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Few nations have histories as ancient, complex and laced with tragedy as Armenia (ՀԱՅԱՍՏԱՆ). And even fewer have a culture that is as rich and resilient. This is a destination where you will be intrigued by history, awed by monuments, amazed by the landscape and charmed by down-to-earth locals. It's not an easy place to explore – roads are rough, transport is often hard to navigate and those who don't speak Armenian or Russian may find communication difficult – but travelling here is as rewarding as it is revelatory.
The simply extraordinary collection of medieval monasteries scattered across the country is the number-one attraction, closely followed by a dramatically beautiful landscape that is perfectly suited to hiking and other outdoor activities. And then there's the unexpected delight of Yerevan – one of the region's most exuberant and endearing cities. Put together, they offer an enticing and tremendously enjoyable travel experience.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Armenia.
Named after the lance that pierced Christ’s side at the crucifixion (a shard is now on display at the museum in Etchmiadzin), this World Heritage–listed monastery is carved out of a cliff alongside the Azat River Gorge. Founded in the 4th century, the monastery's oldest chapel dates back to the 12th century and its tremendously atmospheric Surp Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God Church) dates from 1215. The cathedral features wonderful carvings and its surrounding chapels make for terrific exploring.
Commemorating the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1922, this institution uses photographs, documents, reports and films to deliver a powerful museum experience similar to that of Israel's Yad Vashem (Holocaust Museum). Free tours are available for five or more. On the hill above is a 44m-high spire memorial next to a circle of 12 basalt slabs leaning over to guard an eternal flame.
Located 32km south of Yerevan at the foot of Mt Ararat, Khor Virap has been repeatedly rebuilt since the 5th century. Legend says the pagan King Trdat III imprisoned St Gregory the Illuminator (Surp Grigor Lusavorich) here for 12 years. These days, pilgrims climb down a metal ladder into the well where the saint was incarcerated. To join them, wear sturdy shoes and head to the small church in the compound's southwestern corner (the well is right of the altar).
Its simply extraordinary collection of Bronze Age artefacts make this museum Armenia's pre-eminent cultural institution and an essential stop on every visitor's itinerary. Many of the items were excavated at the Necropolis of Lchashen near Lake Sevan in the 1950s, and it's hard to do them justice in words. The collection includes bronze sculptures, four-wheeled wooden chariots with metal decoration, carved stone fertility symbols, and a magnificent array of weapons and armour (arrows, quivers, helmets and shields).
Founded by Bishop Hovhannes in 1205 and sensitively renovated in the 1990s, Noravank (New Monastery) is one of the most spectacular sites in Armenia and should be included on every visitor's itinerary. Around sunset, the reddish hues of the dramatic cliffs surrounding the monastery are accentuated by the setting sun, and the reddish-gold stone of its churches acquire a luminous sheen – it's a totally magnificent sight.
For something totally unique, head to this museum near Hrazdan Gorge. Crammed with collages, drawings, photographs and assemblages created by the experimental film-maker best known for his 1969 film Sayat Nova (aka The Colour of Pomegranates), it is as eccentric as it is engaging. Housed in an attractive 19th-century timber house, the collection manages to evoke Parajanov's prodigious talent, humour and humanity while at the same time illustrating the difficulties faced by artists, film-makers and writers living in the USSR.
Standing at the top of Yerevan’s grandest avenue, this cathedral-like manuscript library is a source of enormous pride to all Armenians. The first matenadaran (book depository) for Armenian texts was built by Mesrop Mashtots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet, at Etchmiadzin in the 5th century and held thousands of manuscripts. Invasions over the centuries led to enormous losses through looting and burning, but 1800 exquisitely illustrated and bound manuscripts survived. These form the basis of the stunning collection here.
Built by Armenia’s King Trdat I in the 1st century AD, this Hellenic-style temple set on the edge of a gorge overlooking the Azat River was dedicated to the sun god, Mitra. Largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1679, the Parthenon-like structure was rebuilt between 1969 and 1975. It features a monumental staircase and Ionic columns topped by a frieze. Next to the temple are the ruins of a Roman-era bathhouse (closed to the public) and a 7th-century church.
On a promontory between the gorges of the Dzoragets and Miskhana Rivers, this ruined fortress has huge towers and massive stone blocks along its exposed side. Originally the base of David Anhogin, who ruled the region of Tashir-Dzoraget from 989 to 1048, it eventually became a base for the Orbelians and Zakarians, powerful Armenian noble families. There are ruined buildings worth exploring, an ancient cemetery and hillocks that are actually Bronze Age tumulus tombs. A 14th-century bridge is in the gorge below.