Georgia, known as Sakartvelo in its native language, was one of the biggest surprises of my travels. From trekking through its breathtaking, snow-capped Caucasus Mountains to taking in its vibrant culture and rich history, this country is truly a hidden gem. I was blown away by how friendly and welcoming the people were, inviting us into their homes and serving us platter after platter of their local cuisine. With all the delicious home-cooked meals, immersing yourself in the mountains and a country’s culture has never been tastier. Georgia is paradise for nature-lovers. Traipsing around from village to village staying at family guesthouses was an experience I won’t soon forget.
Georgia is a budget-friendly destination perfect for backpackers and travelers of all styles. However, with fewer travelers and a less-developed tourism infrastructure, you’ll have to do a bit of preparation and research before going to Georgia. Don’t worry, it’ll be worth it. Here is everything you need to know before going to Georgia.
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Table of Contents
- How To Get To Georgia
- Things To Know Before Going to Georgia
- Is Georgia Safe to Visit?
- Currency and Money
- Language and Phrases to Know
- Do You Need a Visa to Go to Georgia?
- Getting Around in Georgia
- Where To Stay in Georgia
- Best Travel Destinations in Georgia
- Cuisine in Georgia and Foods to Try
- Closing Thoughts on Georgia
How To Get To Georgia
The easiest way to get to Georgia is by taking a flight, but it depends on your location and personal preferences. The main international airports in Georgia are in Tbilisi, Batumi, and Kutaisi. There are direct flights to Georgia from several major European cities as well as some major cities in the Middle East, Asia, and North America. I flew from Istanbul to Tbilisi with Pegasus Airlines for about $150 USD round trip. I took a detour through Armenia, so I also traveled by bus on my way back to Tbilisi. If you’re in the region, you’ve got options.
There are direct trains to Georgia from Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. I haven’t personally taken any of them, but I know they exist. I’ve met travelers who have taken the night train from Armenia and a similar train from Azerbaijan. If you’re looking to travel by train from Turkey, here’s a good blog post I read covering the journey. Bus travel is also an option from the neighboring countries, as is renting a car or hiring a private driver through GoTrip.
What To Know Before Going to Georgia
Is Georgia Safe to Visit?
I found Georgia to be safe overall, with friendly people throughout the big cities and smaller villages. The biggest concern would be safety on the roads, as drivers in Georgia can be on the crazy side. You know you’re saving money when you hop in a shared minibus, but you also don’t know if you’ll live to see the day to take advantage of it. In mountainous regions, many roads are in rough condition, or simply don’t exist. It’s an adventure, but that’s really the only thing I’d consider unsafe about Georgia.
Despite bordering Russia, and many of citizens despising Russia, there is no reason to fear any political violence or unrest. There are regions of Georgia, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that are disputed territories that I’d recommend avoiding, but it’s unlikely that a typical traveler will feel compelled to visit those regions. Georgia has had a complex political history dating back thousands of years, so keep yourself informed and be aware of any travel warnings or advisories.
As with any destination, it’s always a good idea to exercise caution while traveling. The crime rate in Georgia is low, and common sense should get you by just fine in Georgia.
Georgia’s currency is the Georgian Lari. The exchange rate is pretty stable and hovers between around 2.7 GEL to 1 USD. Withdrawing money is straightforward in Georgia. Find a Bank of Georgia ATM as they don’t charge fees for withdrawing money. There are plenty of money exchanges with fair exchange rates throughout the country to exchange euros and U.S. dollars, among other currencies. Most places in big cities will accept credit card, but it is crucial to have cash handy when traveling in smaller villages.
The official language of Georgia is Georgian, but there are other dialects in the country. For example, Svani is widely-spoken in the region of Svaneti. Almost everyone speaks Georgian. English is also common, particularly in tourist destinations and among young people. Knowing a few basic Georgian phrases can be helpful.
- Hello: gamarjoba
- Goodbye: nakhvamdis
- Thank you: madloba
- Cheers: gamaurjos
- Yes: ki
- No: ara
- Sakartvelo: Georgia
That’s about all I’ve got. Gamaurjos is the important one, though.
Do You Need a Visa for Georgia?
