The Republic of Artsakh (commonly referred to by its previous name Nagorno-Karabakh) is an unrecognised republic lying between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The history of the area is long, complicated and brutal. I thoroughly recommend that anyone planning on visiting reads into the history of the area beforehand but the purpose of this article is not to go into the history but provide practical information to people who want to visit.
If you are interested in finding out more about the history and current political situation try these sources:
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict- Council of Foreign Relations
Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War - Thomas de Waal
Artsakh is only accessible by land through Armenia and is often included in tours from Yerevan and road trips through Armenia. The nature in the area is stunning and Artsakh offers some great hiking trails, natural attractions as well as cultural and historical things to see. We found it to be very safe, welcoming and easy to travel independently.
For more ideas about places to visit in Armenia read our Armenia itinerary planner.
Basic Facts about Artsakh
Currency: Armenian Dram (AMD)
Language: A dialect of Armenian is the most widely spoke language. Most people speak Russian but very little English.
Drinking Water: The water is safe to drink in most towns in Artsakh. Check with your hosts first.
WiFi: Many places will claim to have WiFi. It usually works enough to send an email or recieve messages but don't plan on uploading pictures or watching movies.
How to get to Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh)
There are direct Marshrutkas (minivans) from Yerevan to Stepanakert. They leave from Kilikia Bus Station from 7am and leave when full. We were told they only went every hour but one left 15 minutes before our one and the next one was already filling up.
The journey takes 6-7 hours and costs 500 AMD
It is also possible to hire a car or a take a tour from Yerevan. Both options are more expensive than public transport, with cars at about $30USD per day and tours varying depending on length. But with limited time or if you’re looking for convenience these options can work.
Hitchhiking in Armenia is also incredibly easy so if you’re looking for a cheap way to travel and meet some locals get out your thumb! There is plenty of local traffic heading to Stepanakert.
Getting a visa for Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh
You can apply for a visa in advance in Yerevan but it’s not necessary. When you cross the Armenia/Artsakh border you will be asked for your passport, how long you plan to stay and if you have a place to stay in Stepanakert. Don’t worry if you don’t they just give you an address of a possible place to stay (which turned out to be quite nice). They also give you the address of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stepankert and wave you on. The guards we encountered were very relaxed, friendly and spoke good English. The process took less than five minutes.
Once you’re in Stepanakert you have 3 days to get your visa from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which is here. You need to fill out a basic form and wait about 10 minutes. It costs 3000 AMD per person and your visa will be issued on a separate piece of paper so you don’t need to worry about having it in your passport.
You will also be given a registration paper (one paper per group/couple) which they tell you to carry around with you at all times. We forgot ours most days and were never asked for it but it best to have it with you just in case.
We were in and out in 20 minutes, very friendly staff and they spoke decent English. All in all, one of the more pleasant visa experiences we’ve had.
Places to visit in Artsakh
The capital city of Artsakh was not what we were expecting at all. The main street and some of the surrounding buildings have been recently renovated and fashion boutiques, up-market hotels and cafes slowly give way to derelict buildings and empty lots as you walk further from the centre.
The main streets and squares are busy with people shopping, chatting and watching children dash around on scooters. There’s a good selection of bars and restaurants, a museum and even some street art to be found. A day is enough time to explore the sights of Stepanakert but if you have your own transport you could base yourself here and take day trips.
Things to see and do in Stepanakert
-Visit the famous ‘We are Our Mountains’ monument. You will no doubt have seen this everywhere that mentions Artsakh. It’s a short walk from the city centre and lighting is best in the morning.
-Visit the Stepanakert History Museum
-Wander the main boulevard and people watch
Where to eat in Stepanakert
Where to stay in Stepanakert
We took the advice of the border guards and checked in to the guesthouse they recommended. We paid 7000 AMD for two people in a dorm room (with no other people). They also had a private room for 10,000 AMD. The owner spoke a little English and was very sweet and helpful. It’s located here.
It’s not very easy to book properties online in Artsakh so it’s best just to turn up. If you wish to book in advance you will need to contact a tourist agency in Yerevan. Here is the phone number for the place we stayed: (+374)097790199
Shushi is a small town about 12km from Stepanakert. It has been through a lot of conflict and as a result the population has been greatly diminished. Nevertheless, the town is very sweet and there is plenty of history and nature to discover. Shushi is museum capital and you can find five different museums with a 20 minute walk. The town also has ancient walls and a short walk takes you to a viewpoint with incredible views down the Hunot Canyon.
Things to do and see in Shushi
-See the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral
- Visit a museum (or three). You can choose from the Money Museum, Carpet Museum, Art Museum, History Museum and Geology Museum. They are all we laid out and have English speaking guides. We particularly enjoyed the History Museum which was incredibly interesting. Entrance ranges from free to 250 AMD.
-See the Yukhari Govhar Agha mosque. This was being restored while we were there but was due to be completed later in 2018.
-Walk to the viewpoint over the gorge which is located here
Where to eat in Shushi
Breakfast is usually served at your hotel or guesthouse. For lunch or dinner head to restaurant Old Shushi. They have friendly service, delicious food and a great bookshelf. It’s located above the tourism office and if they need help translating the staff can pop up to help!
Where to stay in Shushi
We had a really comfortable stay at Hotel Shushi. Large double rooms with a living area and balcony with gorgeous views of the cathedral. We paid 6000 AMD per person including a great breakfast.
How to get to Shushi
From Stepanakert there are several ways to get to Shushi which is about 12km away. A taxi will cost around 2500 AMD or there is a bus which goes approximately every 30 minutes from the Stepanakert bus station. The journey takes around 20 minutes and a bus ticket costs 200 AMD.
For those feeling a little more adventurous there is a hiking trail between the two towns. It takes around 5 hours to reach Shushi and is exposed in lots of places so if you do decide to do it during summer months make sure you bring plenty of water and wear sunscreen! There is a river around halfway which makes a nice stop for a dip.
We didn’t visit Vank but this town is a good stop if you are heading north and back into Armenia via Lake Sevan. It is a small town famous for its ship hotel built by a Russian millionaire. There is not a lot to do in the town so it can be done as a day trip from Stepanakert or on the way out of Artsakh if you have your own car.
Things to see and do in Vank
-See The Eclectic Hotel shaped like a ship
-Vist the Gandzasar Monastery
Where to stay in Vank
Besides the famous hotel (which is expensive) there are not many options in Vank. Perhaps if you ask around you might find a ‘guesthouse’ but in general it’s best to head back to Stepanakert or hitchhike towards Armenia.
How to get to Vank
There are two marshrutkas per day running from the Stepanakert bus station. I’ve read that they go at 9am and 4pm but it’s best to check this a day in advance to avoid missing them. The journey takes just over an hour and should cost 600 AMD.
Other places to see in Artsakh
Besides these towns there are some monasteries and natural attractions scattered throughout the area. If you have your own vehicle you spend a couple of days roadtripping, camping or staying with locals in some of these areas. Artsakh has a very well organised tourism board who have outlined some possible routes, listed the attractions to see and how to get there and put it all on a fancy interactive map. So I’ll hand it over to them for more info! Click here to check it out.
If you’re a hiking enthusiast, Artsakh has a lot to offer. In 2017 a 500km long hiking trail was marked out stretching the length of the region. The Janapar trail allows you to trek between small villages and see all the beautiful views this area has to offer. It’s possible to do part of the trek from as little as a day hike. The route is designed so that you don’t need a tent and can stay with local families along the way. You can read more detailed information here.