Thanks to a robust response – including a speedy lockdown and closure of international borders – Georgia has managed the Covid-19 pandemic with considerably more success than many nations: there have to date been fewer than 1200 confirmed cases, and less than 20 deaths – remarkable statistics compared to the neighbouring countries of Armenia (39,000 cases) and Azerbaijan (32,000 cases), and receiving well-earned praise from the WHO’s Regional Director for Europe.
Georgia has been cautious in reopening to international tourists: initially intending to welcome travellers from 1 July, this was later postponed to 1 August, and travellers from most nationalities need to quarantine for 14 days on arrival. In this article, we’re looking forward to the day we can visit by exploring the 6 best things to do in Georgia, from stunning mountainous trekking to cosmopolitan cities, via ancient monasteries and – of course – some of the world’s best wine.
Any exploration of Georgia will likely begin with its welcoming capital city, Tbilisi. A fascinating cocktail of beautiful 19th-century merchant homes, blocky and grandiose 20th-century Soviet edifices, and innovative 21st-century architecture – dotted with a fine sprinkling of medieval churches and crowned by an ancient fortress – Tbilisi is instantly charming and rewards long wanders through its labyrinthine old town. With a vibrant coffee-shop culture, as well as fantastic wine bars pretty much everywhere you turn, you can guarantee there’ll be always somewhere to stop for a restorative drink.
For a well-presented and informative tour through Georgia’s tumultuous history, there’s nowhere better than Tbilisi’s National Museum, and art-lovers will be enthralled by the National Gallery and the Georgian Museum of Fine Arts. With social distancing still on your mind, you may want to skip the baths district and the city’s famous nightclub scene, but the fantastic outdoor ethnographic museum and the 16th-century Narikala Fortress make great places for a spacious stroll.
A world away from Tbilisi’s cosmopolitanism, the region of Svaneti nestles in Georgia’s northwest among the towering peaks of the Caucasus Mountains. Now a major draw for trekkers, this beautiful corner of the country has a long history of rugged independence – even the Soviets achieved only tenuous control here. The landscape is dotted with hundreds of defensive stone towers, a necessary feature in an area often riven by family blood feuds.
Fortunately, there’s little sign of blood feuds here now – instead, Svaneti’s main town of Mestia is an extremely welcoming place for hikers. There are walks here for all abilities, from short afternoon strolls up to 2-week arduous expeditions. Perhaps the most popular is the 4-day trek between Mestia and the beautiful remote village of Ushguli, where you’ll find a huge concentration of Svan towers.
Georgia claims, with some authority, to have been the first country in the world to develop the art of wine-making, with a tradition that dates back some 8000 years. The majority of Georgia’s vineyards can be found in the eastern province of Kakheti, and there are few more pleasant ways to spend the day than making a leisurely tour between the region’s wineries and sampling the wares. The Italianate town of Sighnaghi – perched attractively on a hilltop overlooking a valley packed with vineyards – is perhaps the best place to base yourself, with its laid-back and friendly vibe.
Kakheti has plenty more to offer than just a good tipple: here you’ll find the 19th-century stately home of the Georgian prince Alexander Chavchavadze, and the small town of Gremi (once the capital of the independent kingdom of Kakheti) is worth a visit for its imposing cathedral-fortress, which contains some magnificent religious frescoes. Meanwhile, the enormous 11th-century Alaverdi Cathedral is a beautiful and atmospheric work of medieval architectural genius.
Down in Georgia’s south, close to the border with Turkey, the jagged mountains of the Caucasus give way to a gentler steppe-like landscape, and it’s here, painstakingly carved into the wall of the Kura river valley, that you’ll find one of the country’s most remarkable sights: the Vardzia cave monastery. Dating from the 12th century, this labyrinthine complex of tunnels, chapels and wine cellars was once home to a thriving community of monks, and it’s a source of national pride due to its links with Queen Tamar, one of Georgia’s most successful historic rulers.
Perhaps more than any other site in Georgia, you’ll need to carefully consider your visit here in terms of social distancing – the tunnels are narrow and can get crowded, though helpfully there was a one-way route around part of the complex even before the coronavirus pandemic. If you decide not to enter the monastery, there’s an excellent viewpoint of the site from across the river, and you could also enjoy hikes in the surrounding hills or visit the nearby imposing Khertvisi Fortress.
While many of Georgia’s destinations are steeped in history, Batumi looks more to the future. Set on the Black Sea coast, Georgia’s second-largest city boasts crazy architecture along the seafront Bulvar: it’s easy to imagine yourself in a sci-fi film set when looking at the double-helix-like Alphabet Tower and the jagged angles of the Radisson Blu hotel. Batumi’s pebble beach is extremely popular, particularly with Russian tourists, and it’s also one of Georgia’s best spots for nightlife.
More sedate attractions in the area include the lovely Botanic Gardens, a vast park with meandering paths set on a cliff above the Black Sea, as well as a pair of Byzantine fortresses just outside town. But perhaps the greatest draw is the local cuisine: Batumi is without a doubt the best place in Georgia to sample the Adjaran khachapuri, a super-calorific but super-delicious cheesy bread treat topped with egg and dripping with butter.
The spa town of Borjomi was founded in the 19th century by Russian troops on their way to the front lines of the Russo-Turkish War; en route, they found a mineral spring here and concluded the water had healing properties. Borjomi water – which is fizzy and salty – subsequently became famous across Georgia and Russia, and was one of the most popular drinks in the USSR.
Borjomi town is an attractive place, with a lovely central park – in which you can sample the famous water straight from the source – and a marvellously eclectic local museum, which features diverse exhibits ranging from the first bottle of Borjomi water to repulsive pottery once owned by the Russian Romanov family. For outdoor lovers, the nearby Borjomi National Park offers hiking opportunities, as well as other activities including horse riding and mountain-biking. Take the route to the summit of the park’s Mount Lomismta for sweeping views that can extend all the way from Turkey to Russia.