Just over 140 miles to the west of Georgia's capital Tbilisi, Kutaisi is a city in flux, perfect for adventure, food and some exceptional spa time. Rough Guides writer Eleanor Ross explores the city as a base for outdoor activities and shows us the best things to do in Kutaisi.
It's the second power cut of the day, and the whole city quietens. Lights around its banks flick on, blink, shudder, and then die. As a visitor, the blackout is still a novelty. The ceiling fan slows to a gentle waft before stopping, encouraging the city to move outside. Kids kick balls along the cobbled roads lit by the light of smartphones and men meet in the streets to smoke, furiously, before suddenly, the lights flash back on and like moths, people are drawn back inside.
Kutaisi is a world away from Tbilisi's steak houses, hipster-style Rooms Hotel, or neighbourhood cafes selling turmeric lattes; on my first day there I was treated to a display of the Georgian army's favourite tanks in the main square. You go to Kutaisi not for the buzzing cosmopolitanism synonymous with the capital, but as a base for exploring some of Georgia's best outdoor activities. Plus, it's the easiest and cheapest place to fly to from the UK thanks to a new direct route launched by Wizz Air earlier this year.
Explore the town
Georgia's wild-looking monasteries and cathedrals are often found in hard-to-reach locations on the side of mountains. But Kutaisi has its very own gem, in the form of Bagrati Cathedral, an 11th-century cathedral set back from the wide river on top of Ukimerioni Hill. Cross the Jachvis Khidi (Chain Bridge) and ready your thighs to hike up the cobbled streets for a great view from the top. Steal a glimpse of Kutaisi's newest structures: in 2012, it was decreed that the Georgian government would move its departments away from Tbilisi to Kutaisi in an effort to decentralise power, so a ring of striking modern buildings are starting to spring up around the city.
Stop off at Kutaisi's covered market on the way back into town to pick up some pre-hike picnic snacks. Food is one of Georgia's biggest draws, and Kutaisi's market is worth a rummage. Plump ripe tomatoes, churchkhela – sweet 'sausages' made of nuts and apple juice toffee, and sackfuls of cherries and spices, make this a perfect place to find fresh produce. For a "ready-made" option, dig into circles of cheesy khachapuri bread, or dunk lavash into deep dishes of walnut-y, creamy satsivi chicken at restaurant Palaty, where you can eat enough food to consider hibernating for less than a tenner.
Get out of town
Georgia's cities are special, but the outdoor scenery is some of the most beautiful in the Caucasus. You can take a trip to some of the country's big-hitter sites less than an hour from Kutaisi. Okatse Canyon is a good place to test your fear of heights to the limit, thanks to a new walkway that juts out over the side of a cliff (complete with 100m drop). Built in 2014, the walkway runs for 700m along the 14km canyon and is part of a longer 4km round walk from the visitor centre. Most of the walk is shaded, ideal during Georgia's roasting summers: for a refreshing add on, hop in one of the waiting taxis for a 10 minute drive to the Kinchkha waterfall.
Taxi drivers will try to encourage you to add Martvili Canyon onto your itinerary. You can take an inflatable boat up and down the canyon (50 GEL return). The ride up is pretty tame, but the water is an incredible green, and after the hike around Okatse, it's good to kick back and enjoy the float.
Into the caves
One of Georgia's most popular spots for visitors, Prometheus Cave is crammed with multicoloured lights, stalagmites, and bats. Outside of Tbilisi, there's little public transport, so you'll have to rely on marshrutkas, or minibuses, to get around. Taxi drivers will offer you a bundle to see the canyons and the cave all in one day. Hunt down the rank opposite McDonald's in Kutaisi and get your bartering hat on, but be prepared for some hefty sighs and tutting.
Just a tenth of the cave is open for exploration: in addition to a 1km walking tour through the cave, you can also hop on a boat and experience the slightly odd experience of drifting underground. Bonus – the average temperature of 14 degrees celsius makes it a magnet for overheating summer visitors. In a Georgian twist to the traditional tale of Prometheus, a man named Amirani once angered the gods so much he was tethered inside this cave and his liver was fed to the vultures. Thankfully no trace of Amirani remains.
An underground fortress
The further from the city you travel, the wilder the scenery becomes. Vardzia is an underground monastery and fortress hewn into the side of a cliff. It's at once spectacular and seemingly humble (from the outside at least). Built in 1100 AD, the fortress once comprised 13 floors with 6,000 apartments, a throne room, and a large, underground church. An earthquake in the 13th century destroyed large parts of the building, while a few hundred years later it was sacked by the Persians.
Today there are around 300 odd rooms of the labyrinthine fortress left, along with some tunnels, but it's still an extraordinarily impressive site, teetering out over the banks of the Kura river. The whole place is cared for by a group of hardy and heavily-bearded monks, scurrying between secluded doors. It's a long, nail-biting ride (pro tip: pack nausea pills) from Kutaisi which can take as long as four hours depending on the quality of your vehicle. Much of my ride was spent listening to the driver saying: "This bit, hold on!" as we sped past another truck kicking up dirt.
Spa your troubles away
Tskaltubo thermal spa is one of those places that looks like it's seen better days, but you want to go inside anyway. From the outside this is a place of faded grandeur, a Soviet-era suite of radon spa pools, with actual radioactive water. If this sounds mildly terrifying, it's meant to treat aches and pains with its properties, and people have been bathing in the waters since they were discovered 700 years ago.
Inside there are long, empty hallways with ornate decorations. There's even a pool Stalin liked to bathe in, but it's now dry. The baths are just a 20 minute drive from Kutaisi, and are populated mainly by elderly people who travel for the water's healing properties. In the 1930s there was a waiting list several years long, but now you can drop by whenever you fancy.
For a slice of local Kutaisi, do as the locals do and head to Shaori Lake. It's ideal in the summer for a proper cool down and refreshing hike after a few days lolling around Kutaisi's coffee shops, and it's a popular hub for families and fitness fanatics. An hour or so drive from the city, it's surrounded by woods on all sides. This gives the water an insane, vibrant red glow come autumn as mist lightly grazes the surface. There are plenty of paths to tramp around, some great places to swim along the shores, and you can spot patient anglers waiting for a catch too. Because the lake's altitude is at 1100m, it's fully frozen in winter (as are the roads leading up to it).
Get there: return flights with Wizz Air from £35
Stay: Sanapiro Hotel - prices from £30 a night per double
Top image: View of Kutaisi © Mindia Charkseliani / Shutterstock