How Zicasso Works
- Describe your dream trip.
- We match you with up to 3 top travel specialists who compete to plan your trip.
- Book the tour when you are satisfied.
Traveling in Armenia has a certain paradox. This is a glorious corner of Europe, steeped in history and early Christian memoirs, dominated by natural splendor and legendary tales. Welcome to off the beaten path adventure, from cave monasteries and rock houses to the Old Silk Road and the mountain where Noah’s ark ran aground.
Visit the majestic Tatev monastery on your vacation to Armenia.
Armenia entices. It pulls you in with its rugged allure and ancient mysteries. The mountains whisper biblical histories while monasteries peek out from their rock-carved hiding places. Hot springs bubble amid pristine forest while locals invite you in for cooking lessons and conservative charm. Even after a few days, it is unlikely you will have seen another traveler. This tiny Caucasus country creates a wonderfully unique travel experience, taking you far from Europe’s standard trail.
A 3,000-year historical patchwork sets the scene. Armenia survives from the time of ancient Greek Empire and was the world’s first ever, Christian country, some 1,700 years ago. Despite being surrounded by powerful neighbors – Turkey, Russia, Rian, Azerbaijan – it has held tight to a rich old-world culture, even in the face of a tumultuous recent history. Massacred by Ataturk, invaded and occupied by Stalin, Armenians survived great tragedy in the 20th century. This has only strengthened a stoic dedication to both Christianity and the Armenia of their ancestors.
This is a small country that is difficult to get around. Rugged roads provide dreamy panoramas as well as enormous potholes. Very few people speak English. Attractions are scattered, and monuments are hidden away. This puts off most people; even backpackers do not venture to this European frontier. But with private transport and good English-speaking guide, the ease of travel is like anywhere else. Inside knowledge does not just make the experience; it’s pretty much the only way to experience the country.
Local culture is part of the experience. Traditions are part of every day, not something to be brought out for festivities. Although highly conservative, and based on early Christian ideals, hospitality is integral to culture. With a guide as a translator, you can enjoy opportunities to meet with local people. Even without long conversations, memories of Armenian culture will be surreal and striking. Cuisine will be integral to your experience, tasting locally made cognac, making traditional lavash (bread), and touring organic food markets.
Perhaps the most poignant memory of the country emanates from Armenia’s beauty. The streets are crafted from a sumptuous collection of local stone, shifting from ochre to red to rose as the sun crosses the sky. Expertly preserved art decorates the tapestry of churches and monasteries, with frescoes and murals always standing out. Landscapes delight, from plus 5,000-meter mountains to serene lakes, isolated forests and deep river canyons. You do not even need a hiking trail here. Everywhere outside the towns and cities feel like the very heart of nature.
With a private guide, you can explore Armenia in depth on your vacation. The most common route is to spend two or three days here as part of a more extended Caucasus tour, taking in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Armenia is also easy to add onto a tour through Turkey, especially when traveling to eastern Turkey. Land in Armenia and you are instantly immersed in the culture. So it only takes two to three days for dozens of experiential highlights. Spend longer, and you dive even deeper into one of the world’s great cultural experiences.
Zvartnos temple ruins in Yerevan.
Enigmatic and enchanting, the capital city, Yerevan is at the heart of most itineraries. In a manner that epitomizes the rest of the country, Yerevan has quickly moved on from Soviet occupation. Rather than gray communist architecture, the streets are rose-tinted with magnificent old churches filled with details tumbling beneath domes and spires. It is warm and sunny with a glow cast upon the streets, changing the appearance of local duf stone. With snow-capped Mount Ararat as a backdrop, there are few more impressive ex-Soviet cities; Yerevan also escapes the drunken crowds that fill cities like Riga and Tallinn in summer.
Yerevan is old-world. Streets of pinkish stone lead you to the mosaic-laden churches from a very distant era; ancient manuscripts are part of the excellent Matenadaran Museum collection; the monastery of St. Echmiadzin dates all the way back to 301 AD when Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity. But Yerevan also has style, epitomized by lustrous Northern Avenue, where you sip on coffee from a metal pot on an al fresco terrace.
