Georgia might not be top of your bucket list destinations right now – but it should be.
Mark my words – Georgia (and Slovenia) will be among the top destinations in Europe in years to come for outdoor lovers.
So why should you visit Georgia? It’s affordable, safe, possesses tons of history and mountains and oh my gosh, the food! And I can’t forget about the Georgian wine.
But the time to go is now – before Georgia’s popularity soars and you’re swimming in a sea of people when you just want some to enjoy some serenity in the mountains.
Where is Georgia?
First of all, where is Georgia? No, I’m not talking about the American state – I’m talking about the country. Georgia is classed as a transcontinental country and it sits between Europe and Asia – but you’ll feel it has more of a European feel to it than Asian.
Georgia was once part of the USSR and is located south of Russia, across the Black Sea from Bulgaria, and also borders Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
When To Go?
The best time of year to go to Georgia is between May and September. This is the peak season to enjoy Georgia’s mountain areas – one of the country’s key attractions.
July and August are the best months for hiking, when snow has melted in the high mountains.
Be aware that while the summer months are the best time to visit, the weather is humid and you may experience thunderstorms most afternoons.
In the mountain areas, anything can happen in the space of a couple of hours. Be prepared for rain, sun, snow and hail and make sure you have warm and wet weather gear on your packing list.
What to See And Do
Read on for my ultimate guide to Georgia to discover what to see and do.
If you’re coming by air, your arrival into Georgia will either be in Tbilisi (Georgia’s capital) or Kutaisi (Georgia’s former capital). Increasingly budget airlines are flying into Kutaisi Airport from many European destinations. You can get to Tbilisi from Kutaisi in 3-4 hours by marshrutka (mini bus).
You can also reach Georgia overland by road from Armenia, or by marshrutka or a night train from Azerbaijan.
Tbilisi is one of those cities that will grow on you the more time you spend in it. All roads seem to lead to Tbilisi, and you’ll also find yourself coming in and out of the capital after visiting other parts of the country.
Tbilisi is a great city to wander, but the main sights can be visited in two full days. Sights include the Old Town, the Narikala Fortress and taking a dip in one of the sulphur bathhouses.
You can walk up from the Old Town to the fortress via a steep hill, go exploring along the ramparts and check out the views. There’s also a cable car up to the fortress.
From the fortress, head down the hill and roam aimlessly through the less touristy part of the Old Town past rose gardens with a view and character filled houses.
The sulphur bathhouses are located below the fortress. Prices and standards vary so do your research to find the best fit for your thermal bath experience.
Factor in some time to roam the markets located sporadically across the city selling everything from roses to paintings. If you’re after clothes, the underground walkway leading to the central train station is overflowing with clothing stalls.
Other things to do in Tbilisi is relax in the gardens of a café with a coffee, or try some traditional Georgian food such as khachapuri (bread filled with a heavenly butter, cheese and egg mix) , and khinkali (dumplings).
Transport in Tbilisi
Tbilisi is serviced by a great metro system – signs are in Georgian and English and it’s easy to use.
To use the metro (and local buses), first you need to buy a reloadable card for 2 GEL ($0.80 USD)and load some money on. You can do this easily at the counters at the entrance to the metro stations. The staff probably won’t speak English, but just stand around looking slightly confused like I did and I’m sure of one of the friendly locals will gladly you out. Each trip costs only 0.50 GEL ($0.20 USD) no matter the distance.
The central train station is located adjacent to the Station Square metro station and has connections to destinations across Georgia and also to Azerbaijan.
Marshrutkas to most touristy destinations across Georgia leave from the bus station outside the Didube metro station. From here, you can get to Mtskheta, Borjomi, Mestia, Kazbegi, Kutaisi and Batumi. To get to Sighnaghi, you need to go to the bus station next to the Isani metro station.
Mini vans to Armenia’s capital of Yerevan leave from outside the Avalabari metro station. They leave every couple of hours from 9am.
