Armenia! This beautiful old country, full of history and wonder… and churches! Not many people know where Armenia is, or can point to it on a map. Things are slowly changing for this country as more and more people are starting to explore the Caucasus and adding Armenia to their list. And we can’t blame them. Armenia is awesome!
Being the first country in the world to accept Christianity as a state religion in AD 301, it’s no surprise that most famous sites here are churches. Impressive, we know, but there is so much more to this magical place than see the monasteries! So here are the top 15 things to see and do in Armenia that are not churches.
Karahunj astronomical observatory
Welcome to what is suspected to be the oldest astronomical observatory in the world! Before Stonehenge, there was Karahunj, or Zorats Karer. It’s a prehistoric archaeological site near the town of Sisian. As its name indicates, these are Speaking Stones or Standing Stones.
The site is made of six different parts: the central circle, the north arm, the south arm, North-East alley, the chord (crossing the circle) and separate standing stones. There are a total of 223 stones of which 80 have a circular holes. After many studies, it was found that 17 of the stones were associated with observations of sunrise or sunset at the solstices and equinoxes, and 14 with the lunar extremes.
There is so much history and mystic coolness associated with this place. It’s almost like you can feel the energy when you’re there. We highly recommend you stop by on your way to Tatev.
Wings of Tatev
Ok, this one is kind of part of a church, but not really! The Wings of Tatev are the record holder for the World’s longest reversible ropeway, at 5,752 m. With epic views over the valley, this ropeway will take you to the beautiful Tatev Monastery. If you don’t want to see the church, that’s ok too! You can go hiking in the area, do some wine-tasting, or even go paragliding!
Access to this site requires a strong heart. The swinging bridge to get to the caves is not for the faint. Be warned that this guy swings and bounces quite a lot. But if you can get across, it’s quite awesome!
Khndzoresk is a village and rural community in the South-East of Armenia, right by Goris. There, you have an amazing view of the steep slopes of Khor Dzor (Deep Gorge).
Khndzoresk is an old village that has been built into the side of the mountains. With caves and ruins still up for you to explore, it’s quite a site. It’s such a cool place and well worth the detour if you go to Tatev, Goris or Artsakh. It was inhabited until the 1950’s. How freakin’ cool!
The climb down to the bridge is long (even longer on the way up). You can take a taxi to get back to the main road, though if you’re slightly fit, you don’t need to. The steps there make it a pretty easy hike.
Explore Armenia’s traditions on a tour
Armenia is a beautiful country full of natural riches and traditions. We had a great time doing various tours of the some of the countries exports. The typical tour is a wine tasting. The Areni region is known for producing great wines, so find a wine you like and go do a wine tasting at their vineyards. If wine is not your thing, then you can head to the Ararat brandy distillery and get a crash course in the tradition of brandy making in Armenia.
Next, you have the traditional carpet making tour. We had a great time exploring the Megerian Carpet factory near Yerevan. We learned how they make these carpets with the traditional Armenian double knot, visited their museum and warehouse, and so much more. It was super interesting.
And finally, for those who love natural and organic cosmetic products, you can tour the beautiful Nairian lab and production facility. We had a wonderful time seeing what plants and herbs are used to make their natural products. They even have a shop where you can try and buy these.
This little waterfall is just magic. You need to hike a short 5 minutes to get to it, but it is gorgeous. Lush and abundant, it’s somewhat surprising to find this waterfall in an arid Armenia. But there it is, tucked in a beautiful natural setting, on your way to Tatev.
There are plenty of tables and places to hang out before getting to the waterfall, so do as the locals do and set up a little BBQ. It’s the perfect setting to take in the surrounding beauty. Unlike the locals, pick up your trash when you leave. This place is too beautiful not to care for it.
Hike the trails
Armenia is slowly getting noticed for its amazing hiking trails. Through valleys, mountains and beautiful scenery, there are so many trails that run deep through this country.
Whether you want to do multi-day hikes, a loop circuit or get from point A to B, there is something for everyone. For those looking for a challenge, you can hike up Mount Aragats or Mount Aghzahad. There are beautiful lush forest hikes in the Dilijan National Park, what we call the “Switzerland of Armenia”. You can even hike to different countries on the Transcaucasian Trail. To find the best hikes, check out HikeArmenia’s website.
