I will never get why Georgia as an European destination is so overlooked. This country has an Eastern European feeling but with a strong Georgian/Caucasian identity. It has everything a traveller might want: A beautiful, vibrant capital, an unique culture to discover, breathtaking mountains, glaciers, forests and some of the most welcoming people of all the European destinations I’ve visited.
This step of the trip is special because it’s the result of one of my favourite things about backpacking: Improvisation. I decided to go to Georgia because a lot of people from the hostel where I was staying in Turkey strongly advised me to. I was also really happy to see how some of my travel buddies from Turkey decided to also ditch their plans and join me on this adventure.
A 1 Week Itinerary
Georgia is a stunning country with a very diverse landscape and a lot of beautiful places are far apart, whilst transport isn’t really great. So I have to say that 1 week felt a bit short and rushed but is enough to get a sense of the country. We still managed to see the main sights and our itinerary consisted of:
3 Days in Tbilisi with daily excursions to Mtskheta and Kazbegi
1 Day to get from Tbilisi to Mestia.
1 Day in Mestia.
1 Day to make my way back to Tbilisi.
As you can see unfortunately we “wasted” 2 full days just on travelling from Tbilis to Mestia and back and although the Caucasus mountains and glaciers are definitely worth it I wish we had a couple of days more to spent in Mestia and check out Batumi instead of having to go back to Tbilisi.
The most common mean of transport in Georgia (and in a lot of former Soviet countries) is the Marshrutka, a sort of hybrid between a taxi and a minibus. The fun thing about Marshrutkas is that you know when you will depart but there’s no way to know how long will it take you to arrive to destinations. The drivers often pick up people on the way (even though there aren’t ufficial stops) and sometimes drops some passengers at their houses or stops for deliveries. The marshrutskas we took stopped on the way to deliver 3 huge bags of potatoes to someone’s house and a bunch of windows for a building under construction. So if you have to be somewhere at a certain time, take into account a bit of extra time because you’ll surely end up being late. Another great way to get around is to hire private drivers. Given how weak the Georgian lari and how low the average salaries are, hiring someone to drive you around even for a full day ends up being a great deal. For our excursions to Mtskheta and Kazbegi we hired a driver that ended up costing us as little as 5 EUR for a full day. Given the hospitable nature of Georgians, drivers are also great fun, on top of driving you around they will happily tell you more about the sights you are going to visit as well as suggesting the best local food places.
Wine and Food: Just Wow!
I have always been biased and thought that Italy, France and Spain were the undisputed kings of wine and food and I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that Georgian wine is hands down the best I’ve ever tried. On top of that the local cousine, although a bit heavy is just delicious, you’ll end up having a foodgasm at every meal. Some of the things you must try are:
- Kachapuri: Imagine a boat-shaped piece of delicious bread/dough filled with melted cheese. Yeah, no need to say more.
- Khinkali: Georgia’s national dish. Basically huge dumplings filled with meat, potatoes, cabbage or cheese. The traditional Khinkali are filled with meat and a mix of spices. The meat is uncooked when put inside the dumpling, so it releases all the juices in the cooking process. Don’t use knife and fork! The Georgian etiquette to eat Khinkali is to grab them with your hands, bite them and suck the meat juice. Just plain delicious.
- Eggplant rolls with walnut sauce. Simple, vegan, delicious, addictive.
- Chacha: aka “Wine Vodka” all locals offer a shot of chacha to tourists to welcome them. It could be your taxi driver, a supermarker clerk, a stranger on the streets. They are very proud of this really strong liquor and are happy to offer it at any occasion to tourists. Forget about saying no as refusing to cheer with a glass of chacha is considered offensive and rude.
Since we made our way to Georgia passing through the small villages at the border with Turkey, I was really surprised to see how vibrant, modern, beautiful city. I expected a ugly capital, with crumbling soviet building and I found a sort of Berlin with amazing vibes. You can immediately tell it’s an amazing city to live in by how many hip cafes, shops, street art you can find when strolling around. The old town is just stunning and beautifully preserved. Beautiful old buildings, churches, towers, cobblestone streets, a small waterfall and beautiful viewpoints. I had the luck to chat with a local met in Istanbul and she’s explained me how the underground scene is up and coming and it’s a great fun place to live in. No surprise its main club: Bassiani is one of the best party venues in Europe.
A couple of days are more than enough to visit the main sites: Holy Trinity Church, Mother of Georgia’s Statue, Bridge of Peace, Clock Tower and the main viewpoints. But you might want to stay an extra day to enjoy the nightlife and just soak up the vibes of this amazing place.
Mtskheta: The Former Capital
Mtskheta is just a short ride from Tbilisi, it’s one of the oldest town in Georgia and it used to be the capital. The city lies in a lowland, surrounded by mountain and at the confluence of the rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi. Climbing to one of the main monuments, the Jvari Monastery will reward you with a breathtaking view of the city and the two rivers with different coloured waters coming together:
The Gorgeous Mountains and the Caucasus
The Caucasus and its mountain range have nothing to envy to The Alps or other famous mountain ranges in Europe. The Caucasus, at the intersection between Asia and Europe, depending on location and elevation offer so many different landscapes. If you love hiking, trekking and landscapes and decide to go, trust me, you’re in for a treat.
The two most notable peaks in Georgia are Mount Kazbegi, the Twin Peaked Ushba and the area surrounding Svaneti, with its breathtaking views. Our driver kindly took us to see Kazbegi on a day trip from Tbilisi for just 5 Euros each and also treated us with a warming, unexpected shot of cognac at 9 AM, before the drive. (Welcome to Georgia!) There’s a beautiful viewpoint structure overlooking the mountain range covered in graffiti and street art.
Another very famous and must see destination is Svaneti it takes a full day trip on transport to get there from Tbilisi, so make sure you plan to stay there 2/3 days or you’ll be exhausted and end up spending most of your time on the road.
Svaneti is inhabited by a particular ethnic sub-group of Georgians, called Svan. These population is said to have retained most of their ancient traditions, including blood revenge. They have small patriarchal families, and hold a lot of respect to the older women of the family. The Svaneti region holds wonderful landscapes. The Svaneti range mountains are separated by high gorges, offering unique treats for the eyes. From Svaneti and Mestia is possible to hike up a few glaciers.
When I’m asked about Georgia I get incredibly excited to give a bit of insight into this wonderful country, its delicious food, its tasty wines, the warm hearted, lovely people and their traditions. It is not a very famous destination for Europeans and I think it’s a shame, since it’s one of the countries I enjoyed the most while travelling and has everything a traveller might need.
The only shortcoming is the transportation from a city to the other. You have to take small Marshrutkas even for long journeys and that means you know when you leave, but have no idea of when you’ll arrive to destination. Drivers usually pick up people asking for rides on the streets, or stop to make random deliveries on the way so delays are very common but, hey, it’s part of Georgia and also something you should experience.
If you get a chance and are thinking about going you definitely should. You’ll be happily surprised.