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Yerevan Rising: Ten Reasons to Visit Armenia’s Capital Now

Change is afoot in the Pink City.

Until recently, most travelers skipped over Yerevan for the Caucasus’ showier capitals like Baku, with its space-age skyline, or Tbilisi, with its Instagram-famous cheese breads and Disney-fied old town. But today, leaving Yerevan off the itinerary would be a big mistake. In the last few years—and especially since April’s Velvet Revolution—the city has seen a tectonic culture shift with third-wave coffee shops and sleek new galleries sprouting up between its 13th-century churches and salmon-hued khrushchyovka (a style of Soviet-designed apartment buildings). Walk Yerevan’s streets, and you’re as likely to hear reggaeton blaring from a souped-up BMW as you are Armenian duduk music emanating from a café’s speakers. This constant interplay between old and new makes Yerevan as frenetic as it is fascinating. Here are our top reasons to give the city a second look.

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Try Armenian Cuisine in a Variety of Restaurants

Armenian cuisine is a patchwork quilt of flavors and techniques influenced by Persia, Eastern Europe, Georgia, and the Levant. Get a sense of eastern Armenian food (which skews more Russian and Georgian) at Dolmama, a homey restaurant whose star dish is dolma, grape leaves wrapped around lemony rice and rosemary-scented ground beef. At Anteb, a no-frills Syrian-Armenian joint a few blocks north, spring for the city’s best manti, thumb-sized beef dumplings swimming in broth and dolloped with thick yogurt. Off the tourist track but well worth the taxi ride are Tatik Papik, whose flaky herb-stuffed flatbreads from Karabakh called zhingyalov hats draw hordes of in-the-know locals, and Chaman Restaurant, a Kond neighborhood stalwart serving oversize platters of fried fish and roasted vegetables.

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Sample Wines from One of the World's Oldest Viticultural Regions

Wine has been produced in and around Yerevan since the 9th century BCE, making it one of the world’s oldest-known viticultural areas. To many oenophiles and food historians, drinking wine in what may be its birthplace is nothing short of a religious experience, but even if you can’t tell your Riesling from your chardonnay, don’t miss out on the hedonistic pleasures of local wine and mezes at bars like In Vino, whose walls disappear behind rare Armenian and Italian bottles, and Wine Republic, a one-stop shop for wine geeks looking to sample esoteric varietals like voskehat and karasì.

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Live Music on Amiryan Street

Yerevan is a terrific music town with live shows for travelers of all tastes. First-time visitors shouldn’t miss the soulful, unplugged Armenian folk music at Tavern Yerevan on Amiryan Street, a restaurant with a mixed crowd known for its heavenly khorovats, Armenian barbecue. (Call ahead for showtimes.) Those with a penchant for jazz, on the other hand, will be pleasantly surprised by the talented musicians at Mezzo Classic House Club, who play precise covers of well-known classics. Note that smoking—cough—is—cough—allowed.

PHOTO: Sun_Shine / Shutterstock
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Explore the Green Space of Lovers’ Park

If you envision Yerevan as a gray Soviet slab of a city, think again: There are plenty of parks and gardens to escape to with a book, playlist, or picnic basket. Lovers’ Park is the most central with eight acres of rolling lawns, burbling waterfalls, and tree-shaded paths. English Park, situated behind the Gabriel Sundukyan Theater, is smaller and more manicured and makes for pleasant people-watching.

PHOTO: Igor Dutina / Shutterstock
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Sample Armenian “Pizza”

If foldable handheld foods like pizza and tacos speak to your soul, you’ll no doubt be a sucker for lahmajun, Armenia’s paper-thin flatbread smeared with spicy lamb and baked until blistering. Sample a textbook rendition at Mer Taghe, whose pies get a sprinkling of parsley and a spritz of lemon before arriving tableside, or pop by Lahmajun Gaidz (owned by a Syrian refugee) for a Middle Eastern interpretation heady with aleppo pepper and pomegranate molasses.

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Witness the Soviet Architecture of Republic Square and Beyond

Love it or hate it, Yerevan’s Soviet architecture is objectively impressive; indeed, it was under the Soviet yoke that Yerevan grew into the sprawling urban center that it is today. The architect behind this transformation was Armenian-born Alexander Tamanian, who bulldozed old buildings and roads to make way for pink-tuff houses (hence Yerevan’s moniker, the “Pink City”) arranged around an avant-garde circular street plan. His greatest achievement? The triumphalist Republic Square, Yerevan’s nerve center that took 53 years to build and today houses the National Gallery and Marriott Hotel. Go at sunset in the summer to see its exuberant “musical fountains” in action.

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
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Taste Churchill’s Favorite Brandy

Legend has it that Winston Churchill indulged in a finger or two of Armenian brandy every day. Matured in Caucasian oak casks and double-distilled like French cognac, the spirit is prized even today for its roundness and complexity. See how it’s made at the Yerevan Brandy Company on an hour-long tour (daily, by appointment only: +374 54 00 00) through its cathedral-like production areas, rackhouses, and tasting rooms, and be sure to snap a few pics of the Hradzan Gorge and Victory Bridge below.