Georgia is visa-free for almost every country. Best of all, that visa-free period is a year long. Although most backpackers won’t need a year, it makes it an attractive option for digital nomads and remote workers. Buckling down in the vibrant capital of Tbilisi for a year would not be a bad move at all. Getting into Georgia is straightforward, and I had no issues getting in and out of the country with just my passport.
Getting a SIM Card in Georgia
SIM cards are available to travelers and relatively affordable in Georgia. Magti, Silknet, and Beeline are the main providers for cell service, and they have a number of stores in the big cities. I didn’t use a SIM card while I was in Georgia, opting to use an eSIM app called Airalo. It worked great throughout the country, even in the remote regions of Svaneti. This app is useful if you only need a data plan for a country, but want to keep your primary phone number and not have the hassle of misplacing your primary SIM card on the go. I’d definitely recommend it for Georgia, especially if you only plan on staying for a week or two. If you’ve never purchased an eSIM with Airalo before, you can use my code ELIJAH933 to get $3 off.
Travel Insurance For Georgia
Oh, and before you go, make sure to have good travel insurance handy while you’re off adventuring across the world. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels for as low as $40 a month, and their coverage includes Georgia among the 190+ countries that they cover. It’s handy to have travel insurance in Georgia, especially if you plan on hiking in remote areas, high altitudes, and taking to those crazy winding roads with even crazier drivers.
Transportation: How To Get Around Georgia
Georgia has a surprisingly good transportation system. There are reliable and frequent trains and buses between big cities. In small towns, get accustomed to the marshrutkas. These shared minibuses are the most common and frequent form of transportation in Georgia. There aren’t strict timetables, but if you show up at a reasonable time during the day, there should be a marshrutka headed towards your destination.
There are also buses and bus stations with actual timetables, if you prefer a little more organization. Trains exist, but only between big cities like Tbilisi, Batumi, and Kutaisi. They are affordable and decently comfortable, and even have wifi to help the time pass. Tickets and timetables are available at this website. Most cities don’t have metro systems, but Tbilisi does have two metro lines.
You won’t have any issues finding taxis, but ride-hailing apps are the way to go. Uber is your go-to option, but most of the locals also use an app called Yandex. I’ve found it to be slightly cheaper and easier to get a car with Yandex. Renting a car is also a good way to get around the country, and relatively affordable if you split the cost with friends.
GoTrip is a popular service in Georgia. With GoTrip, one can hire a private driver. The daily price is similar to renting a car, with some money for gas and a tip for the driver on top. It’s a good way to get around Georgia with the freedom of stopping at points of interest along the way. There are plenty of active drivers on the platform, although you will have to pay a little extra if you want an English-speaking driver.
Where To Stay in Georgia
There are a variety of accommodation options available in Georgia that cater to any budget.
Georgia doesn’t quite have the backpacker infrastructure that other European destinations do, but there are a few hostels to choose from in the big cities. I stayed at hostels in Tbilisi and Kutaisi and loved the ones I stayed at. While Tbilisi, Fabrika Hostel is worth visiting even if you don’t plan on staying there. It’s home to a number of bars, cafes, restaurants, and an outdoor courtyard that is a popular hangout spot among young locals.
I use Hostelworld religiously when booking hostels, and it hasn’t failed me yet. I’d recommend using it for comparing hostels in the big cities like Tbilisi and Kutaisi, although you won’t find many options in the smaller villages throughout the country.
Guesthouses and Homestays
Since we spent most of our time in smaller villages, we usually stayed at locally-run family guesthouses. Guesthouses are a traditional form of accommodation in Georgia, and offer an authentic and local experience. They are widely available in rural areas and small towns, and are usually packaged with home-cooked meals or a bagged lunch if trekking. Staying with a family also makes for a uniquely immersive experience, on top of the convenience. Having breakfast, lunch, and dinner sorted out for us saved us so much time, and always turned out to be delicious.
Some guesthouses show up on websites like Booking but there are dozens more that don’t show up anywhere online, so sometimes rolling up and looking around is the best option. This was how we did it when doing the 4-day trek from Mestia to Ushguli. This method was fine during the offseason, but in the busy summer trekking season, the smaller villages might be fully booked. I’d recommend booking in advance, whether by doing so online, or looking up places on Google Maps and giving them a call.
