Ask a local about Armenia

I’ll admit it: Armenia was not on my travel radar. From a mass tourism perspective, it remains relatively undiscovered. But this little country filled with beautiful landscapes is exactly what you’re looking for when you want to go somewhere no one you know has been. This is a place for those hungry for knowledge and one-of-a-kind experiences. It’s also best enjoyed with the knowledge of a local expert, like Hakob Harutyunyan, who plans custom Armenian itineraries for our boutique travel planning service, Elsewhere by Lonely Planet.

After speaking with Hakob, I learned that Armenia has more to offer than you could possibly imagine. This is a place steeped in ancient history, with natural beauty and curious, friendly people – who believe travelers “come from god” – and personify hospitality and warmth. Which is how I’d describe Hakob: he is warm, welcoming and palpably passionate about encouraging people to come to Armenia. He’s just the person to create an unforgettable trip to a charming country that is guaranteed to capture your heart. Read on for edited excerpts from our recent conversation.

Hakob and his team take a break from trip planning with a gorgeous backdrop © Courtesy of Hakob Harutyunyan  

How long have you been working in tourism?

I started in 2010. Before that, I was a military doctor. I converted to tourism because I wanted to help people discover another Armenia. When I speak about Armenia in Europe, people think of two things: genocide and the first Christian country in the world. After, it’s zero. Nothing.

So what do you want people to know?

Armenia may be small, but it’s rich in historical and cultural heritage. Nestled between the vast Iranian deserts and the Caucasus mountains, it offers numerous opportunities for memorable experiences and learning. Traveling here is not just about exploring; it’s about learning and sharing. It’s a wonderful chance for Armenia to showcase the many things we have to offer.

Aragats Mountain, the highest summit in Armenia © Courtesy of Hakob Harutyunyan  

What would you say is Armenia’s best attribute?

Armenia’s beautiful landscapes stand out. As a mountainous country, about 17 or 18% of Armenia is at an altitude of around 1000m (3280ft). It is geographically rich with many different volcanoes.

The mountains are easily accessible, too. Travel 40 km from the capital Yerevan and you can go skiing, snowshoeing, or back-country skiing. You can even spot wolves and bears. So, with Armenia, you’re not just getting breathtaking nature; you’re also getting the renowned hospitality of the people.

How would you describe the Armenian people?

Armenians are very curious. Even when they don’t speak English or French, they try to ask questions and communicate with gestures. They’ll invite you into their homes to eat and drink. We have an Armenian proverb, “Travelers come from God.” Whenever we cook, we always make extra so another person can come. Armenians are very friendly people. 

Ghapama is a stuffed pumpkin with rice, dried fruits and nuts and served with bread © AlexelA/Shutterstock

What kinds of food are people likely to eat?

We eat everything! Armenia’s dishes are influenced by Persian, Greek and Turkish culinary traditions. We don’t have access to the sea but we have some delicious meat dishes. Our food isn’t heavy or overly sweet. We use a lot of different herbs and eat plenty of seasonal vegetables.

One traditional dessert to try is ghapama (pumpkin stuffed with rice, dried fruits and chopped almonds). Anthony Bourdain came and filmed an episode here where he tried khash (boiled cow or sheep soup) with Serj Tankian from System of a Down. Also, Armenian dishes are wonderfully influenced by Persian, Greek, and Turkish culinary traditions.

When is the best time to visit Armenia?

To see a little bit of everything, come between May and November. If you want to see winter landscapes and do snow sports, come in January, February, or March.

Where should people stay?

I always recommend people stay in small, boutique hotels. They’re typically historical buildings that have been transformed into very cozy hotels that sleep just a few guests.

Staying at a guest house is also a great way to contribute to the local economy. It’s really important to me that the money spent in Armenia stays in Armenia. For example, we have Tufenkian Historic Hotels. a collection of Armenian hotels created by Armenian-American textile businessman, James Tufenkian. This collection of Armenian hotels created by James Tufenkian, an Armenian-American textile businessman.

The medieval monastery of Noravank in Armenia © Mike Ilchenko/Shutterstock

What are some experiences you recommend?

You must check out the churches and monasteries, particularly Noravank. It’s located in southern Armenia in a stunning canyon – for me, it’s the place to see. Plus, this area is the heart of Armenia’s wine region, the cradle of world viticulture. You can even visit the world’s oldest winery, discovered by archaeologists years ago. They used the same grape varieties back then that we use for wine-making today.

French tourists are often impressed with our wine. You can even find Armenian wine in restaurants in Bordeaux.

Finally, what’s the best way to get around?

When you’re in Yerevan, definitely walk or take public transport. Outside the city, you should rent a car. We can set up guests with maps and GPS and an itinerary to explore on their own. It’s the best way to see the country.

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