PHOTO: Alexander Chizhenok / Shutterstock
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Marvel at Religious Sites Like Katoghike, Surp Grigor Lusavorich Cathedral, and the Blue Mosque

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its national religion, and that deep-rooted history is reflected in Yerevan’s churches. The city’s oldest, Katoghike, miraculously survived a ruinous 1679 earthquake. Inscriptions on the tiny chapel’s west-facing façade have been dated to as early as 1229. Fast-forward to the 21st century at Surp Grigor Lusavorich Cathedral, the world’s largest Armenian Apostolic church consecrated in 2001 that’s infamous for its polarizing modern architecture. Though Yerevan has been home to Muslim communities for centuries, the Blue Mosque—striking for its colorful mosaics and turquoise dome—is the city’s only remaining Islamic place of worship and is worth peeking into (modest attire required).

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Take Easy Day Trips to Architectural Wonders and UNESCO-protected Sites

Clocking in at 11,500 square miles, Armenia is about the size of Maryland, which means most of its historic sites can be seen on day trips from Yerevan. Echmiadzin Cathedral is a no-brainer, situated 11 miles west of the city center. Considered to be the oldest cathedral on earth, it was consecrated around 300 AD. Its soaring, time-worn halls remain a place of pilgrimage for Armenians the world over today. Also within reach from the capital are Geghard, a UNESCO-protected monastery hewn into a cliffside, and Noravank, whose florid stone carvings are unparalleled in the Caucasus—architectural marvels that shouldn’t be omitted from any travel itinerary.

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Indulge in Café Culture

Yerevan is arguably the Caucasus’ capital of café culture, and with good reason—there’s a coffee shop on almost every corner, and a favorite local pastime is hanging out for hours on end while sipping surj, black Armenian coffee, or—more recently—cappuccinos and other specialty brews. Coffee geeks unite at The Green Bean, which roasts its own beans, and at Gemini, adored for its expertly pulled espressos and hot crêpes. Solo travelers mingle at Aeon AntiCafe, a snug oasis with board games and coworking areas where you pay by the hour to graze on unlimited biscuits, coffee, and tea.

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Experience the Open-Air Shopping on Buzand and Aram Streets

Be ready to bargain at Vernissage, Yerevan’s largest open-air market held on weekends on Buzand and Aram Streets. Here, brash hawkers flaunt their wares ranging from century-old antiques to hand-woven kilims art to dime-a-dozen t-shirts. For souvenirs of the edible variety, look no further than Pak Shooka, a renovated Soviet-era food hall with a gilded façade where you can stock up on dried fruits, freshly ground spices, and basturma, Armenian beef jerky.

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Experience Incredible Hotels

Kim Kardashian may have posted up in the Marriott Yerevan, the city’s most iconic hotel, but we’re convinced she would’ve been more impressed by the Hyatt Place, a five-star opened in 2013 that’s arguably the best in town thanks to its cloud-soft beds, generous breakfasts, and unobtrusive décor. For travelers strapped for cash, Envoy Hostel can’t be beat; it offers private and shared rooms in addition to fantastic walking tours and excursions. My Hotel Yerevan, with its 12 well-appointed rooms and warm front-desk staff, is a step above Envoy and ideal for couples and those seeking digs with a sense of place.

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Drink in Bars and Breweries

Come nightfall, make like most Yerevanians and post up at a neighborhood bar or café. A fantastic first stop on a night out is Dargett Brewpub, a buzzy beer mecca that opened in 2016 and pours more than twenty draft beers—including Armenia’s first IPA. Then, have a cocktail or two at Daboo Bar, whose suave mixologists shake up eye-catching concoctions made with fresh fruit juices and dry ice, before heading to Calumet Ethnic Lounge for punk rock vibes and a mixed, unpretentious crowd.

PHOTO: Sergei Afanasev / Shutterstock
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Wander the National Gallery and Matenadaran

As one of the world’s oldest cities, founded in 782 BC, it’s no surprise that Yerevan boasts a wealth of world-class museums. The National Gallery is its most splendid with seven floors of international and Armenian works ranging from Iron Age frescoes to medieval icons to modern paintings by diasporan artists. Equally worthwhile is Matenadaran, a temple to Armenia’s ancient literary tradition presided over by a massive statue of Mesrop Mashots, who created the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD. Inside you’ll find rare centuries-old manuscripts and intricately illustrated books.

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Honor the Armenian Genocide Memorial

A solemn, heartrending tribute to the million or more Armenians who perished in the Armenian Genocide in 1915, the Armenian Genocide Memorial (aka Tsitsernakaberd) amasses photographs, documents, and artifacts related to the atrocities carried out by the Ottomans during the nation’s most brutal flashpoint. Beyond the museum, towering pillars, haunting music, and an eternal flame sear this sacred and sorrowful place into memory.

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