A small valley town steeped in ancient history, Kazbegi (officially known as Stepantsminda) is the perfect Georgian getaway. Perched in the shadow of the imposing Kazbegi Mountains, Stepantsminda beckons travelers to hike across verdant valleys and gorges and climb icy mountains.
THE HISTORY OF KAZBEGI
Kazbegi is a municipality within the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region of north-east Georgia. It is situated on the upper valley of the Tergi River (also Terek River), which flows across the border with Russia. Its location lies on the craggy slopes of the Great Caucasus Mountain Range, within the historical Khevi province.
Khevi has been inhabited since antiquity. It was first mentioned by Ptolemy as Zanarioi – “the land of the Tsanars.” Although their origin is unclear, the Tsanars were one of the original tribes of the northern Caucasus. They are the ancestors of the modern-day Mokheve people of Georgia.
For years, the Tsanars controlled an ancient trade route, the only one that went through the Caucasus. This was both a blessing and a curse as the route brought not only prosperity but also attracted the invading armies of the Persians and Romans, including Alexander the Great.
When eastern Georgia fell to the Arabs, Khevi became one of the key battlefields of the Arab-Khazar wars. For a time, Tsanareti was controlled by the Arabs, although this was made difficult by constant rebellions.
During the Golden Age of the Georgian Kingdom (11 – 13th century), the people of Khevi served as guardians of the northern routes. They were not integrated into the feudal system but were instead ruled by elders elected by their communities.
This arrangement gave the people of Khevi a high level of independence. The set up worked quite well until the 17th century when Khevi found itself under increasing pressure from the Duchy of Aragvi, temporarily falling under its control.
At the end of the 18th century, Georgian King Erekle II appointed Kazi-Beg as a new bailiff for the Khevi region. Leader of the influential Chopikashvili clan, Kazi-Beg was responsible for collecting tolls from passing caravans. In the following years, the clan rose to even greater prominence.
In the early 19th century, the Russian Empire expanded into the Kingdom of Georgia and the people of Khevi revolted. However, ruler Gabriel Chopikashvili, son of Kazi-Beg, remained loyal to Russia and helped suppress the uprising.
Kazi-Beg was rewarded with a promotion to major in the Russian Army, and allowed to run Khevi as his own fiefdom. He changed his name to Kazbegi and, under his control, the area came to be known as “Kazbegi.”
Gabriel’s son Mikheil was even more successful. He distinguished himself in subsequent Caucasian wars, rising to the rank of general. His son Alexander Kazbegi, chose a different career path, instead of becoming a successful writer of Georgian prose.
Between the years 1917 and 1918, Stepantsminda was occupied by Germany, Turkey and The Whites – the latter remaining until 1922. Under Soviet rule, the name of the town was officially changed to Kazbegi in 1925.
In 2006, the town reverted to its original name – Stepantsminda, which translates to “Saint Stephan”. The name is in honor of Stephan, a Georgian orthodox monk who established a hermitage here and, according to legend, rescued the original settlers of Stepantsminda from catastrophe.
PLACES TO VISIT IN KAZBEGI
“When the aroma of hay mixed with sweet-scented flowers filled the air, one became overwhelmed with excitement and elation” – Alexander Kazbegi (1848 -1893)
A nature lover’s dream, Kazbegi offers an array of Georgian attractions to enjoy. Most tourists who come here are drawn by the natural beauty of the region. Visitors are rewarded with fresh mountain air and panoramas of the Georgian wilderness dotted with ancient structures.
Located along the banks of the Terek River at an elevation of 1,740 meters above sea level, the small town of Stepantsminda is the main settlement in Khevi. Famous for its scenic location in the Greater Caucasus, Stepantsminda is a hub for trekking and mountain climbing.
History buffs can visit the Stepantsminda Historical Museum, housed in the childhood home of Alexander Kazbegi. The museum contains the writer’s library and personal belongings, along with Georgian artifacts of the Khevi region, archaeological exhibits, religious relics, books, and local artworks.
Gergeti Trinity Church
Perched on the Kazbegi Mountains and surrounded by the vastness of nature, the isolated location of Gergeti Trinity Church has made it the iconic symbol of the Caucasus. Also known as Tsminda Sameba, the church dates back to the 14th century.
Situated 2,200m above sea level, Gergeti Trinity Church sits in an epic location. It overlooks the towns of Kazbegi and Gergeti, with the majestic snow-covered slopes of Mount Kazbegi as a backdrop. No visit to Georgia is complete without hiking up to this staggering church.
