Georgia Holiday Planning Guide
Home to four World Heritage Sites, the beautiful country of Georgia epitomizes the saying, "the best of both worlds". Geographically, the land is divided in half by the Likhi mountain range, which yields a humid, subtropical climate to the west, and an arid, continental climate to the east. Experience a spectacular array of natural destinations, from low-land swamps, rainforests, mineral springs, and hot springs to volcanic plateaus, snow-tipped mountains, and glaciers. Embrace the laid-back attitude, rich folklore, and ecclesiastic architecture among the sub-tropical gardens. Georgia boasts a healthy mix of rural charm and urban modernity, combined with Mediterranean hospitality. Here you'll find the deepest cave in the world, Krubera Cave, with 2,140 m (7,021 ft) of known depth. Relax in the sun along the pebbled beaches of the Black Sea, and sample the mouth-watering Georgian specialties, including "Khinkali," traditional meat dumplings, to round out your authentic Georgian holiday.
Places to Visit in Georgia
Regions of GeorgiaAdjara Region
: Long a part of the Ottoman Empire, the Adjara Region is the center of Islamic culture in the country, and with its array of beautiful beaches, lush forests, and resort towns along the Black Sea it stands as one of the premier centers of tourism in Georgia.Abkhazia
: Once a seaside getaway for the Soviet Union's political elite, lush Abkhazia is still recovering from the destructive war with Georgia in the 1990s--this region is not under Georgian government control, but rather a combination of separatists and Russian troops, so getting in can be very difficult (in fact, most Western governments advise against it). Those determined to venture here will find green mountains and decaying ocean resorts.Kakheti Region
: Laid-back Kakheti, which entices visitors with its wide-open plains backed by a wall of mountains and peppered with enchanting castles, estates, and churches, lies at the heart of Georgia's love affair with wine; it’s chock full of local family wineries producing delicious blends. Mtskheta-Mtianeti Region
: Stretching from the outskirts of Tbilisi northwards to the mountains along the Russian border, the varied Mtskheta-Mtianeti Region plays host to an array of historic churches, stunning castles, and the rugged Georgian Military Highway.
Cities in GeorgiaTbilisi
: Stretched out along the cliffs of the Mtkvari River valley, the Georgian capital of Tbilisi combines a stunning natural setting with a colorful Old Town, an imposing fortress, and charmingly dilapidated residential homes, as well as the country's most cosmopolitan vibe.Batumi
: Blessed with a subtropical climate and long stretches of palm-lined beachfront, bustling Batumi is undoubtedly a hub for Georgia holidays, offering seaside fun, lush nature, and a whole range of wacky architectural gems.Sukhumi
: Wedged between the towering Caucasus Mountains and the sparkling expanse of the Black Sea and not easily accessible to the average tourist, Sukhumi serves as the capital of the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, and its litany of destroyed buildings is a testament to the bitter wars of the 1990s.Gagra
: Sleepy Gagra was once a jewel of Soviet spa culture, and it attracts visitors with an attractive waterfront, array of resorts, and ancient ruins, though travelers will need to be determined to make their way to this town in the heart of breakaway Abkhazia.Signagi
: Perched atop a hill overlooking the vast Alazani valley and surrounded by 18th-century walls, tiny Sighnaghi represents one of Georgia's most beautiful towns, packed full of cobbled streets, small wineries, and charming local guesthouses.Telavi
: Often-overlooked, Telavi can serve as a perfect base for a Georgia vacation focusing on the country's verdant wine region; it also boasts a historic fortress and energetic local bazaar, a remnant of its past glory as a major trade center.Mtskheta
: Ancient Mtskheta--long a capital of one of Georgia's many kingdoms--lies within easy reach of Tbilisi and entices visitors with its World Heritage-listed churches and attractive location nestled within a river gorge.
Stepantsminda: Ringed by sharp ridges and dominated by the towering Mount Kazbek, Stepantsminda, commonly known as "Kazbegi," is best known for its soul-stirring cathedral and being one of Georgia's most popular trekking and hiking spots.
