Armenia,  Christian

Why Visit Armenia: Why I Went & You Should Too

Why Visit Armenia: 10 Reasons to Put Armenia on your Bucket List 

When I was in seminary we studied Christian history extensively. I was 25 at the time, reading fairly dry books largely about the Early Church in Jerusalem. One day my professor walked into our wood-paneled classroom and announced: We are going to talk about Armenia today. 

Armenia?! I thought. Why in the world..? 

That was the day I learned that Armenia is the world’s Oldest Christian Country – with one of the richest church traditions anywhere in the Armenian Orthodox Church. That was also the day I learned about the Armenian Genocide – events that occured in 1915 that left over 1.5 million Armenian men, women, and children slaughtered.

I also learned that Armenia is filled with ancient monasteries, many of them listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

But it was that day that planted the seed for me to travel to Armenia. That day I knew that it was not ok that I had never learned about Armenia or Armenian Christianity until I was 25, nor had learned about the Armenian Genocide in school. I knew when I got the chance to go – I would go. 

Sometimes chances don’t just pop along in life out of the blue, and you have to reach out and nudge them along.

I made a concrete decision to prioritize travel to Armenia – and it just so happened that around the same time I learned about the My Armenia Program through the Smithsonian, promoting Armenia as a destination. Through them, I connected with some amazing opportunities to partner with some amazing tour agencies in Armenia. So I jumped at the chance – and off I flew to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city.

If you’re wondering whether you should consider travel to Armenia (soon!) – here are my main reasons why Armenia needs to be at the top of your list! Especially, Especially, Especially if you are a faith traveler, a Christian traveler, or anyone interested in religious history – Armenia is an absolute must see. There are so many places to visit in Armenia! I could have spent months there!

Khor Virap Monastery in Armenia and its medieval walls from above, dry mountainous hills and a valley surround it.
Khor Virap Monastery, Ararat Valley, Armenia

1. Armenia is The World’s First Christian Nation

Shortly after the death of Jesus, two of His apostles – Saints Thaddeus & Bartholomew, are said to have traveled to Armenia spreading the Gospel that became Christianity.

At the time, the people of Armenia were pagan. One of the Roman-style pagan temples, Garni, still stands and is one of the beautiful places to visit in Armenia. At first, most people didn’t accept Christianity or blended Christian beliefs with their existing pagan beliefs.

Then Gregory the Illuminator came along. After being thrown down a massive pit for his Christian faith and miraculously surviving (a pit that still exists and I climbed down!) he was brought back up to heal the King after the King had an illness that turned him basically into a pig.

(Another reason to go to Armenia – it’s a land of truly wonderful stories!)

Gregory successfully healed the King through prayer, after which the King declared Armenia to be a Christian country. Many pagan shrines were torn down & monasteries and churches built instead.

Intricately carved Armenian khachkars or Cross Stones
Famous Armenian Khachkars – or “Cross Stones”. Only found in Armenia and areas that were historically a part of Armenia.

 

2. Armenia is Full of Amazing Churches and Monasteries!

If you enjoy visiting interesting, beautiful churches and monasteries on your travel – like I clearly do – then Armenia needs to be #1 on your list of places to travel.

As a result of its long, long, long history as a Christian nation, Armenia is absolutely full of ancient Churches, Cathedrals, and Monasteries. The monasteries of Armenia are truly the must-see places in Armenia!

There are a few modern Armenian churches, too – like the recently built Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator in Yerevan!

I got to visit a church that was built in the 4th Century while in Armenia. Standing by a building whose stones were laid only 300 years after Christ’s death and resurrection was an incredibly spiritual experience. 

What’s really wonderful about all of the churches and monasteries in Armenia is that many if not most of them were intentionally built in unique and beautiful spots in the natural landscape. Visiting monasteries like Geghard (carved into the side of a mountain!), Norovank (set deep in a cliff valley surrounded by red limestone), and Hovhannavank (on the side of a massive gorge) is that you get to experience the unique and diverse natural beauty of Armenia alongside the beauty of the churches themselves.

Many of Armenia’s monasteries are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well – double win!

St. Gregory Illuminator Cathedral in Yerevan, Armenia. Three angular Armenian domes against a blue sky. Stairs lead up to the church with green trees on either side.
St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral, Yerevan – Armenia. I loved this modern take on Armenian religious architecture!

3. Armenia’s Capital City – Yerevan – is Safe and Modern

Walking down Yerevan’s North Avenue – a carless street complete with water fountains, Metro entrances, and cafés – you could have told me I was in New York City and I probably would have believed you.

Yerevan has unique Pink tuf architecture (Tuf is a kind of limestone) – which is why it is nicknamed the “Pink City”. The entire city is as modern as any European city I have been to, easy to navigate, and stunningly beautiful. Also – using the Yandex Taxi App – a Taxi ride almost anywhere in the city cost me under $1 USD!

