Mtskheta
Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi

Georgia, one of the 15 post-Soviet nations, sits in the Southern Caucasus as one of three former Soviet oblasts in the region to have gained independence, alongside Armenia and Azerbaijan. The national language is Georgian, spoken natively by around 85% of the population and is a unique Kartvelian language with its own script and few relations to other language trees. English is widely spoken throughout Georgia, but you may also hear Russian, Azeri (Azerbaijani), Armenian, Abkhaz and Ossetian in certain areas. The capital, Tbilisi, is the largest city and a can’t miss during your time in Georgia.

Geographic Overview of Georgia

Georgia is a Post-Soviet nation in the Southern Caucasus region, bordering Russia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, Armenia to the southeast and Turkey to the south. Georgia lies on the eastern side of the Black Sea, which connects through the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul to the Mediterranean Sea. For the drastic ethnic and religious diversity in the region, Georgia maintains relatively neutral relations with its neighbors, aside from its two breakaway regions in the west and north central parts of the country, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Georgia is a stunning country, seeing tourism rates spike in the last 20 years. Its mountains and beautiful hikes along with the plentiful vineyards scattered around Georgia’s distinct regions have brought travelers from all across the globe. Georgia’s three international airports are in their three largest cities: Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi. Of course, most flights land in the capital, Tbilisi, but there’s many options to land in Kutaisi or Batumi as well. Many flights connect Georgia to Armenia and Azerbaijan, Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. Inside Georgia, you can get to urban and rural areas by train or by minibus. Rental cars are also readily available to get you to more remote locations.

Travel Routes Around Georgia

Regional

Compared to other common backpacker regions, the Caucasus might be a bit complicated to get around. Domestically, you should have no problem. But due to the challenging geopolitical landscape, not everything will be straightforward.

COVID caused the land border between Georgia and Azerbaijan to shut down. However, it is expected to reopen in July of 2023, so keep an eye out. There are daily trains that run from Tbilisi to Yerevan (Armenia) and normally to Baku as well. The Georgian railway site will have all the info you need.

From Abkhazia, trains run north towards Sochi, and further into Russia. However, if you are eager to travel to Abkhazia, it’s not exactly straightforward. You will need to take the train to Zugdidi and then hire a taxi to drive you to the Abkhaz border. Most likely, you will need a visa to enter Abkhazia – check here.

If you choose to go to Armenia, you can continue to Iran from Armenia, into Tabriz, or further to Tehran. Most likely you will have to take a bus the full way into Iran from Yerevan.

Domestic

Similar to many other countries, domestic travel around Georgia is a bit simpler than traveling internationally. However, you should consider both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as their own countries, as they both require their own visas to enter the break away regions. To see the rest of the country, you can take most forms of transport, either a bus, train, rental car or flight to get to your next destination.

There are no large commercial flights that run domestic flights in Georgia, but if you want to fly for a relatively inexpensive cost, check out Vanilla Sky. They fly from just outside of Tbilisi (Natakhtari) to four cities in Georgia. A one-way flight should cost under $50 USD.

The Georgian railway will get you to most destinations west of Tbilisi, showcasing the beauty of the Georgian countryside. To get all the way to Batumi, it should cost around 35 Lari, or $14 USD for a second-class, one-way ticket. Other main cities you can get to by train are Gori, Kutaisi and Mtskheta.

The bus is a cheaper option that will get you to most other destinations in the country. A 2.5 hour ride to the eastern city of Sighnaghi will cost only 7 Lari, or just under $3 USD.

My Journey Around Georgia

I wasn’t able to make it to every city I wanted to visit in Georgia, but I was able to experience a variety of different landscapes throughout the country. I flew into Tbilisi, and unless you’re taking a Wizzair flight to Kutaisi, you probably will too. Tbilisi is a stunning city filled with amazing Airbnbs and affordable hostels. There’s a plethora of fantastic restaurants, but if you want to splurge on a night out, make sure you make your way to Barbarestan, which easily has some of the best food in the country.

Some of the biggest things to check out in Tbilisi: The Chronicles of Georgia, the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi, the Dry Bridge Market, the Narikala Fortress, Mother of Georgia, the Georgian National Museum, and the Sioni Cathedral. The Fortress can be accessed by cable car that gives you a whole view over the city, with the Mother of Georgia statue just a couple minutes walk away. If you’re in the mood for something refreshing, check out the Sulphur Public Bath House for a very local Georgian experience.

