Originally this post was going to be entitled “Roadtripping Georgia: A 10-day Itinerary.”
Before travelling to Georgia I spent countless evenings playing around with various different routes on Google Maps, in order to formulate the perfect road trip itinerary. I thoroughly researched all the destinations I had on my shortlist, the travel distances involved to get from place to place, and possible fun and interesting stops we could make along the way. Whilst we weren’t going to be able to make it to everywhere I had on my original list, the itinerary I’d formed would introduce us to a diverse range of sights and attractions in both eastern and western Georgia.
I’d absolutely adored the road trips we’d taken previously in Slovenia, Spain and Montenegro, and around the Azorean island of São Miguel, so I was ridiculously excited (if a little apprehensive about the condition of the roads) to be embarking on one around a country that had been on my travel wish list for as long as I can remember.
However, we never did pick up the car. In fact we cancelled our reservation just over 48 hours before our rental agreement was due to begin, and less than 24 hours after arriving in the country. The reason? Georgian drivers are CRAZY!!!
Ok, that may be a sweeping generalisation, but compared to the majority of drivers on the UK roads (and those in Spain, Portugal, Slovenia and Montenegro – other countries in which Stu has driven), the motorists on Georgia’s roads are reckless, aggressive and impatient, with little respect for lane markings.
The bus we caught from Kutaisi airport to Tbilisi had an accident (thankfully no-one was hurt but the passenger side headlights were completely shattered as we careered into some metal railings in order to avoid crashing into the motor vehicle in front) and we subsequently struggled to find any undamaged cars on the streets of Tbilisi. This lead us to conclude that even if we were to survive the whole driving experience, it was doubtful whether our car would. And of course any accident (regardless of whose fault it is) would involve police and insurance companies, as well as a lot of time, money and stress.
And so it was that our road trip turned into a backpacking-Georgia-by-public-transport trip.
The good news was that all the destinations we had on our road trip itinerary were accessible by public transport. However the bad news was that logistically we simply could not make it to every one of the destinations we had on our road trip itinerary in the time that we had available to us.
We could no longer visit Davit Gareja on route to Signaghi, so if we wanted to see this ancient monastery complex, we’d have to make it there as a day trip from Tbilisi instead of heading to Mtskheta, as we’d originally planned.
We’d also have to choose between Vardzia and Svaneti, and as I have a bit of a soft spot for the mountains, we chose Svaneti.
I’d pre-booked all our accommodation through Booking.com, but fortunately their free cancellation policy allowed me to alter our itinerary at reasonably short notice for no extra charge.
A 10-Day Georgia Itinerary by Public Transport
Our revised itinerary looked like this:
Day 11: Fly home.
N.B Marshrutky (singular: marshrutka) are local minibuses and are the main form of transport around Georgia. Although they don’t always stick to the advertised timetables (sometimes they’ll leave early if full or later than scheduled if there are empty seats), they are generally reliable and fares are very cheap.
Day One: Travel from London Luton to Kutaisi
Although we set off from home at 9:30am on day one, we didn’t actually arrive into Georgia until the early hours of day two. The reason? The train journey from Shrewsbury to Luton Airport takes four hours and involves several changes, we arrived at the airport two and a half hours before our flight, the flight was just over five hours long and the time difference in Georgia is GMT+3hrs. Starting to make sense now? So our itinerary really starts on day two.
Day Two and Three: Tbilisi
Our Wizz Air flight landed into Kutaisi (it’s a lot more expensive to fly to Tbilisi via Georgian Airways) at 00:15. As we wanted to start our adventure in Tbilisi, we pre-booked seats on the Georgian Bus, which was scheduled to leave Kutaisi Airport at 00:50. Georgian buses operate specifically for the flights coming in and out of Kutaisi Airport, which is fantastic because the last thing you want just after you’ve landed in the middle of the night is to try and haggle with a taxi driver to ensure you’re not being overcharged.
You can book seats on the Georgian bus by heading over to their website, but if you haven’t bought a ticket beforehand then don’t panic because (in their own words) “[they] always have free places for you!” And having seen how many people the Georgians can pack into a marshrutka, I can wholeheartedly believe this! The fare from Kutaisi Airport to Freedom Square in Tbilisi is 20 GEL (£6.14) and the journey takes approximately four hours.
We arrived into Tbilisi with a bang (literally! See earlier comment about the little accident our bus had) at around 4:30am. Fortunately for us we had an amazing Airbnb host who relaxed his usual check-in rules and allowed us to check into the apartment as soon as we arrived. Having travelled for 17 hours straight without any sleep, this was an absolute Godsend. It was also a Godsend that our apartment was just minutes from Freedom Square.
