A first timer’s guide to backpacking Georgia
Not many places have seen such a dramatic increase in travellers in recent years as the Republic of Georgia. A relatively small country sandwiched between Russia and Turkey in the South Caucasus, Georgia has typically been on few people’s ‘to-go’ lists. But as both the tourism industry in the country and international interest grows, Georgia’s popularity is booming. So if your interest is piqued by this ancient Eurasian country, read on for our complete backpacking Georgia guide — we won’t be surprised if you soon find yourself with plane tickets in hand!
The rise of Georgia is in no small part due to the fact that there is something for absolutely everyone. The country may be small, but it’s packed with culture and nature, good food and friendly people. Adventure travellers and foodies, casual sightseers and history buffs – everyone will come back raving about their experiences.
Now is the perfect time to come, before visiting Georgia goes mainstream. It doesn’t matter if you’re an experienced traveller or just setting out on one of your first trips. Georgia’s backpacker scene might be in its early stages, but there’s enough to support visitors who need guidance, while offering freedom to those travellers who are more independent. And with its hospitable culture, you’re likely to be welcomed and helped by locals at every turn.
Jump straight to:
- The best time to visit Georgia
- Visa for Georgia
- Travelling around Georgia
- Places to visit in Georgia
- Georgia travel costs
- Where to stay in Georgia
- Georgia itinerary
- Georgia food
- Georgia culture
- Is Georgia safe?
The best time to visit Georgia
The Georgia climate is overall very temperate, influenced by both the sea air and the protection of the mountains. However, with its varied topography, some places border on subtropical and most places can get very hot in the summer.
You can visit Tbilisi at any time during the year. Even with its seasonal changes, Tbilisi weather doesn’t get extremely cold. It rarely gets below zero degrees Celsius, and whatever snow does fall doesn’t stick around for very long. In the summer, temperatures in Tbilisi average in the mid-20s to mid-30s, peaking in July and August.
However, in other parts of the country, the climate and weather are more divisive – the four seasons give you four very different Georgias to experience! Because of the stunning nature, summer is a popular time to come. If you’re planning on going hiking in the mountains, you need to wait for the snow to melt and the trails to clear. You also might want to wait until after June, which is usually pretty rainy.
Georgia in autumn means harvest time for the grapes – you can visit the vineyards and even get involved yourself!
Winter in Georgia isn’t the most popular time to visit if you’re just going to Tbilisi, but if you’re into winter sports the country still has a lot to offer. You can spend your days snowboarding or skiing at Georgia’s best-known ski resort, Gudauri, then spend your evenings warming up with the hearty local cuisine (and wine, obviously). But the winters, especially in the mountains, can be extremely harsh and snowy, closing roads for days, even weeks or months. Travel during wintertime can be extremely limited.
Spring in Georgia is especially nice if you’re mostly interested in visiting Tbilisi. The cafes and restaurants start setting up their al fresco seating, and the Old Town becomes adorned with flowers and vines.
How to get to Georgia
Connections to Georgia from Europe are increasing as more airlines see the demand for flights to Georgia. You can find cheap direct flights to Tbilisi, Kutaisi, and Batumi from the UK. And as long as you have any other visas you might need, you can travel to Georgia by land from all the neighboring countries, apart from through the disputed territories of Abkhazia or South Ossetia.
If you’re up for a real adventure, you can hitch a ride on a Black Sea cargo ship that goes between Odessa in Ukraine and Batumi. However, the schedule depends on the weather and the conditions of the sea, so it’s not advisable if you’re on a tight schedule.
Getting a visa for Georgia
When it comes to Georgia visa requirements, this small republic is one of the most welcoming in the world. Citizens from around 90 countries can visit Georgia for up to a year without a visa and can also work or study without any other documents, so if you want to settle down for longer you can. A Georgian visa isn’t required for UK citizens, along with citizens from other EU countries. If you are required to get a visa, you need to apply in advance online through the government’s portal.
If you are unsure about whether or not you need a visa for Georgia, you can visit their official website for clear information in English and Georgian.
If you’re interested in visiting Abkhazia or South Ossetia, be aware that the Georgian government counts entering those areas from Russia as illegal. This means you cannot travel from Russia to Georgia through either region. You can travel to Abkhazia from Georgia as long as you apply for special permission first.
Travelling around Georgia
Because of its varied landscape, I would definitely recommend you try to see as much of Georgia as possible. When it comes to how to travel around Georgia, you have a couple different options.
The easiest way to do short distances, for example Kutaisi to Tbilisi or Kutaisi to Batumi, is by marshrutka. Marshrutkas are minibuses, ubiquitous in the post-Soviet world. They’re not that comfortable but they are efficient, and if you want to see Georgia you’re going to have to master them. The marshrutka between Tbilisi and Kutaisi takes about 4 hours and costs 10 lari (£2.80). The Kutaisi-Batumi marshrutka takes about 2 hours and also costs 10 lari. Marshrutkas on these popular routes leave frequently, such as every hour or half hour, but usually just depart whenever they’re full rather than relying on a schedule.
Bus stations in Georgia can seem overwhelming and chaotic at first, but there’s usually someone calling out destinations and pointing people in the right direction. If you can’t find your marshrutka, just ask someone. It’s helpful to have your destination written in both Georgian and Latin letters, just for your own ease.
Pro tip: don’t sit in the very back of a marshrutka. The seats are often shoved in against the back door, pushing you into an uncomfortable position.
For longer distances, you can opt for the train. The trains in Georgia don’t run as frequently as the marshrutkas, but they are useful for covering long distances. The Tbilisi-Batumi high-speed train is definitely a time saver (and way more comfortable).
Travel in Tbilisi
It’s very easy to travel in Tbilisi. For one thing, it’s rather compact, so you can do a lot of sightseeing on foot. In fact, on the narrow streets of the Old Town that’s probably the better option – and it gives you opportunities to stop in whatever cute café or wine bar you see.
Tbilisi also has public transport, including a metro system and plenty of buses. The Tbilisi metro has two lines, which connect and give you access to much of the city. The buses and marshrutkas can get you to a wider variety of neighbourhoods and are sometimes more efficient than the metro. You can pay the driver for the bus and marshrutka and buy metro tokens from the cashiers at the stations, or you can invest in a Metromoney card. A Metromoney card can be used for the metro and bus and is necessary to ride the Rike Park cable car to Narikala. You can buy them at any metro station or at the Narikala cable car stations.
