If you came here thinking about Georgia State, USA, you are forgiven, but before you leave, get to know about the state’s twin-Georgia country. The country is on the Europe-Asia border, with some of its neighbors being Russia, Armenia, and Turkey, besides having a considerable stretch bounded by the Black Sea.
The beautiful country of Georgia is quickly becoming a favorite destination among Europe travelers. Her stunningly alluring masterpieces of modern architecture will leave you astounded, the locals’ hospitality will leave you feeling like a noble, and you simply can’t get enough of Georgia’s cuisines and natural wonders.
Georgia is also the go-to-country for most travelers on the lookout for unique manifestations of ancient traditions and cultures, represented today by centuries-old fortresses and cathedrals, some well preserved, while others are in ruins.
The former Soviet nation is also home to particular attractions that you can hardly find elsewhere.
Ranging from the highest settlement in Europe, the oldest winemaking tradition to deepest caves, unique things in Georgia are so many that you can’t explore them in one vacation unless you permanently move into the country or visit repeatedly.
Nonetheless, we’ve rounded up some of the options you should prioritize on your next trip to the country.
A VISIT TO THE CHRONICLE OF GEORGIA
Standing firm atop a hill overlooking Tbilisi city is the humongous yet impressive pillars that collectively make the Chronicle of Georgia, also known as Historical Memorial of Georgia. Created in 1985 by Zurab Tsereteli, the monument commemorates 2000 years of Christianity in Georgia and 3000 years of Georgia sovereignty. The 16 pillars, each standing 30m tall, are arranged in a perfect square on a platform above a massive staircase.
The top section of each pillar depicts Georgia’s history, mainly the country’s heroes and nobles, while the lower half illustrates Christianity, primarily the life of Jesus Christ. Georgia features in the top 40 most religious countries in the world. Also, remember that Georgia was the world’s second country, after Armenia, to adopt Christianity as its state religion.
There is also a cross and a small orthodox church, both dedicated to St. Nino, who introduced the gospel in Georgia. Statutes commemorating the 13 wise men who helped spread Christianity in the country stand firm behind the pillars.
You will enjoy stunning, panoramic views of Tbilisi suburbs and the Tbilisi Sea from this site. Nonetheless, the waterbody is not a sea as the name suggests, but an artificial lake built in 1853 and a favorite summer spot for many Georgia vacationers.
The Historical Memorial of Georgia is accessible at all times, and entry is free. It’s reachable with taxi and public transport (buses No.60 and No.110). Note that the buses drop at the Military School, so be prepared to walk about 500m to the monument.
EXPLORE GEORGIA’S CENTER OF RELIGION
Nestled in a depression on the banks of rivers Kura and Aragvi and surrounded by rugged mountain ridges is Georgia’s most vibrant center of Christianity, Mtskheta.
Located about 30miles from Tbilisi, Mtskheta boasts a fascinating history primarily marked by religion and trade. It was established by Meskhian tribes in the 5th century and named after Mtsekhotos, son of the first ruler of the Kartli region.
Mtskheta was located on a major trade route, with a commendable collection of trade ware, including jewelry, metalwork, pottery, Aramaic and Greek writings, and glass perfume bottles being excavated in the area. The city also served as the capital of Iberia (eastern Georgia) until King Dachi gave Tbilisi the mantle. Since then, Tbilisi has remained the capital of Georgia.
The region was Georgia’s center of paganism. Nonetheless, Orthodox churches quickly replaced the pagan shrines when St. Nino introduced Christianity in the area around 337 AD.
Today, Mtskheta is Georgia’s headquarters of Orthodox church, with cathedrals, churches, chapels, and sacred shrines dominating the area. It’s here you will encounter the famous Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Jvari Monastery, Zedazeni complex, Samtavro Convent, and the Monastery of Shio-mgvime. Don’t leave Mtskheta without visiting the Armazi fortress and the Ilia Chavchavadze Saguramo state museum.
CAVE CITY THAT WAS HOME TO A POPULATION OF 20000
Approximately 15km east of Gori town and on the rocky banks of River Mtkvari is the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe that once held a critical role in the history of Georgia. Before the introduction of Christianity in Georgia, Uplistsikhe was a major political and religious center of Kartli but lost this importance to new centers of Christianity in Georgia, primarily Tbilisi and Mtskheta. Augmenting this fact are the several temples and items related to the goddess of the sun unearthed in this region.