Eat. A lot.
In case you didn’t know, the food in Armenia is just delicious. Most of the produce is grown locally, and cooked with care. In fact, cooking and food are an important part of Armenian culture. If you know any Armenians, even if they are not living in Armenia, chances are, every time you see them, they try to offer you insane amounts of food to eat. Yeah, we all have that in common!
So if you want a good glimpse the beautiful and generous culture of this country, we highly recommend you eat as much as you can. Prices are low, and the food is so delicious!
Here are some of our favourite dishes. Obviously, we prioritize the vegetarian ones (or versions):
- Lavash: This traditional Armenian bread is a staple of every meal. Thin and cooked in a tonir (clay barrel).
- Eggplant rolls: Grilled eggplant, rolled with a mix of cheese, dill and walnuts, sprinkled with pomegranate. Yum!
- Vegetarian manti: Manti is a traditional Armenian dumpling (ish), served with broth and yogurt. They have the non-vegetarian version too.
- Cheese platter: Simple, but the locals cheese here are amazing. Derek’s new favourite is Lori cheese, the perfect mix of squeaky and salty.
- Garden salad: Another simple dish, but when the veggies are this fresh, it’s delicious!
- Lahmajoon: Also known as Armenian pizza. It’s a thin dough covered in meat. Some places have the vegetarian lahmajoon, if not, go for the za’tar!
- Khorovats: Basically, this means BBQ. The veggies, the meats, it’s all delicious!
- Gata: A typical Armenian coffee cake. Each family and city makes it a certain way. Regardless of how it’s made, it’s delicious, especially when it’s fresh out the oven!
- Surjukh: Known as Armenian Snickers, this dessert is a string of walnuts dipped into a mixture of fruit juices and spices, then dried. You’ll find them sold at groceries, on the side of the highway, and at major tourist sites.
Take in the art
Armenians have always been a very artistic culture. It’s no surprise that we dance, sing and play music, every chance we get! There are art museums, galleries, statues and street art around every corner of major cities. At most tourist sites, you will find a local painter selling his art, or a musician playing traditional Armenian songs.
In Yerevan, you are spoiled. You can find any type of gallery, museum or handcraft. If you want to get traditional pieces, ranging from household goods, to jewellery, painting to instruments and so much more, head to Vernissage or the Painters’ vernissage.
Walking around the streets, you’ll also find statues on almost every street in Yerevan. You can take in the beautiful art installations at Cascade. Even Cascade itself is a beautiful piece of art, with stunning views of Ararat! If you’re lucky, you may spot some cool street art around the city too.
Whether you are into the ballet, the opera or musical performances, you can always find tons going on, especially in Yerevan. From the National troupes, to local musicians, from jazz shows to traditional Armenian classics and funky rock/Armenian fusion, there are shows going on nightly in certain bars around the city, at the National Opera or in coffeeshops.
Honour the past at Tsitsernakaberd
Armenia has quite a bloody past. Although it is working hard to move past it, it’s still important to recognize what happened over 100 years ago. That’s why, no tour of Armenia would be complete without visiting Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide memorial complex. This is Armenia’s official memorial dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The monument was built in 1967, which is quite rare to see from the strict Soviet regime, and a trip there is quite moving.
The monument is made of 2 structures. First, there is a 44-meter stele that symbolizes the national rebirth of Armenians. Then, you have 12 slabs placed in a circle to represent the 12 provinces lost in present-day Turkey. At the centre of this circle, there is an eternal flame dedicated to the 1.5 million people killed during the Armenian Genocide.
On the same hill, you have the genocide museum. It is a brutal recounting of the atrocities that the Armenian people endured during the Genocide. It is a stark reminder of the cruelty humans are capable of, and moreover, it’s a warning sign to ensure no such atrocities are ever committed again.
Byurakan astronomical observatory
Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory (or BAO) was founded in 1946. Located on the slope of the mountain Aragatz, Armenia’s highest peak, the observatory focused its studies mainly on the instability phenomena taking place in the Universe. Since its opening, the observatory has discovered special star clusters – stellar associations (1947), more than 1,000 flare stars, dozens of Supernovae, hundreds of Herbig-Haro objects and cometary nebulae, and hundreds of galaxies. However, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the observatory fell into hard times.