The third highest mountain in Georgia, Mount Kazbegi is a peak within the Great Caucasus range, located at 5,047 meters above sea level. Also known as Mkinvari or Mkinvartsveri, the Kazbegi Mountains have been named among the 100 places where you have to travel at least once in your life.
It is possible to enjoy great views of Mount Kazbegi from practically anywhere in Stepantsminda. But for amazing panoramas, go up to Gergeti Trinity Church. If you prefer more adventure, join a mountain climbing tour that will guide you up the Kazbegi Mountains.
Dariali Gorge stretches 11km from Stepantsminda to the Russian border. With lush green slopes and tumbling streams set against a backdrop of towering valleys, Dariali is one of the most spectacular gorges along the Tergi River.
Nestled at the foot of the Kazbegi Mountains, the river gorge boasts steep cliff faces, medieval Georgian watchtowers, waterfalls, and wildlife. Immortalized in 19th-century Russian poetry, Dariali is today regarded as one of the most romantic places in the Caucasus.
Gveleti Waterfalls & Lake
A scenic drive towards the Russian border (10km) lets you see a different yet beautiful landscape. Along the way, stop by Gveleti Village and hike to refreshing waterfalls in the surrounds of lush green grasslands and small streams.
The bigger waterfall is a pleasant place, ideal for picnics. The best time to visit is in the late morning when the sun shines right into the gorge, and you can swim inside the Gveleti Lake nearby. In winter the waterfall freezes over transforming it into a popular ice climbing destination.
Located 4km south of Kazbegi, Sno Valley runs southeast off the Georgian Military Highway. Sno is one of the most prominent cultural hubs in the region. Centuries-old stone masonry and carpentry are still practiced and taught here by master craftsmen.
Dating back to the 16th century, the Sno Fortress is located on the banks of the Snotskali River. Erected on a stony hilltop, the tower fortification is surrounded by a circular wall with a pyramidal tower at the center. Sno also has a small church.
Journey to the remote village of Juta and enjoy the complete immersion into the wild beauty of the Kazbegi landscape. Located at an elevation of 2,150 meters above sea level, Juta is nestled within the beautiful, velvety green Sno Valley.
Nearby is the Artkhmo Gorge which offers a pleasant hike. Another hike from Juta heads southeast up Chaukhi Valley to the foot of Mount Chaukhi (3,842m), a dramatic multi-pinnacled peak. If you have time, continue climbing up the valley eastwards to the Chaukhi Pass (3,338m).
Truso Valley is a gorge that offers the perfect combination of stunning valleys and landscapes with unspoiled villages. Rich in carbonated mineral waters, the gorge is famous for colorful sediment deposits from mineral waters, glaciers, and rivers.
Truso has plenty of cultural and historic sites, including abandoned villages. Be sure to visit Abano, a tiny village with a few houses and ancient Georgian towers. The gorge is covered in birch forests and offers many trekking opportunities in the valleys of Suatisi and Mna.
Kazbegi National Park
Much of the Kazbegi region is home to an amazingly diverse ecosystem. The vegetation is largely characterized by alpine and subalpine meadow, with several endemic and ‘red-listed’ woody plants, wild herbs, and alpine and subalpine flora.
Large animals endemic to the Kazbegi region include the east Caucasian tur, chamois and brown bear. Smaller animals include martens, wild cats, rabbits, squirrels, mice, and shrews. In addition, Kazbegi National Park boasts a number of large birds of prey and endemic bird species.
The road to Kazbegi is known as the Georgian Military Highway. Built-in the 17th century along an ancient trading route, the historic road connects Tbilisi with the Caucasus mountain range and goes all the way to Russia.
To say the drive to Kazbegi is scenic would be an understatement. It makes for an absolutely epic journey with many photo-worthy stops along the way. These are some attractions within the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region that you can visit on your way to or from Kazbegi:
Khevsureti: For an off-the-beaten-path experience, hike over Chaukhi Pass down to Roshka Village in Khevsureti. From here, walk to the colorful Abudelauri Lakes. In Shatili Village you can admire a unique collection of medieval fortified stone houses and fortresses. Also visit Tanie Lake in Arkhoti Valley.
Gudauri Ski Resort: Winter sports enthusiasts can visit Gudauri Ski Resort – the most beautiful of the Georgia ski resorts, for amazing skiing and snowboarding. Or go paragliding for a once-in-a-lifetime experience that lets you free your mind and body in the air, as you soar over misty powdered peaks.
