Gyumri is nothing like other Armenian cities. Nor does it resemble any other in the world. If Yerevan was known during the Soviet period as the ‘Pink City’, Gyumri might well have been nicknamed the ‘Black City’.
The city was, until the outbreak of the urban fever of the capital, the most populated area of the country. The locals here used a variety of very dark volcanic tufa that abundant in the area to build their mansions and buildings.
Most of these buildings are located in the Historic District of Kumayri, which is also called Old Gyumri.
It is the largest old town in Armenia and it hides jewels from 19th-century architecture. Its dark facades and the state of disrepair of some buildings give it a dramatic touch. It is no wonder then that the area has been used as the setting for numerous films, one of which is ‘The Tango of Our Childhood’.
In 1988, the city (along with Spitak) bore the brunt of the earthquake which devastated the northern regions and destroyed half of the city. Although everything seems to be back to normal, the scars of the catastrophe are still visible in the cracks of some of the buildings. There is still work to be done there.
Until the outbreak of the First World War, Gyumri shined with its own light and was the third most important city of Transcaucasia, after Baku and Tbilisi. Later, the great growth of the capital overshadowed Gyumri.
Nowadays, with its more than 150,000 inhabitants, it is the second-largest city in the country and serves as the capital of the Shirak province. But after the earthquake, the overwhelming development of Yerevan and the collapse of the USSR, Gyumri is trying to try to find its place again.
Its population has been closely linked to the arts and crafts, and it has brought to the world great geniuses of literature, music, and the plastic arts. With that said, there are plenty of museums and galleries in Gyumri’s streets.
For many people, the road map to drive the city’s future involves tourism, strengthening its business network and recovering what Gyumri once meant: the artistic core of the nation and a sports and cultural hub.
It seems that the right steps are being taken, as the town was awarded the Cultural Capital of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in 2013. This is equivalent to the European City of Culture but at the level of the former Soviet republics.
Gyumri is located 126 kilometres from Yerevan. It takes around two hours to arrive by marshrutka. It is well connected and it offers a reasonable hotel infrastructure for spending the night. There are all kinds of restaurants as well. It is not big, and although it has a few museums and an old town with a surprising twist, we think that a couple of days and a night are more than enough to get to know it.
Regarding the weather, Gyumri has a markedly continental climate and it is a rather cold city in winter. Its temperatures can reach 7 degrees below zero on a regular basis. In addition, the winter lasts longer than in the capital. The summer is usually hot, so the perfect time to visit is in spring and autumn.
A Little Bit of History
The latest discoveries indicate that there have been settlements in Gyumri for 5,000 years. In the 8th century B.C., the population of Kumayri – who lived in the western part of the current city limits – is mentioned in an Urartian inscription.
The name appeared again in 774 and then in the thirteenth century. In the early nineteenth century, the word Kumairi had already evolved to the current Gyumri. In 1804, the Russian army invaded the city. Soon, the town began to attract other Armenians. Starting in 1830, its territory was divided into several neighbourhoods: Russian, Muslim, Greek, Catholic Armenian and Armenian Apostolic.
Six years later, a fortress was built in the city to improve its defences against the Ottomans. The fortress was at that time occupied by about 3,000 Russian soldiers. After visiting it, Tsar Nicholas I renamed it Alexandropol. An Orthodox church was also built and this has survived to this day. By 1846, Alexandropol had already overshadowed Yerevan and was one of the main centres of eastern Armenia.
Those were the golden years of Gyumri and the city flourished in the fields of culture, economics, and politics. During this time, it became the third most important city of Transcaucasia after Tbilisi and Baku. But everything was turned upside down with the onset of the First World War.
The city gave shelter to almost 100,000 Armenians who had survived the Genocide. The city fell into the hands of the Turks on several occasions and it was seriously damaged. Its rebirth is now linked to the arrival of Communism.
The Soviet authorities changed its name to Leninakan and the development of the city soon began. The airport and the railway power line were built. The city became a powerful hub for light industry. Textile, food, cotton and paint factories thrived here. It became the centre for machinery as well with bicycles, refrigerators, and more being produced here. At one point, Gyumri had 54 manufacturing plants that employed 48,000 workers.
