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Surrounded by spectacular nature and the highest peaks in the Caucasus, Upper Svaneti – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a sprawling cluster of hamlets dotted with picturesque medieval towers. Its gateway Mestia offers the perfect base to explore the remote Svaneti of legend, taking you to places where time has stood still.
Nestled on the southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, Mestia is a highland town located in the Zemo (Upper) Svaneti province within the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region of northwest Georgia. The main town of Upper Svaneti, Mestia along with 132 other villages form Mestia District.
Formerly known as Seti, Mestia has always been the center of the Svaneti region, whose indigenous population mostly comprises of Svans. The Svans are an ethnic subgroup of Georgians who have retained many of their old traditions, including their own distinct language and culture.
Svans are believed to be the Soanes mentioned by the Greek geographer Strabo (64 BC – AD 24), who placed them in Svaneti, the area occupied by modern Georgia’s Svan people.
The historical province of Svaneti (also Svanetia) was a dependency of Colchis, and its successor kingdom of Lazica until AD 552 when the Svans took advantage of the Lazic War, severing ties and joining the Persians.
But the Byzantines sought control of this ancient Georgian region to secure its passes and prevent Persian raids on the border areas of Lazica. At the end of the war in 562, Svanetia once again became part of Lazica.
The province then joined the kingdom of Abkhazia, forming a unified monarchy that would later be incorporated into the kingdom of Georgia in the 11th century. Svanetia then became a duchy of the Georgian kingdom.
The duchy’s orthodox culture flourished especially during the Golden Age of Georgia under the reign of Queen Tamar (1184-1213), who the Svanetians revered almost as a goddess. According to legend, Tamar would visit the duchy every year.
For centuries, the Svans were known to be fierce warriors, fighting off any invasions. The marauding Mongols never reached Svaneti, and for some time, the region became a cultural safe house.
Following the final disintegration of the Georgian kingdom in the 1460s, fighting broke out for control of the duchy, which was split into two parts: Zemo (Upper) Svaneti became an independent principality, while Kvemo (Lower) Svaneti was temporarily taken over by the Mingrelian princes.
Facing serious internal conflict, Upper Svaneti’s prince signed a treaty of protectorate in 1833 with the Russian Empire. By 1848, the principality could only be reached via a difficult footpath that was closed during winter. Thanks to this lack of accessibility, the province retained significant autonomy.
This lasted until 1857 when Russia took advantage of a dynastic feud and abolished the principality’s autonomy. Svanetia then became part of the Russian governorate of Kutais. Under Soviet rule, it was divided into 2 districts: Mestia in Zemo Svaneti and Lentekhi in Kvemo Svaneti. An anti-Soviet uprising took place in Svanetia in 1921 but was unsuccessful.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent Georgian Civil War, Svaneti faced socio-economic problems. Coupled with frequent natural disasters such as floods, landslides, and avalanches, the mounting economic difficulties led to mass migrations. The province also became a haven for criminals threatening locals and tourists alike.
But from 2004, the Georgian government launched anti-criminal operations that significantly improved the situation. This was followed by tourism development that saw the renovation of Mestia’s town center, the construction of a new road, hotels, ski resorts and the Mestia airport. These efforts paid off, transforming Mestia into the tourist-friendly town it is today.
Boasting spectacular mountain scenery and medieval architecture, the historic town of Mestia is the center of tourism in Svaneti. Travelers can hike up stunning glaciers, ski in beautiful resorts, try local delicacies and learn about Svan culture at museums, among many other Georgia attractions to enjoy.
Svaneti is one of Georgia’s most beautiful historic regions. Preserved by its long isolation, the Upper Svaneti province is an outstanding example of exceptional mountain landscape with well-preserved medieval villages and unique defensive tower-houses, religious architecture, and medieval arts.
Its natural scenery and architectural monuments have earned Upper Svaneti inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list under the designation of the Ushguli-Chazhashi Museum-Reserve.
