A Love Letter to Yerevan

Would you have thought that Yerevan is a green relaxed city?

I wouldn’t. A trip to Armenia didn’t really appear on my radar until I made plans to visit Georgia. And I thought it would be nice to see the some ancient Armenian monasteries dotted all over the country.

Yerevan as a base makes sense

Initially we planned a two-week trip around Easter, which fell into both the Armenian Easter and the Georgian Orthodox Easter. We would spend most of our trip in Georgia, as it’s the larger country, and hire a car to visit the monasteries. But looking at accommodations, Yerevan offered most -and easily bookable- options. After reading that the roads can be badly maintained and car hire expensive, we decided to use Yerevan as a base for several short day trips of a mainly cultural nature and enjoy Yerevan’s Restaurants and bars at night.

But then we arrived in a sleep-deprived haze in a marshrutka straight off a red-eye flight via Tbilisi.

It was the Saturday before Easter, it was warm and sunny, and as we strolled to our hotel, we saw green spaces, low-rise red stone architecture, People sitting under vine-covered pergolas, cafes and little shops. Was this love at first sight, and could Yerevan be more than just a convenient culture trip base?

Yerevan is a city of contrast
If you’re into Soviet cars in crazy colours, you will like Yerevan
Flowers everywhere you go

Why is Yerevan so great?

Yerevan is  easy to walk

Our first stroll out of the nice Ibis Yerevan Centre took us up Northern Avenue, a glitzy pedestrian boulevard, to the grey hulk of the opera house, surrounded by gardens with more outdoor cafes, all pleasantly uncrowded. We had dinner in a nice small Armenian Restaurant, then passed People taking Easter Lights home – everyone seemed to be chatting to one another, something previously unheard of in Germany or Eastern Europe, and we just strolled from one cafe to the next, something that is done with gusto in Yerevan, and there are plenty of cafes in the centre.

Parpetsi Street Yerevan
So green everywhere

On our little trips out, mostly by public Transport, we walked the wide sidewalks of tree-lined Avenues in Central Yerevan.  Everyone we asked for directions was friendly and went out of their way to help us hapless tourists.

The public Transport network might be confusing, but it works

Trolleybuses, ordinary buses and minibuses (marshrutkas) ply the city, and there is a metro line too. They carry numbers and all destinations are written in Armenian, a language with its own script and unlike any other language. However, with the help of fellow passengers and a bit of memorizing main landmarks, we had no trouble getting where we wanted in the city and rarely took taxis. It was a great way to get a feel for a city, and it was completely safe. It helps to know that the majority of buses and all trolleybuses go along Mesrop Mashtots Avenue which runs through the Centre. You can hardly go wrong picking up public transport there. Yerevan also has a short single-line metro system, which is fun for its retro value, but unlike Tbilisi, major transport hubs aren’t really on the metro.

Yerevan Metro
One of the less crowded Metro systems I’ve had the pleasure to ride

Great Accommodation

Hotel

You should have no trouble finding something suitable, from hostels to the classy hotel. We stayed at the Ibis Yerevan Center for two nights and then in a private room booked through AirBnB for four. The Ibis was very central, new, clean and friendly. And at 47 EURO per room per night, a reasonable choice. The newer generation Ibis might still have the unit bathrooms, but they’re far away from the plasticky older decor, and the bed was comfortable and had nice linens.

Private Accommodation

If you are somewhat adventurous, the same money will rent you an entire apartment in the city. We rented a double room in a  private house for roughly 30 EURO per night per room, which was small, with a shared bedroom, but honestly the comfiest bed I have slept in in a  while, and came with full immersion into Russian language and lovingly cooked breakfast every morning. The listing is here, if you are interested.

Where I didn’t stay but wish I had

As I haven’t stayed anywhere else, I am hesitant to make further recommendations. We did a tour with Envoy Hostel, and of course I couldn’t help but take a peek in one of their rooms. I would probably stay here if I were on a budget- dorm beds start at 11 USD!  Private rooms cost up to 40-45 USD, which isn’t such a great deal any more. The location is lovely, in a quiet side street of Mashtots Avenue, close to public transport, restaurants and bars. The other place I like the look of was the Tufenkian Historic Yerevan Hotel, a clean modern hotel in a historic building just off Republic Square. Tufenkian is a national mini-chain owned by an expat Armenian, with traditional smallish properties round the country.  All are individually decorated, so if you want to stay somewhere classy and individual, this one might be for you.

What is there to see and to do in Yerevan?

Despite assigning so much time of our previous week to outside trips, we managed to see a good portion of Yerevan. We even took the leisure to sit around in cafes and bars doing not very much, and  shopping for the ultimate souvenir, the holiday haircut.