Airbnbs and Hotels
Georgia has a wide range of hotels, from budget-friendly options to luxury hotels at ski resorts. I found the prices to be very reasonable, especially when split between the three of us. On average, I’d say a decent hotel will cost about $40 a night, although in smaller villages, one could bargain a room down to about $20-25 per night.
Camping is also an option for those who want to extend their budget further, or simply be closer to nature. There are several campgrounds across the country, particularly in national parks and protected natural reserves. Many guesthouse in trekking villages will also allow you to set up your tent in the yard for a small fee. I never did it myself, but I can imagine Georgia being a camper’s paradise.
The Top Travel Destinations in Georgia
On to the good stuff. Where to begin in Georgia? Here are some of my highlights from my three weeks in this amazing Eurasian country.
Tbilisi – Georgia’s Vibrant and Historic Capital
Tbilisi is the capital and largest city, known for its rich history, cultural heritage, and diverse architecture. Seriously, hike up to the Mother of Georgia statue on the hill and tell me the skyline isn’t one of the weirdest you’ve ever seen. The blend of modern architectural marvels juxtaposed with centuries-old traditional monuments is quite fascinating. Despite being full of tradition and history, Tbilisi is also quite progressive, modern, and trendy. You’ll find alternative neighborhoods filled with street art, vintage stores, artsy cafes, and vibe-y bars filled with young people looking to have fun.
Some popular attractions in Tbilisi include:
- Old Tbilisi: This historic district is home to many of the city’s most important landmarks, including the Narikala Fortress, the Sioni Cathedral, the Meidan Bazaar, and the Anchiskhati Basilica. Old Tbilisi is perfect for an aimless wander, and the crumbling, historic buildings give a glimpse into the country’s tumultuous past.
- Rustaveli Avenue: This is the main street in Tbilisi, lined with shops, restaurants, and cafes. It is also home to the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre, the Rustaveli National Theatre, and the Georgian National Museum.
- The Bridge of Peace and Rike Park: I mean, it’s just a bridge, but it is really aesthetically pleasing and offers great views of the city. Across the bridge is Rike Park, a green area with art exhibits and sculptures and a good place to kick back and take in some views.
- Mother of Georgia: A short hike to this statue rewards one with beautiful views of Tbilisi. It’s right next to Narikala Fortress, so it’s a good idea to visit both at once.
- The Sulfur Baths: Tbilisi is known for its hot springs and sulfur baths, said to have healing properties. The most famous one, Orbeliani Baths, is located in Abanotubani, which is also known as the city’s “bath district.”
- Chronicle of Georgia: About thirty minutes outside downtown Tbilisi, you’ll find this massive monument with beautiful panoramic views. It felt like something out of the Dwarven cities of Skyrim or Lord of the Rings.
These ideas are just a starting point, so be sure to take some time and roam through Old Tbilisi and discover some gems for yourself.
Svaneti – Breathtaking Landscapes and Colossal Mountains
Svaneti is a region in the northwest of Georgia, known for its stunning mountain landscapes, traditional villages, and unique architectural marvels. Some popular tourist destinations in Svaneti include:
- Mestia: This is the main town and administrative center of Svaneti, located at an elevation of 1,500 meters above sea level. If you plan on visiting Svaneti, this is likely where you’ll start. It can be reached by flight from Tbilisi, by bus, or by a combination of a train to Zugdidi and a marshrutka from the train station.
- Ushguli: This is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the highest continuously inhabited settlements in Europe. It is located at an elevation of 2,100 meters and is home to some of the best-preserved medieval tower houses in the region. It is the ending point of a popular 4-day trek from Mestia, easily my favorite experience in Georgia.
- The Svaneti towers: These are the traditional defensive towers that are found throughout Svaneti. They were used to protect villagers from invaders. Jutting out above the villages, they are difficult to miss and truly make the gorgeous landscapes even more unique.
- Ushguli Theater: The award-winning movie, Dede, was filmed entirely in Svaneti, mostly in Ushguli. Many of the actors are locals from Ushguli. Our host at our homestay, Angelina, played the doctor in the movie. Not every day a movie star cooks you dinner, eh? Although the movie was quite bleak, it is still a cool thing to do while in the region.
