See Armenia the easy way: Day Trips from Yerevan

Armenia is a relatively small country.  It makes good sense to base yourself in Yerevan, even if you are planning to tour the country. Day trips from Yerevan may be easier, more comfortable and more budget-friendly than trying to do a tour.

Why?

Many sights are scattered in all directions, and all roads lead to Yerevan.

The public Transport Network is centred on Yerevan, and other inter-City transport other than to Yerevan is less common.

But most of all, Yerevan is a beautiful welcoming city in ist own right, with great accommodation, culture and food. So, here is my handy guide to day trips from Yerevan.

Yerevan panorama
Yerevan from the Kaskad. On a bright day you see Mount Ararat in the background

Please note, when I say easy way, then I mean, being based in one place rather than packing up and moving to new accommodation every day, returning to a familiar place  – you will get to know your local area a bit etc. rather than being chauffeur-driven and hand-delivered to the attractions. We travelled to most places by public transport, or local taxi, and took an organised tour when there was limited public transport available.

Where should you go from Yerevan?

Geghard and Garni

If you do only one day trip from Yerevan, make it Geghard. Geghard Monastery was founded in the 4th Century by the national saint, Gregory the Illuminator, to hold the spear that pierced the body of Christ at crucifixation. Both its dramatic location on the bottom of a mountain gorge and its exquisite carvings make Geghard a beautiful destination. But sadly, also a very crowded one. Still – the beauty of the carvings in the rock-hewn churches, the exquisite carved crosses, and the pockets of peace and quiet in this awe-inspiring monastic complex warrant a trip here.

Geghard Monastery
View of the monastic complex, Geghard
Geghard Monastery
A small Armenian Church Service was in full swing – always with beautiful hymns
Geghard Monastery
The Zhamatun, a connecting chamber between chapels
Geghard Monastery
Upper Jhamatun, which contains a few tombs and otherwise is modelled on a gavit. It is lit through an opening in its floor. The acoustics in here were particularly beautiful
Geghard Monastery
Vestry (gavit) of Katoghike Chapel, used for overspill or to receive pilgrims
Geghard Monastery
Finely carved crosses everywhere
Astvatsatsin
St. Astvatsatsin Church,a smaller-rock-cut church off the main chapel

You can either take a taxi to Geghard and ask the driver to wait for you, or use a combination of bus, marshrutka and taxi.  It’s all relatively easy, but if you prefer convenience,  tour agencies such as Envoy or Hyur Service offer tours. Since the reconstructed Grecian Temple of Garni is on the way, it is often combined with a trip to Geghard.  Garni is in a beautiful location, and the temple is… okay. It looks very complete, and was only reconstructed in the 1970’s.  And the crowds were less respectful and more bothersome than in Geghard. I know drones are all the rage now, but when it flies noisily half a metre above your head because its owner wants to take shots of people climbing all over the structure, it might slightly bother you.

Garni photo spot. Climbing the temple seems normal and permitted. Drone not shown – but I was ready to kill it!

Echmiadzin and Zvartnots Cathedral

Echmiadzin

Echmiadzin is a fun trip, only 30 minutes out of Yerevan, and an ancient bus will take you there. Bear in mind this trip might only be of interest for the religious-minded and those with an interest in Yerevan Suburbia. At first, the bus will take you down some interesting street full of furniture stores and tiny stalls, then past the airport, and finally into the pleasant town of Echmiadzin. You’ll be dropped off in the main town square, and if you don’t get off, your fellow passengers will tell you to, and point you to the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin.

The compound is huge and rather unspectacular to the non-Armenian Apostolic Church follower, and has several churches.  When you visit during a large religious festival, it becomes more interesting, as church services are beautiful, very inclusive and usually accompanied by beautiful music. Beware, ladies, that you cover your head in all Armenian churches. A hoodie is fine, and so will be a handkerchief, no need for a full headscarf.

Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin
Ceiling of the Echmiadzin Cathedral. Its foundation was in the 4th Century, though most of the present building hails from 1868
Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin
Easter Service, Echmiadzin Cathedral. Even more pretty dresses than Catholics – is this possible?
Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin
Candles play a large part in Armenian Church worship
 Holy Etchmiadzin
Best to get some lunch before you head out to Hripsime and Zvartnots Cathedral – and you can trust a branch of Tashir Pizza will be everywhere!

The town itself is unspectacular but there are two other churches, Gayaneh and Hripsime. We only visited Hripsime, which is very stark and quiet. You will spot it on the right just as you enter town from Yerevan, and there is a bus stop right by it.

Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin
Hripsime Church just outside Echmiadzin -much quieter until a wedding party arrived!

Zvartnots Cathedral

Roughly 5km out of town is Zvartnots Cathedral, or rather, what is left of it. If you look at reconstruction image, it must have once been very impressive. What little is left of it I found rather underwhelming.

To this date, it is the most underwhelming UNESCO World Heritage site I have visited. But if you are deep into ecclesiastic architecture or Armenian history, this might float your boat.  Walking there from the road with the apple trees in blossom and the view of Mount Ararat was lovely, and so was the family of singers who were performing inside the ruins.

Zvartnots
Zvartnots Cathedral. To be honest, the blossoming apple trees and Mount Ararat were the real stars here

If you must see it, just get yourself to Kilikiya Avtokayan (a lot of Marshrutkas from Mashtots Avenue go there) then look out for a clapped out GAZ Bus standing towards the right of the main building. Ours had the destination in Latin. Just get on and pay the driver on exit – the fare was 200 AMD in April 2018. The driver will assume you’re going to the Holy See and motion you to get off when the bus reaches it, or the other passengers will tell you. But then you’ve gone too far!  We visited on returning from Echmiadzin. To get off at Zvartnots Cathedral, look out for a small statue of an eagle on a plinth to your right about 4km out of Echmiadzin. Or, coming from Yerevan, on your left – or ask the driver to drop you off – it has its own bus stop where you can catch a bus back easily – rund every 30min or so.

Zvartnots
It doesn’t get much more exciting as you get closer

Noravank

Another monastery in a  gorge, but very different from Geghard and much further away, really out in remote countryside. It was founded over 600 years after Geghard as a university. The layout is much simpler than Geghard, though, with just two small buildings. As in Geghard monastery,  the setting is spectacular, and much more remote.

Getting to Noravank is a little trickier. The best public transport option is to take  a marshrutka from Gortsaranayin Metro or a bus from the Sasunci David Bus station (by the metro of the same name) to Yeghegnadzor (or further south to Goris) and ask to be dropped of at the Noravank Junction, then walk about 5km or hitch, but bear in mind mostly tourist vehicles go there and its a narrow road with some traffic, so not fun to walk. We were lazy and just joined a tour.

Noravank
View of Surp Karapet (St. John the Baptist) Church, Noravank.
Noravank
Surp Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) Church, Noravank – that’s the one with the scary stairs!
Astvatsatsin
Inside Surp Astvatsatsin Church
Astvatsatsin
Tombstones, Noravank. Did you know that in the Armenian Church walking on the tombstones is highly encouraged?
Noravank
Surp Grigor Chapel, Noravank

Khor Virap

I confess here that Khor Virap fell off the schedule as there was just too little time. We saw it from the bus, and even at the distance, the monastery with Mount Ararat as a backdrop looked stupendous.

It makes sense to combine Noravank and Khor Virap on a day trip, as they are relatively close  together, but you best leave very early. You’d have to catch an Ararat- or Yerevan-bound bus from the Noravank turn of the Highway, and get off either at Ararat or Pokr Vedi, and taxi or hitch from there. Pokr Vedi is strategically better, as it’s only 2km from Khor Virap, but there are only three buses/marshrutkas per day to Yerevan (Sasunci David), and the last goes back around 5pm.

Khor Virap. WE didn’t have time to visit, so this picture is by Adrian Zwegers through Flickr

Sanahin, Haghpat and Akhtala

These three are situated, quite closely together, in the Northern province of Lori. Sadly, they are on opposite edges of the Debed River Canyon, and Akthala is ine hour north by car, so getting there by public transport can be a bit of a pain. I don’t think its possible to see all three in a day from Yerevan using buses and marshrutkas. Using the rather unpretty mining town of Alaverdi as a base, it is definitely possible to go to Sanahin and Haghpat in a  day, whereas Akthtala is not connected to public transport as far as I know so you’ll need a taxi. You should not miss Akhtala in favour of its more famous and UNESCO Cultural Heritage-listed neighbours, though!

Sanahin

All three monasteries  were founded in the 10th Century, and the name “Sanahin” means “older than that one”, referring to Haghpat, as there was a bit of a rivalry between the builders. It  is no longer an active church, and is in a fairly poor state of repair – recently there were attempts to stabilise the dome of its main church, and the whole building appears to splay upwards. It lies close to a neglected-looking Soviet era housing estate and a museum dedicted to the Mikoyan brothers. One of them was the designer of the MiG fighter aircraft, the other the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, or what was known as the Soviet parliament. There is an adventurous-looking cable car that did not look live, it’s said to have the steepest ascent of all cable cars in the former Soviet Union.

