Last Updated on September 7, 2020 by Rodrigo @ OutofYourComfortZone
By now, you’ve probably heard of Armenia. Though it is still a bit of an off-the-beaten-path destination (unless you happen to be from Russia), tourism is certainly growing!
That said, it can still be a bit of a challenge to find some specific tips about travel in Armenia, and there were certainly a few things we either found out the hard way or by surprise while we were there ourselves.
So, based on our experience and the things we learned while in Armenia, we put together this list as a combination of practical tips as well as more general knowledge to be aware of before you go.
On that note, let’s get to it!
1. Armenia is considered to be in Europe, in Asia, in neither, or in both (it all depends on who you ask!)
As you can see in the map below, geographically, Armenia is far enough east that it is considered to be in Asia.
But culturally? It tends to identify much more with Europe than with Asia (and as outsiders, this matches the perspective we walked away with).
Beyond that, there are others still who give the region surrounding Armenia and its neighbors its own label inspired by the name of the mountains that run the length of it: Caucasian.
Most of the Armenians we spoke with on our trip seemed to see Armenia as a true combination of all of the above. Given its history (as you’ll see in #2 below), its really no surprise that Armenia has emerged as such a blended crossroads.
2. Armenia has a remarkable, yet sometimes heartbreaking, history
From undergoing various occupations to spats with neighbors to a genocide that claimed the lives of millions, Armenia has been through a lot.
In fact, the country’s capital city Yerevan is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (it was founded some 30 years before Rome was!)…so to say it’s got a lot of history is an understatement.
Armenia has been through centuries of Persian, Byzantine, or Ottoman rule, and decades of USSR rule as a former Soviet Republic. They’ve suffered a genocide that took the lives of 1.5 MILLION Armenians during the Ottoman Empire (something that Turkey, amazingly, still doesn’t acknowledge to this day).
As recently as 2018, the country underwent a peaceful revolution (called the “Velvet Revolution” if you want to search for more information) which overthrew the government at the time and installed a new one in its place.
And today, they are still considered to be at war with their neighbor Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region (something we’ll talk more about below).
And frankly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I recommend taking a read through the “understand” section on Armenia’s Wikitravel page before your trip, but arrive with an open mind to learn more about all these things that have shaped modern-day Armenia in detail.
3. There are more Armenians living outside of Armenia than within it
Thanks primarily to the Armenian genocide that occurred at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during WWI, the Armenian diaspora is one of the largest in the world – coming in at 7 million Armenians overseas compared to just 3 million that live within Armenia itself.
And this Armenian diaspora is truly worldwide. The population of Glendale, California, for example, is 30% Armenian. And alongside the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim quarters of Jerusalem’s old city, you’ll also find an Armenian quarter.
And I hate that this has to be said….but yes, the Kardashians are likely the most famous members of this Armenian diaspora.
4. Technically, Armenia is still at war with neighboring Azerbaijan
And here’s where things get messy.
This conflict started back in the Soviet Union times when the USSR created the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region just to the east of Armenia. Although the population of this region at this time was 94% Armenian, this region technically fell within Azerbaijan’s borders.
However, given the freedom of movement between the various Soviet Republics, over time more and more Azerbaijanis moved to this region, ultimately building up tensions with the Armenians already there.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought things to a boiling point when Armenia staked their claim to Nagorno-Karabakh and went to war with Azerbaijan over it.
Today, although the military presence is strong and the area is mostly calm, there are occasional skirmishes. The most recent was the 2016 Four-Day War where several hundred (estimates seem to vary by source) from both sides were killed.
Technically, Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani (this is what you’ll see if you check Google maps, for example).
But logistically? Nagorno-Karabakh is de facto controlled by Armenia. Today, the people who live there are Armenian (all the Azerbaijanis were expelled) and it can only be accessed by crossing over from Armenia.
