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, hospitability, and tradition go hand in hand with modernization and inventiveness. Yerevan is full of contradictions which not only add to its charm but also make it interesting. On top of that, you get a splendid view of Mount Ararat and you’re at the doorway of a country yet to be discovered by most. What else do you want?
Kond is known as one of Yerevan’s oldest continuously inhabited neighborhoods. Despite its strong Armenian character, however, its central square contains a cluster of non-operating mosques dating from the city’s occupation by the Persian Empire. The largest of which, the Thapha Bashi mosque, still stands. It withstood the ravages of time, changing empires, and communism.
The mosque, as well as its neighboring religious structures, had been closed by the militantly Atheist Soviet authorities, its Persian-speaking worshipers having long since left. It was converted into housing for refugees from the 1st World War. Their descendants are often still living within the structure.
Even as a ruin, this building is impressive. It boasts some of the best architectural elements Persian-style mosques are known for. Some of the frescoes have survived the ages and are still intact. This site is perfect for any urban explorer. 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. Very likely they’ll invite you in for tea, coffee, or home-made vodka. — Raffi Elliott
Built in the 17th century, Surb Zoravor Church is one of the oldest standing structures in Yerevan. It’s a beautiful church built out 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 decorate the Church. Khatchakrs, for those unfamiliar, are traditional cross-stone carvings and they can be found all over historic Armenia.
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. This is personally one of my favorite spots in Yerevan. Although the church doors close at around 19:00, the small chapel of St. Ananias is open late and visitors can descend a small flight of stairs to visit his tomb.
P.S. Many medieval churches in Yerevan were demolished by Soviet Authorities. There are only a few standing today. — Alan Grigorian
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 is a large stone phallic structure.
Since the village is only around 7km away from central Yerevan, I love to take my bike down there with my friends during the summer. We pack a lunch and have a picnic by the monument before heading back home. It’s great exercise and on top of that, it’s educational. The road to the monument also goes by a few interesting sites, including the military pantheon and some medieval churches, so it’s worth the trip.
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. It was meant to honor the memory of one of their fallen leaders. This perfectly-preserved monument is also a well-kept secret since most Yerevan locals don’t even know about it. — Raffi Elliott
Dining amongst trees and gods
Look at this funky metal and plastic transparent treehouse domes. So strange that I’ve lived about 500 meters from this place for a long time and only found out about it recently! They are so 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.
There are many domes of different sizes here on Tsitsernakaberd hill, in an area about 400m in perimeter and 1060m above sea level. The hill rises over the western part of Yerevan and its name means “Castle of Swallows”. Which comes from Pagan times when there was a whole worshiping complex with temples dedicated to the Pagan Armenian Goddess of beauty, Astghik. The legend says there were trained bird-messengers back then. Thet carried letters from Astghik to the temples of her lover, the God of fire and thunderstorm Vahagn, hundreds of miles away across the Armenian Highland. Then they’d carry his replies back to Astghik.
Another great thing about this hill is that you can see all of the surrounding mountains very well, including Ararat, Aragats, Yeranos etc. I haven’t discovered yet which ones of them can be seen from the higher domes, the transparent geodesic tree houses, but I think Ararat should be visible. There’s another interesting place of interest nearby, which you can see very well from here. The Karen Demirchyan Sports and Concerts Complex built in 1983 which looks a bit like an alien ship. The Armenian Genocide museum is nearby too. — Vahagn Vardumyan
A children’s train
One of my favorite parts of Yerevan in the summer is the Children’s Railway. You can find it by going through the pedestrian tunnel which starts under Saryan street and gets to the Hrazdan gorge. Turn left, walk through the small luna park, and down a long set of stairs.
The Children’s Railway was once one of many similar miniature-yet-fully-functioning railways which dotted cities across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Block. Sadly, it is now one of the few that still remains. The railway system includes 3 miniature train stations, each of which is an architectural marvel in itself. Tickets usually cost less than a dollar, while trains depart on the single 2km-long track every 15 or so minutes (depending on how full it is).
Though the railway is primarily intended for families with children, everyone is welcome. It’s just a unique thing to try while you’re visiting Armenia. Afterward, you can always picnic on the wooded slopes leading into the river. — Raffi Elliott
There’s a prehistoric Vishapakar (dragon stone) or Vishap stella standing in front of one of the government buildings in Yerevan. I pass by this mystical creature inherited from my ancestors every single day as it’s on my way to work.
This serpent-headed dragon stone is one of the enigmatic menhirs characteristic of the Armenian Highlands and can be found on high altitudes all throughout Armenia. In the prehistoric past, in a time Google Maps didn’t exist, they were used as markers to indicate the location of water. There are a number of other meanings to them, most of which are unknown to us. That, however, is a whole new blank page for the young historians, scientists, anthropologists and others alike.
The word vishap is Iranian in its origin and the etymology is still disputed, either meaning a poisonous water-living creature or a creature of prodigious size. Whatever they 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, it’s most likely about 3000-4000 years old, or even much more. Most likely, he doesn’t enjoy being forced to guard a governmental building. — Vahagn Vardumyan
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 has been controversial from the start. The Soviets, which had been involved in imposing their policy of state secularism, were looking for an excuse to destroy the 5th century Saint Paul and Peter Church. This constructivist-style open-air cinema hall would prove to be the perfect replacement.
Ironically, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Armenian Church wished to reclaim the land occupied by the amphitheater to rebuild the historic church. But they were met by staunch opposition by civic-minded Yerevantsis. This dispute was remembered as a symbol of Yerevan’s denizens stand against continued encroachment on public space.