Sanahin Monastery, Armenia
Sanahin in Spring – our small group were the only visitors
Sanahin Monastery, Armenia
The Academy at Sanahin – imagine it would be really really cold to study there in winter!
Gavit, Sanahin – again, remember to step on as many tombstones on your way to the altar and help the deceases to clear their sins
Sanahin: like most Armenian churches, pretty bare inside. Also, no functioning altar as it is not in regular use as a church
And it needs a bit of work. The Dome has just been stabilised
Haghpat

Haghpat lies in a more rural village, and altogether appeared less ornate, but in a more beautiful setting. You know, you may get church fatigue, and these Armenian Churches do look quite similar. What else is there to say? Its main church, Surp Nishan, has hardly been touched over the centuries and is still pretty much in its unaltered 991 AC state.  Its free standing bell tower is famous although I am not sure why! Its compact and harmonious and sure looks good. And as you enter the complex, you may find people balancing on a narrow ledge just a foot or so up, holding onto little crevices in the stone. Local myth says if you walk the ten metres across without falling off, a wish will be granted.

Haghpat Monastery
Haghpat – located in beautiful mountain surroundings
Haghpat Monastery
Bell Tower, Haghpat
Haghpat Monastery
Unlike Sanahin, Haghpat is a working church
Haghpat Monastery
Walk this way… make it all the way to the end without falling off, and your wish will be granted
Akhtala

Last not least, Akhtala Monastery is very different in character. Sitting inside a ruined fortress above the semi-deserted mining town of the same name (some cracking Urbex here I suspect), it s main attraction is a tall church painted with beautiful frescoes that are hardly faded. Don’t miss it!

Akhtala
Akhtala – don’t be tricked by the simple exterior
Haghpat Monastery
Because… enter and see the most amazing blue-hued frescoes
Haghpat Monastery
Don’t know where to look first. Maybe one day my photo stitches will be successful and you get the full-on frescoes everything

Public transport is easy as far as Alaverdi – a lot of Tbilisi transport (from Kilikiya Bus Station in Yerevan) goes through there – but make sure its a Vanadzor/Alaverdi routed one, not a Ijevan one. The train is a bit useless as it stops there in the middle of the night. I believe hotels in Alaverdi are existent, but it’s not exactly a tourist destination.

If travelling to and from Tbilisi, you might wish to consider stopping off in Alaverdi to see them, or take the twice weekly “Enlinking Caucasus” Tour by Envoy Hostels. There are to Sanahin and Haghpat, but often these one-day tours omit Akhtala. If you are getting a bit fed up of the same-same looking Armenian monasteries, Akhtala will make a nice change – it is one of the few Armenian churches painted with beautiful detailed frescoes. Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtshketa pales compared to it in detail and atmosphere. These three are actually closer to Tbilisi than Yerevan (and the road from Tbilisi is much better) so visiting them as a day trip from Tbilisi is a great option  – just make sure to take your passport.

Tatev and Karahunj

Tatev scored high on my list of “really would like to see” places because of its dramatic location on a mountain plateau. Unfortunately, it is  about 280km from Yerevan, making this a rather tricky one for a day trip from Yerevan. For most of the route, the area is very sparsely populated, and by that I mean just tiny roadside villages. God only knows where you would find accommodation. Goris is about 35km away and has some decent-looking hotels available to book online.

We did some light research and booked a day tour with Hyur Service for approximately 35 EURO including the rather pricey cable car ride as well as stops in Karahunj and Noravank, and I don’t think this price can be beaten.  The cable car is Austrian and  new, and it has about one supporting pillar right in the  middle – but this is less scary than it sounds. You just glide silently across a deep valley – pre-cable car, driving around it would take over an hour and was only possible in the warm season.

Tatev Monastery
Tatev was covered in scaffolds, but a little climb on some rubble and some canny apple blossom disguise later…
Tatev Monastery
The Cable car ride to Tatev
Tatev Monastery
St Peter and Paul Church – the largest of the complex
Tatev Monastery
Inside St Peter and Paul Church – again, no big surprises in here but as always, amazing acoustics.
Karahunj
Karahunj and its beautiful surroundings

Other Monasteries

You may be templed out by now from visiting the more famous and more accessible monasteries, but wait! There are some gems that you may wish to consider, especially if you fancy a quiet contemplative visit and not a coach load full of selfie stick-wielding people. I admit, we didn’t make it as far; with just six days in Armenia, we stuck to the better-known ones and those easily accessible and admittedly, on our sixth day and the eighth monastic complex, a certain monastery fatigue set in.

