The best way to describe Georgia is it’s like if Italy was shrunk and spiced up with a touch of Asia, then dipped into a little Soviet sauce.

It may be simplistic and even unfair to the small but mighty country to liken it to Italy as it boasts so much of its own unique culture and history, but I couldn’t help find so many parallels between the two.

  • Both have some of the most varied and beautiful scenery (only Georgia’s variety is more compact given its size). Alpine mountains, green valleys, thick forests, seaside, wine valleys dotted with picturesque hill towns – yes, Georgia has all of that too.
  • Both can be proud of a rich, delightful cuisine with a love for cheese and wine, that make every meal a highlight. These countries are worth visiting for their food alone.
  • Both are dotted with hilltop castles, old cobbled streets, remnants of ancient settlements and civilisation. Each has a wealth of cultural heritage and history.
  • Both are known for warm, passionate and often loud citizens who know how to enjoy life, have strong family values and will go out of their way to help you (except maybe the more over-touristed spots in Italy).

The best way to describe Georgia is it’s like if Italy was shrunk and spiced up with a touch of Asia, then dipped into a little Soviet sauce

But Georgia sees a fraction of the tourists much of Italy has, and uniquely that special location on the cross-roads of the European and Asian cultures along with remnants of Soviet-time rule still prominent in places. And I’m certain that if you love Italy, you’ll love Georgia. In fact you’ll probably love Georgia in any case.

Being 1/4 Georgian I might be biased, but I genuinely believe it’s the ultimate hidden gem travel destination. The country is safe, welcoming, invitingly cheap and by all means ready to be explored. Let me share some of the most interesting things to add to your Georgia itinerary.

Herd of Sheep on a Georgian Road

 

Suggested Georgia Itinerary

You’ll likely start from the capital Tbilisi, but there are some low-cost flights going into Kutaisi as an alternative. This itinerary works well for 9-14 days, depending on your travel pace and access to a car.

Georgia Travel Itinerary Map

Tbilisi

Tbilisi Old Town & Fortress

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Tbilisi is one of the most interesting capital cities you’ll come across with so much to see, do and eat. It’s a particularly contrasting mix of old and modern. The city centre, with its signature and sometimes wonky wooden balconies leaning over the streets is an area you’ll want to keep getting lost in, which isn’t hard. At the same time you’ll see plenty of modern, state-of-the-art architecture such as the futuristic Bridge of Peace or the Concert Hall which really give the capital a modern European feel.

 

Tbilisi Panorama

The capital has two particularly interesting vantage points I’d recommend. The first is Mount Mtatsminda, Georgia’s highest point, at the top of which you’ll also find an amusement park, restaurants and the TV Tower so clearly visible from anywhere in the city. If you don’t feel like a long and sweaty uphill walk the apt alternative is a smooth funicular ride. In fact funicular up, walk down is probably the best combo if time allows. The other vista is from Tbilisi’s fortress right in the centre, again reachable by a short cable car ride from the riverside. If you catch the right time, you may witness a group of local blokes singing folk music in a mini-choir of sorts.

Tbilisi Sulphur Baths

If you don’t mind the smell of rotting eggs, Tbilisi’s historic sulphur baths with their breast-like rooftops are sure to be one of your most memorable things to do in the capital, whether or not you actually enjoyed it.

Food-wise you are spoilt for choice. From my experience almost every meal is an absolute delight but so substantial you’ll soon be saying that you won’t eat anything the next day. Lies! For khinkali, the must-try Georgian handheld dumplings, I recommend the buzzing Machakhela restaurant with a variety of meat and vegetarian fillings to try.

Getting to Tbilisi

It’s probably your first port of call, being the main international airport with popular connections from Europe (Istanbul usually being the most affordable transfer route). If you arrive in Kutaisi, it’s around 3 hours by car on the motorway.

Kakheti, Georgia’s Wine Region

 

Signagi Panorama, Georgia

Why visit: Wine and Tuscan-like views.