I’d planned to go out and explore Tbilisi before the crowds arrived but I was so shattered by the time we arrived that all I wanted to do was sleep. So I set the alarm for 10 o’clock and was asleep within seconds.
I wasn’t feeling a lot better after less than five hours sleep, but I was determined that I wasn’t going to waste the entirety of our first day in Georgia’s capital seeing nothing but the inside of my own eyelids, so we showered, grabbed some brunch from the cafe next door, and set about exploring the city.
If you find yourself in the same situation as us I can thoroughly recommend following the self-guided walking tour you’ll find in the latest Lonely Planet guidebook on Georgia. The simple, easy-to-follow (which is important when you’re sleep deprived and your brain isn’t working to its full potential) 3.5 kilometre route takes you past most of the city’s notable sights, both in the Old Town and up to Rustaveli metro station.
Some of my favourite things to see and do in Tbilisi were as follows:
#1 Catch the cable car up to Narikala Fortress
One of the first things I love to do upon arriving in a new place is to head to its highest point to view it from above. As well as offering some incredible views and a good dose of fresh air, it’s a great way of orientating yourself with your surroundings.
Tbilisi’s cable car leaves from Rike Park, across the other side of the Peace Bridge to Tbilisi’s Old Town.
Tip: to ride the cable car you need a Metromoney card (but you can buy one at the ticket office here)
#2 Marvel at the crooked clock tower
Built by puppet master Rezo Gabriadze during a renovation of his theatre in 2010, this fantastic leaning clock tower was one of my favourite sights in Tbilisi’s Old Town.
Tip: Turn up on the hour and you’ll see an angel appearing from behind the doors on the little balcony at the top, carrying a small hammer which she uses to strike the bell several times.
#3 Hang out at Fabrika
Located on the eastern side of the Mtkvari River approximately 2.6 kilometres from Tbilisi’s Old Town, Fabrika is an old soviet sewing factory that’s been converted into a multi-functional urban space. You’ll find a hostel here, as well as art studios and shops, cafés, bars and restaurants.
A great place to hang out for a few hours, and grab some food and a few drinks before hopping on the metro back to central Tbilisi.
Tip: If you’re a fan of cactii, check out the plant emporium at one end of the courtyard, and don’t forget to order some food and enjoy some tunes at Moulin Electrique.
I will be writing an entire post dedicated to making the most of two days in Tbilisi very soon, so keep your eyes peeled!
Day Four: Daytrip to Davit Gareja
This was a rather more unsuccessful visit than we’d planned (somehow we managed to miss the main attraction of the monastery complex), but I absolutely adored the setting of David Gareja amidst a lunar, semi-desert landscape on the border with Azerbaijan, and travelling the road between Ubdano and the monastery is definitely an experience!
Tip: The bus leaves every day at 11am from the road adjacent to the Alexander Pushkin statue in Pushkin Park. Turn up from 10:30am onwards to buy tickets. A return fare costs 25 GEL.
Day Five: Signaghi
Marshrutky run every couple of hours from 09:00-17:00 hours from the bus station just across the road from Samgori metro station. Just tell anyone at the bus station where you’re headed and they’ll point you in the right direction. Cost is 6 GEL.
We caught the 9am marshrutka, which saw us arriving into Signaghi at just gone 11am. As we hadn’t had time to grab any breakfast, we stopped at the restaurant beside the tourist information office for a coffee and some of the best Nigzviani Badrijani (fried eggplant and walnut sauce) I ate in the whole of Georgia.
I absolutely adored Signaghi. Lonely Planet refers to it as “the prettiest town in Kakheti” (Georgia’s wine region), and I can totally understand why. Reminiscent of a charming little Italian village full of 18th and 19th century architecture and colourful wooden balconies, Signaghi is almost completely encircled by its well-preserved fortifications.
Whilst there’s not a lot ‘to do’ in Signaghi, wandering around the town is an absolute delight and if you have a head for heights and good balance, you can climb to the top of one of the towers on the old city walls for views like these.
Tip: I cannot recommend our beautiful little guesthouse and amazing host enough. If you’re coming to town, see if you can snag a room at Guesthouse Honeymoon.
Day Six: Kazbegi
You’ll have to return to Tbilisi in order to get to Kazbegi (also known as Stepantsminda). Marshrutky run every two hours from 07:00 hours from the bus station behind the police station. Because we had so far to travel, and we’d seen everything we wanted to in Signaghi, we dragged ourselves out of bed early and caught the 07:00 marshrukta.
When you get to Tbilisi, you’ll need to make it across to the other side of the city, to the bus station next to Didube metro station. This bus station is a lot bigger, busier and more confusing, and it didn’t help that it was pouring with rain as we arrived. So, fearing we were going to have missed the 10am marshrutka by the time we found it, we opted for a shared taxi with four other travellers. We ended up being the only two who couldn’t speak Russian!
