I first went to Georgia in January 2020 with the intention of spending about 6 months there, and then moving on. I had weddings to go to in Santorini, friends to meet in Istanbul, plans to travel around the region. But just 6 weeks after arriving, my life and my plans got put on pause, along with the rest of the world.
When the infection rate started rising around the world, schools started closing, sporting events canceled, and my sister and other family friends begged me to come back to the US where they thought I would be the safest. I trusted my intuition and stayed where I was. Those initial intended 6 months of Georgia turned in 14 actual ones. Georgia closed its borders and no new tourists entered for over a year, which meant those of us already in the country were able to see this beautiful place set in the Caucusus Mountains in a totally unique way.
Without further ado, I present to you my top 5 favorite sights in the country of Georgia, in no particular order.
Within the first few weeks of arriving in Georgia, I had arranged a meet-up with other online English teachers; one of the first people I met happened to have bought a car in Azerbaijan just a few months prior. Immediately we started a whatsapp group for weekend road trips! One of the first trips we took was to David Gareja, a monastery near the border with Azerbaijan.
Four of us- two Americans, an Irish, and an Aussie, hopped into that bright blue car and headed southeast from Tbilisi into Kakheti, the wine region of Georgia.
The monastery complex was founded by an Assyrian monk, Saint David Garejeli, in the 6th century BC. Part of the monastery was built into the side of a rock face, with several small rooms built inside.
The moment we arrived to the monastery, the snow began to fall. Big, thick flakes of snow. We entered into the center of the monastery, rock face on one side, and the remaining infrastructure surrounding us on the other sides, we felt as if we were in the center of a real life snow globe. The snow came down fast and swirled around us. An incredibly magical moment.
Kazbegi is in the north of Georgia, near the border with Russia, and only a 3-hour drive from Tbilisi. I grew up in Boulder, at the base of the Rocky Mountains, and I can still say that the views in Kazbegi are some of the most beautiful mountain views I’ve ever seen.
Art (from Gringo Nation) and I went in late July last year. We actually postponed the trip by one week as the forecast called for thunderstorms. Once we arrived in Stepantsminda (the main village in Kazbegi), we were in awe everywhere we looked. We stayed at a family owned guest house, which I won’t mention since the adult son in law was a bit of a creep, and I saw him staring into our bedroom in the morning.
From Stepantsminda, you can easily take several hikes around the Kazbegi mountains, but the main hike is the path through the village and up to the Gergeti Trinity Church, which sits atop a hill above the town. The hike was hot in July, but worth it, as it got quite cool and windy once we reached the church, and the 360 views were a deep, rich green.
Another plus for heading to Kazbegi in the summer is the natural mineral pool. The water was very cool, and it started raining while we were there, but never have I ever swam in an outdoor mineral pool in a valley surrounded by incredible mountain views.
You either love it or you hate it; I loved it. Even though before I went, everyone warned me I would probably hate it. Batumi is known for being a mini Dubai- new buildings, casinos, skyscrapers along the boardwalk, fountain shows, neon lights.
Due to this description, I chose Tbilisi over Batumi when I first moved to Georgia. I didn’t want something flashy. But I did end up spending 5 weeks there over the summer last year, and I was sad to return to capital city by September, which is just 5 hours away by train.
True, Batumi has those things I mentioned, but it also has so much more. After seeing a few Black Coast cities in Turkey, I reflected back and appreciated Batumi so much more. Batumi truly understands how to take advantage of its geographic location along the sea. There is a long boardwalk stretching the entire length of the city where people run, walk, and bike all day. In the summer there are mini carnival rides, and fountain shows set to music. There are restaurants and cafes. The center of Batumi feels European, with cobblestone streets and enchanting architecture. It feels much more like a city center than anything in Tbilisi does.
If I had another year to spend in Georgia, I would probably head to Batumi this time around.
There are not enough adjectives to express the beauty of Sighnagi. To Georgians, Sighnaghi is known as the city of love, which is made obvious by all of the weddings that happen here. As you stroll through the hilly streets of Sighnagi, you’re sure to see at least one wedding party roaming around.
Not only is Sighnagi the beautiful city of love, with some of the old city walls outlining the city, but it also has some of the best food and wine in Georgia. Sighnagi is in the Kakheti region of Georgia, so it’s no surprise there are no shortages of wineries here. We went to a couple of them, Okros Winery and Cradle of Wine Marani, both with stunning views of the city, the walls, and the greenery surrounding the area.
Sighnagi is also home to some of the best meals we had in all of Georgia. As soon as we arrived to the city, our taxi driver explained how we must go to Pheasant’s Tears, so we took his suggestion and he was not wrong; all ingredients were fresh, traditional, and delicious. We were even lucky enough to experience a table of Georgians all singing traditional songs together; I love when that happens spontaneously in Georgia. Restaurant Traveler had some of the best lobio and khachapuri in our lives. It’s casual and unassuming, but homemade and family run, and will exceed your expectations.
This is an old cave town, about 30 minutes and 1 lari ($.30 USD) from the city of Gori, which is the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. Since we visited in the middle of a pandemic and no foreigners were permitted to enter, we had the place nearly to ourselves. We climbed over rocks, discovered old wine cellars, prayer rooms, and tunnels.
Uplistsikhe has a very interesting history, at times being a major player in Christianity, then Islam, and eventually was raided by the Mongols, which led it its ultimate abandonment, though it was used as a place of refuge at times by other foreign invaders.
You can easily spend hours here, wandering around all the hidden spaces, and staring out into the beautiful stretches of nature just beyond this village.
At the entrance down below, there is a small cafe where you can also enjoy an ice cream or a beer before you head out!
BONUS: BORJOMI-BAKURIANI KUKUSHKA
Because this is more of an event than a place, I bring you a bonus: the kukushka train between Borjomi and Bakuriani. This train line is more than 100 years old, and was originally built when Georgia was still a part of the USSR.
We went in the winter, pre-pandemic, so the trains were packed full of people, and the snow was falling. I honestly can’t imagine going in any other season. The snow all around us, riding on this slow train (2.5 hours), made the experience feel like a Disney film. It was truly magical; I could practically hear birds chirping. Everyone on the train was so full of joy and happiness, making friends with one another, that nobody really minded how full the train was.
I suggest choosing a spot outside of the train on the little balconies at each end of the train. You don’t really notice the chill if you dress warm because there is so much energy around you.
About 30 minutes before arriving to Bakuriani, the train conductor came back and asked our group of friends if we wanted to come up to the front of the train. So for the last leg, we got to chat with the two conductors and get a scenic viewpoint from the very front!