Armenia is a captivating destination, long acknowledged as a cradle of civilisation with centuries of ancient history to unravel. Armenia was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity as its official state religion and many of the country's surviving ancient monuments are Christian churches and monasteries. Mount Ararat, in Turkey, was once within the borders of Armenia before the area was divided between Turkey and the USSR, and is believed to be the landing site of Noah's ark. Armenians still consider the mountain to be a symbol of their land, and it features on their national emblem today.
Present-day Armenia is a tiny landlocked country sandwiched between the Black and Caspian Seas, occupying but a fraction of the ancient Armenia. Its capital, Yerevan, is one of the world's oldest cities, established years before the founding of ancient Rome.
Armenia is mountainous and incredibly picturesque. The countryside is riddled with small lakes, and also reveals one of the world's biggest mountain lakes, Lake Sevan. The mountains are home to health spas and treatment centres, and the Tavush region is known for its healing mineral waters, with popular resorts such as Ijevan and Dilijan.
The Kotayk region has some of Armenia's most spectacular scenery. The resort of Tsakhkadzor ('canyon of flowers') is most popular in winter, with excellent skiing. Visitors to the Syunik region will find beautiful natural springs, as well as the Tatev Monastery, Karahunj (the Stonehenge of Armenia), and the Shaki Waterfall. To the north, the Lori region is great for hiking, and hosts two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the monasteries of Sanahin and Haghpat, as well as the Odzun Cathedral. East of Yerevan lies the spiritual centre of Armenia, the Holy See of Echmiadzin, the most significant cathedral in the world's oldest Christian nation.
Despite some truly heavy-hitting historical and cultural attractions, Armenia remains an underappreciated tourist destination. As the first country in the world to adopt Christianity it is no surprise that Armenia is dotted with ancient churches and monasteries, making the country primarily a religious tourist destination. Being off the radar of package tours and a little hard to get to only adds to the mysterious biblical allure of the region.
The biggest tourist attractions include the 17th-century Khor Virap Monastery, an important pilgrimage site loomed over by the iconic Mount Ararat, where Noah is said to have landed the Ark; the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, reputed to be the oldest state-built church in the world; the 2,000-year-old Garni Temple, a gloriously well-preserved Pagan temple; the archaeological site of Carahunge, called the 'Stonehenge of Armenia'; and the UNESCO-listed Monastery of Geghard, built in 1215.
Visitors will also enjoy making their way along the scenic Debed Canyon, past old villages and monasteries such as Haghpat and Sanahin. The Erebuni Archaeological Museum dates back to before the establishment of Rome, giving insight into the lives of the great kings of Urartu. Sunset over Norovank ('New Monastery') is said to be one of the most spectacular sights in the country.
In the global imagination Armenia is also strongly associated with the horrific Armenian Genocide of 1915, during which Turkish troops killed about 1.5 million Armenians. This tragic history is memorialised at Tsitsernakaberd, part museum and part memorial, where travellers can learn about the Armenian holocaust and pay their respects.
The Greco-Roman Garni Temple is a popular tourist attraction, putting the small, rural village of Garni on the map. This 2,000-year-old building was constructed out of basalt on the banks of the Azat River and was the summer residence of the Armenian Kings, featuring constructions like a two-storey royal summer palace, a bath complex, a church, a cemetery and a Greco-Roman temple built in the Ionic style. While much of the temple was destroyed in the ensuing millennia, it was restored to its former glory in the 1960s. Archaeologists are still working at the site, and many artefacts have been uncovered.
Tsitsernakaberd is a memorial honouring the memory of the victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide that took place in the Ottoman Empire. It is estimated that over one million Armenians were killed in the genocide. The monument is made up of two sections: the 140-foot (44m) stele symbolizes the national rebirth of Armenians, while the circular construction of 12 slabs represents the 12 lost provinces in present day Turkey. Every year on 24 April, Genocide Remembrance Day, hundreds of thousands of people gather at the monument and lay flowers. The attached museum tells the story of the genocide through photographs, films and newspaper clippings.
