Yerevan may have only been the Armenian capital since 1918, but the city just recently celebrated its 2,801st birthday. While Yerevan was first established by the ancient kingdom of Urartu, much of what we see today was added in the 1920s and ’30s. Nicknamed the ‘Pink City’ after the pink volcanic stone used to construct many of its buildings, this underrated city is a pleasant mix of modern and ancient.
Yerevan, with a population of just over 1 million, is highly pedestrian-friendly. The city is entirely filled with public parks and gardens, and it has a well-developed cafe culture. And Yerevan could also be nicknamed the ‘City of Museums.’ Among the most impressive are the History Museum of Armenia and the Matenadaran, the world’s largest collection of ancient manuscripts.
Admittedly, I didn’t have the highest expectations coming in. I was arriving straight from Tbilisi, which I found to be a terribly congested, cold and unfriendly capital. But upon arrival in Armenia, I was greeted with warm smiles and could immediately tell that things here were different.
Throughout the rest of my stay, I encountered lots of friendly people and hospitable locals who compelled me to get to know the city and its capital better. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by Yerevan. It’s a welcoming and laid back city that still manages to feel like a bustling national capital.
The Making of Modern Yerevan
Despite having been continuously inhabited for nearly 3,000 years, Yerevan only became Armenia’s capital in 1918 – the country’s 14th.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the city had a population of just around 30,000 people. But with the demise of the Russian Empire, and with much of Western Armenia under Ottoman control, Yerevan was deemed the most suitable capital for a newly independent (albeit short-lived) Republic of Armenia.
All of a sudden, the former provincial town of Yerevan needed to transform itself into a worthy national capital. The population was suddenly boosted when around 75,000 survivors of the Armenian genocide fled east. Furthermore, many prominent Armenians returned to their homeland from places like Tbilisi.
Fortunately, the local government had the foresight to call upon a city planner to redesign Yerevan from the ground up. His name was Alexander Tamanian, and he’d studied architecture at the Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. Largely utilizing the neoclassicist style, he began his transformation of the city in the year 1923.
It was Tamanian’s idea to implement the circular layout which encompasses central Yerevan today. Thanks to his urban planning and architectural designs, Armenia’s capital remains a charming, attractive and highly walkable city to this day.
Yerevan’s population is now around 1 million – nearly four times as much as Tamanian had envisioned. Nevertheless, Tamanian’s design is still holding up pretty well, with many modern constructions taking his original vision for Yerevan into consideration.
The locations mentioned below can easily be accessed on foot or by metro from the city center. The one exception is the Armenian Genocide Museum, for which you’ll want to hire a taxi. Everything featured in this guide can be seen within a couple of days. There are, however, special attractions like Erebuni Fortress and Levon’s Divine Underground that are well worth setting aside extra time for.
From Republic Square to Freedom Square
Republic Square was envisioned as the center of the new Yerevan by urban planner Alexander Tamanian. Constructed between 1926-1941, the square is most recognizable for its large fountain which lights up each night.
It makes for a good place to begin your explorations of Yerevan. Then, the pedestrian shopping street, Northern Avenue, can later take you up to Freedom Square. And from there, you’ll have easy access to Yerevan’s iconic Cascade Complex.
The History Museum of Armenia
Situated in the heart of Republic Square, no visitor to Armenia should miss the History Museum of Armenia. First opened in 1919, it’s easily one of the country’s top attractions. Sadly, pictures are strictly prohibited inside, which is a real shame considering how many fascinating artifacts are on display.
Note that when visiting the museum, you’ll see many artifacts that originate from towns that are now in Turkey. That’s because historically, much of eastern Turkey was part of various Armenian kingdoms.
Armenia is a very ancient nation. Accordingly, the collection on display spans thousands of years. In addition to stone idols that are around 8,000 years old (perhaps even related to the civilization that built Gobekli Tepe?), you can see a 5,500 year-old leather shoe once found at Areni Cave.
Many other artifacts come from the Urartu period, an ancient kingdom from over 2,000 years ago that was the precursor to the Armenian nation.
There is also a large exhibition of artifacts and architectural models from the ancient Bagatrid Armenian capital of Ani (961-1045 AD). Now the Turkish city of Kars, the city once had a population of around 100,000 at its peak. But a Mongol invasion and a devastating earthquake spelled its demise.
Despite having fallen from prominence centuries ago, Armenians still see the one-prosperous city a source of national pride. And many lament the fact that the ruins are just outside of Armenia’s present-day borders, having been absorbed by Turkey shortly after the fall of the Russian Empire.
From Republic Square, head northward along Northern Avenue, the city’s most prominent pedestrian street. The idea for the street was originally planned by Alexander Tamanian in the 1920s, but he was never able to implement it in his lifetime. Amazingly, it was only just completed as recently as 2007.