So here are in vaguely chronological order, some very nice things that will make you love Yerevan:

It’s a vibrant, green, friendly city – just perfect for walking

Northern Avenue and the Opera Theatre

I suggest you set off at Republic Square and walk along the pedestrian Northern Avenue just to get your bearings. The grey monstrosity in front of you is the Opera Theatre, but thankfully, it is sitting in a large public park full of cafes.

Cross Mashtots Avenue and walk back on Parpetsi Street to the Missak Manouchian Park. Here, you’ll see the typical red stone low-rise Yerevan buildings of the 1920’s, or what’s left of them, as Yerevan is a rapidly changing city. On the Eastern side, the centre is ringed by Circular Park, a wide strip of public gardens, but walk down any of the larger boulevards, like Mashtots Avenue or Abovyan Street, and you’ll find strips of green right in the city. Although traffic can be quite mad, people are still quite considerate, and somehow, despite being in the middle of the city, the traffic is never really that bothersome. My favourite if the green spaces, though, is Poplavok Park, to the North of the Opera House – we stayed there and it’s a lovely area full of cafes and restaurants – you’ll see the occasional foreigner there, but its mostly locals.

Near the Opera Theatre. Note the little bits of green everywhere
More flowerbeds in some random residential street
… and some grander green boulevards, made for walking: Nalbandyan Street

It has great outdoor art

The density of statues and monuments is just mind-boggling. Yerevan really loves its statues. Just a stroll on Abovyan Street or Mashtots Avenue will reveal little artworks sitting in tiny flower beds, wall mosaics, or large-scale ornamental Soviet facades. Of course the largest density of outdoor art free for all is on the Kaskad and Alexander Tamanyan Park, just before you climb up the Kaskad.

The Kaskad – started in the 1970’s and yet unfinished
Jumping into a dried out pool statue, Kaskad
Cat Statue by Fernando Botero – apparantly Columbian opulence inspired this fat kitty
Impala Leap by British Sculptor Saraj Guha. You can actually buy his art (well, not in Yerevan, but online)
Wall relief outside a cafe, Sayat Nova Avenue

Yerevan is full of lovely cafes

I didn’t have Yerevan down as an al fresco city. But… everywhere you go, there would be a cafe or a small bar. All have free WiFi, and nobody would care if you sat there all day. I have serious thought about returning one day soon.  I sign up for a Russian class, and spend two or three glorious weeks in Yerevan studying and sitting in its cafes and drinking the excellent traditional coffee., boiled in a small pot with sugar. I even bought a pot in order to recreate it, but it never tastes quite as good as on location. Here are my favourite cafes…

Gemini Cafeteria

According to some guidebooks, the best cafe in Yerevan. It serves two really great things: coffee and crepes. Only outdoor seating, and rather basic, but if you’re coming for coffee and crepes there is no better place to go.

Caffe Gemini in Yerevan

Jazzve

Jazzve is a chain, and their large cafe right by the opera house appears the place to be seen in, and does a nice line in photogenic coffee drinks, desserts and light meals.  Much larger and more expensive than Gemini, although the coffee is very good, too. They pride themselves at boiling the traditional coffee on sand, which is apparently the traditional and most tasty way to make an Eastern coffee. The location is wonderful for lounging and people watching, and seating is completely outdoors, too. I wonder what they do in the not-so-mild winter.

Tiziano

This fancy French-looking cafe is around the corner from the Ibis, so we usually went there for breakfast. These macaroon towers in the background are real! I thought it might be a bit early in the morning for such an indulgence. Again, good traditional coffee, and lovely breakfasts with a moderate price tag despite the fancy surroundings.

Random Coffee Stalls

You find them on larger streets and squares in the centre. This one outside the Moscow Cinema on Abovyan Street was particularly good. Mars Bar and Oreo Coffee Shake? You get it here. As you can see, theere’s a decent-looking espresso machine, too. Everything is very inexpensive.

Interesting architecture

Where to start? Yerevan is an odd mix of early Soviet City Planning, Soviet monstrosity and Modern Monstrosity. There are some pretty Beaux-Arts buildings from the Russian rule, but today’s Yerevan is really about early modernist city planning. Post revolution, the city was planned in today’s grid layout of local rose stone buildings by Alexander Tamanyan. No building was to be higher than the Opera Theatre (which was only opened in 1933, and built from a rather ugly grey stone).  Right now, early Soviet City Planning appears to dominate the character of the city centre, and trust me, the low-rise stone buildings set apart from the street on wide boulevards with smaller lanes in between are a stroke of genius. Also, according to Tamanyan, every apartment was to have a view of Mount Ararat. It wasn’t entirely possible, but even nowadays many apartments tdo have the view, and therefore are thought to command higher prices.

