Exploring Armenia (with kids) – Part 1
Updated: Jun 18, 2020
Armenia is a fantastic country to live in because the people are nice and hospitable, but it also really helps that there’s culture, art, history, wine, skiing, hiking, and much more to do and see.
It’s been eight months since I arrived in Armenia, and I’ve traveled outside of the capital city several times. I found that there’s fun stuff to do in every season – so far I’ve experienced late summer, fall, winter, and early spring.
In this post I’ll talk about my trips to Geghard Monastery, Tsagkadzor, Dilijan, Areni wine region, Goris, and Tatev Monastery.
I've made all of these trips with kids, and I think they're lots of fun and perfectly doable both with and without kids.
GEGHARD MONASTERY (AND GARNI TEMPLE)
Let me be honest – I’m not really into temples, churches and monasteries. I’m the kind of person that believes that “once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” On the other hand, I like that Armenian monasteries are often located in really beautiful and remote areas. So to me, the trip is worth it because it comes with a scenic drive and opportunities to hike and explore the surroundings.
Geghard Monastery is pretty and has high ratings all around, but I found that there’s not a whole lot to do. We lit some candles in the church and tried to read the already-decayed signs put up by USAID to promote tourism. Outside of the monastery we crossed a bridge leading to a shrine where people stack small stones. We bought some nuts, herbs and gata from local sellers.
Once we’d seen it all, which was pretty fast, we found a nearby restaurant perched on a cliff. We would have had a beautiful view, except that we couldn’t sit on the terrace because there was a wedding party. The service that day was terrible but the food was good, as Armenian food always seems to be, and my son was content playing on a large swinging bench while we ate.
We haven’t made it to the iconic Temple of Garni yet, although most tourists would probably stop by there on the way back to Yerevan. It is the only remaining Greco-Roman temple in the entire former Soviet-Union.
WINTER FUN TSAGKADZOR
Tsaghkadzor is by far my favorite place in Armenia; it’s a mountain resort town where you can ski. It’s only an hour drive from Yerevan and this past winter I drove up three times – twice for skiing and once to enjoy the Marriott hotel with a group of friends.
The Marriott hotel looks nice and is very convenient; it features a decent restaurant, three cafes, a giant pool plus hot tub, and two play areas for kids. However, I’m also interested in trying nearby Hotel Ararat sometime, because it comes with babysitting services (they basically have a free daycare there).
The Tsaghkadzor ski resort is much better than I expected. It was used for Olympic training during the time of the Soviet Union. There are slopes in blue, red, black – although they are not very hard – and three levels of ski lifts that can bring you up to 1840 meters (6,000 feet).
Ski instructors are easy to find, but they are relatively expensive; regardless of your level or negotiating skills they charge 30 dollars per hour due to new regulations. Renting ski and snowboard equipment is cheap though; 10 dollars for skis, shoes and sticks, and a couple of extra bucks for ski goggles. They rent out (and sell) ski clothing too.
HIKING IN DILIJAN
Dilijan is a lovely town that I enjoy going to in the warmer months because of the altitude (March through September). I went last March, when it was nice and sunny, and last year in the beginning of October, when I found it too cold and wet. In terms of the weather you always have to play it by ear though, because it’s variable.
Both times I went to Dilijan I ended up at Lake Parz, which is a 30-minute drive or a 5-hour hike from the center of Dilijan. Parz is a nice little lake with a restaurant, water bikes, tree walks and a few other attractions. Despite these tourist options, however, I feel like it definitely needs a bit more development to be of interest to foreign tourists, including myself (and my kids).
But, if you’re just looking for beautiful nature, rather than touristic and entertainment options, you’re in luck – there is a brand-new trail called the Transcaucasian Trail. One of our Armenian friends happens to be involved in its construction (along with other of volunteers from all over the world), which makes the hiking extra fun. We’re almost the first ones to try it out!
Unfortunately, some locals have already stolen some of the trail marks, which makes it challenging to find your way sometimes. But there is a navigation app you can use that really helps.
On the trail there is some stuff to see, although it’s not well marked. For example, when we hiked from Lake Parz to Gosh village, my friend pointed out some really old khachkars – medieval cross stones – that were simply lying around in the bushes.
This month, I finally got to travel to the south(east) of Armenia. Since we’ve arrived at post my husband has been down there several times for work, but I haven’t been able to join him because of the distance and the kids.
These past two weeks my family was in town, which I considered the perfect opportunity to go south and check out some famous sites like Tatev Monastery. I rented a 17-seater bus at Envoy Hostel to comfortably fit our party of 11 – six adults, three toddlers and two babies.
