When it comes to the Caucasus region of the world, most people only hit up Georgia, neglecting Armenia and its other neighbor Azerbaijan. This is a shame as Armenia has its own unique charm, incredible locals, and beautiful landscape with far less tourists to bump shoulders with. If that doesn’t convince you to stay longer, there are plenty of day trips from the capital of Yerevan which is just a days marshrutka ride away from Tbilisi. In a country so small in size, you can technically get to anywhere within a day. If you’re tight on time, taking three or four days down in the Yerevan region can provide visitors with a decent idea of what Armenia has to offer.
Khor Virap is Armenia’s most famous and most recognized site. Set on the vast plains at the foot of Mount Ararat, few monuments in the world that are this easy to get to are set by such a background. Sitting less than one kilometer from the border with Turkey, the northern corner of Iran is just a mere five kilometers away.
Mount Ararat, a mountain sacred to Armenia, now lies in Turkey and is one of the most vivid reminders of what was lost during the Armenian Genocide. Mount Ararat is the traditional place said to be where Noah’s Arc from the Bible story landed after God flooded the earth. According to legend, Armenians believed they were the decedents of Japheth, one of the grandsons of Noah. A church so close to this biblicaly significant place would be enough to make any church important, but Khor Virap is held to be the birthplace of the Christian state of Armenia as well.
People have been building on the Khor Virap site since the 6th century CE. Most of what you see today, including the main church, Surp Astvatsatsin Church dates back to the 17th century. The most important site for pilgrims and tourists alike however, is the tight and narrow ladder that leads down into a tiny pit next to the church. This is where the legend of Christian Armenia was born.
The story goes that the Armenian king, Trdat III, who ruled the region in the 3rd century CE, was angered by his assistant Gregory’s preaching of the christian religion and had him thrown in prison for twelve years. It is believed that we was imprisoned in the very small pit that you visit at the site today. After twelve years of torturing his assistant, the king was cursed with madness which was eventually cured by Gregory. Stunned beyond belief, King Trdat freed Gregory and declared Christianity the religion of his kingdom. Whether the story is true or not, King Trdat did establish the world’s first Christian state and Khor Virap signifies the very origin of that concept. Gregory is now a saint known as St. Gregory the Illuminator.
Getting There and Back
Khor Virap is just a one hour bus ride away from Yerevan. Buses leave from the station that is directly outside Sasuntsi Davit Metro station. Head out into the bus area and ask any driver you see to direct you to the bus to Khor Virap. Buses depart three times per day at 9am, 11am, and 2pm and costs 400AMD ($0.83). The bus will drop you off at the intersection where you will have to walk an additional kilometer and a half. Getting back is tricky as the bus doesn’t seem to have a consistent return through the area. We ended up flagging a random marshrutka to Artashat and then catching a bus back to Yerevan from there. If you go out to the intersection where the bus lets you off and there’s no transport don’t worry. There is always a taxi that will lurk by every once in a while and hitchhiking is always an option while in Armenia.
Clouds tends to obscure Mount Ararat by mid morning and unfortunately, the bus usually doesn’t get you there in time. For best views, plan on getting there before 9am. This means you will have to arrange your own taxi.
Geghard and Garni
Geghard Monastery and Garni Temple are in the same direction and can easily be done within the same day.
Geghard is one of Armenia’s most important ancient churches. The devout have been building here since the 4th century CE but what you mostly see today dates back to medieval times. While many chruches in Armenia are set in more stunning places, no other church in Armenia can compete with the stunning stone work and atmosphere inside Surp Astvatsatsin. The black stone just makes it even darker inside the church, with candle light being the main source of light. Their glow puts visitors into a trance as the devout chant by the altar. This is the closest you’ll get to ancient Armenia while in the country.
The highlight of visiting Geghard is taking in the atmospheric tomb of Prince Papaq Proshian and his wife Hruzakan. The dark room is carved with many Armenian stylized crosses in addition to a massive carving of two lions chained together by an eagle. The carving stood out to me as being very unique in the world as I hadn’t seen anything like it before. It was the family coat of arms of the royalty that were buried here.
Outside of the church and up the hill are several monastic cells meant for isolation and meditation. As not many visitors venture up here today, the experience is much the same as the original intention of the place and is a nice comparison to the busy fanfare down at the church. There are no vendors here or other camera happy tourists to bother you.
After getting your fill of Geghard its time to head to the Pagan temple at Garni. Garni is approached by a long roadway lined with shops filled with food and crafts which eventually ends at the ticket entrance to the Garni site. After purchasing your 1000AMD ($2USD) ticket, take the pathway to the heavily reconstructed temple of Garni. The temple looks very out of place, looking like it belongs more at the Acropolis rather than in Armenia. Heavily influenced by Greco-Roman Culture, the temple is surrounded in columns and was dedicated to the sun God Mitra. The temple was built in the first century AD but was largely reconstructed in the 1970s. Be sure to walk around the cliff edges which will give you some of your first glimpses into the mountainous terrain that will become common place as you head further south in the country.
Garni is a nice stopping point to check out as it is conveniently connected to public transport to Yerevan. Combining the two sites makes for a well worth day trip.
Getting There and Back
Visiting Geghard and Garni is a little more complicated that visiting Khor Virap as no buses service Geghard. Using public transport, it makes most sense to visit Geghard first. Your cheapest option is to take a marshrutka to GAI Avenue, a major road around the city so it should not be too difficult to find one that passes by from your location. You want to get off at the stop that is next to the Mercedes Benz dealership on the outskirts of the city. The bus that departs to the town closest to Geghard leaves from nearby on a side street. If you type ‘Bus to Garni’ in maps.me, it will show you the location of the bus. Take the bus to the last stop (you will pass Garni) where it drops you off seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Geghard is about 5 kilometers from where the bus drops you off. If you don’t feel like haggling for a taxi, walk up the road a bit and you should be able to hitch a ride to Geghard from here.
After finishing up in Geghard, it is either a taxi ride to Garni or hitching your way to there. Both should be easy to do as most cars leaving Geghard are heading back to Yerevan. After visiting Garni, you can wait for a marshrutka to Yerevan at the small bus stop across the street from the Garni site. Total cost for public transportation (not including taxis) should be around $3 USD for two people.
Other Day Trips
Any hostel you stay at will have a list of half a dozen other sights you can go visit while around the Yerevan area. We personally felt no need to explore these other areas as we had bigger and better places around the country in mind. Other poplar day trips include Lake Sevan, Erebuni fortress, Zvartnots Cathedral, and Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin and Sardarapat.
Getting a Taste of Armenia
For those just getting into the country or for those short on time, Taking a few days to explore what is around Armenia will give you a good understanding of the country, its history, and its people. While Armenia has much more to offer visitors who stay longer, those who make the effort down to the lesser known Caucasus country will be rewarded.