The Republic of Georgia – a country as diverse as it is distinct.
Still largely unknown to tourists outside of Eastern Europe, when Georgia finally gets the international attention it deserves, it will be as an outdoor and adventure travel hotspot. From the peaks of the Caucasus mountains to Kakheti’s rolling semi-deserts, the stony Black Sea coastline to Imereti’s lush inland forests, there’s a landscape and a slew of activities that go with it to suit just about every taste.
Add to this a vivid history of kingdoms and conquest, a brutal but imperative Soviet past and a progressive arts and food scene, and there’s a serious case to be made for Georgia’s towns and cities, too.
It’s true: In many travellers’ humble opinion, Georgia might just be the perfect all-rounder. To help you experience the best of what the country has to offer, here are 5 essential spots to incorporate into your itinerary.
Europe, Asia or the Middle East? Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi, is a hybrid of different influences. You’d be forgiven for feeling a little disorientated.
It may be at a crossroads (both geographically and symbolically), but that doesn’t mean Tbilisi is struggling with its identity – far from it. The religion, the culture, the food, the vernacular architecture and the very way of life here is all fundamentally Georgian. If you have no idea what that means, you’ll have a wonderful time finding out.
The tumbledown courtyards and elegant balconies of the old town. Abanot Ubani’s Turkish-style domed sulfur baths and right next door, Betlemi Street, Tbilisi’s Jewish quarter. Soviet-era taverns, underground bakeries, cozy cafes, converted factories and world-class restaurants. Provocative street art, and a fashion and electronic music scene that is coming into its own (see Bassiani & Khidi). Georgia’s capital city offers up an enticing blend of East and West. Spend at least a few days getting to know Tbilisi, an up-and-coming capital to definitely keep an eye on.
Just three hours drive north of Tbilisi via the spectacular Georgian Military Highway, Kazbegi (also known by its new name, Stepantsminda) has long been a popular high-altitude retreat. If you’re on a tight timeline, it’s the perfect place to get a taste for Georgia’s dramatic mountain scenery without straying too far from the city or the airport.
The small town of Kazbegi is encircled by the surreal, perennially snow-capped Greater Caucasus mountains. Gergeti Trinity Church – perched over Kazbegi at 2,000m above sea level – is a must-see. Outside of winter, you can reach the church on a two-hour climb through alpine meadows. For the more intrepid, there are plenty of single and multi-day hikes that push deeper into the mountains and glaciers along the Russian border.
Back in town, relax at a homestay or treat yourself to a suite at Rooms Kazbegi, a former Soviet spa that has been transformed into Georgia’s premier boutique hotel. Call us to reserve a car with a driver to take you there.
In case you didn’t know, wine is kind of a big deal in Georgia – one of the first countries in the world to pioneer viniculture (8,000 years ago). Georgian wine is made by fermenting whole grapes (stems, skins and all) in an underground clay vessel called a qvevri. After a few days in Kakheti, Georgian wine country, you’ll be very familiar indeed with this unusual technique and the distinctive vino it yields.
Base yourself in historic Sighnaghi, a charming town protected by high stone walls and watchtowers. Organise a driver and trace your way between dozens of wineries and cellar doors, including favourites Kindzmarauli and Shumi. The impressive Khareba winery consists of a series of long tunnels cut into a mountainside. It was supposed to be a bomb shelter; turns out the natural climate control creates the perfect conditions for storing wine!
Wine and worship go hand in hand in Kakheti. The area is also famous for its churches perched proudly on mountain tops, including Gremi and Nekresi Monastery.
Georgia’s position at the crossroads of Asia and Europe has meant living under the constant threat of invasion. In centuries past, Georgians looked to cloisters and hidden settlements for protection – none of them more impressive than Vardzia, a colossal self-sufficient ‘cave village’ in the country’s south.
Set on the slopes of Erusheti Mountain, Vardzia was constructed in the 12th century by locals seeking sanctuary from invading Mongols. In its heyday, Vardzia stretched for 500m and was 13 tiers high, boasting more than 6,000 individual grotto apartments, an irrigation system, a church, and a throne room for Queen Tamar, the monarch who decreed this incredible feat of engineering. Most of the complex was destroyed by an earthquake less than a century after it was finished, but much of the stone architecture can still be seen and appreciated today
If you’re not one to shy away from dark tourism, pay a visit to the hometown of one of Georgia’s most notorious exports, Joseph Stalin. The infamous leader of the Soviet Union was born and raised in Gori, less than 100km east of Tbilisi. Unlike just about everywhere else in Georgia, in Gori, the former dictator is not entirely hated.
One of the first things you see after arriving in Gori is a massive Stalin poster advertising the local grocery store. The eponymous main avenue still bears Stalin’s name, as does the city park and a number of civic buildings. The zenith of Gori’s Stalin subculture is the Joseph Stalin Museum, an institution wholly dedicated to preserving his memory through photographs, documents and memorabilia. On the grounds of the Museum is the wooden house where Stalin was born and the personal armoured train carriage he used later in life. Tour guides do a suspiciously good job of glossing over the gory aspects of Stalin’s reign in favour of portraying him as a benevolent leader. Fancy a tour? Reserve a car with Unirent today and enjoy the magical moments that await you.
Credit to Emily Lush.