Our first stop was in Areni, which was about a two-hour drive from Yerevan (although I didn’t really look at the clock because I was enjoying the view too much). I really wanted to go winetasting, especially because my sister is a wine expert and I was curious to see what she thought of the wines here.
During the drive we saw lots of beautiful fields, hills and mountains. Our bus got surrounded by herds of sheep, donkeys and horses several times. Before we left I was worried about road conditions, but once we were on our way I didn’t even think about it anymore – everything just looked so lovely (and our driver was extremely careful, which helped).
I haven’t figured out yet if there is some kind of “wine tasting route” that you’re supposed to take when you visit Areni – I intend to find out in the future. But we just made our own agenda.
First, we visited a small wine factory called Old Bridge. Winemakers in Armenia insist on calling it “factory”, which my sister finds hilarious. We had a wonderful lunch at their B&B before visiting the winery itself. Neither venue was commercial looking or touristy – and we only knew about it because they have received USG grants in the past and my husband has visited before.
On the way back to Yerevan (two days later), we did another winetasting at a place that was much more tourist-focused. The venue (the name escaped me) was located along the main road and featured a restaurant and water slides. They had a variety of regional wines for tasting, and all were made from the local areni grape. We had to pay for each individual wine we tasted. The cheapest one was 300 dram ($0,62) and the most expensive one 1,600 dram ($3,30).
In hindsight, I think we would have had a better experience by visiting another winemaker, for example to Hin Areni or Vedi Alco. But we had a lot of kids with us, and it was a good way to taste a bunch of local wines all at once.
Overall, my sister was impressed with Armenian wines. She mentioned that the wine culture, variety and average quality is not quite as “developed” as some European countries, like France or Italy, but that there are already some very nice wines, which is a good sign for the future.
My sister and I also loved going to the annual Yerevan Wine Days that was held the following weekend and where we got to taste even more wines. We especially appreciated the great, down-to-earth vibe of this new, but already very popular event.
GORIS & TATEV MONASTERY
We spent the night at the Mirhav Hotel in Goris, which was another two-hour drive from Areni. Everyone I talked to recommended it, and I liked it a lot. It’s a boutique style hotel with spacious rooms, a pleasant restaurant (where you can order in advance, which is great for families), and the garden featured a set of swings and a very active turtle.
The next morning, we set off to explore the medieval Goris cave dwellings. It was a short 20-minute drive and I found it very interesting because, somewhat unbelievably, thousands of Armenians continued to live in them until the Soviets finally put a stop to it at the beginning of the last century.
However, the most spectacular part of the visit for me was crossing the long, hanging bridge you have take after walking down many stairs to reach the caves. From where you park your car, the caves are located across a very deep gorge and the only way to take the bridge. It’s terrifying to look down!
Back in Goris, we had lunch at Takarik restaurant famous for its excellent jingyalov hats. We were with six adults and ate nine large breads (which are stuffed with fresh herbs and butter), along with French fries and summer salads. We ordered bread, cheese, salad and juice for the kids. The bill totaled 23 dollars. I love eating out in Armenia.
In the afternoon, it was finally time to visit Tatev Monastery! Unfortunately, I made the number one tourist mistake; I had high expectations.
The first problem with our visit to Tatev was that it took place on Monday, which I found out later is the only day the cableway is closed. So we missed out on the incredible view you get from above and we were forced to take an extremely windy road to get there.
The kids enjoyed the monastery much more than the adults did; they loved running around the various rooms and stairs that are almost castle-like. They thought that the priest on duty was “the king” of the castle, although all the man seemed to do was walking up to visitors to hug the kids (which is a very Armenian thing to do). They were also convinced that Jesus was buried in the little church at the center of the grounds.
The adults in our group, however, felt kind of lost. There were no signs, no explanations, no inscriptions or anything else that would have made the experience memorable. There was construction going on, half of the monastery was closed off, and I didn’t see anything of value or interest in the souvenir shop either. We left with the feeling that we’d just seen another old, semi-abandoned church/monastery (although I realize it’s probably a positive sign that they are renovating).
On the plus side, we got to spend the night at nearby Harsnadzor’s Eco Resort Halidzor, or – as it is known among Yerevan expats – “the place where you sleep in barrels”. We were lucky that the weather was good, because it kind of feels like camping with a view.
I slept in a small bungalow with a table and a full bathroom, but my sisters were in the barrels, which only fitted the beds. The food was pretty good and the breakfast was decent. There were peacocks in cages and not a whole lot more to do or see, but because of the beauty and the vibe of the place I’d stay there again for sure.
I the next installments of Exploring Armenia (with kids) I will talk about my visits to Gyumri, Lake Sevan, Alaverdi, Jermuk hot springs, Etchmiadzin, and much more!