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Leave your expectations for resort-style comfort at the border. What you should expect in Armenia is some of the world's oldest settlements, beautiful folk music, a mass of ancient churches, an attractive countryside landscape and one of the largest alpine lakes in the world. It's a beautiful country regarding both culture and nature with a long and sometimes sad history. The people though are extremely friendly and it is a safe country (even more safe than many western countries) and increasingly easy to travel to and around.
In the Bronze Age, several states flourished in the area of Greater Armenia, including the Hittite Empire (at the height of its power), Mitanni (South-Western historical Armenia), and Hayasa-Azzi (1500–1200 BC). Around 600 BC, the Kingdom of Armenia was established under the Orontid Dynasty. The kingdom reached its height between 95 and 66 BC under Tigranes the Great. After the fall of the Armenian kingdom in AD 428, most of Armenia was incorporated as a marzpanate within the Sassanid Empire. Following an Armenian rebellion in AD 451, Christian Armenians maintained their religious freedom, while Armenia gained autonomy. After the Marzpanate period (428–636), Armenia emerged as the Emirate of Armenia, an autonomous principality within the Arabic Empire. In 1045, the Byzantine Empire conquered Bagratid Armenia. Soon, the other Armenian states fell under Byzantine control as well. The Byzantine rule was short lived, as in 1071 Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantines and conquered Armenia. During the 1230s, the Mongol Empire conquered the Zakaryan Principality, as well as the rest of Armenia. The Russian Empire incorporated Eastern Armenia in 1813 and 1828. Roughly half-way between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, Armenia has long been a trampling ground for the world's major civilizations, and the 20th century was no exception. Western neighbour Turkey clashed with Russia in the first quarter of the century and Armenia was dragged into the conflict. After suffering mass genocide at the hands of the Turks, Armenia passed into Russian control, till the collapse of the U.S.S.R. at the start of the 1990s. And in its first decade as an independent nation (in recent times, that is), Armenia has come head to head with neighbouring Azerbaijan.
Armenia lies on the edge of Europe, bordered by Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran. Nagorno Karabakh is a controversial piece of land in Azerbaijan near the border, which is controlled by Armenia but officially recognised as a part of Azerbaijan. You can only reach it from Armenia by a small corridor. Southwest of Armenia lies Nakhchivan, an exclave of Azerbaijan.
Armenia is a small but very mountainous country with many peaks reaching up to 4095 metres (Mount Aragats, not to be confused with Mount Ararat!). The biggest body of water is Lake Sevan, east of the capital Yerevan. While the northern parts of Armenia towards the border with Georgia have more forests and green parts in general, the west is very rugged with endless plains at high elevation. The country is regularly struck by major earthquakes. The 1988 earthquake near Gyumri was one of the most devastating ones ever.
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Yerevan is the capital of Armenia and is likely the first or one of the first places you will spend the night. Actually, the city is a good place to base yourself for at least several nights to explore both the city and the surrounding central parts of the country, as distances and travel times are short.
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Echmiadzin is about 25 kilometres west of Yerevan and therefor makes for an easy daytrip from the capital. Echmiadzin is the place of the Mayr Tachar, the Mother Church of Armenia and is of the same importance to Armenian Christians as Vatican City is to Catholics. Apart from the Mother Church, there are also other sights within the territory that bounds the holy ground, like the 2001 Papal Visit Monument, which was built after the visit of Pope John Paul II in that year. Also in Echmiadzin, you can find another Genocide Monument and there are many other churches as well like Surp Gayane and Surp Hripsime. Echmiadzin is placed on the Unesco World Heritage List.
Getting to and from Echmiadzin is very straightforward, with marshrutkas leaving Yerevan every 15 minutes or so, leaving when they are full.
Lake Sevan, on the other hand, is very beautiful with clear blue waters and some good hotels and pubs to stay on the waterfront, although only in the summer months of July and August the area near the peninsula is crowded. Other months, the area appears abandoned, but it is still a beautiful place to visit. As it is at an elevation of almost 2000 metres, summer temperatures are much cooler here than in Yerevan, but in the winter months temperatures reach deepfreeze level. A good place to enjoy the views of the lake, are from Sevanavank, the Sevan Monastery. It is located on a small peninsula. The town named Sevan is a drab place, not on the lakefront which tourists rarely see.
Little known and hard to visit are the petroglyphs of Ughtasar Mountain near Sisian, where thousands of these crude expressions of prehistoric art cover the boulders on that mountain, only accessible in July-September when snow levels are low enough. There are some more in the Geghama mountains as well.
