Armenia, a landlocked country of about 3 million people in the Caucasus Mountains, has a few claims to fame: gold medal chess players, fraught geopolitics, Churchill’s favorite brandy, and—OK, fine—the Kardashians, who are proud Armenian Americans. But tourism? Most U.S. travelers couldn’t spot Armenia on a map (it’s sandwiched between Georgia and Iran), let alone fathom a trip there.
It’s time to reconsider, if you’ve considered it at all. Beyond Armenia’s popular tourist attractions—it has some of the world’s oldest churches—there are new reasons to bump the nation a few spots up your bucket list. Last year’s Velvet Revolution, which unseated a Russia-backed oligarch, has given the country a palpable, contagious optimism. New hotels are sprouting up in the capital city of Yerevan, where the restaurant scene is shedding its meat-and-potatoes standards in favor of bolder, spicier flavors. And this year, the Transcaucasian Trail will launch its first group hikes in Dilijan National Park. In other words, Armenia feels electric—so get in on the buzz.
Holy GroundExactly how an ancient Roman temple wound up in the Armenian countryside—or how it remained intact despite countless invasions—is a subject of much debate. But what is clear is that the massive colonnaded structure is one of Eurasia’s most precious examples of pre-Christian architecture. Built in the first century, Garni was likely a shrine to the pagan sun god Mihr, though some scholars speculate it’s the tomb of a Romanized Armenian king or the defunct residence of some long-forgotten ruler. Photographer: Benjamin Kemper
Dance If You Want ToAll kicks, whirls, and gravity-defying leaps, Armenian dance is an invigorating spectacle. In a popular routine called the Kochar, performers link hands and prance lithely to the soundtrack of a nasal-sounding zurna. Photographer: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP
Don’t Look DownThe “Wings of Tatev” cable car glides some 200 meters (656 feet) above a rocky ravine on its way to Tatev Monastery, a ninth century complex clinging to a grassy clifftop. The 14-minute, 5,752-meter climb earned the cable car a Guinness World Record for the “world’s longest reversible aerial tramway.” Photographer: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP
Soviet RelicsSpace-age towers, neoclassical government buildings, dilapidated Khrushchyovka—while Armenia may have split from the Soviet Union almost three decades ago, judging from its architecture, you’d never know it. In Yerevan, one name comes up again and again: Alexander Tamanian, the Armenian architect who designed the city’s curiously circular street plan and drew the blueprints for the Cascade, opera house, and Republic Square. Source: State Tourism Committee of Armenia
The Plan in YerevanOpened in 2018, the Alexander, a Luxury Collection outpost, single-handedly put Armenia on the high-end travel map. When you’re not out sightseeing—the hotel is a five-minute walk from Republic Square—unwind in the Anne Semonin spa, swanning from sauna to steam room to indoor pool. Or claim a stool at the rooftop bar to take in views of Yerevan’s signature pink-tuff buildings dwarfed by Mount Ararat in the background. Source: The Alexander, a Luxury Collection Hotel
A Seat at Many TablesArmenian food defies hard-and-fast generalizations. It borrows from Russian, Georgian, Persian, and Levantine playbooks without surrendering fully to any—dishes can range from lemony tabbouleh and mayonnaise-laden potato salad to cow hoof soup and baked dumplings in tomato sauce. That kind of variety makes Yerevan’s food scene a thrilling one: At lunch, you could be in Dolmama’s wallpapered dining room feasting on the best stuffed grape leaves of your life; and by dinner, at Lahmajun Gaidz (opened by a Syrian refugee) inhaling spicy lamb-topped lahmajun (flatbread) as you would a New York pizza slice, experiencing Armenian fast food at its finest. Photographer: KAREN MINASYAN/AFP
