40 Facts and Tips for Travelling in Georgia

40 Facts and Tips for Travelling in Georgia

In April and May I went travelling around the Caucasus, spending a lot of time in Georgia.

Georgia is currently the hot place for travel bloggers to visit and write about. You’ll find many blog posts on it but these are the tips that would have helped me before I went. Some of them are slightly negative and that’s not to put anyone off visiting but a warning, as you want to have the easiest and most cost effective trip.

 

Let’s start with Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia:

 

1) Don’t miss Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi

It’s the third tallest Eastern Orthodox cathedral and one of the largest religious buildings in the world. The walk up the hill is steep but worth it. It’s free to enter the church but woman are required to cover their head so take a scarf.

 

Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi
Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi

 

2) Cool area of Tbilisi – Fabrika

2km from the Holy Trinity Cathedral is the young and hip area Fabrika. This former industrial area includes a converted sewing factory (now a hostel), trendy bars/cafes and street art.

 

Fabrika
Fabrika

3) Go for a thermal sulphur bath

A trip to Tbilisi isn’t complete without a visit to the thermal baths. They are located in Old Tbilisi, above the thermal sulphur water springs. The prices and quality of the baths vary so you must check the room before you pay. The private rooms come with a hot pool, as well as a sauna and/or cold pool, and are rented by the hour. I was given these prices:

Chreli Abano – the building is covered in mosaics and the prettiest from the outside. It was 40 lari for a private room with a hot pool but no sauna or cold pool and 20 lari for a massage.

Orbeliani Baths – 50 lari for a private hot pool with a sauna but no cold pool and 20 lari for a massage.

Gulo’s Thermal Spa – 70 lari for a private room with a hot and cold pool and 10 lari for a scrub.

While Gulo’s was the most expensive, I liked the idea of the cold pool so went for this. Initially the hot pool feels really hot but you soon get used to it. The cold pool is freezing! and going from the hot to the cold pool shocks the system. Overall, it’s a really relaxing spa experience and a must-do in Tbilisi.

 

Thermal sulphur baths in Old Tbilisi
Thermal sulphur baths in Old Tbilisi

Warning – the staff burst in just before the hour mark to make sure you get out on time. Georgians can be very direct so you have to go with the flow.

Don’t worry about making a reservation in advance. These places are cash only and don’t follow the strict rules about keeping reservations. You are best to visit the baths and find a room that’s free or wait for one to become available.

 

4) Get a scrub and not the massage

Most thermal baths offer massages. These are not delicate thai massages but strong deep tissue massages. Male masseurs for men and female masseurs for women. Georgia isn’t known for massages like Thailand or Turkey, so they’re still a bit rough around the edges. This is why I recommend a scrub over the massage.

You must be comfortable with getting naked.

I laid down on a smooth stone table and a burly woman who spoke no English indicated to me to remove my bikini top and proceeded to throw buckets of warm water over me. She then covered me in soap and scrubbed me with a large brush and finally threw a bucket of cold water over me.

I looked like a lobster afterwards but I felt very “relaxed”.

 

5) Visit Narikala Fortress

Above the sulphur baths is Narikala Fortress. You can either walk up the hill or take the cable car from Rike Park. The views from the fortress are amazing.

 

View from Narikala Fortress
View from Narikala Fortress

 

6) Take a trip to the David Gareja Monastery Complex

Everyday from Freedom Square at 11am there is a day trip to the David Gareja Monastery Complex for 25 lari per person. The complex is located on the border of Georgia and Azerbaijan and consists of a monastery and several caves. At the monastery there’s some pretty serious hiking involved so make sure you wear good shoes, and take plenty of food and water as there’s nowhere to buy any at the complex. I highly recommend this as a day trip. The pictures don’t do the landscape justice.

 

David Gareja Monastery Complex
David Gareja Monastery Complex

Getting around Georgia

 

7) The road conditions aren’t that bad

Before going to Georgia I heard stories of terrible road conditions and how a 4×4 was required for most of the country. I was pleasantly surprised by the road conditions and didn’t think they were much of an issue. I’d seen worst roads in the Balkans where tourists regularly hire cars (i.e. Montenegro and Croatia). However….

 

8) Many cars are right-hand drive (but they drive on the right)

Like most of Europe (except the UK, Ireland and Malta) Georgia drives on the right-hand side of the road. The only problem is, they have a huge import of second-hand Japanese and South Korean cars, countries which drive on the left-hand side of the road. I saw so many near crashes due to this when cars pulled out.