The Monastery of Geghard, or 'Monastery of the Spear', is perhaps Armenia's most memorable attraction. Partially carved out of an adjacent mountain, and surrounded by the spectacular cliffs of the Azat River gorge, the monastery was founded in the 4th Century at the site of a sacred spring deep inside the cave. The impressive main chapel was built in 1215 and is a lasting testament to the devotion and architectural skill of the Armenian people. The monastery complex takes its name from the weapon which wounded Jesus Christ, and was supposedly brought to Armenia by Jude the Apostle.
Yerevan's Cascade Complex - an enormous white stairwell built into the hillside, replete with flowing water fountains to mimic a natural cascade - links Yerevan's CBD with the Monument Neighbourhood at the top of the hill, and is an important cultural hub in Armenia's capital city. The awe-inspiring structure plays host to a variety of free cultural events that operate year-round, from music concerts, to art exhibitions, and more. The Cascade Complex is a wonderful place to walk, jog or bike around, while soaking up magnificent views of Mount Ararat and Yerevan's city centre.
Carahunge is an ancient astronomical observatory complex consisting of over 200 stones huddled on a hilltop. Often referred to as 'Armenia's Stonehenge', this description may be unjust: Armenia's stone circle complex was established long before Stonehenge, making it one of the oldest megalithic sites in the world outside of Turkey. The stones still display the angled holes that were carved into them by Armenian priests for the purpose of tracking celestial bodies. Also referred to as Zorats Karer, Carahunge is perhaps one of the last places in the world you can visit and literally be surrounded by 7,500 years of human history.
Yerevan has a continental semi-arid climate that is influenced by its mountainous location. The city experiences hot dry summers and cold snowy winters. This large variation between seasons is due to Yerevan's location on a plain surrounded by mountains as well as its position in relation to the sea. Temperatures during the summer (June to September) are very hot in Yerevan, ranging between 72°F (22°C) and 93°F (34°C). In contrast, winters (December to February) in Yerevan are freezing cold, with average temperatures dropping to lows of 19°F (-7°C) and reaching highs of 42°F (6°C). Precipitation levels are low throughout the year, amounting to about 12.5 inches (318mm) per year.
Most of Armenia experiences a continental climate due to its high elevation, with hot summers and cold winters. The higher elevations receive more precipitation and are cooler. Summer is the most popular season for travellers, but spring and autumn are the best time of year to travel in Armenia for those who prefer milder temperatures. Yerevan's summer temperatures (June to September) are hot, with averages ranging between 72°F (22°C) and 93°F (34°C), and occasionally reaching 104°F (40°C). In contrast, winters in Yerevan are freezing cold with temperatures dropping to between 5°F (-15°C) and 32°F (0°C). Precipitation levels are low throughout the year.
The official currency of Armenia is the Dram (AMD), which is divided into 100 luma. Foreign currency can be exchanged at banks as well as many hotels, with US dollars the most widely recognised and easily changed, although notes should be in good condition. Credit cards are not widely accepted other than in some large hotels and restaurants. ATMs are now widely available in cities as well as small towns. It is advisable to carry plenty of small change in local currency as shops and markets will often not have change.
Armenian is the official language, and it has its own alphabet. Russian is widely spoken and English is becoming more prominent.
Electrical current in Armenia is 230 volts, 50Hz. Round, two-pin attachment plugs and Schuko plugs are in use.
US nationals require a valid passport but a visa is not required for stays of up to 180 days.
UK citizens require a valid passport but do not require a visa for stays of up to 180 days.
Canadians require a passport valid for duration of stay and a visa for entry to Armenia. It may be possible for tourist visas to be issued on arrival at Yerevan (EVN) for stays of up to 120 days, but this should be confirmed in advance.
Australians require a passport valid for duration of stay in Armenia. Nationals of Australia are visa exempt for a stay of up to 180 days.
South Africans require a passport valid for duration of stay and a visa for entry to Armenia. It may be possible for tourist visas to be issued on arrival at Yerevan (EVN) for stays of up to 120 days, but this should be confirmed in advance.
Irish nationals require a valid passport, but no visa is required for stays of up to 180 days.
