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Why Armenia should be on your radar in 2024: National Geographic

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Thursday, 20 June, 2024, 00:48
Why Armenia should be on your radar in 2024: National Geographic

Nestled in the heart of the Caucasus region, at the geographical and ideological crossways of Europe and Asia, Armenia holds its own in terms of history, hiking and cuisine. It’s a mountainous nation, with more than half of its territory elevated between 3,000ft and 6,500ft above sea level. Sweeping plateaus — etched with canyons and bulging with extinct volcanoes — are occasionally interrupted by pockets of fertile lowland in the west, while the eastern part of the country unfolds around the sapphire waters of Lake Sevan, one of Eurasia’s largest freshwater alpine lakes. From the 'pink city', Yerevan, to the charcoal-and-gold Gyumri and the emerald Debed Canyon, here’s how to explore this colourful nation.

What’s Armenia known for?
Armenian people are fiercely proud of their language, customs and beliefs. The country was the first nation to declare Christianity as its official religion in 301 CE, and monasteries and churches occupy a special place in its heritage. More than 4,000 pepper the hills and valleys, with Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the seat of the Apostolic Church and spiritual heartland of the nation, believed to be one of the oldest Christian temples on Earth.

For many visitors, it’s the rugged mountains, old-growth forests and semi-desert steppe that command attention. Hiking routes include the Transcaucasian Trail, an epic 497-mile through-hike that runs from north to south and combines agrotourism offerings with nature and culture.

Armenia also has viniculture traditions dating back more than 6,100 years, with established terroirs and 400-plus local grape varieties providing the building blocks for a world-class natural wine and brandy scene. Meanwhile, the cuisine, which favours wild herbs and fresh seasonal vegetables, is fuelling a farm-to-table movement that centres on rural villages.

Who should visit?
Armenia is well suited to those with an appetite for outdoor adventure and culture. There are ample opportunities to enjoy the landscape, from rock climbing in Noravank Canyon to kayaking at Azat Reservoir, while oenophiles can explore the Vayots Dzor Wine Route. Those with an eye for design can trace the evolution of ecclesiastical architecture, while Armenia’s urban centres — particularly Gyumri, the nation’s cultural capital, where the streets brim with art galleries and workshops — offer an insight into artisanal traditions such as woodworking, silversmithing and blacksmithing. The latter has recently been inscribed on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Anyone with even a passing interest in world history will also find Armenia captivating. Home to dozens of museums and several pre-Christian archaeological sites, Yerevan — the capital of Armenia, whose founding date of 782 BCE makes it older than Rome — is the perfect place to unravel chapters of the past. Particular highlights include the Matenadaran, a museum of manuscripts and illuminated volumes, the Cascade Complex, a grand, open-air complex which houses the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, and the History Museum of Armenia.

What are some of Armenia’s main draws?
Nicknamed the ‘pink city’ thanks to its rose- and coral-coloured tuff stone buildings, cosmopolitan Yerevan is full of sidewalk cafes, tree-lined avenues and open-air markets. The Yerevan Vernissage is a particular favourite among locals and visitors for Armenian handmade masterpieces, souvenirs and works of art.

Some of Armenia’s most important monasteries are within an hour’s drive of the capital: the UNESCO-listed Geghard is located deep in a gorge and almost invisible until the final approach; Khor Virap sits on a plateau in the shadow of Mount Ararat; and Zvartnots Cathedral is an example of medieval architecture.

But it’s the ninth-century Tatev that’s perhaps the most spectacular. Proudly perched on an outcrop in the Syunik Province, five hours south east of Yerevan, this monastic complex impresses as visitors approach via cable car on the Wings of Tatev, the world’s longest reversible aerial tramway. While in the south, be sure to also venture to Khndzoresk, a cave city that was inhabited up until the 1950s, and Zorats Karer, a prehistoric site composed of over 200 carved monoliths.

The north of Armenia, meanwhile, is a more verdant area which is well primed for those seeking to immerse themselves in nature. The town of Dilijan is a departure point for forest hikes that lead to sapphire lakes and ancient ruins, while, further north, a visit to two more monasteries, the UNESCO-listed Haghpat and Sanahin, can be paired with whitewater rafting on the Debed River.

As you move across the country, a taste of rural life and village hospitality can be found in the many ‘gastro yards’. Located inside family homes and small guesthouses, these kitchens offer home cooking at its finest, showcasing national dishes and delicacies, such as gata pastries near Haghartsin Monastery, and cheese in one of the southern cities, Sisian.

When's the best time to visit?
Armenia is a year-round destination, with activities and events happening throughout every season. The autumn months are great for wine-lovers, with the harvest spirit sweeping through the vineyards. The hiking season also extends into early November, when splendid autumn foliage decorates Dilijan National Park.

Winter is a fine time for an off-season city break, soaking in the mineral-rich Jermuk Hot Springs and skiing in Tsaghkadzor or Yeghipatrush. Late March sees apricot trees beginning to bloom and pop-up dinners held in blossoming orchards around Yerevan, while summer is best for trekking at higher altitudes, watersports on Lake Sevan and seeing sunsets at Debed Canyon.

Plan your trip
There are direct flights from London Luton Airport to Zvartnots International Airport in Yerevan, Armenia's capital. From here, rent a car or opt for tours to explore the country’s hidden wonders. There’s also a railway network in the north, while the rest of the country is connected by buses and minivans. For more information, visit armenia.travel