The street is mostly lined with high-end brand goods and fancy restaurants. Even if that’s not what you’re looking for, the avenue still makes for a great way to get around central Yerevan.
Yerevan Opera House
The Yerevan Opera House, first opened in 1933, was designed by Alexander Tamanian himself. It still
regularly hosts performances. And while I didn’t end up visiting, I heard from some other travelers that they really enjoyed the shows there.
The theatre sits in the heart of Freedom Square, which is lined with gardens and outdoor restaurants. There are also plenty of benches, so it’s worth bringing a book if the weather is nice. This was a pleasant surprise after having visited Tbilisi’s Freedom Square, which is really just a big roundabout!
The Cascade Complex
The Cascade Complex, situated just north of the circle, is arguably Yerevan’s most recognizable modern landmark. But what is it? While it’s hard to categorize, it’s pretty much a series of limestone steps. And at every level, visitors can stop to admire decorative fountains and sculptures.
But before heading up, be sure to check out the funky sculptures along the garden in front. The space is officially known as the Cafesjian Museum of Art.
There are some reasonably priced restaurants nearby, while you can also find trucks selling fresh coffee. Supposedly, they even hold music concerts here during the warmer months.
The Cascade Complex was mostly constructed throughout the 1970s. Supposedly, however, it was originally envisioned by Alexander Tamanyan. In total, it consists of 572 steps, but its incline of 15 degrees makes it a relatively easy climb.
Arriving near the top, you’ll be greeted with excellent views of the Yerevan cityscape down below. And if the weather is clear, you may even get a glimpse of Mt. Ararat, Armenia’s most important mountain. Sadly, today, the mountain resides on the Turkish side of the border.
Reaching the top, you’ll notice that surprisingly, Yerevan’s most famous landmark has yet to be completed after all these years. For various political and economic reasons, the project has long laid dormant.
To get to the tall monument you see in the distance, you’ll need to walk around the construction site and then across a makeshift overpass.
Once atop the Cascade Complex, you should be able to see the Mother Armenia statue over in the distance. But several lanes of highway will be blocking the way.
Ignore Google Maps, which estimates the walk at around an hour. Just keep walking away from the Cascades along the highway and you should come across a pedestrian underpass. All in all, it’s just about a 10-15 minute walk.
The Mother Armenia statue was completed in 1950, but it wasn’t placed here until 1962. Previously, a statue of Joseph Stalin once stood at the same spot. The pedestal, in fact, dates back to the time of the Stalin statue and was designed to resemble a typical Armenian church.
When standing atop the pedestal, the statue, designed by sculptor Ara Harutyunyan, towers over her surroundings at 51 meters high.
Around the statue, you can also explore the park. It contains a large pond, some children’s rides and some snack kiosks. You can also get a pretty nice view of the city. If it weren’t for the statue however, the park wouldn’t be worth the visit.
The Matenadarn, established in 1959, contains a massive collection of over 23,000 manuscripts. While the average visitor won’t get to see most of them, many important and interesting texts have been put on display behind glass cases.
Given Armenia’s long history and unique language, Armenians have been producing books for centuries. Over the years, many were destroyed during the numerous wars and invasions which befell the country. Fortunately, however, a lot have also survived.
Approaching the impressive building, made of gray basalt, you’ll encounter a statue of Mesrop Mashtots, inventor of the Armenia alphabet. His conception of a new alphabet in the 5th century AD not only helped strengthen Christianity in Armenia, but it also gave birth to Armenian literature.
Entry costs 1500 AMD, but they wanted an additional 2500 AMD for a photography pass! I reluctantly paid, remembering that the History Museum of Armenia didn’t allow photos at all.
One of the first rooms I visited featured a large collection of Armenian manuscripts, mostly of a religious nature, that were printed throughout the world.
While I was aware that a large Armenian diaspora formed as a direct result of the Armenian genocide, I didn’t realize that there were so many Armenian communities spread throughout the world since long before that. And they even established printing presses in many places where they settled.
I encountered books printed in places like Istanbul, Venice, Jerusalem, Russia and even Madras (Chennai), India, from the 16th – 18th centuries.
Next, I explored a room that was entirely dedicated to texts in the Persian language. As neighbors, Armenia and Iran have been in close contact for thousands of years. And there were several times when the Persians controlled Eastern Armenia outright, such as during the Sassanian Empire (5th century AD) and more recently, in the 19th century (more below).
What’s more, is that Persian was the court language of the Ottoman Empire as well as the Muslim offshoots of the Mongol Empire, such as the Timurid Empire. As such, this room contains relics from those kingdoms as well.
