Nestled south of the magnificent Caucasus – Europe’s highest mountain chain – and on the opposite shore of the Black Sea from Bulgaria, Georgia is by all means one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Whether it’s fertile valleys, antique towns, secluded monasteries, coastal jungles, arid semi-desert plains or mind-boggling glaciated mountain peaks, Georgia has it all!
Sure, Georgia may not be a Balkan country, but I instantly felt at home in this Caucasian heaven during my two-week vacation. The warmth of the people, the dynamic landscapes, the secluded monasteries and the wonderful cuisine are but a few features Georgia and Bulgaria have in common. And there was no lack of excellent wine and rakia (or chacha, as they call it beyond the Black Sea) to keep me happy during my holiday!
From the region’s most romantic capital to the highest villages in Europe, kashkaval tourist presents 8 unforgettable places in Georgia, the pearl of the Caucasus!
1. Crossroads of Eurasian past and future: Tbilisi
Tbilisi, the romantic Georgian capital, is an excellent introduction to the culture, history, cuisine and nature of this incredible country and indeed, to the entire region. Tbilisi mixes East with West, tradition with modernity and old-town serenity with the hustle and bustle of a capital metropolis… and it does it all remarkably well!
Tbilisi’s Old Town with is quaint alleys and antique architecture will be your best bet for a leisurely walk or a casual Georgian wine dinner. Further away, the Dry Bridge flea market is a great place to buy antique souvenirs, especially if you’re curious about communist memorabilia.
Above the Old Town, the ancient Narikala Fortress on top of a steep hill will reveal vistas of the winding Mtkvari River and the ultramodern Peace Bridge crossing it – as well as the huge Holy Trinity Cathedral in traditional Caucasian style. If you’d rather spare the short but vertical walk to the fortress, you can always take the chairlift from the other side of the Peace Bridge. You’ll be rewarded with a short but exhilarating ride above the entire city!
2. Iconic hiking destination: Kazbek
Drive just a few hours north of Tbilisi along the legendary Georgian Military Road and you’ll end up in the heartland of the Central Caucasus, surrounded by peaks more than 4,000 metres high. Above the quaint medieval church of Tsminda Sameba and even further above the mountain town of Stepantsminda you’ll find the 5,047-metre-high Mount Kazbek, the mythical stratovolcano that Prometheus was allegedly chained on.
With its grassy slopes, dramatic glaciers and unmistakable volcanic shape, Mount Kazbek is one of Georgia’s prime hiking destinations. A steep two-hour walk will take you to the Tsminda Sameba Church above the village, which is perhaps the country’s most photographed location.
Add another four hours and you’ll end up at the foot of the massive Gergeti Glacier. And if you’re into some relatively light ice hiking, then you can overnight at the former weather station on the other side of the glacier, a further two hours away. Conditions at the hut are basic to say the least, but at 3,670 metres above sea level, you’ll take anything!
3. The jungles of seaside Georgia: Batumi
Batumi, Georgia’s maritime capital, is a bustling resort city on the country’s verdant Black Sea coast. The city’s seaside promenade looks almost like an amusement park with its fancy skyscrapers like the brand-new Alphabet Tower.
Take the cable car from the port to a verdant hill above the city for some memorable views above the Black Sea and the misty evergreen hillsides surrounding Batumi!
Be aware that the Georgian coast’s mostly shingle beaches may not be to everyone’s taste. Also, at the height of summer the humidity in western Georgia may be unbearable to tourists – remarkably, this is one of Europe’s wettest places!
However, enter the Batumi Botanical Garden on a scenic headland north of the city and you’ll quickly see the benefits of the unique local climate. Surrounded by huge palms, bamboo and citrus trees, rhododendron forests and plant species from all over the world that thrive in these humid conditions, you’ll feel like you’re in a tropical paradise like Indonesia or Brazil!
4. At the heart of the Georgian wine valley: Signagi
Perched atop a hill above eastern Georgia’s wine-growing Alazani Valley, Signagi is a romantic little town that looks more like Italy than Eastern Europe. With its cobblestoned streets, antique architecture and inspiring natural setting, Signagi is the perhaps the best place to slow down, unwind and turn your attention towards Georgia’s incredible food and drink.