In 1988, the earthquake destroyed its infrastructure and half of the city was left in ruins. On top of the devastation generated by nature, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was added to the equation. This meant the closure of the borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan and the cut of the energy supply. In a matter of a few years, the city’s citizens went from figuratively enjoying the day to enduring a long, cold night.
The population began to see the light at the end of the tunnel from 1999 when they began to seriously work in the reconstruction of the city. Today, Gyumri has practically recovered from the consequences of the disaster, although you can still see the damage in some of the buildings.
Did You Know?
Did you know that Gyumri is the city with the highest number of sports world records per 10,000 inhabitants? Its citizens have beaten the best marks and times on 52 occasions. In addition, the city has produced four Olympic champions.
There are 28 sports centres and about 7,200 athletes in the town. Gyumri is also the city of artisans, painters, sculptors, and writers. On top of that, the area is famous throughout Armenia for the sense of humour of the population. It is a very particular sense of humour and as soon as they can, they bring it up.
The 1988 Armenian Earthquake
It was an earthquake of seven degrees on the Richter scale. On December 7, 1988, Arthush was watching television at his home on Aivasovski Street in Gyumri when suddenly everything began to move. “It was as if a wave had passed over us,” he remembers with a blank stare.
“First the hall moved up and down. Then we heard several explosions coming from the centre of the Earth. And immediately afterwards, the whole house swayed from left to right. It was impossible to leave because we could not even walk. The tremor did not stop,” he says. After that there was silence, so they went out to the garden and the screaming began.
That day around 50,000 people died. The city of Spitak took the worst blow and it was reduced to rubble. In Gyumri, more than 15,000 victims were killed and another 50,000 were left homeless. 80% of the buildings were badly damaged. The tremor was felt strongly in Yerevan and Vanadzor also suffered heavy losses.
Christmas was just around the corner and it was very cold. The international community rallied around to help. The people of the Diaspora returned to help out and they even managed to record an album, which promoted by the mythical group Deep Purple, to raise funds for the displaced. The album was called ‘Rock Aid America’ and Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Bon Jovi, Pink Floyd, and Queen, amongst others, collaborated.
But things were slow to return to normal. To the devastation generated by nature, the war for the control of Karabakh and the cut of all energy supply was added. Armenia fell into a winter which lasted more than five years.
From 1999, the reconstruction of the damaged towns gathered some momentum and nowadays everything seems to have returned to normal. However, some scars are still visible on the buildings, the roads, and through the stories of the people.
What to See?
Vardanantz Hraparak (Vardanants Square)
The best place to start your visit to Gyumri is Vardanantz Hraparak (Vardanants Square). Note that this place also appears as Azatutyan Hraparak or Freedom Square in some maps. It is the heart of Old Gyumri and the political and religious centre of the city. Here, a statue of the legendary leader, Vartan Mamikonian, on horseback presides over the compound.
Mamikonian led the Armenians to victory against the Persian army at the battle of Avarayr (5th century A.D). This battle is remembered as one of the country’s greatest military achievements.
Just opposite that is the New City Hall. This building imitates the aesthetics of the previous Consistory that collapsed after the 1988 Armenian earthquake. It now proudly stands out above the rest of the buildings.
On the left, the Yot Verk Church rises with its unmistakable facade of black tufa (18th century). Meanwhile, the Amenaprkich Church (Savior of All) is to the opposite right of this structure. It was built in the nineteenth century in the image and likeness of the mythical Ani Cathedral, the ancient capital of Armenia.
Behind this last sanctuary, there is an area which connects with Mayakovski Street. The latter is full of khachkars.
Rizhkov is one of the busiest and most popular streets in the city. It connects Vartanantz Square with the Ring of Peace. This area is the commercial hub of Gyumri and it is full of restaurants and shops. Its buildings are more modern as they are from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The best thing to do is to wander around the streets of the old district of Kumayri and imagine how life used to be during the Belle Époque period. The neighbourhood is full of tourist panels which give information about the past of each building. So, it is easy to get to know them without help.
During your walk, you are likely to find more than one house-museum. They are the proof of that golden age in which the city was the cultural centre of eastern Armenia.
