In this guide we will tell you all about backpacking in Armenia on a budget, including what to see, where to stay and how to get there.
Armenia has the perfect combination of ex-Soviet charm mixed with a rich history of art, religion and architecture, plus some amazing nightlife! It is one of our favourite places in Eastern Europe. Who would think that such a small country could pack in so many things to see? The cosmopolitan capital of Yerevan, the remote hilltop monasteries and quaint villages will undoubtedly make it one of your favourite destinations too.
Armenia’s stunning capital Yerevan has an intriguing mix of nouveau riche and old world charm. With modern wine bars and fast cars to ancient manuscript museums and grand Soviet architecture, it has something for everyone. We honestly talked about moving to Yerevan we loved it so much! The culture and the history come together to make it a really infectious city.
We recommend spending a couple of days exploring the city. Don’t miss the sobering Armenian Genocide Museum and the History Museum of Armenia to gain a better understanding of Armenia’s tragic history and relations with its neighbours. Spend some time wandering through Republic Square and the rather touristy Vernissage Market, before settling in for an afternoon glass of wine and tapas at Wine Republic (our favourite restaurant!). A great way to see the city is by joining the Yerevan Free Walking Tour. This awesome three hour tour with Varko, a local artist, takes you to heaps of sights including the Blue Mosque, Yerevan Cascade, the Opera, and St. Sarkis Cathedral.
TRAVELATOR TIP: Yerevan has an awesome bar scene. This is where Yerevan locals hang out, smoke (a lot!) of cigarettes, drink beer and listen to music. The ‘dive’ pubs are our favourite – they have a great laid back vibe with cheap beer and good music. Our pick is Calumet Ethnic Lounge Bar (56A Pushkin St).
The spectacular rock-cut Monastery complex at Geghard is a great example of Armenian medieval architecture. The enormous surrounding cliffs make it one of the most visually stunning monasteries in Armenia – and it’s only an hour’s drive outside of Yerevan! The main complex was completed in 13th century, but the oldest sections of the Monastery date back to 1177 AD. The complex once housed numerous religious buildings, plus a school, scriptorium, library and houses for clergymen. It also once held important relics, including the spear that wounded Christ on the Cross.
10 kilometres away is Garni Temple, which was a pagan temple built in 77 AD. To be honest, it is nowhere near as impressive as Geghard, but if you’re in the area you may as well have a look.
TRAVELATOR TIP: We do not recommend self driving to Geghard. When we drove there, we copped a speeding fine (no speed limit signs but plenty of cameras!), hit a few potholes and had to take two detours driving from outside Yerevan. It makes more sense to visit as a day trip from Yerevan by taxi, tour or public transport. Most hostels, like Envoy Hostel, can organise cheap tours and taxis. Otherwise you can catch a minibus from the Gai bus station (near the Mercedes Benz shop) to Garni, then catch a taxi or walk to Geghard. The first bus leaves Yerevan at 11am and costs 300 dram.
Noravank Monastery is set among stunning red cliffs in a remote spot off the Yerevan-Goris highway. The monastery was founded in 1205, and served as a residence for bishops and princes. The Monastery was raided by Mongols in 1238 but thanks to a truce was able to be largely rebuilt, meaning much of its medieval charm remains. The isolated hilltop location can make for a really peaceful visit if you are early enough to miss the tourists.
Noravank Monastery is best visited on a tour or with your own car. This way you can easily combine a trip to Noravank Monastery with a visit to Khor Virap and a winery in Areni. However, marshrutky from Yerevan or Yeghednadzor can drop you off at the turn off just outside Areni (at Edem Restaurant). From there you can walk or hitchhike the 6km to the Monastery.
The Tatev Monastery is set on a stunning clifftop location overlooking a huge valley. It is quite remote, but this makes it all the more special. The Monastery dates back to the 9th century and still has much of its original charm. It is still a working Monastery, and when we visited we were able to watch a religious ceremony which was really haunting and beautiful. The views across the valley are wonderful.
It is difficult to reach the Monastery by public transport, but there are a couple of mashrutkas to Tatev village that leave from the market on Syuniki St in Goris. Most people hire a taxi from Goris to the ‘Wings of Tatev’ cable car in Halidzor village. Otherwise, we met a couple of travellers who had successfully hitchhiked. Minibuses from Yerevan to Goris depart from the Kilikia bus station.
TRAVELATOR TIP: If you are driving up to Tatev Monastery by taxi or your own wheels (rather than catching the cable car), check out Satan’s Bridge and the nearby lookout on the way. Satan’s Bridge is only around 6km from Tatev Monastery.
Lake Sevan has a dramatic backdrop of snowcapped mountains and is surrounded by quaint fishing villages. While it has a slightly strange ‘Soviet resort’ feel, we think it is still worth a night or two -watching the sun set over the lake is quite relaxing with a beer. It is the largest lake in Armenia and the Caucasus, and also has great snow skiing nearby in Tsaghkadzor if you are visiting in winter. We stayed in the small lakeside village of Chkalovka near Sevan. You will find most accommodation options are on the western side of the lake.
Many hostels will arrange day tours to Lake Sevan and surrounds from Yerevan. You can also catch the train from Yerevan between 15 June and 1 October. Otherwise, marshrutky from the Hyusisayan bus station in Yerevan can drop you at the lake en route to Dilijan or Ijevan.