At the centre of the vast wine valley is Signaghi, probably the most visited town in the region. Its picturesque location atop a steep hill, cobblestone streets and the red roofs mean you can’t help but feel you’re suddenly in the heart of the Wine regions of Central Italy. Parts of Signagi look a little too renovated for the benefit of tourism, but the ancient walls surrounding it keep much of the authenticity intact. Once you’ve wandered around and visited local markets, be sure to try some local wine. 

Hotel Chateau Mere, Georgia

 

Talking of wine, one of the absolute highlights of the trip was accidentally stumbling across a winery hotel set in its own mini-fortress in the middle of the wine valley. Visitors are welcome even if you’re not a hotel resident, and if you’re lucky enough not to be driving there is plenty of their own mostly semi-sweet wine available to savour by the outdoor pool within the chateau walls. If you can, definitely consider staying there for at least 1 night for a pretty unique experience. The room to aim for would be the one atop a fortress tower!

Hotel Chateau Mere is near Kakheti’s main city, Telavi and around 90 mins’ drive from Tbilisi. A hidden gem if there was any.

Getting to Kakheti

Kakheti is within 2 hours’ drive from Tbilisi, making it a nice day trip if you don’t have time to stay overnight and savour the wine. Otherwise there are always marshrutkas (routed shared taxis) that can get you there from Tbilisi departing every 2 hours.

Kazbegi National Park

Why visit: Scenic drives, Alpine views, skiing.

 

Kazbegi Mountain Panorama, Georgia

To the North of the country lies the Alp-like Caucasus mountains which split the border with Russia. This includes Mount Kazbegi itself, Georgia’s 3rd highest mountain at over 5,000m which gives its name to the surrounding national park. Running up through these parts is a lone, often windy military road connecting the two countries and one of the final stops before the border is the townlet of Stepantsminda, mostly serving as a base for local activities.

As a day trip from Tbilisi (leave early!), It’s the sort of destination where you get as much pleasure from the drive there and back as the actual end point. Much of the drive is stunning, with views that more than live up to the best Alps offers, herds of sheep taking over the road at times and the occasional old Soviet-era relics still dotted along the route. At times it’ll prove hard not to stop every 20 minutes. You’ll also drive past the active Gudauri ski resort – which in the winter months makes for an interesting and cheap alternative to Western European resorts in the winter months.

 

Herd of Sheep on a Georgian Road

In Stepantsminda itself, if you’re here for the day and don’t have the time or desire for hiking then for the most stunning views hire one of the many 4×4 ready to take you up a very rough road to Gergeti Trinity Church – I wouldn’t recommend driving your rental car up there unless you crave adrenaline. As churches go, Gergeti enjoys one of the most dramatic backdrops with Kazbegi and its sister peaks looming over the valley in the background. A scattering of cows completes the idyllic setting.

 

Ananuri Castle, Republic of Georgia

On the way back, stop by the Ananuri Fortress (right off the main road) for a welcome break, some handmade souvenirs or a bottle or two of homemade wine, ignoring the fact they’re sold in any old plastic bottle they could get their hands on.

Getting to Kazbegi

From Tbilisi it’s a 3 hour drive without stopping, although you’ll want to stop for the views every 10 minutes. And then there’s the occasional herd of sheep that takes over the road.

Kutaisi

Why visit: Perfect base for exploring surrounding nature.

Georgia’s second most important city is charming in its own right and should be considered for your itinerary for a couple days. 

 

Kutaisi Church

It’s main landmark is probably the massive Bagrati cathedral. Even if you don’t care about churchy things, the hill on which it sits provides a very decent view of Kutaisi. The other landmark candidate is its impressive but somewhat odd Colchis Fountain, the design of which might split opinions but at the very least definitely interesting to check out.