 

9) Ladas are still popular

Ladas rule the Caucasus. A ride in one is inevitable on your visit to Georgia. They’re usually used to travel on off-road as they’re surprising robust. Just don’t expect seat belts.

 

Ladas rule here
Ladas rule here

10) Use Tbilisi Metro

Tbilisi’s metro is awesome. It’s simple to use and has a flat-fare system of 50 tetri (half a lari) per journey. It’s the easiest way to get from central Tbilisi to the main bus station at Didube.

 

11) How to handle Tbilisi bus station

If you’re backpacking on a budget, you’ll most likely have to go through Tbilisi’s central bus station to reach other parts of the country. As soon as you get off the metro at Didube you’ll be accosted by taxi drivers, people demanding you tell them where you’re going, pulling you in the direction of their car, blocking your way etc.

 

Tbilisi bus station outside Didube
Tbilisi bus station outside Didube

 

The first time I experienced this was frightening but on my fourth time passing through it didn’t bother me at all.

The trick is to ask everyone how much they are charging for the journey and if it’s too much then say a polite and firm “no” and walk away. Once you’ve got all the prices for a Marshrutka, shared taxi and private driver, then you can make a decision on which to choose. And don’t pay until the vehicle is actually leaving.

 

12) Use Marshrutkas

Marshrutkas are old vans converted into buses. These are the cheapest way to travel in Georgia. They usually don’t run on a schedule and just leave when full, which means you might be waiting around a long time for it to fill up or you might get lucky and it’s ready to leave.

Note – the sign with the destination in the front window is usually in Georgian so make sure you know how your destination is spelt. For example, Kutaisi is spelt ქუთაისი in Georgian, easy right?

 

13) Hire a driver

If you have the money and time is a factor, then hire a driver. This is easy to do – ask at your accommodation, in a restaurant or local taxi drivers. Nearly everyone will know someone looking for a driving job.

 

14) Trains are slow, very very slow

I took the train between Gori and Kutaisi, it took 5hrs. It’s only a 2.5hr drive! On the plus side it cost 1 lari (£0.30). I don’t think the train went over 30mph at any point on the journey. Luckily the seats are quite comfortable and roomy. However, it’s common to see cattle walking down the aisle, and the toilets are so grim…. I recommend choosing the train as the last resort.

 

Slow trains
Slow trains

 

15) Consider flying

Taking bumpy Marshrutkas and slow trains took its toll on me. Which is why I was so excited when I heard there’s an internal airline called  Vanilla Sky. I took a flight between Mestia and Kutaisi for 40 lari. It took 30 minutes, a marshrutka would have taken 5 hours.

 

Vanilla Sky plane at Kutaisi airport
Vanilla Sky plane at Kutaisi airport

 

16) Zugdidi is a transit town

If you’re heading to Mestia, Abkhazia or the north of Georgia overland, you’ll go via Zugdidi. I stayed here to relax and sightsee but there’s not much in Zugdidi so you could pass straight through. The nearest attraction is Enguri Dam, a 30 mins drive outside the city.

 

Money saving in Georgia

 

17) Most people speak Russian

Speaking some Russian really helps in Georgia. Most people in the Caucasus speaks it (or a version of it). Even the major US movies are dubbed into Russian at the cinemas here.

 

18) There are Georgian prices, Russian speaker prices and prices for everyone else

This is just how it is.

 

19) Whenever possible, don’t pay up front

Unfortunately in Georgia the scams are fierce. You have to constantly watch out for hidden extras. I give an example in my Ushguli post of a typical taxi scam. You agree on a price to hire a private car and driver for a certain route, and then along the journey the driver picks up extra people.

I made the mistake of paying for a marshrutka which was “leaving very soon”, turns out it wasn’t leaving for 4 hours and I couldn’t get my money back.

 

20) Tours are sometimes not as advertised

I took a tour from Kutaisi to four different sites, including Okatse Canyon, Martivili waterfalls and two monasteries for 40 lari per person. This only included the driver and not the entrance fee to the sites. We were a group of over 25 people.

I booked it at Kutaisi’s Tourist Information Centre so that makes it legit, right? Nope. It missed out the monastery at the end as we spent so much time in a restaurant being encouraged to buy food. I tried to asked the driver what was going on and he replied Russian and Georgian only. So I gave up.

