As the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi is the country’s main draw. But in my opinion, any tourist in Georgia needs to step outside the city for a day or two. What really makes Georgia a beautiful country is its nature, and you can find two great examples of this in Kazbegi and the Kakheti region.
Kazbegi is the name of a mountainous area in the Caucuses. The crown jewel of the mountain range is Mount Kazbegi, which is often referred to as “The Bride” because when she removes her veil of fog in the morning, you are greeted with the most beautiful sight.
But before you actually get to the mountains, chances are you will stop at a few sights beforehand. I would recommend a guided tour, specifically one with Get Your Guide. The guides were all incredibly friendly, welcoming, and knowledgeable. They may also share some chacha, a Georgian pomace brandy (shh that’s a secret). Kazbegi is great on its own, but everything is better with good company. Oh and for a full day tour, it was incredibly cheap. Click here for their tour.
First, we stopped at the Jinvali Reservoir. Yes, it’s basically just a lake. But I swear those blue waters glittered with a light of their own. Untouched by sputtering boats or trashy resorts, the reservoir was an ornate jewel surrounded by tall, green trees. Breathe the fresh air and take in the view.
Further along the route, you will probably stop at the Black and White Aragvi River. At this section of the river, two streams meet: one black and one white. Despite joining together, the black and white streams do not blend. The novelty of it wears off after a short while, but it’s definitely a cool place to stop and stretch your legs.
The final stop before actually entering Kazbegi is the Gudauri Ski Resort. By now, you’ve started to reach the mountains. You’ll probably want to stop to get a snack or use the restroom. But please use the time to look around. There are gorgeous views wherever you look, and I can only imagine the resort is a winter wonderland during the colder months.
All along the road, you will be greeted with incomparably beautiful views. But be patient. You’ll see what true beauty is once you get to the Gergeti Trinity Church. The church stands 2170 meters above the ground in the heart of Kazbegi. From here you will get some of the most incredible views you have ever seen. By all means, go inside the church (ladies you’ll need to cover your head and legs as per religious rules), but the real attraction is all around you. Take as many photos as you can. I guarantee you they will all turn out well. If you really want to milk the view for all its worth, you can jump the tour and hike up the mountain yourself. You’ll probably have the opportunity to find better vantage points, but you’ll also have to exercise. So…it’s up to you.
If you choose to stay with the tour, you’ll have the opportunity to pay for an authentic lunch with a family in the nearby town of Stepantsminda. You’re more than welcome to bring your own lunch and walk around. But keep in mind that the town is small and doesn’t have much to do. So, relax. Enjoy their cooking. Have some chacha!
On the way back to Tbilisi, you’ll stop at two more places. The first is the People’s Friendship Arch. It is a structure symbolizing friendship between Georgia and Russia. The arch itself is a wonderful piece of artwork. However, the view is astounding. For the brave among you, you can walk under the side of the monument to get an even more stunning place for pictures. Just…you know…don’t tumble off the side of the mountain.
Finally, you’ll make your way to the fortress of Ananuri. The fortress is well-preserved despite being hundreds of years old, and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It also sits on the Jinvali Reservoir, so you’ll be sure to get plenty of nice photos while learning about the history of this great structure, which withstood numerous battles. It’s a fabulous end to a fabulous day.
For those that are unaware, Georgia is considered by many to be the birthplace of wine. The oldest vintages of wine discovered go back 6000 to 8000 years. And the most famous wine region in Georgia is Kakheti. Once again, I would recommend the same tour guides because they are delightful. So, here is another link.
First you’ll stop at a local town where you’ll see how bread is traditionally made in Georgia. Spoiler: it involves slapping the dough on the inside of a really hot oven. You can purchase one of the loaves and also some Georgia cheese. The guides will probably offer a bit of chacha to make it a full meal.
With your bellies filled, you’ll continue to Sighnagi. It’s dubbed the “City of Love”. Why? Well…no reason other than to attract tourists. But it is a pretty, little town. Join the tour group for lunch. Maybe get some wine-flavored ice cream or churchkhela, a string of nuts coated in thickened grape juice.
One of the biggest attractions in Sighnagi is its walls. Walk along the ramparts and take in the glorious view. You can also climb up one of the fortresses and imagine what it was like to defend the dreamy City of Love in the 18th century. No matter the season, you’ll have a nice view. But Kakheti is especially beautiful in warmer months when the countryside is lush and green.
Bodbe Monastery is the next stop. The monastery is covered in verdant gardens with stunning flowers, so you’ll certainly enjoy a walk around. But you can also enter the newly built church. Although the exterior has the classic church architecture you’d expect, the interior is all modern. Almost everything inside is white, giving the church a feeling of purity and piety. But sorry. No pictures are allowed inside.
Finally, no trip to a wine region would be complete without wine. So, you’ll visit the Khareba Winery. The winery itself features a 7.7 km tunnel carved into the mountainside, which naturally maintains the perfect temperature for winemaking. While inside the tunnel, you’ll see traditional winemaking tools and learn how the Georgians have been making wine for millennia. For me this was a treat. I have spent the past year working at a winery in Napa, so it was amazing to see how the winemaking process differs halfway across the world.
But best of all…the wine tasting. Just keep in mind that Georgian wine isn’t what most westerners are used to. In the West, wine is made by adding commercial yeast for fermentation and small amounts of sulfur to prevent oxidation and bacterial growth. This results in a dependable product with a beautiful bouquet and fruit flavors. But Georgia lets nature do all the work. As a result, the wine might have a little funk to it. Georgia has an incredible number of varietals. Many are semi-sweet, which hides some of the funk, and can certainly please a sweet tooth. You’ll only get that funk with the drier varietals, but hey! Just adjust your expectations. That’s all I’m saying. Because you may really like it, and it can be super hard to come by Georgian wine elsewhere. Live a little!