A Transcaucasian InvasionSince 2015 an international team of literal trailblazers has been slogging away to create the Transcaucasian Trail, a wide-reaching network that will take hikers to some of the remotest corners of the Caucasus. The latest section to be completed, stretching 60 miles, winds through Dilijan National Park, a reserve as famous for its millennium-old monasteries as it is for its eagles, bears, lynxes, and wolves. Sign up for the inaugural June trek and be one of the first to hike it. Source: State Tourism Committee of Armenia
The Oldest Cathedral on EarthEchmiadzin Cathedral, founded in the early fourth century, is to Armenian Christians what the Great Mosque is to Muslims and the Western Wall is to Jews: a place of incomparable spiritual importance. But you don’t have to be a believer to be bowled over by its splendor. Impossibly intricate reliefs depict Biblical and nature scenes; gilded frescoes glint in the sunlight. Visit before noon, and you might be treated to an impromptu choral performance by somber church singers carrying candles. Photographer: Oneworld Picture/Universal Images Group Editorial
A Wine Lover’s ParadiseWhen archaeologists unearthed the world’s oldest winery, estimated to be 6,100 years old, in southern Armenia three years ago, everyone gasped—except for Armenians. Wine has long been the lifeblood of local culture, consecrated at Armenian Apostolic masses, sipped at elaborate traditional feasts, and chugged on raucous nights out. Sample some of the country’s best bottles at In Vino, a cobwebbed cubbyhole where wine geeks splurge on award-winning labels like Karas and Zorah, or at Wine Republic, where the French bistro menu is almost as varied as its 650-bottle list. Source: In Vino
On This RockYou could spend weeks monastery-hopping across Armenia and still not hit them all, but one is a must: Geghard, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The labyrinthine monastery complex includes a wealth of hypnotic khachkars (cross-stones), a 13th century church, and even older chapels and vestries hewn straight into the side of a cliff, their walls blackened from centuries of candlelight. Source: State Tourism Committee of Armenia
Just Add HeatMeat, salt, and fire are all you need to make khorovats, Armenia’s omnipresent skewers of grilled beef, pork, or lamb. But don’t be fooled—Armenians have elevated the common kebab into an art form. A good grill master selects the finest cuts, salts the meat just so, and pulls the shampoor (skewer) from the flame when the meat is crackling and dribble-down-your-chin juicy. Photographer: DEA / ALBERT CEOLAN/De Agostini Editorial
An Unforgettable MemorialThe Armenian Genocide of 1915 killed at least 1 million Armenians and forced millions more to flee their ancestral home of eastern Turkey. This intentionally bleak, gray monument, part of the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex, overlooks Yerevan as a memorial. Budget a couple of hours—and packs of tissues—for the haunting collection of artifacts, images, and testimonials that drive home the gravity of this national tragedy. Photographer: Maja Hitij/Getty Images Europe
Velvet RevolutionArmenia is renewing itself following 2018’s peaceful Velvet Revolution and subsequent parliamentary elections, which replaced an oligarchical, Russia-backed government with a more Western-sympathizing one. The new administration, headed by journalist-turned-politician Nikol Pashinyan, has a tough road ahead: 1 in 3 Armenians lives below the poverty line, while the average wage hovers around $355 a month. Photographer: VANO SHLAMOV/AFP
Drink of Choice“Cuban cigars, Armenian brandy, and no sport!” That trifecta, according to Winston Churchill, was the key to a long life. Test his hypothesis at Yerevan Brandy Co. (daily tours available), where the brandy he adored is still made in much the same way. Aged in Caucasian oak barrels and double-distilled for purity, it gives French cognac a run for its money. Source: Yerevan Brandy Co.
Land of LakesCovering 16 percent of Armenia’s surface area, Lake Sevan makes the landlocked country a veritable beach destination. The lapping waves keep Armenians (and a host of other neighboring nationals) cool during parched summers. Even if it’s too chilly to take a dip, you can snap postcard-worthy pics of the Hayravank and Sevanavank monasteries, dramatically set against the sparkling blue water. Source: State Tourism Committee of Armenia