The flights, accommodation and activities mentioned in this post were NOT sponsored.
I knew nothing about Armenia before I went there. I know that as a seasoned traveler, people expect me to be well-researched and knowledgeable about all my destinations before I arrived there. But in the midst of a career change and country relocation, I booked my flights to Armenia 4 days before I took off and I just didn’t have any clue about the place I was travelling to.
Perhaps that was the best thing I could’ve done… because I had no expectations or knowledge base so my experience there started on a blank slate. Now I don’t know about you but I had only known 2 people who had travelled to Armenia before me so I didn’t have many photos to go by and wasn’t really sure what we would do/see since my sister, Expat Pug, and I were travelling to Armenia in the depths of winter (January 2020).
But now that I have been I can’t wait to share this experience with all of you- Armenia is the destination you didn’t even know you needed to go to. It has something to offer everyone- whether you’re a history buff, religious enthusiast, foodie or photo obsessive panda (oh that’s just me I guess), you’ll find something to excite you in Armenia.
Planning my trip
As I mentioned, I planned my trip to Armenia in a rush and didn’t have time to explore many various options of travelling around. I contacted my friend Kristine and asked her how I could plan my trip (she was 1 of the two people I knew who had travelled to Armenia). She put me in touch with a tour guide that had created an itinerary for her and shown her around Armenia. I contacted Sofi, she made me an itinerary & sent me a quote, I booked her and that’s it, I was ready to go to Armenia. (She was an amazing guide and I highly recommend you browse her website & message her directly for a quote!)
I don’t usually travel around with a local tour guide in a private vehicle but the fact that we were going in the depths of a winter not known to be particularly mild, meant that I wanted a trip that was going to be as comfortable as possible. I also had no idea about Armenia and hoped having a local guide would help fill in my knowledge gap (spoiler alert- It definitely did!)
First, time for a quick PPG (Panda’s Progressive Geography) Lesson!
The birthplace of Christianity, is now a tiny land-locked country situated between Iran and Georgia (open borders), as well Turkey and Azerbaijan (closed borders). This country has undergone many traumas in the past as its people were slaughtered by the Ottomans in a genocide that is not yet recognized by many countries in the world, and its grand buildings were ravaged by a devastating earthquake in 1988.
The Ottoman Turks, during World War I, forced many Armenians to leave so that they created ‘diasporas’ in foreign countries. These are groups of Armenians that live and support each other in a communal fashion.
Although Armenia became independent in 1918, it was invaded by communist army in 1920 and became part of the USSR. In 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved and it was at that time that Armenia became its own independent country.
Despite its turbulent history, the Armenian people are fiercely proud of their country’s history, and for good reason. The Armenian civilization used to span all the way from Persia into Eastern Europe and was home to many significant historical firsts such as being the first country to make wine, and the first country to adopt Christianity. The official language is Armenian and the local currency is Armenian drams.
Flying into Armenia
Despite only booking my flights a few days before I flew, a round trip between Dubai & Yerevan was only 1200AED/$326/R4700. The usual price is around 500AED more so track your flights using whatever flight tracker you prefer to use (I recommend Hopper & Momondo)!
The airport code for Yerevan is EVN.
If you’re an adventurous soul, you can easily combine Georgia & Armenia in one trip. Both countries offer visa free entry or evisa for many nationalities including South Africans. If you want to read about how to take a bus between Tblisi & Yerevan just check out this detailed guide.
Where to stay
I stayed at an amazing hotel called Central Hotel. I got a free upgrade and ended up in a huge suite! I highly recommend this hotel because of its great location and excellent prices for 4-star service.
What to do in Armenia?
We landed in Yerevan exhausted after an early morning flight but managed to walk around the city center and look at the beautiful architecture. While I didn’t manage to absorb as much as I should’ve on the first day, I did notice that Yerevan is very easy to walk around, there’s plenty of English in stores and restaurants and in general people didn’t pay me much attention as I traversed the streets. I highly recommend a visit to the towering cascades complex for staggering views over the city (and if its clear, Mount Ararat).
A little detour Pug & I did was visiting the Iranian Mosque in Yerevan. The mosaic tiles are quite colourful and intricate which make for lovely photos. However if you do want to visit, please cover your hair and dress modestly.
