now, it is best to exercise caution at the immediate border area and research the latest situation before planning to go.

John The Traveler with arm outstretched towards the reservoir marshlands after entering Syunik Province
Shortly after entering Syunik Province

Syunik Overview

The reason to go to Syunik is its mountainous beauty, historical attractions, and quieter setting. This relatively small region packs in several noteworthy sites, monasteries, caves, and stark mountain and valley contrasts.

In the autumn it was especially breathtaking and much more temperate than other seasons. The temperatures ranged from highs in the 60s to lows in the 30s (Fahrenheit) in mid-October.

River with distant mountains
The Vorotan River cutting through Sisian

I stayed for three nights in the small city of Sisian, which provided a good base for exploring the region. I couchsurfed with an expatriate couple on the edge of town, but could have easily chosen the larger city of Goris in which to base myself in this region.

Goris

Goris is a pleasant city nestled in a gorge, offering the most accommodation and food options in the region.

It is closest to some of the region’s best sites such as the medieval cave dwellings, Old Khndzoresk ghost town and swing bridge, and nearby Tatev Monastery and aerial tramway.

Bird's eye view of Goris and surrounding mountains
Sweeping views of Goris can be seen from the Yerevan-Meghri Highway

Central Goris is a modest collection of block government buildings, a small-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, a Rubik’s cube statue, and a prominently displayed flag of the Republic of Artsakh.

Summer seems to be the main time to visit due to some events like the sheep-shearing festival and cooler temperatures than sweltering Yerevan. As a result, most cafes were not open.

Replica of the Eiffel Tower in the city square
A little bit of Paris in Goris’s central square

Downtown Goris has a meager collection of market stalls and the visit-worthy St. Gregory church, along with the Parc de Vienne.

Bibliophiles may be interested in the museum dedicated to Axel Bakounts, a writer who was assassinated during Stalin’s purges during the 1930s Soviet Union.

Interior of church showing ceilings painted and other paintings of saints, plus the altar
There are usually colorful paintings inside every Armenian church

Cave Cities

The principal attractions closest to Goris are the old cave cities. Old Goris was inhabited from the fifth century and some of the remaining cave dwellings are still used for storage.

There are hikes that take you to viewpoints overlooking the city and the surrounding hoodoos. Check out HIKEArmenia for the best path to see these captivating features.

About 15 kilometers outside of Goris is the site of Old Khndzoresk, another cave city carved into the sides of the mountain gorge.

Distant rock formations known as hoodoos and some of Goris city in the foreground
Hoodoos visible from near downtown Goris

Once the largest town in the region, the 1931 earthquake forced its abandonment. It is now a playground for exploring its caves and churches.

Daring adventurers can wobble across the swinging bridge that connects to the caves for a memorable experience and photo ops. Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate when I visited, but these are my must-see sites when I return.

Tatev

Tatev Monastery

The Tatev Monastery overlooks the expansive Vorotan Gorge from its perch on the edge of high cliffs. Built in the 9th century and added to in 1295 with a larger church, the monastery was at one time home to about 600 monks.

Towers of the monastery from the side, with fortified wall
Tatev Monastery, towers of St. Astvatsatsin and Sts. Paul & Peter

There was also an important university here from 1390 to 1434. The grounds include walled fortifications and an oil press museum, but the main attraction is getting here.

Aerial Tramway

The Guinness World Record-holding Wings of Tatev Aerial Tramway spans over 5.5 kilometers from the Halidzor station to Tatev, making it the world’s longest nonstop reversible aerial cable car.

The 12-minute ride takes you over ruins of a convent, the Devil’s Bridge and an impossibly zigzaggy road, plus stunning views of the gorge.

Valley with a town, winding road, and sunrays through the clouds
Moments after this photo, I would glide across the gorge in a cable car

This natural bridge is also part of the road to Tatev, a product of wind and warm water erosion. A legend persists that it magically occurred to protect villagers fleeing a rebel army centuries ago.

The cable car has narrations in three languages to inform riders along the way. I parked my car at the Halidzor station parking lot and purchased the roundtrip ticket. Departures were roughly every 15 minutes, depending on the wind conditions.

Valley with a very winding road, and mountains around
The winding road to Tatev and a natural bridge known as Devil’s Bridge

The ride is not cheap, but to be able to experience a cable car and unparalleled views in such a remote location was worth it.