Nonetheless, the advent of Christianity did not spell the end of Uplistsikhe, and both religions co-existed here for a while. During the Muslim invasion of Tbilisi, Kartli kings sought refuge in the cave city of Uplistsikhe, whose population rose to 20,000. Most inhabitants deserted the cave following the recapture of Tbilisi; however, it was abandoned entirely upon massive destruction by the Mongols in the 13th century.
Uplistsikhe boasts impressive ancient architecture, marked by a unique mix of the rock-cut styles of Northern Iran and Cappadocia. The old city occupies about 40000 square meters and is divided into three sections, namely: the upper, middle, and lower regions. You will encounter most of the rock-cut structures in the upper section, which is connected to the lower part by a tunnel. From the center tunnel, run several alleys to different sections of the cave city. Some tunnels served as escape routes.
Although decoration was not a key objective among the Uplistsikhe builders, they took some time to put carvings on the walls and build ornately carved ceilings. Besides, some structures have separate sections believed to be ritual sites, with a selection of dwellings having triangular roof peaks. At the top of the structure stands a Christian Basilica whose construction period lies somewhere between the 9th and 10th centuries.
STAY AT A LUXURY HOTEL THAT ONCE SERVED AS A REFUGEE CAMP
Behind the fascinating glass design of the Iveria Hotel in Tbilisi, lie years of quite interesting history. Founded in the 60s as a prime hotel in the capital of Soviet Georgia, Iveria quickly became synonymous with USSR elites who visited Tbilisi, a city well known for its thermal baths.
About 30 years following its establishment, Iveria Hotel would surprisingly serve as a refugee camp at the heart of the country’s capital, unlike other camps located at the peripheral. Georgia was immersed in several serious political conflicts when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. One of the most heated conflicts was the Abkhazia war that was concentrated in the breakaway region of Abkhazia in the northwest part of the country. Ethnic Georgians flushed out of their villages during the war sought refuge in Tbilisi, and this is how Iveria Hotel became home to about 800 internally displaced persons.
The Georgian government was reluctant to relocate the refugees even after the hottest stages of the war in the fear that they would create a permanent settlement in the nation’s capital. Nonetheless, the situation of the Iveria Hotel refugees changed following the 2003 Rose revolution and the resignation of the then-president. In 2004, the refugees were relocated to the suburbs of the capital, with the hotel undergoing vigorous renovation.
The colorful mosaic façade of the Iveria refugee camp was Tbilisi’s most photographed object. Today, the hotel’s modern glass façade is careful not to reveal anything about the building’s history.
DISCOVER THE NEOLITHIC VILLAGE THAT FIRST MADE PURE WINE
Winemaking history and culture distinguish Georgia from several nations around the world. The world market for Georgian wine is ever-growing, especially in the US and several western nations. Still, you can bet that the country reserves the best for its people and visitors. Enrolling on a wine tour in Georgia is undoubtedly the ideal way to appreciate the country’s fine art of winemaking.
About 30km south of Tbilisi, in a green river valley, you will come across an archaeological site that has helped cement the fact that Georgia is the cradleland of winemaking. The site is known as Gadachrili Gora, and with a nearby village called Shulaveris Gora, are the source of 8000-year old pottery jars used in wine production.
An international team of archeologists found that the jars decorated with grape bunches, with analysis of pollen from the site revealing that vineyards dotted the region. Nonetheless, the scientists didn’t find grape seeds or stem in the area and concluded that the wine was made in nearby hills where vineyards flourished and then transported to the village in small jars when ready to drink.
Tartaric acid found from the analysis of the samples of the 6000BC pottery unearthed from Gadachrili and Shulaveris revealed the jars stored wine. The fact that the scientists didn’t find residues of herbs or pine resin in the samples reveal that the inhabitants of these villages made pure wine. In the later years, herbs and pine resins were used to cover up unpleasant tastes in wine or prevent it from going bad. However, modern producers preserve wine with sulfites (Sulphur dioxide)
THE MOVING STATUES OF THE GEORGIAN ROMEO AND JULIET
You are undoubtedly familiar with the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet, but do you have an idea about Nino and Ali, the doomed lovebirds that inspired the creation of one of the world’s best love monuments found in Georgia?
