In recent months, Georgia has received a lot of hype from the travel community. While Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, is as beautifully stunning as it is chaotic, and its vineyards and winemaking are growing in notoriety, there is more to Georgia than its capital and wine. Having lived and traveled in Georgia for almost two years, here are my top picks for things to do and see in Georgia for those willing to venture away from Tbilisi and the vineyards.
BEST MOUNTAINS: GEORGIAN MILITARY HIGHWAY AND STEPANTSMINDA
The drive from Tbilisi north to Stepantsminda along the Georgian Military Highway can easily be considered one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Before reaching the mountains, be sure to stop in Mtskheta to see the Svetitskhoveli Church, where it is believed that Christ’s robe is buried, and Jvari Monastery, one of the oldest churches in Georgia that also offers a spectacular view of the valley below.
Next, drive to Ananuri and take in a unique Orthodox church complex perched upon the banks of the Zhinvali Reservoir. From there, continue north to the towering, grassy peaks of Guaduri and Stepantsminda. For the best views of the mountains, stop at the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument, and hike up to Gergeti Church. While jeeps are available to drive you from Stepantsminda up to Gergeti, the drive is not for those prone to motion sickness; the hike, while strenuous, is spectacular. If you are lucky, the clouds will lift long enough for you to catch a glimpse of Mount Kazbegi, the third tallest mountain in Georgia.
Getting To The Caucasus Mountains
It is possible to take in all of these sights on a day trip from Tbilisi (but it will be a long day). Renting a taxi for a day should cost approximately 150 lari ($75 USD), and is preferred over taking the local marshutkas (minibuses), as you will be able to stop whenever and wherever you like. While there are organized taxi services in Tbilisi, all it takes to be a taxi driver in Georgia is a car and a sign that says “taxi”. However, you should not expect taxi drivers to speak much English. Enlist the help of a bilingual local to find a driver with a decent car that is willing to make the trip. By doing this, you will be supporting a local family and you might even come away with a new friend.
Alternatively, marshutkas travel all over the country, to both major cities and small villages. Marshutkas to Ananuri/Guaduari/Kazbegi/Stepantsminda depart hourly from Didube metro station. To get off the marshutka, shout “gaacharet” at the driver and they will stop. Pay the driver, see your sights, and then wait by the side of the road to flag down the next marshutka heading north.
Marshutkas to Mtskheta also depart from Didube metro station, but they drive a different route, so if you choose to travel by marshutka you will have to see Mtskheta as a separate half-day trip from Tbilisi. Marshutkas from Stepantsminda back to Tbilisi also depart hourly from the main town square. Given the extra time involved in using marshutkas, I recommend staying overnight in Stepantsminda at a local guesthouse, such as Blue Guesthouse, which is run by a local woman named Nino.
A quick note about church etiquette: in order to enter an Orthodox church, men must be wearing long pants and women must be wearing dresses/skirts and a headscarf. At churches that receive a large number of tourists, wrap around skirts and scarves are provided. Men who are wearing shorts are also expected to don a wrap around skirt to enter the churches.
BEST CHURCH: GELATI MONASTERY
If you enjoy history and exploring old churches, Georgia is the country for you. While many of the Georgian Orthodox churches look quite similar, one church stands out from the crowd: Gelati Monastery. The outside of this church is unremarkable, but it is the interior of Gelati that makes it unique.
While the frescoes inside many Georgian Orthodox churches were destroyed by the Soviets, the painted frescoes of Gelati remain intact. Built by King David the Builder in the 12th century, these ancient paintings are a sight for lovers of history and art alike. Additionally, the church serves as King David’s final resting place.
Getting To Gelati Monastery
Marshutkas to Kutaisi (Georgia’s second largest city), depart hourly from Didube metro station in Tbilisi. The trip will take approximately 4 hours. From there, hire a taxi to take you to Gelati Monastery. The trip is quite short (about 15 minutes one way), so the round trip should from Kutaisi, including having the driver wait for you at Gelati, should cost about 20 lari ($10 USD). If you are keen to see more churches, you can likely ask the driver to stop at Motsameta Monastery and Bagrati Cathedral for no extra cost.
BEST PLACE TO CONNECT WITH HISTORY: MESTIA
Georgia is teeming with evidence of its several thousand-year-old history as a nation. But nowhere is the ancientness of the country quite as apparent as in Mestia. Remaining relatively untouched throughout Georgia’s war-torn history, Mestia has managed to retain both its beauty and its unique language and culture.
Climb a koshki (a stone tower that was used for protection and defence), examine ancient relics at the Museum of History and Ethnography, or take a day trip to Ushguli, one of the most remote villages in Georgia. Embrace the ancientness of Mestia and let the peacefulness of the village seep into your bones. As a bonus, you’ll get to experience more views of Georgia’s spectacular Caucasus Mountains.
