Named as one of Lonely Planet’s top countries to visit in 2018 – Georgia is quickly becoming a must see destination for intrepid backpackers.
And there’s good reason why Georgia should be on your travel bucket list (and why you should visit now) – particularly if you love nature, wine and warm cheese filled bread.
You can hike through bright meadows past snow capped mountains, indulge in sweet red wine teamed with cheese filled katchapouri, feel humbled by awe inspiring monasteries, and soak in a sulphur bath.
Before you head off to Georgia for some hiking, history, wine and cheese, here’s 21 things you need to know before you go.
1. You will probably gain a couple of kilos
Beware of Georgian grandmothers – they love to feed you. Georgian meals are a feast set for a king filled with bread, cheese, soup, vegetables, dumplings and more cheese. Everything is so wonderfully delicious that you will be eating until you are fit to burst.
Servings are very generous, calorie loaded (and filling) in Georgia so beware at a restaurant – or you may find yourself with a lot of food leftover – and you’ll be rolling home.
Must try Georgian cuisine includes cheese filled khachapouri, khinkali (dumplings) and eggplants with walnuts.
2. It takes a long time to get anywhere
You’re on Georgian time now. The cheapest method of transport for budget travellers are mini buses all the ex-Soviet countries call marshrutkas. You can get almost anywhere in the country via these marshrutkas. From Tbilisi, marshrutkas service all major tourist destinations across Georgia including Kazbegi, Gori, Batumi, Borjomi, Mestia and Signaghi.
Marshrutkas run on a loose schedule but usually only leave when they’re full – which means you can be waiting from anywhere between 10 minutes to 30 minutes on average for your ride to leave.
The marshrutkas make stops along the way to drop off people (and pick any up if there’s any room) and usually make rest stops every 2-3 hours. Breaks will range from a 10 minute toilet break to a one-hour lunch break depending on the length of the journey.
3. Your car/bus/train has a good chance of breaking down
I don’t know if I was just unlucky, but while travelling through Georgia, two of the six marshrutka rides I took broke down. The first one suffered from an overheated radiator, while the other vehicle’s electric door broke meaning rope was needed to hold the door closed.
I also experienced a train breakdown and the radiator overheated in a shared taxi.
It was all part of the adventure of travelling in Georgia and it was always entertaining seeing how they fixed the problem before resuming the journey.
Expect something to go wrong – and if it doesn’t, count it as your lucky day.
4. Ladies – expect some proposals
If you’re a female tourist, don’t be surprised if you get marriage proposals. I got two on a train ride and another two on marshrutka rides.
They were harmless enough but undoubtedly it will happen to you too.
5. Georgia is a cash economy
Georgia is largely a cash economy and places that accept credit cards aren’t common. You can easily change US Dollars, Euros and even Russian Roubles – but there’s also lots of ATMs everywhere that accept foreign cards.
Georgia’s currency is called the lari.
6. Don’t be surprised if there’s only squat toilets
Restrooms inside bus stations, gas stations and local restaurants are likely to have only squat toilets.
There’s a good chance there will be no toilet paper in the stall either, so be prepared with your own or have some tissues handy. Hand sanitiser is also an essential item.
You might also have to pay to use toilets (such as inside bus stations) but it usually works out to about 25 cents.
7. The locals are very friendly and generous
You’ll feel very welcome in Georgia. People often asked if I needed help, gave up their seats on the metro when I had a heavy bag, and enthusiastically provided me with suggestions on places to visit (even if they had to communicate via Google Translate).
You’ll find many young people (under around the 40-year-old mark) speak at least a little English.
8. You’ll meet lots of like-minded travellers
Georgia attracts backpackers from all around the world. Tourism is rapidly developing in Georgia, but you’ll find most travellers you meet are seasoned backpackers travelling long term.
Solo travellers will find it very easy to meet other travellers on the marshrutkas, trains or in hostels – and you might even end up travelling with them for a few days or even weeks as you make your way across Georgia.
9. Many announcements and signs are in English
Georgia has its own alphabet and it’s baffling for foreigners. The good news is that the majority of signs and announcements are also in English.