Yerevan has a world-class opera, both modern and historic churches right in the center, a market that is a visual and literal feast, fabulous restaurants, tons of parks and green spaces (including lots of playgrounds for children). I could go on.

Yerevan also has many wonderful, modern hotels and Armenia is a small enough country that you can see much of it while staying in Yerevan as your base.

Plates of Armenian food. Cheese, Lavash, Lori Province Cheese, Herbs and Greens like Terragon and Radishes. Many plates on top of a wooden table.
An Armenian Feast…but this is only the first course!

4. Armenia has Delicious Food

Armenians eat well. Meals in Armenia tend to be family-style and everything – literally everything – is so fresh! 

Many meals I had began with a plate filled to overflowing with just-cut herbs (thinks basil, parsley, tarragon!), a plate of strong yet creamy cheeses from various places in Armenia (sheep’s cheese from Lori province was my favourite!), and Armenia national bread – Lavash – to wrap it all in! On the table, in summer you will also find a big summer salad of cucumber and tomato. Armenian tomatoes are like nothing you’ve ever tasted. despise tomatoes in America. I even grow them myself and still don’t particularly enjoy them. Yet I devoured Armenian tomatoes! They were sweet and crunchy and oh-so-delicious!

Armenian barbeque is the next star of the show. Pork, Chicken, or Lamb – all of it is incredible.

As you can see – I could go on!!!! Food is a major reason why you need to go to Armenia! 

I ate some of the best meals of my life there – and even a table-full of fresh, home-cooked, delicious food didn’t set me back more than 10-20 USD.

5. Armenian Wine is Top Rate

It may come in flimsy plastic recycled coke bottles – but do not let the packaging fool you! Armenian wine is absolutely fabulous! 

Armenia has a huge variety of micro-climates, as well as both ancient and modern winemaking technologies. From wine left to ferment in traditional underground clay pots, to European-style sparkling wines – I didn’t have a single glass I didn’t enjoy (and I can be picky!).

Most restaurants I tried in Yerevan have an extensive wine list. I even had one of the best Rosé wines of my life in Armenia! 

Hotels even have their own homemade wines – and I thoroughly enjoyed some cold glasses of homemade white wine on the gorgeous patio of Silk Road Hotel during my stay!

Colored yarns hang over an Armenian loom with a partially completed rug with intricate, multicolored motifs in a hotel in Armenia
A partially completed Rub woven at the Silk Road Hotel in Armenia

6. Armenia Is Very, Very Safe

A lot of people told me this before I left for Armenia. But I’ll be honest – I still didn’t believe them.

This might be one of many aspects of Armenia that I had to experience for myself before I truly understood it.

I suppose the best example for me of how comfortable I was there as a solo female traveler is that I walked through the streets of Yerevan at night, by myself on many occasions – and during the day – and I didn’t get catcalled, or even notice someone’s eyes lingering longer than they should, the entire time I was there. Maybe that doesn’t sound that amazing – but I can’t walk to my local coffee shop at noon here in the USA without unwanted attention, and I live in a comparatively quite safe and nice neighborhood.

I felt totally safe in Armenia, both in Yerevan and beyond it. Leave your bag hanging on the back of your chair? No problem. Cars unlocked? That’s the norm. I certainly didn’t leave things willy nilly as a result, but it made the entire traveling experience more pleasant.

Green hills surrounding the dome of an Armenian Monastery, Haghartsin Monastery in Dilijan the Armenian Switzerland
Haghartsin Monastery, in Dilijan – “Armenian Switzerland”. I traveled here with Arites Tour company and had a wonderful day!

7. Armenia has Fabulous & Affordable Tour Operators

I was incredibly lucky to work with two professional and wonderful tour companies during my time in Armenia.

While it is definitely possible to backpack Armenia on a shoestring budget, and to take local public transportation even for monastery excursions and day-trips, I really wanted to dive deep into Armenian religious history and culture and felt the best way to do that was through organized religious tours. 

There are many tour companies operating throughout Armenia. If you stroll through Republic Square you will see a lot of individuals and companies advertising tours. One day I took a cab from my hotel and as soon as the driver found out I was a tourist he tried very hard to get me to agree to go all around the country with him! Some of these tours might seem like an extraordinary bargain — but as my Dad says: If it’s too good to be true, then it’s too good to be true!

Tours with reputable, professional companies who have knowledgeable, passionate guides are still very affordable in Armenia. I worked with Arites Travel , offering religious tours as well as all kinds of tours (gastronomy, adventures…you name it!) and Arahet Travela Christian tour company highly specialised in offering religious tours.  I can enthusiastically recommend both companies – and look forward to writing comprehensive reviews of each. Working with a truly professional company and extremely knowledgeable guides was a highlight of my travels in Armenia.

