YEREVAN, Armenia — A first glance of Yerevan from the imposing central train station may appear uninspiring — bleak empty buildings flank the large square in the gray light of dawn, merchants setting up their stalls stare warily at passersby, and the grandiose monument of a rider on a horse pays tribute to the country's Soviet past. But as the bustling city gradually awakens, it soon becomes clear that there is much more to Armenia's capital than meets the eye.
From the ghostly view of Mount Ararat's snowy peaks looming over the city to the vibrant colors and sounds of the Vernissage flea market, Yerevan possesses a subtle beauty. Yerevan's citizens have been particularly resilient despite the devastating effects of an earthquake in 1988, dire economic hardship and a war with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave from 1988-94. Over the past decade, a booming economy and flourishing business environment has given Armenia the well-deserved epithet of the Caucasian Tiger.
Yerevan has also proven its mettle. The capital, which contains over a third of the country's entire population, produces more than half of Armenia's gross domestic product. The city center, stretching beyond the vast expanse of the Republic Square, offers an abundance of restaurants and coffee bars and, especially during the long summer evenings, residents stroll in the streets or lounge in the outdoor cafes to meet with friends and family. The Opera House, with its renowned theater and symphony orchestra, and a plethora of local museums, create a lively cultural scene for aficionados of history and music.
According to locals, the recent changes in Yerevan have been dramatic. "The '90s were dark years where people were sitting in candlelight in the evenings, all packed in one room for heat," said Ruzanna Tantushyan, a freelance writer and photographer who grew up in Yerevan. "But in the 2000s, living conditions improved. There is electricity and travel, and the city is a lot livelier."
Tantushyan, who currently lives in Chicago but returns regularly to Armenia, said the most visible changes have occurred in central Yerevan. When she left the city in 2005, buildings were gray and covered in dust. Today, recent business investments and construction work give the city a more cheerful appearance.
Despite the city's rapid transformation, Yerevan has not eluded the far-reaching grasp of history. On the contrary, modernity has crept around the stunning ancient churches, with their cool and somber interiors, the Armenian stone crosses — called khachkar — with engravings as delicate and intricate as embroidery, and sobering genocide memorials, a tribute to the country's past of bloodshed.
From the cuisine, a distinctive blend of Arabic, Russian, Greek and Persian influences, to its architecture, an eclectic mix of Soviet-style monuments and ancient traditional buildings, Yerevan's uniqueness lies not only in its position at the crossroads of the East and West, but in its ability to effortlessly merge the past with the present. As Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda wrote about his trip to the city in 1957, "I think Yerevan is one of the most beautiful cities I have seen; built of volcanic tuff, it has the harmony of a pink rose."
What to see if you have two hours
As heavy traffic creates Moscow-style congestion in many parts of the city, Yerevan's center is most accessible on foot. Starting from the circular, stately Republic Square, formerly known as Lenin Square, where imposing Soviet architecture meets elegant Armenian-style buildings, walk down Abovyan Street, the city's main thoroughfare. On Abovyan Street, you will pass cafes, souvenir shops, restaurants, cinemas and, finally, the miniature 13th-century Katoghike, a chapel so small its congregation has to stand in the yard.
In the northern part of the center, about two blocks west from the chapel on Abovyan Street, visit the grand Opera House, surrounded by a lush park. The cafes and restaurants near the park are a great place to stop for lunch or a snack. Toward the end of the walk, stop to admire the colossal Cascade, a flight of stone steps leading to the monument commemorating the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia. If you take the escalator to the top of the Cascade, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of Yerevan.
During the weekends, the Vernissage flea market is well worth visiting. Only steps away from Republic Square, the market offers just about anything under the sun, from plumbing fixtures and remote controls to Soviet memorabilia, handwoven carpets and, according to vendors, antique religious icons. The Vernissage market, however, is more than a shopping experience. The vivid colors, the lively atmosphere as customers and vendors haggle and bargain for a deal, the intent chess-players whiling away the long hours of the afternoon, offer a glimpse into the culture and traditions of Armenia and its people.