Taxis are also cheap and plentiful, but it’s better to use an app like Taxify to get a taxi than to hail one on the street. Traffic in Tbilisi can be extremely bad, resulting in near stand-still jams during rush hour. If you need to get around during peak times, it’s better to walk or use the metro.
The best places to visit in Georgia
Most people start their exploration in the country’s capital city, where there’s enough to keep your itinerary packed for days. Here are a few ideas on what to do in Tbilisi, Georgia.
- Walk around the Tbilisi Old Town: Narrow streets, vine-hung balconies and plenty of cafes to stop at for a coffee or lemonade break, Tbilisi’s Old Town will charm you until you fall in love.
- Take the cable car to Narikala: The remnants of an ancient fortress first established by Persians in the 4th century, Narikala overhangs Tbilisi’s Old Town on Sololaki Hill. There you can also visit Kartlis Deda, the Mother of Georgia monument. Constructed in 1958, Kartlis Deda has a bowl of wine in one hand for friends and a sword in the other for enemies. You can get to Narikala by taking the cable car from Rike Park, which gives you unbeatable views of the city, or you can walk up from the Old Town.
- Enjoy the café culture: Tbilisi is packed with cafes, but they’re not always obvious — some of the cutest places for a cup of coffee or glass of wine are on the second floor. So, when you’re looking for a place to take a break from sightseeing, make sure you look up.
- Relax at the sulphur baths: People have been coming to Tbilisi’s sulphur baths for thousands of years. Legend has it that the discovery of the hot springs is actually what led to the city’s founding. Now you can enjoy the smelly but therapeutic waters either by renting a private room or joining the crowds. Just be warned that the public sulphur baths can be a bit of a cultural adventure– done in the nude and surrounded by locals, you’ll definitely feel like you’re off the beaten tourist path. You can also arrange for a massage, though the traditional massage is more like an exfoliating scrub than a relaxing rub.
- Enjoy nature at the Tbilisi botanical garden: Just on the other side of Sololaki Hill behind Narikala is the National Botanical Garden of Georgia. This park is a haven from the congestion and noise of the city. A garden has existed on this spot for over three centuries, being officially established as a botanical garden in 1845. It has thousands of different species, making for an interesting break from city life.
- Be mesmerised by Georgian folk dance: The Georgian National Ballet showcases the country’s unique folk dance, where men spin and leap and women glide and twirl. It’s a hypnotising display of dance, and you can witness it either at a performance of the Georgian National Ballet or at some of the more tourist-centered restaurants around town.
- Feel small at the Chronicle of Georgia: A bit outside of the city center near the Tbilisi Sea is the Chronicle of Georgia. Built in 1985, these sixteen massive columns depict the legendary leaders and heroes of Georgian history as well as Biblical scenes.
- Go dancing: The Tbilisi club scene is starting to become famous around the world, but places like Bassiani and Café Gallery aren’t just places to dance and drink. They’ve become bastions of youth culture in Tbilisi and have even taken up a political role in recent years.
- Be inspired by the heights of the Holy Trinity Cathedral: Also called the Sameba Cathedral, this church dominates the eastern bank of Tbilisi, though the gleam on its dome has a distinctly new shine. Finished in 2004, the Holy Trinity Cathedral is the third tallest Eastern Orthodox church anywhere.
- Get an education in Georgian wine: Georgia knows what it’s good at, so there are a plethora of wine bars and wine shops in Tbilisi. Learn more about Georgian wines — or at least how to pronounce their complicated names — by organising a wine tasting, dropping into a shop with a free tasting, or enjoying an afternoon at a wine bar chatting up your server.
- Take in the elegance of the ballet: After extensive renovations, the Tbilisi Opera House is making strides to take its place on the international performing arts scene. Tickets to the opera and ballet are extremely affordable and are worth checking out if you enjoy theatre.
- Go street art hunting: The concrete of the city has gotten plenty of upgrades from prolific Georgian street artists like Gagosh, Tamoonz, and Luke Japaridze. You can find both city-sponsored ‘galleries’ and unsanctioned pieces of political or social critique.
- Join in the whimsy of the puppet theatre: The Rezo Gabriadze Theatre draws tourists simply for its quirky leaning clock tower, but it’s also a renowned marionette puppet theatre. The theatre has been operating since 1981, and the puppet shows have been performed around the world.
- Get in on the live music scene: Music is an integral part of Georgian culture. It is one of the birthplaces of polyphonic singing, and there are over a dozen different regional varieties of traditional folk music. You can hear some traditional music – and even see some traditional dancing – at some restaurants in Tbilisi. For more modern music, several bars in the Old Town showcase local talent in all different genres. You might even be able to catch Tbilisi’s rising hip hop duo, KayaKata, at a concert.
- Cheer yourself hoarse at a football match. Georgians are a passionate people, and that emotion comes out when they gather in the football stadium. While they may not (yet) be making large waves internationally, FC Dinamo Tbilisi is the current champ when it comes to number of Georgian Cup wins. If you’re looking to get wild in a culturally approved way, get yourself tickets for a Dinamo match.
- Take the cable car to Turtle Lake: The Rike Park cable car to Narikala gets all the tourist love, but just a little bit further away is a smaller and slightly sway-ier cable car. The car takes you from Vake Park to Turtle Lake, where you can enjoy a coffee or paddleboats. If you decide to hike down, you can stop at the Open Air Museum of Ethnography.
- Go for a whirl at Mtatsminda Park: Mtatsminda Park is perched above the city and is most easily accessible by funicular. The park has amusement rides, a few restaurants, and nice views of the city. It also occasionally hosts special events, including the New Wine Festival.
- Immerse yourself in local life at the market: Desertirebis Basari (Deserters’ Market) can be overwhelming with its sights, sounds, and smells, but you’ll feel like a local if you can negotiate your shopping there!
- Do some shopping at the Dry Bridge Flea Market: The Dry Bridge bazaar is almost like a very eclectic museum, where locals come to tout everything from Soviet era relics to handmade jewellery. It’s worth it for a wander, just to see what has accumulated in the city over the years, and you might find some unusual souvenirs. It’s open every day, weather permitting, though the weekends are when it really bustles. Get ready to haggle for your purchases!
