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Having gone from backpacker secret to mainstream darling in just a decade, Georgia today is by far the most visited country in the South Caucasus, and it’s easy to see why: its rich culture and astonishingly diverse landscapes make it an ideal destination for anyone loving history and nature on the grandest of scales.
From its green valleys spread with vineyards to its old churches and watchtowers perched in fantastic mountain scenery, Georgia (Saqartvelo, საქართველო) never disappoints. In recent years Tbilisi has emerged as one of the coolest cities in Europe, with a burgeoning club scene, world-class restaurants and a selection of natural wine bars that easily make it the hippest spot in the region. Equally special are its proud, high-spirited people: Georgia claims to be the birthplace of wine, and this is a place where guests are considered blessings and hospitality is the very stuff of life. Gaumarjos!
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Georgia.
This Unesco World Heritage–listed monastery complex, on a wooded hillside 8km northeast of Kutaisi, is an outstanding example of Golden Age architecture and one of Georgia's most important churches. Gelati was a cultural hub of Georgia's medieval renaissance, and many Georgian rulers were buried here, including the great 12th-century king, David the Builder. The interior of the main Cathedral of the Virgin is among the brightest and most colourful in Georgia, with fascinating frescoes.
Less of a monastery than a series of cave-hewn chapels, Udabno runs along a steep escarpment looking down to grassy plains in Azerbaijan. While many caves are ruins, some contain fascinating frescoes painted in the 10th to 13th centuries, though the neglect is shocking with many centuries-old paintings covered in graffiti.
The remarkable cave city of Vardzia is both a cultural symbol and a spectacular natural phenomenon with a special place in Georgian hearts. King Giorgi III built a fortification here in the 12th century, and his daughter, Queen Tamar, established a cave monastery that grew into a holy city housing perhaps 2000 monks, renowned as a spiritual bastion of Christendom’s eastern frontier. Altogether there are over 400 rooms, 13 churches and 25 wine cellars, with many more still being discovered today.
This 14th-century church 2200m above Stepantsminda has become almost a symbol of Georgia for its incomparably photogenic hilltop setting with mighty Mt Kazbek rising behind it, and for the fierce determination involved in building it on such a lofty, isolated perch. A circuitous new road leads up to the church (return trip by taxi 40 GEL to 60 GEL), but you can walk up to the church in one to 1½ hours from Stepantsminda. The views back over Stepantsminda are incredible.
This extraordinary (and for its time, enormous) building dates from the 11th century, early in the golden age of Georgian church architecture. It has an elongated cross plan and is adorned with beautiful stone carving outside and in. Christ’s robe is believed to lie beneath the central nave, under a square pillar decorated with colourful if faded frescoes of the conversion of Kartli.
This magnificent agglomeration of koshkebi (defensive watchtowers) and atmospheric slate houses packed tightly together on a steep hillside to create one sprawling fortress is an incredible sight. Most of the houses are abandoned and are slowly collapsing, but you can still clamber around them easily enough, and most of the time you'll be totally alone here.
This once enormous cave city sits 10km east of Gori above the north side of the Mtkvari River. Between the 6th century BC and 1st century AD, Uplistsikhe developed into one of the chief political and religious centres of pre-Christian Kartli, with temples dedicated principally to the sun goddess. After the Arabs occupied Tbilisi in AD 645, Uplistsikhe became the residence of the Christian kings of Kartli and an important trade centre on a main caravan road from Asia to Europe.
This impressively designed museum makes no serious attempt to present a balanced account of Stalin's career or deeds. It remains, much as when it opened in 1957, a reverent homage to the Gori boy who became a key figure of 20th-century history – although displays do now at least refer to the purges, the Gulag and his 1939 pact with Hitler. The Dzhugashvili family's wood-and-mud-brick house where Stalin lived for the first four years of his life is reverentially preserved outside.
Prince Alexander Chavchavadze (1786–1846) was one of the most colourful and influential characters in Georgian history, and the palace and gardens he created at Tsinandali are a don't-miss stop on any Kakheti tour. The palace tour takes you around half a dozen rooms restored in 19th-century style and relates interesting episodes from the family story. The park is beautifully laid out in the English style, with venerable trees and exotic plants such as ginkgo, sequoia and yucca.