The ultimate list of unique places to visit in Georgia (the country) – from cities and essential places to go, to alternative and obscure destinations, as recommended by an expat. Includes the best things to do in Georgia, transport instructions and insider tips.
Cities to visit in Georgia
Georgia’s regional capitals each offer visitors something unique – be it a window onto local history and traditions or a taste of distinct regional cuisine. Here are eight of my favourite cities in Georgia and the top things to see, do and eat for each.
When visiting Georgia, it’s mandatory to spend at least a couple of days in Tbilisi, the nation’s capital and hub for the arts, culture and food. Tbilisi’s history dates back to at least the 5th century and its position at the geographical and figurative crossroads of East and West has meant it’s always found a way to incorporate the best of both worlds.
Tbilisi lies in a valley ringed by mountains, each with a soaring cable car or funicular at the ready to whisk you away towards magnificent views. The medieval Narikala Fortress and Soviet-embellished Mtatsminda face off from opposing hills, standing guard over ancient churches, the domed bathhouses of Abanotubani, and modern marvels including the Bridge of Peace and Rike Concert Hall.
Tbilisi is a symphony of different religions, cultures and traditions. Synagogues, Orthodox cathedrals, Armenian churches and a mosque are all within shouting distance of each other, while old bazaars and merchant’s mansions allude to the city’s history as a trading hub.
Tbilisi is a city of details, so after a broad overview from afar, it’s time to take the streets with a magnifying glass. Hours can be spent examining the heritage buildings in the Old Town and in Sololaki, Tbilisi’s oldest neighbourhood.
Tbilisi’s wine bars and Georgian restaurants showcase the best of the country’s fresh produce, regional cuisines and organic winemaking techniques. And beautiful boutiques and studios trade in handmade lurji supra blue tablecloths, cloisonne enamel and other beautiful objects to satisfy all your earthly desires.
Don’t miss: A soak and scrub at the sulfur baths, a Tbilisi institution. For etiquette tips and the best bathhouses in the city.
Smaller than Tbilisi and with a completely different feel, Georgia’s second-biggest city tends to get skipped over. Those who only visit Kutaisi airport are making a terrible mistake: This is Georgia’s most charming city, in my eyes anyway!
It’s also one of Europe’s oldest. Inhabited since the 6th century BC, Kutaisi served as the political centre of the Kingdom of Colchis in the Middle Ages. Later it became Georgia’s cultural capital – the stomping ground of countless poets, musicians and scholars – until Soviet times, when Kutaisi was retrofitted for industry and her skyline remoulded.
I’m told she lost some of her charm in the process, but with all the cute restaurants and vintage tea houses that dot the town today, you wouldn’t know it.
Browse the Green Bazaar, ride the cable car over the roaring Rioni river, and step inside Kutaisi’s synagogue, one of the most beautiful in the region. On the outskirts of Kutaisi you’ll find the UNESCO-Listed Gelati Monastery and pretty Motsameta Monastery, linked together by a forest hiking trail. Bagrati Cathedral is the city’s best sunset spot.
Kutaisi is the gateway to Imereti region, the lush western portion of Georgia known for its canyons, waterfalls, caves and wineries. There are plenty more must-sees within a day trip’s distance of Kutaisi that I’ll get to later.
Don’t miss: Lunch at Bikentina’s Kebabery, one of Kutaisi’s best budget eats. For more foodie inspiration,
Georgia’s biggest Black Sea resort city has a reputation for being ‘the Las Vegas of the Caucasus’. But now that Batumi is undergoing something of a renaissance, my perception has totally changed . Living in Batumi showed me a different side of the city and I now consider it one of my favourite places in Georgia.
Batumi still centres on the same old stretch of sand (or should I say, pebbles) that has been attracting summer tourists for centuries. But away from the shoreline, Batumi has a slew of cool cafes, creative spaces and an excellent street art scene. Love it or hate it, the outlandish modern architecture is a highlight, and the Old Town is full of surprises. Add a wonderful produce market, a scenic aerial cableway, some great urban hikes, and access to some of Western Georgia’s best national parks to the mix, and you have an all-round excellent destination.
Another perk of visiting Batumi is getting acquainted with distinctive Adjarian culture and cuisine. This is the birthplace of the famous Adjaruli Khachapuri and a range of other indulgent delicacies, including my personal favourite, Borano (melted cheese smothered in hot butter).
Walk or cycle Batumi Boulevard, an idyllic pathway that stretches along the seafront. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can cycle all the way to the Turkish border. Batumi is an ever-evolving city that has so much to offer beyond the beach.
One of the oldest cities in Georgia and the old kingdom’s capital for almost a millennium, Mtskheta is located just 20km from Tbilisi and is a popular day trip destination. It’s easy to reach by marshrutka or taxi in under an hour, and can be combined with a visit to Gori or used as a stopover on your way from east to west.
