Yerevan is a city most people don’t think of when looking for a holiday destination. However, Armenia’s capital is full of surprises. Ancient culture, hospitality, and tradition go hand in hand with modernization and inventiveness. Yerevan is full of contrasting elements that only add to its charm. On top of that, you get a splendid view of Mount Ararat at the doorway of a country yet to be discovered by most.
Our team of locals live in and love this city and are on the constant lookout for great hidden spots. Here is a collection of some of their best local gems.
The central square of the Kond neighborhood contains remnants of mosques dating from Yerevan’s occupation by the Persian Empire. The largest of these, the Thapha Bashi mosque, still stands, having withstood the ravages of time, changing empires, and communism.
Even as a ruin, this building is impressive. It boasts some of the best architectural elements Persian-style mosques are known for, including intact frescoes that have survived the ages. Make sure to ask the locals first if it’s OK to walk around and take pictures. They’re usually very accommodating and will tell you all sorts of stories about the place. They’ll probably even invite you in for tea, coffee, or home-made vodka.
This is real prehistoric Vishapakar (dragon stone) standing in front of one of the government buildings in Yerevan. These enigmatic serpent-headed dragon stones are characteristic of the Armenian Highlands. In the prehistoric past, in a time when Google Maps didn’t exist, they were used as markers to indicate the location of water. They also have spiritual meanings, for example depicting myths about the Thunder God fighting the fish-dragon and defeating it to give the world water.
The word “vishap” is Iranian in origin and the meaning is still disputed, either signifying a poisonous water-living creature or a creature of prodigious size. Whatever these things are, they like staying where they were made. Hopefully, this Vishap will be brought back to its original location one day, somewhere in the mountains of the Armenian Highland, to keep indicating the location of water.
By the way, according to different scientific sources, this Vishapakar most likely about 3000-4000 years old, or even much more. Most likely, he doesn’t enjoy being forced to guard a governmental building.
Dining among trees and gods
Check out these funky metal and plastic transparent treehouse domes at El Garden Restaurant, located on a hill that rises above the western part of Yerevan. They are incredibly inviting, especially on a cold evening with a beautiful sunset when you don’t want to miss the sky show, but also want to keep warm. The view from inside the domes allows you to see many of the surrounding mountains, including Ararat, Aragats and Yeranos.
The hill they rest on is called Tsitsernakaberd, which means “Castle of Swallows”. This was inspired by legends from pagan times: the site used to be a complex with temples dedicated to the worship of the pagan Armenian goddess of beauty, Astghik. It was said that there were trained bird-messengers back then, who carried letters from Astghik to the temples of her lover Vahagn, the god of fire and thunderstorm, hundreds of miles away across the Armenian Highland, before returning with his replies. Although you won’t see any messenger birds nowadays, this is still a picturesque and cozy spot for great food and views.
Final resting place
Down the Hrazdan river from Central Yerevan, in the village of Argavand, lies a peculiar site: the Mausoleum of the Turkmen Emirs. It was built, like many others across the Caucasus and Anatolia, by the nomadic “black sheep” Turkmen tribe, who had invaded the region from Central Asia. The structure’s purpose was to honor the memory of one of their fallen leaders.
Since the village is only around 7km away from central Yerevan, this is a great destination for a bike tour with a picnic lunch. The road to the monument also goes by a few other interesting sites, including the military pantheon and some medieval churches, so it’s well worth the trip. If you can, take the chance to visit this perfectly-preserved monument that even most Yerevan locals don’t know about.
The MOMA of Yerevan (aka MAMY) is truly an interesting place to visit. Tucked away behind a row of uninteresting shops, the museum is more than meets the eye. The only noticeable aspect about the exterior of this standard Soviet apartment building is its street art; but the interior will impress you both with its size and the quality of the exhibitions.
There are paintings that date from the 1940s onward, with exhibitions by both local and well-known Armenians. You will also find sculptures and other kinds of artwork as well. Last but not least, right across from the museum’s entrance there is a photography and special exhibitions gallery. For art lovers, this is definitely a worthwhile place to check out!
Built in the 17th century, Surb Zoravor Church is one of the oldest standing structures in Yerevan. It’s a beautiful building made of red and black tufa stone (an indigenous building material heavily used in Armenian architecture). Apart from its beautiful stones, many ornamental carvings and khatchkars (traditional cross-stone carvings) can still be seen decorating the complex.
The church is fairly difficult to spot as it’s located in a courtyard and is surrounded by residential buildings. However, it truly is a treasure for those who visit. Many medieval churches in Yerevan were demolished by Soviet Authorities, so be sure to take the chance to visit the few still standing today.