Sometime it’s better to plan the trip yourself and if possible rent a car. The quality of the roads in Georgia aren’t that bad but I would look out for hidden extras with the car rental company.

 

21) Guest-houses can be a bed in someone’s lounge

Lots of “hostels” and “guest-houses” on booking.com etc aren’t what you’d expect. They are just people letting out a room in their family house and not a place to meet other travellers. So if you don’t read the reviews or do research, you might end up in someone’s smoky lounge on a pull-out sofa. On the plus side you’d get the authentic Georgian experience.

 

22) ATMs like to give out 100 GEL notes – Avoid them by taking out 95 GEL

Most of Georgia is cash based and you’ll find ATMs all over the cities. The problem is, if you take out a value over 100 lari you will get a 100 GEL note and no one will take them. Trying to get rid of 100 GEL notes is nearly impossible. So the trick is to take out 95 lari at a time to ensure you don’t get a large note.

 

Avoid 100 GEL notes
Avoid 100 GEL notes

 

Food and drink

 

23) Georgian food is available everywhere and quite limited

Georgian food is bread, potato, meat, cheese and sometimes tomato salad. Onions are considered the only vegetable. Okay, maybe I’m harsh but it often felt like this.

I ate out in Georgia’s region Imereti, their most famous dish is Khachapuri. It’s basically cheesy bread – think cheese pizza with no extra toppings. When you’re hungry it’s really good. Khachapuri Adjaruli is similar but has a huge dollop of butter and a cracked egg in the middle. Other options include BBQ’d meats and soup (Kharcho – lamb and rice soup, delicious!)

You can also try Khinkali (Georgian dumplings), little dough parcels stuffed full of meat and spices, usually boiled or steamed. They’re surprisingly spicy!

 

Georgian food - bread, potatoes, meat
Georgian food – bread, potatoes, meat

 

24) The wine is average

Georgia was the first country to make wine and they’re very proud of this. The only downside is everyone in the country now thinks they’re a winemaker. While the wine from the large wineries is nice and worth trying, local homemade wine tastes exactly that – like homemade wine. I tried a huge selection of wine at Tbilisi’s New Wine festival – great atmosphere but average wine.

 

Tbilisi's New Wine festival
Tbilisi’s New Wine festival

 

Also, their sweet wines are super sweet, almost verging on a dessert wine.

 

25) Try Churchkhela

Churchkhela is a Georgian confectionery (they look like sausages) often found hanging from stalls on the side of the road. Churchkhela is made from pouring concentrated grape juice, sugar and flour repeatedly over strands of walnuts or hazelnuts. Between layers it’s left to dry giving it a waxy texture, encasing the nuts. The Georgian army used to rely on them for protein and sugar.

 

Churchkhela
Churchkhela

 

Visiting Kazbegi

 

26) Kazbegi is touristy but in a good way

This was my highlight of Georgia and I will devote a whole blog post to Kazbegi at some point. This town is located a few hours drive from Tbilisi, in the mountains near the Russian border. It’s a tourist town but this means it’s geared up – markets, ATMs, taxis, bars, restaurants etc. It’s worth staying overnight here, rather than just a day trip from Tbilisi. If you can splash out then Rooms Hotel has the perfect views.

 

Kazbegi
Kazbegi

 

27) Hike to Gergeti Trinity Church

Hiking to Gergeti church is definitely worth doing while in Kazbegi. The church is average but the views are amazing. If you’re not in a fit condition to hike, you can take a 4×4 taxi up there.

 

View from Gergeti church
View from Gergeti church

 

28) Gveleti Waterfalls

Another thing to do in Kazbegi is visit the two waterfalls. The easiest way to get there is in a 4×4 taxi or Lada. As always, ask around and haggle. When you get to the waterfalls (there’s a big one and a small one) there is some hiking involved so wear appropriate footwear.

 

Gveleti Waterfall
Gveleti Waterfall

 

29) Lots of stray dogs and cats

This is true for all over Georgia. Even in the middle of nowhere you’ll meet a curious dog.

