The Essence of Armenia
This trip explores the essential sites of Armenia in a little more detail. Explore Yerevan’s Old Quarter, museums and parks; the 1st century Temple of Garni; and the 4th century Geghard Monastery. Then head north to see some of the highlights in the regions of Shirak and Lori.
Day 1: Yerevan – Garni/Geghard
Start the morning with a walk and a coffee in the Old Abovyan Quarter, passing museums, Belle Époque houses, cafes, restaurants and shops. Visit the Matenadaran, a world treasure with over 24,000 miniatures, manuscripts and documents dating back to the pre-Christian era! Take a walk up the hill to Tsitsernakaberd, the Genocide Memorial and Museum, or to the Erebuni Fortress, the 782 BC founding site of the city, for great views over Yerevan’s skyline.
Afternoon includes a visit to Garni/Geghard. Visit the 1st century Temple of Garni, one of the finest examples of Greco-Roman temples in the Near East, and the only one remaining in the post-Soviet region! The temple overlooks the dramatic Garni Gorge, a natural wonder with spectacular rock formations; and the Khosrov Nature Preserve, the largest protected forest in Armenia, home to a wide variety of endangered plants and animals. Next, the Monastery of Geghard is part of a breathtaking landscape of mountain forests and jutting gorges, its 4th-12th century churches carved out of the solid rock of the cliffs. Home to a powerful ascetic community, the monastery once held the Geghard (Holy Lance) believed to have pierced Christ’s flesh. Geghard Monastery was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
Return to Yerevan and be sure to stop at some of the museums once you get back to the center: the fun Parajanov Museum, with collages and art that everyone can appreciate; the delightful Folk Art Museum; the Museums of Martiros Saryan or Yervand Kochar; or one of the many Historic House Museums, to see what the traditional life of the local people was like.
As dusk settles, visit the amazing Singing Fountains of Republic Square and take a short stroll up Northern Avenue to Opera and Cascade to watch the sun set. Take a taxi down for a superb dinner in the Hrazdan Gorge, and enjoy a late night coffee or drink in the Ring Park that wraps around the center.
Overnight in Yerevan.
Day 2: Echmiadzin/Metsamor – Oshakan – Khor Virap/Artashat – Dvin – Yerevan
Etchmiadzin is the seat of the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church and one of Armenia’s most revered religious sites. The main church was built in 301-303, and is one of the world’s oldest cathedrals. Take a tour of the church treasury to view the priceless reliquaries of the Armenian Church, including a piece of the True Cross, a fragment of Noah’s Ark and the Holy Lance that pierced Christ’s side on the Cross. Nearby are the 7th century St. Gayane and St. Hripsime Churches, both of which house relics of the 4th century martyrs that played a crucial part in the conversion of
Armenia to Christianity; Zvartnots Cathedral; and the burial shrine of Mesrop Mashtots, the author of the Armenian Alphabet.
Just fifteen kilometers away is the birthplace of bronze, the recently discovered 7,000-year-old Bronze Foundry of Metsamor. Part of a powerful civilization based on the forging and trade of metal, the people of Metsamor left behind thousands of petroglyphs carved on the rocks that litter the plains, that some say are the prototype to later Armenian scripts. There are also remains of an ancient map they drew of the Ararat Valley, and a 2,800 BC stone observatory that still points out phenomena in the night sky.
Have lunch in the Ashtarak Gorge or in Yerevan, before a drive to the Khor Virap at the feet of Mt. Ararat. This church is the supposed location where St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for thirteen years before he was freed and embarked on the conversion of the kingdom to Christianity in 301. Khor Virap sits on the ruins of the historical City of Artashat, the 189 BC capital and the “Carthage of the East” according to Hannibal. The surrounding hills are still the focus of archeological excavations. Nearby is Dvin, which became the capital of Armenia after Artashat, in 428. Dvin was the seat of the Catholicos throughout the medieval period and an important trade city on the Silk Road, famous for its wealth and porcelain, examples of which can be examined on site and in the State History Museum in Yerevan.
Return to Yerevan to relax and visit a museum or take a walking tour, before enjoying a lovely evening meal and entertainment.
Overnight in Yerevan.