Stay at a guest house in Signagi and along with the classic Caucasian hospitality, you’ll be guaranteed a taste of home-grown vegetables, local dishes and, yes, as much home-made wine and chacha grape brandy as your heart desires! What’s more, several wineries in Signagi offer wine tastings. And practically all restaurants will offer a great selection of traditional Georgian wine aged in kvevri pottery.
If you’re desperate for a bit of a thrill, hire a quad bike in the town centre and have a guided tour of Signagi. Preferably at sunset to best enjoy the stunning views down towards the Alazani Valley as we did!
5. Metal coffin cable cars above a manganese mining town: Chiatura
For adventurers who are looking for something totally off the beaten path, enter Chiatura, the Georgian mining town with possibly the world’s scariest cable cars! Situated in a valley among the hills of western Georgia, Chiatura is famous for the 1950s cable car system linking the town centre, the mines and the remote hilltop neighbourhoods of semi-abandoned tower blocks.
Seemingly, neither the cable cars nor the stations have received much maintenance since the 1950s, because they look as menacing and as Stalinist as ever! Incredibly, the lines have been functioning without a single major accident since then. But as smooth as the ride may be, taking one of these “metal coffins” up or down the manganese-rich mountain sides may be scarier than a rollercoaster for some. Hey, at least all the cable cars are totally free!
6. Monastic life in the desert caves: David Gareja
The David Gareja cave monastery may be just 70 km southeast of the capital Tbilisi, but its surroundings are surreally different from the city’s natural environment. One of Georgia’s holiest Orthodox sites, David Gareja lies in an arid and treeless semi-desert region on the border with Azerbaijan.
The quaint monastery dates back some 1500 years to the 6th century, when it was founded by the hermit Saint David Garejeli on the slopes of Mount Gareja. Despite the harsh natural conditions in these Caucasian badlands, it flourished in the Middle Ages and still today impresses with its rock-hewn medieval architecture and the quality of its frescoes.
To see the best of the mural paintings (and catch a glimpse of neighbouring Azerbaijan), prepare for a short but demanding hike up the mountain slope from the monastery lavra. In summer, bring some water and a hat, as the desert sun can be gruelling!
7. Europe’s version of Middle-Earth: Upper Svaneti
Hidden among the Caucasus’ highest and most breath-taking peaks lies Svaneti, a wonderland of green pastures dotted by hundreds of medieval stone towers and dozens of traditional highland villages. Svaneti is centred around the ski and hiking town of Mestia at the foot of the “Matterhorn of the Caucasus”, the stunning Mount Ushba. Mestia offers hundreds of accommodation options in comfortable guest houses as well as a good selection of Georgian restaurants for that hearty meal after a tough day of hiking.
And you’re sure to spend more than a day hiking, for Upper Svaneti is a hiker’s wet dream. Whether it’s a day hike to the dark red Koruldi Lakes, a trek to the Ushba Glacier or a multi-day expedition to Ushguli, Europe’s highest village, Svaneti has no shortage of outdoor options.
If you don’t have the time or energy to hike to Ushguli, then by all means visit it on a day trip by jeep. The village looks as if it’s still stuck in the Middle Ages with its muddy streets crisscrossed by farm animals, its stone houses and the hundreds of medieval Svan towers. What’s more, its vistas of Georgia’s highest peak Shkhara (5,193 metres) topping the fearsome Bezingi Wall are absolutely unforgettable!
8. A medieval city inside the rocks: Vardzia
Vardzia is Georgia’s biggest and (deservedly) most famous cave monastery. In fact, with its hundreds of medieval cave dwellings, chapels, wine cellars, a bakery, a pharmacy and a cemetery, Vardzia was a true medieval city inside the rocks! Even today, a few monks keep the monastery active, though you’re much more likely to see tourists than Orthodox priests inside the cliffs of the Erusheti Mountain.
The site saw its heyday in the 12th century, the Golden Age of Georgian culture, when Queen Tamar ordered the construction of Vardzia’s main religious building, the Church of the Dormition. The donor’s portrait of Tamar can still be seen inside the church. The Ottoman conquest in 1578 meant the site lay abandoned for a few centuries, though the cave city has been preserved almost entirely to this day.