Dilijan: Armenia's Picturesque Mountain Escape
Dilijan is the tourist (but not official) capital of Armenia’s Tavush province. Driving from Yerevan, you enter Tavush through a tunnel, which always seems to me like some sort of otherworldly portal. On the Yerevan side, the landscape is grassy, rocky and dry, as you would expect driving through somewhere in the near east. When you emerge from the other side, however (probably zooming with all due speed of Armenian driving) you are suddenly greeted by lush, forested slopes of pine trees and other greenery, leaving you wondering if you may have magically ended up in central Europe. Your location makes itself clear soon enough, as you pass dozens of stands selling fresh roasted corn (highly recommend), and the towering white Soviet monument as you approach the town.
Dilijan is affectionately known by locals as Armenia’s “little Switzerland” for this landscape, and the red roofs that dot the forest as the town comes into view. It is a popular tourist destination, with preserved old-style Armenian houses, museums, historical sites, and a variety of hiking trails in the national park. It also boasts nice, cool weather, making it the perfect place to escape from the Yerevan heat. We spent a weekend in Dilijan on our way to Berd, doing just some of the amazing things there.
Morning Day 1:
Breakfast: Taking a scan of the Google Map, (as I do in every new place), I came across the Green Cafe. Somewhat confusingly connected to a kids party place called the Nutcracker, the cafe is a lovey outdoor space up on the hill with a garden surrounding it. We had their crêpes with ham and eggs, crêpes with nutella, and of course, the necessary cup of Armenian coffee.
See a museum. Right next to the Green Cafe is the beautiful white historic building of the Geological Museum and Art Gallery. This museum has a wide variety of painting, sculpture, and other art from various eras. In the basement floor as well, there is a varying collection of ethnographic and archaeological artefacts showcasing the local history.
You can also visit the Yesayan Museum, located in the historic street of the Tufenkian Old Dilijan complex. This museum displays artifacts used in the economy and life of Dilijan in the 19th and 20th century, including furniture and various other handicrafts.
Afternoon Day 1:
Enjoy the outdoors. After a morning of art and culture, get ready to enjoy Dilijan’s famous hiking and natural areas. From the center of town, you can take a taxi to Parz Lich, one of Dilijan’s most famous spots. The lake is surrounded by an outdoor rest area with an abundance of beautiful picnic spots, as well as some hiking trails, paddle boats, and a ropes course and zipline. I have taken the paddle boats, which offer some Soviet charm, as well as an opportunity to see more beautiful views on the other side of the lake. In addition, the zipline will take you across the lake.
After Parz Lich, you can hop in your taxi again to the trailhead of the road to Matosevank monastery. The site is a small ruin hidden away in the forest, with a short hike to reach it. Bring proper shoes and rain gear, as the trail is often quite muddy, but the site is definitely a hidden gem worth seeing. In addition, bring snacks or lunch with you to reward yourself with a break at the top of the trail, or at the picnic table near the beginning of the trail. You can also hike to Jukhtavank, another more remote monastery (which I have not personally visited because our hike unfortunately got rained out).
Evening Day 1:
Clay Pot Cooking for Dinner: After taking a rest in your guesthouse, go for dinner at Krchuch, a nice restaurant on the main road named for the clay pots that the dishes are cooked in. With a range of Armenian and international dishes, from chicken wings to traditional harissa soup, this restaurant has something for everyone. You can enjoy your food inside, as Dilijan can get chilly in the evenings, or go to one of the tables overlooking the main road in their outdoor seating area.
Morning day 2:
Enjoy breakfast on the water. To start your day, enjoy fresh morning air as you take a short walk into the center of town to find Cafe #2. The cafe is a cute spot with comfy chairs, delicious food, balcony tables that overlook the lake, and an interesting business model. It was founded by the IDeA foundation and the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, and employs local high school students in order to give them a professional education in the hospitality industry. The staff is very professional, and the atmosphere is nice to enjoy breakfast, or an afternoon coffee. For breakfast, we especially recommend their crêpes with fruit, or their omelette with basturma, the traditional Armenian equivalent of bacon (more spices).
Go Sightseeing. Grab a taxi again to Dilijan’s biggest site: Haghartsin Monastery. In a program to encourage tourism in the area, the 13th century monastery has been newly restored, with an entire complex reconstructed to give you an idea of what it must have been like in the middle ages when it was built. The mountain views, as well as the buildings, and intricate decoration, are stunning, and if you’re lucky like we were, you may even walk in on the priest in his traditional hood and robes giving a service in Armenian.
Afternoon Day 2:
Dessert for lunch? Just outside Haghartsin, we discovered a bakery which has, to my knowledge, the world’s best gata. They have the traditional filling, as well as Apricot and Thyme, and Blueberry and Lemon flavors baked fresh in front of your eyes. If you’re not ready to go straight for the sweets, they also have bread and drinks. Make sure to take some sali, a traditional Tavush sweet bread pastry, for the road.
A Second Monastery. After Haghartsin, another drive will take you to the next biggest monastery complex of Goshavank. This one is equally beautiful, with ornately carved chapels and stunning views of the mountains. It is located in a small village, so there are many places around it to get food, drinks, souvenirs, or local food and chat with the very friendly locals as you do so. Climbing up the hill on the other side of the complex, a short walk will take you to another, smaller chapel, as well as a local cemetery with grave styles from different periods and a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape.
Evening Day 2:
Take a walk around town. Dilijan is famous for its sights, but one of the main attractions is the picturesque town itself. Take some time to wander down the main road and take some pictures of the lush green pine trees and panoramas that present themselves at every turn, as well as the beautiful old Armenian architecture. End your walk on the old style street of the Tufenkian Old Dilijan complex, which features reconstructed old houses, woodworking and other craftspeople's workshops, and your last stop at the day.
Evening Day 2:
Finish with the best. End your weekend at the Tufenkian complex’s Haykanoush Restaurant. This restaurant is attached to the Tufenkian hotel, but you can (and should) eat there even if you are staying elsewhere. This one will be a little more expensive, but is well worth it, with an array of homemade Armenian dishes, including a fantastic soubereg, a dish with crispy filo dough layered with cheese and local herbs.
Where to Stay:
Tufenkian Old Dilijan Hotel: For a rustic, but more luxurious feel, you can stay in this hotel, modeled after the old style of houses in the area. Food is provided by the Haykanoush restaurant.
Dili Villa Guest House: For an experience with more local flavor, stay with artist Ghazar Ghazarian and his wife Nune in their guest house. Includes rooms, friendly hosts, a peek into Ghazar's artist studio, and delicious Armenian cooking.
B&B Old Dili: For those on a budget, this guest house is a much more affordable option located right across the street from the Tufenkian complex, with large rooms, an beautiful outdoor area, private bathroom, and a working kitchen.