A quick guide to visiting Armenia’s UNESCO-listed Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries from Vanadzor – including up-to-date transport information, travel tips, and more.

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all around Armenia and experience many of the country’s most spectacular landscapes and ethereal religious sites. Nothing comes close to Debed Canyon and UNESCO-listed Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries.

Located in the country’s far north, close to the Georgian border, this region is all deep gorges, tapered rock formations, red-stone plateaus, small villages and abandoned factories. It has an otherworldly, badlands kind of beauty about it that I’ve not experienced anywhere else in the Caucasus.

A road runs through an overgrown river canyon in Alaverdi, Armenia with apartment blocks rising up on either side.
Driving into Alaverdi through the magnificent Debed Canyon.

I passed through Lori Region several times on the overnight train between Tbilisi and Yerevan before I finally got a chance to spend a couple of days exploring one summer. This is hands down the most picturesque part of northern Armenia in my books and a place I’m longing to get back to one day.

Visiting Haghpat and Sanahin and encountering this wild landscape along the way is one of the best things to do in Armenia. In this guide, I’ll show you the easiest way to visit the monasteries independently without joining a tour, covering transport, tips and other things to do in the area plus some brief pointers for Vanadzor, Armenia’s third-largest city and the gateway to Lori.


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Haghpat and Sanahin, Armenia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site

Being the world’s first Christian nation, Armenia is overflowing with elegant and historically important monasteries. This is the home of Tatev, the mountaintop monastery you soar into on a cable car, the Cathedral of Echmiadzin, the oldest church in the world, and Geghard, the iconic UNESCO-Listed monastery cradled by a rocky gorge.

Of all the Armenian monasteries I’ve visited, this duo – Haghpat and Sanahin – left the biggest impression on me.

Haghpat Monastery in Armenia, viewed from a hill with a backdrop of mountains.
Haghpat Monastery.
Sanahin Monastery in Armenia, a grey stone monastery with arched cloisters and a leafy tree out front.
Sanahin Monastery.

In 1996, Haghpat became Armenia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site and the third site to be recognised in the Caucasus (behind Georgia’s Mtskheta and Gelati Monastery near Kutaisi). In 2000, the site was expanded to include a second monastery, Sanahin.

The two are located 16 kilometres apart in far-northern Lori Province. Sanahin sits above the industrial city of Alaverdi while Haghpat is further north in a village of the same name.

Haghpat and Sanahin both date to the 10th century (Sanahin is a few years older) and represent the golden age of the country’s religious architecture, blending traditional Byzantine and vernacular Armenian elements for a style that is both lofty and totally at one with the surrounding environment.

However you choose to get here, this is a must-see in the Caucasus.


The easiest way to visit Haghpat and Sanahin – from Vanadzor

Sanahin and Haghpat are located 3.5-4 hours by road from Yerevan or 2.5-3 hours by road from Tbilisi.

Because of the distance and scarcity of reliable public transport, it’s not really possible to visit the monasteries as a day trip from either city unless you join a guided tour.

If you want to get there and back in a day from Yerevan, your best bet is a Haghpat Sanahin tour like this one. Alternatively, you can visit as a long day trip from Tbilisi. This full-day itinerary includes lunch and returns to the city by 6pm.

In my opinion, this part of Armenia shouldn’t be rushed. That’s why I recommend overnighting nearby and taking your time if your itinerary allows for it.

Vanadzor, Armenia’s third-largest city, is 90 minutes from the monasteries and is the ideal place to base yourself. It’s a mid-sized city with plenty of accommodation and food options, a bus station with good onward transport connections, and plenty of private drivers who are familiar with the monastery route.

A Soviet-style statue in Vanadzor, Armenia.
Vanadzor is a cool city that’s worthy of a place on your Armenia itinerary.

Another option is to stay in Alaverdi near Sanahin. Alaverdi is an interesting little town set on the Debed river with a cross-river cableway left over from its mining days (a la Chiatura).

Staying in Alaverdi will put you closer to the monasteries, but the town is much smaller and has less in the way of accommodation and transport connections.


How to get to Vanadzor

There are daily marshrutka vans to Vanadzor departing from Gyumri (2 hours; ~800 AMD); Dilijan (45 minutes; ~800 AMD) and Yerevan (2.5 hours; ~1,200 AMD).

