Georgia! (That is, the country, not the U.S. state). This stunner of a place is one of my favourite recent travel discoveries. Right on the border of two continents, Georgia combines a European vibe with distinct Asian touches. It’s a country with a long history, incredible architecture and awe-inspiring natural beauty. If you haven’t yet checked out my travel guide to Tbilisi, Georgia’s vibrant capital city, make sure you do. Not only is Tbilisi a destination in its own right – you could easily spend 5 days wandering around the city – it also forms a great base for exploring some of the rest of the country. Improved road connections mean that parts of Georgia can now be visited in a day from Tbilisi. Having recently spent 10 days in the country, these are 9 of best day trips from Tbilisi (I think…):
Mtskheta not only stands out for the number of consecutive consonants in its name, but also for the key role it has played in Georgian history. Once the capital of the then Kingdom of Iberia, this city is still considered to be the spiritual heartland of the country. Mtskheta is small and given its proximity to Tbilisi, it can be visited in a morning or afternoon.
At the centre of the town is the 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. Surrounded by a medieval defence wall, it is said to be the burial site of Christ’s robe (although it’s not the only place to claim this). As in every sacred place in Georgia, make sure you’re dressed modestly when entering the church. That includes a head scarf and long dress for women (long trousers are often tolerated).
Just outside the town, on top of a mountain, lies Jvari Monastery. For many Georgians this is a very special place. Legend has it that Saint Nino – a female preacher who brought Christianity to Georgia in the 4th century – erected a wooden cross on this site that worked miracles. The current monastery was built in the 6th century and remains an important pilgrimage destination to this day. It’s a serene place, not least because of the panorama – from the monastery you’ll have incredible views of the valley and the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. A beautiful spot for sunrise or sunset.
When in Mtskheta make sure to try lobio. It’s a typical local dish that consists of red beans and sauce prepared and served in a clay pot. Old town Mtskheta is lined with restaurants and bars that serve lobio.
How to get there:
From central Tbilisi it’s about a 30-minute drive to Mtskheta. If you don’t have a car yourself you can get a taxi. The best option is to use taxi app Bolt, which sets a fixed price for the ride, normally around 25 Lari one way. Alternatively, public minibuses (marshrutkas) depart from the chaotic Didube bus station in Tbilisi to Mtskheta every 10-15 minutes and a one-way ticket only costs a few Lari. From Mtskheta’s main square you can take a taxi to Jvari Monastery, which is about a 15-minute drive. You can negotiate with the driver to wait for you at the monastery and drive you back to Tbilisi. The total fare for this should be 30-40 Lari.
Georgia is rich in cultural and in natural scenery. Nowhere do these two come together as beautifully as in Kazbegi. Up in the Caucasus Mountains, close to the border with Russia, Kazbegi is one of a kind. A visit to this mesmerising area should be high up on your list when planning a trip to Georgia. For me, this was one of the highlights of my Georgian holiday.
A new road – the Georgian Military Highway – leading up to this mountainous region means you can now reach it within a 3-4-hour drive from Tbilisi. The journey itself is worth the trip. You’ll pass incredible natural scenery, as well as a couple of interesting cultural sights. These include mountain villages, dams and reservoirs and the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument (whatever may be left of that friendship today…).
Cherry on the cake is the breath-taking Holy Trinity Church near the village of Gergeti. Also known as Gergeti Trinity Church, this 14th century orthodox church is located on top of a mountain, at an altitude of nearly 2,200 meters. The snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus Mountains form its incredible backdrop. The church lies right underneath Mount Kazbek, which is the third highest peak in the Caucasus. Since December 2018 there’s a road that leads up to Gergeti Trinity Church and shuttle busses can drive you up and down for 10-15 Lari (return). However, if you have the time and energy, you might want to do the 1.5 hour hike up the mountain.
A day is arguably not enough to fully enjoy the beauty of Kazbegi, and if you decide to stay the night there are plenty of hotel options in the nearby village of Stepantsminda, including a branch of the fancy Rooms Hotel. This is also the place to try the famous Georgian kinkhali dumplings, as they originate from this part of the country.