A lot of the notable architecture you’ll come across is from the Soviet era

Though a capital city, Yerevan is easy to negotiate

Before post-war apartment building really went off, the Soviets built some interesting concrete structures like the now defunct Cinema Rossiya, the opulent 1950’s Pak Shuka Market (now a supermarket), and started off on the Kaskad. Then came some blasting ugly apartment buildings, and the metro, who has some interesting concrete ornamentations.

Sadly, the facade is all that’s left of the 1950’s Pak Shuka
Moskva Cinema Yerevan Soviet Modern Architecture
Another pleasing 1950’s style building that fits harmoniously: The Moskva Cinema on Abovyan Street.
Republic Square Yerevan Soviet Modern Architecture
Metro Stations are a great way to display concrete art, here on Republic Square
Yerevan Soviet Modern Architecture
This one might divide opinions: the 1975 Cinema “Rossija” How does the massive concrete roof not crush the piffly little side elevation?
Yerevan Soviet Modern Architecture
And right opposite the Rossija, some proud display of Soviet mass housing

And the Armenians do monuments really well. The bigger, the better. The Genocide Monument is a good example of tasteful Beton Brut. A few days more, and I would have happily trundled all over the city on the trolleybus, and found more monuments of bygone times.

More contemporary contributions include the Cafesijan Centre for the Arts on top of the Kaskad, fully concrete, though quite tasteful, and the rather inoffensive Northern Avenue shops and Residential buildings. Thankfully, the real ugly appears to be limited to a few high rise bank and hotel buildings on the fringes of the centre, and Tbilisi and Baku seem to take the price in ugly new constructions.

Yerevan Soviet Modern Architecture
The Kaskad: The cream stone makes this somewhat less offensive, at least they planted some greenery on it, and most of it is underground.

Reasonably priced restaurants

I admit we were very boring here… we just looked in the guidebook for cheap, local restaurants.

We went to a Western Armenian Restaurant called Anteb twice. Its speciality is grilled meats, so I found it a bit hard to find anything vegetarian that wasn’t a salad or a vegetable side dish. The meat, however… was good. I tried a tiny piece. I tried another tiny piece at a family lunch a few days later. Nothing like average butcher’s meat in Europe. Okay, that’s my meat consumption done for the year. If you are familiar with Turkish cooking, there will be nothing new here, but the dishes were quite nicely executed and not expensive.

And we visited a branch of the Tavern Yerevan  – apparently this is the place for the casual visitor to Yerevan. But honestly – touristy as it may be, the food was excellent. Lots of somewhat unusual dishes, like the mountain sorrel salad and the bean stew. Of course, once in Georgia, bean stew would be everywhere! Here, they had two or three different types of bean stew (one vegetarian). I tried the meaty one… and man, they know how to cook a bone. Really solid cooking, I did like this restaurant.

Tavern Yerevan traditional cooking

And then, to see if the Tripadvisor hype is something to believe, in, we went to Lavash, the current top Yerevan Restaurant on Tripadvisor. It is one of a few where you should perhaps make a reservation. We strolled in at lunchtime asking for a table for late afternoon and got a table in their smoking section for two hours later… with ultra-strong smoke extraction systems. Beautiful space, good service, nice decor. But the food was somewhat lacklustre. It was not bad, but… everything I tried, I had better and cheaper elsewhere.

Lavash Restaurant Yerevan

SAS Food Court

SAS is a supermarket chain. And one of their bigger markets happens to come with a food court. We just drove past this and decided to call. What a find! Cheap, cheerful, good quality food. And you can watch how Lavash, the traditional wafer-thin bread, is made. It’s on Arshakunyats Road between the centre and Yerevan Mall, and I believe trolleybus No.1 (as well as many other buses) stop there.

Lots of retro moments

See architecture.

Or take a ride on the 1980’s Metro.

If you thought all Soviet Metros are like Moscow, think again… this one one is grey, concrete and a little smelly though not dirty. Is it possible to smell Eastern Bloc? I think so – I was quite vividly thrown back to my childhood. The Budapest Metro smells quite similar. Is it possible they all put something into the concrete that is only slowly released over a couple of centuries? I’m not sure, but Soviet Metros are my madeleines.

