Watching over revered Mt Ararat, Armenia spans rocky highlands while also boasting lush forests and serene, turquoise Lake Sevan. There are remote regions and monasteries to explore (Vayots Dzor & Syunik, for example), but highlights are as likely to be Yerevan’s buzzing arts scene, the Mediterranean mind-set and café culture, or a spontaneous shared meal – and tipple – with locals.
Much of the current tourist traffic comprises diaspora Armenians seeking a slice of their homeland. Their high standards enticed some international hotel chains and caused overdevelopment in places like Sevan. Yet it’s still easy to escape to hidden gems, including stalactite-filled caves and summer villages inhabited by Yezidi Kurds and Armenian shepherds. The Debed Canyon is rich with history and culture, and Goris is a fascinating time-warp town that warrants a few days' exploration. As most travellers whiz through on a brief side trip between other places, serious explorers will have the best sights to themselves.
While the country's ancient monasteries, candle-lit churches and high-walled forts are obvious highlights, your fondest memories of Armenia will most likely lie with the locals themselves. You’ll easily find friends among these gracious, humble and easygoing people, even without a common language. Ties are best forged around a dinner table, where endless rounds of toasting accompany a meal bursting with fresh vegetables and grilled meats.
Although Armenians carry a lot of psychological baggage from a traumatic 20th century, you’ll hardly notice it. The rapidly modernizing capital, the boutique tourism industry and the warm welcome you’ll receive everywhere seems to belie the country’s reputation for tragedy. Rather than letting past woes weigh it down, Armenia has built its memorials, dusted itself off and moved on. Politicians have set their sights on EU membership, while businessmen are enjoying a booming economy dubbed the ‘Caucasian Tiger’.