"Let's go to Armenia."
"Wait, where is it?"
"I think the Kardashians just went there."
These are the thoughts I ran through in early February when we were planning our Valentine's weekend trip. I had no idea what to expect, but we knew we wanted to get away, a quick plane ride, maybe the chance to see a little snow and get that winter chill we don't get in the UAE.
The planning was simple. I made flight and hotel reservations within ten minutes over my morning cup of tea. Flying to Yerevan from Dubai is easy on Flydubai - a budget-friendly, sister airline of Emirates. They were less than $200 each and our 4-star hotel in the heart of the city, Republica Hotel, ran us $60 a night. Armenia's a steal! Let's go! Wait, where is it again?
We arrived around 5am, grabbed some cash (the Armenian dram is 490 to 1 USD, so you gotta get thousands of drams) and hopped in a cab for a 30 minute ride to the city center. Being the planner I am, I had a few ideas written down after scouring various travel blogs and Tripadvisor reviews. We grabbed breakfast at our hotel (free all during our stay!) and set out for a day of exploring Armenia's capital city. This frigid little city, let me tell you.
Facts before all the fun:
1. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD and is home to the world's oldest church, Holy Etchmiadzin built in the early 4th century. We went there! The history lesson you'll get here is better than any textbook you were forced to read in high school.
2. English is limited, but younger people can tend to understand a little more. If you don't know Armenian, brush up on your Russian, as they understand that as well. We were out of luck.
3. Mount Ararat is the national symbol although it sits in Turkish territory now. Always snow-capped and seen from almost everywhere in Armenia, the best view is from Khor Virap. We went there too! The mountain is stunning and said to have been where Noah landed that big ark of his.
4. Known as "the pink city", many buildings in Yerevan are made of pink stone, naturally colored volcanic rock, and it's got this royal, ancient yet modern look to it. Does that make sense? Probably not. Beautiful during the day, and at night, even on the chilliest night, the pink buildings all lit up give them this warm, romantic tone.
5. Last fact I'll give you. Just over 100 years ago, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed during a genocide that took place during and shortly after WWI. Torture, starvation and brutal death marches towards the Syrian desert took most of their lives, and I can honestly say I was not educated on this tragedy hardly at all. This is why it's so important to travel. The places you visit stick with you better than any lecture, any podcast, any book.
So, it's pretty easy to navigate yourself around Yerevan by foot. If you can find the Opera House and Republic Square, you've got it down. And that's precisely what we did our first day. We souvenir shopped of course and snapped a few shots of the main plaza and Opera House. We took pictures on the snowy sidewalks like two kids who have never seen a flurry, and we stumbled into the lovely, traditional restaurant, HighRest, where Jon dished on rabbit, and I had a beef kebab because I don't eat Thumper. The dishes were of the freshest quality and certainly presented in a way that we weren't expecting for a quick lunch - very elegant. The beer we relaxed with was called Aleksandrapol. Obviously, I was a fan and took lots of selfies with the bottle.
The night continued with a stroll around the Cascade, a giant stairway that's fairly new (completed in 1980) and houses a modern art museum underneath the exterior steps. If you want to climb all those stairs, go right ahead, but if you're like pshhh...nahhhh, walk inside and take the escalators. That way, you get the benefits of viewing great modern art and getting to the top a little less winded where you'll get the best view of the city and on a clear day, Mt Ararat.
All that escalator riding meant drinks for us, naturally. So, we bar hopped from Eden Cafe, just steps away from the Cascade to Hemingway's Pub, a few doors down. Eden was great to start out, small and intimate upstairs with sisha available, shelves of books, little paintings on the walls and barely lit by strings of Edison bulbs.
Imagine bean bag chairs, book pages covering light fixtures, antique typewriters and a little bar in the corner and you're at our next stop, Hemingway's. Here, Jon enjoyed the local beer, Kilikia and I opted for a dry red Armenian wine asking Jon for sips every now and then because Kilikia is seriously so so so good when it hits your lips.
Next, Kandinsky's Bar was my absolute favorite. You walk in to an open room with walls full of paintings, a live band, and the best burgers we could have imagined after a cold day walking around. It's a gem, and I want to go back to Yerevan just to go back to Kandinsky's.
On our second day, we visited The History Museum of Armenia on Republic Square. Admission was 1,000 drams (about $2) and we spent about two hours looking at artifacts that dated all the way back to 2nd and 3rd millennia BC. We saw 14th century BC wooden carts and chariots, coins, ceramics, jewelry and the world's oldest leather shoe at 5,500 years old! The building is mind-blowing and a must-see. Don't get too discouraged though, the plaques explaining everything were typically in Armenian or Russian, but when we saw English we huddled over reading every word.
That night we had reservations at Dolmama for our Valentine's dinner. Authentic Armenian cuisine in an old house converted to a restaurant, and we couldn't stop looking around, it was that dreamy. We enjoyed complimentary champagne right away, and then decided on a bottle of Kataro red wine. The Armenian salad was massive and perfect to share. Jon ordered the Dolma (veal and rice wrapped in grape leaves, their signature dish) and I got the trout with spicy ginger and dill. We were so happy in that moment, our tastebuds were actually dancing. This place is divine and the perfect choice for a romantic evening. We ended with complimentary cherry dessert wine (our server was really trying to get us a little drunkie) and walked away spending the most we spent anywhere this trip, about 70 bucks.