The most famous hot springs are in Jermuk, where numerous sanitoriums serve those in need of a hot bath. Literally. The hot mineral waters are used to fill bathtubs where nurses allow you to lay for 15 minutes before you overdose. Arzni also has similar places, much closer to Yerevan, Arzakan village has some outdoor pools full of it that can be rented by the hour, and Hankavan also has some crudely developed rooms to soak in.
Spelunking is best near Yeghegnadzor in the raw caves of Mozrov and Arjeri - but guides are recommended for both unless you know what you're doing. Nearby Magili is also a very deep cave system. Many shallower caves are around, and have had people live in them or use them, from the southern cave city of Old Khdzoresk to the beautifully carved Aztec looking work in the cave beyond Yenokavan village.
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Armenia is heavily dotted with monasteries, some in good shape, others in ruins. Many of them can be visited as day trips from Yerevan, like the ruins of Zvartnots to the west and the ancient sites of Garni and Geghard to the east of the capital. One of the most historic ones is located south of Yerevan and is called Khor Virap Monastery. Located at the foot of Mount Ararat in Turkey, it has a spectacular view of it on a clear day and is of great importance to Armenians. There are many more monasteries if you venture further from Yerevan, and depending on your planning they can be day trips, or overnight trips. Some of the more important ones include Tatev Monastery in the south towards the border with Iran, Haghartsin and Goshavank Monasteries near Dilijan, Marmashen and Harichavank near Gyumri, Saghmosavank and Hovhannavank near Ashtarak, Kirants, Deghtsnuti and Arakelots Vank near Kirants village, Haghpat, Sanahin, Kobayr, Odzun and Akhtala near Alaverdi, Noravank and Spitakavor near Yeghegnadzor, Gndevank near Jermuk, and Khuchapi and Khoranashat near the Georgian border and Jiliza.
While winters in Armenia can be bitterly cold with temperatures way below zero at night from December to March, summers can be very hot with temperatures up to 40 °C, especially in the capital Yerevan which is on lower elevation. Lake Sevan and the mountains have even colder winters but milder and therefore more pleasant weather during the summer. For visiting the country both the spring months of late April to early June and the autumn months of September to late October are the most pleasant times for travelling. Rainfall is relatively low with March and April being the wettest months. Yerevan has only about 350 mm of rain a year.
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There are flights to most neighbouring countries and several direct flights from countries in Asia and Europe as well. Other flights mostly require a change of planes in Moscow. Airlines that serve the airport in Yerevan are Aeroflot, the national airline of Armenia (Armavia), CSA Czech Airlines, Austria Airlines and Syrian Arab Airlines. As there are not many flights to and from the country, prices, especially from Europe, are generally high with tickets usually costing at least around USD500. It might be cheaper to fly to Tbilisi in Georgia and have a connecting bus to Armenia from there.
You can only reach Armenia by train from Georgia with regular connection between Tblisi and Yerevan. Trains are cheap but slow and only for the real train enthusiasts as minibuses are twice as fast and still good value.
Entrance by car is possible via Georgia and Iran. You need to have an international driving permit, green card and personal documentation. Visas are available at the border. Note that some border crossings are to/from extremely bad roads, for example the one near Gyumri to Georgia (for a short cut to Turkey).
There are buses both to Georgia and Iran. To the latter, daily buses leave for Tabriz and Tehran, with journeys taking 14 and 28 hours respectively. The main connection with Georgia is the Yerevan to Tbilisi route with regular buses. Also minibuses, called marshrutkas serve this route, but also other routes like the one to Nagorno Karabakh. There is even a bus to Istanbul now and then which takes up to 3 days!
Armenia is entirely enclosed by land and has no major rivers connecting with other countries, so getting to and from the country by boat is not an option.
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There are no regular flights for travellers in Armenia, as distances are very small and most places can be reached within several hours by (mini)bus.
Train connections are very limited and services that do exist are unreliable and slow. Probably the subway in Yerevan comes closest to using trains in Armenia.
Although possible to rent a car it is not really necessary nor recommended. Apart from the major roads which are generally ok, many secondary roads are in a bad condition and traffic can be chaotic. Still, if you feel the desire, there are several local and interntional companies offering cars. You'll need an international driver's licence and be sure to take maximum insurance.
Much more frequent and faster than buses, minibuses run on routes throughout the cities and country. These are a cheap way to get around, but they can get overcrowded and uncomfortable. Oftentimes, from the same place that these depart from city to city, you can find taxis which fill up with 5 passengers, and are more comfortable and quick, at a slightly higher price.
Buses and minibuses (marshrutkas) serve most major cities and lots of smaller towns as well. Buses usually leave all day but have a fixed schedule. Minibuses on the other hand leave whenever they are full which makes it a more flexible option for travellers. Marshrutkas are the best way of getting around the country and almost any place can be reached within an hour or 6, except for the Iranian border which can take up to 10 hours.