Legendary among travelers, Svaneti’s landscape is dominated by mountains separated by deep gorges, covered by forests of spruce, fir, beach, oak and hornbeam. The lower altitudes are blanketed in alpine meadows and grasslands, while the higher regions have picturesque snow-capped summits and glaciers.
In winter, the already magical Svaneti region becomes even more beautiful when covered in snow, as Mestia is transformed into a fairy-tale winter paradise.
Located at the foothills of Mount Shkhara, near the meeting of rivers Inguri and Shavtskala-Kvishara, Ushguli is a historic settlement in Mestia. It consists of 4 villages: Chazhashi, Zhibiani, Chvibiani, and Murkmeli. The height of the villages ranges from 2,060m to 2,200m above sea level, which makes Ushguli the highest settlement in Europe.
Found throughout Ushguli are Svan Towers – defensive tower-houses whose origins go back to prehistoric Georgia when they were used both as dwellings and defense posts against invaders who plagued the region. The oldest tower-houses date from the 8th century, with the newest being erected in the 18th century. Built using stone, the Svan Tower comprises of a tower attached to a house.
The tower averages 20-25m high and usually has 3-5 floors. Typically, the ground floor has no windows or doors and the entrance is located on an upper floor level. The upper section of the tower is narrower than the lower section, with the width of the walls decreasing to give the tower a slender, tapering profile. The upper section ends in a crown with a roof. The tower has holes on each side, and its floors are connected by a wooden ladder.
The houses themselves are typically 2-storeyed. The ground floor features a hall with an open hearth and accommodation for both people and domestic animals. Space is separated by a decorated wooden partition, and a corridor provides thermal insulation. The upper floor was used as a dwelling during summer, and also served as a store for tools and fodder.
Svan Towers are also notable for their mural paintings which serve as outstanding examples of Georgian Renaissance painting. Today, the tower-houses are either vacant or have been rebuilt into residential buildings.
Boasting over 200 well-preserved medieval Svan Towers, castles and churches, Chazhashi is the center of the Ushguli settlement. “Tamar’s Castle” is a castle named after Georgian monarch Queen Tamar, who is believed to have used it as her summer residence. The castle has a 10th-century church named St. George. There is also another church called the Savior, which dates from the 11th to 12th centuries.
Due to frequently impassable roads, Upper Svaneti is one of the most remote areas of Georgia. This lack of accessibility has contributed to the preservation of local heritage such as traditions, customs, and beliefs, day-to-day rituals, language and folklore of the Svan community who live in harmony with their surrounding natural environment.
Svans are typically bilingual, using both Georgian and their own unwritten Svan language, which is one of the 4 languages that make up the Kartvelian family of Georgian languages. Svaneti also boasts the most archaic 3-part polyphonic Georgian songs, typically connected to round Georgian dances.
“Salt for Svanetia”, a silent film documentary by Mikhail Kalatozov (1903 – 1973) was filmed in Ushguli. Born Mikheil Kalatozishvili, Kalatozov was a Soviet film director of Georgian origin who contributed to both Russian and Georgian cinema.
Lamaria Church is located in Zhibiani village in the backdrop of Mount Shkhara, Georgia’s highest peak. Also known as Ushguli Church of the Mother of God, Lamaria dates between the 9th and 10th centuries. Its interiors feature unique frescoes, and a collection of icons, crosses, manuscripts and utensils.
Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography showcases several significant historical Georgian artifacts both from Svaneti and the rest of the country. Visitors can learn about ancient Svan culture, see unique icons, engravings, manuscripts, medieval weaponry, jewelry, pottery and textiles.
Born in Mestia, Mikheil Khergiani (1932-1969) is a Georgian alpinist who won 7 gold medals in mountaineering and rock climbing at the USSR Championships. The house museum displays personal belongings of the mountain climber including awards, photos, clothing and climbing equipment.
Located in Ipari village in Kala, the 11th-century Nakipari Church of St. George is perched on a hill. The interiors were painted in 1130 by the Georgian king’s artist and feature an engraved 11th-century icon of St. George. The eastern façade is decorated in frescoes and unique sculptural depictions of animals.