Tatev Village

Don’t forget to take a peek at the village of Tatev, with its dusty streets and old church. There are several guesthouses here in case you prefer a more rustic setting.

Hiking and trekking opportunities abound in the surrounding villages.

A cow stands next to the road through the village
Experience the pastoral life by strolling through Tatev village

Sisian and the Vorotan Valley

I was staying in Sisian, so I had commuted by car to Goris and Halidzor (for Tatev), about 45 minutes or an hour respectively.

The plus side of that was that when the weather forecast for Goris was rainy for the next day, I was able to pivot and take a road trip closer to town.

River with big terraced rock
Eye-catching sites abound in the Vorotan Valley

I had seen a brochure in my room highlighting some things to see in the Sisian region, aside from what I’d already planned to see.

After a late breakfast, I grabbed some snacks from a local supermarket and set off on a road that wound through the Vorotan Valley from Sisian to the village of Vorotan and beyond.

Memorial with clouds and trees
7th century tower tomb/memorial in the village of Aghitu, Armenia

Aghitu

The small village of Aghitu featured a seventh century tower that doubled as a memorial. It wasn’t much to see, but one of many attractions along the way and worth a quick stop as it’s right in the middle of town next to the road.

Reportedly there are dragon stones in the area that date back to the third century BC, but I didn’t explore beyond the tomb grounds.

Sweeping view of the Vorotan Valley with majestic mountains and clouds in the background
The stunning views just kept coming!

Vorotnavank

If I were to have to pick my favorite monastery in Armenia, the award would go to Vorotnavank. Only 12 kilometers outside of Sisian, this stark monastery stands as a sentinel over the Vorotan Valley.

Although it is no longer operational as an active monastery, visitors come to Vorotnavank for its location and the presence of a restored fresco from the 14th century.

View of the entirety of the Vorotnavank Monastery, with tombstones in the foreground
View of the Vorotnavank Monastery complex from the edge of the outer walls

Queen Shahandukht built the first church (Saint Karapet) here in 1006, although it’s possible that Saint Gregory built the first church of Christian Armenia here in the third century. The stone buildings here seem to represent the very definition of medieval.

Not one soul was present when I visited, but I saw small offerings left on the altar. A few bright paintings of clergy still hung on the walls, adding a splash of color in an otherwise dark interior.

Close up of the fresco on the wall of St. Karapet church, showing an angel and stars
Restoration efforts improved this 14th century painting

Behind the churches a cemetery sprawled uphill to the fortified walls overlooking the valley. Wind whipped at my head, forcing me to hold onto my cap as I stood on the outer wall’s edge surveying the scene. It’s a memory of that trip that I cherish.

Vorotan & the Hot Springs

In the sleepy village of Vorotan, I made a stop at the hot springs, which still bubble at the abandoned sanatarium that flourished during the Soviet Union days.

Hot springs bubbling
The hot springs are still active

The cement enclosure where the source flows from is a little mossy, but the water is warm enough for swimming. I didn’t see anyone jump in, but I don’t think anyone cares. There were people filling up jugs occasionally.

Leaving the town, I came to a junction with a muddy road and a larger gravel road that led to a bridge beneath a gap over the Vorotan River.

Three people gathering walnuts from leaves and branches that are covering the road
A family gathers walnuts in Vorotan village

Melik Tangi Bridge

The sight surprised me with its beauty and unexpected rock formations as well as the bridge itself. This was the Melik Tangi Bridge, built to connect the two sides of the valley and to serve as a mid-19th century trade route from Persia.

The architecture of the bridge combined with the emerald green rivers and basalt columns of rock on the other side made for a stunning backdrop. This site became one of the highlights of the drive if not the entire trip to Armenia.

Stone bridge with arch, river, and basalt columns rising up into the mountain overlooking the river
The Melik Tangi bridge over the Vorotan River, built in 1855

As if that weren’t enough, it turns out that the imposing rock face was actually the same location for the ruins of the Vorotnaberd fortress, perched clandestinely on top and only visible if you knew what to look for.

After walking around the bridge area and enjoying the pristine landscape, I continued my drive to a small shoulder off of the gravel road near the hill.

Disheveled fortress walls and ruins as seen from the climb up
They built the Vorotnaberd fortress right into the hill overlooking the Vorotan River

Vorotnaberd

I could barely see the path leading up to the top of the fortress. In fact, I lost that path on my way up, but fortunately it was not too far of a climb, although it was quite steep.

