Yerevan, Armenia

Before my trip to Armenia, I considered it to be well outside of my comfort zone – a former Soviet Republic situated far further east than I’d ever ventured before, with a simmering border conflict and an obscure language . Although the ETF would provide some cushion, I wasn’t sure how well I’d get on as a tourist.

But I’m happy to report that I found Yerevan to be a gentle introduction to this part of the world, which I’m now keen to explore further. The central district, Kentron, is highly walkable, with an attractive collection of parks and squares dotted with cafes. It could easily be mistaken for a European city, although the use of distinctive tuff stone gives the capital a unique architectural identity. Despite arriving in mid-October, the weather was mild – warmer than home, mercifully cooler than Dubai – and my monolingualism was rarely a hindrance.

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Getting in to Armenia was straightforward: I breezed through immigration at the small but modern Zvartnots airport in less than five minutes, as Brits enjoy visa-free entry. (Getting out was trickier – it took a lot of convincing to board my flight back to Dubai without a visa.)

I had no problems activating a local e-SIM I’d arranged through my usual source, Airalo: $9 getting me 1GB of data. I hadn’t been able to obtain any Armenian Dram prior to my trip, so I was relieved to find a number of ATMs in the terminal.

Despite my visit coinciding with the UK’s brief, disastrous Trussonomics experiment, I still received about 440 AMD to the £. This does present a slight challenge for first-time visitors: on requesting 20,000AMD to get started, this was dispensed as a single crisp note – completely useless for the mere 300 dram bus fare!

The previous Zvartnots airport – today’s experience is a bit more modern!

The airport express, route 201, is a minibus service operating every half an hour during the day. The main thing to know is that you pay when you leave, not when you board – so at the airport, just take a seat unless you need your luggage stowed. Express is the right word – the sliding side door would be flung open on the approach to each stop, and we’d set off again as soon as passengers were (mostly) aboard. The bumpy ride into the capital takes about half an hour, depending on where you decide to disembark – now that I know the city better, I’d have bailed out a few stops earlier than the terminus, Yeritasardakan metro station. Having not managed to withdraw anything smaller than a 1000 dram note, I ended up paying 500 for the ride – obviously still a bargain.

To be honest, the more sensible option – and the only one for most flights, which arrive in the dead of night – is to take a taxi. Rather than drag my luggage back across the city, that was how I returned to the airport at the end of my stay. Arranged by my hotel via the Yandex app – like Uber, except you pay in cash – the fare was 1700AMD. I imagine you could negotiate similar from one of the drivers waiting landside for arriving passengers; rates at the official desk are much higher.

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With the Extraordinary Travel Festival and Cosmic Daytrip occupying the bulk of my time in Armenia, I had to pack most of my Yerevan sightseeing into my first afternoon. Top of my list was the Cascade Complex – a vast hillside structure that is both artwork and art gallery. My meandering route there ticked off a number of other places of interest – various parks, Republic Square, and the Opera – before reaching the sculpture garden at the foot of the stairs.

Cascade Complex and Memorial to the 50th Anniversary of October Revolution

I think that if this was somewhere in Europe, it would be world famous – certainly, it’s far more impressive than, say, Rome’s Spanish Steps. But fortunately relative obscurity means – at least on a Thursday afternoon in winter – that it wasn’t at all crowded, and I could easily get photos as I slowly worked my way up the levels. If you only have time for one thing in Yerevan, this should be it!

I had time and energy for more, however, so pressed on even higher: a little past the October Revolution memorial, an underpass allows access to Victory Park. Here a walk through the gardens, with views across the city, leads to the Mother Armenia statue. No meek monument to maternal instinct this, for she wields a sword the size of a school bus and looks ready to dispatch any threat to the nation.

Mother Armenia, Victory Park

Unfortunately at this point I had to retrace my (many) steps – I had hoped there would be a way to reach Teryan street and descend to Yeritasardakan, but it’s not quite possible as a pedestrian. Round-trip, I racked up six miles from English Park: it took me almost three and a half hours, but the going would have been quicker and easier had I realised there are escalators inside the Cascade Complex…

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All this worked up quite the appetite, but fortunately food in Yerevan is tasty, plentiful, and very reasonably priced. The Armenian take on barbecue seems to be the standard recommendation for visitors, but I was in search of another national dish: Lahmajun.

Lahmajun Gaidz

Sometimes called Armenian pizza, there are a number of differences: cheese rarely features as a topping, beef usually does, and the base is more of a flatbread. The version I went for – the eponymous dish at Lahmajun Gaidz – added aubergine, but star of the show was the blend of spices – creating a lingering warmth without being overpowering. I received a huge serving for 1800AMD, but a basic lahmajun – tomato, beef, parsley, garlic, spices – is just 500 dram. This was the only place I found staff who couldn’t speak English, but the menu was bilingual so we muddled through.

Barbecue is best enjoyed in a group, where you can sample a bit of everything from a platter heaped with different meats – which was precisely how the festival dinner was catered. I am not sure if anyone enjoys Borscht, but I also got to try that, during the Cosmic Day Trip! I otherwise stuck to familiar fare, with Italian food easy to find.

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All of the hotel loyalty programmes I use have properties in Yerevan; I settled on Hilton’s Doubletree as it was located a few minutes’ walk from the ETF venue and I’d get free breakfast. In case my elaborate travel plan didn’t work out, I booked a semi-flexible rate of almost exactly £100 per night, which I could cancel without penalty if I didn’t make it to Dubai on schedule.

King room at DoubleTree by Hilton Yerevan City Centre

Having successfully reached central Yerevan, Google sent me on a strange route via Zoravar Andranik metro station – after meeting a lot of stray cats and crossing an eight lane highway, I was questioning how well located the hotel was. In fact, it’s in a convenient spot – cutting across English Park will link you to the broad avenues leading up to Republic Square.

My room was spacious and modern, with a particularly impressive bathroom featuring a great shower. Being a dozen floors up also afforded some good views across the city to Mount Ararat – an icon for both Armenia and Yerevan, but these days Turkish territory. Unfortunately this height didn’t completely mute the traffic noise from that highway: not so much the vehicles, as the police directing them with whistles… but this is the only criticism I can think of. I’m not sure how much the breakfast buffet would cost; even if not included for free I’d still recommend it, as the range was vast.

The front desk team were friendly and helpful throughout my stay; at check-in I was given a bag piled high with local sweet treats – although no signature Doubletree cookie! – and later they assisted with breaking up bank notes and ordering taxis.

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My time in Yerevan ended all too soon: although I did squeeze in a bit more sightseeing during the ETF, I’d rather have spent more of this trip here and less in Dubai. As mentioned, it was an encouraging step out of my usual European / North American bubble, and one I’d like to repeat, whether that be exploring Armenia further, or sampling another country in the region such as Georgia.