 

Gelati Monastery, Republic of Georgia

Once you’ve been charmed by Kutaisi, use it as a base for a trip or two in the surrounding Imereti region. I really recommend the still-active Gelati Monastery – deservedly a UNESCO site – around an hours’ drive from the city. In Georgia you’re spoilt for choice with churches and monasteries, but there is something about Gelati and its location that made the ice-cream-sounding monastery my favourite of the lot.

Another great day out is the Prometheus Cave, only discovered in the 80’s. If you’ve seen too many stalactites and stalagmites to care about yet another cave, it’s also in a lush, hilly area with viewing platforms overlooking beautiful valleys for Miles. You’ll also find some dinosaur footprints on the site although I still haven’t worked out if those were made up for tourists like the Loch Ness monster.

Getting to Kutaisi

Direct flights by low-cost carriers (mostly Wizz Air), otherwise a 3-hour drive from Tbilisi. Combines well before/after Borjomi or the Racha Province below.

Oni, Racha Province

Why visit: Some of the best outdoors Georgia has to offer

 

Oni, Racha Province, Georgia

A less-visited and sparsely populated part of the country also makes it ideal for those looking to enjoy the outdoors essentially all to themselves. This ridiculously green, mostly forested area is rich with valleys nestled on the edge of the Caucasus mountains, which makes for beautiful scenery and therefore a gem for hiking of all levels. 

 

Oni Region, Republic of Georgia

The city (town?) of Oni itself is compact in size and quaint. Besides serving as a base for exploring the region it has a couple interesting bits of its own, especially (and surprisingly) its synagogue which happens to be the oldest active synagogue in the country. And if you ask the friendly locals, a short walk from the bridge over the Rioni river will lead you to a hot mineral water spring. Bring an empty bottle!

Getting to Oni

Oni is 2-3 hours from Kutaisi, and a mighty 5 hours from Tbilisi because the most direct routes runs through the self-proclaimed republic of South Ossetia and you don’t want to drive through there.

Borjomi

Why visit: Famous mineral springs in a lush national park

 

Borjomi Natural Springs, Georgia

Borjomi is a picturesque resort town known to any Soviet citizen, thanks to its famous fizzy mineral water with supposed curative properties by the same name. The “Borjomi” glass bottles were widely available across USSR

No visit to Borjomi is, of course, complete without filling a bottle or two of its famous water. It’s completely free although (hence) you might have to queue for a bit – people come with large bottles and even canisters. There are both cold and warm options, although be warned that it’s not the easiest to stomach and not to everyone’s taste.

 

Borjomi Valley from Cable Car

Beyond mineral water and the option for staying in a health resort, Borjomi sits in a green, scenic valley full of options to enjoy the outdoors. I really recommend a Soviet funicular cable car ride up to one of the hills, which offers beautiful views across the gorge (look out for a waterfall), and a great starting point for a forest hike.

Getting to Borjomi

Around 2.5-3 hours by car from Kutaisi and Tbilisi. Add another hour if you want to take marshrutkas.

The Ancient Caves of Vardzia and Uplistsikhe

Why visit: Cave systems that used to be actual cities

Vardzia Cave Monastery

Uplistsikhe, not far from Stalin’s hometown of Gori, is a network of caves carved into a massive rock in the central plains of the country and dates back to the 9th century. It makes for an easy day trip from both Tbilisi and Kutaisi.

Uplistsikhe Caves, Georgia

 

Vardzia, further West, cuts more dramatically into a steep mountain front facing a river below and served as a monastery. Both are fascinating and come with impressive surroundings so both are worth including in your itinerary, but if you have to pick one personally I think Vardzia just edges it for some reason.

Getting Vardzia & Uplistsikhe

Uplistsikhe is more accessible from Tbilisi (1.5 hours with a little luck) and a longer 2.5-3 hours from Kutaisi. Vardzia is closer to Kutaisi (1hr) and not far from Borjomi which combines well in your itinerary. In both cases car parks are right outside and there’s some climbing to be done on-site especially with Vardzia.