What to do if you have two days
After visiting Yerevan's main attractions, there are a number of worthwhile day trips that provide a deeper understanding of Armenia's rich history and culture. Transportation via public bus or the ubiquitous minibuses known for their reckless drivers is very cheap and relatively easy. Tickets average 100 dram or 200 dram ($0.30 or $0.60). However, if comfort is a priority, taxis are also inexpensive and will deliver you safely to your destination. Most taxis do not have meters but charge about 100 dram ($0.30) per kilometer.
About a half-hour minibus ride from Yerevan, Garni Temple lies at the end of a dusty, winding road, nestled among the rugged Caucasus Mountains. Though the Hellenistic Temple has been rebuilt, it is one of the few structures commemorating local pagan religions. With its gray, stone pillars, the temple brings to mind ancient Greek architecture. On clear, sunny days, the view of the surrounding craggy cliffs and valleys is stunning.
Though buses do not continue onward from Garni, a taxi — or, alternatively, a 10-kilometer walk — will take a visitor to Geghard Monastery, which is attributed to the fourth century. Most of the churches from the monastery have been carved into the mountains. Within the deep, cavernous rooms, the air is quiet and cool. Candlelight illuminates intricate engravings on the walls, while locals say a spring of water in one of the chapels can keep skin looking youthful.
Another half-hour minibus ride from Yerevan will take you to Etchmiadzin ( +3 7410-51-71-10; armenianchurch.org), the seat of the Catholicos, patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Cathedral of Etchmiadzin was built by St. Gregory the Illuminator at the beginning of the fourth century. St. Gregory claimed to have had a divine vision in which Christ descended from the heavens to indicate where the cathedral should be built. The museum, located in the back of the cathedral, is small but packed with religious artifacts ranging from elaborately embroidered ecclesiastical garments emblazoned with valuable gems, to relics of various saints and even purported fragments of Noah's Ark. Be sure to see the lance that supposedly pierced Christ's side during crucifixion.
The majestic monastery of Khor Virap is situated about 35 kilometers from Yerevan. Built upon a hill and an important pilgrimage site, the monastery offers a breathtaking view of the biblical site of Mount Ararat. According to legend, St. Gregory was imprisoned in a deep well (khor virap means "deep well" in Armenian) by the pagan King Trdat III. Twelve years later, King Trdat freed St. Gregory, who had miraculously survived. The king then converted to Christianity, making Armenia the first Christian nation. Within St. Gregory's chapel, it is still possible to climb into the well and imagine the long years of St. Gregory's confinement.
What to do with the family
When temperatures begin to climb, Water World (40 Myasnikyan Ave.; +3 7410-64-97-30; waterworld.am) offers respite from the summer heat. Parents can sip fruit cocktails and lounge in the park's hot tubs, while children splash in the adventure pools, complete with water games, wave effects, and water slides. The restaurant offers fresh seafood and Armenian as well as western dishes.
If your ideal night out involves listening to the dreamy notes of a symphony or watching acrobatic pirouettes, the imposing circular Opera House (54 Tumanyan Poghots; +3 7410-52-79-92) hosts the National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater. Billboards around the Opera House and on Abovyan Street advertise upcoming events.
Or you can descend into the bowels of the Opera House to dance to the beat of Russian pop or MTV at the club Opera (54 Tumanyan Poghots; +3 7410-54-12-22). The entrance fee is 3,000 dram ($8).
With first-rate DJs, a large bar and quality food, Relax (105 Teryan Street) is located in the Citadel Business Center and attracts the young and trendy. The club is also popular among expats and members of the Armenian diaspora. Admission averages 2,000 dram ($5).
Where to eat
The Color of Pomegranates (15 Tumanyan Poghots; +3 7410-58-52-04) is a small, charming restaurant decorated with artifacts from the Vernissage market. Its somewhat whimsical name is a tribute to the Armenian film director Sergei Parajanov, whose eponymous film "The Color of Pomegranates" appeared in 1968. The menu offers a mix of European, Georgian and Armenian cuisine for an average check of 3,500 dram ($9) without alcohol.