- Visit Mtskheta’s holy places: Situated just outside of Tbilisi, Mtskheta is a city of ancient historical and religious significance in Georgia. For thousands of years it was the capital of the Kingdom of Iberia, and it is still the primary location for the Georgian Orthodox Church. Many of its sites have been granted UNESCO World Heritage status, including the Jvari Monastery. Perched on top of a mountain, this monastery marks a spot where Saint Nino, the woman who helped bring Christianity to the region, supposedly put up a miracle-working wooden cross. Jvari still draws pilgrims, but it also pulls in tourists with its beautiful views.
Best places to visit in Georgia outside of Tbilisi
One of the most wonderful things about Georgia is how much diversity is packed into such a small country. The Republic of Georgia is just under 70,000 square kilometers, but within those borders you have beaches and mountains, vineyards and deserts. Here are the best places to visit in Georgia, no matter what your interest is.
Georgia for leisure-loving backpackers
- Become a wine snob in Kakheti: Perhaps the most famous of Georgia’s wine-producing regions, Kakheti’s flatlands backed by mountains are the perfect place to learn more about the local vintages. You can choose to go to the romantically picturesque town of Sighnaghi, perched on its own hill in the Alazani Valley, or base yourself in the region’s main city, Telavi.
- Live up the party life in Batumi: Batumi is Georgia’s biggest beach resort city, bringing both beach vibes and a bit of party life. It’s actually garnered the nickname “the Las Vegas of the Black Sea” for its numerous casinos. The Batumi beach is more pebbly than sandy, but the climate, sea breeze, and energy make it the number one beach destination in Georgia.
- Escape into greenery at the Batumi Botanical Garden: There’s more than just partying in Batumi. A short bus or taxi ride away is the Botanical Garden, a reserve that takes you to nine different parts of the world. You can see the lush Green Cape (Mtsvane Kontskhi) and access the beach through the garden, so you can easily spend a whole afternoon here.
- Chill out on the beach at Ureki: If you’re looking for a more chill beach experience, the small town of Ureki might be for you. Ureki is famous for its magnetic black sand, which many people claim has therapeutic properties. There is no bustling party life here, but the brightly painted guesthouses and stunning sunsets give it a vibrantly laid-back vibe.
- Reconnect with nature in Borjomi: Borjomi is a lush resort town not far from Tbilisi. It became famous for its volcanic mineral water – Russian royals even visited it during tsarist times. The town also borders the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, where you can enjoy hiking and horseback riding. If you want to enjoy the scenery with less effort, there is a tourist train that connects Borjomi to Bakuriani, a ski resort. The train runs only twice a day and takes 2-3 hours, but multiple marshrutkas also run between the two towns to make the return trip quicker.
Georgia for history lovers
In Georgia, historic sites stretch back all the way to the Bronze Age. Naturally not all of them have survived, but there are several significant places that will appeal both to history lovers and adventurous types.
- Walk the line between two countries at Davit Gareji: Perched on the border of Georgia and Azerbaijan, this desert monastery is an easy day trip from Tbilisi. The Davit Gareji (or David Gareja) monastery was initially founded in the 6th century. Most of its chapels and rooms are carved from the rock face, and its most valuable treasures are frescoes from the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries. Besides the monastery itself, the scenery between it and Tbilisi is worth the ride.
- Unleash your inner Indiana Jones at Vardzia: If you want to feel like a true explorer, make the journey to Vardzia, an ancient and vast cave monastery. Mostly dug out in the 12th century, this cave complex was extremely important for both religious and political life. However, the caves suffered at the end of the 1200s when an earthquake tore away much of the outer wall. When the Ottomans came in the 16th century, the monastery was evacuated.
- Follow in the steps of the Romans at Gonio: Just a few kilometers from Batumi is Gonio Fortress, a site from the Roman times. Rumor has it that one of Jesus’s twelve apostles is buried there, though no excavations of the gravesite are allowed. While very little is left of the Roman fortress, you can spend the rest of your trip to Gonio at its popular beach.
- Make a pilgrimage to the Gelati Monastery: There is no shortage of churches in Georgia, but the Gelati Monastery just outside of Kutaisi is worth the visit. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Gelati has been one of the most important religious, intellectual and political places in Georgia for centuries. It was founded at the beginning of the 12th century by King David IV, who is buried there. Gelati is an excellent example of Byzantine architecture and houses awe-inspiring frescoes and mosaics.
- Step into the Soviet world at Gori: For more recent history, you can visit the birthplace of Stalin. Gori is not a big city, but it is the site of a slightly bizarre Stalin museum. Among its collection of relics, the museum has Stalin’s childhood home and his personal train carriage. There is also a medieval fortress in the middle of the city you can visit to balance the weight of the Soviet-era memorabilia.
- See ancient city planning at Uplistsikhe: Just 10 kilometers outside Gori is Uplistsikhe, an ancient cave city. It’s one of the oldest settlements in Georgia and features a 10th-century Christian church.
- Live a little royal life at Akhaltsikhe: Akhaltsikhe is a town in central Georgia and has been able to boast the Rabati Castle since the 12th century. The newly renovated castle showcases the unique architecture flair of the region. Perhaps more importantly, Akhaltsikhe is a hub for marshrutkas, allowing you to explore other regions of Georgia easily.
- Get a little education at Tbilisi museums: Don’t have the time to make it out to one of Georgia’s historic sites? Tbilisi has several museums to fill in the gaps. If you only have time for one, check out the Museum of Georgia. The exhibits will take you all the way from the 3rd century BC through to the Soviet era.
Georgia for adventure travellers
Georgia is famous for its mountains, but there are other adventures to be had as well. From descending into caves to soaring in rickety cable cars, here are some ideas for adventure travellers.
- Branch out in Kutaisi: Kutaisi, the third largest city in Georgia, has been a prominent place in Georgian history and politics for thousands of years, even enjoying time as the capital between 1008 and 1122. The Kutaisi airport brings a lot of travellers to Georgia, and the city is a fantastic place to base yourself for some more off-beat destinations.
- Get into subterranean history: Just outside Kutaisi are two important geographic sites, the Prometheus and Sataplia Caves. The Prometheus Cave is one of the largest caves in Georgia and features all the stalactites and stalagmites a spelunker could want, as well as underground rivers and lakes. The Sataplia Cave is smaller but is famous for having fossilized dinosaur footprints.