US nationals require a valid passport but a visa is not required for stays of up to 180 days.
Nationals of New Zealand require a passport valid for duration of stay in Armenia. New Zealanders are visa exempt for stays of up to 180 days.
All passports must be valid for the period of intended stay. It is highly recommended that passports always be valid for six months after departure when travelling. It is recommended that all visitors requiring a visa should obtain it prior to arrival from the Armenian Embassy in their home country; however, visas are obtainable for some nationalities for a tourist stay of up to four months at Yerevan Airport, if holding sufficient funds and proof of onward travel. This is payable in local currency only.
There are no immunizations required for travellers to Armenia but vaccinations for hepatitis A and hepatitis B should be considered. There is a small risk of malaria between June and October in some of the villages of the Ararat Valley. Tap water should not be drunk, unless filtered or boiled. Medical care is limited, particularly outside of Yerevan, and treatment is not recommended for anything major. Comprehensive medical insurance should include emergency medical evacuation. All required prescription medication should be taken along, in the original packaging and accompanied by a signed doctor's note.
Many restaurants in the capital will add a service charge onto the bill, but this generally does not go to the staff, so tips are welcome in Armenia. A tip of about 10 percent is fair.
Crime is relatively low in Armenia, but travellers should still be careful with their personal possessions and avoid any unnecessary displays of wealth. Pickpockets take advantage of crowded market areas. Avoid travel near the border with Azerbaijan due to continuing tension between the two countries.
Armenia is an orthodox Christian country and the locals tend to be conservative, especially outside of the capital. Women should avoid wearing shorts and short skirts, particularly outside of Yerevan. Military bases and installations should not be photographed. Homosexuality is no longer illegal in Armenia, but homophobia is still a problem.
Business is conducted fairly formally in Armenia; dress tends to be conservative and good etiquette is important. Business hours are Monday to Friday from 9am to 6pm, though there is some variation between businesses.
The international dialling code for Armenia is +374. Mobile phone networks have coverage throughout Armenia. Post offices and major hotels have international dialling access, but calls are expensive. Internet cafes are available in Yerevan and other large cities. Armenia still tends to be a bit backwards with regard to communications, but fibre cables are being laid, and wifi is available in built up areas such as Yerevan, in hotels, cafes and bars.
There is free import on 400 cigarettes or 10 cigars, 2 litres of alcohol, perfume within a monetary limit and personal goods of up to US$400 in value.
Tourism Unite of Culture and Tourism Department, Yerevan: (+37411) 514 230, email@example.com
Armenia Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 319 1976.
Armenia Embassy, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Ireland): +44 (0)20 7938 5435.
Armenia Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 234 3710.
United States Embassy, Yerevan: +374 (0)10 464 700.
British Embassy, Yerevan: +374 (0)10 264 301.
Canadian Embassy, Moscow, Russia (also responsible for Armenia): +7 495 105 6000.
South African Embassy, Kyiv, Ukraine (also responsible for Armenia): +380 (44) 289 8870.
Australian Embassy, Moscow, Russia (also responsible for Armenia): +7 495 956 6070.
Irish Embassy, Sofia, Bulgaria (also responsible for Armenia): +359 2 985 3425.
Yerevan has an extensive public transport network, predominately served by numerous bus and trolley lines. There are also minibuses, known locally as marshrutka, which operate on various routes in the city. While they are a cheap mode of transport, vehicles are usually overcrowded. The Yerevan Metro has just a single line with 10 stations on it, but many people use the service each day. Yerevan also has a central train station that is connected to the metro system. From here, travellers can catch intercity trains to other destinations in Armenia or to neighbouring Georgia. Train services also connect Yerevan's city centre to suburbs such as Armavie, Gyumri, Yeraskh, Ararat, Hrazdan and Shorzha. Taxis are abundant in Yerevan and there are lots of different taxi companies operating in the city, so prices are competitive. It is easy to flag an empty taxi down on the street. Visitors are advised to ensure the driver has the meter turned on before the start of a taxi ride. Those with an international driving licence can hire a car in Yerevan.