Weekend Layover: Yerevan, Armenia

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Yerevan is a place of storied resilience. Its history is haunting—filled with horrific war and disaster—and Biblical in scale. Founded in 782 B.C., the capital of Armenia is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. And because Armenia is landlocked and sandwiched between Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan, this city of more than one million people is an ideal place to stop on a tour of the South Caucasus.

It’s worth mentioning that there are more Armenians outside of Armenia than in the country today. This is the result of a diaspora that followed genocide at the hands of Ottomans, in which some 1.5 million were killed. In short, outsiders may first think of the Kardashians when they hear “Armenia,” but the country’s turbulent history is still a tender one and very much present in the country today.

The residents here are typically swarthy with handsome, pronounced features, and are equal parts proud and hospitable. To walk down a street in the center of Yerevan is to saunter, to wander. Explore avenues dotted with shops, restaurants, open squares and parks. In the summer, air conditioners drip on dusty, broken concrete and clothes hang to dry on zigzagging lines. To know Yerevan is to experience its street culture, to spend the day lazily sprawled on a couch at an outdoor cafe.

The center of Yerevan, or Kentron, is where the main attractions are concentrated. You can see everything—cafes, theaters, concert halls and art galleries—on foot or by taking a short taxi ride. There’s an underground metro that you won’t need for transportation, but riding it is a fun activity for public transit nerds and fans. Long hot summers and cool winters make late summer and early fall an ideal time to visit.

Day One

Morning
Watch the city wake up from the top of the Cascade, a giant stairway that ascends the hillside (see photo below). Climb the 572 steps, past art-filled landings, to a monument celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II. From a height of nearly one thousand feet, you can see Mount Ararat on the border with Turkey in the distance on a clear day. At the base of the Cascade, visit Cafesjian Center for the Arts. The entry is price 1000AMD (or $2.11, at 473 Armenian Drams to the dollar). Have a late breakfast at one of the many outdoor cafes, like The Green Bean. They have a fairly Western menu that includes smoothies and anything from black coffee to cappuccinos to accompany pancakes or an omelet. Walk down the bustling Mashtots avenue to the Blue Mosque, an 18th century Shia mosque. Don’t miss the artists selling colorful paintings in the small parks along the way. The mosque itself is stunning and built around a lush garden and covered with mosaics.

Afternoon
If it’s a weekend, haggle your way through Vernissage, a multi-block outdoor flea market near Republic Square. Row after row of vendors sell their goods, from musical instruments to dishware to carpets to kittens and puppies. Take a taxi to the Genocide Museum (free, but closed for construction until April 2015) and explore on your own or take a guided tour. Eat lunch at Dolmama in the center of town just off Republic Square. It’s a little pricier, but a Yerevan institution serving traditional dishes like lamb stew and thick Armenian coffee.

Evening
Walk up past the Cascade or take a cab up the hill to Victory Park, a park that commemorates Soviet Armenia’s participation in World War II. You’ll find a bizarre collection of rickety outdated rides at an amusement park built in 1950 that somehow still run. If you’re brave, take a ride on the swings or the Ferris wheel. Nearby is Mother Armenia, a 240-foot-tall statue of a female warrior overlooking the city. From here you can see all of Yerevan and beyond. Look for the nuclear power plant 20 miles away if it’s clear. Have dinner at Caucasus Tavern, near Yerevan State University, which specializes in traditional Armenian and Georgian dishes. Order khinkali, stuffed dumplings and khachapuri (Georgian cheese-filled bread) to start. For dinner try the gonio (a heavy beef, mushroom, potato concoction covered in cheese).

Late Night
At around 10 p.m. from spring to fall, join the crowds to watch the singing fountains in Republic Square, which is home to major government buildings and a handful of hotels. The streams of water from the fountain (see photo at top) in the middle of the square dance along with colored lights to loud music.

Day Two

Morning
Get up early and take a taxi (make sure the driver turns on the meter) and visit Garni and Geghard, two sites that are less than an hour from the city center. They’re about 10 minutes by car from each other so take a taxi or marshrutka (a local mini-bus) between them. The first-century B.C. Garni temple, with its 24 Ionic basalt pillars, is a symbol of pre-Christian Armenia and perched on a cliff over the Garni gorge. Cliffs and rock faces surround the medieval Geghard monastery—a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in 1215—in the Azat Valley. Buy Armenian sweet bread, or gata, from the women who set up outside the attractions. On the way home, make your cabbie pull over at a street-side vendor and snag some homemade red wine (more common in the southern wine region of Areni) or a bottle of very strong moonshine-like fruit vodka sold in old two liter soda bottles.

Afternoon
Walk into one of the many street-side markets and grab lavash, a tortilla-like flatbread, and goat cheese. Stroll down the trendy Northern Avenue and enjoy it next to Swan Lake (which turns into a skating rink in winter) on a grassy knoll where people like to lounge around the shallow water. Armenia is known for its production of brandy so eat enough to line your stomach before taking an hour-long tour of the Yerevan Brandy Factory, where you’ll learn the liquor’s long history before sampling two different kinds of the spirit.

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The pagan temple of Garni Photo by Anna Callaghan

Evening
Have dinner at the kitschy, though very entertaining Old Erivan. It’s meant for tourists, but doesn’t feel contrived. Dancers often accompany live traditional music and there’s something on the menu, which is the size of a novel, for everyone. Armenian food can be couched as Mediterranean with a Middle Eastern influence. Fresh fruits and cheeses accompany meat-centric dishes. Order the dolmas, ground meat mixed with rice and herbs wrapped in grape leaves, and the trout fresh out of Lake Sevan, about an hour north of the city. After dinner, walk a few blocks to the Opera House, opened in 1933, and catch a performance by the National Ballet of Armenia, which stages traditional performances like Romeo and Juliet. Afterwards, hang out in Opera Square, where a Tuesday night looks the same as a Saturday, and take in Armenia’s relaxed pace.

Getting There
The airport (EVN) is seven miles from town. It’s small, but has free Wi-Fi and a relatively new terminal. You can hop a flight on many major airlines to Yerevan from nearly all European hubs. Air service to Azerbaijan and Turkey is available, but the land borders remain closed.

To stay
Rent an apartment on Airbnb for about $50 in the center of Yerevan and see how the locals live. If you’re looking to splurge stay at the Armenia Marriott, with 245 rooms on the edge of Republic Square. Rooms start at $118. The Apricot Hostel runs about $8 a night for a four-bed dorm room (breakfast included).

Anna Callaghan is a freelance writer based in Seattle. She’s written about things like selling her kidney on Facebook (pretty easy), Instagram yoga celebrities, and is an authoritative voice on camping hammocks.

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