- Ride the Soviet cable cars of Chiatura: A marshrutka ride away from Kutaisi, Chiatura is also a place not for the faint of heart. A historic mining town, Chiatura is a spider web of cable cars originally built in the 1950s. Many of the original cable cars still exist, reliable but intimidating workhorses, but they are gradually being dismantled or replaced by modern ropeways.
- Get into some urbex adventures in Tskaltubo: About twenty minutes from Kutaisi, Tskaltubo was a bustling spa town during the Soviet era, acclaimed for its mineral water. Now, many of the impressive spas and sanatoriums lay abandoned and some are openly accessible. After a little urbex, you can relax at one of the modern spas.
- Get wet while rafting on the Rioni River: There are a couple different places you can go rafting in Georgia, but outside of Kutaisi on the Rioni River is one of the most popular. Choose the right tour group, and you’ll also be treated to a picnic and wine!
- Soar to new heights paragliding at Gudauri: Gudauri is one of Georgia’s most popular ski resorts, both for its quality of snow and diversity of extreme sports. It’s possible to go free-riding or organise a heli-skiing or paragliding excursion.
Which mountains in Georgia should you visit?
In Georgia, mountains are one of the biggest tourist draws, and there’s certainly no shortage of them. You might even have to make multiple trips to see all of Georgia’s mountains!
The Svaneti region is one of the most popular regions for hiking in Georgia because the mountains are so accessible. Once you arrive in Mestia, the starting point for hiking in Svaneti, you have many different options. You can hike the popular Mestia-Ushguli trail, which takes about four days and lets you spend the night in villages so you don’t need any camping gear. You can also do a few other day hikes in the region or blaze your own trail — as long as you’ve brought camping gear.
The Racha region also has hiking opportunities but less tourist infrastructure to support inexperienced hikers. It’s also more difficult to get to, and you will probably need camping gear if you want to do multi-day hikes.
The Adjara Mountains offer a number of activities and sights for travellers. One of the best is the cable car between Khulo and Tago, two small towns in the mountains. From Khulo you can also see a few other sights by hiking or by hiring a 4×4. The easiest way to get to Khulo is by taking a marshrutka from Batumi.
Perhaps the most famous mountain in Georgia is in the Caucasus Mountains. Located in the Kazbegi region, overshadowing the town of Stepantsminda, Mount Kazbek is the backdrop for what might the most photographed monastery in the whole country. From the town you can do a hike to the monastery or hire a driver to take you up. Going all the way to the top of Mount Kazbek requires more gear, time, and planning.
The holy grail of Georgian mountains is in Tusheti. The range is also part of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, but the region is extremely difficult to get to because of limited infrastructure. The road is closed most of the year, and often reopening it is delayed due to damage sustained throughout the winter and spring. However, due to its remoteness it’s one of the most ecologically and culturally preserved regions in Georgia. It’s not easy to get out to Tusheti, but it’s worth the effort.
Georgia travel costs
The Georgia currency is the lari, abbreviated as GEL. Travel costs are pretty low, especially when you go outside of Tbilisi and Batumi. If you really want to stick to a budget, you will want to do your own grocery shopping and cook at your hostel. Food prices in Georgia are extremely affordable, especially if you shop at a market and stock up on fresh fruit and veggies. If you don’t have the time or space to cook for yourself, you can get some khachapuri or lobiani for the equivalent of a euro or two. A meal at a mid-range restaurant will cost around 5 euros.
Overall, you can easily travel in Georgia for less than 50 euros a day, accommodation included. If you really buckle down on your purchases and spend most of your time off the beaten tourist trail, you can bring that down to 30 euros or less.
Where to stay in Georgia
There are plenty of hostels in Georgia, so you can travel on a budget. Some hostels will even take you on as a volunteer or employee so you can stretch your stay out longer.
Hostels in Tbilisi
When choosing a hostel in Tbilisi, you should think about which side of the river you want to be on. The Old Town is on the western bank, while the eastern side has the newly renovated and pedestrian-only Agmashenebeli Avenue. Both offer restaurants and cafes and are relatively easy to get between, so one is not better than the other.
On the eastern side, Fabrika Hostel and Suites is very popular. Converted from a former sewing factory, the hostel is sleek and streamlined. It’s part of a whole creative and social complex, so you will never feel lonely or disconnected here.
Fabrika Hostel & Suites @nati_portman
For those who want to be in the middle of the Old Town, check out Envoy Hostel. It has all the amenities to make you feel comfortable and safe — and it has a stellar rooftop terrace to soak in views of the city.
Rustaveli Avenue is also a good location. The main drag of the city that runs straight to Liberty Square and the Old Town, Rustaveli Avenue bustles with museums, theatres, restaurants and cafes. You can easily catch a bus or take the metro to get to other parts of town. There are many superb hostels along Rustaveli, like the hospitable and welcoming Marco Polo Hostel and the spacious and peaceful Mountain 13 Hostel, complete with its own terrace.
Hostels in Kutaisi
If there’s something that the hostels in Kutaisi have in common, it’s their welcoming atmosphere. Whether it’s Dingo Backpackers Hostel’s pub crawl, the local breakfast at Black Tomato, the cozy feel of Kutaisi Hotel California, or Temi Hostel’s helpful staff, you’ll feel like you’re getting to know the country in a very authentic way.
Hostels in Batumi
In Batumi there is a hostel for every single taste, whether you want a more modern, private experience or a beach-y social one. For those who want to embrace the vibes of the Black Sea, check out the Batumi Surf Hostel. It’s bright with lots of color and shared space, promoting a communal atmosphere. Or, with its minimalistic hipster vibes and perfect balance of privacy and shared space, you’ll feel at home at Back2Me no matter what your travel style. For a modern aesthetic in a great location with helpful staff, check out Hostel Medusa.
You could spend an infinite amount of time in Georgia, but some of us don’t have that kind of vacation time. Here are a couple of different Georgia itineraries to get you started, though I imagine you’ll be back after you get your first taste of the country.
A 5 day itinerary in Georgia
If you only have five days in Georgia, it’s best to base yourself in Tbilisi and take day trips to see different parts of the country.
Day 1: Enjoy Tbilisi! Explore the Old Town, take the cable car to Narikala, scout out street art, and gorge yourself on good food and wine. In the evening, head to Fabrika to meet travelers and locals alike.
