Most visitors to Yerevan (and Armenia) will arrive at Zvartnots International Airport, which is about a 20 minute (and 12km) drive from the city centre (known as "getron"). This small airport is an odd mixture of the old and new – with 1960’s Soviet style monolithic architecture supplemented by an attractive modern terminal. You will need immediate access to cash to pay for your 21 day visa, the luggage trolleys and also your cab fare. Helpfully, there are exchange facilities available in the airport (at typically unfavourable rates). There is no train service into the city, so you will need to take a taxi or (if booked) a hotel courtesy bus. Prices vary, but generally, you should not have to pay more than 1000 Dram for a trip into town. Most taxi drivers speak a smattering of basic English, and know the names of the main tourist hotels, but as Armenian and Russian are still the main languages, you may struggle to make yourself understood if you are going off the beaten track. The Armenian language and written script is unique and difficult for foreigners to decipher, but fortunately, since independence, more and more signage is being written in English as well.
The city is broadly laid out on a grid system and relatively easy to navigate. Provided you have a sensible pair of shoes, eyes in the back of your head and watch approaching traffic like a hawk, Yerevan is an eminently walkable city which has much to offer the observant tourist. There is an incredibly cheap one-line, ten-stop Metro that is squeaky clean and ultra-reliable that connects the centre of the city with the outer suburbs. It operates from 6:30 to 23:00, and tokens, bought from sullen-faced booth operators, cost a measly 50 Dram whatever distance you travel. The stops of most interest will be Hrabarag (Republic Square), Sasuntsi David, which serves the main railway station and is home to the impressive statue of the same name, and Marshall Bagramian, which serves the Parliament and the American University.
Apart from the Metro, the city operates a chaotic tram-bus, traditional bus and mini-bus system which I found far too daunting to use. There are no clear directions at the bus stops as to which buses go where. You have to rely on the signs (in Armenian, but sometimes English as well) in the front and side windows of each bus - if you are quick enough to catch them. The Soviet-era Lada and Volga taxis, which you simply flag down, are the most efficient and cost effective way of getting around. Most journeys within the city will cost around 600 Dram, but drivers will always profess to having no change. With the smallest value note being 1000 Dram, it pays to carry the right change if you are particularly cost conscious. There is no need to tip drivers.
SOME OF THE MAIN SIGHTS
Opera and its immediate surroundings provide the focal point for the Yerevan social scene. The area, which is roughly bounded by Mashdots, Terian, Sayat Nova and Tumanian Street is dominated by the squat, circular Opera house with its bas-relief Doric columns. The building houses two concert halls and has been providing world class performances since opening its doors in 1932. The area around Opera is packed with attractive outdoor cafes and bars, which both tourists and locals flock to day and night. It is the only central city location I have ever been to where you can get a coffee for less than 50p, or a beer for less than £1.
"Hrabarag", which used to be Lenin Square, is the off-centre focal point in the southern part of Yerevan. Arranged in a rough circle, its constituent buildings show the nuance, detail and style of Armenian Soviet architecture at its best. The main building material is local tufa stone, a porous, volcanic rock that comes in various colours, of which the most prized are the orange-pink shades. The main feature of the Square are the fountains in front of the museum, which offer colourful nightly displays set to classical and popular music. Not quite on the scale of the Bellagio, but worth watching nonetheless. Proceedings kick off around 8:30pm and last around twenty minutes.
At the top end of Mashdots Street, built into the side of a hill, and overlooked by the giant statue of "Mother Armenia", is the Madenataran – a museum and research institute which houses Armenia’s vast collection of historic illuminated manuscripts, books and documents. The display area of the museum is surprisingly small, with two, well illuminated main halls showing perhaps one percent of the treasures stored within it. The rest are stored in a secure vault bored deep into the side of the hill and are not accessible to the public.
Almost directly across the street from the mosque is a covered fruit and vegetable market which is best visited early in the day (at least before noon) to catch the colourful displays of dried fruit, herbs and spice, and traditional Armenian produce such as cherries, apricots, grapes and pomegranates. Given the vibrant, chaotic atmosphere inside at its busiest, it is easy to overlook the uninspiring, dilapidated and crumbling interior. Armenian stall owners can haggle and hawk with the best of them, so it’s not an environment for the shy or easily intimidated.
Directly north of the Opera is a complex of planted terraces and fountains built like set of giant steps into the hillside and called "the Cascade". You can walk up the exterior steps (it’s quite a long and tiring walk), stopping periodically to take in the ever expansive views of the city and Mt Ararat - or there is a series of escalators that run underneath the complex which run all the way to the top.
The "Fortress of Swallows" is the name given to the hilltop area to the south of the centre which houses the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum. This evocative memorial commemorates the million and a half Armenians slaughtered by the Young Turk regime between 1915 and 1918 in the first genocide of a bloody twentieth century. The memorial, built in the late 1960’s – shortly after the 50th anniversary of the genocide - consists of an arrow-shaped granite stele and twelve inward leaning granite slabs which shelter an eternal flame. The underground museum is a relatively recent and very welcome addition, built into the hill to ensure that the focus remained on the imposing main monument.
The oddly named Vernissage is a weekend open air flea market, just off Republic Square on a natty bit of parkland adjacent to the Metro station, seemingly full of the entire collected bric-a-brac of the good citizens of Yerevan. The market is broadly divided into sections for clothing, souvenirs, jewellery, china, household goods, militaria, books, crafts and art. As with the fruit market, be prepared to haggle - it’s not unusual to pay a third of the initial asking price - which tends to start higher or lower depending on how (a) rich; (b) foreign and (c) gullible you look, in no particular order.
Other attractions recommended to me (but I didn’t have time to visit) were the Erebuni Museum complex, Victory Park (which hosts the Mother Armenia statue), the Museum of the City of Yerevan at City Hall, and the Ararat Brandy factory, which offers guided tours on the making of Armenian cognac.
FOOD & DRINK
Eating and drinking seems to be a national pastime. Armenian food is generally meat based, with pork, lamb and chicken khorovadz (barbecue) a speciality. For good, filling and cheap fast food, any number of "shawarma" (barbecued meat served in flatbread – think doner/gyro) and/or lahmajun (Armenian meat pizza) places are a great option. There are a string of these places on Toumanian Street – a sandwich and a drink should set you back no more than 1000 dram (£1.40). For a sit down meal at a café or full service restaurant, with drinks, expect to pay around 10,000 Dram a head (£15), more if live music is being played.
There is enough to see and do in Yerevan to keep you well occupied for a whole week, but those short on time can see and do most of the major sights in around three days. The best time to go is Mid April to Late June, and then September and October. The summer gets unbearably hot with temperatures reaching 40C. The place closes down for the winter, as it gets bitterly cold, rendering the outdoor facilities that create much of the city’s atmosphere unusable.
© Hishyeness 2010