5. Yes, you can visit Nagorno-Karabakh while visiting Armenia (and yes, it’s safe as a tourist)…
Although you might not expect it given what we’ve just said, yes you can visit Nagorno-Karabakh and yes, it’s perfectly safe as a tourist.
As we said above, the last violence broke out in 2016. But even then, this occurred on the frontlines and definitely not somewhere you’d be as a tourist.
And truly, if you are in Armenia already, no matter which side you feel of the conflict you feel is in the right, Nagorno-Karabakh is absolutely worth visiting.
Yes, you can certainly still see the marks of the war – from bombed-out buildings to fallen soldier monuments to abandoned Azerbaijani mosques – but you’ll also get the chance to not only to learn more about the conflict and hear the perspectives of those who live there, but also to simply see how life continues on despite violence.
Not to mention, Nagorno-Karabakh is home to some pretty stunning landscapes!
6. ….but don’t call it Nagorno-Karabakh.
Officially, this region is internationally called “Nagorno-Karabakh.”
However, the official Armenian name is “Artsakh” (pronounced “art-sock”).
You will not be treated very kindly if you call it Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia, so make a point to avoid it.
7. Armenia can be a bit challenging to get around, so we recommend this (very!) cheap local tour company
We rented a car for a chunk of our trip, but took two day tours from Yerevan with One Way Tour, and we really enjoyed both of them. Not only for the spots we visited, but because the guides were really interesting to talk to and gave us unique insights into the country that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
They have a huge selection of tours leaving from Yerevan, including multi-day tours to Nagorno-Karabakh (the only reason we didn’t go with them for our visit to Nagorno-Karabakh and rented a car instead was because they didn’t have an English guide available for the days we wanted to go).
You can see all the tours One Way Tour has available leaving from Yerevan and find details/the schedule here. To reserve your spot on a tour, you have to go to “contact” to send them a message and then pay them in cash in one of their offices in Yerevan.
Note: we promise we aren’t getting any discounts or anything like that from talking about One Way Tour here…we were just so impressed with them that we wanted to share them with our fellow travelers!
8. If you want to rent a car in Armenia, be very cautious (and don’t do it unless you are a very confident driver!)
One of the highlights of our trip was definitely the mini “road trip” we took with our rental car through Nagorno-Karabakh and southern Armenian.
However, it was not without its stressors and I would definitely think twice about renting a car in Armênia. For example, after seeing what the conditions were like, I would never dream of renting the car or driving it myself (given that Rodrigo did all the driving and even he was a bit nervous at some points!).
For starters, the drivers were pretty wild and clearly not all that concerned about safety (and keep in mind, this is coming from someone who has driven and/or ridden in plenty of other countries where drivers also have a blatant disregard for safety). As in, we saw perhaps a dozen near head-on collisions because someone passed another car on a blind corner (I still shudder to think about it).
And truthfully, the roads are in very, very rough condition – full of massive potholes, entire missing patches, and steep curves that genuinely make it difficult to drive. And naturally, the conditions get much, much worse if you don’t stay on main roads (something we are usually happy to do with rental cars in other places, but really wouldn’t recommend in Armenia).
And just one last consideration before renting a car – the rental car companies (or at least the one we rented from) are strict. We’ve never actually seen someone examine a just-returned rental car as thoroughly as they did here (they even laid on the ground to get a good look under the car).
It appears we got a small scratch under the bumper (and frankly, with roads as they were here, it’s almost impossible to walk away 100% damage-free), and we had to pay almost as much as we paid for the rental car itself to fix it. Good that our credit card paid us back!
All things considered, if you’re an intrepid, confident driver who wants to rent a car in Armenia like we did, take a look at our article with the 5 Best & Cheapest Websites for Rental Cars in Armenia to start your search.
9. Beyond renting a car or taking a tour, your options for transportation are marshrutka minibuses or hitchhiking
Although both of these options take a bit longer to get around, both marshrutkas (Soviet-style shared minibuses that serve as public transportation) and hitchhiking seem to be good (although not always super reliable) transportation options.
