Although there have been many advances with tourism infrastructure in recent years in Georgia, it’s still not first on the list of most people’s travel plans. Its brief war with Russia in 2008 held things back, but now things are largely back to normal and, for the most part, Georgia is a safe, cheap, and rewarding place to visit.
Despite its small size, Georgia boasts varied scenery and exceptional quality wine. From the splendid mountains of Svaneti to the grassy plains of Kakheti, to the fashionable resort towns of the Black Sea, there is something for everyone in this country. Georgia also boasts an especially rich and colorful history displayed in all its splendor through ancient churches, fortresses, prehistoric cave towns, and much more. It’s also believed to be the birthplace of wine, with archeological evidence of wine production dating back over 8,000 years.
Today, we’re discussing five of the best destinations in Georgia and why they’re well worth a visit.
Georgia’s chaotic but fascinating capital is home to around one and a half million people, or approximately a third of the country’s population. Unless coming overland from Turkey or Armenia, most visitors to Georgia will arrive in Tbilisi first. The city is well connected to many European capitals, although flights to most cities remain very expensive. The cheapest flights to Georgia can typically be found with Ukrainian Airlines from Kyiv or Air Baltic from Riga. You can check current flight deals and rates into Tbilisi right here. There are also ferries from Odessa in Ukraine.
Tbilisi provides all of the western amenities that less experienced travelers are used to. There are plenty of hotels, hostels and guest houses to choose from as well as some very affordable apartment rentals. Shopping and entertainment options are spread throughout the city, although a visit to Tbilisi should definitely incorporate a trip or two to one of its enormous markets. Vagzlis Moedani (Main Station) is the largest market near the center. It’s conveniently located on the metro line.
Cultural attractions can be found at almost every corner in Georgia’s ancient capital. The heart of the old town is concentrated around Shardeni and the Bambis Rigi (Silk Trail) walk which takes you to the Mother Georgia statue atop a hill behind the city and the fourth-century Narikala Fortress. Other attractions include Kus Tba (Turtle Lake) and the nearby open-air ethnographical museum.
Visitors should also be sure to take a look around Sameba, the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi in the old district of Avlabari. It is one of the world’s largest Orthodox cathedrals. It’s only a few years old, but it is magnificent nonetheless.
Tbilisi also provides a great home base if you’re looking to get out and explore Georgia’s varied wine country. The Kakheti wine region is Georgia’s most well-known and plays host to charming villages like Badiauri and Sighnaghi. It’s here where the ancient technique of aging wine in quevri (clay amphorae buried underground) is still employed. This region is also famous for producing orange wines, or skin-fermented white wines that are quite unique.
If you’re looking to explore the Kakheti wine region, we highly recommend scheduling a tour of the area with Traffic Travel. It’s one of the most authentic, privately guided experiences you can find. It’s also super affordable. For only $60 per person, you’ll visit 3 wineries with lunch included, and get to meet some of the humble local wine-making families.
Many holidaymakers go to Georgia for Black Sea sun and sand. Only around twenty kilometers from the Turkish border is the coastal resort city of Batumi, developed during Tsarist times as an upmarket Black Sea resort community. Batumi also has an international airport with connections to Turkey and Ukraine. The city is easily reachable from Tbilisi by either minibus or train. The cheapest way is to take a minibus from Didube Bus Station in Tbilisi. The journey takes approximately six hours.
Batumi has many hotels and other accommodation options that suit any budget. Staying a kilometer or two out of the center is a good idea if you want to save money and still be within walking distance of the beach. Restaurants and entertainment venues are aplenty in Batumi, but many locations are open seasonally. Although Batumi is a city of approximately 150,000 people, it practically closes down outside of the summer season.
A great deal of money has been spent in recent years on regenerating Batumi and bringing it back to its former glory. The Promenade is several kilometers long and offers plenty of souvenir stalls, bars, and restaurants during the summer months.
