What do Cher, Kim Kardashian, Andre Agassi, Andy Serkis and Kirk Kerkorian, the “father of the Las Vegas megaresort,” have in common? They are each of Armenian descent. Just as most people are surprised by this revelation, they are equally amazed at the multitude of things to see and do in Armenia. Visitors arrive to find a resilient nation still healing from its tragic past, a beautiful landscape dotted with deep-blue lakes, ancient monasteries and traditional villages, friendly locals and many interesting museums.
Though the country is safe from a crime standpoint, it is currently imperative to remain at least five miles from the border with Azerbaijan due to the risk of armed conflict. It is also wise to avoid areas immediately surrounding military bases and installations. With that said, much of the small country, just under the size of Maryland, is open, safe, and full of interesting things to see and do. Since Armenia began seriously embracing tourism in the 1990’s, the ancient capital city of Yerevan (29 years older than Rome) has become one of the most rapidly developing cities in Europe. Home to just over one million residents, the city still maintains a sizable Russian presence and has struggled to release the ingrained Soviet mentality.
If you are lucky enough to spend time in Yerevan, do not miss the following sites and experiences!
Find your way to the famous Cascade, one of the city’s defining landmarks, and enjoy the beautiful garden and sculpture display at its base. Treat yourself to a healthy 750 step climb up the Cascade (escalators are available for people with mobility impairments). Once on top, you can enjoy beautiful, unobstructed views of Mt. Ararat on clear days and acclimate yourself to the geography of the city. From here you can see the gigantic monolithic monument dedicated to the Soviet victory in the Second World War. Photo enthusiasts will appreciate the multitude of opportunities for snapping one-of-a-kind pictures on this outing, so don’t forget your camera. Both inside and outside, each level promises a little something special, such as fountains and unique Armenian art. There are plenty of good cafes and restaurants surrounding the Cascade to enjoy if you find yourself needing a meal, drink or treat after the climb.
Another famous landmark to visit is the grand Republic Square, which serves as the central town square and was once a home to Soviet celebrations and parades. The square comprises two sections with musical fountains and statues, and is framed by five distinctive pink and yellow-neoclassical buildings. Among these buildings are the History Museum and the National Gallery, both worth a visit. If you are visiting during the summer months, go to Republic Square at sundown and watch the popular fountain show!
Be sure to visit the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum to learn about their sad history that many believe includes the first genocide of the 20th century, causing the death of approximately one million Armenians.
View rare and fascinating ancient manuscripts in the Matenadaran Museum. You’ll find manuscripts of all kinds and are certain to discover something of interest. Just below the museum is a street with a giant exhibit on the Armenian alphabet. This is something many visitors don’t know about and miss out on.
If you are interested in religious buildings, there are many to visit. Though Armenia was the first country to declare Christianity as its national religion, other religions remain active to this day. The Blue Mosque, the only active mosque in Armenia, was built in the 18th century and is beautiful both inside and out. St. Anna Church is worth visiting to compare this recently built church to the Katoghike Holy Mother of God Church, which sits next door and dates back to 1264.
In a northeastern suburb of the city lies an underground labyrinth, known as Levon’s Divine Underground Cave Museum. What started as a husband digging a small potato cellar for his wife, ultimately became a hidden cave nearly 70 feet deep. Levon’s obsession with creating this unique and mystical cavern lasted 23 years, and his life mysteriously ended the day after its completion.
If you have time to explore outside of Yerevan, consider visiting the following:
Lake Sevan is Armenia’s largest lake with an abundance of available water sports. While here, you must visit the impressive-nearby Sevanavank Monastery.
Gyumri is the second largest city in Armenia and home to many museums. Do not miss the Kumayri Historic District which is home to over one thousand ancient buildings.
The Amberd Fortress dates back to the 7th century as one of the country’s primary defensive fortresses.
The Upper Azat Valley, a World Heritage Site, is home to the Geghard Monastery. The monastery dates back to the 4th century, and it is famous and popular for its previous housing of one of the spears used to crucify Jesus.
By Lisa Osborne Blalock
Footloose Travel & Tours