Day 2: Take a day trip to Kazbegi. With just five days in Georgia you only have time for one trip to the mountains. A day trip to Kazbegi will take you along the Georgian Military Highway through the Caucasus Mountains to the postcard-perfect Mount Kazbek. Hike or hire a car to take you up to the Gergeti Trinity Church — or just enjoy the views from the terrace of Rooms Hotel. You can get to Kazbegi by yourself via marshrutka, but there are also affordable day trips that are worth checking out. The benefit of going on a tour is stopping along the way at places like the Ananuri Fortress, the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument, and Gudauri.
Day 3: Roam through Kakheti. A day trip to Georgia’s laid-back wine country is a must. You can hire a driver for the day, seeing more of the region, or you can take a marshrutka to Sighnaghi and spend the day bouncing between the different shops and restaurants operated by local wineries.
Day 4: Hike around Davit Gareji. Get a little taste of the wilderness by exploring the arid caves of Davit Gareji. The monastery is impressive on its own, but the view of Azerbaijan’s desert – complete with border guards stonily eyeing you – elevates the experience to a new level. The easiest way to see Davit Gareji is with the Gareji Line tour company, which runs affordable day trips.
Day 5: End in Tbilisi. Spend one last day in Tbilisi, enjoying its laid back culture to recover from your adventures. After breakfast, take the morning to see the holy sites of Mtskheta or wander beneath the Chronicle of Georgia. Scrub away any of the dirt from your trip at the sulphur baths. If you still have energy left, party at one of Tbilisi’s nightclubs.
A 1 Week in Georgia Itinerary
In addition to all of the above, with two extra days I recommend going west. Where you go depends on what you like to do.
For nature lovers
Day 6: Move to Borjomi! You can take the tourist train to Bakuriani in the morning, then hop on a marshrutka back to Borjomi to enjoy the spa town and park in the afternoon, staying there overnight.
Day 7: Climb the caves of Vardzia. Take a marshrutka to Vardzia early in the morning and wander through its labyrinth caves. The way back to Tbilisi will take three or four hours, requiring either a transfer in Borjomi or the town of Akhaltsikhe, but marshrutkas run pretty regularly. Alternatively, save time and effort by getting a day tour to Vardzia from Borjomi.
For beach bums
Day 6: Time for Batumi! Take the high speed train to the Black Sea. Spend the day checking out Batumi’s eccentric architecture, looking for street art and strolling the boardwalk.
Day 7: Keep it chill. Spend the day bouncing between the beach and the Botanical Gardens. If you’re up for a short marshrutka ride, you can truck on down to Gonio for different beach vibes.
For nostalgia hunters
Day 6: Ride on to Kutaisi. An easy marshrutka ride will resettle you into a new part of the country. Either spend the day getting to know the city and seeing its sights, or do some exploration in Tskaltubo’s abandoned spas or the surrounding caves.
Day 7: Go to new heights in Chiatura. Take the marshrutka past the bizarre Katskhi Column, where a church stands perched on a narrow rock column, and continue on to the Soviet-era mining town. Join the locals riding the rickety but reliable cars before more modern counterparts replace them.
A Georgia Two Week Itinerary
Many of the recommendations from the other itineraries stay the same, but with two weeks in Georgia your travel possibilities open up a lot. If you want to go hiking in Svaneti, then it’s definitely advisable to spend at least two weeks in the country.
However, to hike in Svaneti you will have to plan your trip carefully. The trails between Mestia and Ushguli usually aren’t clear from snow until the end of May at the earliest. Conditions start to get bad at the end of October.
If you’re not interested in doing the four-day hike in Svaneti, Mestia is still a beautiful spot to visit. You can join a shared taxi to drive to Ushguli for the day or even stay for a night. There are some day hikes you can do from Mestia or Ushguli as well.
Day 1: Arrive in Georgia. Spend your first day getting acquainted with Tbilisi’s Old Town. If you’ve arrived on a weekend, check out what’s happening at the nightclubs. Otherwise, enjoy learning about Georgian wines and food.
Day 2: Do some day drinking in Kakheti. With only one marshrutka a day connecting Sighnaghi and Telavi, it’s best to choose one of the towns to visit. Sighnaghi’s picturesque streets make for a romantic setting. Telavi brings you a little closer to the vineyards, which is a bonus if you are driving yourself or have hired a car for the day. There are also several interesting places around Telavi, including the Chavchavadze Estate, a former royal residence, and the Alaverdi Cathedral, one of the tallest churches in the country.
Day 3: Take the easy ‘trek’ up to Kazbegi. Even if you plan on hiking in Svaneti, seeing the Gergeti Trinity Church at Kazbegi is a must. Consider a day tour so you can stop and see other sights along the way.
Day 4: Look over the border into Azerbaijan. A day trip to the Davit Gareji Monastery will show you just how diverse Georgia’s landscapes are and get you back to Tbilisi in time to catch the night train to Zugdidi, the first stop on the journey to the mountains in Svaneti. When booking your ticket for the night train, don’t forget to order sheets for your bed!
Day 5: Start your trek in Svaneti. After arriving in Zugdidi, board one of the waiting marshrutkas that take passengers to Mestia. Mestia is the starting point for hiking in Svaneti. You can base yourself in Mestia and do a variety of day hikes, but nothing beats the popular four-day hike from Mestia to Ushguli. The marshrutka will drop you off in Mestia just as the restaurants are opening, so I recommend grabbing a hearty breakfast, stocking up on any last minute supplies, getting your final questions answered by the tourist information office, and then starting off on your way. The hike from Mestia to Zhabeshi is about 16 kilometres, after which you can relax at one of the several guesthouses.
Day 6: Continue your Svaneti hike to Adishi. This day’s hike is around 11 kilometres — though if you want to cheat, you can ask your guesthouse host to drive you up the road past the difficult ascent. It’s difficult to pick the most stunning of these ancient villages, but Adishi would be a front-runner.
Day 7: Manage a tricky river crossing. The nearly 19 kilometre hike from Adishi to Iprali starts with a fairly level walk — until you get to the river. You can either pay the locals to use their horses to cross the river or cross it on foot. After that, it’s a steep climb up. It’s a tough day of hiking, but worth it when you collapse into your bed in Iprali.