Destroyed many times by invasions in the 10th through 14th centuries, the only structural remains are the walls and a few rooms.

After the strenuous climb, I sat on one of the walls of a room and ate a snack bar while looking out over the valley, hot springs, Vorotan village, and the bridge below.

Bird's eye view of Vorotan village with the hot springs in the center distance
View from Vorotnaberd Fortress to the village of Vorotan and the hot springs

The climb was only about 30 minutes up, and about as long down. Because of its steepness, I had to walk gingerly to avoid twisting my ankles. Worth it!

Shamb

Back on the road, I continued past an American-Armenian joint venture hydroelectric plant, past a reservoir to the village of Shamb.

Reservoir with mountains in the background
Shamb Reservoir on a mostly cloudy day

I didn’t find anything open for lunch, but the town seemed to be less run down than others I’d encountered. There wasn’t anything specific there to see, so I returned and took the next road up a hill towards the Shenatagh Valley road.

Darbas & the Shenatagh Valley Road

Much to my shock, I found a modern supermarket and brand new church in the tiny town of Darbas. I later learned that the owner of a juice manufacturer was from there and must have invested a lot of money into the town. It was a pleasant surprise on my last stretch of roads for the day.

Church and rectangular square with greenery
Modern town square in Darbas

I continued through the villages of Getatagh, Lor, and Shenatagh before it started sprinkling and I realized it was rather late. Driving in Armenia was a pure joy, but I didn’t want to have to drive at night so I turned around and headed back.

Zorats Karer

Back in Sisian, there are a few interesting stops. The site of Zorats Karer (also called Carahunge or Karahunj) is located off the main highway back to Sisian from Goris, on a road that continues into town.

Often known as the “Armenian Stonehenge,” it is one of the more unusual attractions in Armenia because of its mysterious origins.

A stone with an eye hole with sunsetting clouds in the back
Eye holes in these stones suggest their creation had to do with astronomy

A few hundred upright stones arranged in lines and circles dot the hillock overlooking the montane landscape of the area. Many of these represent tombs dating back to 2000 BC. Several of the stones have eyelets carved into their tops.

Much like the Mayans, it seems that the builders of these pillars were keen on astronomy. During certain times, such as the summer solstice or a particular phase of the moon, light will shine through the holes in the rock to make auspicious patterns.

Uneven rock pillars representing graves, scattered over the landscape
Lines of stones were early grave markers at Zorats Karer

Even if we may not know the full meaning of what these stones show, the views of the surrounding countryside are worth the trip.

I arrived just before sunset, and although there were a lot of clouds, the pink and orange hues on the horizon combined with the valley views were impressive.

Valley and brown grasses/land with pink and orange horizon with clouds
Sunset over the Karahunj valley

Sisian

After returning to Sisian and parking my car, I walked up the hill near where I was staying to the Sisavank Saint John church.

Known by other names such as Syuni and erroneously as “Mugdaddes Ioan Kilsesi” on GoogleMaps, the church sits adjacent to the city cemetery and also has majestic views of the town and the wide Vorotan River.

Church and bird's eye view of Sisian with mountains and rainclouds in the distance
Sisavank St. John (Syuni) Church and the Sisian city cemetery

Other Sites

There are other sites in the area, too. Rumor had it that the Ughtasar petroglyphs north of Sisian were closed, but I ran out of time anyway. Reportedly they’re even older than Zorats Karer.

Tanahat Vank (Karmir Vank) is an isolated monastery about 17 kilometers southwest of town. This was the site of another university, founded in 1280.

Monks were so strict with themselves that they refused soup, oil, and cheese, and only consumed vegetables. The name “Tanahat” means “soup-deprived.” There is another monastery of the same name in the Vayots Dzor province.

Statue with a walkway towards the municipal office, with leaves on the ground
Municipal Square in Sisian

Near the village of Shaki is a well-known waterfall that’s notable for only “running” from 11am to 6pm. Another hydroelectric power station uses the water, so the falls are literally diverted outside of those times. As I was leaving Sisian, it was raining too much for a stop.

Yegheghis Valley

Wine Region Base

The center of the wine region, the city of Yeghegnadzor makes a convenient stopping point for travelers heading or returning to Syunik, Dilijan, or Yerevan.

Highway with clouds, mountains, and golden/drab green landscape
Stark beauty driving on Armenian highways

This is the same route you would take coming from Yerevan to Sisian or Goris, so what you didn’t have time for the first time will be ready for you on the way back.