No boat connections exist within the country, nor on Lake Sevan unless you hire one yourself.
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Most nationalities need a visa to enter the country except people from Azerbaijan, Belarus Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Montenegro, Russiaa, Serbia, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. The visa is available upon arrival on the airports as well as at all entry points on land into the country and usually valid for 21 days.
For more information, check the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
Note that when visiting Nagorno Karabakh you will need a separate visa, which you can get within a day in the capital Yerevan. You can also get the visa issued at Stepanakert itself, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building on the main street. This is a process that usually takes 10-15 minutes.
Also be sure to have this visa on a separate paper if you want to visit Azerbaijan afterwards, because visiting Nagorno Karabakh is considered an illegal crossing into their country and most passports do get checked! Passports do get checked at the Armenian border when you exit Karabakh as well, so do make sure you have a valid Nagorno Karabakh visa.
See also: Money Matters
The official currency of Armenia is the Armenian Dram (AMD). One dram is divided into 100 luma. Banknotes come in 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 dram, while coins are in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 dram.
Visitors cannot legally work without a permit or residency card (available to ethnic Armenian visitors). They may be able to find freelance type tasks such as tutoring English or editing/marketing type work, and can get employers to sponsor them for longer term work visas (3/6/12 month). There are plentiful volunteer opportunities as well, which can also gain you a work visa.
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Armenia has excellent academic institutions, and hundreds (if not thousands) of foreign students attend the State Medical University, Polytechnic and the American University of Armenia. These schools have either English or Russian based curriculum.
Armenian is the language to go in the country. It is an Indo-European language with Persian influences. Its alphabet is unique to any other alphabet and learning it will help you with the most important things like menus and destinations, although sometimes regular alphabet is used next to the national one. The 36 letters of the alphabet also have numerical value with 1-9, 10-90, 100-900 and 1,000-9,000 representing the 36 letters in alphabetical order.
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Eating out has in the past few years become more and more popular, and the number of restaurants has mushroomed. Many more kinds of world cuisines are now available than in the past, much of it is pretty good. Typical Armenian barbecue joints are still the most popular across the country, with pretty similar menus of barbecued meats, vegetables, salads and appetizers (zakuzksi). The typical appetizer spread includes some greens, cheese, and bread plus some add olives, strained yogurt, sliced tomatoes/cumbers and other items. All restaurants charge for bread, and most assume you want it - let them know before or when they bring it if you don't want to get charged.
The bill will not come unless you ask for it. This is not, despite many peoples assumptions, bad service, but the contrary. In Armenia, bringing the bill without it being requested can be seen by Armenians as a rude implication that they should go. Sitting long after eating is normal and extra items and coffees might always be ordered, so sit, enjoy yourself, and remember to ask for the bill if you want to get going.
When dining out, it is customary to tip 10%, or round up and leave the change if it is a smaller amount and 10% is too little. Outside of Yerevan, tipping is not as common in restaurants or taxis.
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Accommodation options in Armenia are still developing, as the number of visitors grows rapidly. This has led to a large number of expensive rooms being built, while neglecting mid to low-range hotels. If you are happy with US$100-200 rooms, there is no shortage of options, though even these can get booked from July-September. There is also a very nice youth hostel, and many visitors wanting mid-range hotel rooms instead find themselves very comfortable with short term apartment rentals. Others try home-stay options and get to experience staying with an Armenian family. Depending on how long you're staying in Armenia and what your sightseeing goals are, staying in places outside of Yerevan is also an option, and will actually save you a great deal of back and forth driving that many of the trips based out of Yerevan entail. A few nights in northern Armenia and a few in southern Armenia will certainly pay off for those who have don't want to stay in Yerevan the entire time. Centres outside of Yerevan with good options for mid-range stays include small guesthouses or hotels in Dilijan (Daravand), Yeghegnadzor (Gohar's guesthouse) and Goris (Hotel Mirhav). Aside from this, camping and homestays are very easy options across the country. It is also possible to stay in the towns of Echmiadzin or Ashtarak, and take the half-hour public transport into Yerevan.
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Drinking in Armenia usually means vodka, though wine, brandy, liqueurs and beer are also drunk. Mixed drinks and cocktails are a relatively new phenomenon, but have not spread beyond some of the bars where they are often not made very well. Mixology is still an unknown craft here.
Homestills are popular in the villages, and pure fruit vodkas, often distilled multiple times to a high purity and very strong alcohol content are a local experience you ought not miss. It may be hard to get the good stuff in restaurants, but if you're passing through towns in some regions like Ijevan, Goris or Kapan, stop at the main farmers market (pag shuka) and ask for mulberry (tut), apricot (tsiran), pear (tants) and other fruit vodkas usually sold in plastic soda bottles. Taste them and ask for advice from your local friends, and take some back home with you if you can.