It is important to note that Svaneti is a remote and mountainous region, and it can be difficult to access in the winter months. Also, while there are several small guesthouses and hotels in the region, it is a good idea to book accommodation in advance. Many of them close by mid-October and only open up again in late spring.
Kakheti – The Rolling Hills of Georgia’s Wine Region
Kakheti is a region in the eastern part of Georgia, known for its beautiful landscapes, rich history, and world-renowned wine production. Some popular tourist destinations in Kakheti include:
- Signagi: This is a picturesque town located on a hilltop overlooking the Alazani Valley. It is known for its well-preserved 18th-century architecture and is a popular destination for wine lovers. For most travelers, this will be your ideal home base for exploring Kakheti.
- The Alaverdi Monastery: This is a Georgian Orthodox Monastery located in the Alazani Valley, it was founded in the 6th century and is one of the oldest and most important religious sites in Georgia.
- The wine route: Kakheti is famous for its wine production, and there are several wine routes that you can take to visit the region’s many wineries and taste the local wines.
- The hiking: Kakheti has beautiful landscapes, and it’s a great place for hiking. There are many trails that lead through the region’s vineyards and forests, offering great views of the surrounding countryside.
Kutaisi – Georgia’s Second City
Kutaisi is the second-largest city in Georgia, located in the western part of the country. The city is known for its rich history, cultural heritage, and beautiful architecture. Some popular tourist destinations in Kutaisi include:
- Bagrati Cathedral: This 11th-century hilltop cathedral overlooks the city of Kutaisi. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an important religious and architectural landmark. There are some scary horses that roam around outside, so be careful not to get in their way.
- Gelati Monastery: This is a medieval monastery located just outside of Kutaisi, and yet another of Georgia’s many World Heritage Sites. It dates back to the 12th century and is known for its intricate frescoes and mosaics.
- Tskaltubo: Roaming through the abandoned bathhouses, hotels, mansions, and palaces of Tskaltubo was one of the highlights of Georgia. It’s a surreal experience, although not one for the faint of heart. There are dozens of abandoned structures throughout the city and one can easily spend an entire day exploring them.
- Prometheus Cave: Close to the town of Tskaltubo, you’ll find Prometheus Cave, one of the largest in Eurasia. Only about 30 kilometers of this cave system has been explored. It’s a good day trip from Kutaisi for nature-lovers. Aside from the mountains, it’s arguably Georgia’s most famous natural attraction.
Borjomi – A Village Nestled in the Forests
Borjomi is a small town located in the south-central part of Georgia, known for its mineral springs and beautiful landscapes. Some popular tourist destinations in Borjomi include:
- Borjomi Central Park: This is a large park located in the center of the town, it is home to the famous Borjomi mineral springs and offers great views of the surrounding mountains.
- Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park: This is a protected area located in the Lesser Caucasus mountain range, known for its diverse flora and fauna, and it’s a great spot for hiking, trekking, and outdoor activities.
Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia – Castles and Caves
Akhaltsikhe is a city in southern Georgia, located in the region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. It is known for its rich history, stunning architecture, and beautiful natural surroundings.
The most famous landmarks in Akhaltsikhe is the Rabati Castle, an ancient fortress that was rebuilt in the 18th century. The castle houses a mosque, a church, and a synagogue, as well as a museum that tells the story of the city’s history. The city also has several other historical monuments such as the Juma Mosque, the Akhaltsikhe Sioni Church, the St. George Church and the Akhaltsikhe Botanical Garden.
Akhaltsikhe is located in the foothills of the Trialeti Range, which offers plenty of opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, and other outdoor activities. The city is located near the Paravani Lake, which offers opportunities for swimming, fishing, and boating.
Vardzia is a unique and historic cave town located near Georgia’s border with Armenia. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for its well-preserved medieval cave dwellings complex dating back nearly a thousand years.
The cave complex includes hundreds of rooms, some of which were used for living quarters, while others were used for religious and administrative purposes. The cave town also includes a palace, a church, and a wine cellar. Visitors can explore the complex by walking through the narrow passageways and staircases, which offer a glimpse into the lives of the medieval residents. It’s not an adventure for the claustrophobic.
