The First-Timer’s Guide to Visiting Yerevan
Barev Dzez!! If you’re here, you are possibly, maybe, perhaps halfway considering a trip to Armenia! BRAVO!
Armenia is a very interesting country with old-world charm and a deep, colorful culture. When I say it’s an old country, I mean it, and it’s as interesting to the anthropologist as it is to the historian, the theologian, the economist, the artist, or even the thrill seeker.
The capital, Yerevan, is truly a remarkable cultural city of the arts. One of the things that I was so enchanted by when first arriving was the importance given to artists, poets, composers, authors, architects, musicians. While many other countries lend importance to politicians, heads of state, or military generals, Armenia chooses to adorn their city and currency with cultural minds and you’ll see these on display around the city.
So, gnatsenk! Let’s talk about some tips for your first trip to Yerevan!
How to get here
Yerevan’s airport is named Zvartnots International Airport (EVN) which always sounded like something out of Harry Potter to me. There aren’t many direct flights in and out; some of the most popular layover points are Paris, Vienna, and Moscow.
Also, don’t be alarmed if the only arrivals you can find into Yerevan land at 3am. For all the flying I’ve done out of Yerevan, I may have only been at the airport during daylight hours once or twice. Many departures leave between 4 and 6am and many arrivals land between 11pm and 3am. I do not know why. It certainly adds to the level of difficulty of getting here.
OR you could avoid the airport entirely if you would rather make a regional multi-stop trip through the Caucasus! Consider visiting Baku (Azerbaijan), head over to Tbilisi (Georgia), and then drive down to Yerevan, allowing you to see Armenia’s raw, natural beauty in the mountain roads.
Do I need a visa to visit Armenia? As long as you’re staying for less than 180 days, no you do not. All you need to enter Armenia is a valid passport.
Currency, Exchange Rates, and Costs
Armenia’s currency is the “dram”. There are about 480-ish Armenian drams to 1 US dollar.
Costs are relatively low around town with the “higher-end” restaurants at or below U.S. prices. When my husband and I go out to a special dinner to one of the nicest restaurants in town, we can order a bottle of wine, appetizers, salads, entrees, desserts, and digestifs – the whole shebang – for around $40-$50. Imported goods are are always going to be more expensive, so if you’re on a budget, try to eat local.
Be prepared to use cash for everything, with maybe the exception of your hotel. More and more places are slowly accepting credit cards, but it’s much easier (and safer) to just use cash. If you think of it, there’s an ATM in the airport on the way out. Otherwise I recommend only getting cash out at ATMs associated with a bank. They’re just slightly more secure.
I may have mentioned before that the road conditions in Yerevan are not the best. If at all possible, hire a driver. You will most likely be able to make arrangements through your hotel. Hyur Service is also an option for tours and drivers.
Extremely affordable. Most trips within town would cost not much more than $1.50-$2.00.
As much as possible, try to get into taxis that have meters. In fact, it’s a good idea to get the GG taxi app and hail your cars from that. It’s kind of like Uber but less composite. Each trip is tracked and the driver cannot charge you more than what’s shown on the app. The cars tend to be nicer too, some even with seat belts, with the same rates you would pay by hailing a cab off the street.
At the end of the day, what they may “upcharge” equates to maybe $.50. Does that really matter in the long run? Not really. Principle, I suppose.
Very cheap but also not too practical. A ride will cost around $0.20. There’s one line with ten stops that runs the city north to south. If you’re staying within “circle” it’s almost easier to walk wherever you’re going.
Mashukas and buses
Most popular among locals for public transport. Mashukas are the white (or sometimes yellow) vans doing whatevertheheck they want on the road and always crammed to the brim with people. It’s a very inexpensive way to get around town but not a very intuitive system to figure out.
Where to stay
If you’ve read my post on planning a trip with kids, you’ll quickly figure out I’m a BIG fan of Airbnb. I would, however, proceed with caution, especially if you don’t speak Armenian. If you’re really embracing the “live local” mindset, go for it, but make sure you do your Airbnb due diligence.