Yeghegnadzor has several cozy bed & breakfasts that can offer home-cooked meals, so this is also a great way to experience traditional Armenian cooking and hospitality.

Bed with duvet and Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan book strategically placed
A typical bed in a guesthouse

Areni-1 Cave

The highlight of this region would have to be the Areni-1 cave and nearby Noravank. There are plenty of wineries, monasteries, and places to see in this area.

Imagine a region with over 6,100 years of winemaking history. In fact, the world’s oldest known winery can be traced back to the Areni-1 Cave, where amphorae were discovered in the late 2000s with grape residue.

You can see these jugs as well as the excavation site where archeologists discovered the world’s oldest shoe too. It is currently located in the History Museum of Armenia.

Remnants of amphorae in the cave
Evidence of the world’s oldest winery

I opted for the guided tour of the cave, but it’s possible to visit solo. The portion of the cave open for tourism is rather small, but excavations are still underway. After all, the shoe and winery were only just discovered around 12-15 years ago.

The cave itself has been right on the main road next to a popular restaurant for years. There are other caves in the area as well.

Noravank

Less than eight kilometers from the cave is one of the prettiest settings for a monastery in all of Armenia. Well, just about every place here is breathtaking, but this one is set in a ruddy gorge that in the right light dazzles with color. Even under cloudy skies it’s a sight to behold.

Church with low, hazy clouds
The backside of St. Astvatsatsin Church, Noravank, Armenia

The rock-walled, newly paved highway twists along the Amaghu River to a small parking lot beneath the Noravank monastery complex.

Bishop Hovhannes established this monastery in 1205. There are three main churches and a tiny museum dedicated to sculptor Momik, who designed the Surb Astvatsatsin church that would be his last. Burtel Orbelian of the regional dynastic family is buried here as well.

church and new narthex with mountains in the background
One of the other churches at Noravank (St. Stepanos Nakhav’ka)

Areni Wineries

Back in the town of Areni, there are several wineries to explore and sample. One of the most popular and accessible ones is right on the highway, the Hin Areni Wine Factory.

I had stopped on my way to Sisian and picked up a bottle of red for about $10 USD as a gift for my host. They have degustation options and winery tours for oenophiles.

Bar counter with several bottles of wine
Hin Areni Winery tasting room and shop

Areni town has many other notable wineries:

Early autumn is probably the best time to visit if you want to see the harvest. I saw some trucks traveling through town, overloaded with grapes ready for making wine. Trinity Canyon Vineyards between Areni and Yeghegnadzor, just west of the village of Arpi, is another good option.

Tall monolith with winery at the base
ArpaParnas Winery

On the outskirts of Yeghegnadzor is one of the region’s most popular and well-rated places, Old Bridge Winery. Here you can indulge in a tasting-dinner combo that will run about $25-30 USD per person. Make reservations in advance.

This is comparatively expensive, but may be a good option if you are short on time and just want to have one winery experience. You can also stay the night here and won’t have to worry about driving after too many glasses of the good stuff.

Building with a small steeple
Museum of Gladzor University in Vernashen

Yeghegnadzor City & Surrounding Areas

Yeghegnadzor city has a regional museum featuring some ethnographic and archeological exhibits as well as khachkars. The notable Gladzor University, located in neighboring Varnashen, is now a museum.

From there, you could visit Tanahati Monastery to the east about five kilometers or the remote Spitakavor eight kilometers to the west. Note that a four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended for getting to Spitakavor.

Boloraberd (also Proshaberd, to distinguish it from another nearby village named Boloraberd) fortress ruins are not far from there and rarely visited.

Rusty sign reading "Spitakavor 9.4 km" with an arrow to the left
Rusted sign to Spitakavor

If I’d had an extra day, I would have gone to the Yeghegis Valley to see some of the more remote offerings, which is where Armenia excels. These sites may make a good day trip from Yeghegnadzor:

  • Artabuynk: village with a cozy guesthouse offering cooking lessons
  • Tsakhatskar: 10th century monastery ruins reachable by 4WD and hiking
  • Smbataberd: fortress 45-minute walk from Tsakhatskar, with valley views
  • Yeghegis: village with three churches and an 800-year old Jewish cemetery
  • Aratesvank: 7th-13th century monastery about 10 km from Yeghegis

Selim Pass

On the road from Yeghegnadzor to Martuni (Lake Sevan), as the curves zigzag past the provincial border between Vayots Dzor and Gegharkunik, you’ll find the Selim Pass.