Things to Do in Georgia
Popular Georgia Tourist AttractionsOld Town Tbilisi
: Row after row of colorful wooden houses climb up the hillside in Old Town Tbilisi, a central portion of the city featuring ancient churches, cliff-hanging homes, a hidden waterfall, and the convergence of several centuries of architectural styles.Funicular
: The historic Tbilisi Funicular, dating back to 1905, quickly whisks you to the top of the Mtatsminda hill, giving you a wonderful view over the city and valley both during the journey and from the vantage point at the top of the mountain.Narikala Fortress
: Rising imposingly above the capital, the tenacious Narikala Fortress--a veteran of many a conflict--has its origins in the 4th century, but today it offers splendid views over town and the surrounding cliffs from its sturdy walls.Batumi Boulevard
: Stretching for nearly 7 km (4.3 mi), Batumi Boulevard is the city's premier destination for strolling, enjoying a drink, or picking out the perfect beach spot, and this palm-lined "boardwalk" gives a great view of the city's bizarre architecture.Rustaveli Avenue
: Tbilisi's main thoroughfare, running from the northern neighborhoods down to the bustling Freedom Square, Rustaveli Avenue is packed full of shops, stores, cafes, restaurants, and theaters, all housed within a variety of grand 18th- and 19th-century buildings.Tsminda Sameba Cathedral
: Though not consecrated until 2004, Tsminda Sameba Cathedral is very much an integral part of Georgian religious life; this huge national cathedral, resplendent with its gold cupola, protrudes into the skyline from just about anywhere in town.Abanotubani
: Supposedly the site of both Tbilisi's founding and the origin of its name, the Abanotubani area of town features natural hot springs, pleasant gardens, and historic bathhouses, perfect for a relaxing dip after a long day of Georgia sightseeing.Gergeti Trinity Church
: Arguably Georgia's most enduring symbol, the 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church sits atop a mountain at an elevation of 2,170 m (7,120 ft), surrounded by snowcapped peaks, deep valleys, and the towering Mount Kazbek
.David Gareja Monastery
: Tucked away on a ridge on the border with Azerbaijan, the David Gareja Monastery complex combines its stunning location with incredible churches, chambers, and still-functioning monks' quarters carved into the cliff face.Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
: The final resting place for many former Georgian kings, the World Heritage-listed Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is a fantastic display of medieval religious architecture and is also rumored to house the mantle of Jesus Christ.
Planning a Georgia Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Georgia with Kids
There is a wide array of places to visit in Georgia when traveling with children, ranging from the urban delights of Tbilisi
and beachside fun of Batumi
to the mysterious ruins of Vardzia and range of castles spread around the country. Visit Tbilisi
as a first stop, as its many historic attractions and neighborhoods are very well-suited to days of wandering and exploring on winding streets and busy squares. Outside of the cities, spend your Georgia vacation hiking in the mountains of Svaneti if you like outdoor-oriented, family fun--you can spend days on end exploring the region's fortified towns and marveling at its lush alpine splendor.
Things to Do in Georgia with Kids
Though it features significantly less tourist infrastructure than you might be used to, Georgia is a very welcoming place for families looking for a bit of an adventure, and its many places to visit offer a huge range of entertaining things to do. Tbilisi
alone boasts enough attractions to fill your entire Georgia vacation, from its colorful Old Town
to the Narikala Fortress
, both of which are fun ways for kids to explore winding streets and enjoy panoramic views of the city. However, keep in mind that safety measures on fortresses are not up to Western standards, so keep kids well away from the sheer drops along the edges. You can make your way up to the Mother Georgia statue next to the fortress via the Aerial Tramway in Tbilisi
. Or spend an evening of fun at the Mtatsminda Amusement Park
, which offers stunning vistas and is easily accessible via the Funicular
. The Georgian National Museum
and the baths in the Abanotubani
neighborhood are also solid options for an entertaining afternoon. In nearby Mtskheta
, head up to the Jvari Church with the kids to enjoy its scenic viewpoint, or head to Gori to visit the Uplistsikhe cave city just outside town. In Batumi
, if the beach and Batumi Boulevard
themselves aren't enough to keep little ones entertained, let them explore the Batumi Botanical Gardens
, gasp at the amazing tricks at the Dolphinarium
, or wander the walls of the nearby Roman-era Gonio Fortress
Tips for a Family Vacation in Georgia
Georgia is a welcoming place for a family vacation, as children are welcomed almost everywhere and the friendliness of the Georgian people means they'll receive plenty of attention. Don't be surprised if your little ones, particularly very young children, receive the occasional pinch on the cheek from older locals. Traffic and driving in Georgia, particularly in Tbilisi