Day 8: Complete the trek to Ushguli. While it’s possible to arrange a car back to Mestia from Iprali, one more day of hiking will get you to Ushguli. This petite town is the highest continually settled village in Europe. You can choose to spend the night or join the day-travellers on their return drive back to Mestia.
Day 9: Return to civilization. Marshrutkas heading to Tbilisi (10 hours), Kutaisi (4.5 hours), Batumi (6 hours) and Zugdidi (3 hours) leave in the morning. Take the one to Batumi to avoid having to backtrack later. When you arrive at the Black Sea, spend some time enjoying the creature comforts of the resort town.
Day 10: Enjoy the restorative powers of Batumi. Whether it’s soaking in the sunshine, exploring the different regions of the Botanical Gardens, or stuffing yourself with the region’s famous khachapuri, today you can recuperate from your four-day hike. Alternatively, if you want to experience a different kind of beach vibe, catch a marshrutka heading up to Ureki and spend the day lazing around on the magnetic black sand.
Day 11: Head back towards Georgia’s heartland. Take a marshrutka to Kutaisi, where you can spend your time in numerous ways. Visit the ‘second Jerusalem’ of Gelati Monastery, go raftering or cave crawling, or sneak into abandoned sanatoriums in Tskaltubo.
Day 12: Get lost in a mountain maze. Hop on the marshrutka to Akhaltsikhe, where you will change buses for Vardzia. Spend your day climbing through this ancient and vast cave monastery – make sure you find the hidden passage behind the Church of the Assumption that will lead you deeper into the mountain. If you can’t find a direct marshrutka to Borjomi you can head back to Akhaltsikhe and catch one from there.
Day 13: Retrace the steps of leaders. Borjomi is home to a mineral water park, a peaceful wooded plateau and a national park, so you can choose whichever activity you have the energy for at this point. After enjoying the peace and healing waters of Borjomi, catch a marshrutka to Gori. A quick stop in the Stalin museum will leave your head spinning, but Tbilisi is just a short ride away.
Day 14: End your trip back where you started. Have one more authentic Georgian experience by soaking in the sulphur baths. Make sure you stock up on Georgian wine before you get on your plane.
Want to really get off the beaten track in Georgia?
The Tusheti region may be growing in fame, but tourist numbers are still low as the area remains largely inaccessible throughout the year. With only one road in and out of Tusheti, which gets blocked during the winter months, even the locals tend to stay there only during the summer. But summer in Tusheti is jaw-droppingly beautiful. With mountain peaks, ancient villages and herds of sheep, visiting Tusheti is like stepping back in time.
If you want to visit Tusheti, you need to time your visit carefully. The road does not open until May, at the earliest, and even then there might be delays if it has sustained damage throughout the winter. Then, you have to make sure you allow yourself the time and money to hire the 4WD car needed to navigate the road. If you are traveling alone, you can head to Telavi and try to hook up with other travellers going to Tusheti to save on costs.
Once you get to Omalo, the town that acts as the center for tourist activity, you have options for how to explore the region. If you don’t enjoy trekking, you can hire a horse and guide. Or you can rely on your own two feet. There are a few day hikes you can do, or you can strike out on more ambitious treks. Some hikes can take four to five days and will require camping at least some nights, so make sure you’re properly geared up before you go.
To experience local life to the fullest, try to time your visit with one of the mountain festivals at the end of the summer. Each year the specific dates vary, so do a little research to find out when Tushetoba, a folk festival, and Atnigenoba, a ritiualistic festival, are taking place.
Don’t try to pet the sheep dogs. They may be fluffy and cute, but they have been bred and trained to protect the herd — and at 100 kilograms, they are nothing to mess with.
In Georgia food and drink are a symbol of community and hospitality. Georgian cuisine has recently become an international sensation, but most publications highlight khachapuri and khinkali. While those dishes are undeniably delicious, typical Georgian food is so much more.
The Georgian diet is diverse, but if you are going to start anywhere I recommend khinkali. Khinkali are pyramid-shaped dumplings stuffed with different fillings – mostly different kinds of meat, though there are cheese khinkali for vegetarians! There is a special method for eating khinkali. They will arrive to your table steaming hot. Once they have cooled slightly, pick it up by its top nub, turn it upside down, and bite a small hole along the fold. Slurp out the juice and then carefully (or ravenously) finish off the rest of the dumpling in a few bites. You can decide whether or not to eat the nub, but I’m going to suggest saving room for the rest of the Georgian dishes!
Another favourite Georgian dish is shashlik, also called mtsvadi. Popular both in restaurants and at barbeques, shashlik is skewers of grilled meat. Try it with spicy adjika sauce or tkemali, a cherry plum sauce.
You will also see a lot of sulguni cheese, which is sour, slightly elastic, and sometimes smoked. It’s either served on its own or as part of other dishes.
Pkhali is a common appetiser at Georgian restaurants. Pkhali starts with a ground walnut base, and then a minced vegetable like eggplant, spinach, or beetroot is mixed in. It is usually served in small balls that you can spread on bread. Badrijani nigvzit is another tasty starter, strips of grilled eggplant wrapped around walnut paste and topped with pomegranate seeds.
If you like soup, you definitely need to try kharcho. With a cherry plum base, it’s slightly sour. It also has meat, rice, and walnuts in it. The spices used are slightly differently depending on the region, so it’s worth having more than once! Chakapuli is a soup with lamb or veal, made with white wine and cherry plums. Another staple is lobio, a spicy bean dish that is sometimes served as a thick stew or as a mashed spread.
If you want to be a little more health-conscious — or just need a break from all the meat and cheese — cucumber and tomato salads with herbs are very popular in Georgia. They are extra delicious with walnut paste mixed in.
Georgian bread is almost a reason to visit all on its own. Shotis puri, or just shoti, is the standard Georgian bread, a canoe-shaped loaf baked by being stuck to the wall of a conical shaped oven. If you can watch the baker actually slapping the dough inside the oven and pulling it out with metal tongs, you will gain a new appreciation for the hard work of bread making. Crispy on the outside, sumptuous and chewy on the inside, shoti is an integral part of a Georgian meal (or perfect just as a snack).