Ali and Nino is a novel written by a mysterious Azerbaijan author that goes by an alias Kurban Said. It’s the sad story of Ali, an Azerbaijan Muslim who falls in love with Nino, a Christian Georgian princess, but tragic circumstances spelled the end of their romance.
Nino and Ali overcome their background differences and get married. Unlike Juliet and Romeo’s case where families separated the lovebirds, it’s the world war that separates Georgia’s lovers. During the Russian invasion of Azerbaijan, Ali chooses to die for his country.
Although it’s not clear whether the story was real or not, it’s regarded as the national novel of Azerbaijan and has been translated into more than 30 languages.
It’s this 1937 novel that inspired Georgian sculptor Tamara Kvesitadze to create the famous monumental “Man and Woman” moving sculpture installed in the heart of the seaside city of Batumi, Georgia. The 6m tall steel sculpture comprises two figures made with metallic discs, sliding towards each other, kiss, embrace for a while, and then separate from each, facing in opposite directions.
The figures spring into life daily at 7 am, with each automatic movement taking 10minutes. Changing lights illuminate the figures, giving life to their metallic discs. Each complete movement of the Georgian sculpture is sure to trigger a range of emotions and leave you deeply sympathizing with the tragic couple.
A MOSQUE WHERE SHIA AND SUNNI MUSLIMS PRAY SIDE BY SIDE
Tbilisi has long been the center of diversity, with it being the capital of a country located at the crossroads of two continents with dominant religions. You are sure to experience the city’s openness to religion in Jumah Mosque, also known as Tbilisi Mosque. The red-brick mosque located amid the Sulphur baths of the capital’s ancient district of Abanotubani is renowned for being a place of worship for the Shia and Sunni Muslims.
Jumah mosque has been destroyed and reconstructed thrice since its founding in 1700, but the most recent transformation revolves around the composition of the worshippers.
Following the brutal 1917 Russian Revolution, the new Soviet Republic government set out to radically reform the former Russian colony. A key target for the crackdown was the Orthodox church, whose properties were mercilessly confiscated. Although the Muslims were given the leeway, no religion was entirely safe from the aggression of the communist government.
The Shia and Sunni Muslims in Georgia’s capital worshipped separately, in Blue Mosque and Jumah Mosque, respectively. Nonetheless, the Communist government demolished the Blue Mosque to make way for Metekhi bridge in 1950, leaving the Shia Muslims with no place to go.
The Sunni community welcomed the Shiites into the Jumah Mosque, making it one of the few places where the two communities worship together. The removal of the black curtain that separated the two sects during worship in 1996 made Jumah Mosque the only place in the world where Shiites and Sunnis perform their rituals side by side.
Jumah Mosque is located at the end of the Tbilisi Botanical Garden and next to the Orbeliani Bathhouse. Its eight-angled minaret is noticeable from a far distance.
EXPLORE EUROPE’S HIGHEST SETTLEMENTS
The mountainous regions of Georgia harbor two of the highest occupied settlements in Europe: the remote Bochorna and Ushghuli villages. Ushghuli held the honor of the highest inhabited community in Europe until Georgia’s 2014 census discovered some settlement in the higher village of Borchorna.
Bochorna stands about 2345m above sea level in the northeast mountainous region of Tusheti. Only one man (Irakli Khvedaguridze) was found to live in this village throughout the year, with the rest of the villagers living here during the summer months.
In the northern mountainous region of Svaneti and at the foot of the Shkara summit lays Europe’s second-highest settlement, Ushguli. Rising about 2100m above sea level, Ushguli comprises four villages-Murqmeli, Chazhashi, Chvibian, and Zhibiani- with buildings and towers featured in UNESCO’s list of heritage sites of the upper Svaneti.
The Svans in Ushguli speak an archaic language and practice Orthodox Christianity mixed with some ancient beliefs. Pick your time carefully when visiting Ushguli as the region is isolated by snow for six months.