Dark room with light spilling in through the roof opening, showing stone slabs and the arched interior ceiling
Orbelian’s caravanserai at Selim Pass

Here is where the Orbelian caravanserai sits, preserved quite well and on a clear day offering dazzling views of the Vardenis mountains and the Yeghegis valley.

Built in 1332 by Prince Chesar Orbelian, it offered weary travelers a place to rest as they pursued trade in the region.

Despite not being able to see the countryside due to thick fog, the gloomy weather actually provided a surreal experience inside the dark vestibule. I felt the presence of past traders making their way through.

Lake Sevan

The mountain road continued its twisting path towards the lakeside city of Martuni. On the southern edge of Lake Sevan, it is one of the main cities in the area.

Martuni has a large cattle market, which may have been happening as I drove through town. Cars lined up along the highway for a long distance, although I didn’t see any livestock. It’s possible that it was simply a Monday afternoon market.

Lake glimmering with sun from partly cloudy skies
The west side of Lake Sevan, along M-10 highway

The gleaming shores of Lake Sevan finally came into view about halfway between Martuni and Noratus, fortunately offering a perfect little shoulder to pull off the highway and take a few breaths of fresh lake air.

This is the largest lake in the Caucasus region and actually one of the world’s largest freshwater higher altitude lakes.

Noratus

My first official stop was at the Noratus Cemetery, home of around 900 khachkars and known to be the world’s largest collection of them.

Tombstone with multiple carved images and people
This intricately carved khachkar has a lot of symbolism

As mentioned earlier, a khackhar is a carved stone cross, but it’s more than simply that. It is an art unique to Armenia, and these stones are everywhere and almost all one of a kind.

The oldest stones at Noratus are from the 10th century, and the cemetery also includes modern tombstones and gravesites.

I inadvertently took a tour in Russian about some of the more notable stones, although I probably understood only 10% of what the woman told me. Be wary of accepting a tour, as they will want to sell you handmade socks or something at the end.

10 or 11 tombstones all together in a row
These khachkars all belong to a single family

I still thoroughly enjoyed the experience and could have easily spent longer studying the various designs. I’m also fond of visiting cemeteries because they usually have something fascinating to reveal.

The variety of khachkars alone ranged from simple crosses to intricate scenes depicting animals, nobility, and detailed or stylized crosses. There were groupings of stones representing large families and others that stood alone.

Some of the stones were marked with numbers that correspond with USAID-funded plaques near the entrance with details about the designs on each one. Even without that, it’s enjoyable enough to peruse the grounds and look at the different designs.

Mostly lower rock slabs in the foreground with taller modern tombstones in the back
Noratus has a variety of gravestones, from basic rock slabs to elaborate crypts as well as khachkars

Hayravank

Just 15 minutes north of Nortaus, I discovered a monastery that wasn’t mentioned in any guidebook I’d seen. Since it was right there, I pulled off into the parking lot and paid a visit to Hayravank.

The afternoon sun was just so that a perfectly projected beam of light came in through the window. The illuminated dust captured a feeling that I think embodies the monastery experience in Armenia.

A bright beam of light shines through a window in the church
Heaven shines down on Hayravank

Tracing back to as early as the ninth century, Hayravank is much more modest and less popular than nearby Sevanavank. It has an enviable position looking over the lake, but without the droves of tourists.

Sevanavank

That said, Sevanavank is a must-see. Yes, it’s a popular destination because it’s one of the oldest sites in the country. The first church from the year 305 replaced a pagan temple and subsequent churches dated from the 9th century.

It’s close to the city of Sevan, and not that far away from Yerevan, so it makes for a great weekend trip from there. It’s also on the lake, and has gorgeous views.

Churches with the shining lake in the background
Sevanavank Monastery on Lake Sevan

The day I visited was a Sunday, and the weather was unseasonably warm for late October so I imagine the crowds were the result of that. It’s a popular destination for Russian tourists especially, and that is reflected in the signs and language heard.

The late afternoon sun sparkled like diamonds across the lake, giving the obvious impression that this would have been a key location for a monastery. How could you not be inspired by nature and the divine by looking out over the tranquil waters?

Side view of the church on the lake
Sevanavank Monastery St. Astvatsatsin church

Sevanavank is located on a peninsula, which offers a better view of the lake than anywhere else. The two main ninth century churches here remain stoic amidst the cacophony of club music, candy vendors, and gaudy souvenir hawkers.