Mtskheta and the Jvari Monastery
Only a 30-minute drive from Tbilisi is the town of Mtskheta – Georgia’s former capital.
Mtskheta is a compact but pretty town and hosts the impressive Svetitskhoveli Cathedral at it’s centre. The cathedral dates back to medieval times and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take a look inside and you’ll be amazed by the beautiful frescos.
Towering above Mtskheta, you can’t miss the 6th century Jvari Monastery atop a hill. You can get here from Mtskheta by taxi. The monastery isn’t as spectacular as the cathedral below, but the views down to Mtskheta are worth the trip.
Independent travellers can get to Mtskheta from Tbilisi by marshrutka for 1 lari ($0.40 USD).
Many tour agencies in Tbilisi also offer tours out to Mtskheta and the monastery. They also usually include a visit to the town of Gori (Stalin’s birthplace) and the Uplistsikhe caves.
Mestia is one of Georgia’s premier hiking destinations and you’ll find every other traveller will ask you if you’re going there. It’s the MUST DO destination in Georgia.
There’s a couple of options to reach Mestia. You can take an overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi and then a marshrutka to Mestia, or take the marshrutka all the way to Mestia.
My recommendation is the marshrutka. Yes it takes around 9-10 hours but there are breaks in between. While you think the night train might be a good idea at the time (a bed and transport for $10 AUD) – I stepped off the train exhausted. You can’t open the windows inside the sleeping compartments so it’s stifling hot; it feels like you’re in a washing machine; breakdowns are likely; and you will either have a rowdy group of locals or snorers to contend with.
But trust me – whatever way you choose to get there – seeing Mestia is well worth the journey.
On the approach to Mestia, you’ll soon spot the beautiful Caucasus Mountains that attracts locals and tourists alike for hiking and skiing.
June to September is the best time for hiking, but is also possible to hike at lower altitudes during the shoulder months.
The most popular hikes are to the Chalaadi Glacier, Koruldi Lakes and the 4-day trek from Mestia to Ushguli. Chat to the friendly staff at the Tourist Information Centre in Mestia to find out your trekking options and snow conditions.
Personally, I don’t recommend the hike to the Chalaadi Glacier as there are way better hikes in the area.
I did the day hike to Koruldi Lakes and the first day of the 4-day trek from Mestia to Ushguli.
The hike to Koruldi Lakes is spectacular. You start from the centre of town – and it’s a steep, steady push up the mountain. You get great views of the surrounding mountains along the entire hike, especially at a viewing platform about halfway up.
The hike takes about three hours each way.
Instead of doing the 4-day trek to Ushguli, I ended up with a variation of it which extended over two days. The first day of the hike went to Chvabiani – following the first day of the famous trek. I slept at Maia’s Guesthouse, and then hiked back to Mestia via the villages of Tsvirmi and Ieli. Over the two days, I hiked a whopping 50km!
Along the way, you get great views of the mountains, walk along a river, see daily life in rural villages, and pass lots of Svaneti fortified towers. The famous Svaneti towers date back to the 12th century, and were once used by villagers to protect themselves against invaders.
You’ll also get to enjoy amazing Georgian hospitality and food, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to go inside a tower located in the backyard of your guesthouse.
From Mestia, you can choose to head straight back to Tbilisi, onto the Black Sea resort town of Batumi, or even Borjomi – home of the unique salty mineral water of the same name.
If you’re wanting more hiking, head over to Borjomi. There’s several lookouts scattered around the city where you can get a great view of the town and breathe in some mountain air.
From Borjomi, make sure you also head to Vardzia to check out the 12th century cave monastery site carved into Erusheti Mountain.
It’s possible to take marshrutkas to Vardzia from Akhalisitke – which also has a cool, recently renovated fortress.
Entrance to Vardzia is 8 GEL ($3.20 USD) and the cost to enter the Akhalisitke fortress is 6 GEL ($2.40 USD).
You can also reach Vardzia and Borjomi on a day tour from Tbilisi.