Khertvisi Fortress

Why visit: Picturesque, green scenery reminiscent of Scotland

 

Khertvisi Fortress, Georgia

Set in a green valley by a river, the area around this ancient fortification is particularly spectacular on the eye and an ideal stopover for a walk if you happen to be in Southern Georgia. The fortress is just off the main road from Western Armenia to the city of Akhaltsikhe so is hard to miss.

The city of Akhaltsikhe further Northwest boasts its own hilltop fortress (Rabati Castle) however while pretty, it looks too done up through modern restoration to maintain much authenticity – unlike Khertvisi.

Getting to Khertvisi Fortress

It’s down South which makes it quite far from the major cities. You could include it in your route as a day trip from Borjomi (2 hrs) and combine with nearby Akhaltsikhe. It makes for a perfect stop if you’re driving up from neighbouring Armenia.

Is Georgia safe?

Yes. Crime-wise, Georgia honestly felt safer than most of Western Europe. Hygiene is pretty good which means a lower risk of stomach bugs than somewhere like Turkey or Morocco.

The only thing to prepare for in Georgia is the driving which can be pretty reckless and aggressive, and somewhat stressful in Tbilisi if you’re not used to it. If you’ve ever driven in Italy’s Naples or Palermo, expect something similar.

You might want to stay out of the disputed Abkhazia and South Ossetia republics in the North, as these could be a little more hairy with no guarantee of worry-free border passage.

What’s Georgian food like?

Mouth-watering, flavoursome and outstanding! Georgia is a true foodie destination and it’s cuisine is like no other. Imagine if Italian and Persian cuisines had a baby, but with a little Russian influence mixed in too. In terms of what to try, this deserves its own post. But in short, some highlights to look forward to:

Georgian Khachapuri

 

  • Khachapuri. Be prepared for a cheese coma by the end of your trip. Georgia’s signature “cheese pizza” comes in many varieties depending on the region and is available literally anywhere from the finest restaurants down to a roadside petrol station. The most famous variety, khachapuri adjaruli, comes with an egg on top and is an absolute delight for the cheese lover.

Georgian Spices at the Market

  • Khinkali. Every country has their own take on dumplings and Georgia is no exception. Theirs are of the massive, delightfully juicy variety that are made to be handheld. Usually stuffed with meat but you’ll often find cheese and mushroom options. 
  • Churchkhela. You’ll see these unusual candle-shaped candies hanging up on strings in local markets and wonder what the hell that is. It’s made of grapes, nuts and flour and definitely worth trying to see if it’s your thing.

Georgian Aubergine Rolls

  • Aubergine rolls stuffed with walnuts (Nigvziani badrijani). Arguably the king of Georgian starters, the walnutty-garlicky paste sat inside soft aubergine slices and topped with pomegranate seeds melts in your mouth and is simply delightful
  • Lobio bean soup. Georgians love bean dishes and the hearty lobio soup is the best version for me. Just prepare yourself for the consequences.

When is the best time to visit Georgia?

Unless you’re coming for skiing, the best times would be May to June or September to mid-October. Winters get chilly and peak of summer can get overbearingly hot outside the mountains but doable if you’re into that. If you come in May, try to avoid the first week as it coincides with Russian May holidays, bringing an influx of tourists from up North. Coming in September has the added bonus of harvest season for the many delicious fruits Georgia offers, and the Tbilisi Festival that runs annually in October.

What about the language?

Georgians born roughly after 1980’s are likely to speak some English, especially in the cities. The older generation will generally speak Russian and no English. Either way they’re very helpful and you should be fine in getting your message across.

Georgian itself is a very different language that uses its own beautiful alphabet reminiscent of Hindi or perhaps Thai. This makes it tricky to guess anything based on your knowledge of Latin or Slavic languages.

 

 


I hope this guide helped you plan your trip to one of the world’s best travel secrets. If you have any questions on Georgia or this travel itinerary, feel free to leave a comment below.

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