I’ll be honest – for a long time I didn’t even know how to spell Yerevan, let alone know that Armenia’s picturesque capital is bursting with culture, avant-garde art and fragrant traditional food. While more and more travelers are being lured by the beauty of the Caucuses, Armenia still seems to fly under-the-radar, making Yerevan an explorer’s dream.
The best piece of advice I can give for visiting Yerevan (besides, go as soon as possible before everyone else) is to talk to everyone you meet. Students, security guards, taxi drivers and artists were all eager to help me, making Yerevan one of the most hospitable cities I’ve ever visited. Whether you’re backpacking solo or van life-ing it with a partner, an experienced traveler or on your first trip abroad, I guarantee you’ll love Yerevan.
Start your day at Vernissage Marke. It’s the perfect place for a morning stroll, especially on the weekends when all the artists and vendors are out with their wares. You could easily spend hours at this market, which has everything from handcrafted wooden backgammon sets to old Soviet memorabilia. It offers something for all budgets and tastes, not just kitschy souvenirs. If you’re trying to find something that represents Armenia, look for handcrafted goods that use the pomegranate shape.
If you like seeing a local market at work, head to the G.U.M Market (Gumi Shuka), where old ladies beckon you to try samples of dried fruits and nuts and chain-smoking butchers sheepishly hide their cigarettes when you ask for a picture. I wanted to try churchkhela, a string of nuts dipped in fruit juices, so I stopped when one vendor called me over. She was eager to explain her different products to me, even though she spoke a steady stream of Russian that flew right past me. I purchased a churchkhela and asked if I could take her picture. She pulled her grandson over to her, posing as a proud babushka, and then – before I could leave – gifted me with more apricot treats.
Art and museums
Yerevan has nearly 50 museums. There really is something for everyone. I visited the Sergei Parajanov Museum to learn more about Armenia’s history.
Created in honor of Armenia’s most celebrated director, the museum is a stunning collection of art. It was an incredibly memorable visit, in part because a young museum attendant accompanied me around the exhibits, pointing out special pieces and answering my questions. Whether she was describing his artistic vision or telling me about the persecution he suffered from the Soviet government, her enthusiasm made Parajanov’s art that much more vibrant.
I also made a trip to the Armenian Genocide Memorial & Museum. While this was a sombre visit, it was very valuable to learn about the persecution Armenians suffered in the early 1900s. This dark period in Armenia’s history has had a far-reaching impact even after a hundred years, continuing to influence the lives of locals.
Cafes and jazz
Yerevan is famous for its sunny sidewalk tables, cozy basements, romantic verandas and cafes where you can get everything from Armenian coffee to pomegranate wine.
Yerevan is also experiencing a golden age of jazz cafes. On the bus from Tbilisi to Yerevan I met a Georgian girl who invited me to join her and her friends at a jazz and wine bar called Enoteca. I spent the evening dining and drinking al fresco with a group of friendly Armenians, young people who worked in government, the arts and humanitarian aid, having great conversations with superb live jazz in the background.
Enoteca also has their own vodka distillery in the basement, and I went back the following evening for their jazz funk DJ night, sampling their different infused vodkas.
Armenia’s art scene is a fascinating mix of ancient techniques and modern sensibilities. The Cafesjian Center for the Arts, housed in the impressive Cascade stairs, is a magnet for contemporary art fans.
I also visited an open-air workshop to talk with a man who carves khachkars. Khachkars are elaborately decorated monuments, traditionally crosses, which are adorned with traditional symbols and designs. It is an art form that has existed for over a thousand years, and the artist I met had learned the craft from his father.
“I grew up playing here,” he said and then showed me a video of his own four-year-old son ‘working’ on a khachkar.
Khachkars can weigh several tons, and sometimes more than one artist works on a piece. This is the ultimate souvenir.
No matter how much I tried to eat, 72 hours was not enough to completely satisfy my craving for Armenian food. The national cuisine is impressively diverse, and the dishes from western Armenia and eastern Armenia can vary a lot, from the crispy lahmacun pizza-like flatbread to hearty khorovats barbeque.
The locals I spoke to recommended Pandok (Tavern) Yerevan. I went there intent on stuffing myself with khorovats and comparing it to other barbeque in the region, but my waiter had other ideas.
“Tomorrow you try barbeque,” he said, instead recommending a pumpkin dish.
I didn’t have a tomorrow in Yerevan and I was reluctant to give up on the idea of my meat feast, but I’ve learn to always trust my waiter when traveling. I savored my appetizer of dolma, tender grape leaves stuffed with meat, and drank some of the best house wine I’ve ever had.
When my waiter brought out an entire pumpkin, my heart (and stomach) swooned. Ghapama is typically a sweet dish, a mixture of rice, fruit, and honey. This version of ghapama was a savory rendition with meat and beans. Ghapama is the kind of dish I would book a plane ticket for.
I had other delicious meals in Yerevan, including homey food at Anteb and perfect Armenian coffee at Gemini Café.
About the author
Amy Butler is a writer from New York City, currently bopping around without a fixed address. Her main activities include befriending bartenders and experiencing different cultures through bread. Read her blog The Wayfarer’s Book or follow her instagram.