There are still opportunities to enjoy the calming effects of the scenery by walking behind the monastery and gazing at the lake.

Beachside resorts and touristy restaurants and tchotchke stands abound on the drive from Sevanavank to the turnoff away from the lake towards Dilijan. Fishmongers display their presence with catchy signs adorned with hanging fish along the way.

Dilijan

It’s only a little over a half an hour from Sevanavank to Dilijan city, but the transition of landscape makes it feel much further away. Just a few kilometers outside of the city, you’ll see forests and the temperature drops just a bit.

Highway curve with pine trees
Tall pine trees begin lining the highway on the way to Dilijan

Dilijan City

Dilijan is situated in the valley amidst a national park. The hills divide the city between an upper and lower portion, and it spreads out further from each section, almost making the city four separate places.

The old town was perched above the valley overlooking a crowd of pine trees. I had a heck of a time actually locating my Airbnb, which was hidden beneath the old town main street and tucked further away down some stairs.

Large room with a bed, couch with coffee table, dining table, and carpet and three windows
My huge room in Dilijan

Once I got my bearings, it wasn’t so difficult to locate. This is an instance where a GPS just wouldn’t be able to help. After settling into my “Stalin Suite” as my new neighbor described my room, I eased into the sylvan atmosphere.

Upper (Old) Dilijan seemed to be the main town, as it had all the trappings of a town center. This was a convenient place to do some shopping (I blew out my flip-flops), but unfortunately I had missed the local art museum that was just a block from my place, which closed at 4pm.

Stone building with a sign that reads "Tufenkian Old Dilijan"
Tufenkian Hotel rooms, Old Dilijan

The main reason to visit Dilijan is likely to be the hiking and nature opportunities in the National Park surrounding the city.

I had planned to use it as a base to explore the Debed Valley, which is a bit further away but still doable; however, I caught a cold and needed to rest up, do some laundry, shop, and generally take it easy.

One of the better known hikes here is a 13-kilometer hike or ride share to Parz Lake, which offers boat rental, zipline, ropes course, and other nature appreciation. Several other shorter drives or hikes are available for those short on time.

Trees overlooking the lower city and a tower, with mountains in the background
Lower Dilijan from Upper Dilijan

Haghartsin Monastery

Also about 13 kilometers away was Haghartsin Monastery, built in the 10th century and oddly enough refurbished in 2011 by the sheik of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Apparently his visit here captivated him so much that he was compelled to invest in its renovation.

View of monastery from the road above, and showing the surrounding national park trees
Haghartsin Monastery, St. Gregory Church and St. Astvatsatsin Church

The monastery is not in the town of the same name, but on a beautifully winding road off the highway not very far east of Dilijan. A small gata bakery (the Armenian pastries are baked fresh on the spot) and a shop selling honey and related products are also here.

I enjoyed a gata and tea with local honey as I fended off bees and looked out at the fall-like scene before me. It was exactly what I needed to help me recover from my cold.

Archway with sign reading "St. George's Park" and a pathway
This leafy parkway leads from the monastery to the bakery and honey shop

Ijevan

On a whim, I drove further east to the city of Ijevan. I thoroughly enjoyed my very short time there. The city straddles the Aghstev River in a pristine setting among pine trees and a pleasantly situated downtown.

The “shuka” (market) is right on the main highway, and it was the liveliest I’d seen thus far. I only spent a few hours in town, but I liked it a lot because it was in the valley and easily navigable.

I had parked a block from the main square and in the other direction was a sculpture park that I wandered through before heading back to Dilijan.

The shallow river with fortified banks
Aghstev River running through Ijevan

I stopped at a church, a few shops, a pedestrian street full of shops, and the I Love Ijevan sign for the ultimate city selfie.

I didn’t even get to visit the popular Ijevan Wine Factory or Yell Extreme Park, which has a lot of outdoor activities such as a zipline, via ferrata, paintball, and horseback riding. The short time I spent there was good for my health!

Sign reads "I (Heart) Ijevan" in the plaza
Plaza in central Ijevan

I picked up a hitchhiker just outside of town and brought him to his home in Dilijan, after which he invited me to join him and his wife for some coffee and snacks. His neighbor happened to work for the museum and spoke English, so he invited her over.

For about 45 minutes, it was an honor to witness Armenian hospitality and connect further to this amazing country that I had immediately fallen in love with.