, can be truly insane, so keep a close eye on your little ones while wandering along city streets, particularly main thoroughfares like Rustaveli Avenue
. Cars often come out of nowhere, popping out from tiny alleyways and raging around corners without so much as a tap on the brakes, so make sure to strictly follow crossing signs and keep the kids close. If you have churches and monasteries on your Georgia itinerary, keep in mind that these are often working places of worship staffed by monks, so being quiet, calm, and respectful is paramount, particularly during services.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Georgia
Cuisine of Georgia
Much like the nation itself, Georgian cuisine is a crossroads of cultures and influences, combining unique local culinary features with spices from Turkey and Persia and hearty ingredients from the former Soviet Union. One of the mainstays you'll find on nearly any menu is mtsvadi, essentially a shish-kabob cooked on a skewer over a charcoal fire. Pork is the classic option, but veal and chicken are also common and equally tasty. You'll also find it commonly called by its Russian name, shashlik. Cheese-stuffed bread, khachapuri, is not to be missed, and comes out looking a bit like a pizza. While the imeruli and megruli varieties are similar, it's the glorious acheruli, or Adjaran variant, that truly takes the cake: the boat-shaped dough, topped with heaps of salty cheese and butter, is finished off with an egg cracked on top for a positively massive meal. Georgian restaurants and cafes also typically feature cucumber-and-tomato salads (sometimes mixed with walnut paste), ground-meat skewers, and Russian-style dumplings known as pelmeni. Spicy ostri is a tomato-based meat stew cooked in a clay dish, while beans cooked in a clay pot, known as lobio, are also popular. Fans of walnuts must try badrijani nigvzit, grilled slices of eggplant wrapped around flavorful scoops of walnut paste and topped off with pomegranate seeds.
Of course, you can't truly finish your Georgia vacation without sampling khinkali, one of the most famed national dishes. These dumpling-like morsels are far more than they appear on their pleated, doughy exterior, featuring a ball of herbs and meat within. However, it's the liquid soup that really makes them stand out--to eat them properly you must grab them by the topknot (the part where the dough is twisted together), make a small bite, and suck out the delicious broth. Then, you can chow down on the remaining dumpling (don't eat the topknot itself, though, as this is traditionally avoided by Georgians and gives you a convenient way to keep track of bragging rights afterwards). Other common varieties include those with mushrooms, cheese, and potatoes.
Vodka and beer are very popular, and very cheap, at restaurants and bars across Georgia, and plenty of locals order big bottles for the table to share around. Wine is even cheaper, especially white blends, and is served by the jug. Try finishing off a day of sightseeing in Georgia with some cha-cha, a local firewater that packs a real punch.
Shopping in Georgia
Thanks to a rapid influx of foreign investment and development, Georgia features a number of well-known brands and stores, mainly concentrated in Tbilisi
. Rustaveli Avenue
in particular is one of the city's main shopping streets, and the options range from upscale clothing establishments to wine suppliers and tacky souvenir stores. Western-style supermarkets sell a range of familiar items, though don't be surprised if certain ingredients or items disappear from the shelves for long periods of time.
For a real local experience on your Georgia holiday, head to Tbilisi
’s central market near the train station. Rather than a single, unified market, it's a charmingly chaotic conglomeration of stalls, halls, warehouses, shops, and vendors, all hawking a huge variety of goods ranging from homemade cheeses to faux-Nike shoes. You can also find sizeable groups of shops along underpasses in many major cities selling clothes, souvenirs, school supplies, religious icons, and baked goods.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Georgia
History of Georgia
Long at a complicated crossroads of the Eastern and Western worlds, Georgia and its people have fallen victim to numerous rampaging peoples over the centuries, including the Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Timurids, and Persians (with Tbilisi
in particular bearing the brunt of the destruction). To see evidence of Persian influence, add Tbilisi’s Narikala Fortress
, built in the 4th century by the occupiers, to your Georgia itinerary. Despite all of this turmoil, Georgia endured and even prospered in periods of calm. Georgia became one of the first nations on the planet to adopt Christianity as an official religion, enacting it during the 4th century, an act that helped to produce masterpieces like the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
and hilltop Jvari Church. The 12th and 13th centuries were marked by the rise and development of Georgia into a major player in the Eastern world and Black Sea region, an era known as the Georgian Golden Age. Legendary figures like King David the Builder and Queen Tamar oversaw a heyday of flourishing Georgian artwork, culture, and a great sense of unity among the once-separate Georgian kingdoms.
