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krisek Yerevan - A travel report by Krys
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Yerevan,  Armenia - flag Armenia -  Yerevan
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krisek's travel reports

Yerevan. Cafes everywhere, but where's nightlife?

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Yerevan, Armenia's capital, is not pretty. It's been stripped of its historical buildings to give way to flamboyant soc-realism structures. Few old churches remain but the city great asset are the cafes. And the citizens.

Yerevan's New Cathedral
Yerevan's New Cathedral
I descended to Yerevan for a longer weekend. I arrived late on Friday and was departing on Monday mid day. This gave me enough time to see the capital as well as Echmiadzin and a monastery of Khor Virap, at the Armenia/Turkey border - right at the foot of majestic Mount Ararat.

Arrival at the new Zvartnost International Airport terminal was painless. Of course being the first out of the aircraft helped but the English speaking ground personnel were very helpful. They explained each stage of the process of getting visa on arrival, which included filling out a form, changing money (€1=477 drams (AMD)), and proceeding to the visa on arrival desk. Anyway, all was appropriately signposted, so even if there was no-one to help, it would be easy to figure things out. Immigration and passport controls were swift and within 20 minutes of landing, I was out of the terminal. My transport for 10,000 AMD arranged by the guesthouse, where I decided to stay, was waiting, although I later found out that I overpaid five times!

I asked the locals what the colours of the flag of Armenia (red, blue, orange) meant and apparently they represented blood, heaven and bread. I also asked them whether they felt more European or Asian, and they replied... Asian! Yes, I was a little surprised, for they participated in the Eurovision Song Contest and didn't see anything wrong with it. And furthermore, they told me that their nation, and vast majority of the continent, was not ready for full European-style democracy. The reason were that the economy was too immature and their culture didn't fit well with democratic values. This shocked me (well not shocked, but really surprised), but I'm a European, so what do I know of being an Asian? Hmm...

My observation was that Armenian traffic was consistent with the rest of the Asian continent, for sure; no limits, no belts, no hands, no rules, no consideration. Traffic lights were treated by both motorists and pedestrians only as a suggestion.

Favourite spots:
Republic Square and the dancing fountain
Republic Square and the dancing fountain
The almost fake architecture of Yerevan didn't inspire me that much and the city appeared rather disorganised, untidy and busy. It took long time for me to find a favourite spot. And eventually, it was the almost obvious one - the modern, circular Republic Square, complete with the government buildings and the Marriott Hotel. If traffic was not going through it, it would be a rather nice, large square in the heart of the city. The square had its qualities. It offered immediate, almost intimate, proximity of the governmental ministries; intriguing interpretation of classical architecture by the Soviet architects; and a large fountain, which at night was converted into a little Las Vegas-style light and music show, when the fountain was... dancing. Well, the water streams moved to the rhythms of the classical music. The buildings, particularly the Ministry of Finance, were handsomely illuminated, too. The show attracted many local inhabitants, who clearly enjoyed the show.

What's really great:
Santa Fe City Cafe, the VIP section
Santa Fe City Cafe, the VIP section
I think I was smart that I went to Yerevan in the spring as the city cafes were operating in the full swing, and attracted a great mix of local crowd. Yerevan had earned a great reputation for its cafe culture and atmosphere. The cafes were countless. The greatest atmosphere was around the Opera House. There were three seasonal open-air cafes (not opened in the winter), whose buzz and ambiance were near perfect. The Armenians did not shy away from having a great time with friends at the venues. The beer and snacks were affordable enough for the average young people, including students to go out and have a good time. There were also other, smaller ones at the Opera, and a very small one with a permanent roof that operated also in the winter. My favourite ones were the large Magnolia Cafe and the more lively Jazzve. I also looked into a couple of others (Poplavok, Santa Fe City), but there is some more information later in the report.

The Cascade, being rebuilt following a sale to a billionnaire
The Cascade, being rebuilt following a sale to a billionnaire
Yerevan was not very rich in sights, I'm afraid. The city was stripped of its historical places to give way to the new soc-realism structures and wide avenues. Even the churches were demolished and very few survived. The only true historical place, the Fortress of Erebuni (the city ancient name), dating back to 782 BC, was nothing more than a heap of rubble. It required an exceptional imagination to figure out that it once was a fortress.

The Cascade, although not old, was the other sight, a rather infamous place in the Armenian capital. It led from the Opera house to the top of the hill, where a monument commemorating a certain number of years of Armenia under the Soviet rule. Recently, this extravagant stairway was bought by a billionaire, who was making some substantial and expensive upgrades. So, it wasn't a convenient time to see it when I came.

The locally famous brandy distillery, Ararat, was yet another sight, mainly visited by tourists from the former Soviet block.

Areg Guesthouse, a regular single room
Areg Guesthouse, a regular single room
Via email, which I found in the Lonely Planet, I booked a room at the Areg Guesthouse, which was not located near the centre, but it had a family feel to it and the personnel was very friendly. My room (on the picture) was spacious and clean. The bathroom was tiny, but it was well scrubbed and the hotel provided very basic toiletries - tiny portions of shampoo and minute soap bars. Towels were also supplied as standard.