Departure times are semi-fixed (see schedules here) but may change at any time. It’s wise to check locally when you arrive, either at the station or with your guesthouse host. Reservations are not required – just make sure you arrive at the station nice and early.

We travelled Akhaltsikhe – Gyumri – Vanadzor – Dilijan – Yerevan for this leg of our trip.


How to get to Haghpat and Sanahin from Vanadzor

Once in Vanadzor, you should set aside a full day to visit Haghpat and Sanahin. You have two options for getting around: Marshrutka vans or taxi. Both depart from Vanadzor’s bus station, which is next to the train station (see the exact location here), and looks like this…

Vanadzor Bus Station, an unusual design with a zig-zap roofline.
Vanadzor Bus Station.

If you’re on a tight budget and you want to use public transport, your route will look something like this: Vanadzor to Alaverdi, Alaverdi to Sanahin, Sanahin to Alaverdi, Alaverdi to Haghpat, Haghpat to Alaverdi, Alaverdi to Vanadzor. That’s 6 separate vans in total.

We started the morning with every intention to use public transport but we were too early for the first van from Vanadzor to Alaverdi – so that plan fell through pretty quickly. As with most cities in Armenia, there was a group of drivers outside the main bus station so we figured we should at least ask around for prices. Travelling by taxi turned out to be a far more streamlined process and it was still very affordable.

Taxis in Armenia (outside of Yerevan) cost roughly 100 AMD/kilometre so for the 112-kilometre trip to Haghpat and back, we agreed on a price of 12,000 AMD (25 USD). At the end of the day we spent roughly 5 hours with our driver, including long waits at both monasteries and a coffee stop in Alaverdi on the way back. With a tip added at the end, we ended up paying 31 USD in total.

A man drives a taxi through Debed Canyon in Northern Armenia.
On the road in Armenia.

The drivers we met in Vanadzor were all of an older generation so your chances of finding someone who speaks English are pretty slim. The language barrier wasn’t a problem for us – we got on great with our driver and he was very cautious on the roads too. All drivers are familiar with the monasteries so there’s not much coordination required as long as you’re clear about where you want to stop and you settle on a price in advance.

I wish I had taken down our driver’s name but alas, I forgot.

Depending on where you stay in Vanadzor, your host might be able to organise a driver for you. Otherwise, it’s simple enough to go down to the bus station and approach someone. I recommend going in the early morning when there are more drivers around.


Practical tips visiting for Haghpat and Sanahin

We started the day by visiting Sanahin, the first monastery you reach after Vanadzor. The two monasteries are 16 kilometres apart so you definitely need a car to travel between them. That’s unless you set aside a day to walk the World Heritage Trail, a new 4-hour hiking route between Sanahin and Haghpat organised by Hike Armenia.

My biggest tip is to remember that these are not just singular monastery buildings but rather largeish complexes with different churches, narthex, belfrys and underground chambers. Therefore you need to set aside a good 45-60 minutes per monastery if you want to explore all the nooks and crannies without feeling rushed.

  • The monasteries have no official opening hours (as far as I’m aware), but it’s safe to arrive anytime between 10am and sundown. We saw a security guard unlocking the gates at Sanahin when we arrived at around 10am (this was in summer).
  • It’s advisable to dress conservatively when visiting the monasteries and walking in the yards, with covered knees and shoulders. Women should also carry a scarf to cover their hair when inside.
  • Both monasteries are free to visit but contributions are welcome. I recommend bringing some small notes with you to leave in the donations box.
  • There is limited signage at the monasteries in Armenian and English. If you’re visiting without a guide, it’s a good idea to read up the night before so you know what you’re looking at.
Sanahin Monastery viewed from between leafy green trees.
Sanahin Monastery.
Stone arches make up the interior of Sanahin Monastery.
Inside Sanahin.
An engraved Khachkar stone at Sanahin Monastery.
Both monasteries have dozens of beautiful Khachkar stones like this.
The orange dome of Haghpat Monastery rises above a green hill.
The crest of Haghpat from the hill behind the monastery.

