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Armenia - When and where to visit
The waters of Lake Sevan freeze over during the winter months © Helen Tikhomirova, Shutterstock
Armenia generally has a highland continental climate with hot, dry summers (June to September) and cold winters (December, January and February being the coldest months). However, the weather does vary regionally, even to the level of neighbouring valleys, owing to the formidable topography, differences in elevation, and other factors affecting local microclimates. Variation in elevation and terrain thus often has more influence on the weather than simple north–south distances. Gyumri, for example, is famously cold compared with lowland Yerevan, even although the distance between them is only 122km. Armenia’s very highest mountains see at least partial snow cover all year round. Dilijan and its surrounds are sometimes referred to as ‘semi-rainforest’ due to the high level of rainfall. April and May are the wettest months: although this usually means thundery showers, the rain can be continuous for long spells. Spring can be very short, the weather changing from wintery to summery in just a few days. During the hottest months of June, July and August low humidity does mitigate the high temperatures, though Yerevan can be stifling nonetheless, prompting many Yerevantsis to head for the mountains and lakes. Autumn is relatively long and often very pleasant.
The best time for general sightseeing and touring tends to be in May and June, or else late September and October. The former sees the wild flowers at their very best, the landscapes greener and the lower regions (including Yerevan) not yet stiflingly hot, though it can be stormy. The latter is drier and the heat of summer has subsided, but of course there are few flowers and much of the country is parched and brown. As compensation, the brilliant autumn colours of Armenia’s forested regions are truly striking. Visibility is also better during these periods of late spring and late summer/autumn, with a higher chance of a good view of Mount Ararat. Having said all of that, midsummer visitors will enjoy reliably fine and sunny weather, and respite from the worst of the heat can be found in the plentiful mountainous regions and the temperate forests of the northeast and south – indeed, the highest reaches frequently remain snowbound until July. Seasonal fruit and vegetables are abundant in the summer and always available on roadsides.
Winter is the low season as far as tourism is concerned, due to dependably cold weather and snow; however, much of the national road network is kept clear for travel, and some may of course see the snowy mountains as an opportunity. Relatively cheap skiing opportunities pull in many Russian visitors, and the timing of Persian New Year in late March ensures that the streets of Yerevan are packed with Iranians long before the first Western tour groups arrive. At any time of year, visitors to Armenia should take into account the regional variations in climate due to the country’s diverse range of landscapes and elevations.
Armenia's monasteries are undoubtedly its finest attractions, such as here at Haghartsin © Tom Allen
Armenia’s religious heritage sites are uniquely popular attractions that form many visitors’ strongest impressions of the country. Any risk of overload is compensated for by the fact that they are often situated in stunning natural landscapes that offer good hiking opportunities. Though there are literally hundreds of such sites, Noravank with its splendid gorge and wonderful carvings is at the top of most ‘must-see’ lists, with at least a half-day’s worth of walking in the vicinity. Khor Virap, about as close as you can get to Mount Ararat without leaving Armenia, is a worthwhile stop on the same route from Yerevan, especially if visibility is good.
Other comparable sites are the monasteries of Haghpat, Goshavank, Haghartsin and Amberd (together with its adjacent fortress), Selim Caravanserai, the field of khachkars at Noratus, and the prehistoric stones at Karahunj. The rock-carved monastery of Geghard is another must-see, easily reached from Yerevan and often combined with a visit to Garni Temple. Tatev Monastery, with its dramatic clifftop setting, can now be reached by the world’s longest cable car, as well as by road.
Less visited but among the more unique sites include the wonderful carvings at Makaravank, the reconstructed fortress of Smbataberd on its ridge (together with the nearby Tsakhatskar Monastery), Spitakavor Monastery (another good walk), Akhtala Monastery (with its wonderful frescoes), Kobayr Monastery (a short uphill walk again with some excellent nearby hiking), the petroglyphs at Ughtasar (requiring a 4x4 or a very long hike), and the monastery of Harichavank (together with the other small churches of the area). Some of Yerevan’s museums and art galleries are also must-sees, especially the History Museum and the National Gallery (in the same building), the Matenadaran for a glimpse of Armenia’s wonderful illuminated manuscripts, and the equally illuminating Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute and Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex, which is less harrowing and more educational than it might sound.
Beyond the cultural and historical sites, outdoor enthusiasts may explore Armenia’s rich natural heritage via more than 200km of waymarked trails in Dilijan National Park; the gorges of Vayots Dzor; the Debed Canyon in Lori province; and, in Syunik province, around Mount Khustup and Tatev. For the truly adventurous, the volcanic Geghama Mountains represent some of the most unique landscapes anywhere in the Caucasus.
A minimum of two or three days should be devoted to Yerevan, though if you plan to visit any museums do check the opening hours when researching your trip: Mondays are usually non-working days. Try to be in Yerevan at the weekend when the Vernissage arts and crafts market is in full swing. An extra two or three days in the city would allow for some worthwhile day trips to nearby sites. In planning a trip round the rest of the country, there are three major factors to consider: whether to use public transport and taxis or to hire a car (and, if so, whether to hire a 4x4); whether or not one wishes to do any hiking; and whether some of the chosen places to visit will be inaccessible because of snow.