The hotel personnel, some of whom spoke good English, and all of whom spoke Russian, was very friendly and talkative. The guesthouse operated also a travel agency, which organised trips around Yerevan and all over Armenia. They showed me many amazing pictures from the trips they did and it looked that they knew what they were doing.

My only problem with them was they were happily overcharging for their trips. My escapade with them to Khor Virap cost me 32,000 AM, and I could have hired a taxi from the street and do the same ride for about 8,000. That was not nice.

Mount Ararat, allegedly a place where Noah's Ark landed after the The Flood.
Mount Ararat, allegedly a place where Noah's Ark landed after the The Flood.
To find a good night party was a tricky business. I searched for places to go out, but apart from cafes, strip clubs and a string of casinos on the way to the airport ('Las Vegas'), there was nothing.

I was hoping that Friday night, when I arrived, would be big. It wasn't. I went to the Poplavok Jazz Cafe but it was quiet. No music was playing and there was only a handful of people in this huge venue by a shallow pond. I ordered house special pizza (2,300 AMD) and strong (6.4%) Erebuni lager (500 AMD). Pizza was just a flat Armenian bread topped with mushrooms, tomatoes, ham and loads of cheese but no tomato sauce. Ketchup was served instead. It was actually rather good. The ambiance in the cafe was a little strange. When I finished my pizza it was 2:30 am local time (GMT+4) but there were still people coming for cocktails. Peculiar and quiet way of partying I thought.

On the other nights when I hooked up with locals, even they couldn't find a decent party. So we partied in the park.

Echmiadzin Cathedral
Echmiadzin Cathedral
Yerevan was full of little, big, simple and flamboyant cafes that catered for the citizens. I loved that. They were perfect spots to meet the locals and chat for hours and hours.

Santa Fe City Cafe in the garden with fountains was a great place to chill and cool down with cold beer. Particularly after the climb up and down the Cascade some 150 yards away. All tables were shaded by marquises. Its VIP section, complete with hypercomfy sofas, armchairs and blankets, required a cover charge of 3000 AMD. It was almost worth it as the sofas were great and the waiting staff was attentive and professional. Imported beers were 1000 AMD and local ones 600 AMD. Simple foods, like Texan wings - 1,500 AMD, teppanyaki dishes - 1,200 AMD - 2,500 AMD. The added quality of Santa Fe was free wireless Internet. All one needed to do was to bring an internet-able device and ask staff for the password.

The French Terrace, which put on the Eurovion Song Contest at midnight was also popular hanging spot.

Echmiadzin walled church
Echmiadzin walled church
Magnolia Cafe at the Opera Square was a superb place to dine. It had a very pleasant open-air setting, the tables were dressed very neatly and professionally. Waiters wore white gloves yet few spoke English or Russian, which was highly surprising. That was only one of the Magnolia parts. Other sections were serving desserts, were just a lounge with a large telly, another had a few billiard pools, and yet another was a drink bar with a very basic setting. The restaurant section had a comprehensive menu (steaks 2,300 AMD, large beer on tap 800 AMD), which I think was also available at the other food serving sections of this amazing cafe.

I had a steak, but it was not as good as the setting of the venue suggested. It was flat and chewy and resembled roast beef rather than a nice and thick beef steak. Well, the sauce was tasty and the rest was fine, as I loved the decor and the vicinity of the party at the Opera Square (graduation night), I did not complain.

Other recommendations:
Khor Virap and the snow-capped Little Ararat in the background
Khor Virap and the snow-capped Little Ararat in the background
Yerevan is close to some spectacular scenery and a few very interesting historical places. I originally planned to see 4 or 5 sites, mainly monasteries, river valleys and very old churches, but having partied with the Armenians, I shifted my priorities.

However, I managed to see the monastery at Khor Virap, whose location was matchless. It was a small church surrounded by a wall, perched on a small hill overlooking the most spectacular mountains; Little Ararat and Mt Ararat standing majestically just across the border in Turkey. The best time to visit Khor Virap would be early in the morning, as the clouds over Mt Ararat normally form later in the day. I got up too late, and before I could organise myself, it was 1 p.m. The easiest way to organise the trip there (about 30 kms one way) would be to hire a taxi from the street or via radio, who charge c.120 AMD per km.

Echmiadzin was the other place I saw. It houses world's oldest Christian Cathedral and a few other very old churches.

Published on Thursday June 5th, 2008

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Sat, Jun 07 2008 - 08:32 AM rating by jorgesanchez

wonderful report, as ususal in you.

Fri, Jun 06 2008 - 07:47 AM rating by marianne

Very interesting to read and for a city with few sights it is very comprehensive

Fri, Jun 06 2008 - 04:11 AM rating by mistybleu

Krys a very comprehensive report and a good read. It would have been nice to see some of the locals to get a view if whether they actaully looked more Asian than European.

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