8 April 2019.
Travelling just about anywhere in Georgia has a habit of feeling like one big adventure, which if you’re anything like me, is pretty much the best kind of trip.
Things don’t always go according to plan, buses come or they don’t, businesses are open or they’re not, political tensions mean visiting some areas require some forward planning and the roads are so hectic you’ll probably dread getting behind the wheel. But beyond that, the landscapes are simply bursting with rugged, natural beauty, the cities are rich in culture and history and when it comes to food and wine, Georgia sure knows how it’s done.
On the surface, things might seem a little chaotic, but with a bit of flexibility and the occasional willingness to fly by the seat of your pants, it’s actually a fairly easy place to travel and a perfect destination for anyone seeking somewhere a little off beat.
These are my top Georgia travel tips and some useful things to know before you go.
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From the lush green meadows and dramatic peaks of Kazbegi to the glacier-dressed valleys and dense forests of Svaneti to the lesser visited corners of the High Caucasus that I’m still aching to explore, Georgia’s mountains are an absolute feast for the eyes and a veritable hiker’s paradise, whether its a fun day hike you’re after or a challenging multi-day trek.
But, for those who aren’t avid hikers, these pockets of wilderness can certainly be enjoyed in a more leisurely way with the constantly improving roads making it easier than ever to access the more remote corners of the mountains.
Georgia is the kind of place where the humble heirloom tomato is transformed into a masterpiece with the simple addition of spices and salt, where walnuts and eggplants are ground, grilled and intertwined to create a melt-in-your-mouth symphony of flavours, and where an arm long boat of airy, slightly salted, oven-fresh bread is the perfect afternoon snack.
Washed down with homemade lemonades infused with mint and tarragon, a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from a ramshackle street stall or a full-bodied glass of red and I’m still scratching my head as to how the delights of Georgian cuisine have remained some kind of secret.
Whether you’re in a homestay in a remote corner of the mountains or in a top-notch restaurant in Tbilisi, you’re virtually guaranteed a filling and lip-smackingly good feed that will have you holding out your plate for more. Seriously, the food is fantastic!
In Georgia, meals are also often a communal affair. The supra – feast – is a huge part of the culture and it’s not uncommon to sit down to family dinners at homestays or find menus filled with smaller dishes that are designed to be shared amongst a group.
At restaurants, a 10-15% service charge is often added to the bill, especially in more touristy restaurant or in the big cities. Don’t feel obliged to tip on top of that.
While bus stations around Georgia are often of the chaotic and slightly overwhelming variety (particularly those scattered around Tbilisi), once you’ve figured out how it all works, the transport itself is actually rather well organised.
As with much of Central Asia, marshrutkas – small, often fairly beaten up minivans – will be your bread and butter of transport and are the easiest way to get around, though taxis are just as good, if a little more expensive, for shorter trips.
For popular routes, most services have a fixed schedule for departures which are often posted at the bus terminal, while other services leave when full.
Another option for long-distance travel in Georgia is the train, with the most popular routes being the slow overnight service from Tbilisi to Zugdidi for Mestia, and Batumi. International trains also run to Yerevan in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Georgia is one of those places where you can really scrimp and still get by comfortably, or splurge and live like a king for relatively little.
Exceptional multi-course meals, a bed in Tbilisi’s best hostel, a couple of excellent bottles of wine and an overnight train can all be had for less than €10.
I averaged around €25 a day across my 6-week trip, and while I was still fairly budget conscious, I almost always had a private room instead of a dorm, went on the occasion organised day trip and spared no expense when it came to eating well. If you’re travelling on a super tight budget and cut out some of these luxuries, you could comfortably get by for a fraction of this.
On my first venture outside of Tbilisi, I arrived hot and sweaty to my guesthouse after a long marshrutka ride and was promptly extricated from my backpack, seated on the lush terrace and plied with pancakes and steaming hot cups of tea, without question or charge. I chalked it up to me just choosing a damn good guesthouse.
Turns out, this is a fairly regular occurrence in Georgia. In fact, this seems to be the appropriate solution to most situations. The guesthouse is fully booked: cake? You’re leaving tomorrow: wine? You’re completely lost and in need of a chaperone to the right place: that calls for three cups of tea, two slices of cake and an extra one for the road.
While often these tokens of generosity were carried out matter-of-factly and with an air of brusqueness, these wonderfully kind and warm gestures make up some of the most memorable moments of many visitors’ trips.
Overall, Georgia is an incredibly safe country to travel. In fact, Tbilisi is listed among the world’s safest cities. But the country is not without its social issues and incidents do occasionally occur and often they’re a simple case of bad luck.
The aforementioned warmth and hospitality that many visitors experience in Georgia stems from the prevailing idea that guests are a ‘gift from God’ and while the overwhelming majority of locals are genuinely kind and truly want you to have a fantastic time in their country, don’t take this idea as an invitation to throw your street smarts out the window altogether.
Just like anywhere in the world, incidents of being scammed, robbed or worse do happen. Take the usual precautions, don’t put yourself in unnecessarily risky situations and trust your intuition before blindly trusting a stranger purely because of this mentality that they have to do right by you. They don’t!
While I generally felt completely safe as a solo female traveller in Georgia, Abkhazia has seen a dramatic spike in crime over the past year, while the Svaneti region also has something of a reputation.
After decades of unrest that culminated in the 2008 war between Georgia and the self-proclaimed independent states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the political climate remains tense and these are certainly areas to be aware of.
Many governments advise against travel here altogether, though experienced travellers do still visit.
For Abkhazia, this guide is an excellent and up-to-date resource on how to get a visa and travel in the region.
