Georgia on my mind
The former Soviet state may have gone from backpacker’s secret to mainstream favourite in just a decade, but this charming country in the South Caucasus is home to many hidden gems waiting to be explored
A decade ago, even the avid traveller would struggle to place Georgia outside of the United States. But in recent years, this charming country, straddling Europe and Asia, has become a favourable playground among explorers from the region and beyond. Endless mountainscapes, green valleys and streams of glacial overflow dominate the Georgian landscape while cultural icons, from churches and monasteries to ancient settlements, caves and vineyards await at every turn. But perhaps, one of the destination’s most striking natural features is its mountains. And this becomes clear from that first aerial glimpse of Georgia as your aircraft begins its descent into the capital city of Tbilisi. Lush peaks, both large and small, making up the Caucasus Mountains and engulfed in thick cloud cover, are among the very first sights to greet you upon arrival.
Thanks to easy access to the quirky capital – Georgia is visa-free for most nationals and UAE residents – it’s no surprise that travellers flock to Tbilisi for a quick weekend getaway. But if you’re seeking an authentic adventure that goes beyond sightseeing, we suggest you arrive with more time on your hands.
While the capital city is everything from chaotic to charming, a single day will suffice to take it all in. A walk through the hillside Old Town is a great way to discover the best of Tbilisi. As you meander down the cobbled streets, Georgia reveals its culturally diverse past, with churches, mosques and beautifully-restored buildings dotting the terrain.
We began our journey at Narikala, the ancient fortress overlooking the city. While you can choose to take a cable car up to the top, the attraction is best explored on foot. A short 15-minute hike to the viewing platform takes you through narrow lanes with locals selling all manner of wares from grape-infused ice cream to authentic souvenirs. And the effort is well rewarded as the entire city below unfolds at the top – think red rooftops, smaller hills, the Mtkvari river and modern icons like the Bridge of Peace.
This vantage point also promises an up-close glimpse of the Kartlis Deda or Mother of Georgia monument, a proud symbol of the city featuring a 23-metre figure of a woman dressed in a traditional Georgian costume wielding a sword in one hand to ward off enemies and a bowl of refreshments to welcome friends.
After you’ve had your fill of the views, ride the cable car to get back to the base on the other side of the city, where quaint cafés serving up traditional Georgian cuisine can be found in plenty. A paradise for foodies, local favourites such as khinkhali (steamed soupy dumplings filled with meat) and khachapuri (local bread stuffed with different varieties of cheese, sometimes topped off with meat) are ubiquitous.
On the journey back, make a stop at Tbilisi’s famous sulphur bathhouses or abanotubani as it’s locally known. Ranging from public baths to more-private luxurious spa experiences, the water comes from Tbilisi’s natural sulphur springs and you can opt for a quick soak, scrub or a traditional massage.
Make it happen
- FLIGHTS: Most international airlines offer direct or connecting flights to Tbilisi, Georgia. Dubai-based carrier flydubai operates direct three-hour flights from Dubai to Tbilisi on a daily basis.
- HOTELS: Tbilisi: Tbilisi Marriott Hotel for its proximity to the city centre Stepantsminda: Rooms Hotel Kazbegi for its mountainside setting Borjomi: Crowne Plaza Borjomi Spa & Wellness Centre for its leisure facilities and wellbeing offering Kutaisi: Hotel Terrace Kutaisi for its blend of old-meets-new Batumi: Piazza Inn for its striking architecture and central location in the heart of the city
- DINING: Tbilisi: 9 MTA in Tbilisi for its handcrafted brews Stepantsminda: Panorama for its five-star ambience Borjomi: Old Borjomi for its authentic local cuisine Kutaisi: Our Garden for amazing views over the entire city
- TOP SIGHTS: • Narikala Fortress in Tbilisi • Gergeti Trinity Church in Stepantsminda • Tsar Sulfur Baths in Borjomi • Okatse Canyon in Zeda Gordi • Botanical Gardens in Batumi
If you’re looking to venture off the beaten path, a visit to Stepantsminda is a must. Still widely known by its old name, Kazbegi, this small town is famous for the iconic Gergeti Trinity Church that punctuates its skyline at 2,170 meters. But expert hikers will find Mount Kazbek calling. Popular among backpackers, the mountain’s snow-capped peak sits at a height of 5,033 metres and backs Gergeti Trinity Church.