Driving through Debed Canyon

As beautiful as the monasteries are, the highlight of the day for me was the drive itself. There were lots of places to stop along the way for photos – another reason I recommend using a taxi for this route instead of relying on public transport.

This part of Armenia is inexplicably beautiful, especially around Alaverdi. There’s a definite badlands vibe; the tapered rocks on the horizon look even more unreal juxtaposed against the Soviet-style apartment blocks and ruins of the old copper factory.

A river wraps around a flat-topped mountain Debed Canyon in Armenia.
Driving down from Sanahin into Alaverdi.
A stone sculpture in front of apartment buildings in Alaverdi, Armenia.
A stone monument in Alaverdi.

There was one point during the drive, coming down from Sanahin, when my jaw hit the floor. Our car emerged out of a thick mist revealing a perfectly flat plateau ringed by pink and sandstone-coloured buildings and wrapped in the snaking river. It was unreal.

I would love to come back and spend more time in this part of Armenia. There are a couple of cool accommodations in Debed village (halfway between Vanadzor and Alaverdi) including COAF and Debed Life, a co-working/living space.

When we travelled, the main highway that connects Vanadzor with Tbilisi was undergoing roadworks but this project has since been completed.


Other places to visit in the area

  • Sanahin Bridge – a medieval stone bridge located in Alaverdi and stretches across the Debed River.
  • Akhtala Monastery – a 10th-century monastery further north from Haghpat. It looks incredible and I’m still kicking myself for missing it. It’s on the list for next time.
  • Odzun Church – a 6th-century Armenian church is just off the highway between Vanadzor and Sanahin.
  • Horomayri – a church set on a high cliff above Ozgun.
  • Amrakits abandoned church – AKA the Church of St. Nicholas, an abandoned Russian Orthodox church in Amrakits, not far from Lori Castle. It’s located the opposite way, north-east of Vanadzor, but looks well worth the detour if you have time.

Exploring Vanadzor

Armenia’s third-largest city has a Botanical Garden, a Fine Art Museum, and a pleasant downtown area with some very impressive stone architecture.

I actually missed a lot of Vanadzor because I was sick with a migraine for most of our visit. My friends at Absolute Armenia put together this guide to the city which I recommend you check out.

A girl sits on the hood of a vintage car in Vanadzor, Armenia.
Vanadzor.

The little bit of Vanadzor I did get to see, I really liked. This is definitely my kind of city (I find myself saying that a lot when it comes to Armenia…) – lots of interesting buildings, vintage cars and Soviet relics.

I fell a bit in love with the local bus station and probably spent a bit too long lingering around taking photos. No one seemed to mind!

A woman raises her leg while seated inside the bus station in Vanadzor, Armenia.
Can you see why I fell a bit in love with Vanadzor’s bus station?

One place I did get to check out and highly recommend is Home Restaurant. We stumbled on this little eatery in a family backyard by chance and ended up having one of the best Armenian meals I think I’ve ever eaten here. Produce comes from the garden (we saw the tomatoes for our salad being plucked from the vine). The homemade sausages are delicious, as is the lavash.

Dining here is a really cool experience and worth coming to Vanadzor for. You can find it on Zoryan Street (more info and hours here on Facebook).

Where to stay in Vanadzor

In Vanadzor, we stayed at DownTown B&B. The setup of our room was a bit strange (the building must have been an office in a previous life), but it was very spacious and comfortable with big windows, comfy beds, a private ensuite and a bar fridge.

The location in the centre of the city walking distance from the bus station, shops and restaurants was perfect. When we weren’t at Home Restaurant, we ate most of our meals near the hotel at Restaurant Izagri.

For something with a bit more personality, friends of mine have stayed at B&B MagHay and highly recommend it.If you’re looking for something upscale and you don’t mind staying outside of town, Tufenkian Avan Dzoraget Hotel is a 5-star hotel with beautiful rooms and a much-celebrated restaurant set right on the river 30 minutes from Vanadzor.

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A blue car parked in front of a water fountain in Dilijan, Armenia.

Armenia Travel Guide

Discover insider tips, itinerary inspiration, and all the best things to see, do and experience in Armenia!

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My favourite resources and tools for planning a trip to Armenia.

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