Haghartsin and Goshavank

Haghartsin is not far from the Tbilisi-Yerevan route via Dilijan and Ijevan. It is famous for a Madonna statue and located in scenic woodlands. Nearby Goshavank monastery is a 13th Century Monastery known for some finely carved Khachkars. Hyur Service offer a tour to Lake Sevan and these two monasteries.

Saghmosavank and Hovhannavank

These two monasteries also date back to the 13th Century and lie in commuting distance from Yerevan, making them easy for a day trip.  They are often visited together. There is, in fact, a nice 5km walking trail between the two.

What about a trip to Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh)?

We’re leaving “Day trips from Yerevan” territory here! I put this here because countries that don’t really exist (as far as recognition by UN is concerned) strangely fascinate me. Especially after every one in Armenia told me how beautiful it is and that I must go there.

Historically and culturally a part of Armenia, it was transferred to Soviet Azerbaijan in 1921 and declared independent by its Armenian residents in 1988 as the Soviet Union fell apart, and subject to a war lasting six years until 1994. As recent as 2016, conflict boils up, but altogether, as long as you stay away from the Azeri border, is thought to be safe to travel.

Just don’t go to Azerbaijan after you’ve been there – you will be denied entry, and, in the worst case, taken into custody (and many Foreign Offices advise against travel). However, Hyur Service and Barev Armenia  run three-day tours out of Yerevan, and the Hyur one is on their regular guaranteed group tour schedule, and if you were to enter any travel agent in Armenia, they’d probably able to organise a private tour for you as well. The scenery is said to be beautiful and untouched, but alas, I didn’t get the chance to visit . One more reason to return.

Practicalities

Getting there

Zvartnots Airports takes flights from some Major European cities as well as Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Unless you live near a Major European hub, you will probably Change planes. We few into Tbilisi and took a shared van from Avlabari Metro in Tbilisi all the way to Yerevan. they will drop you off at the Kilikiya Avtokayan which is not central – much better to ask the Driver to let you out in the centre – Chessb House makes a good Stop if you’re based in the North of the Centre, and Vardan Mamikonyan is a good stop for Republic Square. Unless you have  a ton of luggage, it’s then pleasant enough to walk to your accommodation.

Accommodation

It makes little sense to stay outside Yerevan City Centre, roughly between the Kaskad and City Hall  – there are lots of Options. We stayed two nights at the Ibis Hotel* on Northern Avenue, then four nights in a private residence just behind the Opera House. From both places, everything in the centre was just an easy walk away, and we were lucky that both times, we were in a semi pedestrianised area, meaning it was really quiet at night. If pushed, I’d say I slightly preferred our room near the Opera, as it was more locals, the lovely Poplavok Park with its cafes was a stone’s throw away and so was Mashtots Avenue where nearly ALL public Transport goes though. If you want to do lots of day trips I recommend staying either close to Mashtots Avenue as most inner-city buses to both Kilikiya and Gai bus stations go along Mashtots, and it’s very pleasant all along it though possibly a tiny bit noisy.

Getting Around

We used public Transport 80% of the time, and resorted to cabs when we were too tired or too lazy. As far as I could see, there are no passes, just indicate when you want to leave and pay the Driver before getting off. The fare within the City is 100 AMD, and 200AMD to Echmiadzin or Garni. Public Transport drivers (that include the marshrutka ones) were always totally honest and charged us local rates.

Taxis

Taxis are an entirely different matter. Taxis are plentiful, and with the majority being inofficial with no metres, chances are you might end up in one of them. Either keep looking for metered Taxis (good luck) or use a taxi app, or just take the inofficial ones – you shouldn’t pay more than 700 AMD for a trip inside the City, sometimes 100AMD just because you’re a Tourist. For anything further out, just make sure to agree on a a price beforehand. We paid 1000 AMD to Tsitsernakaberd and 4000 AMD from Garni to Geghard (with waiting, we stayed as Long as we wanted). As for a free market economy, expect to pay a lot more if there’s just one taxi around and have plenty of small notes – the “I have no Change trick” is well used. On principle, I am happy to pay a mark-up as a Tourist, but I stop at being blatantly ripped off.

Disclosure

This trip was entirely self funded, and I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links (marked with an asterisk). For the simple process of linking to other businesses, I proclaim this unpaid advertising. I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself. You can trust me for the complete, unbiased truth. More details on my affiliate link policy are here

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