Compact and lively, Armenia's capital is a mixture of grand monuments, leafy boulevards and a buzzing cafe and restaurant scene. Here’s your guide to embracing the best of the city, like a local...
Set in an imposing grey building looking down Yerevan’s grandest avenue, the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts is the repository of the most important books and manuscripts in Armenian history.
From bibles and medical texts, philosophical tomes and high literature, these manuscripts, some over a thousand years old, are a testament to the country’s leading role in science, politics, medicine and literature.
Simply known as the Matenadaran (book depository), it is a delightful place to wander and gaze upon some of the most beautiful and important books in the world.
Some are protected by elaborate covers of silver and gold and embellished in precious stones. Others are displayed opened, showcasing the artistry of the medieval monks that transcribed them.
The books are only a fraction of the collection. The Matenadaran also houses researchers and restorers, supported by grants from the Initiatives for Development of Armenia (IDeA) foundation, who source, restore and catalogue important Armenian books spread across the diaspora.
Originally planned as a giant artificial waterfall, to celebrate 50 years of Communist rule, The Cascade was quickly repurposed after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Now a monumental staircase connecting the monument district with downtown, the striking limestone structure also serves as a multi-level contemporary arts space.
The various levels host countless outdoor installations, exhibitions and concerts and is home to the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. Climbing up The Cascade offers spectacular views across the city and Mount Ararat. But if the weather is hot, or you’re feeling a little lazy, there is a series of escalators under the steps to whisk you up to the various levels.
Or you could admire if from the Tamanyan Sculpture Park, a pretty green space at the bottom of the stairs. You’ll find street sculpture through Yerevan, all quirky and engaging, but at Tamanyan there is a focus on British artists, including Barry Flanagan and his sculpture, Hare on a Bell.
Surrounded by grand Soviet-era buildings, with flagstones designed to look like an Armenian carpet, Republic Square Is the beating heart of Yerevan.
It is the focal point during any national celebration and the default meeting place for locals and visitors alike. It’s also where you’ll find the National Art Gallery and the Museum of Armenian History, as well as countless vans and sedans offering tours to every part of the country.
In summer, when the sun sets, people from all over the city descend on the square to chat, mingle and share an ice cream. Kids dart through adult legs, chasing balloons bought from men in bear suits.
Teenagers skylark periodically between hunching over their phones. Old timers sit on benches and surreptitiously sip from bottles in brown paper bags.
The reason they have gathered is to watch the Square’s famous singing fountains. A colourful light and sound show, where illuminated jets of water dance in time to tunes from Wagner to Chic, it runs on the hour from sunset to 10pm, prompting hip wiggling and unexpected sing along.
Say what you will about the Soviet Union, but they knew how to do a Metro. From Moscow to Almaty, the underground systems were gleaming temples to the proletariat, full of stirring mosaics and gleaming marble.
The Yerevan Metro, only finished in 1981, was one of the last built, and while not as lavish as others, is still an interesting insight into a time past.
Riding the Yerevan Metro is certainly a budget treat. Your token to ride will set you back less than 20p and allows you to ride the entire length of the system.
Admittedly its only 13.4 kilometres and 10 stations long, but some of the stations like the ones at Republic Square, with its grand flower shaped fountain, Yeritasardakan, with it’s brightly coloured murals and Sasuntsi Davit, with it’s statue of Armenia’s greatest hero are well worth checking out.
Regarded as one of the best Eastern European brandies, Ararat was the tipple of choice amongst the Soviet politburo.
Stalin was a fan, and after sharing a glass or two with Winston Churchill at the Yalta Conference, the British Prime Minister became one, too. Legend has it that Churchill ordered several cases of Ararat to be shipped back home with him.
Created using French cognac-making methods, Ararat remains popular and a tour of the distillery, set in an imposing building overlooking the Hrazdan river, is a great way to sample this award-winning spirit and understand its importance – then and now – in Armenian history.
The undoubted highlight is the tasting at the end – you get to try brandies across a range of ages – but the barrel room is interesting as well. There are dozens of oak barrels set aside for various political leaders and celebrities to sample from should they swing by.
And a single barrel in a specially designated ‘Peace Room’, ready to be cracked open when peace is made with neighbouring Azerbaijan. It’s also the only place in the whole of Armenia that flies an Azerbaijani flag.
Yerevan is a city that loves its food. There are hundreds of restaurants across the city serving local delicacies like lahmajun, a kind of Armenian pizza, and dolmas.