For South Ossetia, the only way to access the region is via Russia. If you happen to reach the border on the Georgian side during your wanderings around Kazbegi, you will be turned back. This account details what to expect from a visit.
Georgian is not an easy language to learn and while I’m a big believer in picking up at least a few phrases for each country I visit, seeing that I was struggling to wrap my tongue around a simple hello and goodbye – gamarjoba and mshvidobit, in case you were curious – I didn’t get all that far in learning much else. Paired with that, the ornate alphabet looked to me like a rather pretty series of squiggly lines that I couldn’t even begin to decipher.
In the major cities, many locals speak excellent English, especially the younger generations, but once you set off to the smaller villages and the mountains, expect to be doing a lot of gesticulating and the dance of charades with a handful of awkward misunderstandings thrown in for good measure.
If picking up some Georgian seems a little too daunting but you’re keen to learn something, some Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet might be a little more manageable and, helpfully, is widely understood in Georgia, as well as the Caucasus, Central Asia and some of the Balkans for those travelling further afield.
Whether it’s red, white or amber, Georgia sure knows how to do wine.
Home to the oldest wine region in the world and with a reputation for excellent produce (word is they even used to hand out a small bottle to newcomers at customs, how great is that!), I sat down to my much-anticipated first glass in Georgia and was greeted by an entirely new vocabulary of grapes – definitely no run of the mill cab sav over here!
I picked one purely on the basis that it was rather fun to say and rolled off the tongue, but at my first taste of subtly sweet Kinzmarauli followed by the signature Saperavi, I was completely hooked. Anywhere in the country, there’ll almost always be wine on the menu and you can virtually guarantee it will be both delicious and cheap.
That said, the ‘homemade’ stuff they sell at some guesthouses and restaurants is generally fairly awful and should not be placed in remotely the same category as the good stuff. Kind of like a berry cordial mixed with hard liquor.
For those looking to try the full smorgasbord of Georgian grapes straight from the wineries, a day or weekend trip to Signagi and Khaketi is a must on any Georgian itinerary.
Looking for something a little stronger? A stiff swig of chacha should do the trick!
A growing network of flights to Georgia means it’s never been easier (or cheaper) to travel here.
Despite their stringent luggage rules, Wizzair, in particular, is forging the way with regular, affordable services to Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi.
If you’re searching on Skyscanner, by selecting ‘Georgia’ rather than a specific city, you’ll quickly be shown options for the cheapest connections and by booking one-way tickets you’ll be able to save a chunk of time by not backtracking across the country.
Tbilisi is a humming, metropolitan city where ATMs are prevalent and credit cards are widely accepted. The same is true for Georgia’s other major cities, like Kutaisi and Batumi.
Once you head into the countryside, however, where it’s all ma and pa eateries and family-run guesthouses, you’ll need to pay for almost everything in cash.
Small towns tend to have at least one ATM, but if you’re setting off into the really remote areas or attempting a multi-day hike, be sure to have enough cash with you to cover all your costs while you’re away, plus a bit extra just in case.
As seems to be the case just about everywhere in this part of the world, the disregard for general road rules and basic road safety is kind of astounding and, more often than not, downright terrifying.
From overtaking at speed on blind corners and in the rain to driving the winding mountain roads with tyres rubbed smooth from the rough roads, there were some days where I truly dreaded having to get behind the wheel.
To put your mind at ease, even a little, always, always wear a seatbelt and if there isn’t one try to have at least one seat in front of you. Avoid travelling by road at night and bring some kind of distraction for every journey – podcasts and audiobooks are my go-to! (Psst. Looking for audiobooks on Audible? Sign up for your free, no obligation 30-day trial and receive 2 complimentary audiobooks of your choice!) It may seem a little counterintuitive, but I also almost always prefer to take marshrutkas over taxis. While the latter are generally more comfortable, they also tend to drive much faster and more erratically.
Whether you’re in the heart of Tbilisi, a remote village in the High Caucasus or a dinky cafe near a waterfall in the middle of nowhere, chances are you’ll have access to wifi.
Though sometimes a trip to the wilderness is the perfect excuse for a digital detox, while travelling in Georgia you certainly won’t be forced to take a break from your Instagram feed if you don’t want to. The country is seriously well connected and most of the time the internet is pretty fast as well.
In Georgia, I seemed to have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the dogs of the land.
In the cities, there is an excellent initiative where stray dogs are collected, vaccinated, de-sexed and released back onto the streets. It’s also fairly common to see overflowing bowls of dog food scattered along the pavements for the strays to come and go as they please. They’re healthy, clean and friendly, even more so if you throw them the odd treat or offer up a loving scratch behind the ears.
When it came to the mountains, however, it was a bit of a mixed bag.
In Kazbegi I had a beautiful little pup escort me almost all the way up to Gergeti Glacier. He would trot by my heals then dart off through the meadows only to emerge waiting patiently on the path ahead. But in Ushguli, while munching on a boat of freshly baked bread, I managed to attract a motley crew of about a dozen dogs who became increasingly aggressive as I wandered around town. Tusheti is also notorious for sheepdogs that are, quite understandably, viciously protective of their flocks.
Basically, just use your common sense. If they’re friendly, give them some love. If they’re not, best to keep a wide berth.
If it’s the mountains you seek then it’s important to consider the season when planning your trip.
Winter in Georgia means chilly temperatures in the cities and a thick layer of snow across the mountains, while summer carpets the valleys in dewy greens and brings the sweltering heat to the cities.
By late spring, the snow has begun to melt, the wildflowers emerge and the rivers are gushing. I visited in September which meant warm days in the city and the beginnings of autumn colours in the forests, along with cold evenings in the High Caucasus and mild days perfect for hiking.