Many of the books are beautifully illustrated. In addition to copies of the Quran, I came across government documents, poetry books, novels and even a book entitled ‘Marvelous Animals and Strange Creatures.’
The main room of the Matenadaran mostly features Christian texts from Etchmiadzin, the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Previously, many of Armenia’s important manuscripts had been kept there, but lots had to be sent to Russia for safekeeping during the turmoil of the 20th century. Eventually, they were moved to the modern Matenadaran upon its opening in 1959.
There were also a few other foreign texts on display, such as a palm leaf manuscript from southern India. Furthermore, one room contains a large collection of herbs used in traditional Armenian healing, along with books on herbal remedies and human anatomy.
While some will get more out of it than others, the Matenadaran is a fascinating place that all visitors to Yerevan should check out.
The Blue Mosque
As mentioned above, Armenia has a long shared history with Iran. In the 18th century, Armenia was a Persian province under the rule of the Zand dynasty. This mosque was constructed in the 1760’s, when Yerevan was ruled by a governor, or khan, named Hussein Ali Khan.
Notably, the Blue Mosque is not only one of the few surviving remnants of this period of Iranian control, but it’s also one of Yerevan’s oldest structures overall.
The mosque was built as a Twelver Shiite mosque – the dominant branch of Islam observed in Iran. Just a few decades after its completion, however, Armenia was taken over by the Russian Empire. The Russians even renovated it in the early 20th century.
Then, during the Soviet period, religious worship was banned and the mosque was used to house the Yerevan History Museum (more below).
Following Armenian independence, the mosque was restored in the 1990s with financial backing from Iran. And it finally opened as an active mosque in 1996 after decades as a secular building.
This is now the only mosque left in the entire country. Despite bordering three Muslim countries, Armenia has a tiny Muslim population of less than a thousand people. Therefore, it mostly serves Iranian expats and tourists.
In fact, the mosque is currently being leased to the Iranian Embassy to serve as an official Iranian cultural center. As Iran is doing its part to preserve some ancient Armenian churches within their borders, it makes sense for the Armenian government to work with Iran to preserve this mosque.
Within the complex, you’ll even find a small room containing traditional Iranian handicrafts, such as plates and vases.
Access to the mosque is free. While I didn’t go inside the mosque itself, I hung out in the garden for awhile and even made a new friend.
Museum of Modern Art
Located nearby the Blue Mosque, art lovers should take the opportunity to stop in the Museum of Modern Art. First established in 1972, the small museum features some of the finest works by Armenian contemporary artists. Many of the contributors also come from the Armenian diaspora.
The museum doesn’t seem to get many visitors (I was the only one during my visit) but it’s well worth a stopover during a free afternoon.
Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral
Just to the south of Yerevan’s central circle, you can find the largest Armenian Apostolic Church. Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral was completed as recently as 2001. That sets it apart from just about every other church you’ll encounter in Armenia, most of which date back centuries.
Saint Gregory the Illuminator is the saint credited with bringing Christianity to Armenia around 1700 years ago. You’ll see his name pop up again and again during your travels around the country, especially at Khor Virap and Etchmiadzin.
The statue outside, meanwhile, is that of Andranik Ozanian, a military commander who fought for Armenian independence in the early 20th century.
No photographs are allowed inside, and there happened to be a wedding taking place during my visit anyway. While my time there was brief, I realized that this was actually the second Armenian Apostolic Church I’d ever visited. The first was in, of all places, Yangon, Myanmar!
Considering how most tourist attractions in Armenia involve a monastery, visiting this cathedral isn’t essential. But it’s still worth stopping by if you find yourself with some extra time
Armenian Genocide Museum & Memorial
No visitor to Yerevan should miss the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum, known locally as Tsitsernakaberd. The memorial (pictured below) was built in 1967, with construction beginning shortly after the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the genocide.
The central stele stands at 44 m-high, while the 12 slabs represent the 12 provinces of Western Armenia which are now in Turkey. In the center is an eternal flame, with locals and tourists alike regularly coming to leave offerings.
The museum is much more recent, having opened in 1995. It presents a comprehensive summary of the events of the Armenian genocide in chronological order. For those unaware, as many as 1.5 million Armenians residing within the Ottoman Empire were killed in the early 20th century. Many of the deaths occurred during forced marches into the Syrian desert.
Many people are unfamiliar with WWI history in general. And while many have heard the term ‘Armenian Genocide’ before, the details of the travesty are still far from common knowledge around the world.
Interestingly, during your travels around Armenia, you’ll often come across a collection of flags of the countries around the world which officially recognize the genocide. Turkey still does not, which is why relations between the two countries remain strained and the land borders closed.