TRAVELATOR TIP: The hilltop monastery of Sevanavank is situated on a peninsula just north of Sevan, and offers fantastic views of the lake and mountains.
We’re not going to lie – the road to Debed Canyon is shithouse. Our poor Nissan Micra hire car really struggled. The ‘main road’ is closed thanks to works on a tunnel (expected to be finished in 2018), which requires a rough and long detour. But… we promise the crap roads are worth it! The Sanahin Monastery and Haghpat Monastery were real highlights of our trip (I know there have been a lot of monasteries, but these ones were great). We stayed in the small village of Alaverdi, which was in a great central location close to the highway and the monasteries.
Marshrutky depart for Alaverdi from Kilikia bus station in Yerevan daily. If you can’t find a direct connection, you can also catch a marshrutka to Vanadzor then catch another to Alaverdi. You can flag down a bus onwards to Tblisi on the highway – speak to your guesthouse about the best pick up location.
TRAVELATOR TIP: For a small tip, you can get an official guided tour of Sanahin Monastaery which is really worthwhile. You get a look inside the Monastery library and hear all about the queen who commission both monasteries.
Where To Stay
There are heaps of hostels in Yerevan, but outside the capital you will probably be staying in guesthouses and homestays. Here are a few we recommend:
- Yerevan – JR’s House – Great value rooms with a huge communal kitchen and dining room. Located just outside the city centre but easily accessed by metro and marshrutka.
- Goris – Aregak B&B – Your host Marieta is what makes this place really special. It’s like staying with your aunt, who happens to be an awesome cook.
- Yeghednadzor – Guesthouse Nataly – Spotlessly clean house with a comfy communal living room, spacious bathroom, fast wi-fi and excellent heating. Worth the extra dram.
- Lake Sevan – Lavash Hotel – Good value lakeside bungalows with excellent hot water. One of the few decent budget options around Lake Sevan.
- Alaverdi – Iris B&B – Welcoming husband and wife team who cook up a mean breakfast and love to chat. Rooms are comfortable and well heated.
Basically this is just barbecued meat. But it’s delicious! Pork BBQ has been our favourite. It goes perfectly with a nice cold Armenian beer. It is usually paired with bread or rice and a tasty salad.
This yummy dish is eggplant cooked up with tomatoes, onion, basil and parsley. Great with bread on its own, or as a side to your kebab or khorovats.
These meatballs mixed with egg and onion are ridiculously more-ish. Usually the meatballs are served in a delicious tomato-based sauce which is great with rice or bread, and some traditional Armenian salad.
In Yerevan: Yerevan has a very simple one line metro system. Buy tokens (100 dram) at the ticket booths at the station entrance. The metro is really poorly signed, so take a metro map with you. There are also plenty of marshrutky (100 dram). Pay the driver when you get off the minibus. Taxis are also pretty cheap, but be prepared to bargain.
Between cities: Hiring a car is a great option if you are brave enough to face Armenia’s shite roads! Hire fees cost between 10,000 to 25,000 dram per day, depending on the car and length of hire. Marshrutky are a cheap option, although some towns may only have one connection per day with Yerevan (for example, the border town of Meghri). Taxis can also be hired for long distance journeys, but can be expensive. Many hostels and tour operators offer good value day tours from Yerevan, which can work out cheaper than a taxi. We also met a few people hitchhiking quite successfully across Armenia.
Getting In and Out
Armenia seems to mainly be accessed by land, as cheap flights seem hard to come by.
Yerevan is your best bet if arriving by air. You can find direct flights from Turkey, Russia, Georgia, Greece and the UAE for $100-$200. However, many people opt to fly in and out of Tblisi (Georgia), and visit Armenia by land as a cheaper option.
Armenia shares land borders with Iran, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. However, border crossing between Armenia and Azerbaijan are closed as a result of ongoing hostilities. Border crossings with Turkey are also closed, despite ongoing negotiations. Information on crossing from Iran and Georgia below:
- Iran: Didar Seir Gity run an overnight bus from Tehran to Yerevan via Tabriz. You can buy tickets at the Tabriz bus station, over the phone or at Didar Seir Gity offices in Tehran or Tabriz. We understand that the bus costs between US$45-50 per person. You can also catch a taxi from Tabriz to the border for US$24, then catch a minibus to Yerevan.
- Georgia: Marshrutky from Tblisi to Yerevan depart from Ortachala, Avlabari and Sadguris Moedani bus stations in Tblisi (30-35 GEL). If you want to stop in the Debed Canyon on the way, catch the buses from Ortachala or Sadguris Moedani stations.
Our budget for Armenia was higher than usual as we chose to hire a car. We spent approximately US$90 per day (for two people), which included our car hire costs, petrol, parking, entrance fees, private rooms in guesthouses, and most meals in restaurants. We estimate you would spend around US$70 per day (for two people) if travelling by public transport.
Best Time to Visit
The high season in Armenia is in the summer months (June to September), when you can expect hot and dry days. While there is great snow skiing, winter is usually best avoided. Autumn is quite pleasant, with cool and crisp days. however, during our visit in October it was freezing and even snowed! So be prepared for variable weather.
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