Our remaining days consisted of traveling to Khor Virap to get some epic pictures of the peaks of Ararat and Etchmiadzin, the oldest cathedral. Both destinations took us about a total 3 hours, and we arranged the tour service through our hotel. Traveling to these spots was an eye opening experience for me personally though. I have never seen so many neglected buildings in my life, and the Soviet-era housing developments are sure to make you realize how good we have it. I guess you could say we were on our way to these highly spiritual places and right in front of me was all the perspective I didn't even know I needed to appreciate and thank God a little more every single day.
Another goosebump filled experience was the Genocide Memorial. Free to the public and set on a hillside outside the middle of the city, we walked towards it and ended up being the only two people there, a quiet moment I don't think either of us will forget. The memorial features a wall with the names of towns where massacres took place, and it felt like it went on forever. Twelve tall slabs complete a circle around an eternal flame dedicated to the 1.5 million killed and directly next to it is a taller stele symbolizing the rebirth of Armenians. It's a truly remarkable structure, one that shouldn't be missed.
If you can believe it, there are even more things we did in Yerevan than what's listed above. Here are a few extra recommendations if you're looking for:
Best cafe for breakfast or lunch: we loved Louis Charden on Amiryan Street. The crepe cake changed my life and may require its own blog post.
Best dive bar: go to Calumet Ethnic Lounge. It's grungy and smokey and full of souvenirs and random crap from all over the world. It was expat central and we were shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers. Ahhh, college.
Best shopping: visit the Vernissage open-air market. You'll get lost in the stalls of jewelry, carpets, books, antiques and incredible art. We bought an oil painting of a vintage camera from the sweetest Armenian man, and it'll hang in our house forever. Great souvenir!
Best club: I just have to mention Paparazzi because we walked in to no cover and were immediately given complimentary drinks and friendly smiles from the bartenders. Hip little place where Jon and I drank and politically debated over loud music for about an hour. Sometimes those make the best memories, just outright disagreeing with each other and laughing nonstop.
Best tour: Yerevan Brandy Company was a strong way to start a day and we had the best time learning how Winston Churchill's favorite brandy, Ararat, is made, stored and distributed. The tour lasts about 30 minutes and there's a tasting at the end - you can choose 2 or 3 glasses of different ages and it will cost you about 4500-1000 drams.
Best vibe: I already mentioned Kandinsky's, but a close second is Club 12 - hardly a club with plush chairs, candle light, a little jazz on stage and excellent service. We shared some mussels and pistachios as we stepped in for a quick snack and instantly felt sophisticated and posh.
We were pleasantly surprised by Armenia and it ranks up there were with one of our favorite destinations to date. If you decide to go, have a good journey or in Armenian, bari charnapar!
Souvenirs! You know you want some. Here’s what to catch in Yerevan:
Kilikia glass – Nearly every place has a local beer. I have been many places and tasted many of these and almost universally they are indistinguishable. From the Netherlands (Heineken) to Stella (not that one, the Egyptian one) to Bintang (Indonesia) to good old Budweiser back home to Myanmar (Myanmar - no, seriously the beer in Myanmar is called Myanmar) a national lager tastes remarkably consistent just about wherever you go. Except, as it pleasantly turned out, in Armenia, where the predominant local beer is called Kilikia and is classified as a pale lager.
Maybe it was only because it was a little different, but the pale part of it gave it just enough of an edge, a slight bitter bite to make it really refreshing. Just distinct enough from your typical dominant lager to really be very enjoyable.
And so, one of my favorite things to take back with me is a beer glass of a local brew. This can be easy (ever been to Munich?) or, in this case, it took a little bit of work. Kilikia glasses just aren’t sold in shops. So at one café we stopped in for a drink, we had to ask the server if they would sell us one, which itself took a little work. Asking in English was about as stupid of me as you would figure. “Can I buy one of these?” or “Could I pay for a glass, to take?” simply made him think I wanted another beer. Bridging the language gap between our local server, an Armenian with plenty of English but not the kind best suited for stupid tourists, and myself, stupid tourist, I typed “purchase?” into Google translate and hoped it would work.
And it totally did! He brought his boss over and they asked us for like five bucks, and seemed pretty psyched to be grabbing a little pocket change for the dumb glass. But it’s a sweet glass. And Kilikia, if you’re ever in Armenia, is a sweet beer I would recommend.
Republic Square statue – If you collect statues from places (no, just kidding, I know that’s only me) Yerevan is a tricky proposition. It has signature landmarks, notably Republic Square, Opera House and the Cascade, but none is exactly the Eiffel Tower with a million souvenir replicas all over the place. Eventually I found a small snow globe with the National Gallery of Armenia (the keystone building of Republic Square) in it, and took it back, broke it open and added that to the mini statue collection.
Noah’s Ark iconography – Mt Ararat is presumed to be where the Biblical landing of Noah’s Ark occurred, so you can imagine how that figures into the local souvenir fare. I grabbed a little woodworked item, cause it’s probably almost nowhere else on earth are you going to be able to buy Noah’s Ark-themed souvenirs.
Ararat Brandy glass – Drinking is fun on vacations! The distillery tour is one of the more distinctively cool things in Yerevan, and frankly, the brandy tasting at the end alone is worth it. You taste in these very cool, little peculiar shaped glasses, and they’re available for a pretty reasonable price back at the front.