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When tourists come to Yerevan, they seem to have a common sightseeing checklist, and at the top of that list is usually the famous Republic Square (formerly Lenin Square). Sure, it's a lovely spot if you want to photograph the "singing" fountains, see a few government buildings, and visit the State History Museum and National Art Gallery. But in my opinion, Republic Square has very little to offer those who wish to experience the 'real' Yerevan and its vivacious inhabitants. For this, one must go to Freedom Square, the asphalt-covered, statue-bedecked space behind the Yerevan Opera House, and its adjoining parks. It may not be as picturesque as Republic Square, but here is the place to discover the living, beating heart of this city.
Throughout the year, Freedom Square is popular meeting point for people of all ages. It draws families and young children with its variety of inexpensive rides and attractions: kiddie cars, small carousels, bungee trampolines, bounce houses, and super slides. Teens come here to hang out and socialize, and some come to ride their bikes, in-line skates, and practice skateboarding tricks in an area safely away from traffic. The square often hosts live entertainment like school bands, dance troupes, and local musical talent, and you'll always find vendors selling toys, balloons, flowers, and snacks like popcorn and cotton candy. It all creates an energetic yet dreamy rhythm for couples walking hand-in-hand and grandparents observing from the park benches. When the weather becomes consistently warm beginning in late spring, the laughter and music of the Armenian people fill the air in Freedom Square late into the breezy summer nights.
Actually, Freedom Square and the Opera House form only the central hub of Yerevan's vibrant cafe culture. Leading outward from this hub are the spokes that keep the nightlife rolling into the early morning hours. Northward to the Cascade, down Northern Avenue to Republic Square, to the east on Teryan, Tumanyan, and Sayat-Nova, and westward along Baghramyan to Lovers' Park, the streets are lined with myriad cafes, restaurants, discotheques, karaoke bars, and nightclubs. The city is compact enough to walk wherever you want to go, and boy, do Yerevan people love to walk! On many Friday and Saturday nights it can be a challenge to navigate the foot traffic on some sidewalks as scores of young people, dressed to impress, make their way to the trendiest club parties and cafes, where they will gossip, smoke, dance, drink, and send text messages to their friends for hours. Your own thoughts can be drowned out by the sounds of sputtering marshrutkas, loaded beyond capacity with eager passengers; taxis blaring trashy European, Russian, and Middle Eastern pop music, shuttling revelers from place to place; and the frustrated drivers of both honking and shouting angrily at one another. But when the sun comes up, the streets are quiet...at least until lunchtime. Then the cafes open for business again, and city-dwellers begin to trickle in for their cups of hot soorch or maybe a bottle of Coke or orange Fanta -- served cold, but never with ice. Children and their overprotective grandmothers swarm the playgrounds; students and travelers meet for friendly discussions under the shade in the green parks and gardens surrounding Freedom Square; tourists and art-lovers browse the selection at the nearby painters' vernissage. And when the sun descends on Freedom Square, the party starts all over again.
Although I have thus far described typical scenes in and around Freedom Square, I should not forget to mention that this place represents much more than fun and games. It is an important site for rallies and demonstrations, including the protests following the 2008 presidential election that made international headlines three years ago. Following those events, Freedom Square was off-limits to protesters due to the construction of an underground parking area; as the third anniversary of the 2008 protests approaches, the Armenian government, undoubtedly shaken by the success of the recent political revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, has again restricted opposition party activists' access to Freedom Square, claiming that it will be the location of month-long, unspecified cultural festivities. Now that this important gathering point is no longer a place for freedom of speech, freedom of thought, or freedom of peaceful assembly, its name seems like a cruel irony.
For more info on these current events, see
Each Sunday, if the weather permits, we like to take a family outing to Freedom Square. Nathan rides his tricycle in the open space, and we all enjoy a little fresh air.
In this clip, Nathan rides up and down a paved ramp behind the Opera House.
So whenever tourists ask us what not to miss in Yerevan, we suggest that they start in Republic Square to understand a bit of Yerevan's past, but that they should then stroll up Northern Avenue toward the Opera and spend some time in Freedom Square, in order to witness and participate in Yerevan's present ...and maybe catch a glimpse of its future.