How to get there:
The Georgians are reckless drivers, so if you’re not keen on getting behind the steering wheel yourself you can join a group tour to Kazbegi from Tbilisi. It’s a full-day tour that lasts about 14 hours, but if you’re short on time or don’t have a car, it’s a good option. The price per person for such tours is around €25 (including transportation and guide). On a budget? Take a marshrutka from Tbilisi’s Didube bus station. They run regularly and cost as little as 10-15 Lari one way, taking up to 4 hours to get to Stepantsminda. In terms of comfort, Georgian public minibuses are often hit-or-miss. Marshrutkas usually don’t depart until they’re full and chances are you will travel in a jampacked ancient van. However, if you’re lucky, you may end up in a more modern bus where you can actually move your legs.
En route to Kazbegi you will pass the beautiful ancient fortress of Ananuri. If you don’t have time to travel all the way up to Kazbegi, a visit to this Ananuri is a nice alternative. Located on the shores of the Aragvi river, Ananuri is a fascinating place. No one really knows when exactly the castle complex was built, but certain is that it was the seat of a feudal dynasty from the 13th century onwards. The fortress consists of two castles as well as two churches, with views over the turquoise Aragvi river. As almost everywhere in Georgia, the site can be visited for free. However (also like almost everywhere in Georgia), not all parts of the fortress are easily accessible and there’s little to no information available. That doesn’t make the scenery here any less stunning, though.
How to get there:
Most organised tours to Kazbegi stop at Ananuri. Some marshrutkas from Tbilisi’s Didube bus station stop at Ananuri, but hailing down a bus on the way back is trickier. If you’re not joining a tour, it’s hence better to visit by Ananuri by car or taxi. From Tbilisi it’s 72 kilometres – about a 1-hour drive.
Did you know that Georgia is the oldest wine producing region in the world? To be more precise, the origins of (Georgian) wine can be traced back to the southeastern part of the country. The region of Kakheti has been producing wine for more than 8,000 years! Traditionally, the fermentation process of Georgian wine takes place in giant clay barrels that are buried underneath the ground. Every other family in Kakheti still produces their own wine in this way today. Most commercial Georgian wine, though, is nowadays made using the classical European method, with the fermentation happening in oak or metal barrels. If you like wine, then Kakheti has to be on your Georgian itinerary. There are dozens of wine houses in the region that welcome visitors and organise tastings. One of the most acclaimed wine varieties is Saperavi. Having done my fair share of tasting (as part of my investigative blogging, *ahum*), I can attest Saperavi is indeed a very nice wine.
Georgian wine may not be that well known in Western Europe, but it’s hugely popular in former Soviet countries. So, don’t expect to have Kakheti to yourself. Especially around harvesting time (October) or the tourist season (June-July and September), it can get very, very busy here, especially with Russians.
Even if you’re not a wine drinker, a trip to Kakheti makes for a great excursion. Apart from the glowing landscapes, there are a couple of quiant towns and villages in the area. Most famous is Sighnaghi. Also known as the City of Love (I thought Paris had already claimed that title?), this pretty little town is really quite… lovely. With its cobblestone streets, orange rooftop tiles and church towers overlooking the valley you’d almost think you’re in Tuscany. Sighnaghi also stands out for its huuuge defence wall. With a length of 5 kilometres and 23 towers, it’s one of the longest defence walls that still exist in the world today.
How to get there:
Although you might want to take your time to explore Kakheti, it is perfectly doable to visit this area in a day from Tbilisi. If you don’t have your own car, there are plenty of organised tours from Tbilisi to Kakheti. Many of these make a stop in Sighnaghi, several wineries as well as at Bodbe Monastery, a centuries old monastery complex that is the final resting place of Saint Nino. Marshrutkas to Sighnaghi depart from Samgori bus station in Tbilisi every 2 hours and the 2-hour journey costs approximately 6 Lari. From Sighnaghi you could take a taxi to some of the nearby landmarks or wineries.
