Armenia - if you're like most of the people living in the US the most you probably know about this little country in the Caucasus is that the Kardashian clan has roots there. That, dear reader, should be enough to prompt you to pick up your phone and call the police. It's a goddamn crime that the biggest claim to fame this jewel of a destination has makes up 50% of the schedule on the E! Network. It's so much more than that. From its famous liquors, tasty mineral waters, epic mountain landscapes, deep Christian faith, and tragic history of war and resurrection, Armenia has a lot to offer any traveler - whether their interests are adventure, history, or pilgrimage.
One of the world's oldest nations, it's also considered the first Christian nation in history as of 301 C.E. Occupying a particularly turbulent patch of land, Armenia has managed to retain its own religion and language despite the rise and fall of Greek, Persian, Roman, Mongol, Arab, and Soviet empires that came and conquered the Armenians over centuries of conflict. Whether an independent state or under the heel of a foreign power, Armenia has survived and even thrived throughout history. The bleakest stain on her storied history is likely the Armenian Genocide, a campaign by the Ottomans started during World War I that sought the extermination of all Armenians. Estimates of the number killed range from 800,000 to 1,500,000 and is a point of international contention to this day, a political hot potato that no nation seems eager to grasp. The Armenian Genocide is responsible for the massive Armenian diaspora across the globe to this day, though with the collapse of the Soviet Union and modernization efforts taking hold in the nation many Armenians have started to return home. Even acknowledging the genocide on this blog post is likely to bring my inbox a slew of hate mail from deniers, but I've never been one to shy away from telling the truth and to be honest I get enough hate mail as an openly gay man on the internet as it is. What's a few more emails?
One of the world's landlocked nations, it's also not very large. The total square mileage of the nation makes it slightly smaller than the US state of Maryland. The country is also quite mountainous with its landscape largely featuring rolling hills, snowy peaks, and lush green valleys. Armenia has four neighbors with varying degrees of friendliness. Georgia borders the nation to the north and Iran to the south, both of which maintain relatively positive and cooperative relationships with Armenia. On the other hand its neighbors to the east, Azerbaijan, and to the west, Turkey, are less than cordial. Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars in the last century, the last being the Nagorno-Karabakh War which is still a point of contention between the two nations. Without going too deep into the war, I will say that neither country appears willing to compromise on the territorial despite and despite Azerbaijan maintaining its claim on the land, access to the Nagorno-Karabakh region is currently through Armenia. Entry to the disputed territory through Armenia by any visitor is grounds for being denied entry into Azerbaijan. Anthony Bourdain was famously banned from Azerbaijan after he visited the territory for his show.
I actually ended up in Armenia because I'd visited its northern neighbor, Georgia, the year before and was pretty happy with my time there. I wanted to explore the region a bit more and flights to the other member of the Caucasus trio (Azerbaijan) were significantly pricier for my time period than a hop into Yerevan, capital of Armenia. While the nation is small and I tried to make my way around a bit in the five days I was on the ground, I definitely didn't get to every point of interest nor do I position myself as an expert on the nation itself. As with all of my "Gay Guy's Guides", this is simply my personal experience while visiting being packaged as a reference tool for anyone that is interested in doing the same. So without further delay, let's dive into Armenia!
As always I'll start with general information, but if you're here specifically for LGBTQ travel information you can skip to the bottom.
Good news - Armenia is a very safe travel destination for most people (more on this in the LGBT section)!
Generally speaking your greatest risk of having something bad happen while on the road in Armenia is basic theft - pickpocketing, ATM/credit card skimming, or possibly a snatch and grab. Overall crime is quite low here when compared to many places in the United States and even the subset of violent crime is very low. The US State Department gives Armenia a score of 1 on its scale of caution, which is its lowest possible risk rating and puts it on par with places like Japan and Iceland and ranked SAFER than traditional traveler destinations like France and Italy. Traffic rules are a bit looser in Armenia than you'd find in the US or western Europe but much better better than places like India or Russia where traffic can get a bit "Wild West".
Note that traveling to the Nagorno-Karabakh region is possible (and relatively easy) but does come with a small uptick in risk as this is still an "active" combat area in theory. There's a ceasefire in place though there are intermittent incidents of gun fights or the use of heavy artillery between the two sides over the years. Landmines are also present in some portions of the area and pose a risk if you're off exploring on your own in the mountains in disputed areas. Despite the above, I've known quite a few people who have traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh and had a perfectly lovely and safe time exploring the area. The biggest risk you face is never getting to enter Azerbaijan should the Azeris find out you went.
So to sum it up, you're probably safer exploring in Armenia than you would be back in your home country. Still, use standard street smarts and caution while in Yerevan and exercise a little extra vigilance on the road further afield in the country and your trip to this gem in the Caucasus will likely go off without an issue.