We visited 2 monasteries, which I had thought might be quite boring but actually turned out to be really beautiful and interesting. Each monastery has a story behind (more often than not related to the early orgins of Christianity) and the monasteries themselves are beautiful. The first monastery we visited was Khor Virap Monastery which has amazing views of Mount Ararat.
Noravank Monastery was probably a highlight for me though as the drive between the towering snow covered mountains was stunning itself (well despite the fact that we got stuck in the snow briefly!).
Lake Sevan is probably the most popular place visited in Armenia and chances are that when you google Armenia, a picture of Sevan lake and its accompanying monastery- Sevananank- will appear. While the views from the top of the mountain are spectacular, it is a bit of a climb (but manageable even for lazy pandas).
Our next stop was Tsaghkadzor. This was very much a highlight for Expat Pug who experienced her first wintery wonderland reality. We headed up the mountain on a rickety ski lift (that was a bit nerve wrecking) and played in the fresh snow in the woods. I felt like I was in a Lapland based fairy-tale.
The ski lift cost 2000AMD per person but was included in the price of our tour.
On our last day we headed in a different direction to see what was once a pagan temple (later converted into a royal residence) with once again, stunning views into a picturesque gorge.
And we also stopped off at a monastery built into a cave where our guide did some beautiful singing for us to demonstrate the perfect acoustics. (You’ll have to delve in to my Armenia highlights on my Instagram for that!). The area behind Geghard Monastery is really stunning with a small stream running though, snow covered rocks and a romantic looking bridge. I was in a movie scene from The Chronicles of Narnia!
One of the interesting things that we did was have lunch at a restaurant called Noyan Aygi nearby. This restaurant sells some cute souvenirs at cheap prices but more interestedly, they have an interactive area where you can watch Armenia’s traditional bread- Lavash- being made. If you’re lucky, the ladies might oblige you a chance to participate like they did with Expat Pug!
While the itinerary on paper seemed quite dull to me (would I really be interested in that many monasteries?), it turned out to be one of the best trips I have taken.
Why is that you may ask? Well first of all, the kindness of Armenian people blew me away. Everywhere we went, we were were warmly welcomed, invited to try different things and in general, taken care of. When our driver heard that we liked taking photos, he was happy to stop over on the side of the road so we could take photos and enjoy scenery. Our guide Sofi, treated us more as friends than clients and even gave us gifts when we left Armenia. People in restaurants were happy to chat to us and people in stores asked if they could photograph us for their facebook page. The last time I was bowled over by such friendliness was when I went to Iran in 2018.
The food in Armenia also blew me away. Armenians are very big on their farm to table process and with every meal I could taste the freshness of the ingredients. From the vegetable soups to the bread to the river trout, I was really impressed with everything that I ate in Armenia. Meals usually cost around 10,000AMD for 2 people and remember that portion sizes are HUGE.
Where to eat
The restaurant I have to recommend to you is Sherep (just off the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Yerevan). Although it was pricier than most other resturants, the food & service was amazing. Order the pumpkin soup, ask for your server to be Karo and you won’t be disappointed!
In a country where everyone treats you as a friend, the food is a heavenly tableau for the tastebuds, the history will blow your mind and the natural scenery cannot help but impress, Armenia is a true gem for budget travellers. Treat yourself and plan your trip- I am sure you will not be disappointed!
HOW LONG SHOULD I GO FOR?
I think you could stay in Armenia for months and never scratch the surface! Spare as much time as you can when visiting!
SHOULD I PURCHASE A SIM CARD?
Not at all. There was wifi in most places which was quite strong.
DID YOU APPLY FOR A VISA?
I did apply for an evisa through the official Armenian Immigration website. It cost me 30AED/$7/R80 and was granted in 24 hours.
South Africans and/or UAE residents are also eligible to obtain the visa upon arrival. To check for your nationality I advise you consult their official website.
If you’re looking for a reliable tour guide…
Please find the details of my amazing tour guide below. We are not related and neither were my services sponsored, I just think its important to give credit for an amazing service & pass the info along:
Have you been to Armenia? Or is it on your list of destinations? Let me know in the comments below!