Khada Valley: Khada Valley (also known as Khde) is one of the most beautiful of its kind in Georgia. Many visitors come here to enjoy the picturesque views, particularly from the Korogho Church. Nestled within the Khada Valley is the tiny Khada Gorge, located at Upper Lars near the Russian border.
Soviet-Georgian Friendship Monument: The Soviet-Georgian Friendship Monument is located 4km north of Gudauri. Also known as the Gudauri View Point, the monument was built in 1983 during the Soviet era. Today it is worth a peek for its fabulous tiled murals and stunning valley views.
Pasanauri: Pasanauri is the traditional center of Mtiuleti province. The town is famous for having the best khinkhali (Georgian dumplings) in the country. Pasanauri is also the starting point for rafting on Mtiuleti’s Aragvi River, which offers big waves when water levels are high.
Pshavi’s Aragvi River: The Aragvi River in Pshavi is one of the best white-water rafting destinations in Georgia. This rafting route is 15km long and takes about 1.5 hours to complete. Pshavi’s Aragvi offers more technical rafting in more beautiful valleys than Mtiuleti’s Aragvi.
Bazaleti Lake: Surrounded by stunning nature, Bazaleti Lake is a beautiful lake in the Dusheti district. Fed only by rainfall and underground sources, the lake’s waters are rich in minerals and believed to have healing properties.
Ananuri: Also in Dusheti, Ananuri is a castle complex located on the banks of the Aragvi River. From the castle, visitors can go swimming in the emerald-colored river. Be sure to also climb up the hill on the opposite side of the road for views of the castle from above.
Zhinvali Dam: Located 70km from Tbilisi, Zhinvali Reservoir is a hydroelectric dam built on the Aragvi River. Nestled among lush green hills and boasting turquoise-colored waters, Zhinvali offers amazing panoramas.
Mtskheta: Jvari Monastery, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and Samtavro Monastery are historic churches in Mtskheta featured on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Fine examples of medieval religious architecture in the Caucasus, the churches show the high artistic and cultural level of the ancient Georgian kingdom.
Keli Lake: Also known as Kelistadi Lake, Keli is a glacial lake situated in the Akhalgori district. It is nestled on the Keli Highland within the Caucasus Mountains at 2,914m above sea level. The pretty lake is fed by snow, rainfall, and underground waters.
THINGS TO DO IN KAZBEGI
Stepantsminda is an incredible destination, especially for travelers who love mountains. From scenic treks to reconnect with nature to adrenaline-filled rafting trips, a wide array of tourist activities guarantee an unforgettable stay in the region.
Hiking up to Gergeti Trinity Church is a must because the surroundings are absolutely stunning. Moreover, you can only gain a true appreciation of the scale of the Kazbegi Mountains if traveling on foot. At the church, you will be rewarded with epic panoramas that make the 2 hour hike worthwhile.
Experienced trekkers can hike farther to the stunning Gergeti Glacier (also known as Ortsveri). The landscape is riveting with uninterrupted views of Mount Kazbegi from many perspectives. This roundtrip trek takes 8-9 hours, so start early in the morning.
Mount Kazbegi is arguably the most popular mountain climbing destination in Georgia. The reason is that although it boasts a “five-thousander” status (5,000+ m above sea level), the climb is technically not difficult. In summer, professional alpinists regularly organize 5-6 day tours for experienced trekkers.
Mountaineers can also climb Mount Shani (4,451m), the second most prominent peak in Kazbegi. For a wilder trekking adventure, head into Khada Valley and hike behind Mount Kuro (4,041m) and Mount Shino (3,948m).
One of the best ways to explore the beauty of Kazbegi is on horseback. Horse riding in Juta is a truly unique experience that lets you explore the region just as the locals do. From Juta, you can take a horse ride to Chaukhi Pass and see the Abudelauri Lakes.
Go biking along the breathtaking Sno Valley. The vegetation is quite a sight to behold with colorful flowers and lush green fields. Stop at Juta Village for panoramic views of the jagged Kazbegi Mountains. Continue east to Khevsureti on the trail through Sadzele Pass.
Rafting & Kayaking
Experienced kayakers and rafters can get their adrenaline fix on the rushing white waters of Tergi River. Novices and people looking for a joyride on sedate rapids can find the right level of excitement on Snotskali River, a tributary of the Tergi River.