To be perfectly honest (and I know that’s why you read this blog), if I were to come back in the future, I would probably opt to stay in a hotel. Rates are very affordable, even in the larger, corporate hotels and it’s a known quantity. The additional perk of a concierge could also be helpful if you need assistance booking a tour or driver.
I will fully admit I have no experience with hostels in this city, however, I do see many signs for them around town. If hostels are your thing, there seem to be plenty to choose from.
Where to eat
There will be plenty of restaurant recommendations for Yerevan in the posts to come, but for now I just want to mention a few things. Yerevan hasn’t gotten on board with the smoke-free restaurants craze yet. Some will have a “non-smoking” section, but guess what- it’s cozied up to the smoking section. A truly smoke-free restaurant is rare but they do exist.
There are some very good options throughout the city which seem to have really expanded in the past two years. There are many different kinds of cuisine available at many different price ranges. Restaurants in Yerevan have moved toward the “trendy wine bar” atmosphere with new wine-themed restaurants popping up frequently.
Restaurants come and go quickly in this economy. It’s hard to start a business. It’s even harder when you’re competing against an established love of shawarma and spas (yogurt soup).
Restaurants will usually charge a 10% service fee which I just found out does NOT go to the servers as gratuity. In general, tipping is not 100% expected and when I do, I’ll round up or leave about 10%.
If you will be staying for an extended trip it may not be a bad idea to pick up a local SIM card for your phone so you have data coverage. In my opinion, it’s totally worth it especially if you’re interested in taking a few day trips. It’s really very affordable and easy to set up.
(As of Nov 17) You can pick up a SIM card with 100 minutes and 1GB of data for as low as around $3. If you LOOOVE your data, you can go for the high rollers package and pay $6 for 200 minutes and 3 data. But I’m not gonna tell you how to live your life.
If you’re going to do this, make sure your cell phone is unlocked through your carrier before you leave the U.S. This will usually mean that you don’t owe any financing on it.
Many places in Yerevan are equipped with wifi, all you have to do is ask. Even many public spaces like parks have it available.
The official languages of Armenia are Armenian and Russian, although you will be able to get around most places in Yerevan with English. It’s about 50/50. In the service industry, you’ll be fine: large hotels, restaurant servers, museum ticket counters, etc.
Once you leave Yerevan, it’s a little dicier.
You don’t have to know much Armenian to get around Yerevan. In fact, I don’t know much at all after having lived here for two years. But a few friendly phrases will definitely help!
- Hello: Barev Dzez!
- Thank you: Shnor-ha-ka-loo-tsyoon. Or a simple “Merci” works just as well.
- Yes: Ay-oh or Ha
- No: Chey
- American Embassy: Ah-mer-ee-kyan des-pan-ah-toon
- Goodbye/good luck: Ha-jo
Helpful Mobile Apps
If you’re planning a trip to Armenia, think about downloading these apps:
I mentioned this one above. This is the closest to Uber that Yerevan gets. Except you still have to tell your driver where you want to go when you get in the car, and you pay cash rather than setting up an auto pay from your credit card. From my experience, the cars are the cleanest you’ll find in the city and *sometimes* have seat belts.
This is Yerevan’s catch-all delivery service. There are hundreds of restaurants that you can order in from to include bakeries, coffee shops, pharmacies, and even flowers I think. And the delivery charge is only $1.
Always a good one to have in your back pocket wherever you travel, not just Armenia.
The main reason I like GMaps in Yerevan as opposed to other map apps is that the streets are labeled in English. Big help if you can’t read the Armenian alphabet. Also, I love GMaps’ downloadable offline maps feature. It’s gotten us around many a city.
And friends, I wouldn’t be a responsible adult if I didn’t also give you the contact info for the U.S. Embassy’s American Citizen Services. In case you get yourself into trouble, your passport is lost, or you need other assistance, they’ll be able to help you out… or at least answer your questions in English.
That’s all for now! If you liked this post and would like to learn a little more about Armenia, check out my post on Get to Know: Armenia!