30 January 2019.
Hurtling along the serpentine road that hugs the lush banks of the Mtkvari River, timeworn spires and impregnable fortress walls dot the canyon walls high overhead.
Parched trees sink their roots deep into the gushing water dressing the valley in a deep forest green, tiny villages and breathtaking views whip by beyond the window, and up ahead, the cave city of Vardzia reveals itself against the sand-coloured cliffs.
A mosaic of hand-hewn windows that hide a maze of hidden rooms and snaking tunnels carved into the belly of the mountain.
From a small cluster of cave dwellings forged under King Giorgi lll in the early 12th century, Vardzia slowly expanded under instruction from his daughter Queen Tamar into the monumental holy city which at its peak housed some 2,000 monks.
It was a place where the intricacies of daily life were carried out within the mountain; where apothecaries, wine cellars, bakeries, chapels and living quarters were carved side-by-side into the rocky cliff face. Today it remains as a fascinating place to explore.
Planning your trip to Vardzia, Georgia? Here’s everything you need to know!
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Opening Hours | Every day from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Recommended Visit Duration | Moving at a steady but comfortable pace, it’s possible to visit the entire Vardzia complex in 2 to 3 hours.
Entrance Fee + Guide | The Vardzia entrance fee is 7 GEL (€2.30), plus 10 GEL (€3.30) for the optional audio guide.
Unfortunately, there is no information given around the site so I’d definitely recommend getting the audio guide for a bit of background about the complex and a fascinating insight into the various rooms and happenings of daily life during the 12th century. That said, it’s not all that well executed with some recordings being out of order or of places that are no longer accessible, along with some overly longwinded passages, but it’s interesting enough if you’re not joining a tour.
It is also possible to hire a local guide at the site, though from what I understand, most do not speak English.
Another option would be to join a tour from Tbilisi or Borjomi with an accredited English speaking guide which can take you through the complex as well as other interesting attractions in the region. Check tour options for Vardzia here and here.
Vardzia Highlights | The Church of Assumption is widely regarded as the most impressive sight in the complex, with a double arched entryway and row of hanging bells on the outside and intricate paintings decorating the interior. The rambling tunnels that lead away from the main chamber and upward through the cliffs are also some of the most intriguing of the entire complex. Other unique features include the chapel perched precariously on the cliff’s edge, the apothecary wall which can only be viewed from far below and the wine facilities chiselled into the rock.
Get there early | Once the gates open, the tour buses won’t be far behind. Try to get there as the ticket office opens to be one of the first to enter the complex.
Wear sturdy shoes | Steep weathered stairs, sandy platforms and narrow tunnels means this is a good place to ditch the sandals and don your closed footwear.
Consider an audioguide | As mentioned above, there’s no information provided once you arrive at Vardzia and while the audioguide isn’t perfect, it’s certainly better than nothing.
Dress modestly | While the church and tunnels are the only places where conservative dress is enforced, covering up throughout the complex is a basic sign of respect in this still active monastery. Shoulders and knees should be covered.
Let the tour groups pass | Bustling tour groups are fairly unavoidable in Vardzia, particularly when it comes to squeezing through narrow rock-hewn passages and tiny caves. But as they tend to move quite quickly through the complex, it’s best to simply wait and let them pass and then have the space all to yourself, rather than try to rush through to keep ahead.
It’s a One Way Route | From the ticket office, you’ll follow a one-way route through the caves so be sure to see everything as you go so you won’t need to backtrack.
Prepare for some steep steps and tiny passages | The first part of Vardzia is mostly poking your head into near identical caves and hoping you’re at the right spot in relation to the audioguide, but the far more interesting final sections can start to feel like quite an adventure. Tiny sloping passages hewn deep into the rock, peepholes you need to strain on tiptoes to enjoy the views across the valley, and rocky knee-high staircases that crisscross the cliff face. These areas are wonderfully atmospheric and were my favourite areas of the complex, though quite understandably, the more elderly folks or those with children in tow were slightly less enthusiastic.