Although the shared taxi is 10 GEL more expensive than the marshrutka (which is 10 GEL), the driver will make stops along the way – primarily at Ananuri Castle and the Georgian-Russian friendship monument, but also elsewhere, should you request him to.
Unfortunately the weather wasn’t very kind to us on route, and both the castle and monument were surrounded by thick, low-lying cloud, but I still appreciated the ability to be able to make these stops.
Although I’m normally a budget traveller, in Kazbegi I splashed out on a room overlooking Mount Kazbek at the Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, and let me tell you, it was worth every penny.
The hotel is located in an elevated position approximately one kilometre uphill from the bus station, and that’s what affords it spectacular views like these.
The main thing you’ll want to do while in Kazbegi is make the trip up to the 14th century Gergeti Church.
I’ve been reliably informed that for someone with a reasonable level of fitness, it’s a relatively easy 90-minute hike up to Gergeti Church from Kazbegi (just head out on the Stepantsminda Sameba road), but we cheated and booked a taxi because we were short on time. A return trip will cost you 60 GEL. If you’d like to read about the whole hiking experience, check out this post by Emily Lush. Her photos are way better than mine too!
Day 7: Transfer from Kazbegi to Kutaisi
It was a long old journey to Kutaisi from Kazbegi. We knew we’d have to change buses in Tbilisi, but we couldn’t find any information online about the departure times of the marshrutky from Tbilisi’s Didube bus station. As a result we were sat on a stationary vehicle for around an hour and a half! Not fun in 30-degree heat when you’re wearing your fur-lined hiking boots because they won’t fit in your backpack.
For your information marshrutky leave Kazbegi (destined for Tbilisi) every hour from 08:00-11:00 hours and then less frequently after then, and the fare is 10 GEL. Our bus from Tbilisi ended up departing at 12:38, although I couldn’t tell you what time it was scheduled to depart.
We ended up arriving into Kutaisi at around 4:30pm. We checked into our guesthouse, where our endearing host didn’t speak a word of English. She proceeded to make our bed up whilst we were in the room while we stood there awkwardly wondering whether we should offer help, but not knowing how to ask her.
We didn’t have a lot of time to do much in the city on this occasion, but we had a relaxing wander around Kutaisi’s streets, in order to get a feel for the place. Considering it’s Georgia’s second largest city, it’s quite a chilled, laid back kinda place with some incredible street art.
Day 8: Mestia, Svaneti
It was actually a good job we popped into the tourist office the day before (which, incidentally, has moved from number 3 Rustavelis gamziri to number 9) because the marshrutka now leaves Kutaisi’s main bus station (2.5 kilometres out of town) at 9am instead of the advertised 10am in the latest Lonely Planet guide.
The journey from Kutaisi to Mestia was my favourite bus journey in the whole of Georgia. Once you get past Zugdidi, the mountain scenery is nothing short of spectacular and will have you reaching for your camera every few minutes.
Mestia is a proper little alpine mountain town. It’s the kind of place you can imagine making the perfect base for a skiing holiday: open fires, live folk music every night, hearty food, and free-flowing wine at ridiculously cheap prices. In summer the open fires aren’t lit and the skiers are replaced by hikers, but the ski lifts still run, and that’s what we found ourselves doing the afternoon we arrived: catching a ski lift up to the top of the mountain.
We only intended to stop for a quick drink in the cafe and snap some photos of the views before heading back down, but Stu struck up a conversation with a paraglider and the rest, they say, is history.
Of the three flights I’ve now taken (the others were in Pamukkale, Turkey and Ayacucho, Peru), this was definitely the longest. Every time I felt like we were descending, we caught another thermal and up we went again! Stu lucked out with an even longer flight and I must admit I felt a teeny bit jealous when I saw how close he and his instructor got to the snow-capped peaks of mount Ushba. Mestia Paragliding even included Stu’s video on their Facebook page!
Day 9: Mestia and Ushguli
In an ideal world I would’ve made the 4-day hike from Mestia to Ushguli, but as we didn’t have time I settled for a day trip to Ushguli. Ushguli is a community of four villages inhabited by an ethnic group called the Svans, and claims to be the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe (another reason I wanted to go; I love my superlatives).
It’s characterised by its rather unique stone towers, which were used as defensive fortifications, familial living quarters, and personal treasuries. The towers date from between the 9th and the 12th centuries, and although in recent history families are choosing to move into more comfortable living spaces, there are many that are still in use today.
I loved the remoteness of Ushguli, and the fact that it’s so far removed from modern life as we know it today. Although sadly – judging by the number of guest houses popping up all over town – I suspect that it won’t remain that way for very much longer.