If you can’t get enough of beautiful ancient monasteries, then a trip to Davit Gareja could be right up your street. This monastic complex of consists of hundreds of cells, churches and living quarters carved into the rocks hundreds of years ago. Personally, I didn’t have enough time to visit Davit Gareja, but I’ve heard great stories about it. It is part of Kakheti, but lies in a different corner of the region, close to the border with Azerbaijan. Although border tensions between Georgia and Azerbaijan have recently flared up, the situation is currently stable and calm.
How to get there:
Located at 70 kilometres from Tbilisi, you can easily visit Davit Gareja in a day. If you don’t have your own car, the easiest option is to get on the Gareji Line bus. This bus departs daily at 11am from Pushkin Park in Tbilisi, arrives at Davit Gareja around 13:45 and returns again at 16:30. Although it’s not a guided tour, the bus service is targeted at tourists, with tickets costing 25 Lari. There are also proper guided tours, many of which tend to be considerably pricier.
Let’s be honest: Gori is not a particularly beautiful city. It’s feels messy, rundown and uninspiring, especially compared to Tbilisi. But history and politics geeks will be intrigued by Gori, mainly for two reasons. One: it’s the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, the ruthless former USSR dictator. There is still a Soviet-era museum in town dedicated to him. Don’t expect any objective storytelling though. The museum hasn’t changed since the days of the USSR and there’s little to no mention of the horrific crimes against humanity committed by the Stalin regime. Rather (and as admitted by our English tour guide), the place should be seen as a ‘museum in a museum’, giving a glimpse of what a Soviet-era visitors experienced when they came to this institution.
The second reason why Gori is a place of interest is because of its more recent history. In 2008, the city became one of the frontlines in the Russo-Georgian war. Close to the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia, Gori turned into a ghost town as its residents fled the city or stayed indoors. In August 2008, the Russians dropped cluster bombs on the city, killing dozens of civilians as well as a Dutch journalist. Walking around Gori today there is little to remind you of the conflict. But every now and then you stumble upon signs of its recent troubled past. Holes left by cluster bombs and thought-provoking street art are reminders of how fragile peace in this region is.
Apart from a hilltop castle, a neoclassical city hall and a few recently renovated (but deserted) streets, there are few other landmarks in Gori. Neither are there many restaurants or coffeeshops. If you’re looking for decent coffee and food, check out Café Champs-Elysees on Gori’s main drag, the Stalin Avenue (what other name would you expect…?).
How to get there:
From Didube bus station in Tbilisi, marshrutkas leave for Gori at least every 30 minutes. A one-way ticket costs around 4 Lari for the 1-hour ride. There’s also a train service from Tbilisi’s main train station. Most Georgian trains date back to the Soviet-era, but as of late-2018 brand new fast European trains have started running on the Tbilisi-Gori-Batumi line. Schedules and ticket fares can be found here.
As far as Soviet spa retreats go, Borjomi is rather nice. Situated in a narrow valley surrounded by green mountains, rivers and waterfalls, it’s a great base for exploring the natural beauty of this area. Borjomi is famous throughout the former USSR for its thermal water. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it kind of water. It has an exceptionally strong taste (for water): it’s slightly salty and iron-y. I for one, am not a great fan. But many other visitors were filling bottle after bottle at the public fountain in the town’s thermal park. Probably not so much for its taste, but rather for its supposedly healing properties.
Borjomi itself has regained some of its former glory since its Soviet heydays. Many buildings have been restored and although it’s touristy, the area feels tranquil and peaceful (apart from the odd nightlife party). It’s a nice place for a day or so, or for a stopover en route to Atsalthikhe and Vardzia. I stayed the night in Borjomi in the beautifully renovated (though a tad kitsch) Golden Tulip Hotel. The hotel has a wonderful spa with steam room, sauna and hot tub and in the morning there’s a very elaborate buffet breakfast. A perfect place for some down time.