The Gyumri Open Market or Shuka
The Gyumri Open Market or shuka is the most famous in the country. Its main entrance is on Shahumyan Street, very close to the bus station. Here you can breathe the atmosphere of the great bazaars of Asia.
It is the meeting place for people from all over the region and you can find everything from exotic foods, street food stalls, and even a spare part for your fridge should you need it. The positive aspect is that the tourist does not feel as harassed as in other places.
They open every day and most stalls stay open until 5:00 p.m. Sunday is the busiest day in the week.
This is the most famous beer brand in the country and one of the identity signs of the population.
The visit costs AMD 9,500.
They organize guided tours and tastings of some of their labels but note that you need to book in advanced. If you are interested, please contact Armen through this number: +374 55 59 1553.
He is responsible for the promotion of the Department of Tourism of the City Hall, and you can send a request via their webpage: www.travelgyumri.com
The Russian Orthodox Church
The Russian Orthodox Church is located on Teryan Street. Its silver dome is unique. It is located at the entrance of a small cemetery dedicated to the fallen heroes of the Battle of Kars that during the Ottoman-Russian War.
Nearby you can find the stadium of the local sports team, the statue of Mother Armenia, and the black fortress.
Gardens and Parks
The Gorki Sad Park, also known as Central Park, is the preferred leisure spot by the locals.
It is in the western part of Old Gyumri. The first theatre of the city was built here, and it is full of statues of poets and other artists. In summer, its trees provide shade and the park is invaded by hundreds of couples. When we were searching for information for this guide, there was a small karting track inside.
Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life of Gyumri
Address: 47 Haghtanak Poghots Avenue.
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Sundays from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Entry price: 500 AMD.
It occupies an old mansion from 1872. The museum makes a retrospective of the sociocultural, political, and economic life of the city from the 19th to the 20th century. It teaches about the past of Gyumri, its traditions, musical instruments, and exhibits the interior of the typical bourgeois house in the area.
Sergei Mercurov House-Museum
Adjacent to the Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life, and with the same entrance, you can access this permanent exhibition. Exhibits include the death masks of great personalities created by Armenian artists. We must emphasize the death mask that Mercurov made of Lenin.
The Gallery of the Sisters Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan
Address. 241 Abovyan Poghots Street.
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Entry price: voluntary.
The museum is located inside a beautiful 19th-century building with great historical value. 620 works of the famous painters are exhibited in its rooms.
Mariam Aslamazyan (1907-2006) and Yeranuhi Aslamazyan (1910-1998) were two prolific artists who traveled around the world. The merit is double, considering that they were Soviet citizens and, in addition, women of that time, which shows the decided character of the sisters. For us, this is probably the museum most worthy of a visit.
Avetik Isaakyan House-Museum
Address: 91 Varpetats Poghots Street.
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
This house-museum was opened in 1975 in honor of this great poet. The building does not only show the artist’s personal belongings but also the way of life of the 19th century.
Address: 1 Vardanants Square.
During our visit, there was not a tourist office as such, but the staff of Travel Gyumri greeted us inside the town hall. We do not know if things have changed now.
They offer all kinds of help for the traveler and they speak English. If you have any questions, please contact + 374 55 59 1553.
We recommend Travel Gyumri. You will find adventure tours throughout the region through this site. Adventure options combine mountaineering, canoeing, and cycling.
Information Point at the Berlin Hotel
In the absence of an information office, the reception of the Berlin Hotel offers maps and all kinds of information to tourists. It is the office of the Shirak Tours agency, but it provides all kinds of help and it also organizes good adventure and cultural tours around the region. For more information: www.shiraktours.am
Marshrutkas: The bus station (Avtokayan) is at the end of Shahumyan Street.
- Gyumri-Yerevan: they leave from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., when the bus is full.
- Gyumri-Vanadzor: they leave 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m.; by bus at 4:00 p.m.
- Gyumri-Tbilisi (Georgia): they leave at 10:30 a.m.
- Gyumri-Akhaltsike (Georgia). They leave at 10:00 a.m.
- Gyumri-Marmashen: they leave. every hour from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
- Gyumri-Artik: They leave at 8:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.