Armenia has two airports but only one of them is realistically of use to you as a visitor arriving from overseas - Zvartnots International, the gateway to the country's largest city and capital, Yerevan. For a smaller country, Armenia has excellent air connections throughout the Middle East and Europe though if you're coming from other parts of the globe you'll likely need to make one or even two connections to arrive. Some of the bigger and more convenient options for flying into Yerevan include Aegean (Star Alliance), Aeroflot (SkyTeam), Air France (SkyTeam), Austrian (Star Alliance), flyDubai, LOT Polish (Star Alliance), Qatar Airways (Oneworld), and Ukraine International. I personally used Ukraine International as my carrier as they offered a very cheap flight from Paris to Yerevan on the dates I was looking at. They also offered a very low fare from Yerevan to Minsk, Belarus, which is where I went next. It's a very average budget airline with few amenities but from my experience was relatively on-time, clean, and safe. Transit immigration and security in Kyiv is less than friendly though!
If you're already in the region and a land border crossing is more your style, you can enter from Iran or Georgia but the borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed. For most travelers arriving by land the best options will be road or train from Georgia. Marshrutkas ply the road between the two cities on a regular basis and as of my visit cost around $15 USD for a one way fare. There's a bus station in Tbilisi (Ortachala) where the minibuses often depart from though it seems you can also catch them at Station Square. Train travel between the two countries is also quite easy. During the winter months there's an overnight train that departs every other night and during warmer months there are two daily departures to choose from - afternoon and evening. The cost of a train ticket between Tbilisi and Yerevan is about $30 USD as of this posting, Tickets are available for purchase 40 days prior to departure and in theory are available for purchase through the Georgian Railway website, though all of my investigative attempts at bookings were thwarted by terrible user interface and website failures.
Armenia is not a very big country and being relatively small in size means navigating around isn't too complicated. You can base yourself in the capital of Yerevan and take day trips to the various regions of the country if you like, or simply make small hops each day around the country. My trip to Armenia wasn't as thoroughly researched as it should have been so I ended up staying in Yerevan and making day trips to the locations I ended up visiting, though in retrospect I'd have liked to have gotten out of the capital for a few days.
While there are a lot of ways to get around the country, I'm going to narrow it down and say there's three really good ways to do it - rent your own car, use public transit options, or hire someone to drive you around.
If you're comfortable renting a car overseas (which sadly I currently am not and it's something I'm working on ah-thankyouverymuch), self-driving gives you the greatest amount of freedom and flexibility and is relatively cost efficient. There are quite a few international and local car rental agencies dotting Yerevan and as mentioned above in the Safety section the overall driving culture is relatively good. Road conditions are also relatively good so you can rent a standard car for most exploration itineraries. On the other hand if you're a bit more adventurous and want to get off the beaten path in Armenia's many stunning mountain ranges, you may be better off upgrading to a more heavy duty 4x4 car. Like most of the world, automatic cars are a bit less common so if you don't know how to work a manual transmission make sure you clarify with your rental company ahead of time that they're able to provide you with an automatic.
Since I'm still working on my ability to rent cars in foreign countries, I opted for paying someone to drive me around. If you're keen with negotiating, you can usually discuss a full day driving deal with most taxis in Yerevan. Even if you're just moving from point A to B with a taxi make sure you agree to a price ahead of time as metered fares are still not really a thing in Armenia. There are several tour companies operating in the country that offer set prices for day tours out of Yerevan or even a handful of group day tours you can join to save money. I ended up booking a private guide and driver through Hyur Service. If I had opted for just a driver it would have been about $75 USD for the day anywhere I liked, though I did opt to pay a bit more for a guide on one day which raised the price to $125 for that day. Out of the three options this is definitely the most expensive but with my short time frame and lack of research this ended up being the most stress-free option for me.
If public transit is your jam, it's actually a relatively good option in Armenia though admittedly not as time efficient as the other two options. Public transit in Armenia largely consists of buses and mini-buses with set prices to your destination. Being a visitor, it's a good idea to speak with a local (your hotel staff should be a good up to date resource) to get an idea of the price. As Yerevan is the capital it's the primary hub for routes throughout the country. Designated bus stations across the city pool vehicles heading out to specific cities and regions in the country. I found this list of stations in Yerevan on another website with a list of destinations served which you may find helpful, but keep in mind things change so confirm before going. Note though that buses really only depart when they have enough passengers so using this method to get around can be time consuming even if low cost. Trade offs!
A quick note on Yerevan itself - it has a cheap Metro system that's quite sufficient for most sightseeing. There's only one line currently so navigating is pretty easy since there's not transfers to worry about. I didn't really use the Metro much as the city center is pretty compact and sightseeing is quite easy to do on foot. The city is a bit hilly in parts though so be warned!
