While Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia and has been so for centuries, there was a time when the title belonged to another city. From the 3rd century B.C. to the 5th century A.D., the ancient kingdom of Kartli (or Iberia, as it was known in the West) occupied this territory with Mtskheta as its capital. Some 20 kilometers north of Tbilisi, Mtskheta is now a UNESCO-protected site and makes for a great day trip from the current capital.
Here is a short list of things to do in Mtskheta. I’ve included some helpful travel information at the end of the post if you decide to make the trip for yourself!
Visit the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
The second largest religious building in Georgia, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (სვეტიცხოვლის საკათედრო ტაძარი) is said to be the burial place of the robe of Christ. There’s a whole legend as to how the robe was obtained; basically…
…a Georgian Jew saw the Crucifixion, bought the robe off a Roman soldier, brought it home, and let his sister touch it. She died upon contact, the robe was unable to be pried from her cold, dead hands, and she and the relic were buried together. A huge cedar grew from the grave, the wood of which was used to make pillars for the construction of the church. One pillar turned out to be magical, floated to heaven, then floated down again after Saint Nino prayed for it to do so. Finally, that magic pillar started secreting a liquid that cured disease. Bam. Svetitskhoveli, or Cathedral of the Living Pillar, was born.Anonymous
Visit the Samtavro Monastery
This 4th-century monastery was restored in the 11th century and is in very good condition today. Elaborate bas-reliefs decorate the exterior, while paintings decorating the interior date back to the 17th century. The surroundings are beautifully landscaped, so it’s a nice place to explore and avoid the crowds at Svetitskhoveli.
Hike to the Bebri Fortress
North of town is a small park, with a fortress on a bluff overlooking the river. It’s small, but an interesting place to explore. As a bonus, you get killer views of the mountains to the north. For more information on Bebri Fortress (ბებრის ციხე), check out this blog by an American living in Tbilisi. He managed to track down some old legends related to the fortress; they’re well worth a read!
When my friend Nino recommended different Georgian foods for me to try, lobio was one of the ones she recommended, but she told me explicitly to wait until I went to Mtskheta to try it. Alas, my willpower when it comes to food is nonexistent, so I had some before, but the lobio in Mtskheta IS fantastic. A bean stew served in a clay pot, it’s warm, hearty, and vegetarian-friendly — have it with some shotis puri!
Check out Gujari Restaurant if you’re feeling fancy or another one of the local restaurants outside of the main tourist area.
Admire the View from Jvris Monastery
Perhaps the main attraction in Mtskheta is Jvris Monastery (ჯვრის მონასტერი), perched on a mountain overlooking the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers. The 6th-century monastery is a great spot to catch the sunset and a popular spot for wedding photography if you come during the right season.
The monastery was heavily damaged over the years and has undergone a lot of renovations. While many of the interior frescoes and mosaics have been destroyed, the interior is still majestic and will make you feel tiny as you gawk up at it.
Getting to Mtskheta
The marshrutkas for Mtskheta depart from the Didube (დიდუბე) Bus Station in the northern part of Tbilisi. You can take a bus or marshrutka to get there, but the metro is the most straight-forward method. Leave the Didube metro station, walk through the small market, and find where all the marshrutkas are lined up. You’ll see a sign saying ‘Kazbegi’ hanging over the entrance. Once inside, ignore any drivers who approach you and look for this ticket booth:
Tell the attendant you’re going to Mtskheta (pronounced ‘Mits – KHeta’ where ‘kh‘ sounds like you’re trying to clear your throat). If communication fails, just show them the following text: ‘მცხეთა‘. The ticket price is 1 lari.
The attendant should point you to the correct marshrutka. Board it, claim your seat, and wait for it to fill up with passengers! Then you’ll be on your way.
Getting Back to Tbilisi
There’s no set stop for the marshrutkas heading back to Tbilisi. Just pick a spot along the main road out of town and wait for one to come by. It shouldn’t be more than a 30-minute wait. Look for the following text in the window: ‘თბილისი’, or just check with the driver. They’ll take you right back to Didube station. Nicely done!
Have you ever been to Mtskheta? How was your experience? Did you see anything I didn’t include in this list? Let me know in the comments below!