Cinema beneath the stars
Armenian summers tend to be long, hot and dry, with the good weather starting in March and lasting until the end of October. When the sun goes down, and cooler winds sweep through the city, there’s nothing better than watching a movie outside with friends.The open-air theatre behind the Moscow Cinema is the perfect place to do so.
This constructivist-style building was created during the Soviet era as an excuse to knock down a historic church. After the fall of the USSR, it was kept open as a popular public space and remains operational to this day. It can be accessed throughout the year, although the best time is during the hot summer. The open-air cinema is right downtown, so it’s really fun to go out for beers in one of the many nearby cafés with friends after catching a flick.
Home of the war god
This archeological site is a great place to explore one of the ancient kingdoms of the world – Urartu, the powerful ancestor of Armenia. The Teishebaini Fortress, situated in the south-western part of Yerevan, was founded by the Urartian king Rusa II (685-645 BC). As a cuneiform inscription excavated from the territory testifies, it was dedicated to the god of thunder and war, Teisheba. Ironically, a war was responsible for its ruin: in 590 BC, after the attack of the Median-Scythians, the citadel was fully destroyed and abandoned.
Fun fact: the art of wine making was well developed in the fortress, as evidenced by the grape seeds and wine cellars found on the first floor of the citadel. The total amount of wine kept in Teishebaini appears to have been up to about one million liters. Maybe drinking all that wine had something to do with their defeat…?
Supporting Armenian design
Tashir for Armenian Brands is a platform that unites Armenian entrepreneurs in fields ranging from fashion to jewelry and furniture. It’s a place where one can find clothing lines of Armenian designers, unique jewelry, works of Armenian artists, cosmetics, furniture, shoes and more. They maintain a collection of traditional Armenian costumes, which you can even wear for a photo shoot – a perfect souvenir from Armenia.
Our Spotter Arpi’s favorite part is the section called “Harsants Tun” which translates to “Bride’s House.” Traditional Armenian wedding dresses and accessories are presented here, and provide a unique opportunity to explore the customs of the country.
Oldest factory in Yerevan
The Noy Wine Factory, which produces wine, brandy and vodka, is actually built on the foundation of a Yerevan fortress with a long history. It dates back to the 16th century, when it was built by a Persian pasha (ruler) between 1582 and 1583. In 1827 it was invaded by the Russians, and in 1865, after the army left this fortress, it was purchased by the rich trader Nerses Tayirov. In 1877 he then started his wine and later brandy production in partnership with a friend, the painter Ayvazovski.
Nowadays the factory is open to visitors, both to tour the ancient foundation and taste the excellent drinks produced here. During one visit our Spotter Sofia tasted two types of brandy, as well as a wine from 1944. Although she was too dizzy afterward to walk home without support from a friend, she said it was the best brandy and wine she’d every tasted.
If you’re looking for a place to drop all your things no matter how big or many they are (even if you have a piano with you); where you can ask the owner to bring you to the hammock in the garden (with the guarantee that nobody will wake you up for some time); to pick some fruits from the plants in the garden (like cherry, apricot and mulberry trees); or just to lay down on the comfy couch on the balcony with a view as far as the mountainous horizon – this hostel is the answer.
The Balcony Villa Hostel is not just a place where travelers come to stay – locals who are in the know like to visit as well. It’s a place to meet interesting people from many different backgrounds: media activists, youth groups, exchange students, travelers from far away. More than just a hostel, really, this is hub for meeting and community, that happens to have some beds.
Secrets below the surface
The Yerevanian lake is an artificial water reservoir in Hradzan canyon and is the location of many stories and enigmas. In 1968, excavations revealed obsidian tools in the Paleolithic cave on the right bank of the lake, likely belonging to hunters who lived inside it. Unfortunately, due to rising water levels, it became impossible to dig further, and to this day only a third of the cave has been explored. Perhaps the lake is hiding some of its secrets.
And the lake has more stories. In 1976, a trolleybus with 96 passengers lost control, fell into the lake and sank to its bottom. Luckily, Shavarsh Karapetyan, a ten-time fin-swimming World Record-breaker, was running along the lake at the time. He dived to the crushed trolleybus which was lying at a depth of 10 meters and rescued 20 people. Shavarsh was then only 23 years old, but he had to end his sports career because he contracted pneumonia & blood contamination. Nowadays, such a story would go viral instantly, but since the USSR would not admit to such accidents, all news about it was banned. The story of heroism was first published in the ’80s, after which our hero received 60,000 letters and was awarded a UNESCO “Fair Play” award for his heroism.
As you can see, the secrets of the lake are deeper than the lake itself.