10. The Armenia-Azerbaijan border and the Armenia-Turkey borders are closed
With the genocide and Armenia’s current conflict with Azerbaijan, it should come as no surprise that the borders between these countries are closed off to travelers and locals alike.
In other words, if you plan to visit Azerbaijan or Turkey during your trip, you may need to head up to Georgia to do your border crossings. Or if you plan to visit all 3 Caucasus countries, you’ll need to put Georgia in between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
11. It’s probably easier to go to Azerbaijan before Armenia, rather than the other way around
We didn’t visit Azerbaijan ourselves on this trip so we can’t speak from personal experience, but we have heard that Azerbaijani border officials may give you a hard time if you have an Armenian stamp in your passport.
It doesn’t sound like you’ll be denied entry (unless you admit to visiting Nagorno-Karabakh, which hopefully you know better than to do! ), but they may be tough on you and you will likely be asked questions about your visit to Armenia.
Of course, this can also happen if you come to Armenia with an Azerbaijani stamp in your passport, but it generally doesn’t sound as if Armenian officials care all that much.
12. If you only have time to make it to one monastery in Armenia, make it Geghard Monastery
If you’re visiting Armenia, chances are high that a good portion of your trip will be dedicated to visiting monasteries. And beyond the monasteries themselves, many of them are worth visiting for the stunning scenery surrounding them, such as the mountainous Tatev Monastery (located at the end of the longest cable car in the world, as discussed in #17 below!) or the Sevananvank Monastery located directly on the shores of the famed Lake Sevan.
But truthfully, although all of these monasteries may be quite lovely, they do start to look all the same inside (particularly if you end up visiting 10+ in a week like we did).
However, we did “accidentally” stumble across a monastery that was different from all the rest – built directly into a cliff and full of caves, grottoes, and a mysterious spring that makes you feel like you are in Indiana Jones movie!
This monastery is called “Geghard Monastery,” and it’s about a 40-minute drive from Yerevan. Unfortunately, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere (and thus probably not accessible via public transportation), so you either need a rental car or a tour to get there.
We ended up there during one of our tours with One Way Tour (this was the “Garni Night Tour,” but I’d just send them a message and ask which tours go to this monastery since there should be several options). We didn’t even realize we were going to be visiting a monastery on this tour since we had several stops, and this was a great surprise!
13. Be sure to take a ride on Yerevan’s soviet-era metro
Yerevan’s metro may have just 10 stations, but it’s not your average metro – from mosaiced artwork and glittering chandeliers to the Soviet-era colored plastic tokens you use as your ticket, it’s 100% worth a ride. Oh, and did we mention it’s only 0.20 cents??
The story behind the construction of the Yerevan metro is pretty entertaining, as well.
According to a free walking tour we did in Yerevan, Armenia essentially tricked the USSR into building them a metro system because back in the day, the Soviet Union agreed it would build metro systems (for free!) in cities that hit a certain population. And although cities like Tbilisi hit those limits, Yerevan didn’t.
However, Yerevan didn’t let this stop them! They invited inspectors to come on in and see the city anyways.
To make the city seem full and hustlin’ and bustlin’, they incentivized farmers and those living outside the city to come in and walk through the streets. Those that had a car were then requested to drive as awfully and chaotically as possible so the inspector would really believe how necessary a metro would be for Yerevan. Amazingly, it worked, and the Soviet Union built this entire metro system free of cost to the Armenians.
Although the metro is no longer financed by the Soviet Union (obviously) or Russia, it is now financed by the European Investment Bank (yet another reason why Rodrigo believes the European Union is awesome!)
14. Keep cash with you at all times
Like plenty of other countries, cash is king here. We rarely found places that would accept credit cards and in some places outside of Yerevan, it was quite difficult to find ATMs. So, do yourself a favor and keep cash on you! Luckily, things are very cheap so don’t need to carry a lot at a time.
