From historic cities and churches to rolling green valleys and mountains, Georgia is one of the most beautiful countries on the planet and has something for everyone. Hikers, skiers and outdoor enthusiasts will marvel at the scenery and wealth of outdoor pursuits on offer. Those travellers looking for a more relaxing break will find the Georgian people extremely hospitable, the food out of this world and as the birthplace of wine the nightlife is pretty impressive too. Sitting on the intersection of Europe and Asia but with an identity of its own, this ancient country will leave a lasting impression on anyone who is lucky enough to visit it. Oh, and it’s really cheap too!
Covering an area of 26,911 square miles (or 69,700 square kilometers) Georgia is just under half the size of the American state of Georgia and a similar size to the Republic of Ireland and Austria. The country’s dominant feature is the High Caucasus mountain range which forms the country’s northern border with the Russian Federation and is visible for miles around. The country’s vibrant capital Tbilisi is home to approximately 1.5 million of Georgia’s 4 million residents. A mix of hip bars and restaurants rubbing shoulders with ancient churches and sulphur baths gives Tbilisi a very special charm. Be sure not to miss a visit to the Old Town where many of its picturesque buildings date from the late 1700s.
Just a Little History
Georgia has a fascinating and complicated history which has given the country an amazing heritage of food, wine, architecture and arts but it is also a country moving forward. Most of the younger generation speak Georgian and English and see themselves as firmly European which makes navigating the country relatively straightforward for English speakers, with most signs in both Georgian and English.
The older generation who were brought up during Soviet times (Georgia regained its independence shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991) speak Russian as their second language so Russian speakers are at an advantage too.
Getting There and Getting Around
Most travellers from the United Kingdom will arrive by air at Tbilisi’s Lochini Airport which is 18 kilometers east of the city centre, although overland travel is also possible if you are keen to recreate a journey on the Great Silk Road. One of the fantastic things about visiting Georgia is its size. Many of the country’s major attractions are only a couple of hours’ drive away from Tbilisi so it’s possible to see other parts of the county whilst using Tbilisi as your base. Although longer would of course be better, a week in Georgia would give you time in the capital and also allow you the opportunity to do a couple of day trips to see some of Georgia’s stunning scenery and experience even more of that famous Georgian hospitality.
Georgian hospitality goes hand in hand with Georgia’s rich tradition of wine making (and wine drinking!). It is said that there’s been wine in Georgia almost as long as there’s been Georgians – for at least 8,000 vintages, as the Georgians themselves like to describe it. It is even likely that our word for ‘wine’ comes from the Georgian word for wine which is ‘ghvino.’
The main wine growing area in Georgia is Kakheti which is in the east of the country and is easily accessible from Tbilisi on a day trip (although a couple of nights in the area would be ideal to really do it justice). 70% of Georgian wine comes from this area although most villages in the country produce their own wine, effectively semi-organically using large clay pots calling qvevri.
In 2013 qvevri wine making was added to UNESCO’s list of the world’s intangible heritage and this style of wine is gaining interest globally as natural wines become more and more popular. The larger Georgian wineries also make wines using European traditional methods and as there are over 525 indigenous varieties of grapes in Georgia there is a wine to suit every palate. Varieties you will see everywhere include Rkatsiteli (mainly white) and Saperavi (red). These two have been dominant since the Soviet era but increasingly rarer and more interesting varietals are being used.
Qvevri wines, where the skin, seeds and even stems are often used, are high in tannins so should be ideally drunk with food and they go particularly well with heavier dishes, making them an ideal accompaniment to Georgian cuisine which is dominated by bread, meat and cheese. That said, vegetarians will also be well fed as Georgian food includes many interesting vegetable side dishes and salads: aubergines, walnuts and pomegranates are a common feature which help to balance out the heavier meat stews, as do the abundance of herbs the cuisine uses.
No trip to Georgia would be complete without trying the national snack ‘khachapuri’ which literally translates as cheese bread. It takes many forms and is found in homes, restaurants and stalls across the country and is served with most meals. Versions to look out for include pelovani which is a square, folded cheese-filled pastry and the calorie laden adjaruli which is shaped like a boat and filled with melted cheese, butter and then topped off with a lightly fried egg. Indeed, in 2019, a San Francisco-based hospitality consultancy named khachapuri their dish of the year!
