Gyumri, Armenia’s second city, is absent from most travelers’ itineraries. Admittedly, it wasn’t on mine until I realized I had an extra free day in the country. But I’m glad that I went, as a walk around Gyumri is like stepping back into the 19th century. In this Gyumri guide, we’ll go over the top highlights in the city center along with nearby sites you shouldn’t miss, like the unique Black Fortress and the tranquil Marmashen Monastery.
With its origins dating back thousands of years to the Urartu period, Gyumri’s history is as old as Yerevan’s. Later, the city would be an important stronghold for the Persians, who took control in the 1500s and ruled for the next 300 years.
But much of Gyumri’s prominent architecture was built in the 19th century while the region was ruled by the Russian Empire. At the time, the city was called Alexandropole after Tsar Nicholas I’s wife, Alexandra Fyodorovna. Later during the Soviet era, the city changed its name again to Leninakan.
But few buildings from this era remain standing, as the concrete constructions couldn’t withstand the devastating earthquake of 1988. To this day, the city is still recovering, and evidence of the disaster can be seen on just about every block. Walking around Gyumri today, the contrast between the elegant black stone buildings and ruined apartment blocks is rather striking.
While I typically like to explore new cities independently, I also hoped to visit some sites on the outskirts of town, such as the Black Fortress and Marmashen Monastery. Therefore, I decided to join a group tour from Yerevan. The route we took is described in the following Gyumri guide, which can also be followed by independent travelers.
A Central Gyumri Guide
Central Gyumri is laidback and very walkable. The locations featured below are by no means all there is to see in Gyumri. But for those visiting as a day trip from Yerevan and who also want to see the Black Fortress and Marmashen Monastery, these central Gyumri locations are just about all you’d be able to fit into a single day.
Church of the Holy Savior
Our first stop for the day was Church of the Holy Savior, located on the southern side of the central Vartanants Square. One of the tallest buildings still standing in Gyumri, the church was consecrated in 1873.
On either side of it were a Greek Orthodox and a Catholic church, but local residents felt that an Armenian Apostolic Church ought to tower over the others. Therefore, many devout locals even chipped in for construction fees!
Designed by architect Tadeos Andikyan, the church’s style was influenced by the Cathedral of Ani, now located in Kars, Turkey.
The Church of the Holy Savior was severely damaged by the 1988 earthquake which struck the city. But if it weren’t for the ruined original dome on display in the courtyard, first-time visitors would be none the wiser. The renovators have done an excellent job repairing the church while also maintaining its distinct 19th-century appearance.
But stepping inside reveals an entirely different situation. The interior is far from complete, still full of scaffolding, construction materials and dust. Most of the effort thus far seems to have been put into restoring the artwork around the new dome.
Considering how the Soviets used this building as a concert hall, it’s likely that the Church of the Holy Savior hasn’t seen any religious activity since the 1930s. Its eventual reopening then, will surely be a major event.
Cathedral of the Holy Mother of God (Our Lady of Seven Wounds)
Just on the opposite side of Vartanants Square, we visited the Cathedral of the Holy Mother of God, also locally known as ‘Our Lady of Seven Wounds.’ Constructed between 1873 and 1884, the cruciform-shaped church is home to the Diocese of Shirak Province.
Notably, this was one of the only cathedrals in Gyumri to remain active during Soviet rule.
While the cathedral belongs to the Armenian Apostolic Church, the interior artwork bears resemblance to those of both the Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches. Perhaps the multitude of styles were incorporated into the church because this was the only place where different Christian sects could pray.
The smaller domes that fell off in the 1988 earthquake are now placed outside. Overall, though, this church seems to be much better off than the Church of the Holy Savior, and it remains active.
Just next to the church is the entrance to Rizhkov Street, Gyumri’s main pedestrian avenue and the city’s answer to Yerevan’s Northern Avenue. Nikolai Rizhkhov, it turns out, was a former Soviet official who assisted with the post-1988 earthquake recovery.