It still runs today, and it’s possible for you to visit the observatory on clear nights. It’s quite an experience to see the telescopes, get a sense of how things work and gaze at our beautiful galaxy. A must for any astronomy fans!
Soviet amusement parks
In most major cities, mainly Yerevan and Gyumri, you will find these old soviet amusement parks. They are a mix of scary, thrilling and creepy! But they are kind of fun to check out, if only to wonder how these rides are still operating, and if they’re still up to code!
Certain rules are stricter than in other parks, like you can’t bump the bumper cars, but you’re sure to have some fun. If you want a real thrill, we suggest heading up the ferris wheel, that creaks and sways with the wind, or with the slightest movement!
Another cool timepiece left from the soviet era is the children’s railway station in Yerevan. The station itself looks like a castle out of a fairytale. The trains and locomotives sitting in the back yard are also pretty cool. If you’re lucky, you may just get there when the trains are operating and you can go for a little ride with the kids.
Chill by the water
Armenia is a very arid and mountainous country, but there are some places you can relax by the water. Being a landlocked country, don’t expect to see any oceanic beaches, but you will find some beautiful lakes!
First is the beautiful Parz Lake. When you come to Armenia, you have to visit Dilijan. Nestled in the mountains covered with lush forest, Dilijan is truly a unique place. Your trip there would not be complete without driving (or hiking) through the Dilijan national park, making your way to Lake Parz. There, you will find a lovely restaurant, a floating restaurant, as well as a ropes course, for those who need more action.
Then, you have the famous Lake Sevan. This is the largest body of water in Armenia. Sure, there’s a monastery at the top of the peninsula, but that’s not what we’re here for today! There are tons of cafes, restaurants and bars around the lake. If not, you can do as the locals and set up camp by the shores, make your own BBQ and take in the beauty of this massive lake. If you’re brave enough, you can also jump in, but be warned, because the water is always cold!
Finally, there is Kari Lake, at Mount Aragats. This lake is by a hotel and restaurant, renown for serving khash, a traditional Armenian soup made of cow hoof. The lake is also the starting point for hiking Mount Aragats. It’s a beautiful lake, and if you don’t want to hike all the way up to the peaks of the mountain, you can go until the top of the nearby crater.
Go fortress hunting
There are a ton of fortresses around Armenia, all quite old and full of history! Luckily, the main ones are near Yerevan.
The first is Erebuni fortress, located just outside the city centre. Some also call it Arin Berd. It is an Urartian fortified city and one of many fortresses built along the northern Urartian border, dating back to 782 BC. This place used to be one of the most important political, economic and cultural centres of the vast old kingdom.
Next, you have Amberd fortress, which literally translates to “Cloud fortress” or Fortress in the clouds. This 7th century fortress is located on the slopes of Mount Aragats, right where the Arkashen and Amberd rivers run. It’s a beautiful fortress, overlooking a gorge on the cliffside of the mountains.
Finally, you have Smbataberd, a 5th century fortress located between the villages of Artabuynk and Yeghegis in the Vayots Dzor. You will notice that Smbataberd was built in a very advantageous position. It’s on the southern end of a ridge, guarded by steep cliffs on three of its sides. Its large ramparts with its towers are still relatively intact on the exterior, making it quite a site to see.
If there’s one thing Armenians know how to do well (ok, it’s one of the many things they do well), it’s party. You already know they love to sing and dance, well, they also like to celebrate while they’re doing that! During our 7 weeks in Armenia, we saw fireworks at least 4 times. That’s almost every other week! For the best parties, be sure to be in Yerevan.
During national celebrations, the city’s streets shut down, becoming pedestrian walkways. There are concerts, shows and kiosks all around the capital, all for free. Street performers, bands, face painting, and of course, fireworks! Expect to have a ton of fun during these days!
Not only are national holidays cause for celebration, but you will find tons of bars, clubs and wine bars where you can get the party started any day of the week. If you want to experience the real Armenian joie-de-vivre, we highly recommend you head out for a night on the town!
Although the history of Armenia is very rich, and that churches are an intricate part of it, there is much more to the country than some of what the traditional tours offer. These churches and monasteries are beautiful, and true architectural wonders, having stood through wars, earthquakes and the tests of time. But if you want to truly discover all the beauty of this ancient country, we recommend going off the beaten path and seeing the other beauties it offers.
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