There are even several more attractions to see around Yerevan. As mentioned above, Erebuni Fortress and Levon’s Divine Underground are absolutely worth visiting, and they’ll be covered in their own upcoming articles.
During a free afternoon, I decided to visit the Yerevan History Museum. Mainly, I was hoping to learn more about Alexander Tamanian and his design for the city. However, the museum is little more than a three-room miniature version of the History Museum of Armenia.
Sadly, there was hardly any information about Yerevan’s 20th century transformation. While it does contain a few interesting items, the museum is skippable. But here are some photographs anyway to give you an idea.
I also tried visiting the Woodcraft Museum, but it seemed deserted during its listed opening hours. And it wasn’t until after my trip that I learned that there is indeed a Museum of Alexander Tamanyan, not far from Republic Square!
As Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed, most visitors enter the country overland from Georgia. And from Tbilisi you have a couple of options.
You can take a minubus from Ortachala Station or from outside Avlabari Station. Additionally, shared taxis depart from outside the central railway station. Prices will vary depending on the transportation method, but expect to pay around 20 GEL for the minibus and up to 50 GEL for a shared taxi.
The ride typically lasts 5-6 hours. There will usually be at least one vehicle departing per hour. But rather than a set schedule, most drivers will wait until the vehicle fills up. Typically, you’ll be dropped off at Yerevan central bus station Kilikia, from where you’ll need to take another bus or a taxi to get to the city center.
Not being a fan of long minibus rides, I opted for the train instead.
The only train option is a night train (train 371) which departs at 20:20 at arrives at 6:55. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to buy tickets online, as you’ll need to navigate through a web site that’s only in Russian. To make matters worse, the site is unsecured. It’s best to buy tickets in person at least a few days in advance at Tbilisi Central Station. Be sure to bring your passport.
I got a second-class ticket for around 90 GEL – considerably more expensive than the prices I’d read about online. I was in a cabin with three other travelers but we had enough space and it was fun chatting and sharing snacks up until it was time to go to bed. Unlike my prior night train experience to Zugdidi, this time we got sheets. Be sure to bring earplugs in case someone’s traveling with an infant!
Supposedly, during non-peak months (late September – mid-June), the train only leaves every other day. While I’d read that it only departs on even-numbered days, I asked if they had a ticket for the 17th, and they said yes. I didn’t inquire further, and am not completely sure how the system currently works.
The train is both slower and more expensive than the other options. However, it’s the easiest and most straightforward when it comes to passing through immigration. Normally, immigration officers at both sides of the border will come on the train to check your passport. No need to wait in line with all your luggage. While I did have to get off the train and line up at a booth while leaving Georgia, it only lasted a couple of minutes.
Upon arrival in Yerevan, you’ll encounter an ATM machine, and the central railway station is connected to the metro. There aren’t any SIM card vendors in the station so be sure to print out or pre-load your accommodation info on your phone. I later got a SIM card at the Beeline shop on Northern Avenue.
For whatever reason, accommodation prices in Yerevan are considerably higher than those of nearby Tbilisi. This is in spite of most other things, like food and transport, costing the same amount. If budget isn’t an issue for you, then you should base yourself in the city center (within the circle or just outside of it).
Yerevan makes a great base from which to explore many other parts of Armenia. If you’re doing an extended stay in the city and want to save some money, staying outside the center will be fine. Just make sure that you’re within close distance of a metro station.
I stayed at Glide Hostel which I’d highly recommend for budget travelers. I opted for the private room with a private bathroom, but they also have some shared bathroom and dorm options available.
The guesthouse is located about 5 minutes on foot from Baregamutyun Station, the northernmost metro station. But you can still walk to the city center in about 30 minutes if the weather is nice. The staff were friendly and helpful, and a tasty breakfast was provided each morning.
When getting to places within and around the central circle, Yerevan is largely walkable.
The city has one simple metro line. While it’s certainly better than nothing, there are numerous sites around the city that can’t be accessed by train.
Luckily, there are a number of ridesharing apps you can use to get around, such as Yandex Taxi or GG Taxi. (Without a local credit card, you’ll most likely only be able to pay in cash.) While the drivers usually don’t speak any English, I had no problems using these apps or with any of the drivers.
To get out of town, you’ll often need to use a ridesharing service just to get to one of the city’s multiple bus stations, as they’re nowhere near a metro. The ride to the bus will typically cost more than the bus itself. The main railway station, on the other hand, does have a metro station attached to it, but most places around Armenia can only be reached by vehicle.
Additionally, Yerevan has a local marshrutka (public minibus) system but I never tried taking it. While the cheapest option for getting around, marshrutkas have no English signage and are terribly cramped. If you want to give it a shot, be sure to ask for advice at your hotel for which number bus to take.