This is where locals gather at restaurants on weekends or come to do their shopping. During lunchtime, I enjoyed some open-air seating outside of a health food restaurant that conveniently had an English menu.
While most of the avenue is in pristine condition, some of the buildings have been left untouched since 1988, which makes for a rather remarkable contrast.
Walking the Streets
We continued walking the streets of central Gyumri, which I found to be a charming and laidback little city full of interesting architecture. While we didn’t have time to stop in any, Gyumri is home to a number of ‘house museums’ of famous poets, artists and actors.
The Museum of Urban Life and National Architecture is also considered to be one of the city’s main highlights. But as we had two stops out of town on our itinerary, time wouldn’t allow for a visit.
Speaking of architecture, one thing many of Gyumri’s classical buildings have in common is their color. In contrast to the ‘Pink City’ of Yerevan, Gyumri’s buildings are largely black. Most of the stone has been sourced from a nearby black tufa quarry to the west of town.
A walk around Gyumri provides an interesting glimpse into how Armenia would’ve looked in the 19th century, as many of the city’s most prominent structures date back to that time. Another thing I noticed is how relatively little traffic the city has compared to cities of a similar size I visited in the Caucasus.
We also took a walk through Gyumri Central Park, established in the 1920s. Supposedly, Alexander Tamanian, the mastermind behind the urban layout and architecture of Yerevan, also oversaw some of the development of Gyumri. While not explicitly stated, perhaps he had a role in planning the large park, as he was clearly a fan of urban green spaces.
Though the park appears clear and well-maintained, certain areas offer morbid views of the disaster from which Armenia’s second city is still trying to recover.
The 1988 Earthquake
As mentioned above, Gyumri was struck by a devastating earthquake on December 7, 1988. A huge number of people were killed in the 6.8 quake, with estimates ranging from 25,000 – 55,000.
Many shoddily built Soviet-era buildings completely collapsed, which was blamed on cost-cutting measures during the USSR’s ‘era of stagnation.’ And while restoration efforts are a work in progress, central Gyumri still has entire blocks that appear untouched since ’88.
Our guide took us on a walk around one of these blocks. Seeing as how the buildings here hadn’t totally collapsed, this district probably fared better than many. One multistory building at the end of the road was under reconstruction, though fixing up the rest of the block will seemingly take years.
But why is it taking so long to recover from an earthquake that happened over 30 years ago? While I don’t know for sure, the earthquake occurred just a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s likely that for a long time, a newly independent Armenia lacked the funds for a thorough repair. Come to think of it, even Yerevan’s Cascade Complex remains unfinished!
Notably, one of the areas still in recovery is an apartment courtyard that has featured prominently in Armenian cinema. While the significance was lost on me, the Armenian travelers with me were delighted to see the familiar scene.
The Black Fortress
Locally known as Sev Berd, the Black Fortress is situated on a hill outside of town. It was constructed in 1837, the same year Tsar Nicholas I changed the city’s name to Alexandropol.
The city, just near the border with the Ottoman Empire, was strategically important for the Russians in their various wars against the Ottomans. And while the Black Fortress never underwent a siege, perhaps its existence dissuaded enemy forces from attacking at all.
Russia still has a military base in Gyumri today, just nearby the Black Fortress. Feelings on the Russian presence seem to be mixed, but some residents fear that were the Russians to leave, they’d be vulnerable to a Turkish invasion even today.
Currently, the fortress’s interior has been stylishly redesigned and it serves as an event center. In fact, a wedding reception party was just beginning as we were leaving. Thankfully, modern additions were tastefully carried out, with the original architecture and other details having been left intact.
We were given several minutes to explore inside. I went up to the second floor and walked around the long circular hallways that stretches around the entire structure. Most of the rooms appeared to be vacant, but this would definitely make for an interesting hotel someday.
As with Yerevan, Gyumri also has a Mother Armenia statue and it’s not too far from the fortress. Supposedly, there were even underground tunnels connecting the fortress with the statue.
