24 Hours in Yerevan
Yerevan, like many of its Caucasian contemporaries, embodies the trope of a city nestled between east and west. More Asian than their northern neighbours in Georgia, more European than Iran, Armenia is the middle ground of cultural assimilation. The country changed hands endlessly throughout history, hosting battles between eastern and western powers hoping to control the gateway between Europe and Asia, and one of the keys to the prolific Silk Road.
As a result, culture in Armenia is distinctly unique. Their history, peppered with triumph and tragedy, moulded the proud people they are today. We spent a few days wandering the streets, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, planning how I’m going to work out how to move there. If you have less time to make your way around the city, here’s a few of the top things you need to see and do.
Things you’ve got to see
The Armenian Genocide Memorial & Museum
Harrowing, but essential to understanding and appreciating modern Armenian culture. People underestimate the severity of the country’s recent genocide, until they spend a couple of hours reading the histories and the first hand accounts in this extensive and well-curated museum. The monument is solemn, populated by elderly Armenians in mourning. A fair distance from the centre of town, the site is a bit of a hike if you want to walk. It took us around 1.5-2 hours, but that was with us stopping off at every quaint little park we passed along the way. Take a taxi if you’re pressed for time, you don’t want to rush through this museum.
The most iconic image of Yerevan is of the singing fountains in Republic Square. Once you’ve figured out how to cross a road (the local method is pretty much just to walk out in front of the cars and assume that they’ll stop), you can enjoy the hustle and bustle of the square. The history museum is situated on the square, and I’d strongly recommend taking the free walking tour which leaves from here in the evening. It will take you through the history of the city, up the steps of the cascade and point you in the direction of the iconic Mother Armenia statue.
The Armenian History Musuem
Most of what I heard about this museum before visiting was that they had a super old shoe. The world’s oldest shoe, in fact. Fun as that may be, the museum has tons more to offer. Spend time wandering through artefacts from the birth of Christianity, Armenia being the first country in the world to officially adopt the religion. A personal favourite of mine was an intricately carved church door with, memorialised by the anonymous artist in the foot of the piece, ‘whoever reads this, remember me’.
Browse Vernissage Market
An open air handicraft market littered with treasures, the market is a great spot to acquire a souvenir or two. The traditional carpets and throws are reminiscent of the vast carpet markets of Northern Persia, with rich colours and hand woven designs, without the heftier price tags you’ll find in Iran. Try to avoid the typical tourist fare and seek out the many local artisans touting their wares in the market.
Climb the Cascade
The aforementioned cascade does feature at the end of the walking tour, but if you decide against this route it’s well worth climbing up there by yourself. Inside the building is a collection of art, and the path up is littered with modern sculptures. View from the top isn’t half bad either. If you don’t feel like hiking up the stairs, there are escalators inside that will take you up.
What you’ve got to eat & drink
Armenian food in Armenia is distinctly unique to the Armenian food that you find in restaurants in other parts of the world. Given the massive diaspora of Armenians around the world, their cuisine has followed them to far flung locations. There’s a whole bunch of Armenian restaurants in Buenos Aires, for example, serving what is essentially indistinguishable from Arab food. The food in Yerevan is different, traditional Eastern cuisine with Soviet influence, the food here is a reflection of the culture in this ‘gateway to Asia’.
Definitely don’t order Turkish coffee, but if you want a rich black coffee to build up your sight seeing energy, ask for an Armenian coffee at the local stores or stands around the city.
There’s a reason half the world has their own version of a barbecue. Essentially, tender meat grilled on an open flame, simple but consistently delicious. The Armenians have Khoravat, pork or lamb grilled bone-in on a skewer, and you can satiate your meaty cravings at any traditional stop in the city.
As is typical in western Asia, Armenia has a typical bread of the region, served with most dishes. Unlike the thicker, heavier breads of neighbouring Georgia, Armenians opt for Lavash, a thin, tortilla-like flatbread to lap up sauces and stews.
Considering the beer here costs next to nothing, there’s not too much harm in indulging. Armenian bars are great, everyone is friendly and chatty and you can’t help but walk out with a whole new group of pals. Slightly crazy pals, but that’s half the fun. Order a local beer, be plied with free shots by the bar tenders or the bar owners or whatever bar goer you get chatting to that night. We spent a lot of time at Calumet, which I’d recommend for a mellow, multicultural vibe. Wandering the streets around this area we also ended up in a Colombian salsa bar, and an ‘English’ bar full of crazy Persians. Yerevan is a very safe city, so it’s easy to hop from bar to bar and get a feel for the nightlife.
The Mediterranean fail-safe. From Greece to Lebanon to Palestine, this traditional dish of meat wrapped in vine leaves is a classic across the region, and Armenia is no different. There’s a reason they’re so popular, they’re fantastic. Try some.
Where to stay?
We stayed at Envoy Hostel, a small chain with properties in Georgia, Armenia and Cambodia. Comfortable, clean and sociable, the hostel met all our expectations. They also organise great tours from the hostel, to the surrounding countryside, which we used in both Yerevan and Tbilisi. For more info on the best tours you can take to the Caucasian countryside, check out this post.
Dorms from $9.50, privates from $30
2. Friendship Hostel, right in the centre of the city, provides a good breakfast, regular tours and a balcony to sit back and people watch from.
Dorms from $7.50, privates from $25
3. Kantar Hostel is a slick, clean hostel with a hotel-like feel, giving you plenty of comfort for your money.
Dorms from $14, privates from $43
Mia Casa Hotel is based in central Yerevan, in a spot close enough for easy exploring, but calm enough for a good night’s sleep. The hotel boasts commendations for quality breakfast, helpful staff, and slick decor.
Rooms from $55
Check out Azoyan Guest House for a more homely feel, and discover Armenian hospitality in a cosy and central spot.
Rooms from $46
Going All Out
The Alexander is the place for those of you that like the finer things. With a bar, spa, pool and gym, you’ll never be short of amenities in this lavishly decorated, central, luxury hotel.
Rooms from $340
For a more modern vibe, still stuffed with amenities, check out the Messier 53 Hotel, right next to the Ballet & Opera House.
Rooms from $67
3. Voted the best value hotel in Yerevan, Kantar Hotel provides a lux experience without the lux price tag
Rooms from $60
Yerevan is, as I mentioned, super safe and super friendly. As two young girls travelling, we never once felt like we couldn’t go somewhere, at whatever time of day or night. Young Armenians speak pretty good English, if you don’t feel up to the challenge of tackling Armenian, and are always chatty and welcoming. A buzzing metropolitan city, Yerevan is a modern hybrid of continents, and an ancient passageway well worth your time.
Read about more things to do in Armenia here