WHEN TO GO
Armenia is genuinely a year-round travel destination, though there are seasonal variations so if you prefer warmer or cooler weather you will want to take note.
General the periods right before and right after the height of summer are considered the best times to drop in, so May/June and September/October. Temperatures during this time will be warm but not oppressive. Rain storms are more common during the spring than the fall and summer. Summer is a perfectly fine period to visit though it can be quite hot in the lowland areas. If you find yourself feeling a bit too sweaty you can always seek higher elevation - it's never far in Armenia! I visited during the first week of May and found the temperature perfect for wandering without a coat (but still not ideal for t-shirts) and the landscape beginning to bloom with flowers and greenery.
Note that winter can be chilly and snowy, but being such a mountainous country just means it's time to put on the parka and enjoy one of the many ski resorts. Your fellow skiers are very likely to be Russians on holiday, but just brush up on your Russian vocabulary and make a few new friends.
WHAT TO SEE
So here's my usual caveat when writing my "Gay Guy's Guide" for any destination - this is just what *I* did. It doesn't have to be what you do and doesn't mean this is the best the country has to offer. This list of potential sights and activities is simply what I ended up doing with my time and was formed based on my own interests and time constraints. Use it to get an idea of what you'd like to see, but also do the leg work to see what else is out there. There's quite a bit of Armenia I didn't get a chance to see due to how much time I had to get things together. For example one of the biggest places people visit on a trip to Armenia is the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum but I wasn't able to spend time there as I arrived during a major national holiday and the museum was closed the day I had planned to go. On the other hand, I got to experience a very cool holiday celebration instead.
Note - I've put the location of the sight in parenthesis. Any how - on to the sights and experiences!
ST. GREGORY THE ILLUMINATOR CATHEDRAL (YEREVAN)
A relatively new site in Armenia's capital city, this cathedral was completed in 2001 but marks a much older occasion as it is intended to celebrate the 1700th anniversary of Armenia becoming a Christian nation. Located a short walk off of the central Republic Square and right next to an amusement venue called Luna Park, the cathedral is easy to spot and has an exaggerated staircase leading up to its entrance. These grand entrances to cathedrals seems to be very popular in both Georgia and Armenia for new construction sights, as I noticed it in both countries when I visited.
Admittedly the interior of the church is a bit bland when compared to other cathedrals or orthodox churches you'll find in the region. It doesn't have the same character and aged charm you'll find in a place of worship that's been filled with prayers and candle smoke for centuries. It is the largest church in the Armenian Apostolic Church and one of the largest religious buildings in the entire Caucasus however. Note that photography is not allowed inside, which I wasn't aware of when I arrived and snapped this picture. No one seemed to care much about the posted signs banning photos though, as several people came and went while I walked around and they took photos without a word from the staff inside.
At the base of the stairway heading up to the church is a large sculpture of St. Gregory riding horses and holding a sword aloft. It's off to the side of one of the stairwells though, which is why at first I thought it might not be related to the church at all. Upon the opening of the church the remains of St. Gregory as well as many relics related to him were given by the Vatican back to the Armenian Apostolic Church, though from what I could tell many of those items are not on display at the church.
TEMPLE OF GARNI (GARNI)
While Armenia is the world's oldest Christian nation, history is long so of course there was an era of time in this nation where Christianity wasn't king. One of the last remaining relics of the pre-Christian era in Armenia, the Temple of Garni sits on a spectacular slab of land high in the mountains. Built in the Greco-Roman style with Ionic columns, the temple sits on the edge of a ravine created by the Azat River. Despite it's Greek/Roman appearance scholars believe the temple was originally built as a place of worship for one of Armenia's pagan gods - Mihr, god of the sun.
History isn't kind to architecture though, and the Temple of Garni is no exception. The structure collapsed during an earthquake in 1679 and remained in various states of disrepair for centuries until excavations begun during the Soviet era. Full reconstruction of the site took place between 1969 - 1975. It's existed in relative peace ever since with the exception of an incident in 2014 when a Russian man vandalized the site by spray painting a religious/political message on the structure.
While the temple itself is quite small and has little of interest inside, the exterior is quite interesting to wander around and take in. Honestly the real "star" of the show is the location/landscape combined with the ancient temple. The drive from Yerevan to Garni (a little under an hour) was well worth it even if you simply sat back from the site and took in the view of the temple against the backdrop of the mountains and greenery. If you're inclined, there's also an ongoing excavation right next to the temple of a Roman bath with some really nice mosaics.