Dilijan's old town is pictured above.
Hand-carved rock houses line the streets of Dilijan’s old town, embellished by ornate wooden verandahs. Forests provide the backdrop, thick and tranquil as they extend into the surrounding mountains. They call this place “Little Switzerland,” although the nearby monasteries are as Armenian as it comes. The smell of sweet bread spills out from Haghartsin Monastery, where resident priests conduct the tours. Goshavank Monastery’s khachkars (ornamental stone stele) are amongst the finest in the world. Jukhtak Vank and Matosavank hide in the trees, abandoned but not forgotten.
Dilijan is the most common place to spend a night in Armenia outside of Yerevan. Within steps of the old town, you can be out in forest reserves, taking trails to quiet lakes and cozy corners of the country. If anything it is the accommodation that feels Swiss, boutique and low key with superb views out across the country.
Go off the beaten path and visit the world's longest nonstop double track cable car in the Syunik Province.
It has become difficult to go somewhere unique in Europe. The once hidden gems – the Baltic States, southern Balkan coastline, and Scandinavia’s forests – have become familiar fodder for tourism. Armenia remains a place where the locals are genuinely surprised to see a visitor, even in the pink city, Yerevan. Visit the country’s major monuments and World Heritage Sites and you will be almost alone amid the history, certainly not sharing the space with tour buses and flag-waving tour guides.
It is this ease of going off the standard trail that makes Armenia so approachable. You do not need a significant amount of time to gain unique travel experiences. Even in two days and a tour of the most significant attractions, Armenia will make it feel like you have jumped far from the typical path. With the rise of four and five-star hotels over the last decade, now is the time to enjoy what the country offers, before it turns into another once-hidden gem of Europe.
Pictured above: Geghard monastery, Kotayk Province, Armwenia.
Noah’s arc floated across the flood and came to rest on the summit of Mount Ararat, whose snow-dappled summit is visible from most parts of Armenia. The plight of Armenia’s people is documented throughout the bible, so it is not surprising that the country was the first to adopt Christianity. A later story comes from Echmiadzin, a monastery, and the cathedral where St. Gregory built his church.
These early Christian stories come alive with a guide, like at the remains of 7th-century Zvartnots Cathedral, where arches and carved column heads speak of a Hellenistic past. Yerevan’s churches house superb early Christian art, particularly mosaics with a distinctively eastern flair. Then there are the monasteries, icons of when the religion had only just begun. It is through these monuments that you get a strong sense of how Christianity evolved in its early centuries and laid foundations for what it has become today.
Geghard monastery, UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Hidden cave monasteries are the most evocative memoirs to Armenia’s early Christian history. Holy Lance in Geghard is unmissable if you are planning to visit only one monastery. It is easy to visit on a trip from Yerevan, and it is symbolic in both its style and detail. Noravank Monastery hides in a narrow river gorge, surrounded by flaming red cliffs. Tatev Monastery is reached on the world’s longest aerial tramway, while the ruins of many fill both forests and mountain slopes, such as Khor Virap on Mt. Ararat. Sanahin and Haghpat are also on the UNESCO World Heritage list; their styles are very different. A revered school for illuminators and calligraphers was based in the area, and the monasteries’ elaborate interiors showcase an artistic style from the ninth and tenth centuries.
Remains of the Old Silk Road
Caravanserai Old Silk Road remains.
Throughout history, Armenia has been at a crossroads between east and west. It was an essential part of the Old Silk Road; a trading post from which monks sold a fiery red dye that would travel to both Beijing and Cairo. Remnants of this trading history remain, including a road of ancient bridges and fresh water springs that caravans used to travel along. Caravanserais wait in a redolent state of ruin, mostly scattered across the countryside. On tours, you can also learn more about the Armenian cochineal that produces the famed red dye that does not fade in the sun.
Cooking With the Locals
Local market in Yerevan.
