Armenia, the land of pomegranates and apricots, fell smack bang in the middle of our three-month Caucasus itinerary. We were planning to spend a few weeks travelling all around; but not long after stepping off the train in Yerevan, we changed our minds and decided to base ourselves in the city instead.
Another capital on the cusp of Europe and Asia, East and West, Yerevan is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Like neighbouring Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenia has seen dark days: conquest, cultural oppression, economic devastation. As if that wasn’t enough, the Armenians have weathered national tragedies so brutal it almost defies belief. Hard times have made them a proud, defiant people, and Yerevan is in many ways an outward expression of the culture they have managed to preserve against all odds.
With its pink tuft stone facades, wide boulevards and vast, fountain-filled public squares, Yerevan has a distinctly European feel. Investment by Armenia’s diaspora community has enriched the city with new monuments and cultural institutions. Walking streets, world-class museums, markets and a vibrant cafe scene – Armenia’s capital has it all.
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Hang out at Republic Square
The heart and social centre of Yerevan, Republic Square (Hraparak) is a monumental civic space encircled by some of the city’s most impressive buildings. When it was constructed between the 1950s and 70s, city planners flattened Yerevan’s old town and erected the square right on top. That’s why Yerevan has no ‘Old City’ proper – the ruins of the oldest neighbourhoods lay beneath the Square. At the time of our visit in April 2017, work had just started to construct a ‘new old town’ using tuft stones from the facades of buildings around Yerevan.
Originally called Lenin Square, this was once a marching ground for ostentatious military parades. Now, Republic Square is a gathering place for Yerevanians young and old, and a particularly popular spot for an ice cream cone on a sunny afternoon.
Take a free walking tour
Free walking tours are the best way to get a taste for a new city, and Yerevan is no exception. Guided strolls depart daily from Republic Square and over the course of three or four hours, take in many of the inner city’s highlights. As always, make sure you give your guide a generous tip.
Explore Kond, Yerevan’s oldest neighbourhood
Kentron is the name of Yerevan’s central district; Kond is a much smaller neighbourhood on the city’s western fringe. And in the absence of an official old city, the accolade of Yerevan’s oldest area goes to Kond. Narrow staircases lead up the hill into a residential area, which consists of tumbledown and threadbare houses, overgrown gardens and patched-up shacks. Kond is a poor area and it honestly hasn’t aged all that well, so if you’re expecting a picturesque, romantic old neighbourhood a-la Tbilisi’s Armenia Street, think again. I saw a lot of new developments going up when I visited, so Kond’s days might be numbered.
Visit some of Yerevan’s many museums and galleries
With more than 49 museums and galleries to chose from, Yerevan is a history buff’s dream. The History Museum and National Gallery of Armenia (both in Republic Square) are mainstays of any tourist itinerary. For something different, the Sergei Parajanov House Museum – a small museum dedicated to the pioneer of 20th-century cinema – tells the story of one of the region’s most prominent avant-garde artists through his eclectic (sometimes irreverent) films and mixed-media collages.
Climb to the top of the Cascade
Another of Yerevan’s cultural highlights, the Cafesjian Museum of Art and Cascade complex is also one of the city’s most striking architectural features. Start in the Sculpture Garden that skirts the bottom of the stairs, with its collection of provocative works by Colombia’s Fernando Botero. Ascending the massive staircase that runs up the middle of the Cascade will give you close-up views of the Soviet-style stone reliefs that decorate every tier, with a gob-smacking view of Mount Ararat at the very top. Inside, encased within the staircase, is a series of stepped galleries that show various art and design exhibitions. Admission is free and if you don’t feel like climbing the stairs, you can ride the indoor escalators.
Shop at the Vernissage Market
Partly an undercover shed, partly a collection of open-air stalls, the Vernissage Market occupies all of Yerevan’s central Charles Aznavour Square. It started in the 1980s with a group of artists displaying their work outside the art institute on Buzand Street. Mostly thought of as a flea market, Vernissage has stayed somewhat true to its roots and still hosts a number of local artisans and craftspeople who sell original works alongside antiques and an amazing array of Caucasian carpets. (As a rough guide, the bulk of the artists can be found inside the shed with second-hand items sold round the back.) The market is open daily until 6pm but it’s best to visit on the weekend when more stallholders are around.