Mtskheta played a pivotal role in the evolution of Christianity in Georgia, and the small city is packed with important churches as a result. One of the nation’s four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Historical Monuments of Mtskheta, is located here and comprises a set of monasteries noted for their frescoes and inscriptions in an early version of the Georgian alphabet.
The 11th-century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral sits proudly in the middle of the city and gives Mtskheta its overall structure. Georgia’s second-largest religious building behind Sameba in Tbilisi, the location for the monumental structure is said to have been chosen by Georgia’s patron saint, St. Nino, herself. Georgia’s answer to Westminster, this is where kings were coronated and later laid to rest. At least 10 monarchs enjoy their eternal slumber beneath the heavy stone floor.
Jvari Monastery, built in the 6th century on a hill above Mtskheta, is a must-visit in Georgia. The church itself is quite modest inside, but the view from the churchyard – a stunning panorama of the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, one blue and the other emerald – is simply breathtaking.
The birthplace of Joseph Stalin and home to the Stalin Museum, Gori has a reputation for being Georgia’s premier dark tourism destination. Visiting the museum – which includes Stalin’s birth house and armoured train carriage – is a trip to say the least, especially when you take the guided tour, which I highly recommend you do.
Stalin is certainly the city’s main claim to fame, but there’s a lot more to Gori than that. Once a pitstop on the Silk Road, Gori sits at the foot of a massive hill crowned with a distinctive stone fortress that cascades down towards the river’s edge. Climb to the top of the fortress for views over the plains of Shida Kartli region – or for even better views, venture further to Gori Jvari church, a short taxi ride or hike from town on the opposite bank of the river.
Gori is a peaceful city with lots of parks, tidy streets, and trellises covered in vines dripping with grapes. The main street is lined with cafes and ice cream shops. Gori’s old town features some interesting brick architecture and backs onto a wonderful undercover produce market
Telavi is the biggest city and main transport hub in Kakheti, Georgia’s humongous eastern region. It’s position in the Alazani Valley makes it a great base for travelling the Wine Route and visiting the many medieval monasteries, churches and castles that stud the Kakhetian countryside.
Telavi itself is a very pleasant, walkable city, with a cobbled Old Town featuring restored Kakhetian balconies and a buzzing undercover bazaar. One of the main attractions is the Giant Plane Tree, a 900-year-old specimen that’s the pride and joy of Telavi.
The mammoth Alaverdi Cathedral lies just outside Telavi’s city limits along with the ruins of the Ikalto Academy where Georgian literary hero, Shota Rustaveli, studied. Gremi, the former capital of Kakheti, is another point of interest.
Telavi has lots and lots of restaurants, wine bars and family run cellars to indulge in as well. It’s not as charming as Sighnaghi (the other hub in Kakheti which I’ll get to later), but it’s a convenient starting point for exploring all this region has to offer.
Located in south-western Georgia just shy of the Turkish border, Akhaltsikhe is a small city of under 50,000 people. With direct buses to Gyumri and Yerevan in Armenia, it’s a convenient place to depart for the border crossing at Bavra – and a good base for visiting the cave city of Vardzia too.
The main city in Samtskhe-Javakheti region, Akhaltsikhe is small but very multicultural and with a long history that spans Ottoman, Mongol and Iranian rule. The name Akhaltsikhe means ‘New Fortress’, which gives you a clue to the city’s heritage and fighting spirit.
The main attraction is Rabati Castle, a massive hilltop fortress. Established in the 9th century as Lomisa Castle, it functioned as a mosque during the Ottoman period and was gradually added to over the intervening years to become an ad-hoc complex of watch towers, fountains, domed buildings and gardens. In 2011, it underwent extensive renovations – some say a little too extensive – and now it feels a lot like the set for an off-script episode of Game of Thrones.
SIGHNAGHI & KAKHETI WINE REGION
The walled city of Sighnaghi is the beating heart of Kakheti, Georgia’s most productive wine region. This is far from the only place where grapes grow (I’ll cover some of the alternative wine regions later), but it’s definitely the most popular place to do a wine tasting in Georgia, especially since it’s so close to Tbilisi.
Marketed as ‘the city of love’, charming little Sighnaghi is encased in stone city walls and ramparts that you can climb for stunning views over the valley, hemmed in by the Caucasus mountains beyond. The small museum dedicated to painter Pirosmani who was born in Sighnaghi is also worth a look in.
Beyond the town, dozens of traditional cellars and commercial wineries of varying sizes beckon visitors for guided tours and degustations. Qvevri wine, a traditional Georgian method that involves fermenting grapes in clay vessels buried underground, and more contemporary European wine-making techniques are both practiced. Join a day tour to visit a selection of popular wineries or hire a car and driver to cover the lesser-known gems on the Wine Route.
If you don’t drink, the Alazani Valley is still one of the best places in Georgia to immerse yourself in local history and religion. For every winery, there’s also a monastery – some with spectacular hilltop locations, others sunken into the deepest depths of caves.