A visit to Batumi should also include a stop at the Batumi Botanical Gardens, a few kilometers out of town. The gardens are some of the world’s largest and most diverse due to the fact that Batumi has a unique microclimate that can accommodate an extremely exotic range of plant species.
Mestia is the main town in the mountain region of Svaneti. With a population of only a few thousand people, Mestia is rather remote. There’s no train station and the only way to get there is by bus, car or plane. Regular connections run from Tbilisi and the bus takes about 14 hours on a good day. The city of Zugdidi is about seven hours away by bus. While the scenery along the way is spectacular, the mountain roads are in a shocking state of disrepair and snowdrifts are almost an everyday occurrence in the winter months. For those with a little more money to spend and who want more comfort while they travel, there are several flights per week from Tbilisi to Mestia.
Svaneti boasts some of the world’s most beautiful mountain landscapes. Mestia itself is also home to a unique local culture and history. The local inhabitants are known as the Svans, speaking their own unwritten language which is quite different to Georgian. Mestia is known for its many medieval square towers, splendid mountain backdrops and exceptionally rustic way of life.
Not long ago, Mestia, as with the rest of Svaneti, was somewhat of a no-go zone for foreigners due to dangerous criminal gangs and a general lack of law enforcement and infrastructure. Since the Rose Revolution of 2003, all of this has changed. Mestia now provides a variety of civilized hotels and guest houses and there is even a sizeable number of foreign volunteers working in and nearby the town with local communities.
While not as unique and impressive as Svaneti, Kazbegi is far easier to get to, making it a suitable destination for shorter trips. This is a destination in Georgia for brave and nomadic travelers that aren’t necessarily looking for luxurious accomodation. Kazbegi is one of Georgia’s highest mountains and a popular place for hikers and mountain climbers. It’s about four hours by minibus from Tbilisi and the drive takes you through the remains of the Georgian Military Highway. The journey usually takes a few hours longer in the winter due to snowdrifts regularly blocking the roads.
The small town of Stepantsminda (formerly also called Kazbegi) is where most people stay. There’s only one true hotel there, and most visitors stay at someone’s house or in a small guesthouse. The locals can spot foreigners a mile off. As soon as you get off the bus, you’ll likely have people coming up to you offering cheap accommodation. Food is usually included too, since there is very little in the way of restaurants or bars in the town. This is normal in Kazbegi – just make sure that you negotiate the price beforehand.
A visit to Kazbegi should always include a trip to the Gergeti Sameba – the ancient monastery on the top of the hill overlooking the town. From here you can enjoy spectacular views of the mountain behind the town as well as the town below, especially if you go there in the early morning.
Despite superb Georgian hospitality, if you spend a few weeks traveling around Georgia, you’ll probably want a break from the general craziness of the place after a while. Visitors to Sighnaghi will no doubt be amazed at just how clean and civilized the town is. Sighnaghi is a small place with only a few thousand inhabitants, but its magical citadel has recently undergone a very high-quality reconstruction. You won’t find as many potholes dotting the fairy-tale cobbled streets of the town and there are plenty of charming Georgian restaurants and accommodation options.
Sighnaghi is in Eastern Kakheti, the main wine-growing region of the country. On a warm summer evening, you can sit outside one of the many bars or cafes and enjoy spectacular views of the planes of Kakheti and the mountains bordering Azerbaijan. Sighnaghi is also home to the Bodbe Monastery, the burial place of St. Nino. St. Nino, known as “The Enlightener of Georgia,” helped to spread Christianity to the country in the fourth century, making this town one of the most venerated.
If you want to see a very typical Georgian town with a complete lack of anything remotely touristy, you can take a taxi down the hill to the town of Snori. It’s a great place to get cheap fresh food from any of its markets.
Sighnaghi is a couple of hours away from Tbilisi. To get there, you’ll need to take a minibus from Samgori bus station, just by the metro station of the same name. The road is well-paved and the journey is picturesque.
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