Another Georgian speciality to try is khinkali. These are filled dumplings which are served everywhere and are extremely cheap, with both meat and vegetarian versions are available. Food and wine are excellent value in Georgia and cheap compared to European prices so even if you eat out everyday it will not blow your budget and even the most expensive restaurants in town won’t break the bank.
Transportation is also very reasonably priced, with a trip on Tbilisi’s (admittedly limited) metro costing just 15p! Many will choose to “splash out” on a taxi though, with a trip more or less anywhere in town unlikely to cost more than £2.
A bus to Sighnaghi in the Kakheti wine region is also less than two pounds for a 90 minute journey of around 70 miles. Known as the ‘City of Love’ this is an extremely pretty town and a great base for exploring the wine growing area and sampling some local wines. There are a number of wineries in town and around that offer tastings and for less than £10 you can sample five wines accompanied by Gergian snacks and they will often throw in a glass of chacha too, the national spirit made from leftover grape skins and seeds. But be warned, it’s strong stuff!
Other places of interest that can be reached from Sighnaghi include the Bodbe Monastery which was originally built in the 9th century. This is a major pilgrimage site in the Georgian Orthodox religion as St Nino, the founder of Georgian Christianity, is buried there. Day trips to the region from Tbilisi will also usually include Tsinandali and Telavi, both important towns in this wine growing region and worth a visit if you have time.
Stalin: Georgia’s Most Infamous Son
Another popular day trip from Tbilisi is to the town of Gori. Less than 60 miles away and served by both trains and buses, this is the hometown of Georgia’s most infamous son Joseph Stalin. Born in Gori in 1879 you can visit the house he was born in as well as the large museum built in his memory in 1957, although as you might expect, very little is mentioned of his crimes. The museum also features his death mask and huge private rail carriage. He preferred to travel everywhere by train as he was scared of flying, which rather ruins the “Man of Steel” moniker in our eyes!
Other local attractions to combine with Gori are Mtskheta and the Jvari Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site which has stunning views of the city and countryside below and the cave town of Uplistsikhe which translates as “Lord’s Fortress.” Uplistsikhe is a town that was carved out of stone and has paid a significant role in Georgian history for the last 3,000 years. It was an important religious, political and cultural centre and is great place to spend a few hours to get a greater understanding of Georgia’s ancient history.
Scenery to Take the Breath Away
No trip to Georgia would be complete with a trip to one of its stunning national parks and Kazbegi is one of the very best. It is possible to do in a day trip from Tbilisi (although probably not advisable in the winter as it can get pretty snowy up there!)
The Kazbegi National Park is located on the northern slopes of the mighty Caucasus mountain range and covers over 8,700 hectares. The Kazbegi Mountain (or Mount Kazbek) is Georgia’s third highest and towers above the pretty town of Kazbegi (also known as Stepantsminda) at a height of 5000 metres above sea level. The trip from Tbilisi will take you along the famous Georgian Military Highway which has served as a link between Europe and Asia since ancient times, although it only became known as the Military Highway after Russia’s annexation of Georgia in the nineteenth century.
You will pass the attractive fortified church complex of Ananuri which dates from the seventeenth century, the Gudauri Ski Resort (where the best piste conditions are between December and April) and also the Georgia-Russia friendship monument opened in 1983 to celebrate the bicentennial of the Treaty of Georgievsk. The highlight of any trip to Kazbegi is the view from the Gergeti Trinity Church, accessible either on foot or in a 4×4 vehicle, it is truly is breathtaking. If you are able to stay longer in the area the Rooms Hotel in Kazbegi is a great base for the area. It has a top notch restaurant and spa and can help you organise hikes and other activities in the National Park.
Named in 2018 as one of Lonely Planet’s must-visit countries the word is slowly but surely getting out there about Georgia and its hidden charms. It remains relatively unspoiled and incredibly good value so don’t wait any longer to plan your trip to this fascinating and uniquely hospitable country.