Local taxi drivers can chauffeur you up to the cathedral, expertly navigating steep bends around the mountain in a short span of ten minutes, but the hour-long easy hike is well worth the views that greet you from the ancient chapel. Adventure seekers looking to traverse the lesser-explored terrain beyond this point can expect a nine-hour hike to the top of Mount Kazbek.
After sunset, this sleepy town completely blurs out and all you’re left with is a quiet evening under the brilliantly-lit starry sky, ideal for an alfresco meal in Stepantsminda’s 15-degree-celsius summer weather.
Several fine-dining restaurants at the base of Mount Kazbek serve up Georgian and Turkish favourites from hearty stews to succulent kebabs, perfect for a chilly evening.
The next stop on our journey, Borjomi is one of the country’s favourite spots, extremely popular among locals seeking a weekend getaway. Home to five-star wellness retreats, the resort town sits on a natural spring known for its healing powers and is frequented by people looking for relief from various health problems.
Borjomi Central Park at the heart of the city is its calling card. Dating back to 1850, the park’s star attraction is its natural mineral water source, Ekaterina Spring, overflowing with sulphur-infused groundwater pumped directly from the earth’s depths. Here, you’ll find people queuing up for a glass of water or ready with empty bottles to take some home with them.
If you walk upstream from this point, three-kilometres deep into the park, you’ll encounter the Adventure Trail that leads right to the Tsar’s Sulphur Baths. Home to the royal Romanovs in the 19th century, the attraction has been transformed into an open-air swimming pool with hot spring water filtering in and out. Once only accessible by Georgian royalty, the spring is open to the public today. So if you’re looking to take a dip in its warm waters, be sure to bring your bathers and towels along.
Georgia’s third most populous city (but perhaps the most charming), Kutaisi, was our fourth stop. Centuries-old cathedrals, including the oldest 11th century Bagrati Cathedral, contrast with modern architectural marvels, but somehow it all fits together perfectly. Its roads are bustling by day and night, and there’s an abundance of things to do from shopping the world’s biggest brands in the city centre to scouring local markets for coffee, spices and homemade wine. Georgian local candy, known as churchkhela, a candle-shaped bar made out of fruit pulp and stuffed with nuts, makes for wonderful edible souvenirs.
Kutaisi serves as the ideal base to explore some of the country’s westernmost attractions. 20 minutes away from the centre lies one of the world’s biggest natural wonders, Prometheus Cave. It was discovered by a local explorer in 1984 and visitors today are able to traverse its 1.4-kilometre-long underground path on a 30-minute guided tour to discover the many different geological formations inside. The cave is a succession of six brilliantly-lit chambers with stalactites and stalagmites jutting out from the ceiling and floors. The walking path concludes at an underground lake, where you can either exit the cave or continue onwards by boat to find cave pearls and petrified waterfalls.
Continuing on our day trip from Kutaisi, Okatse Canyon was next on our list. But it’s often overlooked given the winding drive up the mountain through narrow roads followed by an hour-long hike through mountainous terrain, sometimes over wobbly paths at the edge of the cliff. At the end of the hike, a 700-metre walkway, suspended by iron bars from the edge of the mountain, projects over the canyon. If you fear heights, be sure to skip this one as the view of the deep valley below the see-through footbridge alone can make the brave go weak at the knees. But that’s what makes Okatse Canyon a spectacle. Once you’ve stepped into the territory, you leave the throngs of tourists behind and truly feel one with nature, cut away from the rest of the world.
Perhaps the most breathtaking moment of it all is the culmination of the walkway into a viewing platform that hangs right in the middle of the canyon, offering views of the flowing water below. But if you’d rather skip the adrenaline rush, the nearby Kinchkha waterfall also offers some wonderful photo opportunities with great views.
Down south from this scenic spot, you’ll find Martvili Canyon offering walking trails around a 300-metre long track through the trees and boat rides over a deep-green lake. While you can choose to swim and dive into the chilly waters, a boat ride will take you deeper into the attraction through striking gorges and caverns, quite unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Our last day in the country took us to the seaside town of Batumi. A stark contrast from other Georgian towns, it boasts a vibrant port lined with glitzy cafés, futuristic towers, and a dynamic nightlife that takes partygoers deep into the night. But what makes the city the ideal locale to bring your trip to a close is the stunning Black Sea coast. Check into a resort by the sea or head to one of the public beaches to lounge the hours away while soaking up the sun on its black sands.
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