- Gyumri-Anipemza: they leave at 1.00 p.m.
- Gyumri-Tbilisi: they leave at 12:25 a.m. (even days of the month)
- Gyumri-Yerevan: they leave at 4:10 a.m., 8:25 a.m., 11:45 a.m., 6:05 p.m.
Where to Sleep?
Cheap Lodging Type
Artush Raisa B&B
Address: 1/2 Ayvazovski Street.
Phone: ✆+374 93 350314/ 312 30815.
Artush is a friendly professional travel guide who speaks English perfectly. He will help you discover the secrets of the region.
The bed and breakfast is a beautiful house with an incredible garden located in a quiet area, a short distance from the Charles Aznaour Square. Clean and excellent service. They have Wi-Fi. They have 6 rooms. His wife Raisa cooks very well and she also speaks a little English. Price: individual (12,000 AMD), double (20,000 AMD)
Address: 26 Komisarner Poghots Street.
Phone: ✆+374 91408336
If you travel in a group, this is the best option by far. It is a two-floor mini apartment recently renovated with all amenities including kitchen and garage, still within the family property but in a separate building.
The family who owns the place is lovely and they speak English and German perfectly. They also rent the apartment for solo travellers or couples. Indicative price: one person: AMD: 15,000; two people: AMD 20,000 Additional bed: AMD 5,000.
Medium Price Lodging Type
Address: 25 Gorki Poghots Street.
Phone: ✆+374 300 115 1199.
It is the typical three-star Armenian hotel. It has 126 rooms (singles, standard doubles, and superiors). The hotel is situated in the old town and it is usually full, so you should book in advance. Prices vary depending on the time of year: Double: AMD 30,000; individual: AMD 25,000. For more information: www.arakshotel.am
Address: 25 Aghtanaki Poghots Street.
Phone: ✆+374 312 57659.
It is a modern hotel-art gallery in which each room is dedicated to a different Armenian artist. This is a very nice place and the service is very professional. Single room price: 27,000 AMD. Double: 32,000 AMD.
They have their own travel agency called Shirak Tours. They offer free guidance, maps, and information. They also organize tours of all kinds around the region and the rest of Armenia. In our opinion, the Berlin Hotel is one of the best options. For more information. www.berlinarthotel.am
Expensive Lodging Type
Address: Garegin Njdeh Avenue 1/5.
Phone: ✆ + 374 312 55151.
This is a recently opened urban hotel located just 50 meters from Charles Aznaur Square. It is modern and cute, and it has standard double rooms and suites. It costs AMD 40,000-50,000. www.nanehotel.am
Luxury Lodging Type
Address: 70 Mayakovsky Poghots Street.
Phone: ✆+374 312 50051.
The interior decor is typical of Imperial Russia. It is one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. Although they were a bit short of staff during our visit. Excellent location, within walking distance of the main square of Gyumri.
Double standard: 50,000 AMD; junior deluxe: 80,000 AMD; suite: 100,000 AMD.; Presidential Suite: 150,000 AMD. For more information: www.alexandrapolhotel.com
Where to Eat?
Pizza Jazz Restaurant
Address: 1/2 Rizhkov Poghots Street.
They serve pizzas, shawrmas, soups, hamburgers, salads, and lahmajos. It is located in the Peace Square (Plaza de la Paz), and it has a large terrace on the second floor. From there you can contemplate the hustle and bustle of the street. The staff speak a little English.
Address: 268 Abovyan Poghots Street.
Opening Hours: from 10:00 a.m. to 10.00 p.m. It is located on the 3rd floor.
It offers beautiful views of the cathedral. Aram, the manager, speaks a little English. It has modern decoration and offers local and European cuisine.
Cherkezi Dzor Restaurant
Address: Bulvarayin Poghots Street.
It is situated next to the red fortress. Everyone knows it around Gyumri and it has a reputation which has expanded throughout Armenia.
Cherkezi Dzor was an old fish farm that has been transformed into a classy restaurant. There are different ponds with fish of different types in the garden. You can choose one and they will cook it for you there and then. They also make their own lavash and the kitchen is open to the public. Expect a good atmosphere and traditional decoration.