The amphitheater remains operational to this day and hosts a number of screenings during the annual Yerevan Golden Apricot International Film Festival. Soviet ruin-porn enthusiasts can access the building all throughout the year, but the best time to be there is during 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. Its screening schedule changes a lot but movies are usually listed on Cinema Moscow’s Facebook page. — Raffi Elliott
ICA Yerevan is actually not only a space for experimental art and performance, but it’s a place where I go to meet some of the most original people. Not just artists, but people of other professions too. This is where I go when I feel I’m missing a multicultural atmosphere. Particularly in warm weather, this is a good place to go and sit in the garden around the table to meet some new people, talk about possible projects or just drink some wine.
Of course, this doesn’t happen every day, so one has to check the calendar of events either on the website or Facebook. And yet, I have had some memorable evenings here around the fire – which they sometimes make at the end of the warm season – talking about arts and politics. Also, this place is almost always full of art residents, so there is always a chance you’ll meet someone interesting here. — Sofia Manukyan
Home of the war God
This site is a great place to explore one of the ancient kingdoms in the world, Urartu, the powerful ancestor of Armenia. The first time I went there I was surprised by its power. At the same time though, I felt sad because this place definitely deserves wider recognition and more popularity.
The Teishebaini fortress was called Karmir Blur (Red Hill) by locals because of the eroding reddish mud brick of the constructions causing the red color of the hill to cover the site. This archaeological site is situated in the south-western part of Yerevan, south from the Hrazdan River gorge. It was founded by the Urartian king Rusa II (685-645 BC). According to the cuneiform inscription excavated from the territory testifies, it was dedicated to the god of thunder and war Teisheba. This ancient settlement covers more than 40 hectares and consists of a pre-Urartian settlement and an Urartian city with its citadel (12th-7th centuries BC).
Viticulture was well developed in the fortress, proven by the grape seeds and wine cellars found on the first floor of the citadel. Together with the wine jars excavated in the houses of the city the total amount of wine kept in Teyshebaini appears to have been up to one million liters. In 590 BC, after the attack of the Median-Scythians, the citadel of Teyshebaini was fully destroyed and abandoned. Yeah, the God of War could not save the settlement from the war which was dedicated to him. So make love, not war, and the God of Love will save your cities. — Arpi Ahanyan
Soviet plant love
This place is good not only for nice long walks in a mini-forest not far from Yerevan’s center but also for witnessing a Soviet-era greenhouse. Despite from looking abandoned now, it still has an impressive effect. The botanical garden’s collection includes around 200 species of endemic, rare, and declining plants. There are some greenhouses which are open to the public, so you can have a look at the variety of plants grown inside the garden. I’ve even noticed price tags on some of them, which means you can buy them – if you know for sure that you can take them home of course.
Some of the additional sights you may encounter here are newlyweds having photo-sessions in the garden or school children on a study visit. Some families prefer relaxing here as well and have mini picnics. While this can leave some marks (think of napkins or plastic bags or paper cups under the trees), they make an effort to keep the botanical garden clean. Therefore, your walk won’t be disturbed by similar sights (at least not often). It is indeed worth visiting this place to calm your senses and thoughts. — Sofia Manukyan
Secrets below the water surface
The Yerevanian lake is an artificial water reservoir in Hradzan canyon which itself has been inhabited since times long forgotten. In 1968 excavations revealed obsidian tools in the Paleolithic cave on the right bank of the lake which belonged to hunters living inside it. It’s hard to say what else was going on in the cave as only 1/3 of it has been explored. Due to the fact that the water levels increased, it became impossible to dig further, so the lake keeps hiding many secrets. And I guess that its secrecy level has only increased, for the cave remains within the confines of the US embassy.
Anyway, the lake has more stories to tell. In 1976, a trolleybus with 96 passengers lost control, fell into the lake and sank to its bottom. Luckily, Shavarsh Karapetyan, who was a ten-time fin-swimming World Record-breaker, was then running along the lake. He dived to the crushed trolleybus which was lying at a depth of 10 meters and rescued 20 people. Shavarsh was then 23 years old, yet he had to stop his sports career because he ended up with pneumonia & blood contamination.
Nowadays, such a story would instantly go viral, but since the USSR could not accept having such accidents, all news about it was banned. The story of heroism was published in the ’80s, after which our hero received 60,000 letters, according to Wikipedia. Later, he 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. — Arpi Ohanyan
Oldest factory in Yerevan
Upon entering this place, I wasn’t expecting it to be much different than the Ararat brandy factory. But when we were taken to the ground floor where the wine and brandy are stored. For the first time in my life I saw and could actually touch the wall of the Yerevan fortress dating back to 16th century. In Yerevan there is very little left that is as old as the 16th century. Old buildings are mostly religious spots: a few churches and a mosque.
And now here it was, a wall from the 16th century, which now served as the basis for this factory. This fortress was actually built by a Persian pasha between 1582 and 1583. In 1827 Russians invaded it. Alexander Griboyedov’s “Woe from Wit” was performed here for the first time in the author’s presence. In 1865, after the army left this fortress, the rich trader Nerses Tayirov bought it. In 1877 he then started his wine and later brandy production with the support of his friend, the painter Ayvazovski.
Brandy tasting is also possible here. The tasting we had included two types of brandy and one type of wine as old as 1944. In order not to get drunk or dizzy, there are some chocolate and fruits. But that didn’t help me. I was too dizzy when I got out of the factory so my friend had to hold me for a while. And yet that was the best brandy and wine I’ve ever tasted. — Sofia Manukyan
For more hidden gems, check out the Spotted by Locals Yerevan cityblog.