Khachapuri is a staple of the Georgian diet, but this cheesy bread comes in many different regional varieties. Imeruli khachapuri is two thin layers of soft bread with salty cheese melted inside. Megruli khachapuri is the same but with an extra layer of cheese on top. Adjarian khachaprui is slightly different from the other two. It is a literal (dream) boat of hot melted cheese, reminiscent of fondue. Usually it’s served with butter and an egg cracked on top. You mix the ingredients together quickly, then tear off pieces of the bread and dip it in the luscious cheese. Achma khachapuri is layers of pastry and cheese, resulting in lasagna-looking squares. Penovani khachapuri is baked as flaky puff pastry squares, folded around a melted cheese interior.
Lobiani is another tasty snack. Similar to Imeruli khachapuri, lobiani is two layers of bread, but with a spicy, smoky bean filling. Some regional varieties also have smoked meat on top.
Another bread that deserves a mention is mchadi, Georgian corn bread. Can’t get enough cheese? Then make sure you order chvishtari, which is mchadi stuffed with sulguni.
Georgian drinks are just as much part of the culture as the food is. For non-alcoholic drinks, lemonade is king. It comes in many flavors, but I highly recommend the tarragon lemonade for something a little unusual. Georgians love their mineral water, and while the Borjomi bottled water is not as potent as drinking straight from the source, I swear you can still feel its healing powers. Especially after a night of drinking Georgia’s other favorite drinks!
Georgian wine is perhaps the oldest wine making tradition in the world. When it comes to Georgian wine varieties, the industry makes everything from fortified to dry wines and everything in between. While I definitely recommend that you do a more formal wine tasting to learn about the traditions, some of the best wine I had in Georgia came out of massive plastic jugs, homemade by friends and their families, or whatever the house wine was at restaurants. While many vineyards produce wine using modern European methods, make sure you try qveri wine. Qveri is the traditional method for making wine in Georgia, with the wine fermented in clay jars buried in the earth.
If you’re interested in seeing the full process of Georgian wine making, visit the country during the grape harvest. Rtveli happens from the end of September to late October, and Kakheti fully enjoys the harvesting and pressing process with food, music and wine. If you want to get your hands dirty, you will be more than welcome to help out in the vineyard.
Ancient tradition was not to be wasteful, and winemakers who found themselves with the leftovers put it to good use making chacha. Chacha is a strong brandy made from grape pomace, and at 40-65% alcohol it doesn’t mess around. If you attend a supra or visit a Georgian home, be careful with how fast and liberally they pour their chacha or brandy. It might go down easy (or not) but you’ll feel it in the morning.
Georgian beer is experiencing a craft revival, at least in Tbilisi. Even in the last few years, there has been a boom of craft manufacturers and bars interested in keeping quality beer on tap.
Georgian desserts typically showcase the nuts and fruit of the region, so you can trick yourself into thinking they are healthy. If you’re looking for something a bit sweeter, you can try gozinaki, a type of candy made with nuts and honey, or sticky, flaky baklava.
Everywhere in Georgia you’ll see long strings of what look like lumpy candles — in fact, it’s churchkhela. Churchkhela has been called “Georgian snickers.” Nuts are strung together, then covered in a fruit juice mixture which hardens. The most common kind of churchkhela is with walnuts and grape. Churchkhela are a popular snack all over Georgia and are great for refueling when you need some energy.
Almost every meal in Georgia is massive, but not every one is a ‘supra.’ The Georgian supra is a true feast, a social and cultural event with its own rules and customs. One of the integral elements is the tamada, or toastmaster. The tamada is the master of ceremonies, introducing the ritual toasts. Throughout a supra you’ll give toasts to God, the country, saints, family and friends, old and new.
Dietary restrictions in Georgia
Despite the heavy focus on bread, meat and cheese, it’s possible to enjoy Georgian cuisine even with dietary restrictions. People with gluten intolerances will just have to steer clear of the constant bread basket or khachapuri plate (and maybe answer a few concerned questions from locals). For vegetarians, there are plenty of mouth-watering vegetable and legume-focused dishes — not including the half dozen different kinds of khachapuri. Vegans in Georgia will have the most difficult task, as cheese and sour cream are go-to garnishes. However, the chef should be able to make the small modifications to make the food vegan-friendly. And in Tbilisi, a few vegan restaurants have already broached the market.
- The Republic of Georgia is 69,700 square kilometers.
- Different places in Western Georgia are featured in Greek mythology.
- Just under 4 million people live in Georgia.
- Georgians actually call their country Sakartvelo, themselves Kartvelebi, and the Georgian language Kartuli.
- The Georgian alphabet has 33 letters.
- A person’s surname can indicate what region they are from.
- There are three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Georgia: Gelati Monastery, the Historical Monuments of Mtskheta, and Upper Svaneti.
- As an Orthodox country, Georgia follows the Julian Calendar, which means Christmas is celebrated on January 7.
- Georgia claims to have been making wine for 8,000 years.
- Sergei Paradjanov, one of Armenia’s greatest film directors, was born in Tbilisi.
- The current President of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili, was elected in 2018 and is the first female president.
A Georgia history primer
Considering its geographic position, Georgian history is understandably nuanced and complex. It’s nearly impossible to summarise the thousands of years and millions of decisions that have affected Georgia, but it’s worth noting some of the bigger events that have helped bring the country to where it is today.
Ancient kingdoms have existed in what is modern day Georgia for thousands of years, but they first came together as the kingdom of Georgia in the 8th and 9th centuries AD. Georgia has many proud legends about its early monarchs, especially the legendary Tamar the Great.
However, Georgia didn’t remain an independent entity for long. Besieged by the Mongols, then the Ottoman and Iranian empires, Georgia was finally integrated into the Russian Empire in the 19th century. With the collapse of the Russian Empire, Georgia tried to establish independence once again but eventually joined the Soviet Union.
For such a small country, Georgia had an extremely important role in the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin was a Georgian revolutionary who eventually rose to the role of dictator. Georgia had a tumultuous time as part of the Soviet Union, reaching a fever pitch in 1989 when a peaceful demonstration turned deadly. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Georgia decided to pursue independence.
But independence did not provide immediate peace and stability for Georgia. The 1990s were a troublesome time, with internal conflict, mafia rule and corruption holding the country back. When it appeared that the 2003 parliamentary election was rigged, Georgians took to the streets for twenty days of protesting. The Rose Revolution marked an important moment in Georgian history, as the people ousted their corrupt president and put into place leadership that looked to strengthen ties with Europe.
