Steeped in history, home to incredible hospitality and buzzing with new initiatives, Dilijan is known as Armenia's Switzerland. Here's why it's also the country's must-visit destination...
Cooler, greener and more chilled than the rest of the country, Dilijan has long been a retreat for people wanting to get back to nature. Once an important spa town, it is surrounded by Dilijan National Park, and whichever direction you look in, you will be greeted by a blanket of green. Unless it is autumn, of course. Then the forested slopes are a riot of orange, yellow and red fall leaves.
Hiking through these forested slopes is one of the real joys of visiting Dilijan. Since 2017, a lot of investment has gone into creating purpose-built hiking trails. With funding from Initiatives for Development of Armenia (IDeA), existing trails have been renovated and signposting improved, offering a network of trails that will take you through verdant old growth forest, past isolated monasteries and on to Parz Lake. The trails form part of the larger Transcaucasian Trail, but can be done in shorter, single segments.
Some of Dilijan’s best nature spots are on the edge of town. Both Jukhtakvank and Matosavank monasteries can be reached by a 10-minute forested walk from the western end of the town. And the Drunken Forest, a glade where pine trees have grown and weird and wonderful angles, is just at the back of the Soviet-era rotunda.
Ask the Tourist Information Centre or the host of your local B&B for other local favourites, like the famous glade where deer gather and a secret waterfall where locals like to cool down on a hot summer's day.
Hearty, delicious and made from locally-sourced, organic produce, the food in Dilijan is so good that people travel all the way from the capital, Yerevan, to eat it. Ranging from fine dining restaurants to trendy cafes, there is something for every taste and budget.
Kcuch, on Myasnikyan Street, offers innovative twists on old Armenian favourites, including wild mushroom pizza, lamb served with plums and honey and a truly indulgent peach cobbler.
Haykanoush, in the middle of the Old Dilijan Complex, offers heart Armenian fare in a restored 19th century dining room, complete with floors covered with handmade Tufenkian carpets.
Local B&Bs like Toon Armeni, sitting high in the old town, offer meals and delicacies as well. It’s all part of your board if you’re staying there, but the kitchen also rustles up local favourites, including the delicious gata, for passersby to enjoy as they look out across a mature orchard to the town and hills beyond.
Looking for a quick coffee and pastry? You’re spoiled for choice in Dilijan. Caffeine Brew Lab, part of the Tufenkian complex, is the town’s hipster roaster. Cafe #2, overlooking the lake, is bright, airy and staffed by local teenagers, trained by an initiative sponsored by IDeA. Right next to the bus station, it should be your first port of call after you get off the bus from Yerevan or Tbilisi.
Dilijan is an intriguing mix of the old, the new and the period in-between, when the Soviets were in control. It has long been a retreat for cinematographers, composers, artists and writers keen to rediscover their muse. British composer, Benjamin Britten, came here in 1965, shortly before his most fertile period.
That cultural heartbeat is felt strongest in the town’s historic centre: a jumble of cobbled streets, traditional wooden buildings and quirky parks. It’s here you’ll find beautifully restored B&Bs like Toon Armeni, again helped by the IDeA foundation.
You'll also come across the Dilijan Folk Museum, set in a two-storey, 19th century traditional townhouse and stuffed with antique rugs, regal jewellery and period furniture from Dilijan's past. The Dilijan Local Lore Museum and Picture Galley, home to historical artefacts that tell the town’s history through the ages, is worth a visit, too. Locals just call it the Geological Museum. You’ll spot it by the bust of Lenin out front.
Speaking of all things Soviet, head back down to the roundabout near the Tourist Information Centre, where you’ll spot the soaring monument erected to make the 50th anniversary of Soviet power in the region and the eternal union of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
It’s largely neglected. Most visitors to Dilijan are more interested in the drinking fountain opposite. It features the three main characters from the popular Soviet comedy, Mimino. Even people just passing through stop for a selfie and to rub the nose of Frunzik, to bring them luck.
Located in the Dilijan Community Centre, in the basement of the town's high school, MADE is a local social initiative started in 2018 to revive and develop artisanal skills. Run by the irrepressible Natacha Kalfayan, it encourages local people to create arts and crafts that are affordable and marketable, with a distinctly Armenian twist.
The work is extraordinary, often incorporating old Soviet styles and relics to incredible effect. You’ll find concrete bowls, based on old Soviet crystal designs. Candle holders incorporating battered enamel plates, popular during Soviet times. And silver jewellery featuring local slang terms in Armenia’s distinctive and beautiful alphabet.
Most of the pieces wouldn’t look out of place in warehouse apartments anywhere in the world. And the encouraging thing is that they are created by people with no former background in the arts. Many are women looking for more independence outside of the home. Or men looking for new employment opportunities now that their former jobs have gone. A former radiator repairman, for example, is now making fabulous jewellery.
Natacha is more than happy to show you around and introduce to the people finding their artistic voices. You can also pick up a unique souvenir of your visit to Dilijan. Just ask at reception at the school, next to the Knowledge for Development Centre.
The value of Dilijan’s unique natural beauty and cultural treasures has long been recognised by the national government and local foundations. There is a real desire in the country to restore, revive and recognise the town as a cultural gem.
In October 2019, a series of cultural events will held in Dilijan as part of the annual Aurora Forum, a global initiative that brings together leaders from around the world, as well as the Armenian diaspora. Imagine a celebration of humanitarianism, education and innovation, sprinkled with a little stardust from Armenia’s favourite son, George Clooney.
The old Soviet sanatoriums are being restored into world-class wellness centres. And the riverside district, stretching from the boating lake in the centre of town to the ultra-modern United World College (UWC), is being redeveloped with parkland, cycle paths, a performing art centre and a church, built in traditional style.
The good news is that the things that make Dilijan unique in the first place are being protected and nurtured. Local young entrepreneurs are being encouraged to develop sustainable, eco-friendly tours. And as mentioned above, many of the town’s unique traditional buildings are being sensitively restored.
Already Armenia’s sparkling gem, Dilijan is set to become even more unmissable.
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