Like most things Armenian, the cuisine sticks firmly to tradition. Dolma (stuffed grape leaves) made from organic produce, dishes made sweet by local fruit, beetroot soup with sour cream. The bread is memorable, a warm fluffy flatbread that makes breakfast a meal to remember (known as lavash). You will find the raw ingredients in atmospheric food markets, and the best place to taste is with the locals. Cooking classes are a chance to converse with the people and learn ancestral recipes. Many locals brew alcoholic spirits from fruit and Armenia has a 6,000-year history of making wine.
Jermuk’s Mineral Waters
Spring water is pictured above.
Perched in the mountains of Southern Armenia, Jermuk has always evolved from its bubbling hot springs. The water comes out hot here, and local baths provide the experience that put Jermuk on the map (as well as making it popular with Russian visitors). Different ailments are treated at water galleries, where the water pours out at contrasting temperatures, something else that are included in most spa hotel stays. In winter the surrounding slopes are open to skiers, while a hiking trail can take you down the cliffs to fortified Gndevank Monastery beneath the town.
Tavush green landscape.
Armenia is rural with little development beyond Yerevan, the country’s second and third towns feel more like villages. Throughout the Old Testament, Armenia was known as a legendary place of high mountains and dense forests. This is still very much the case. Discover thousands of petroglyphs on Mt. Ughtasar, disappear into the forests around Dilijan, explore monasteries scattered around alpine Lake Sevan. You do not need to be a hiker to enjoy these landscapes. With their potholes and ochre color, the narrow roads sometimes appear more like hiking trails than places to drive.
This is a country that makes beautiful and remote landscapes accessible. Walk for only 20 minutes, and it feels like you have ventured into the heart of the wild. When you are deep in these landscapes, there is breathtaking evidence of an ancient past. Stroll on the foothills of Mt. Ararat, find rock-cut temples amid the thick forests of Khosrov Reserve, or follow the Debed River Canyon towards Georgia in Northern Armenia. Rolling green hills fill the gaps in between, and you will never be far from a high mountain backdrop.
Sunset at beautiful Mount Ararat.
Armenia is a great country to consider in July and August, the months when other European countries can become uncomfortably crowded. There is not much tourism here, so a quick jaunt to Armenia can provide a lovely contrast to a wider European tour.
The summers are hot and dry, with temperatures peaking in June and July. Winters are cold, especially outside Yerevan, where your destinations are likely to be at altitude. As with a lot of Europe, spring and fall are beautiful times to visit, with color changes adding another inimitable factor to the landscape.
Alaverdi luxury stone hotel.
Finding somewhere good to stay has been a limiting factor in both bringing visitors to Armenia and getting them beyond Yerevan. The capital city has style, reflected in the new breed of hotels found on the streets. In particular, there are good contemporary hotels in the pedestrianized area around Northern Avenue. Business hotels have also ensured high standards are maintained in the capital, with some of the big international names represented.
Dilijan and Jermuk also have quality hotels. Dilijan’s are firmly in the boutique category, similar to a luxurious homestay. Those in Jermuk hark back to a Soviet era, with pomp and excess that is found in many old Soviet spa towns. Both destinations have had been a recent facelift, and the facilities are much closer to 21st-century comfort than you might expect.
Outside of these towns, it can be hard to find somewhere that is tempting to stay, although there are two exceptions: a very local homestay experience or a relaxed and remote retreat along Lake Sevan. Recent developments have ensured that the four and five-star hotels have amenities to cater for small and large families.
Scenic poppy field in Armenia.
Visa requirements for visiting Armenia have loosened significantly over the last decade. U.S. passport holders can now travel visa-free, as well as nationals of European Union and Schengen Area countries. Canadian passport holders can obtain a visa upon arrival at the airport. It is important to clarify these visa requirements with your tour operator before travel, as they do change and not all land borders offer a visa upon arrival service, which can cause complications when traveling from neighboring Georgia.