According to our free walking tour guide, Yerevan has more than 500 open-air cafes. I’d say that’s a conservative estimate! From Melbourne-style coffee houses to dessert bars, cafes line almost every street, concentrated around Republic Square and the Cascade. Our approach was to pull up a chair at whatever cafe looked good. If you’re struggling to decide, check out this list of Yerevan cafes with good coffee and free WIFI.
Drink from a pulpulak
Yerevan’s drinking fountains, colloquially known as pulpulak, are another unique feature of the city’s urban planning. Erected in the 1920s, the fountains number more than 1500 – the most impressive being yotnaghbyur pulpulak in Republic Square (pictured above). Crowds of thirsty Yerevanians queue to make use of the fountains on hot days. Do as the locals do and take a quick, healthy gulp of the fresh, icy cold water whenever you pass by.
See how lavash is made at the GUM Market
In Armenia, lavash is an essential accompaniment to every meal. The technique and ritual involved in making and eating the paper-thin bread is so intertwined with Armenian heritage that in 2014, UNESCO recognised it as part of the country’s intangible cultural heritage. Lavash comes in an astounding array of colours and textures, each one more delicate and airy than the last. The best place to see huge lavash sheets being prepared and sold is at the GUM Market on Movses Khorenatsi Street, where you’ll also find a colourful range of pickles and candied fruits.
Pay your respects at Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Memorial
While you’re out enjoying everything Yerevan has to offer, remember that things haven’t always been so rosy in Armenia. The events of 1915 cast a long shadow over the country and are never far from anyone’s memory. Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex, is where locals and visitors alike come to pay their respects. The 12 concrete slabs represent the 12 Armenian provinces that now fall within modern-day Turkey, while the eternal flame laid 1.5 metres deep is a tribute to the Genocide’s 1.5 million victims. You can learn more about this tragic episode in Armenian history at the adjoining Genocide Museum-Institute.
Soviet architecture and design
Between 1922 and 1990, Armenia was a Soviet Republic and came under the thumb of Lenin and later Stalin’s rule. Some of the city’s most prominent buildings went up during this period, including the Opera House and Republic Square. Yerevan’s socialist past lives on in its multi-storey apartments and civic structures like the 1935 Spartak athletics stadium (pictured above), with its wonderfully retro signage.
I recently came across this Soviet-themed tour of Yerevan by Envoy Tours. I can’t personally endorse it because I haven’t done it (yet), but it does come recommended. Safe to say this one will be on the top of my to-do list next time I’m in Armenia!
Ride the metro
Back in the 70s, when the population of a Soviet city hit one million, a state-sponsored metro would be built for its people. Anything less, and a simple tram system would suffice. Yerevan managed to bypass these rules, allegedly by convincing authorities that the repatriation of the Armenian diaspora would cause the population to balloon. (It didn’t – in fact, Yerevan’s population wouldn’t hit one million until 2012.)
Yerevan’s metro system opened in 1981 and services just 10 inner-city stations. Tunnels burrow 20 to 70 metres below the earth, with some stations located above ground. Yerevan’s metro is very retro – some of the original blue cars still shuttle along, and the system continues to operate on a plastic token system. To ride, you must first exchange a coin for a token at the cashier desk.
The music scene
From music festivals right down to the buskers that are a standing feature of every street corner, Yerevan’s streets are alive with music. Experience the music scene as many ways you can. Taking in a ballet or orchestra performance at the Opera Theater is a good place to start.
Visit the Blue Mosque
The first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion, the vast majority of Armenians have worshiped the same god since 301 AD. Immigration and the recent influx of refugees has re-shaped Yerevan’s theological landscape to be incredibly diverse, with Jews, Yazidis, Kurds and Syrian Muslims all represented among dozens of minority groups.
The Blue Mosque, Yerevan’s biggest and most prominent mosque, is a testament to Armenia’s religious tolerance and the country’s close relationship with neighbouring Iran, which endures to this day. The mosque was handed over to custodians at the Iranian Embassy in Yerevan who paid for its beautiful mosaics to be restored. It’s now used as a language school, a museum and occasionally as a place of worship. In another gesture of good faith, Iran has allowed Armenia to preserve several Apostolic churches that fall within the Islamic Republic’s borders.
What’s your favourite thing to do in Yerevan? If you have any tips, please share them in the comments below.