Although Vardzia was cool, it is quite out of the way from the rest of Georgia’s main hotspots. Vardzia is in a remote location, and as far as I know, impossible to reach with public transportation. The best way to visit is with a tour or with your own private transportation. The father at our homestay in Akhaltsikhe drove us there and back for about $40 total between the three of us.
Kazbegi – The King in the North
The landscapes of Kazbegi are something straight out Game of Thrones. Kazbegi is a mountainous region in the northern part of Georgia, known for its breathtaking mountains and historic churches. The most famous one would be Gergeti Trinity Church. This Georgian Orthodox church is located on a hill overlooking the town of Kazbegi, with colossal mountains serving as a scenic backdrop.
Kazbegi National Park is a great spot for hiking, trekking, and outdoor activities, as is the Darial Gorge on the Russia-Georgia border. Along the way to Kazbegi from Tbilisi, one can find several points of interest. The ones we visited were Jvari Monastery, Zhinvali Reservoir, Ananuri Castle, and the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument in Gudauri with incredible views. We did this day trip from Tbilisi as a guided tour with Gamarjoba Georgia Tours led by Nini, our very enthusiastic sweetheart of a guide.
Foods to Try When Visiting Georgia
Wow, you’re still here? I just checked and I’m nearly 5,000 words into this blog post. Kudos to your attention span, and kudos to myself for finally finishing this thing. Before we wrap things up, I’ll leave you with a list of some of my favorite dishes from Georgia.
- Khinkali: Every country seems to have their version of dumpling, and khinkali is Georgia’s. A khinkali is usually filled with meat, spices, and herbs, although there are some vegetarian khinkali also. They are served boiled and then eaten with your hands. I have no idea why this is eaten with your hands, because it is scalding hot and soaking wet. I try to do as the locals do, but dang, gimme some chopsticks y’all.
- Khachapuri: Mmmm, khachapuri. This is a traditional Georgian bread dish filled with cheese, eggs, and butter. The most famous version is Adjaruli khachapuri, which is a large boat-shaped bread filled with melted cheese and an egg on top. It is delicious, especially when homemade with love from a kind local grandma.
- Kubdari: Ahh, my favorite. This is like a circle of dough stuffed with meat and onions and spices. A warm kubdari after a long day of trekking is a literal slice of heaven.
- Pkhali: This is a traditional Georgian dish of ground nuts and vegetables, such as beets, spinach, or eggplant, mixed with spices and herbs and formed into small patties or balls.
- Churchkhela: This is a traditional Georgian candy made of nuts (usually walnuts or hazelnuts) strung on a string and dipped in a thickened grape juice mixture, then left to dry. I’m not particularly fond of it, but it was nice to snack on while roaming through a local bazaar.
- Wine: Georgia is known for its wine-making tradition, which dates back to ancient times. They claim to have been the first people in the world to create wine, but so do a lot of other countries. Regardless, the wine here is great, and a specialty of theirs is amber wine. It looks orange to me, and I will stick to red and whites, thank you very much. But hey, try it out. Maybe it’s for you.
- Chacha: This local liquor will have you begging for less. It is like taking a swig of gasoline, but boy will it do the trick quickly. Although I hate it, I have grown fond of it, in particular, thanks to the locals who generously shared it with us along with a tradition that I’ll end this post with.
So in Georgia, one does not simply say cheers. Begin by holding the shot glass in your left hand so that it is closer to your heart. Drinks have memories, so before it enters your body in a blaze of glory, be sure to leave it with a lasting memory. For this reason, toasts in Georgia are commonly very, very long. Like I said, one does not simply say cheers.
So as a traveler, I make a toast to the incredible people I met along the way in Georgia, from my fellow adventurers who endured snowstorms and mud fields as we trekked from village to village, to the kind locals that welcomed us with open arms into their homes and fed us until we burst. To the balding marshrutka drivers with their big bellies as they navigated their buses with one hand on a steering wheel and another grasping a cheap cigarette, and to the bubbly tour guides whose love for their country was contagious.
Visit Georgia if you ever get the chance. You won’t regret it. And with that, Gamaurjos!
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