KHOR VIRAP (ARTASHAT)
Khor Virap is a lovely little Armenian monastery located on the Ararat plain on the border with Turkey. And yes, this is the biblical Mt. Ararat we're talking about. The history of the place is quite long so you're more than welcome to look it up online, but the short version of the legend is that St. Gregory was imprisoned in a pit here for over a decade but somehow managed to escape death. His survival convinced the King at the time to convert to Christianity and thus marked the start of Armenia becoming the first Christian nation in the world. In fact the translation of Khor Virap is roughly "bottom most pit".
The monastery now consists of two main pieces - the Nerses Church and the pit within which St. Gregory is alleged to have been imprisoned. Worshippers can be found scattered around the site offering prayers and seeking salvation. The interior of the building housing the entrance to the pit features a picture of the Virgin Mary and Jesus and is literally caked with soot from centuries of candles and incense. You can apparently make the journey down into the pit through the use of a metal ladder, but I declined to make the journey down as it was already quite hot inside the building and I was told it would be quite sweltering and cramped down in the pit.
Most people who weren't there to worship spent their time hiking the hillside next to the monastery to get the sweeping view of the buildings with the backdrop of the plains and Mt. Ararat. The hike itself is quite easy as long as you're in normal shoes and the views are indeed some of the better I saw on my trip.
Khor Virap itself is quite stunning and one quirk about it is that it's likely one of the best places in the country to see what many consider the national symbol of Armenia .... which isn't even technically *in* Armenia - Mt. Ararat. The history and identify of the nation is often quite strongly entwined with this landmark but as of now it sits across the border in Turkey and the most you can do from Armenia is enjoy a view of the legendary mountain. No visiting from this side of the border sadly.
CELEBRATE VICTORY DAY (NATIONWIDE)
As I mentioned above, I was traveling through Armenia during a big national holiday. May 9th, known more commonly as Victory Day, celebrates the surrender of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II and is held in most countries in the former communist sphere. I had little idea of what this holiday was all about prior to arriving in Armenia, but a happy little twist of fate quickly clued me in. I woke up on May 9 and headed to breakfast and mentioned to my server that I planned to walk over to the Armenian Genocide Memorial & Museum after eating, only to be told it would likely be closed for "the holiday". Confused, I quickly broke out my phone and Google the situation - yup, everything government run was closed. But I managed to have an even better time!
While many countries celebrate Victory Day, each one does it their own way. Most involve displays of patriotic sentiments and military parades. In Armenia this was quite evident as the city was filled with men and women decked out in their finest military threads. Many older folks wore uniforms weighed down with boatloads of medals. While most (all?) participants in World War II have likely passed on by this point, Armenia has had numerous armed conflicts since that time period and the nation includes many of these more recent conflicts in the celebrations. As I wandered through the city I found little pockets of events happening which celebrated Armenia culture and even one near the Yerevan Opera where children took place in competitions ranging from karate to volleyball to chess.
If you want to see where the real party is at in Yerevan for Victory Day though, you'll need to hike up to Victory Park where you'll find a treasure trove of activity going on. An eternal flame with hundreds of people laying flowers around it? Check. Military uniforms and burly Armenians carrying Soviet flags? Check. Armenian folk dances? Check. Military choral performances singing some of the most rousing and soaring Communist-inspired anthems you can imagine? Double check. Check the video below of traditional folk dance troupe at Victory Park:
Those costumes, amirite!?
Another thing you'll see everywhere? An black and orange ribbon - and it's pinned to chests, worn in women's hair, and wrapped around the handholds of signs featuring the faces of those lost in war. This is Saint George's Ribbon and it's a common symbol throughout the former Soviet bloc that is widely recognized as a symbol of patriotic remembrance. For a somber holiday rooted in war, the atmosphere at most events is actually quite jovial and lighthearted. Children can be seen laughing and eating snacks and adults chit chatting with ease. See video of children dancing to folk music below:
It was a unique and interesting way to get a peak into Armenian culture and life. If you have a chance to visit over May 9, I highly recommend it.
SEVANAVANK AND LAKE SEVAN
Lake Sevan is the largest body of water in landlocked Armenia and also the largest body of freshwater in the Caucasus itself. Only an hour drive from Yerevan, it's relatively easy to get to whether self-driving or using public transit. Most tour companies offering services in Armenia will also have tours which will stop here as well. Keep in mind that the Lake itself is quite large, taking up about 1/6th of Armenia's total area. Most people visiting the Lake end up stopping at the northern end near the town of Sevan and the picturesque Sevanavank monastery.
The monastery itself is perched on the edge of a tongue of land jutting out into the Lake. While it's connected to the lake shore now I learned when I visited that it had not always been that way. The monastery was once on an island in the lake but during the Soviet era there was drainage of the lake and eventually the water dropped low enough to turn it into a peninsula. The monastery itself has moved to more modern buildings a little further inland on the peninsula, but there are still two active chur