Six hundred metres south from the central square, across two bridges, you’ll find Mestia’s excellent Museum of History & Ethnography (22158; admission 10 GEL, English-speaking guide 10 GEL; 10am-5pm Tue-Sun). Despite security problems, the Svans are reluctant to see their amazingly rich treasury of religious items moved from the villages, but this museum’s collection is comprehensive, and labelled in English as well as Georgian, so it’s the best place to get an overall idea of the glories of Svanetian art.
The exhibit includes a historic collection of 1890s Svaneti photos by Italian Vittorio Sella, and a hall with reproductions of famed Svaneti church murals, but the highlight is the two-room treasury: here you can see a 12th-century Persian silver jug given to Svaneti by Queen Tamar; a number of beautifully illuminated gospels from the 9th to 13th centuries; and golden altar crosses and chased-metal icons of amazingly high quality from the 10th to 14th centuries.
One rare 11th-century icon shows St George spearing the emperor Diocletian instead of his usual dragon. The 12th-centuryicon of the Forty Martyrs (who died by drowning) has a highly unusual modern quality; this piece is not Svanetian, rather it is thought to be from central Georgia.