Vanadzor and the Road to Yerevan

The road from Dilijan to Vanadzor is like many in Armenia, winding and filled with mountain views and quaint valley villages. The journey is about 45 minutes by car.

Lightly snowcapped mountains overlooking the village
Countryside between Dilijan and Vanadzor, overlooking the village of Margahovit

Vanadzor

Armenia’s third largest city, Vanadzor is a good base for exploration northwards of the Debed Canyon and its many attractions or just a stopping off point traveling westward towards Gyumri or southbound to Yerevan via Spitak.

Armenia is relatively small, so distances are short but there are many options for stopping along the way.

6 Armenian flags in a fountain with buildings and blue skies
Hayk Square, Vanadzor

Despite being referred to as “Armenia’s Detroit” in the Lonely Planet guide, I found it to be a very pleasant city. I spent a few hours exploring in the morning and had lunch before I had to start the journey back to Yerevan to return the rental car.

The lively Tuesday market brimmed with colorful vegetables, fruits, coffee beans, and other wares. It is one of Armenia’s busiest.

Fruit and vegetable stalls with a few customers browsing at the market
Vanadzor’s main market bursts with fresh fruits, nuts, coffee, meats, and other goods

If you find yourself with a few hours to explore, here are some recommendations:

  • Holy Mother of God Church: it’s not ancient (construction began in 1828) but the alternative orange and black tuff stones and gilded paintings inside are noteworthy
  • Hayk Square: Vanadzor’s town square and the location of the city hall and Lori province administration offices
  • Artsakh Square: another square with interesting statues and some good cafes, across from Vanadzor State University
  • Vanadzor Museum of Fine Arts: if you’re into art, this is an impressive collection for a small city

Armenian Alphabet Monument

I’m a sucker for quirky attractions, and while this is actually a compelling site, the existence of a monument dedicated to an alphabet was something I had to see for myself.

Statues depicting letters in the Armenian alphabet, featuring the letter "O" in the foreground, with about 15 others visible (out of the 39)
Some of the 39 letters that make up the Armenian alphabet

When Armenia celebrated its 1600th anniversary as a country in 2005, architect Jim Torosyan (who designed the Yerevan Cascade and many other iconic buildings) carved 39 letter-shaped stones in homage to the country’s milestone birthday.

The site he selected is near the final resting place of the Armenian alphabet’s creator, Mesrop Mashtots, with views of Armenia’s highest peak, Mount Aragats, to the north (if you climb the hill) and Ararat to the south.

Snowy and jagged mountain with flat croplands in the foreground
Snow-covered Mt. Aragats as seen from the boundary between Lori and Aragatsotn provinces

The Armenian Alphabet Monument is immediately to the west of the road, with some parking spots and a snack shop (if it’s open). There are some trails around too if you want more than just striking a pose next to your initial.

Ashtarak & Nearby Monasteries

Heading south from the alphabet monument, there are several monasteries on the way to Ashtarak that are good, quick stops. They offer great shots of the Kasagh Gorge and Ararat in the distance.

A wedding party poses for a photo shoot in front of the church, under bright blue skies
Saghmosavank during wedding season
Saghmosavank

Less than 10 minutes south of the alphabet monument, through the town of Artashavan, is Saghmosavank.

Two 13th-century churches overlooking the Kasagh Gorge and Aragats. Several important manuscripts were found here.

Mt. Ararat and Little Ararat in the far distance with the gorge and rocky sides in the foreground
The mighty Kasagh Gorge and another view of Mt. Ararat
Hovhannavank

Fifteen minutes further south through Ohanavan town is another monastery, Hovhannavank. The basilica here dates back to the 5th century and was also an important manuscript repository.

The church’s altar is adorned with frescoes and has unique staircases. It’s possible to hike between these two monasteries along the gorge, but you would need to reserve an entire day.

Candles are lit, sunlight shines through windows and illuminate the pews
Interior of Hovhannavank Monastery
Mughni

Continuing on through Karbi and its handful of churches, you’ll reach Mughni (about 10 minutes). There you’ll find the 17th-century Surp Gevorg church and its arcaded vestibule.

The churchyard is fortified, with architectural features unlike some of the other monasteries and churches I’d visited. If you are hungry, get some freshly baked goods from the bakery across the street.