KAZBEGI & GERGETI TRINITY CHURCH
Kazbegi (also known by its new name, Stepantsminda) is an alpine town in the Greater Caucasus, due north of Tbilisi and very close to the border with Russia. Perched on a hill above the town in the shadow of mighty Mount Kazbek sits Gergeti Trinity Church, the country’s most iconic cathedral and the poster child for Georgia tourism.
The high-altitude walled chapel is a sight to behold, especially when seen from afar against a dramatic backdrop of snow-capped, jagged peaks. You can hike up to the church from the town in around an hour via an ambling path
THE GEORGIAN MILITARY HIGHWAY
Whoever said it’s all about the journey rather than the final destination must have been referring to the trip up to Kazbegi from Tbilisi. As grand as Gergeti Trinity is, it’s really just a small taste of the landscapes you see along the Georgian Military Highway.
This mighty arterial is currently the only thoroughfare connecting Tbilisi and Russia. An attraction in itself, the Military Road is more than worthy of a place on your Georgia wish-list.
There are lots of places to stop along the way, including Ananuri Fortress, the mosaic-laced Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument at Gudauri, various mineral water springs, curious stone head sculptures and mountain viewpoints. In wintertime, Gudauri turns into Georgia’s poshest ski resort. There are some cute cottages and bungalows here but I recommend passing through Gudauri and staying in Kazbegi instead (unless you want to do some skiing or snowboarding).
SVANETI (MESTIA & USHGULI)
After Kazbegi, Zemo Svaneti Planned National Park is the most popular mountain area in Georgia. Located in the far north-west, the region’s biggest town of Mestia is accessible year-round by road or via a short flight.
Mestia is well-equipped to handle the many hundreds of tourists that visit Svaneti each year, with a good range of guesthouses and restaurants. A meal of Kubdari (Svanetian meat pie) and Mtsvadi BBQ sprinkled with Svanetian spiced salt at Laila on the main square is just the thing after the long and nail-biting marshrutka ride up.
Hiking is the thing to do in Svaneti. Mountain trails range from easy day hikes to challenging multi-day treks, the most popular being to Koruldi Lakes, Chaladi Glacier and for the daring, Mount Ushba.
As beautiful as the landscape is, the local culture here is equally entrancing. This is the ancestral home of the Svans, known for being fierce fighters who lived in fortified tower houses. These stone towers, known as Koshki in Georgian, can be seen all across the northern regions and over the border in Chechnya – but Svaneti’s towers are acclaimed for being both numerous and well-preserved.
Georgia is home to a number of ‘cave cities’ and ‘cave monasteries’ – vast complexes of chambers and grottoes hewn from rocky slopes in the southern part of the country. Vardzia is the largest and best-known among them.
Located near the town of Aspindza, not far from Akhaltsikhe, the Vardzia complex consists of a 500-metre-long sheer rock wall puckered with more than 640 separate chambers spread over 13 levels. Incredibly, this is just one section of a much-larger cave city that was partially destroyed by an earthquake.
Built to house a community of monks and shelter townsfolk from invading forces, Vardzia was a self-contained city with its own kitchens, gardens, vineyards, pharmacies, and an elaborate irrigation system. A self-guided walking tour of Vardiza’s stone galleries reveals evidence of copper pipes and bread ovens.
There’s also a beautiful chapel containing a rare fresco of King (Queen) Tamar, who ruled this part of Georgia at the time of Vardzia’s construction.
Rather than attempting to visit Vardzia in a day from Tbilisi (a long journey and rushed experience), I highly recommend visiting from Akhaltsikhe or Borjomi – that way you’ll have more time to enjoy the site.
BORJOMI & BAKURIANI
Sitting almost smack-bang in the centre of the country, the town of Borjomi has long been a favourite summer retreat in Georgia. Blessed with fresh mountain air and natural spring waters, there’s not a whole lot to do here except relax and sip on Borjomi mineral water, one of Georgia’s most popular beverages and biggest exports.
People have been imbibing, bathing in and bottling Borjomi’s curative waters since medieval times. But it was in the 1840s when the Russian Viceroy brought his daughter to Borjomi for health treatment that things really started to take off. By the 1860s, the resort town was booming, and many members of the Imperial aristocracy built their summer residences in the area. Under Communism, these mansions were turned into sanatoria for the party elite.
Today, Borjomi is still a popular warm-weather destination that’s always buzzing with families in the summer months. The small town revolves around Borjomi Central Park and Ekaterina’s Spring (the original water spring named after the Viceroy’s daughter). BYO drinking bottle and fill up on Borjomi water straight from the source. There’s also open-air thermal baths and a cable car you can ride up to a scenic plateau.
The nearby resort town of Bakuriani is located at a higher elevation and is accessible from Borjomi via the Kukushka, Georgia’s only scenic railway. There are a number of lodges in Bakuriani that cater to tourists during ski season, including the new Rooms Kokhta.
Other things to see in the area include Tabatskuri Lake near Bakuriani and the Romanov Summer Palace down the road from Borjomi at Likani. There are a number of hiking trails behind the palace for those who want to venture into Borjomi National Park