Getting To Mestia
The quickest way to get to Mestia is to fly. Vanilla Sky flies from Tbilisi to Mestia a few times per week at a cost of approximately $65 USD round trip, with a one-way flight taking less than an hour. However, be prepared for your flight to be cancelled if the weather is poor. If this happens, the airline will refund your money.
The alternative to flying is to take the Marshutka (the trip takes 9-10 hours). Marshutkas depart daily from Station Square in Tbilisi at around 6:00 am, and Marshutkas back to Tbilisi depart daily from Mestia around 8:00 am.
BEST BEACH: UREKI
In addition to stunning mountain views, Georgia is known for its beaches along the Black Sea coast. While Batumi has become a popular seaside destination, complete with beaches, amazing food and the best dolphin show I have ever seen, my recommendation for beach-lovers is to skip Batumi and head north to Ureki.
A popular spot for Georgian locals, Ureki is one of the few places along the Black Sea coast with a sandy rather than the rocky beach. Interestingly, iron in the sand causes it to be both black and magnetic. In addition to a swimsuit, towel and beach umbrella, be sure to bring a magnet with you to allow your inner science-nerd to roam free along the beaches and waves of Ureki.
Getting To Ureki
To get to Ureki from Tbilisi, I recommend taking the train. The train stops right in Ureki. Alternatively, if you plan to also see Batumi (which is beyond Ureki), you can take the train there and then take a Marshutka up to Ureki form Batumi (one-way trip takes about an hour).
BEST DAY HIKE: ABUDELAURI LAKES
The hike to the Abudelauri Lakes is one of Georgia’s best-kept secrets (to the point where I’m almost reluctant to share it with the world). This day hike will take you through the mountains to three lakes of three different colors, known as the Green, Blue and White lakes, respectively. This hike is relatively easy, a great trail for hikers of all levels.
The only challenge is getting to the trailhead. A 4X4 vehicle is required to travel to the remote village of Roshka, where the trail starts. However, for those willing to make the journey, you will be rewarded with spectacular views that relatively few eyes have ever seen. This hike can be done as a day trip from Tbilisi.
Getting To Abudelauri Lakes
As indicated above, getting to the trailhead is a challenge. You could hire a taxi for the day for about 150 lari ($75 USD), but the 7 km treacherous stretch of road from the main highway to Roshka can be a challenge for cars with low clearance.
To find a 4X4 vehicle for hire, I recommend joining the Facebook group Georgian Wanderers. Here, you can post that you are looking to hire a 4X4 vehicle, and you are sure to get a response. The cost will be between 300-400 lari for the day. In addition, you can connect with other travelers in Georgia who might like to join you on your journey, thus lowering your car rental costs and providing you with the opportunity to make new friends.
BEST PLACE TO EXPERIENCE SOVIET-ERA GEORGIA: CHIATURA
Visiting Chiatura is like taking a trip back in time 30 years to Soviet-Era Georgia. Situated in a narrow valley, Chiatura is a town that developed and still revolves around the mining of manganese. To accommodate the movement of workers and goods from the bottom of the valley to the top and across the valley from one side to the other, a series of gondolas and lifts were built by the Soviets in the 1960s, many of which are still in operation today. For those adventurous enough to take a ride in one of the old, rusty gondolas, speaking kindly to the local operators can get you a free ride and unique travel experience to write home about.
Getting To Chiatura
Chiatura is an easy day trip from Tbilisi by taxi. The cost of hiring a taxi for the day will cost about 120 lari ($60 USD). If travelling by taxi, also ask the driver to stop at the Katskhi Column, which is about 10 km past Chiatura. The Katskhi Column is a pillar of rock with a small church on top of it. The monk who used to live up there passed away a few years ago, but it continues to be a holy site for Orthodox Georgians.
BEST CAVE: VARDZIA
In addition to mountains and beaches, Georgia has caves, of both the natural and man-made varieties. While I do recommend a trip to the natural wonder that is the Prometheus Cave, my vote for best cave goes to the ancient cave monastery of Vardzia.
Being one of three cave monasteries in the country, Vardzia is by far the largest and most spectacular. Visitors are given free rein to explore the 12th century cave complex that once housed hundreds of monks. A network of underground tunnels remains, as do several rooms that served as living quarters and a Georgian Orthodox church found inside one of the larger caves. This church remains functional today.
Getting To Vardzia
To get to Vardzia, you first need to get to the nearby city of Akhaltsikhe (literally translated, this means “new fortress”). Marshutkas depart several times per day from Didube metro station in Tbilisi. From Akhaltsikhe, marshutkas also go to Vardzia, which is about one hour outside of Akhaltsikhe. However, these marshutkas only depart a few times per day, and the last return marshutka from Vardzia departs in the early afternoon. Thus, to ensure flexibility, it is best to hire a taxi from Akhaltsikhe to take you to Vardzia, which will cost you approximately 50 lari ($25 USD) round trip.
I hope this article has shown you some of the great things to do in Georgia if you visit this amazing country!
We hope that this article has inspired you to visit Georgia. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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