Angled view of the church from the interior courtyard
Surp Gevorg (St. George) monastery at Mughni
Ashtarak

The city of Ashtarak is the provincial capital of Aragatsotn, and has a few things to see. I needed to get the car back to Yerevan, so I didn’t linger for more than 10 minutes.

The center of town features a long crooked pole with a dove on top, which is actually a sculpture by the Italian Massimo Lippi. Called “The Tree of Peace,” it is an olive branch and symbolizes the ties to Ararat and Christianity.

Gyumri

My final new destination in Armenia was the city of Gyumri. Ravaged by the 1988 earthquake, which leveled much of the city, killing 17,000. Today the population is nearly half of what it was prior to the quake.

Gyumri still struggles with the effects of the devastation, and construction of one of the most iconic churches is ongoing.

I (Heart) Gyumri sign in a park
Gyumri: a city with determination and pride

I took the train from Yerevan, a pleasant enough three-hour journey that cost only about $3 USD. The train meanders through the southern portion of Armenia, stopping at Armavir and several small towns in the fertile countryside before curving northward along the western border with Turkey (now officially called “Türkiye”).

Gyumri City Center

From the train station, about 15 blocks west along Gorki Street begins the downtown district. The market sits in ramshackle fashion diagonally from the main Vardanants Square.

Gyumri has a few museums and pedestrian-friendly Rishkov Street, making Armenia’s second largest city a destination of choice for anyone wishing to get a better grasp of the country as a whole.

There you will find the city hall and the dominant Amenaprkich Church (Holy Savior of All). The current church has been mostly reconstructed since the 1988 quake, but the interior was not yet complete at the time of my visit. However, you can enter the church to see the progress.

Black & apricot colored church and surrounding back courtyard
All Saviors (Surp Amenaprkitch) Church looks completed, but construction remains ongoing inside

Opposite the Amenaprkich is the Church of the Seven Wounds of the Holy Mother of God, better known in Armenian as Yot Verk.

Also heavily damaged by the earthquake, it was completely rebuilt and seems to function as the “main” church (perhaps for now). This 19th-century church’s interior features a gilded blue altar, which is quite a contrast from other churches here.

Two old spires in the foreground with the new church (three spires visible) in the back
Yot Verk church and two original spires salvaged from the quake
Iron Fountain

My obsession with Soviet-style architecture drew me to Gyumri, mostly for one distinctive feature in the northern outer reaches of town. Known simply as the Iron Fountain, this former centerpiece sits like an abandoned spacecraft at the far end of Manushyan Street.

Visible from several blocks away, its fluted, rusted out spigots, to me, portray quintessential Soviet decay. Actually, it was part of the polytechnic university campus, which was all completely destroyed in the earthquake, with only the fountain remaining.

View of the rusted out fountain, showing lots of empty concrete
The “Iron Fountain” stands as a resilient monument to both the Soviet era and the earthquake
Black Fortress

The Black Fortress, or Sev Berd, is one site that I really wished I’d have seen. The site contains remnants of a Russian imperial fortress built in the 1830s as a reaction to the Russo-Turkish War of 1828. It’s currently in ruins, but there are plans to prepare it for tourists.

Debed Canyon

While I did not undertake the Debed Canyon roadtrip option I’d initially planned, I must mention the places I had hoped to visit. This area will be on the top of my list for the next time.

Some may opt to visit here over the other places just because there are so many places in a comparatively small area. It also could make a good side trip option from the Tbilisi for those seeking to get a small taste of Armenia while being based in the Republic of Georgia.

Small view of the monastery and surrounding mountains and trees
Passing by the Kobayr Monastery on Highway 6

Debed Canyon Sites

The canyon sites could be visited by rental car or an organized tour. Just about everything is along Highway 6 or not far from it, between Vanadzor and the Georgian border at Bagratashen.

View of city in the distance on the cliffside and the highway and a truck in front
Alaverdi is precariously perched on this cliff

Conclusion

And there you have it! I am eager to return to explore the places I didn’t get to and go back to some that I really enjoyed. Apart from the head cold, I would easily do this exact trip all over again.

Can you believe I didn’t even mention food or drink? I might have to save that for another post. Armenian cuisine could be described as a blend of Mediterranean, Georgian, and Russian with a little European mixed in. The wine is distinct, but closer to Georgian in preparation and history.

I (Heart) Armenia sign
There must be a part of my heart still in Armenia

Be sure to check out the post about my expenditures on the trip so you can set a budget for a trip to Armenia.

Updated April 21, 2024

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