Conquered by Russian Empire in 1780s, Georgia endured Tsarist rule until independence after World War I. However, the good times were short-lived, as the newly forged Soviet Red Army re-conquered Georgia in 1921 and forcefully made it a part of the Soviet Union. Many Georgians rose to prominence in the Soviet era, including infamous World War II-era Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and later Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.
Tensions flared in the late 1980s as Georgia, like many of the other Soviet republics, demanded greater autonomy. On April 9, 1989, it came to a head as Soviet special forces units, ordered to disperse the anti-Soviet protesters, attacked the crowd with shovels and batons, killing several and causing a deadly stampede. In the end, 20 people were killed in the violence, and it stands as a major turning point in Georgian history, perhaps sealing Georgia's desire for independence. You can see the site of this tragedy while on your Georgia holiday by paying a visit to the small memorial outside of the former Parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue
Although 1991 saw Georgia freed of the Soviet yoke, long-simmering ethnic conflicts broke out in the autonomous regions of Abkhazia
and South Ossetia, displacing thousands of people and leaving these regions unstable, lawless, and out of Georgian governmental control. A brutal civil war raged simultaneously within Georgia proper, overthrowing post-Soviet president Zviad Gamsakhurdia and blossoming into a wider conflict as he and his followers attempted to regain power. Former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze managed to bring a modicum of peace to the country in the mid-1990s, though at the cost of allowing Russia a chance to intervene.
A wave of pro-democracy protests forced Shevardnadze to stand down in 2003, and the extremely pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili assumed power, enacting a number of Western reforms and positioning Georgia to move closer to Europe, the United States, and NATO. However, a botched military campaign to retake the separatist region of South Ossetia gave Russia a pretense to assert its power, and a brief war in August 2008 saw Georgia bombed, invaded, and stripped of its provinces by Russian and separatist forces. Since this humiliation, Georgia has recovered somewhat, pouring money into developing tourist infrastructure and civil institutions, though poverty remains a pressing issue. The contentious 2012 election saw Saakashvili defeated, and led to Georgia's first true democratic exchange of power, a promising step in the nation's growth.
Customs of Georgia
As an interesting mixture of East and West, Georgia certainly boasts plenty of customs that might seem odd to North Americans. Georgians typically greet those they know with kisses on the cheek, foreign or local, regardless of gender. When riding on public transportation, it's customary in Georgia for men to give up their seats to elderly men and women, though oftentimes female travelers of all ages will be offered a seat. Smiling at strangers you pass in the street is extremely uncommon in Georgia; though this is certainly not a sign of unfriendliness, Georgians can sometimes come across as somewhat stone-faced at first glance.
Keep in mind that Georgia is a highly religious society that places a great deal of emphasis on its Orthodox Christian traditions and customs, so you'll need to be very mindful of this during your holiday in Georgia. Long pants are a must for men and long skirts and covered shoulders are a must for women in most churches and cathedrals throughout the country, including in Tbilisi
. Men should remove their hats and women often wear a scarf over their hair, though this is less strict. However, outside of Tbilisi
, rules are more strictly enforced, so don't expect to be able to walk into most religious sites and working churches unless dressed modestly, particularly if there's a sign at the door. A number of churches you'll likely visit provide wrap-arounds and skirts at the door for women, but oftentimes men will not be allowed to use them.