Stepantsminda is the ultimate place to see the “Big Five” Caucasian birds: Caucasian Snowcock, Caucasian Black Grouse, Great Rosefinch, Guldenstadt’s Redstart and Caucasian Chiff-chaff. Popular bird watching spots include Dariali Gorge and the Kazbegi National Park.
There’s no better place to lose yourself in the magic of stargazing than in the Kazbegi Mountains where there are no other sources of light to interfere. Grab a blanket and get comfortable in the massive green yard of Rooms Hotel Kazbegi for your nighttime adventure.
For a different type of adventure in Stepantsminda, consider paintballing. Have fun with friends in this competitive team shooting sport that lets you eliminate opponents by hitting them with paintballs. Games can be played indoors or outdoors with natural or artificial terrain for tactical cover.
THE BEST TIME TO VISIT KAZBEGI
Kazbegi is a different world from one season to the next, each distinguished by colorful contrasts. There’s simply no bad time to visit somewhere so beautiful. Therefore the best time to visit Kazbegi is during all its four seasons!
Spring in Kazbegi (March, April, May)
Temperatures and humidity combine to make spring moderately cold. Highs average 22 degrees Celsius, with warmer temperatures in the later months. Rainfall is rare with 2-3 days of significant precipitation per month. Spring is the second busiest season for Georgia tourism and offers lots of things to do.
Summer in Kazbegi (June, July, August)
The mid-year months offer pleasant weather in Georgia, with comfortably high temperatures averaging 26 degrees Celsius. There is moderate rainfall with 1-2 days of precipitation each month. This is the busiest tourism season in Kazbegi so accommodation rates are higher than usual.
Autumn in Kazbegi (September, October, November)
Daily high temperatures in autumn average 7 degrees Celsius, which feels rather chilly due to the wind and humidity. The amount of rain and snow is barely noticeable, occurring 1 day per month or none at all. Tourism is at its slowest due to the weather, so hotels are priced affordably.
Winter in Kazbegi (December, January, February)
With average highs of 1 degree Celsius, warm weather travelers may find Kazbegi too cold at this time of the year. On average, it rains or snows a small amount – 1 to 2 times each month. This season is fairly slow for Georgia tourism.
WHERE TO STAY IN KAZBEGI
Because the distance from Tbilisi is not long (149km), it’s possible to visit Kazbegi on a day trip. That said, we recommend that you stay overnight as there are many fun activities to engage in. Stepantsminda has an array of hotels and guesthouses to suit all preferences and budgets.
For luxurious comfort, look no further than Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, a boutique hotel with an elegant design. Morning views of Mount Kazbegi from your comfy bed is by itself worth a trip to Georgia. The captivating snow-capped mountain feels so close, you could almost reach out and touch it.
Rooms Hotel Kazbegi also has a casino, lounge, and bar with a cigar menu. The bar is a good place to try Georgian wine and chacha (brandy). There is also a sauna, gym and swimming pool with panoramic windows offering views of the surrounding mountainside.
The restaurant menu honors traditional Georgian cuisine inspired by the mountainous terrain, along with European fare. The sweeping terrace is an excellent vantage point from which to take in the rugged surroundings as you enjoy après ski drinks in winter or alfresco lunches in summer.
HOW TO GET TO KAZBEGI
If flying into Tbilisi, you can get to Kazbegi via marshrutka (shared minibus). Buses leave once every hour from Didube Station, arriving at the main square in Stepantsminda. That said, you will be confined in a cramped bus on a 3 hour journey, which is hardly the most comfortable way to travel.
A better option would be to order a private taxi, although this will cost you significantly more. Alternatively, you could hire a car and drive to Kazbegi, although driving in Georgia can be challenging if you don’t understand the Georgian alphabet or speak the language. The best option would be a private transfer.
Despite being one of the most visited destinations in Georgia, Kazbegi’s spectacular landscapes offer a scenic retreat away from the tourist crowds. Whether you’re an avid hiker, nature lover or are simply looking for adventure, your visit to Stepantsminda will be truly unforgettable.
Accommodation at Rooms Hotel Kazbegi fills up fast, so be sure to book in advance with our travel agency. If you prefer to drive to Stepantsminda, we have a modern fleet of rental cars available for hire. We also offer tour packages to Kazbegi that include private transfers.
You can even create your own custom vacation package that includes the specific places you want to visit and things you want to do in Kazbegi. So what are you waiting for? Order your custom tour to Kazbegi now and enjoy a vacation to remember!