Opera Theatre and Concert Hall

If you like a classy evening out on the cheap, I highly recommend a performance at the Opera Theatre (the front of the opera house, and the more opulent venue) and or the Aram Chatchaturjan Concert Hall (back of the opera house). This one takes a bit of effort, as the theatre itself appears to be permanently locked. But check the opera and concert programme online, then make a beeline for the opera ticket booth to the west of the theatre or the concert ticket booth to the east of the theatre (both are in the little park surrounding the opera theatre), and buy a ticket, starting at 2 EURO. Beware that especially the opera season can be extremely short, and count yourself lucky if there is actually a performance when you’re in town. We had no luck with the opera but went to an Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra Concert. The experience reminded me of a 1980’s school trip – from the somewhat shabby chic concert hall vestibule with its voluminous net curtains to the smoking musicians in the basement bar to the hushed atmosphere in the Soviet Baroque concert hall. The performance itself was faultless and simply wonderful.

Yerevan has great museums

Again, how many museums will you visit in just five days when you got a large list of culturally important monasteries out of town and the weather is so good?

Tsitsernakaberd

First on our list was the Armenian Genocide Museum. The Armenian Genocide is not something the average educated Western would be taught about much, but  delve a bit into Middle Eastern and Caucasian History, and you will come across a horrendous crime starting well int he 19th Century but reaching its peak just towards the end of the Ottoman Empire. I was shocked to hear that just 29 countries recognise the Armenian Genocide to date. It takes some effort to travel to Tsitsernakaberd just outside Yerevan, but every visitor to the country should do so, and learn more about it in the excellent museum that is attached.

Matenadaran

The Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts is one of the greatest medieval script libraries in the world, and it’s right in the centre of Yerevan. It gets its fair share of visitors, but between hoardes of coach parties, you’ll find plenty of space to view the two rooms with the most elaborate manuscripts. Although the building is huge, there are just four of five rooms accessible to the public, showing some of their highlights, making this a rather small museum. We went to the Persian room in the basement (beautiful, don’t miss it!) and were literally the only visitors there.

I think one might need a photo permit to take pictures in here… of course, I turned the flash off.
Couldn’t help it… what looks like a decapitation of a small person by a larger person is some manual medicine instruction

The Shopping is rather good, too

Not in the way of big malls – I am sure you will find them, in the outskirts of the city. We limited our shopping efforts to the Vernissage Market, some carpet shops, and the fresh produce outlets that I always love to visit abroad.

Vernissage Market

Supposedly much busier on weekends, we visited mid-week and found half the stalls empty, but enough to tempt us to part with a bit of cash. I got an older jazzve pot for making coffee – the choice ther eis huge.

I also liked the carpets on display, although I will dedicate an extra post to carpet shopping in the Caucasus. There were about three or four carpets stalls mid-week. The carpets at the higher price (around 600-800 USD) looked exquisite, but few were Armenian – rather, they were Iranian or Uzbek. Definitely worth a look when shopping for a carpet, though probably better to know your carpets when shopping here.

GUM Market

If you like produce, this market is a must. A bit out of the way, but a great opportunity to ride the Metro (to Zoravar Andranik). To get back, just pick up a bus outside the market – most will go to Mashtots Avenue. Since the famous Pak Shuka on Mashtots Avenue is now a rather featureless supermarket, this is the place to go for fresh fruit and veg, and for edible souvenirs. When you enter, you will not know where to look for all the dried fruit offered to you to try. Even here, vendors are used to tourists, and its better to check the prices. They are not cheap, but the quality of the dried fruit is wonderful.  On the sides of the vast market hall, prices are clearly displayed. Round the back are some very photogenic pickle stalls, and upstairs some clothing and luggage stalls, all selling very inexpensive goods.  I just wish now I had loaded my rucksack with dried peaches! Couldn’t find them anywhere else… Georgia was good for dried apricots but no more cherries and peaches.

Salons

Since I mentioned the holiday haircut, I should probably mention that salon prices are a fraction of those in Western Europe. I was in bad need of a haircut and went to the Schwarzkopf Academy on 40 Pushkin Street where I had my hair cut by a giggling teenager. It turned out one of the best haircuts I ever had. She even managed to do an asymmetric haircut with no undercut that would not make me look like a member of the Human League but rather like someone who’s worn asymmetric hairstyles all her life! Seriously, I would almost fly out there to get this haircut again. Add to that my increased desire to refresh my terrible Russian and I might have a good reason to return soon!

Not a hair salon, but an example how the tiniest space in an underpass is used for a stall

Did I miss anything?

I have no ambition to roll out the complete guide to Yerevan here, these are just my favourites, but I would love to hear your recommendation!

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 the 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 teh 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.

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.

 

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