Holidays & Festivals in Georgia
Georgia celebrates its independence day on May 26, an event marked in Tbilisi
in particular with great fanfare, including street fairs, Georgian Air Force flyovers, and all sorts of military displays. If your Georgia trip coincides with April 9, you'll see a remembrance ceremony dedicated to the victims of the 1989 massacre by Soviet troops. Due to Georgia's strong Christian tradition, Orthodox Easter and Christmas are the two main holidays during the year, and involve frequent visits to churches and honoring the graves of loved ones. Also there are plenty of revered figures within the Georgian Orthodox Church, so days dedicated to different saints pop up throughout the year.
, the Black Sea Jazz Festival has achieved international acclaim, and now hosts big-name world artists from the United States, Europe, Georgia, and elsewhere in addition to its repertoire of smaller acts and local performers.
Georgia Travel Tips
Climate of Georgia
While on your trip in Georgia, be sure to be prepared for very variable weather, as sudden rain can strike without much warning, particularly in the fall and early spring. In the summertime, the country is universally hot and humid, with temperatures in the east around towns like Lagodekhi
, and Signagi
reaching sweltering levels. Batumi
and the coast, on the other hand, take on a nearly tropical feel, where humidity can be oppressive and rain heavy, so try hitting the beach. Up in the mountains of Svaneti, Racha, Tusheti, and Khevsureti, weather can be extreme, with the alpine regions snowed in and inaccessible for much of the year but pleasantly cool during the hot season compared to the rest of the country.
Transportation in Georgia
Traveling in Georgia requires using an interesting mixture of transport systems. The minibuses you'll see plying the streets and highways in Georgia, known as marshutkas, are mainstays of countries throughout the former Soviet Union and help fill in the gaps in the transportation network. While the city versions can be a bit confusing because they have no set stops and signs are only in Georgian, you can easily travel between cities and towns by hopping aboard a marshutka. You'll pay a fare depending on the length of your journey, and you can hop on and off at any point during the ride. Major marshutka stations in Tbilisi
include Ortachala and Didube; just watch for the name of your destination on signboards in the front window of the vehicle.
Taxis in Tbilisi
and other cities provide a very cheap and quick way to get around and out of town, though you'll need to always negotiate a rate beforehand. Otherwise you risk being charged an exorbitant amount upon arrival. Tourists will always be charged more, but don't be afraid to bargain. Hiring a taxi for the day or for a longer trip is an extremely efficient method of sightseeing in Georgia and traveling between attractions, particularly if your group consists of multiple people. Shared taxis are also available at many bus stations, and generally cost only slightly more than a bus or marshutka, though keep in mind that they won't depart until full.
Georgia's rail network, centered on Tbilisi
, offers decent connectivity to major cities like Batumi
and Kutaisi, although it's limited to a single main line running westward from the capital. Popular cities like Signagi
, and Stepantsminda don't have rail connections. Sightseeing in Georgia solely by train isn't really an option, though the railways make up for their tortoise pace and limited runs by being far cheaper than those in Western Europe or North America.
Language of Georgia
Unrelated to just about anything and featuring an extremely exotic alphabet, the Georgian language is itself one of the most fascinating aspects of your trip in Georgia. A Caucasian language, Georgian is thought to be among the world's oldest, with the first records dating back to the 5th century. The Georgian alphabet is exclusive to the language and the country, and bears no resemblance to Latin characters or the Cyrillic alphabet in use in neighboring Russia. Intricate combinations of circles, loops, and wavy lines give Georgian a soft look, though the language can sound harsh at times with its hard consonants and guttural pronunciations that are nonexistent in English. You'll find that knowledge of English, particularly outside of Tbilisi
and among the older generation, is very limited, so practicing a few simple Georgian words and phrases can be a huge help during your Georgia vacation. Russian is also a good bet, as the older generation who grew up in the Soviet period speak it fluently as a second language.
Tipping in Georgia
Tipping while on vacation in Georgia is usually not necessary, as many restaurants around the country automatically add a 10 to 15 percent service charge onto the bill. At places others than restaurants, tipping is generally not expected either, though in some tourist hotspots it's slightly more common. However, rounding up the bill to the nearest five lari, leaving the change, or leaving a few lari on the table afterward is always welcomed in restaurants and other establishments and is a nice way to show appreciation. Tipping in taxis is unnecessary, though plenty of drivers won't have change.