Armenian brandy of course is very famous, and is widely available in Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR. Churchhill was said to prefer it, and tours of the Yerevan cognac factory include interesting information and a tasting.
Areni is the name of the wine country, the most popular red grape variety, and the most popular wine variety. There are some wineries with tasting in Areni village, and the wine is available everywhere wine is sold in Armenia. A nice white wine is made in Ijevan.
In some villages, it may seem that drinking is all that is done, but despite the higher levels of drinking than in much of the west, some of it is probably due to your presence. Toasting is a big tradition in Armenia, and there are many traditional toasts during a sit down dinner with guests. If you make a toast about your hosts and Armenia, it will no doubt be well received, even with a language barrier.
Women often won't drink, at least in mixed company. This tradition does not extend to foreign guests, but men may read something into that if you're not careful.
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See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Armenia. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Armenia. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks a vaccination against typhoid.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Malaria only occurs in the Ararat Valley during the summer months, but taking malaria pills is not necessary. Just use mosquito reppelant and wear long sleeves when it is dark.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS. For most visitors though, all you need to know is that drinking the tap or stream water may lead to diarrhea for days - not a fun way to spend your trip. Bottled water is widely available for cheap, but if you don't want to waste plastic, or are camping, etc, you can use purification tablets, water filtration pumps, or a new product called AquaStar that kills all bugs in the water with ultraviolet light. All of these should be purchased before heading to Armenia, where they are not available.
Armenia has one of the highest (if not the highest) numbers of doctors per capita, in the world. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, they have fallen behind due to massive budgetary cuts, but excellent physicians are available and hospitals like Nairi and Shengavit have a very good reputation. Nork Cardiac Center has one of the best records in the world for heart surgery, at a fraction of the price.
Little testing has been done in Armenia in regards to AIDS, so although rates are thought to be low, accurate numbers are not known. Always be safe.
See also: Travel Safety
In terms of crime, Armenia is one of the safest places you can be. Assaults are very uncommon, though it does occur. Pickpockets operate at a couple of the most crowded tourist spots, so keep your wallet close at Vernissage and take your normal precautions. Any trouble should be reported to police, who you should also feel comfortable contacting if a taxi driver is insisting on an exorbitant price from you. Always agree to a price with them beforehand, but if you have not agreed to a price, that does not mean they can charge any number they choose and it is questionable whether you even owe them anything if they don't set a price.
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A monopoly on internet lines was ended in 2007, and prices have plummeted while speeds and service have improved dramatically. Internet cafes are available all over Yerevan, and in most towns. Wireless is not quite as easy to find, but Yum Yum donuts on Tumanian has it for free, and is smoke free. All of Noyemberian has wireless as well, though an account is needed. WiMax is reportedly going to be available soon in much of the country.
See also International Telephone Calls
The country calling code to Armenia is: 374. To make an international call from Armenia, the code is: 00
People can be hard to reach in Armenia, except by mobile phone. Consider renting one if you are going to be there, or getting a local SIM card if your phone works on the Armenian networks. For a short trip, prepaid accounts with Vivacell or Beeline are comparable. A third carrier will be entering the market soon.
Haypost is the national postcal company of Armenia. Despite belief to the contrary, the mail system in Armenia does work. Letters are a breeze to send and receive, if you're not in a great rush. Packages however are trickier, as they sometimes restrict your mailings to odd rules, and sometimes stop incoming packages for customs duties, where they will often try to extract a bribe for products which they have no right to even collect customs for. Avoiding electronics altogether will probably keep your incoming mail below the radar. Sending packages is often better with companies like UPS, TNT, FedEx or DHL.
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Ask Utrecht a question about Armenia
I stayed about a week in this very small country, visiting most places of interest, like Jerewan, Lake Sevan and Echmiadzin.
Ask lil_travelguide a question about Armenia
I am 27 years old Armenian girl born here and living here all my life. My profession is travel guide and tour-manager and as I am fond of my country and my job it's my pleasure to do my best for all travelers to Armenia, answering to all their questions, giving information, and every help concerning tourism in Armenia
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I've been traveling through Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh for 15 days. I woke up with the sunrise and was all the time exploring new areas in Armenia.
I have written a photo features journal about my trip: www.thdk.be/travel/armenia
I'm happy to help any other future visitor of Armenia.
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I toured Armenia extensively in the summer of 2008, and am of Armenian descent.
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Welcome with any travel in Armenia or combination tours of Armenia and the neighboring countries' related question
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