One of the classiest restaurants in Yerevan, The Club (40 Tumanyan Street; +3 7410-53-13-61; theclub.am) includes a wide range of offerings, from concerts, film nights and art galleries, to French, Italian and Armenian cuisines. You can relax in the simple yet elegant dining room for a hearty meal with an extensive choice of wine pairings for about 10,000 dram ($25). For a more leisurely experience, you can sink into the downy embrace of cream-colored pouf cushions in the tea room, while you sip teas cultivated by a traditional Buddhist family in China.
Old Erivan (2 Tumanyan Poghots; +3 7410-58-88-55; olderivan.am) serves Armenian cuisine amid lively folk music and somewhat gaudy decor. The cave-like venue, overflowing with antiques and traditional arts and crafts, has welcomed illustrious guests, from local artists and celebrities to President Dmitry Medvedev. The average entree costs about 2,500 dram ($6).
Where to stay
Built by the American entrepreneur James Tufenkian in 2001, Avan Villa Yerevan Hotel (13th Street; +3 7460-50-10-10; tufenkian.am) offers a spectacular view of the bustling capital from its hilly vantage point, only a 10-minute drive from the city center. The hotel's 14 guest rooms present an eclectic mix of modern and traditional styles — from wrought iron bed fixtures to handwoven 19th-century carpets — conveying an atmosphere of elegance as well as comfort. Prices range from 31,200 dram to 52,000 dram ($80 to $133) per night.
If you're looking for greater luxury, Denmark's national women's football team gave the Golden Tulip Hotel (14 Abovyan Street; +3 7410-59-16-00; goldentulipyerevan.com) a glowing review. The elegant hotel is located in the heart of Yerevan, within walking distance of the Republic Square and the National Art Gallery. Whether basking by the open-air pool or savoring an Italian or Armenian meal at the award-winning Rossini Restaurant, you might just bump into distinguished guests such as actor Gerard Depardieu or musician John McLaughlin and his band the 4th Dimension. Prices hover around 89,000 dram ($228) per night and can soar up to 150,000 dram ($385) for a Senior Suite during the summer season.
The Marriott Armenia Hotel (1 Armiryan Street; +3 7410-59-90-00; marriott.com) is conveniently located on Republic Square. Originally built in the 1950s as the main tourist accommodation during the Soviet era, this international hotel offers classic, comfortable rooms within walking distance of Yerevan's main attractions. Its meeting rooms and large ballroom are ideal for business gatherings. Prices, which almost double between April and May, start at 65,000 dram ($166) and reach 290,000 dram ($744) for a suite.
A joke in Armenia says that "if you want to know if you're a real Armenian, you have to talk about Armenian history, culture and identity three to five times a day." To win the hearts of Armenians, locals suggest that you begin by praising the country and its rich culture. If you also raise a glass of Yerevan's famous cognac, you have set the basis for a lifelong friendship.
How to get there
The easiest and fastest route to Yerevan is by plane. Yerevan's Zvartnots International Airport (zvartnots.aero/en), is located 12 kilometers from the city center and has recently been renovated to include duty-free stores and Wi-Fi connections. The 1,800-kilometer flight from Moscow to Yerevan takes about two hours, with prices for a round trip starting at 13,000 rubles ($450). Once at the airport, you can buy a single-entry visa for 120 days for 15,000 dram ($39), or a single-entry visa for 21 days for 3,000 dram ($8). All children under 18 years of age are free of charge.
To get to the city center, the fastest and most practical route is via taxi. Taxis provide 24-hour service and cost about 2,800 dram ($7) for a trip to the city.
International travel to Armenia by train is limited. While there are no direct routes from Azerbaijan or Russia, there is a good connection with Tbilisi, Georgia. You can buy tickets on the second floor of the Tbilisi train station where the staff speaks Georgian, Russian and limited English. Trains from Tbilisi only run every two days, departing in the afternoon and arriving in Yerevan early the next morning after a 15-hour trip. Costs depend on whether you prefer to ride first, second or third class and range from 12 lari ($7) for a bench seat to 45 lari ($27) for a first-class compartment. You can obtain a visa from the border patrol when you reach Armenia.
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