Gyumri Biennial of Contemporary Art
It was first held in 1998 and every two years the streets of Gyumri are used to exhibit the works of the artists who take part. This festival is a private initiative which was born with the aim of overcoming the tragedy of the earthquake through Art. The whole city is used as an exhibition hall, even those buildings which were left in ruins after the earthquake.
Surroundings of Gyumri
The monastery is located 10 kilometers north-west of Gyumri. Turn to the left shortly after entering the village of Vahramaberd, which is located on the left bank of the Akhturyan River. The complex consists of three churches and other secular buildings nearby.
Prince Vahram Pakhlavuni ordered to build the most important building, the Katoghike Church, between 988 and 1029. The structure is contemporary with the mythical city of Ani, the capital of the former Kingdom of Armenia.
Ani was one of the most prosperous cities in the East. During the Seljuk invasions, the religious complex was destroyed but it was built again in the 13th century. The gavit (entrance) also dates from this time.
Arpi Litch National Park (Lake Arpi)
Another one of the natural wonders of the country is Lake Arpi. The park is situated more than 2000 metres above sea level (6561 feet), in a wild area where Armenia meets Georgia and Turkey. Enjoy endless meadows and the gorgeous view of the mountains of the Lower Caucasus.
The park is also a paradise for ornithology lovers. About 120 species of birds live here, many of which are typical of the Caucasus area. Another 70 species or so pass through here during their migrations in spring and autumn.
In 2009, the Government of Yerevan declared Lake Arpi a National Park. After Sevan, it is the second reserve of fresh water in the country. It is also a sanctuary for other mammals such as the otter, the Caucasian shrew, and the wolf endemic to the area. It is also home to six different types of snakes, such as the Armenian steppe viper and the Darevsky viper.
In this small Garden of Eden, the flora is particularly rich and nearly 800 different species grow here. You can find wild orchids, gladiolus, and many others. Between the end of April and June, the park blooms with flowers that turn a simple walk into a feast for the eyes.
The Obsidian Shores of Lake Arpi
The shores of Lake Arpi are full of Obsidian. This bright black rock is sometimes also known as volcanic glass.
During prehistoric times, obsidian was used to make knives, arrows, and spears. In the esoteric world, it is known as the Stone of Truth and it is very powerful. It provides self-knowledge, strength, and protection. Although they also say that it can be ruthless when it comes to bringing our defects and weaknesses to light. Oh, if this place had been known by the producers of Game of Thrones!
Opening hours: from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
The park has a visitor centre in the village of Ghazanchi, 2 miles from Ashotsk. Theoretically, they open every day as long as there are tourists, but sometimes there is no one available.
Despite the good disposition of the staff, they offer little help since they do not speak English. However, they have brochures in different languages and an information system with a touch screen with all kinds of general information in English about the park. There is also a small room with dissected specimens which show the fauna of the environment.
The Connections are bad if you do not have your own car. You have to take a shared taxi (AMD 500) from Gyumri to the village of Ashotsk. They leave from the intersection of Teryan and Shahumyan Streets.
Ashotsk is about 12 miles from the village of Ardenis. You would have to take another taxi to get to your destination. However, Sharko, the owner of the Ardenis B&B usually goes to pick up his guests at the stop.
To return to Gyumri, the shared taxis leave from opposite the Shakro Market building. There are no fixed schedules and they leave when they are full.
Where to Sleep in Lake Arpi?
Address: Village of Ardenis.
Phone: +374 93824005.
It is the Shakro family’s home. Shakro one of the workers in charge of the park management. More than a B&B, this place is a farm that offers accommodation. It is a very simple and rural house facing a small lagoon in the village of Ardenis, 4 miles from the lake. It has a small collection of stuffed animals. Almost all the products that are consumed are homemade or homegrown.
Shakro speaks German, and although he does not speak English at all, he always shows a great sense of humour and organizes tours around the lake. If you want to contact him, call Artush ✆ + 374 93 350314 (owner of B&B Artush Raisa of Gyumri). They are close friends and he will act as a translator. One night’s stay costs AMD 6,500. Each meal is AMD 2,500.