Take Time To Explore The Area | Aside from Vardzia, there are a number of other interesting features to visit in the surrounding countryside, such as Khertvisi Fortress, Tmogvi Castle and Vani Caves which are best visited by taxi (more on that below).
Valodias Cottages | This charming farmstead lies 3km from Vardzia and is an absolutely wonderful option for your time in the area. My afternoon here was spent nibbling on fruit straight from the orchards, relaxing in a hammock beneath the apple tree and dangling my feet in the cool, gushing river.
The rooms themselves are basic but comfortable and all meals are made with ingredients sourced from the garden. Prices start at 75 GEL (€25) per night for a single room with half board (dinner and breakfast). Check their website for rates and availability.
To arrive, ask the marshrutka driver from Akhaltsikhe in advance if he can drop you off at the cottages. If you get lucky, he might take you for free as it’s just a 2-minute drive, or he’ll try to charge you. Don’t pay more than 5 GEL, though even this is wildly overpriced.
To get to Vardzia the following day, I just walked with all my luggage as it was carry-on sized and left it at the ticket office. A number of passing cars did offer me a lift though, so if you’ve got more luggage with you, it shouldn’t be too hard to hitchhike to Vardzia’s entrance.
Taoskari Hotel | This simple hotel offers decent value private rooms and a filling breakfast, but the best bit is its location right opposite Vardzia affording excellent views across the cave city. If you’re arriving on public transport and don’t fancy lugging your backpack along the main road, this is your best bet.
Vardzia Resort | A property that repeatedly receives outstanding reviews, Vardzia Resort really capitalises on its location, boasting a beautiful outdoor terrace overlooking the canyon, a pool, cosy lounge area and spacious, modern rooms. It’s a bit of a splurge by Georgian standards, but at just a 30-minute walk to Vardzia, it’s an excellent choice in the area.
Despite being one of the most popular things to do in Georgia, Vardzia is not all that well connected to the rest of the country and requires a transfer in either Akhaltsikhe or Borjomi, both of which also make suitable bases if you don’t wish to stay near the cave city itself, although I highly recommend you do.
From Tbilisi | Marshrutka depart Tbilisi for Akhaltsikhe and Borjomi from Didube Bus Station every hour between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. The trip takes 3 to 4 hours and costs 6 to 8 GEL (€2 – €2.60).
To return, services from Akhaltsikhe to Tbilisi leave at least every hour between 6:20 a.m. and 7 p.m.
From Kutaisi | During my visit, there were just four daily buses from Kutaisi to Akhaltsikhe via Borjomi departing at 8:20, 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. The trip takes 3 to 4 hours and costs 12 GEL (€4).
To return, services from Akhaltsikhe to Kutaisi depart at 10:40 a.m., 3 and 6 p.m.
From Akhaltsikhe | Here you’ll need to change to the bus to Vardzia (or Mirashkhani) which leaves at 10:35 a.m., 12:20, 4 and 5 p.m. The trip takes about 90 minutes (a little longer if there’s the after school run) and costs 5 GEL (€1.60). Buy your ticket from the small ticket counter inside the terminal.
To reach Vardzia comfortably in one day, I’d recommend catching the first bus from Kutaisi and Tbilisi to connect with the 12:20 p.m. bus from Akhaltsikhe.
To return, buses go from Vardzia to Akhaltsikhe at 1 and 3 p.m. from opposite the cafe.
Also bear in mind that bus timetables change regularly (these were correct as of September 2018) so it’s best to check with tourist information in Kutaisi or Tbilisi for the correct schedule when you arrive.
Alternatively, when you arrive in Akhaltsikhe you can also jump in a taxi and negotiate with the driver to make a few stops along the way to Vardzia.
Driving through the beautiful canyon beside the river, where fortress ruins dress the clifftops and beautiful views abound, I kind of wished I had taken this option as it would really add to the experience and there’s more than enough to fill an afternoon before you even reach the cave city. Prices for a round trip taxi with a wait at Vardzia and stops along the way seem to be around 60 to 90 GEL (€20 to €30) depending on the number of stops and your negotiating skills. If you’re just planning to visit as a day trip and have someone to share the costs with, this is a good option.