Dry Bridge Market
Svititskhoveli Cathedral – Mtskheta

If you’re driving, or can get a ride over, check out the Chronicles of Georgia on your way to Mtskheta, the old capital of Georgia. Make sure to see the Jvari Monastery that overlooks the Kura River and the old city. While you can take the train or a minibus from Tbilisi to Mtskheta, if you want to see the Chronicles of Georgia or the Jvari Monastery, you may need to get a taxi. A taxi will likely cost around $6-10 for a 30 minute drive to the Chronicles of Georgia, and then approximately the same amount to get to Mtskheta.

Heading East

After Tbilisi, we made our way east to Sighnaghi, a small town in the notable Kakheti region, most well known for its wine. Sighnaghi is also known for its stunning fortress and city walls, which were originally built to defend the city against Dagestani tribesmen attacking from the north in the 18th century. Now it remains a popular tourist destination and a unique piece of architecture. You can walk along the walls have witness an amazing view, with the Caucasus mountains to the north, marking the border with Russia and Azerbaijan.

I just made a day trip out of Sighnaghi, grabbing lunch and taking in the views, but don’t shy away from spending a night. There are numerous wine tours around the region, so check out a great guide from Wander Lush on how to navigate things. Often times, I would act a bit more on the spontaneous side and find more local wineries and just knock on someone’s door! On numerous occasions the impromptu wine tasting ended up being free, which of course meant we still left with a unique bottle to enjoy that evening.

A Quick Stop in the Mountains

After coming from Sighnaghi, we took a long 5 hour drive north, just shy of the Russian border, to a small town called Stepantsminda. What’s worth noting about Georgia – even if there wasn’t anything to drive to, the drive to Stepantsminda was unbelievable. Mountains everywhere, beekeepers selling fresh honey every mile, and paragliders dotting the sky. Just make sure you bring a jacket, because the higher up you go into the Caucasus mountains, the less it feels like Tbilisi.

If you choose to stay the night, it’ll definitely be worth it. Get yourself a bowl of borscht and bundle up in a cozy cabin in the valley. Wake up to an amazing view with the mountains on your doorstep and a fresh loaf of bread at the bakery down the street. Copy “MJ5R+VXF, სტეფანწმინდა” into Google Maps to grab the exact location of the bakery. The fresh Georgian bread went really well with the local honey we grabbed from a vendor on the side of the highway on the drive up. You’ll see numerous honey sellers all along the road to Stepantsminda, with each of them selling a variety of different kinds and flavors.

The Russian-Georgian Friendship Monument is about 80% of the way to Stepantsminda from Tbilisi, near the ski town of Gudauri. You’ll easily see it next to the highway on the drive up, and wow, is it worth the stop. This video was taken in September, and most of the mountains on the drive up are snow-capped. I didn’t get the chance to try paragliding, but you can book an experience to join the gliders in the video.

Westward Bound

After Tbilisi, Sighnaghi and Stepantsminda, we headed west to Gori and Kutaisi. We just had a quick stop in Gori to see the Joseph Stalin museum and his birthplace. The museum is really interesting, but everything inside is all in Russian and Georgian, so either you’ll have to use Google Translate for everything or spend an extra couple of dollars for an English guide. Usually it will be a group, so it won’t just be you getting the tour.

In my opinion, Kutaisi wasn’t very interesting, but the Airbnb I stayed in there was one of the most unique and interesting I’ve ever stayed in. The owner is a custom interior designer and much of the house is made of recycled materials utilized in intricate decour. I would highly recommend going to the Gelati Monastery and the Bagrati Cathedral while in Kutaisi. You can also catch a cable car to have a nice view over the whole city.

Many people head further to the coast to Batumi, or up north in the western part of the country to Mestia. You can take the train all the way to Batumi and a bus up to Mestia, or like I mentioned earlier, you can get a cheap Vanilla Sky flight to Mestia.

Devil’s Valley

Georgian Cuisine

Georgian cuisine may not be as well known as its wine, but I would highly recommend to explore it as much as you can. Get your fair share of khinkali, khatchapuri, churchkhela, and pkhali! Georgian cuisine is quite unique, and it will be pretty difficult to find any of these dishes in other parts of the region, so make sure to eat up while you’re there! On top of the main dishes, Georgian honey is very commonly spread over bread and it comes in a variety of colors. I most often saw sellers on the side of the road, but it is also frequently sold in markets around the country.

Enjoy!

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