Known locally as Lagurka, the Kala Church of Saints Cyricus and Julitta is a medieval church located in Khe village within the Kala settlement. The church dates to between the 10th and 12th centuries and is famous for its beautiful 12th-century frescos and collection of manuscripts, crosses, icons and utensils. The most highly venerated of the church’s items is the Shalian icon, a Byzantine icon of the Crucifixion.
Located in Laghami, the oldest part of Mestia town, the Transfiguration Church of Laghami is a 2-story basilica. The first and second floors were built in the 9th century, and the 13th to 14th centuries respectively. The cathedral has painted facades and a 13th century engraved icon of Christ.
Found within the surroundings of Adishi village are many Georgian monuments of medieval art including Svan Towers and 4 churches with beautiful frescoes and engraved artwork. The churches are the Church of the Deliverer (10th to 11th centuries), two 12th century churches of St. George, and the 12th century Church of the Archangel.
Built in the 10th century, Ienashi is a medieval Georgian Orthodox Church located in Latali village. The church was built with decorated stonework and its interiors are adorned with frescoes. It boasts mesmerizing artistry, including a 12th-century Byzantine cross decorated with enamel.
A medley of picturesque Svanetian landscapes and medieval architectural treasures makes Mestia the perfect base for touring the rest of the region. From paragliding over misty peaks to hiking up stunning glaciers, Mestia offers an abundance of Georgia tourist activities to enjoy.
Trekkers will enjoy their time in Svaneti which offers plenty of hiking opportunities. Many beautiful hikes start from Mestia, with stunning views along the way. The popular 4-day hike to Ushguli with overnight stays at village guesthouses is one of Georgia’s most famous multi-day treks.
From Ushguli, you can hike to Shkhara Glacier with amazing views of Mount Shkhara (5,201m), Georgia’s highest peak. Or go on a moderate 5-6 hour hike to Chalaadi Glacier (1,850m). The trek to Koruldi Lakes lasts about 7 hours and takes you to the foothills of the towering Mount Ushba (4,710m).
Biking in Svaneti is the best way to experience one of Georgia’s most beautiful regions. Cycle along local jeep tracks and single trails as you admire some of the most impressive peaks of the Caucasus, and explore medieval villages dotted with tower-houses and churches.
Take a horse into pristine alpine meadows and enjoy some horse riding in Mestia. Admire picturesque peaks, alpine valleys and explore interesting cultural sites including medieval tower-houses, castles and churches with beautiful frescoes.
Thrill yourself with a paragliding tour from Mestia. Soar like an eagle over the stunning Svaneti landscape. Marvel at the mountain scenery of the Caucasus range, taking in the medieval villages scattered with tower-houses, castles and churches.
Thanks to its high Georgian altitude and cool climate, Mestia offers excellent mountain climbing conditions in the magnificent Caucasus range. Climbing in the mountains around Mestia can be challenging but with great rewards as the isolation provides some of the best panoramas in Georgia.
Mestia is also a center for winter mountain tourism. Winter sports enthusiasts can enjoy the ski season in Svaneti which lasts from December to mid-April. Both Hatsvali Ski Resort and Tetnuldi Ski Resort offer great skiing and snowboarding with slopes of varying difficulties, as well as panoramic views.
Svaneti boasts wonderful birding grounds with good populations of highly sought-after Caucasian bird species. Birders in Mestia can enjoy some amazing bird watching among the medieval Svanetian towers and fantastic mountain scenery of the Caucasus.
If you prefer not to hike to see some of the most beautiful sights in Svaneti, we can take you there on an off-road adventure. Our travel agency offers jeep tours to stunning natural attractions and architectural monuments. This guided car-tour focuses on the history, traditions and cultural heritage of Svaneti.
Mestia weather is characterized by a humid climate influenced by its proximity to the Black Sea. March is the sunniest month in Mestia and the best time to visit for warm weather activities. Winter sports enthusiasts can visit nearby ski resorts from December through May.