Day 3: Yerevan – Agarak – Aruch/Talin – Mastara – Yereruik/Harichavank – Gyumri
Start the day by heading to the base of Mt. Aragats and the Agarak Complex, a 5,000-year-old temple that stretches two kilometers along the Amberd River. Here you can view the largest Bronze Age sculpture in the Caucasus; the zodiac sign Aries. Continue to the 5th-7th century Great Cathedral and Mamikonian Palace of Aruch, the 8th century Kamsarakan Cathedral in nearby Talin, and the unique octagonal fortress-church of Mastara, built during the reign of the fire-worshipping Sassanid Empire. Take a western spur to the Turkish border to see the World Heritage Site nominee, the 4th century Grand Basilica of Yereruik, once an important temple of pagan worship. If time allows it, visit Karmir Vank, the Grigor Lusavorich cave spring in Sarnaghbyur, and the well-preserved monastery of Harichavank, summer home to the Catholicos in the 18th-19th centuries.
The final destination for the day is Armenia’s second largest city, Gyumri. Its historic district has over one thousand 19th century buildings, hallmarks of a time when Gyumri was Armenia’s capital and an important center of craft and art. The center of the city bustles with “Gyumretsi” (people of Gyumri), who value and offer hospitality as much as they do their humor. Visit the old center following the walking tour of Old Gyumri. If the sun has not yet set, visit the nearby sites of Marmashen Monastery, a dramatic 10th-13th century monastery overlooking the Akhurian Valley, and the 5,000-year-old Shishak and Mishak tombs at Tsoghamark.
Enjoy a local dinner in a traditional Gyumri tavern and spend a comfortable night at a Gyumri guest house or hotel in the old center.
Day 4: Gyumri – Spitak – Vanadzor – Odzun - Sanahin/Haghpat – Akhtala – Vanadzor
Enjoy a quick breakfast in Gyumri, and then head east into Lori Marz to the village of Spitak, the epicenter of the tragic 1988 earthquake that devastated much of the northern region. A memorial
church stands over a cemetery with hundreds of gravestones engraved with a chilling clock frozen at 11:41, the time the first earth tremors struck.
Heading north, Vanadzor opens up to forests, deep gorges and a number of stunning medieval sites, including the 5th century basilica and stelae at Odzun; two of Armenia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Monasteries of Sanahin and Haghpat; and the gorgeous Chalcedonian Church of Akhtala, with its 13th century frescoes. The towns up here have a graceful, progressive atmosphere, with museums, theatres, parks, churches, restaurants and outdoor cafes overlooking the stunning environment.
Relax, have dinner and rest at the Vanadzor Hotel, the Odzun Tea House, or the luxurious Tufenkian Heritage Hotel of Dzoraget.
Day 5: Vanadzor – Lermontovo/Fioletevo – Dilijan – Haghartsin – Lake Sevan – Hairavank – Noradus – Yerevan
Begin the day traveling past the Molokan Villages of Lermontovo and Fioletevo, inhabited by Spritual Christian settlers from Russia, with their picturesque houses set against the emerald green valley, and on to the mountainous forest resort of Dilijan. Dubbed Armenia’s “Little Switzerland,” Dilijan is an idyllic village of 18th and 19th century homes, with quaint wooden balustrades and balconies, rising up the steep slopes overlooking the surrounding Dilijan National Forest. For those enticed by its tranquil romance, there are hotels, spas and dozens of guesthouses and B&Bs to choose from, each with its own unique design. Hosts serve folk recipes based around locally picked herbs and mushrooms. Visit the Monastery of Haghartsin, set in a deep fold of the tree-laden mountains.
If you need to move on, after lunch at the Tufenkian Restaurant or Dolmama’s Flying Ostrich, head back south to Lake Sevan, one of the largest high altitude lakes in the world; its sky-blue, emerald-green or jet-black appearance changing hues several times a day. The lake has over two-hundred private beaches with beach cottages and resorts (in case you decide to stay), a water park, and a number of seafood restaurants. Swimming, sailing, windsurfing, jet skiing and motorboat paragliding complement the bohemian atmosphere of the forested shores.
Visit the 8th-10th century Sevanavank Monastery on Sevan’s peninsula, Hairavank Monastery and the field of over one thousand khachkars (cross-stones) at Noradus. Try one of the local fish dishes at a restaurant along the shore before heading back to Yerevan.