The following year, Mikheil Saakashvili became the President of Georgia, and his government put into effect new laws and reforms that helped drastically improve the country’s sociopolitical situation.
But trouble did not totally disappear. In 2008 Georgia and Russia entered armed conflict over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. When the fighting stopped, Georgia had been forced to completely withdraw from the regions. Following a 2012 scandal concerning the prison system, Saakashvili was not re-elected.
Since then, both internal and external relations have largely stabilised. It is still an upward battle for Georgia, which has suffered for a long time from outside pressures and internal challenges. The country is pursuing membership with the European Union and NATO, and foreign investors are starting to see the potential in this Caucasus state. From the chaos of the 1990s, Georgia has risen to be one of the safest countries in the world. Tourism is growing and in 2018 eight million people visited, more than double the country’s actual population.
Georgia may not yet have returned to the heights of the Golden Age of Tamar the Great, but it’s making an impressive comeback.
Religion in Georgia
In Georgia religion is still very relevant, and it exerts a powerful influence over public life. Georgia claims to be one of the first Christian nations in the world, converted by the female evangelist St. Nino, and many of its tourist sites are connected with its religious heritage. Even today, despite the dismantling of the religious institution experienced under the Soviet Union, the vast majority of Georgians identify as Eastern Orthodox Christian. Religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter are faithfully observed and can be an insightful time to visit for those who are interested in Georgian culture.
Islam is also practiced in Georgia, though by a much smaller percentage of the population. Most Muslims live in the Adjara region, close to Turkey, as well as close to Armenia and Azerbaijan.
How to dress in Georgia
Perhaps because of its religious culture, people in Georgia tend to dress on the conservative side. You might want to leave short shorts at home, but in general it’s fine to dress as you like.
However, if you want to enter any of the churches, you will need to be covered appropriately – that goes for men too. Usually the churches provide scarves for women to cover their heads and shoulders, and giant black wraps for women and men to cover their knees if they’re wearing shorts. If you would prefer not to use a communal covering, pack clothes and accessories for your church visits.
Language in Georgia
The Georgian language is unique, belonging to the Kartvelian language family. The written script is beautifully curly and looks like something you would find in a fantasy book. Many people think it’s actually quite easy to learn, so if you are a lingua-phile you should see if you can master the basics of this singular language.
If you don’t know Georgian, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to travel. In Georgia language education has equipped its citizens with strong second-language skills. Older generations tend to know Russian, while younger people usually know at least a little bit of English.
Is Georgia safe?
Georgia may be an emerging tourist destination, but that doesn’t mean it’s the Wild West. Georgians are some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met, and the country has worked very hard to move past the tumultuous years following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Is it safe to travel to Tbilisi?
Tbilisi is in general a very safe city. Crime rates are very low, and I always felt safe walking around by myself no matter what time of the day or night. The things to watch out for are the same things you have to watch out for in any big city — though I would recommend extra caution when crossing the street. Georgian traffic is quite aggressive!
With its relatively recent independence from the Soviet Union, Georgia’s political scene is still developing. There are a lot of opinions on how the country should proceed, both in its own government and with its relationships with other countries. Sometimes passions run high enough that political protests happen — either organised or spontaneously. They are generally peaceful, but still it’s best to avoid the area around the Parliament building during these times.
Is it safe to travel to Georgia alone?
Absolutely. I spent several weeks traveling around Georgia by myself and felt comfortable nearly the entire time. Just use your head. Be mindful of your belongings and watch out for pickpockets. Hitch-hiking is popular, even among Georgians, but I wouldn’t recommend hitch-hiking alone anywhere. Many hostels don’t have lockers, so you might want to invest in luggage security gear if you’re travelling with valuables.
Is Georgia safe for female travellers?
Georgia is very safe for all travellers, but you might get some attention being a woman alone. I think there are two reasons for this. 1. Georgians are very social and like to do things together, so it’s unusual for a woman to travel alone. 2. It’s a very open culture, and if someone wants to talk to you they will. I had people start talking to me on the street more than once, especially in Batumi, eventually asking me for my number.
Is it safe to hike in Georgia alone?
When it comes to hiking in general, take extra precautions when hiking by yourself, no matter the country. When you hike in Georgia, you go to some very remote places that may not have rescue or support services available. It is not very popular to go hiking in Georgia alone, but I did meet people who did it. Still, it’s a smart idea to make a “trail-buddy” or two. You can either hike with them during the day or connect in the evenings. Making trekking friends will probably end up happening anyway, as you meet people along the path.
General travel tips for Georgia
In general, Georgia is extremely safe. But there are a few things you can do to ensure nothing happens — or at the very least, to eliminate some stress and anxiety during your trip.
- Pick up a local SIM card. They are cheap and it’s incredibly useful to have maps and Google at the ready.
- Bring gear to secure your belongings. Outside of Tbilisi and Batumi, not many hostels and guesthouses have lockers. Either don’t bring anything valuable with you or have a plan to secure your belongings in shared accommodation.
- Don’t assume you can keep up with Georgians when it comes to drinking. They have a cultural legacy that will outpace almost anyone else!
- Be alert when driving. Pay attention to the local rules of the road, the dubious nature of Google Maps in less popular places, and the aggressive nature of Georgian drivers.
- Look at your bar bill. There have been the occasional stories of customers being overcharged for drinks. It’s definitely not common, but it’s always best to double-check your bills.
- Use taxi apps when possible. This will protect you from getting ripped off by taxi drivers on the street.
- Avoid hitch-hiking alone. Marshrutkas are fairly cheap, but if you decide to hitch-hike try to find another traveller or even a local heading the same way you are.
- Stay away from political demonstrations and protests. There has been plenty of tension between liberal and conservative groups in recent years, though it’s rare for that tension to break out into violent conflict. Still, tempers can flare so it’s best to keep away from any political gatherings.
Georgia may be a small country, but the depth of history, culture, nature, and hospitality makes it unforgettable. If you come to visit, get ready to fall in love. With all the adventures it has waiting for you, you’ll probably be planning your trip back as soon as you board your plane for home.
About the author:
Amy Butler is a writer from New York City, currently bopping around without a fixed address. Her main activities include befriending bartenders and experiencing different cultures through bread. Read her blog The Wayfarer’s Book or follow her Instagram.