Armenia’s southern regions stretch from Karabakh to the east and the Azeri enclave of Naxçivan to the west. Vayots Dzor (Gorge of Woes) centres on the headwaters of the wine-growing Arpa valley. The name comes from a history of ruinous earthquakes across these mountainous valleys and cliffs. It’s a great area to explore off-the-beaten-track trails by foot, horse or 4WD.
Armenia's second-largest city was almost levelled in the 1988 Spitak earthquake, and reconstruction works are still underway. It's not a particularly attractive place, but its bustling market and location on one of the main routes into Georgia means that it is visited by a reasonable number of tourists.
The endlessly winding roads that leap through the gorges over the mountains of Syunik come to a major junction at Goris, making this an inevitable stop between Yerevan and Stepanakert or the Iranian border. The town's tree-lined avenues and grand 19th-century stone houses attest to its prosperous past, but these days Goris is poor, rundown and depressed.
It’s billed as the ‘Switzerland of Armenia’, and although that may be a bit of a stretch, alpine Dilijan has undeniably attractive scenery and an extremely pleasant climate. During Soviet times this was the peaceful retreat for cinematographers, composers, artists and writers to come and be creative; today it’s a centre for tourism with a number of fine B&Bs and hotels.
An overgrown country town built on twisting lanes that wind into the hills, Yeghegnadzor (yeh-heg-nadzor) is the peaceful administrative centre of Vayots Dzor. The town is a mainly Soviet-era confection of wide civic spaces and tufa apartment blocks, with few local industries or businesses; most locals rely on remittances or agriculture for their income.
This bustling town is 6km inland from the lake’s western shore and is the administrative centre for the region. It was founded in 1842 as the Russian village of Elenovka but there are few reminders of the past. Taxis to Yerevan, the peninsula and lakeshore hotels leave from the main street, which also has shops, ATMs and a shuka.
This canyon manages to pack in more history and culture than anywhere else in the country. Nearly every village along the Debed River has a church, a chapel, an old fort and a sprinkling of khachkars somewhere nearby. Two World Heritage–listed monasteries, Haghpat and Sanahin, are the main attractions, but there's much more to see.
Holy Echmiadzin is the Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the place where Surp Grigor Lusavorich saw a beam of light fall to the earth in a divine vision, and where he built the first Mayr Tachar (Mother Church of Armenia). For Armenian Christians, Echmiadzin (Descent of the Only Begotten Son of God) has unparalleled importance.
This rural village sprouted around its famous monastery in medieval times. Its location on a basalt plateau overlooking the Vorotan River is quite spectacular. There is plenty of scope for short hikes in the surrounding area. One trail from the village leads to Svarants (population 250), a hamlet 20 minutes’ walk away on the other side of the valley.
Ashtarak is a midsized regional town on the Kasagh Gorge, 22km northwest of Yerevan. It has an array of 19th-century buildings, streets filled with fruit trees, an 11th-century stone bridge (sadly dwarfed by a modern replacement) and four medieval churches in various stages of decrepitude.