Metro stops are announced in English, and Latin letters are used on all metro boards. You’ll also find English alternating with Georgian on electronic signage at bus stop stands.
Most people in service roles such as at ticket offices speak a little English.
You’ll also find English speaking staff at tourist information offices across Georgia.
10. Local dogs will follow you on hikes
Heading off on a hike? Be prepared to have a furry friend eagerly leading the way. The local dogs love hiking, and you’ll just be casually walking along and then find you’ve gained a canine friend.
The local dogs may just like to explore on occasion so don’t use them as your navigation – they may just have found a good smell.
Also be wary if you have any dogs with you around sheep. The huge dogs owned by the shepherds can get aggressive around the local dogs so take care. It’s best to hike in a group
11. The Maps.me app will come in handy
The Maps.me app was an extremely helpful addition on the trails. All the trails I went on in Mestia and Kazbegi were marked in the app to help guide the way – although most of the trails are pretty well marked either by signs or the footpad is well worn.
12. Knowing a few words in Georgian will go a long way
You’re unlikely to know Georgian before you visit but try to learn a couple of words in Georgian such as hello (gamarjoba) and thank you (madloba).
13. You need to buy a card for the Tbilisi metro
To use the metro in Tbilisi, you first 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 on the metro costs only 0.50 GEL ($0.20 USD) no matter the distance.
14. Be prepared for all kinds of weather
Rain, hail, snow, hectic winds – and that was just the first two hours on one hike I did at the beginning of summer! Prepare for all weather conditions when you’re hiking in the Georgian mountains as you never know what you’ll get. It’s high altitude in many of these mountains so the weather can change quickly. Always bring warm and wet weather clothing, dry bags for your valuables and a raincover for your backpack.
15. There will still be snow on the mountains in summer
You might think all the snow would have melted by the time summer rolls around – but you’d be wrong. You may still find some mountainous areas hard going with snow still on the ground. Outdoor lovers are best to head to Georgia in July and August when it’s more likely snow has melted.
Ask at the tourist information offices in Kazbegi and Mestia for up to date trail conditions.
16. You’ll eat your weight in cherries
Fruit such as strawberries, cherries and apricots grow super well in Georgia and you’ll find punnets of these glorious treats for only a few lari. I love cherries but after eating them every day for 3 weeks in Georgia, I can’t look at a single cherry.
17. Be wary about taking night trains
The night trains are an interesting experience in Georgia – and they seem like a good idea in theory (a bed and transport for less than $10). The bad news is that there’s no aircon and you can’t open the windows on the trains – making for stifling conditions in the warmer months.
Lying on the bunks I felt like I was in a washing machine as the train sways from side to side. Breakdowns are also possible, and you might have a rowdy group full of Georgians high on wine or deep sleeping snorers to contend with.
Alternatively you can take the local marshrutkas (mini buses) to destinations across Georgia during the day.
18. Take it easy on the cha cha
Cha cha is the alcoholic spirit of choice in Georgia but beware it’s very strong. Two shots of this stuff and I was pretty much on the floor. You’ve been warned.
19. You can go wine tasting in the supermarket
One of the aspects I loved about Georgia is that you could go wine tasting in the supermarket. If you wander anywhere near the wine aisle, you’d be greeted with shop assistants enthusiastically offering you a taste test.
If you don’t have a taste, the ladies seem quite offended. So drink away! You’ll also find shops dotted around Tbilisi where you can buy wine by the litre starting from 5 GEL ($2 USD). Living the dream.
20. Don’t forget to try the local spring water
You can’t go to Georgia without trying the local Borjomi spring water. The unique salty water (it’s an acquired taste I’m sure) can be bought carbonated from the supermarket or you can drink it straight from the spring in Borjomi. Be prepared for a salty, sulphuric taste – but hey when in Georgia.
21. There’s an art form to eating khinkali
You don’t eat Georgian dumplings (khinkali) with cutlery. The way you eat them is by sprinkling them with pepper, picking them up by the stem, taking a bite, sipping the juices we’ll call them, and then eating the rest but leaving the stem. Georgians will enthusiastically show you how it’s done – and they seem offended if you don’t do it their way!