When we consider the geographical aspects only, Resi village in the Kazbegi region of Georgia takes the cake for the highest settlement in Europe. Resi held the record until 1989 when it was completely deserted, with the title being awarded to Ushguli and Bochorna, consecutively.
EVIDENCE OF THE OLDEST MAN IN EUROPE
Sitting on a peninsula at the confluence of Rivers Pinezauri and Mashavera, about 90 km from Tbilisi, is the medieval town of Dnamisi, which provided earliest known evidence of early man in Europe.
Dnamisi is in the Kvemo Kartli region of Georgia and is a renowned prehistoric site revealed to have been settled since the early bronze age. On this site stands an early medieval basilica that was renovated in 2009 into the today’s functioning Dnamisi Sioni church.
Archeological explorations in Dnamisi began in the 1930s, and by 1983, a rich selection of ancient ruins of buildings, artifacts, and bones of prehistoric animals had been unearthed. Nonetheless, the discovery of primitive tools in 1984 sparked renewed interest in the region, which led to the unearthing of human fossils between 1991 and 2005.
To date, archeologists have discovered five hominid fossils, 1000 stone tools, and thousands of bones belong to extinct animals at Dnamisi. The items, as well as the Dnamisi layers, are dated 1.8million years ago, during the Pleistocene period when large mammals and the Neanderthal man became extinct.
The jawbone and the two skulls discovered in 1991 and 1999, respectively, resembled the species found in Koobi Fora in Kenya, while some stone artifacts suggest the tools found in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.
Following the archeological discoveries, Dnamisi stands out as the homeland of the earliest Europeans. Don’t leave the site without a peek at the monastery and the ruins of the medieval fortress.
Dnamisi is about a 1.5-hour drive from Tbilisi. You can hire a taxi for $22-$27 or rent a car for $7-$11.
EXPLORE NATURE’S ART GALLERIES OF KUTAISI
The gorgeous caves located some kilometers from the Kutaisi make the city more synonymous with visitors looking to see nature’s art gallery.
Surrounded by a lush, dense, subtropical Colchic forest and packed with fascinating geological formations is the Sataplia Cave. The 300m-long cave with the underground river has dramatically lit stalagmites and stalactites that give it an eerie atmosphere. Watch out for a massive heart-shaped stalagmite.
Another highlight for this site is a millions-of-years-old dinosaur footprints well preserved in a conservation building. At the highest point of the reserve is a transparent glass observation deck that offers splendid views over the Imereti region. You will also have the opportunity to visit a small museum and shoot photographs with dinosaur models.
Another fairy world is the 1.4km-long Prometheus Cave, located about 15km from Kutaisi city. It was named after the legendary Prometheus, who according to Greek mythology, was tasked with creating man, but would end up being punished for some wrongs. Prometheus stole fire for man and failed to tell god Zeus which of his children would overthrow him. A wrathful Zeus ordered his servants to chain Prometheus to a rock in Caucasus mountains, with a giant bird pecking at his liver. Legend has it that the stone lies in this cave discovered in 1984.
Whether you believe in legends or not, the Prometheus cave formations are sure to leave speechless. It harbors alluring neon-lit curtains of stalagmites and stalactites, underground lakes, and rivers, as well as cave pearls and hanging waterfalls. You can also enroll on a boat tour in one of the cave’s underground rivers.
A CHURCH ON TOP OF A PILLAR
Unique things in Georgia are found not only on the land but also literally in the sky. At the Katskhi village in Imereti, you will encounter a limestone column that rises 40m high in the air, overlooking the Katsakhura river valley. It’s about 200km from Tbilisi and 5km from Chiatura town.
Whereas you may have come across several pillars in the past, the buildings at the top of the Katskhi pillar will leave you fascinated and awestruck.
At the southeastern section of the pillar’s platform, stands a church dedicated to Maximus the Confessor, a famous Christian theologian, and monk. There is a wine cellar from which eight Georgian winemaking vessels, kvevris, were unearthed.
Below and south of the church, lays a burial vault that holds the bones of a Stylite who lived here centuries ago. Stylites were a branch of Christians who worshipped on top of wooden pillars, being led by St. Simeon Stylites.
