My family visited Yerevan, Armenia on our latest trip and while I had my own suppositions about the city before I encountered it, I was so terribly wrong. Don’t sleep on Yerevan, Armenia.
Lack of Expectation
For a travel writer, I failed my first objective before I even stepped off the plane in Armenia – I did nearly no research. I looked up the map for the capital city, but this was mostly just to find my hotel in Yerevan. Admittedly, I knew little to nothing of what to expect prior to my arrival.
What a wonderful surprise.
There was a state of growth, energy, and excitement, but a reflection on what came before as well. As a former state in the USSR, Russian elements remain in places, but Armenia is an altogether different place with its own identity. Lending some flavor from its northern neighbor, Georgia, a celebration of middle eastern neighbors Iran, Iraq, Syria, and to the west Turkey, all contribute to the aroma, style, and personality of the city and her people.
If I’m honest, I may have punted on the research of the city because I was there for work. My marketing agency opened an office there to support employees in the region. It was also at the end of a long trip filled with stops in Barcelona (we canceled this segment), Manchester (our former home for three years), and Athens (a place we hadn’t visited in more than a decade and a first for our seven-year-old daughter.)
But my lack of research made every delicious meal a delight.
This was my first visit to – where again? Is it Europe? No. Is it Asia? I mean, not really. Can we say Eurasia? Sure, but that’s not really it either. The caucuses are such an interesting mix and Armenia is right in the middle of them. It’s a culture all its own.
The food was interesting and tasty. It borrows traditions from other regions and makes it something new, something original. Dumplings in the region have a feel of xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) and a similar approach but it would be news to Armenians that this dish might have been copied from China. The region has beautiful, stringy, salty cheese that sometimes graces the dumplings as well showing that rather than simply borrowing from China, they (dare I say?) improved the dish. Turkish pide gets its own alteration as Kachipuri (Georgian but available nearly everywhere) and a cracker-like pizza but with seasoned meat and often without cheese call lamajo.
Streets and sidewalks harken modern European design with slabs of stone rather than concrete. Building construction appears soviet, as do the police uniforms. Across the Caspian sea, Khazakstan is going through turmoil. Turkey and Syria continue to face their own trouble and Iran is ever a point of contention as is Iraq to the south. After a recent war with neighboring Azerbaijan, a contested territory in the hills and mountains (Nagorno-Karabakh) is still contested to this day with Russian peacekeeping troops stationed in the area. Yet despite what others might consider potential cause for concern, we felt safe and comfortable in the city throughout our stay.
The Armenian people are proud of their culture and their city and for good reason. It was a wonderful introduction to the Caucasus for myself and my family.
Recently, Spirit Airlines began flying to Armenia, Colombia – the coffee home of one of the most prolific coffee producers in the world. One could be forgiven for confusing Armenia, Colombia, with Armenia the country, if based solely on the number of coffee shops. It’s said that there is a coffee shop or kiosk every 100 meters in the city and that somehow seems like an underestimate. There are coffee shops next to coffee shops across from coffee shops and, thankfully, almost every one of them is amazing. I haven’t seen coffee kiosks out in public – break rooms, yes, sidewalks, no – in years. The ones we found around the city (though I did not opt to try them) were busy as well.
Matthew has reviewed great coffee in cities around the world, just search this blog. Despite discussing this destination in advance, he never mentioned this aspect and I am starting to wonder if there is a deeper reason why. Maybe my days on LiveAndLetsFly are coming to an end, much to the chagrin of a select group of commenters. Then again, maybe he was just busy.
Nevertheless, I have had great coffee all over the world. This might be the best city globally for coffee shops and if you’re an enthusiast, add it to your list.
Remnants of the Old, Signs of the New
Vestiges of rule under the Soviet Union remain but there is something different, new, and exciting developing in Armenia. A busy pedestrian mall (both above ground and underground) on Tashir Plaza reflect the past with a beautiful opera house at the end of the plaza. Friends of ours celebrated the opera and ballet which was showcasing the Nutcracker at the time; it seemed to be that classic view of a Russian state.
We happened to be in Yerevan for Armenian Christmas (different than Orthodox or Catholic/protestant dates) and this allowed us the opportunity to visit the oldest church in the city, in the oldest Christian country in the world.
The city show signs of new growth everywhere. We were based at Republic Square, a huge, traditional circle monolith filled with people and traffic and a reflection of the past. The History Museum of Armenia is at the center. But just blocks away we found modern restaurants and smart urban planning that mixes new construction with refurbishments.
The Armenian Genocide museum sits atop a hill over the city with beautiful views of Mount Aragats, reflecting on a dark part of Armenia’s history but demonstrating progress (the US just recognized this genocide by the Turkish committed in 1915.) The Cafesjian Center for the Arts at the Cascade offers a mix of traditional Armenian artistry with new takes both indoors and outdoors. A towering statue of Alexander Tamanyan, the modern architect of Yerevan, leans over a drafting table at the Cascade’s base.
The Republic of Armenia and Yerevan state, in particular, are focused on the future without abandoning the past, creating an incredible medley for those who visit.
Yerevan was a wonderful surprise for myself and my family. Remnants of Armenia’s past remain, while progress forward is shaping the city for its residents. Our (read: my) lack of preparation for the trip added to the joy we found there and we look forward to many trips in the future. Reception from friends and family with news of our trip was frosty but that comes from the same ignorance I had prior to my visit – don’t sleep on Yerevan, Armenia; but if you do, there will be coffee waiting for you in the morning.
What do you think? Have you been to Yerevan, Armenia? How was your experience? What were your expectations?