If you’re craving more mountains after Mestia, then head to Kazbegi, located on the east side of Georgia.
Base yourself in the town of Kazbegi (also known as Stepmansminda) to enjoy views of 5,047 metre Mt Kazbek, the Gergeti Trinity Church and head up to the base of the Gergeti Glacier.
You can start the hike to the Gergeti Glacier from the centre of Kazbegi and it takes about 9 hours return.
It’s a steady uphill slog to the base of the glacier via the 14th century Gergeti Trinity Church. Take a break at the church and have a look inside. Women need to wear a skirt to go inside but you can borrow one at the entrance. Entrance is free.
From the church, head straight ahead and follow the footpad along, steadily gaining altitude.
Be prepared for trekking across snow, experiencing very cold and windy temperatures, and getting caught in hailstorms and white outs from low clouds and fog during this hike. Essentially, be prepared for every type of weather – so that means bring warm and wet weather gear.
Sadly I didn’t quite make it to the glacier due to an intense white out – but I did get this view.
The drive from Tbilisi to Kazbegi takes about three hours. You can catch a marshrutka for 10 GEL ($4 USD) or if you’re in a group of three or more, you may be also able to negotiate a more comfortable ride in a taxi for also for 10 GEL per person.
Other areas near Kazbegi worth seeing include the Truso and Juta valleys.
To get to these areas from Kazbegi, you can take a tour, hail a taxi or hitchhike.
If you’re travelling solo, your best option is to head out on a tour for 30 GEL ($12 USD) return. There’s a couple of agencies in Kazbegi that offer up tours to these nearby valleys.
If you’re in a group of three or four, it’s cheaper to get a taxi. It will cost you anywhere between 60-100 GEL ($24-40 USD) return per car depending on your bargaining skills. Make sure you agree on the return price and duration of your hike (at least six hours, perhaps seven if you don’t enjoy blistering paces).
Truso Valley is located south of Kazbegi and access is from the village of Kvemro Okrokana. This is where taxis will drop you off.
Photo by Andrew Moffatt Instagram: @regulartravel
The hike takes you through the Truso Valley along a dirt road. You pass a delicious mineral water spring featuring beautiful mineral rock formations. You will then pass a not-delicious but equally beautiful mineral water river that is very high in iron and tastes metallic. You’ll end at the ruins of an old fort on the border of the disputed region of South Ossetia.
There are only two places for water on this trip, so make sure to pack at least 1.5L and take a packed lunch. It is not a strenuous hike, but there’s no shade.
Make sure at least one of your hiking party takes a passport with them or the border patrol may not let you visit the fort to take photos. You’re not allowed to take photos in the direction of the disputed territory of South Ossetia.
Access to Juta is the same price as Truso, but it’s a bit of a longer and bumpier ride. You’ll drive through the Sno Valley, and get superb mountain and waterfall views on your way.
The hike is well marked and easy to follow. Continue past the spa resort you get dropped at, and then climb up the steep hill next to you. Twenty sweaty minutes later you will get to a peak sitting in the Juta Valley, and then one more hill and you arrive at a set of lodges.
You can stop at any one of the five lodges for a drink, a seat or a swing in a hammock, before continuing on uphill to a trio of lakes.
Along the way, you’ll see countless waterfalls, make a couple of river crossings, and see a small, crystal clear glacial lake.
All up the hike is a moderately difficult six-hour return hike – but budget extra time for a kachapuri and some hammock time.
Sighnaghi and the wine region
You can’t go to Georgia and not sample the wine. Georgia is so proud of its wine (and so they should be) you even get wine tastings in supermarkets to help you choose the right one for you.
Georgia has many wine regions – but the best one to visit is around the Telavi area.
You may also want to visit nearby Sighnaghi – which features a compact but beautiful old town.
The best way to see the wine region is on a tour. All tour agencies in Tbilisi offer wine tours. It’s also possible to get to Sighnaghi by marshrutka from the Isani metro station.