 

Curious dog
Curious dog

 

Around Georgia

 

30) Stalin was born in Gori and has his own museum

Gori is worth visiting as it’s the birthplace of Communist leader Joseph Stalin and is home to a museum devoted to him. If you want to know more, including how to get there and where to eat, read my blog post: Visiting Stalin’s Museum in his hometown of Gori, Georgia

 

 

31) Visit Uplistsikhe Cave Town

10km from Gori is Uplistsikhe Cave Town. This town is carved into the rocks and dates back to 1000 BC. Read more about it in my blog post: Uplistsikhe (Cave Town) the 1000 BC cave homes of 20,000 people

 

Uplistsikhe Cave Town
Uplistsikhe Cave Town
Hey Stalin
Hey Stalin

 

32) Ushguli is the highest inhabited settlement in Europe

Another must-visit place in Georgia is Ushguli – a settlement high up in the mountains where people still live a rural way of life. I recommend a visit for the experience. Read all about it here: How to visit Ushguli, Georgia – Europe’s highest and most remote mountain village

 

Ushguli
Ushguli

 

33) Kutaisi is a good base

The city of Kutaisi may not be full of tourist sights (except Bagrati Cathedral) but it’s near enough to Gelati Monastery, Martvili and Okatse Canyons, and Prometheus Cave, to warrant a stay here.

 

Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi
Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi

 

34) Don’t travel from Tbilisi to Martvili or Okatse Canyon

When I saw reviews saying people had driven from Tbilisi to Martvili and Okatse Canyon for the day (it’s a 4 hour drive one way), I couldn’t believe it. Both sights are nice and quite impressive, but not enough to justify that drive. If you want to explore more of the Imereti region then stay there for a few days and don’t rush it in a day trip from Tbilisi.

 

Waterfalls at Martvili
Waterfalls at Martvili

 

35) Prometheus cave is all light

I love caves so Prometheus cave was top of my list of places to see in Georgia. The colorful Instagram pictures inspired me to go here but what I found was an average cave lit up in different coloured lights. It’s nothing to do with the rocks. If you haven’t been to a cave before it’s impressive but my friend, who had been to caves in Vietnam and Slovenia, found Prometheus cave underwhelming.

Another factor is you have to take a tour, this tour is given by the same guide in English and Russian so it’s very slow moving. I understand for safety reasons you can’t walk around the cave on your own, but I still would have liked to.

 

Prometheus cave
Prometheus cave

 

36) Tourist sites are closed on a Monday

A lot of tourist sites are closed on Monday. Including Okatse Canyon and Prometheus cave.

 

Trips outside Georgia

 

37) You can’t cross from Georgia to South Ossetia

Georgia has two breakaway territories – South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It can be argued that these two places have more of an affinity with Russia than Georgia. The only way to enter South Ossetia is to go via Russia. You can’t cross from the Georgian side and I wouldn’t even try as it could result in you not being allowed back in Georgia or Russia in the future, plus they might arrest you.

I’ve been told crossing on the Russian side is easy and people enter without even knowing they’ve gone into South Ossetia.

 

38) You can visit Abkhazia – But whether you get a visa is hit and miss

Abkhazia was on my list of places to visit in the Caucuses. Unlike South Ossetia, it’s possible to enter Abkhazia from Georgia. Go to Zugdidi and get a taxi north to the border.

I applied for a visa on the official Abkhazia website here. It’s a short form and I did it on my iphone. You don’t need to pay online as there is a cash fee to pay at the border (around £25). On the form, for reasons for going I put in tourism and named a few common tourist sites, like Lake Ritsa. 5 working days later I received my visa.

However, I didn’t feel totally confident going on my own, so when a backpacker from New Zealand was in interested in coming with me, I jumped at the chance for company. We both filled in our visa forms exactly the same way but he never heard back from them.

In the end I didn’t go to Abkhazia because I chose to spend an extra day an Mestia and take a flight back to Kutaisi. Do I regret this? A little bit but one day I hope to go back there.

 

On the border of Georgia and Abkhazia
On the border of Georgia and Abkhazia

 

39) Trip to Armenia

Armenia is next door to Georgia and travel between Tbilisi and Yerevan is simple. Both countries are visa free for UK citizens.

There are two ways to travel between them:

Train – sleeper train from Tbilisi departs at 20:20 and arrives in Yerevan at 07:50 the next day.

Shared taxi – this departs from outside Avlabari metro station in Tbilisi and requires pre booking. It costs 35 lari and takes 5 hours.

 

Shared taxi between Tbilisi and Yerevan
Shared taxi between Tbilisi and Yerevan

 

40) Georgians love rugby

Georgians love to talk about wine and rugby. They’re very proud of their national rugby team.

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