Outside, take note of the graffiti carvings along the structure. They were carved by (most likely homesick) Russian soldiers serving at Sev Berd, who made sure to inscribe their names and hometowns.
The Black Fortress doesn’t contain many mysteries, nor did it ever see any fighting. Nevertheless, the structure is simply cool to look at, and it offers some great views of the city, too. It’s well worth a visit if you’re already in Gyumri.
It wouldn’t be a proper day trip in Armenia without a visit to at least one ancient monastery. So before our return to Yerevan, we stopped at Marmashen Monastery, a peaceful complex of churches which dates back to over a thousand years ago.
Before hiking down to the churches, we stopped at rather peculiar spring. Water only comes out if a person places their left hand over the faucet, while nothing comes out if they use the right! (Or perhaps it’s the reverse – I can’t remember.)
I didn’t get the Armenian explanation of our guide, but I looked over to see that the spring solar-powered, while there’s a quote on the sign that reads: ‘Every wife is her husband’s water spring, No other man is allowed to drink its water.’
Today, there are three main structures standing at Marmashen Monastery. The largest of them, Katoghike, was built in the 10th century. The structure features a domed hall with four pylons, while the western side contains a gavit sepulcher.
Nearby to the south is a similar church called Holy Mother of God – essentially a smaller recreation. To the north, meanwhile, is another smaller church with its roof now missing.
The churches were reconstructed and rebuilt in the 13th century, and then again in 1900. Furthermore, the monastery complex is home to ruins of other churches which archaeologists believe are about as old as the ones still standing.
Our group stepped inside Katoghike Church for a bit to admire the details. Supposedly, restoration work here was handled by an Italian-Armenian couple who meticulously recreated the look and feel of the original.
And then to my surprise, our tour guide suddenly walked to the center of the room and started singing some beautiful Armenian church music. The church’s excellent acoustics really enhanced the celestial music’s power.
Marmashen Monastery is situated on the left bank of the Akhurian River. Many of us went over for a view of the water, with the late afternoon timing making for perfect lighting conditions.
If you visit Marmashen Monastery, you may notice a cat wandering around the church grounds. A local man explained that as a kitten, all her siblings were killed by a fox, leaving her as the only survivor.
Despite the traumatic experience, the cat seems to be in good spirits. And she’s quite the attention seeker. She’s more than happy to pose for some photos in exchange for a few scratches.
Getting to Gyumri independently from Yerevan is easy enough. You can either take a marshrutka (minibus) or a train. Marshrutkas depart regularly from outside Zoravor Andranik metro station, and the ride lasts a few hours. The train, meanwhile, departs at 8am.
You can also get to Gyumri directly from Georgia, such as Tbilisi or other towns near the border.
While I’d been considering going there on my own, I also wanted to make sure to visit the Black Fortress and one of the main monasteries out of town. Even if I were to surpass the language barrier and strike a deal with a taxi driver in town, I estimated that the taxi fare to see the extra sites would come out to around the same as a group tour.
Therefore, I opted for the day tour with One Way Tour which, strangely, seems to be absent from their web site at the time of writing. They informed me that only an Armenian language tour would be available, but I didn’t mind as I was mainly concerned with transport.
Riding with the Armenian language tour was a unique experience. Unlike with the English/Russian tours, the driver was blasting Armenian folk songs (or at least modern pop renditions of them) for the entire day. It rather annoying in the beginning, especially as I was hoping to do some reading on the bus.
But I got used to it by the time afternoon rolled around, and it was fun to see the passengers getting so into it, clapping and singing along.
While I couldn’t understand a thing the tour guide was saying all day, I was pleasantly surprised to find several English speakers on the tour with me. One woman was even kind enough to translate the important and interesting bits of information to me for most of the day!
For those who have the time, Gyumri seems like a laidback place to spend a night or two. As it has a railway station and numerous bus stops, it also serves as a convenient transport hub for getting around Armenia. Gyumri is a rather small city, but the closer you stay to Vartanants Square, the better.
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.