15. Buy your ticket to Tatev (the longest cable car in the world) online ahead of time
Tatev is a classic stop while visiting Armenia, and is definitely worth the trip. However, as we found out the hard way, you have to buy tickets for specific time slots (and thus can’t just show up and go anytime).
We got lucky because we only had to wait an hour. Although we didn’t buy our ticket in advance, we went in low season. But I imagine we might have had to wait for hours or even until the following day if a tour bus had arrived just before us!
You can buy your tickets for a time slot to the “Wings of Tatev” online here. Just make sure you arrive on time!
And if you want to spend a little more and take a full tour of the region, including the cable car, you can take a look here on these Get Your Guide tours.
16. Buy your Yerevan-Tbilisi train ticket early as well
Many visitors to Armenia also include a trip to Georgia, and we followed suit with a weekend trip to Tbilisi from Yerevan.
You have two ways to get to Tbilisi from Yerevan: by marshrutka bus or by train.
Many people, particularly locals, will recommend you take the bus because it is slightly shorter (although not always depending on traffic or wait time at the border) and slightly cheaper.
However, we chose to take the train because we’d pick a train over a cramped bus any day!
Just make sure you buy your train tickets in advance. We were unable to purchase online at the website here for some reason (I don’t think we booked far enough in advance?), and actually went to the station directly to purchase the day before. But if you’re going in high season (like over the summer), tickets can sell out weeks in advance so I’d recommend trying to get the website to work.
17. If you like to hike, check out the HikeArmenia app
Unfortunately, I got quite sick during our trip and had to take it easy activity-wise. However, Armenia is full of beautiful landscapes to explore and hike (think: mountains, gorges, waterfalls, and more!).
If you’re interested in hiking, make sure you check out the HikeArmenia app. This great app is full of trail recommendations and maps to help you plan hikes around the country. You can learn more and download the app at https://hikearmenia.org/.
18. Try to get a copy of the “Backpacker’s Guide Map of Yerevan & Armenia” (and reserve your place on the Yerevan Free Walking Tour where you can get this map in advance)
As we’ve said many times before, we always try to do free walking tours when we travel because they are a great introduction to a new place. And of course, Yerevan was no exception.
Although we do have to be honest here – the guide for this particular free walking tour was a bit abrasive and may not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, he was very knowledgeable and interesting to hear from (and also happened to ease up a bit when we started asking him questions), and we think the tour was 110% worth doing. Afterward, our group even went out for dinner at a traditional Armenian restaurant.
But make sure you reserve your place for this free walking tour online in advance (you can do that here). Most of the free walking tours we’ve done around the world don’t require this and you can just show up at the meeting spot, but this particular one is quite strict (and you may actually get turned away if you don’t reserve ahead of time).
Plus, going on this tour is the only way you can get this excellent “Backpacker’s Guide Map of Yerevan & Armenia,” which is full of local tips about travel in Armenia (including off-the-beaten-path places to go, cultural insights, local tips, activity recommendations, and more). The map served as an amazing guide throughout our trip, so we’d highly recommend getting your hands on it if you can!
19. Want to say “thank you” in Armenia? Just say “merci!”
There are two ways you can say “thank you” in Armenia.
If you want to suffer, here’s the first: շնորհակալություն (pronounced “shnorhakalut’yun”)
Or if you want to make things easier on yourself, just go ahead and say “merci” (yes, like the French and yes, Armenians actually use this just as often as շնորհակալություն!)
And that’s everything in our list of 19 things to know before visiting Armenia! Have any other questions about anything above or about travel to Armenia in general? Just pop in to the comments area below and we’ll get back to you!
We’ll also be creating a few more articles about Armenia (one itinerary article and one about doing a weekend trip to Tbilisi from Armenia). If you’re interested in seeing either, subscribe to the right so you’ll get an email when the new articles launch.
Planning your next trip?
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