Travel advisory warning has been in place sporadically. These refer to Armenian regions bordering Azerbaijan and concern the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian mountain land that is still internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. Check your relevant foreign office advice before traveling and note that your travel insurance will not be valid for visits to regions where travel is not advised. It is also worth remembering that past conflicts mean Armenia does not have good relations with its neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkey, so situations and travel warning can change.
Having a local contact in Armenia is important. English is not widely spoken, and the country can be confusing to first-time visitors. A local contact helps remove any apprehension.
A local contact is essential in Armenia since most locals do not speak English.
Armenia is a country of organic food and blissful landscapes, healing hot springs and hiking trails. You may end up leaving feeling healthier than when you arrive. If you do not, it is probably due to the strong fruity alcohol. Tap water drips down from the mountains and is some of the tastiest in Europe. Bottled water is available throughout the country and most of it comes from the same sources in the mountains.
Having a local contact is essential in case of emergency. It is unlikely you will be treated by an English-speaking doctor or nurse, even in the capital city. Medical facilities in Yerevan are relatively good, but they can be rudimentary when you travel further afield, with sporadic opening hours. Local guides should have a grasp on the situation in the places you visit.
Crime is low and is extremely rare against both Armenians and foreigners. This is a country where you will not hear the European tales of pickpockets. It is the roads that can cause the most danger, as locals play rather fast and loose with the road laws. Take care when crossing the road in Yerevan and beware of taxi drivers that want to go places fast.
Armenia will welcome you into its culture. There is no tourist facade to clamber through first, just a country that lays out a welcome and an authentic impression to everyone that visits. Locals warmly welcome foreign guests and lay on the hospitality despite the language barrier. For many, it is the people that provide the memory of a visit.
Culture and Etiquette
Traditional carpet and rugs in Armenia.
At its heart, this is an extremely conservative Christian nation. Religion plays a huge role in most people’s lives, both out in public and at home. This needs to be respected by any foreign visitor.
In particular, unaccompanied men should be wary about causing offense by making passes at Armenian women, whether they are married or unmarried. Although such a situation is unlikely to arise, there may be serious repercussions for the woman involved.
This conservatism can be extended to what to wear. Many of Armenia’s attractions are religious, and it is rare to go a day without seeing another surreal monastery or church. It is best to pack and wear clothes that comfortably cover both shoulders and knees, that way there is no stress about whether you may cause offense.
Most people in Armenia will not speak English, however, younger generations are starting to take English classes in school.
The Armenians are immensely proud of their language, with a history dating back many millennia. It has its own alphabet; those versed in early Greek language may recognize some similarities, but for most, it can be baffling to follow. The locals will not expect you to know their language, but learning a greeting and thank you can help open up local conversation.
More and more young people are learning English in the city. The area around Yerevan’s Northern Avenue has seen English used as a form of upper-class cultural capital. Restaurants in this area translate menus and people in shops may be bilingual. High-end restaurants and hotels should also have English-speaking staff. However, beyond Yerevan and upmarket establishments, communicating can be a challenge without a guide to translate.
Armenian dram is the currency of the country. U.S. dollars and euros are easy to exchange in both cities and towns, with forex offices and banks offering this facility. Other than Russian roubles, it can be difficult to exchange other currencies.
Upmarket establishments, including shops and restaurants, have started accepting credit cards. Four or five-star hotels should accept cards as well. However, finding a place that accepts American Express may be difficult. Your guide can advise on where it is possible to pay with Visa and Mastercard. It is possible to withdraw drams using a foreign card at some ATMs in Yerevan. This should not be relied on when you travel beyond the capital, and it is always recommended to carry emergency cash when visiting Armenia.
Zicasso's travel experts will craft the vacation of your dreams.
Armenia needs an insider’s knowledge. In a country where tourism is only just developing, a handful of experts are opening up experiential highlights. Despite its reputation, this is not a difficult country to travel in, as long as you have a good local guide. Zicasso will connect you to Armenia’s specialists, who will craft a tour that reflects your interests and the country’s inimitable appeal.