Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, is a charming city full of ancient history and good food. It also has a diverse mix of old traditions and modern culture. With a perfect geographical location, Yerevan is a great base from which visitors can take day trips and explore the best of Armenia.
At just more than 1,000 square kilometres (621.4 square miles), Lake Sevan is the largest lake in the country and in the Caucasus region, and it’s among the largest freshwater high-altitude lakes in Eurasia. Lake Sevan is a perfect getaway for nature and beach lovers, as it is surrounded by snow-covered mountains, clear coast and one of the most spectacular monasteries in Armenia, Sevanavank Monastery, which was founded here in 874 AD by Princess Mariam Bagratuni.
Armenian Alphabet Monument
Visiting the Armenian Alphabet Monument is one of the more awesome things to do in the country. Just a 50-minute drive from the city, these 39 giant stone letters were installed in 2005 to commemorate the 1,600th birthday of the Armenian alphabet. The area was chosen carefully, as it’s the final resting place of Mesrop Mashtots who is credited with creating the alphabet.
For amazing views of Mount Ararat, head to Khor Virap monastery, which is also one of the most important historical sites in the country. The drive from the city takes around 45 minutes. This is where King Trdat III imprisoned Gregory the Illuminator (a patron saint and the first official leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church) for 13 years until Gregory cured the king of his many ailments. The king’s recovery made him a believer in Christianity, which became the first religion of the nation.
It’s believed that King Trdat built Garni Temple in 76 AD. Situated at the edge of a gorge and overlooking the Azat River, the area offers picturesque views of the surrounding nature, including the ruins of a Roman bathhouse, Urartian cuneiform inscriptions, and a 7th-century church.
This medieval monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is partly carved out of solid rock. Geghard Monastery was founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century, but the main chapel was constructed only at the beginning of the 13th century. The complex was originally called Ayrivank, which translates to ‘the Monastery of the Cave’. The current name, Geghard, means ‘Monastery of the Spear’, named for a spear kept at the monastery that is said to have wounded Jesus at the Crucifixion and was brought to the country by St. Jude the Apostle.
Karahunge, also referred to as Zorats Karer, is a prehistoric archaeological site that many foreigners refer to as the Armenian Stonehenge. The vertical basalt stones are scattered across an open area and cover approximately 70 square kilometres (43.5 square miles). Archaeological explorations have shown that it is likely the area was used as an observatory and is at least 3,500 years older than Stonehenge.
Byurakan Observatory is a great day trip for those who love space. Built during Soviet times, Byurakan served as Armenia’s premier astronomical centre. Back in the day, it housed the largest telescope in the USSR and played an important part in bringing the country into the modern scientific field.
Tatev Monastery and Shaki Waterfall
For those who want to get off the beaten track, Tatev Monastery is a great choice. Close to the Iran border, the monastery sits on the top of a cliff overlooking the beautiful Vorotan gorge. Built in the 9th century, Tatev Monastery is known for its gorgeous yet spooky ambiance. To get to the monastery, visitors take a cableway called Wings of Tatev, which offers breathtaking panoramic views. Once across, visitors can explore the monastery, as well as the Harsnadzor Watchtower and Devil’s Bridge, a natural bridge set on the river. Nature lovers should be sure to also visit Shaki Waterfall, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive from here.
Many consider Noravank to be among the most stunning monasteries in Armenia. It is surrounded by red cliffs, and it was previously a residence for princes and bishops. Surprisingly, the monastery, built in 1205, even survived the Mongol attacks to the region. To avoid big tourist crowds, it’s best to go early in the morning to freely wander the grounds. Those who want to learn about the history should visit the small museum inside the monastery that also has exhibits of medieval artworks and artefacts.
Dilijan National Park
Dilijan is surrounded by thick forests, gorgeous mountains and a national park renowned for its healing mineral water springs. The park is home to significant cultural sites, such as Goshavank Monastery, Haghartsin Monastery, Akhnabat church, and Kukhtak Vank. Bird watchers should be sure to make a stop here.