Friday, October 9, 2015

Georgia: An Overview

So, you want to go to Georgia, but aren't sure where to go? Now that we've covered a large swath of the country during our two visits there, we hope that this guide will help you get a feel for the country and figure out what areas might be of interest to you. Here goes!

Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2013.

Tbilisi and surrounding areas

You will most likely be flying into Tbilisi. This hilly city along the river, with its 5th century churches, elegantly decaying residences, and contemporary architecture, is definitely worth a few days' stay. You can wander through Old Town, hike up to the Narinkala Fortress and Mother of Georgia statue, visit the churches, wander along Rustaveli Avenue and the Marjanshvili neighborhood, visit the National Museum, catch a puppet show at the Gabriadze Theater, check out Georgian and Soviet antiques at the Dry Bridge Flea Market, walk around the Botanical Garden, and watch the sunset from the amusement park on top of the hill overlooking the city. You can also sample delicious Georgian food, from khinkali to khachapuri to achma to lavash to churchkhela, at restaurants and food stalls around the city.

See more on Tbilisi here.

The hike to Jvari Monastery, Mtskheta, Georgia. Photo by Mitya, 2013.

About 30 minutes west of Tbilisi lies a town called Mtskheta. It is home to the Jvari Monastery, a 6th century monastery perched on a rocky hilltop, overlooking the town and the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. To truly appreciate the experience, we recommend hiking to the monastery from a drop-off point on the highway, which is what we did. Unfortunately, I can't remember the exact route we took and the directions we used were in Russian. Once I find more specific information for this hike, I will post it here.

View of Mkskheta from the Jvari Monastery. Photo by Mitya, 2013.
There is also a holy spring, but it is quite a hike down from the monastery and I don't recommend it if the weather is hot.

We took a cab down to Mtskheta afterwards and saw their police station, which looks a bit like a hobbit hole.

Mkskheta police station, Georgia. Photo by Mitya, 2013.

Gori is about 45 minutes from Tbilisi and is the birthplace and hometown of the most famous Georgian, Joseph Stalin. The first time we went to Georgia, Mitya's French friend who lives in Moscow asked us if we went to Gori. When we told her that we didn't go and that we had no interest in visiting Stalin's home, she threw a hissy fit.'s so incomprehensible that we wouldn't want to visit a museum dedicated to one of the most brutal dictators and mass murderers of the 20th century. Don't know who wouldn't want to do that!

View of the Uplistsikhe cave city. Photo by Mitya, 2015.

The second time we went to Georgia, we actually did go to Gori, but not to Stalin's house. Our friend Vika, who lives in Tbilisi, took us to the Uplistsikhe Cave city outside of Gori. Parts of Uplistsikhe date from 1000 BC, and the town was inhabited up until the 13th century. It experienced two heydays: one prior to the Christianization of Georgia in the 4th century (then known as the kingdom of Kartli) and the second during the 8th and 9th centuries. Uplistsikhe is divided into a lower, middle, and upper level, and you access the middle and upper levels through a steep tunnel carved into the rock. Once you emerge from the tunnel, you can walk around the cave town, where you'll find a 10th century basilica perched above cave homes, Queen Tamar's Hall, a pharmacy, bakery, prison, amphitheater, and winery. There are also some pretty birds with pink heads and spotted wings that live here.

There is also a 4th century church outside of Gori, directly south of the Uplistsikhe.
Mitya and Vika by the 4th century church in Gori. Photo by Michelle, 2015.

Another cave structure that's an easy day trip from Tbilisi is the Davit Gareja monastery on the Georgian-Azerbaijani border. Founded in the 6th century, Davit Gareja is situated on the slopes of Mount Gareja. The complex includes hundreds of cave cells, churches, chapels, refectories, and living quarters. You can take a walk from the main complex around the side of the mountain, where you can see Azerbaijan (and occasionally cross inadvertently into Azerbaijan, as we did) and explore more cave structures. We saw several impressive frescoes here, including one of the Last Supper.

Unfortunately, I seem to have lost our photos from Davit Gareja, but if I do find them, I will post one here!


If you've seen breathtaking photos of a church on a hill against the backdrop of a snowy mountain range, it's likely that you've seen the Tsminda Sameba church in Kazbegi. Directly north of Tbilisi on the Georgian Military Highway, on the border with Russia, Kazbegi is accessible as a day trip from the capital, but we recommend staying there overnight for the full experience. Most tourists will walk from Kazbegi town up to the church and then go back down again and head back to Tbilisi the same day. I don't recommend hiking up to the church from the town because it's quite unpleasant. You share the same road as the cars, and the road is unpaved and full of ruts and holes so the cars are going all over the road at high speeds trying to avoid the holes. Also, if you hike up to the church you will likely be so tired that you won't want to hike anymore, and you will need to hike more if you want to see the views of Tsminda Sameba that you've seen in the photos.

Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya, 2013.

We recommend taking a tent and sleeping bags, taking a car up to the church, exploring the church, and then hiking to the Gergeti Glacier. The glacier is about a 4-5 hour hike from the church, so you can either stop to camp on the way there, or on the way back, depending on time. We actually didn't see the glacier because we needed to make it back to the town before it got dark (which is why we recommend camping, as the accommodation and food options in Kazbegi are not impressive). The hike is HARD, but after I did this hike, I felt like I could do anything! We went to San Francisco a few weeks after this, and I was walking up and down the hills like it was nothing.


I've already sung my praises for this mountain region here and here, but in short, if you want to really see Svaneti, you should either rent a car and explore villages around Mestia and spend a night or two in Ushguli. You can also hike from Mestia to Ushguli and stay in villages in between those two places (it's a 4-day hike).

Batumi and the coast

Morning life in old Batumi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya, 2015.
Before the conflict, Abkhazia was the place to go in Georgia if you wanted to see the coast. I haven't been there, but Mitya's parents, grandparents, aunt, and Russian friends all told us it was beautiful. However, since the U.S. and many European countries don't recognize Abkhazia, citizens of these countries would not have any diplomatic protection were something to happen to you while you were there, so it's not recommended to go there.

Fishing in the park, Batumi. Photo by Mitya, 2015.

Nowadays, people flock to Batumi. We were worried that it would be an overcrowded, touristy resort area like Cancun, so we didn't go there during our first visit. On our second visit, though,with two open days between Svaneti and returning to Tbilisi/leaving for Armenia, we decided to check it out. Batumi was actually a pleasant surprise. While there are elements of the city bordering on Vegas and Dubai (not a positive sign, in our opinion), there are also several nice areas and lots of open spaces. Old Batumi, for example, is a nice neighborhood, with an open square and old architecture. We also walked to a pleasant park. And Batumi is also home to several contemporary architecture structures (another sign of Saakashvili's legacy). The city is also very flat, so it's nice for cycling. We rented bikes and rode to the beach, which was surprisingly uncrowded. In fact, we were the only people on the beach when we went there! More people came later, but not the hordes that we were expecting. We were told later that the busy season is actually in July (we were there in mid-June). Just a warning, though: it's a pebble beach!

Pebble beach in Batumi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya, 2015.
One last note about this region: Batumi is located in the Adjara region of Georgia, which is home to Adjarian khachapuri, which I love. So it was quite ironic that I wasn't able to eat Adjarian khachapuri when I was in Adjara!


Kakheti, Georgia's wine region, is in the southeast part of the country, and is famous for its excellent wines. Georgian wine is still relatively undiscovered for Americans, but Russians have known about this well-kept secret for a long time. Kindzmarauli is perhaps the most well-known Georgian wine. We spent a night in the valley, visited Telavi (we had heard rave reviews about its market, but I found it hot, stuffy, with a disturbing amount of flies and the smell of dead meat everywhere), and stayed in Signaghi for another 3 days. We visited several wineries in the area, as well as the Davit Gareja monastery. There are also several old women who sell hand-knit items on the streets of Signaghi; we bought a pair of socks, a hat, and baby booties for my friend from them. The town is on a hill and you have some pretty spectacular views of the valley below.

Cat sleeping in vineyard, Kakheti, Georgia. Photo by Mitya, 2013.

There are some other regions of Georgia that we haven't visited yet, but are interested in, such as Tusheti (north of Kakheti, and similar to Svaneti in its remoteness and unique folk culture) and Borjomi (a mineral springs resort in southern Georgia). It's a big country, and there are many things to do there. I hope this guide is a good start for your trip to Georgia!

Getting there: There are direct flights between Moscow and Tbilisi daily. The flight is about 2.5 hours long and average price is $250 for a round-trip ticket.

There are no direct flights from the US to Georgia, but many flights have a layover in Europe. We were told that you can find extremely cheap (50 euros or less) tickets from Vilnius, Lithuania, to Kutaisi, Georgia. They have a shuttle at the airport that will take you to Tbilisi.

Language: If you know Georgian or Russian, it will be a huge plus. Georgia was part of the former USSR, so Russian language education was compulsory. Everyone over the age of 30 is fluent in Russian. Mitya believes that even someone with a high beginner/low intermediate level in Russian (i.e., my level) would be able to get around Georgia using Russian.

Most people who work in the service industry in Tbilisi will speak English. We also spoke to a few tourists who were trying to get around using English. One told us you could get around using only English in Tbilisi, but that it was harder in other parts of Georgia. Another tourist we met in Armenia told us he believed you could get around Georgia okay with English, but that it was much harder in Armenia.