There's exciting fusion cuisine, too, like Armenia tapas or favourites from neighbouring countries, such as Georgia’s delicious meat dumpling, khinkali. Delicious and made from local sourced produce, it’s surprisingly affordable.
As the weather warms and the people of Yerevan emerge from their winter hibernation, so do the outdoor cafes and restaurants across the city. Tables and chairs are dragged outside. Windows and doors are thrown open. And it seems everyone is out sipping coffee, soaking up the sun and socialising.
In the parks and boulevards around the Opera House and at the bottom of The Cascades, a host off open air cafes and restaurants spring up, offering a respite from the sun as well as views across some of the prettiest parts of the city. Pull up a chair, order something chilled and soak up the vibe.
Yerevan is dotted with museums dedicated to the the musicians, film makers and artists that have called the city home. The Martiros Saryan Museum preserves the work of Armenian’s greatest 20th century painter.
The Yervand Kochar Museum pays tribute to his Cubist-style of this draughtsman and artist. But the most surreal and intriguing, is the museum dedicated to Sergei Parajanov in Dzoragyugh Poghots.
Sergei Parajanov Museum was a leading Soviet Armenian avant-grade director and artist and the museum, set in a traditional home overlooking the Hrazdan gorge, is a testament to his fertile and often bizarre artistic vision.
Displays of disembodied dolls, reimagined furniture and humorous and witty icons chart his artistic vision. But more sobering is the collection of sketches and art done in prison, in return for favours, when he inevitably fell out of favour with the powers that be. It is one of the most popular museums in Yerevan.
Stark, sober and thought-provoking Armenian Genocide memorial complex in Tsitsernakaberd is an absolute must for anyone visiting Yerevan.
Made up of two parts – a museum and a memorial – it commemorates the horrific genocide of Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, an event that affected Armenia profoundly.
In the museum, the story of the Genocide is laid out simply and powerfully, without demonising the Ottomans, but pulling no punches none-the-less.
The memorial, a ring of 12 huge basalt slab protecting an eternal flame, is a poignant and reverential tribute to those who lost their lives. Visiting it is almost a rite of passage for all Armenian families.
While I was there, a man brought his young son to the memorial to lay a flower in remembrance, kneeling beside him and speaking as it was laid.
The Genocide continues to have an incredible impact on Armenia as a country, not just in the loss of people and land, but in its gratitude to the rest of the world too.
The Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, a philanthropic organisation that recognises and rewards humanitarian efforts around the world, was set up as a way of saying thanks to the countries that took in Armenian refugees in the wake of the Genocide.
Stretching between Hanrapetutyun Street and Khanjyan Street, Vernissage is Yerevan’s biggest flea market and offers something for everyone.
Locals come to pick up a new tap for the kitchen or wiper blades for the car. Visitors rummage through piles of antiques and old communist medals. Not far from the entrance to the Republic Square Metro station, it is central and easy to get to as well.
The market was opened in the 1980s by local artists keen to display and sell their work. That focus continues to this day with stalls selling a variety of traditional Armenian art work, such as rugs, wood carvings, paintings, musical instruments and jewellery.
If you’re looking for a unique souvenir of your visit to the city, this is the place to head.
Yerevan has always been a city that has supported and encouraged thinking and debate. And that tradition will be continued this October with the Aurora Forum’s inaugural ‘Boulevarde of Thinkers’.
It’s an event that will transform some of the most iconic areas in Yerevan – including some central streets and the Republic Square – into spaces for influential speakers to participate in public talks, discussions, book-club style meetings and speed mentoring.
Cafes, terraces, museums, theatres and other cultural institutions will all provide the backdrop to this interactive program of events, featuring art classes, local musical performances, street-food markets and more.
Step back in time with a walk through the Kond, Yerevan’s oldest quarter, and home to tiny, twisting alleys and houses dating back to the 17th Century.
Here, you’ll find Ottoman houses, with views back across the city, beside alleyways barely a metre wide. The ruins of Thapha Bashi Mosque, which served as a refuge to Armenian’s fleeing the 1915 genocide, can still be seen, not far from St. Hovhannes Church, built in the 15th century.
This is a lively part of the city. Children play in the streets and old residents sit on steps drinking thick coffee and watching the world go by.
Don’t be surprised if you are invited to join them. Or offered a slice of gata, delicious and hot, fresh out of an old fashioned wood stove.
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