Also time your visit to Mestia to attend the amazing Svan Festivals. Svans never run out of reasons to celebrate. Before World War II, some 160 festivals were held annually in Svaneti, with about 50 surviving to this day. The best Svan Festivals are Kvirikoba, Lamproba, Lipanali and Giorgoba.
Humidity is relevantly high in March, which makes for pretty chilly afternoons. Temperatures fall even further at night. April brings nice, sultry weather that is ideal for exploring Mestia. This is also the peak Georgia tourism season in Mestia.
Lamproba is an ancient Svanetian festival held in early spring. After morning mass, family members meet by the graves of their relatives. They light candles, walk in a procession, sing, dance and then enjoy a feast of food and wine. A variety of Georgian wrestling and drinking contests are held.
June offers the perfect weather for experiencing outdoors activities in and around Mestia. Towards the end of August however, humidity in the air increases, which can get a little uncomfortable for those who want to go sightseeing.
Held at the Kala settlement on 28th July each year, Kvirikoba is the most important Svan festival. Svans gather with relatives to feast and ask for ancestors’ blessings. Although it is a Christian festival, Kvirikoba features pagan elements such as ritual animal sacrifices.
In October, humidity is moderately high which makes Mestia weather colder than usual. Late November is the time to get all your layers out as the weather starts to get chilly. You can still go sightseeing in the afternoons, and then curl up with a steaming cup of tea in the evenings.
On 23rd November each year, Giorgoba festival is celebrated in all Svan villages to commemorate the martyrdom of Saint George, one of the most revered saints in Georgia. Festivities normally begin with a morning mass in the church. Locals then meet with family and friends to enjoy a feast of food and wine.
Expect cold weather in January as temperatures are low and the air is damp. Ski season in Mestia begins in December, which is a great time to enjoy winter sports in the nearby ski resorts of Hatsvali and Tetnuldi.
Dedicated to the ancestors, Lipanali festival is celebrated from 18th January. Houses are cleaned and prayers are said to invite the ancestors to come and give their blessings. Villagers slaughter pigs and bake special meat pies for the Georgian supra (feast of food and wine).
Mestia boasts dozens of good Georgian hotels and guesthouses. Thanks to fierce competition, most Mesta hotels and other accommodation venues have been renovated in recent years to include private bathrooms and good half-board packages.
Although some Svanetian dishes are widespread across the country, to get an authentic taste, its best to try them locally. Dozens of Mestia restaurants serve Georgian food specialties from the Svaneti region, along with fine Georgian wine.
Regional staples include: kubdari (beef and/ or pork meat pie); tashmijabi (mashed potatoes with cheese); fetvraal (khachapuri with millet flour added to the cheese filling). The king of Georgian cuisine, khachapuri is a boat-shaped bread served with egg yolk, butter and melting cheese.
Restaurant Zuruldi is one of the best Mestia restaurants. Located on Mount Zuruldi, it offers great food with stunning views of the white slopes of Mount Tetnuldi. To get to the restaurant, you will need to take a 1.5km long ropeway from Hatsvali.
Mestia is served by the Queen Tamar Airport. The Mestia airport offers domestic flights that connect the region with Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi and other major destinations in Georgia. Due to the constant high demand for tickets, it is advisable to reserve your flight tickets in advance through our travel agency.
For travelers who venture to Georgia in search of adventure, it is the rugged wilderness of Svaneti that offers the greatest allure. And once they arrive, it’s the exploration of Mestia’s medieval villages and stone towers set high in the Caucasus Mountains that presents the ultimate Georgian holiday experience.
There’s always accommodation available in Mestia hotels but do book ahead with our Georgia travel agency if you’d like to stay in the better options. We can also arrange rental cars and/or Georgia tour packages with private transfers to and from Mestia airport.
Even better, create your own custom vacation package that includes the specific places you’d like to see and activities you’d like to do in Mestia. Craving some scenic Georgian nature and medieval architecture? Order your custom tour to Mestia today and embark on a journey to Svaneti, the place of legend!