How to get there:
Old Soviet trains run between Tbilisi and Borjomi and the journey takes about 5 hours. Much faster is a minibus from Tbilisi’s Didube station. The 3-hour trip costs approximately 7 Lari and buses depart every hour. If you’re travelling from Gori, there is a marshrutka to Borjomi at 12:40 and 16:10, which costs 5 Lari and takes 1.5 hours. The last marshrutka back from Borjomi to Tbilisi leaves around 7pm.
Don’t ask me how to pronounce this town’s name, because even after 10 days in Georgia I’m not much wiser when it comes to the Georgian language. What I did learn, though, is that Akhaltsikhe means ‘new castle’. A fitting name, because this small city close to the Turkish border is indeed home to a magnificent castle. Rabati Castle may not be so new anymore – its origins date back to the 9th century. It was entirely rebuilt by the Ottomans in the 1600s and 1700s. A major renovation a few years ago made the castle look almost like new again. Perhaps a bit too new according to some. And although I agree that parts of the complex look a bit too polished, it remains a beautiful place nevertheless. The different architectural styles make it one of the most photogenic castles in all of Georgia.
How to get there:
There are hourly marshrutkas from Tbilisi’s Didube station to Akhaltsikhe. A one-way trip takes 4 hours and costs around 8 Lari. However, you may want to combine your visit with a stopover in Borjomi, which is what I did. From Borjomi, there are a couple of marshrutkas a day to Akhaltsikhe. The journey takes 1 hour and costs 4 Lari. Alternatively, for around 120-150 Lari you could get a private taxi from Borjomi that takes you to Akhaltsikhe, Vardzia, nearby castles and back in 8-9 hours.
If you’ve been to Matera, southern Italy, then Vardzia might look familiar to you. Dug entirely in the rocks of steep gorge, this cave city is nothing short of spectacular. Vardzia is one of several cave towns in Georgia (others include Uplistsikhe), but it’s by far the most impressive.
Built in the 12th century as a royal complex by Queen Tamar (who used the title of ‘King’), Vardzia eventually grew into a monastic site of no fewer than 600 rooms. These included a chapel, rooms for monks, kitchens and wine cellars. After the place was raided by the Persians in 1558 it fell into decline. Later, an earthquake destroyed many of the facades built against the rocks.
Today, Vardzia is once more the home to a small group of Christian monks, who re-established themselves here in 1988. The cave city has been renovated and many of the rooms are accessible to the public. Unfortunately, there is little information in English, but you can spend hours climbing up and down the former city, wandering through the narrow tunnels and admiring the splendid views over the valley. Afterwards, go and get some lunch or dinner at the lovely restaurant down by the river. It may be a bit touristy, but the food is cheap and good and the restaurant has a wonderful, tranquil terrace by the Mtkvari river.
How to get there:
Given its rather isolated location, getting to Vardzia by public transportation is not easy, especially if you’d like to travel there and back in a day. There is a marshrutka from Akhaltsikhe at 12:20pm, which takes about 1.5 hours. Marshrutkas back from Vardzia to Akhaltsikhe depart at 13:00 and 15:00, giving you hardly any time to explore the area. I’d therefore recommend staying the night in Borjomi or Akhaltsikhe (the former offers nicer and more affordable accommodation) and arranging a private taxi from there. You’ll have more flexibility and can ask your driver to make a few photo stops or drop by at one of the historic fortresses en route. The scenery along the road between Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia is absolutely stunning – think canyons, rivers and forests. Having a private taxi means you’ll be less rushed and have more time to enjoy the views. After a night in Borjomi, my hotel there arranged a taxi for me and my friend which took us to Akhaltsikhe, Vardzia and back for 140 Lari (8-9 hours). Our taxi driver dropped us at the bus station in Borjomi in time for us to catch the marshrutka back to Tbilisi (the last minibus from Borjomi to Tbilisi leaves around 19:00). There are also organised day tours to Vardzia from Tbilisi, often in combination with Akhaltsikhe.
Feeling inspired? Georgia is waiting to be explored…