The Katskhi pillar served as a sacred site for the pagans during the pre-Christian times. However, religion aggressively shifted from paganism when St. Nino introduced Christianity in Georgia in the 4th century. Churches quickly replaced pagan worship places across Georgia, and this explains the construction of the 7th-century church atop the Katskhi pillar.
The complex remained undisturbed for almost five centuries, until 1994 when a team lead by mountaineer Alexander Japaridze discovered the ruins of a monastery. Religious activities resumed at the pillar in 1995 when a modern stylite and Chiatura native, Maxime Qavtaradze, climbed the monolith. The government restored the buildings between 2005 and 2009, and Qavtaradze still occupies the monastery.
Supplies are transported up the pillar with a winch, whereas an iron, vertigo-triggering ladder facilitates human traffic. At the base of the pillar is a newly constructed Stylite church surrounded by other ruins. The men at the monastery are the guys responsible for sending supplies to Maxime. Nonetheless, climbing up the pillar is an invite-only affair, but you can be sure to enjoy the picturesque scenes from the ground. Note that women are not allowed to climb the pillar.
TRY TOP GEORGIAN DISHES AND DRINK
Georgian meals are as diverse as its natural attractions, but you want to try the country’s most popular recipes. Georgia’s traditional dish is the khinkali, whose origin can be traced in the country’s mountainous regions, including Tusheti. The natives usually stuff the dumplings with beef and pork, which release a rich broth to the dumpling’s center.
Visitors don’t leave Georgia without having a bite of the popular khachapuri, hailed as country’s version of pizza. So revered is khachapuri that economists at Tbilisi State University measure inflation and the cost of living standards for various cities by dividing the mean household income by the khachapuri index(kh-index). Kh-index is the cost of producing one khachapuri, including ingredients and energy. The calculation gives an estimate of the average number of khachapuri servings each family can afford.
The details of this Georgian dish vary by region, but the most popular serving is the one from Adjara. Adjarian khachapuri resembles an open boat and incorporates an egg yolk, butter, and cheese in the middle.
Although Georgia is famous for its unusual wines, don’t leave the country without trying chacha. Chacha is a Georgian brandy made of pomace-winemaking remains, including stems, seeds, and skins. The pomace is left to age before distillation to produce a strong drink with the aroma of dried fruit and which ages to attain a light golden brown color. Commercially produced chacha contains 40% alcohol, while the alcohol content of home-made versions can reach as high as 60%.
If you’re fortunate enough, you might come across tenili, rare hand-pulled cheese strands made in the region of Meskheti.
UNCOVER THE SECRET OF GEORGIAN UNUSUAL NATURAL WINES
If you are curious about the unconventionality of traditional Georgian wine, set aside some time to see the country’s unique, ancient winemaking clay pots known as qvevris. Respected master artisans make the lemon-shaped and handleless vessels, and such is their importance in wine production that they are included in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Qvevris are used in the entire Georgian winemaking procedure right from fermentation to maturation, producing natural wine of exceptional complexity, flavor, and color.
The craftsmen take about three months to make a 2000 liter qvevri, with part of the process being the gradual inclusion of coils that help the qvevri hold its weight and shape. The masters clog the interior pores with bee wax without sealing them to allow the entry of air needed for fermentation. The sterilizing and waterproofing properties of bee wax facilitate wine hygiene and a seamless cleaning process.
The winemakers sink these vessels into the earth to prevent damage by the fermentation pressure and external forces such as earthquakes.
Kvevris are part of the 8000-year old specimens uncovered in the Neolithic villages of Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora. Popular Georgian regions that extensively use these vessels include Kakheti, Imereti, and Guria.
You cannot get enough of stunning landscapes, striking architectural designs, flavorsome cuisines, unique drinks, and other attractions in Georgia, all combined with the Georgians’ warmth.
The above unique things to do in Georgia reveal much about the former Soviet nation’s history and culture. Some will take you back to millions of years ago, while others will bring you closer to modernity, all which have played a significant role in shaping the tourism of Georgia.
It’s time you stop admiring Georgia’s wonder from visual media and embark on a trip to this beautiful nation for unforgettable first-hand experiences.