We left Ushguli at just the right time, because less than 10 minutes into our 2-hour journey home, the heavens opened. There were a few heart-stopping moments where we could actually see the land slowly sliding down towards our taxi (where they’ve sliced through the mountain at too steep an angle in order to make the road), but we made it back safely.
The rain didn’t let up though, but we decided to brave it in the end in order to get something to eat. The two of us squeezed under my tiny umbrella, and walked rather quickly along Mestia’s almost empty streets, dodging puddles along the way and watching flashes of lightning illuminating the sky at intervals a little too close for comfort.
Dinner was at Cafe Laila, a popular spot on Mestia’s main square, where the amazing Georgian folk band had everyone dancing by the end of the evening, and where we’d paid our bill but couldn’t resist staying for “one more glass of wine” – approximately four times. I didn’t even notice it was still raining on the
walk stumble home.
Day 10: Kutaisi
Our host at Bapsha Guesthouse was so sweet and arranged for us to have breakfast earlier than scheduled due to the early departure of our bus back to Kutaisi. The marshrutka was scheduled to depart at 8am, but I don’t think we left town until around 8:45am.
Although I opted to travel with my backpack on my lap for the entire four and a half hour journey (as opposed to having it tied on to the roof of the vehicle) because rain was forecast, we didn’t see more than a few spots all the way there.
However, when we arrived into Kutaisi the skies began to grow progressively darker. Fortunately our lovely little guest house was located just minutes from Kutaisi’s star attraction – Bagrati Cathedral – so we decided to chance a visit whilst we waited for our room to be ready.
Bagrati was built in 1003 by Bagrat III (hence the name). The cathedral was almost completely destroyed by a Turkish explosion in 1692 and, whilst intermittent restoration work earned it its Unesco World Heritage listing in 1994, it wasn’t completely renovated until 2009-2012. However, as a result of these latest renovations, Bagrati is ironically now in danger of losing its Unesco status due to the quantity of new materials used to facilitate the rebuild.
I must admit, it’s not the prettiest cathedral I’ve ever seen but it’s definitely an imposing structure, and its location on Ukimerioni Hill means that the views of Kutaisi are pretty spectacular from here, too.
On the way back down to our guest house we nipped into Our Garden cafe because we still had some time to kill before our room was ready and we were convinced that the heavens were about to open at any moment. If you’re in the area, I can definitely recommend it for drinks, ambience and good views.
We wanted to wait until the evening to get food, and as luck would have it the storm passed over and we were able to leave our guest house without getting washed away into the Rioni. We wandered through the parts of the city that we didn’t make it to the first time around, and finally settled on a table at Sapere. Obviously I chose this restaurant for its food rather than the cool rusty motor parked outside.
Day 11: Fly home
We booked our places on the Georgian bus once again (just 5 GEL each as opposed to the minimum 25 GEL taxi fare), which leaves for the airport at 10am in order to catch the 13:20 flight back to London Luton. The bus actually leaves from outside the theatre in the main square (the one with the fountain), but if you’re sat outside McDonalds the driver will come and find you.
Kutaisi airport is tiny, but they do a great selection of Georgian wine in the duty free shop, which is handy if you’re only travelling with hand luggage (as we were).
A 10-day Georgia Itinerary by Public Transport: Costs
Whilst this was mostly a budget trip, we did splurge on our room at the Rooms Hotel in Kazbegi. If you don’t do this (although I would 100% recommend that you should), you can bring the overall cost of the trip down by a significant margin. I’ve included all transport and accommodation costs, but not included spending money. All costs are per person (but there were two of us to split the accommodation costs between). We booked all our accommodation through booking.com, because their free cancellation policy allowed us the flexibility to change our plans if we needed to (and, it turned out, we did).
- 3 x nights in an Airbnb in Tbilisii = £46.58
- 1 x night in Signaghi = £13.50
- 1 x night in Kazbegi = £85
- 1 x night in Kutaisi = £10
- 2 x nights in Mestia = £27
- 1 x night in Kutaisi = £7.50
Total for 9 nights = £189.58 / 613.30 GEL / $251.86
- Return flights from London Luton to Kutaisi = £90 (we did see these as much as £400 and as little as £70, so I think we got a fairly good deal)
- Marshrutky (and one shared taxi) between destinations = £32.65
- Georgian bus (Kutaisi airport to Tbilisi and Kutaisi centre to Kutaisi airport) = £7.62
- Daytrip from Tbilisi to Davit Gareja = £7.62
Total = £137.89 / 446.08 GEL / $183.19
Accommodation and transport costs for 10 days / 9 nights = £327.47 / 1059.38 GEL / $435.06
Not bad for 10 days, considering the expense of one hotel night in Kazbegi!
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