8. Armenia Isn’t Overrun with Tourists

Yet. 

I was honestly shocked at this. While there was certainly the presence of tourists – I didn’t feel like anything I saw or did was too “touristy”. Georgia, the country just above Armenia, certainly gets more tourists and the feeling there, while still wonderful and authentic, was different.

Armenia is still a sort of “hidden gem” – but considering it has absolutely everything a tourist could want, from skiing to horseback riding to history to food and wine, I can’t imagine it will stay that way for long.

It was, however, incredibly refreshing to wander streets and know I was the only tourist there, or be alone in a monastery on the top of a glorious hill overlooking even more glorious mountains.

A bright yellow soviet-era bus from the front. Armenian bus.
A soviet-era Armenian bus, still running on natural gas.

9. Armenia Is Affordable

Armenia is a country where your dollar can stretch far – especially for food and drinks. For half the price you would pay in Western Europe, accommodation is also wonderful and modern. There’s a reason the Caucuses, Armenia, and Georgia, have become very popular with backpackers – because you can live and eat well on a backpacker budget. If your budget is a little higher, you can live and eat very very well! 

I felt I spend 1/2 as much and had twice as many experiences in Armenia as anywhere else I’ve traveled thus far, without sacrificing modern amenities like air conditioning and potable water.

10. The Armenian People are Some of the Friendliest in the World

You may have heard about Armenian hospitality. I’m here to tell you it’s all true.

I had the privilege of staying in a village homestay one night on my trip and got to experience this for myself. In Armenia, a guest is a gift from God, and even just needing directions while walking down the street I felt people would go out of their way to help and welcome me. In some places I’ve traveled there has seemed to be a bit of disdain towards tourists – and I understand that when many tourists aren’t respectful or there are simply more people than a location can handle. In Armenia, it was the complete opposite – delight. At one stop at a little corner store, the owner was insistent to make sure my guide and I had a place to stay that night and tried to hand our driver his keys – assuring us his wife was a very good cook! We did have accommodation lined up – but it was a wonderful example of Armenian hospitality!

A hand holding an ice cream cone with a small bite taken out of it. Armenian Cappuccino Ice Cream
Delicious Cappuccino Ice Cream!

Bonus: Armenia has the Best Ice Cream

If I’ve given you all my reasons for going to Armenia, then this might be my #1 reason I am absolutely going back to Armenia – and soon.

The ice creams are out of this world! 

There are freezers all over Yerevan outside of shops, and in every village and gas station just filled with fresh ice cream novelties. Cones swirled with cappuccino ice cream, vanilla bathed in rich dark chocolate, and some textures and flavors I can’t even describe but my mouth is watering for just thinking about it!

I may or may not have had 3 or 4…every day!

Armenian ice creams cost anywhere from 20c USD to 75c USD. No. I’m not kidding. And I didn’t have a single one I didn’t just love.

If all of the reasons above don’t convince you to go to Armenia – then I hope the Ice Cream does. I’ve eaten my fair share of Gelato in Italy, and I’m not kidding when I say I would choose an Armenian gas station ice cream novelty any day!


Where is Armenia?

Armenia is in one of those “in-between” places of the world that might be called the Middle East…but really isn’t. It is just above Iran (you can drive to Iran from Armenia – something I really hope to do someday!) and to the East of Turkey. You’ll see that it isn’t far from Russia – and, of course, is bordered by its neighbors Georgia & Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan are not currently getting along – so the border between the countries is closed.

Similarly, the border between Armenia and Turkey is closed.

As an American, I ultimately found it easier to get a flight into Georgia, and then took a fabulous driving tour from Tbilisi, Georgia to Yerevan, Armenia. I got to see some of the most amazing Monasteries in Northern Armenia along the way! Shared Taxis are also available and very inexpensive.

You can also take a Tbilisi to Yerevan train. Hint: you need to have your passport with you when you buy the ticket!

Enjoying my visit to St. Hripsime Church in Armenia

I hope I’ve inspired you to start planning your Armenia Trip now!

Armenia is an incredible destination for pilgrims and tourists alike. I had an extraordinary time there – and I look forward to writing many more detailed on my travel blog all about Armenia! My Armenia trip was truly one of the best in my life. Sure – there were a lot of things about Armenian culture that were very different than America, but I found everything fascinating and surprisingly comfortable.

I know, with more certainly than I’ve known about a place since traveling to Grandchamp in Switzerland, that I will be back. 

Likely very, very soon.


My in-country tours were hosted by Arites Travel and Arahet Travel, with planning assistance provided by the My Armenia Program. As always, all opinions remain my own.  

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