The country of Georgia has been making waves in the travel industry lately, ever since its inclusion on the Lonely Planet ‘Best Places to Travel‘ list for 2018. A small nation nestled between Russia and Iran to the north and south, and the Black and Caspian seas to the east and west, it is a curious place. With a rich history stretching back millennia, a unique cuisine steeped in tradition, an adoration of wine leading back to the establishment of viticulture, and a language more unique than almost any other on Earth, it’s the type of destination explorers dream of visiting.
The year 2018 has come and gone, but Georgia remains a fantastic destination. I was lucky enough to spend a couple months there last year, and I’ve put together a list of reasons to visit Georgia in 2019 (and beyond).
The Birthplace of Wine
The national identity of Georgia is inextricably linked with its wine culture. Wine– and references to it– infuse Georgia’s art, its culinary traditions, its social structure, its economy, and more. Recently added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List, the Georgian art of making wine using qvevri (ქვევრი) is an entirely unique process which uses clay pots buried in the ground to produce wine. If you visit, a Georgian veritably bursting with national pride will tell you that Georgians invented wine — a fact that several years ago might have been seen as nothing but a boast. But in 2017, archaeologists found evidence of wine production outside of Tbilisi from some 8,000 years ago — giving that ‘idle’ boast the heft of truth.
When you visit Georgia, drink deeply of the wine. Quaff it as the locals do, in the dimly lit brick cellars with their arched ceilings and haze of smoke from too many cigarettes. Drink it from a qantsi (ყანწი) if you can, and make your toasts as loquacious and elegant as those of your host. Visit Sighnaghi — a town known for its wine production — or Telavi, and be sure to try my favorite vintage, Kindzmarauli (ქინძმარაული).
Georgia’s food is as rich and varied as its history. It’s hearty, it’s filling, and it’s absolutely delicious. Grilled and stewed meats mixed with fruits, vegetables, and nuts; produce so fresh it’s ridiculous; homemade cheese, and wines, and sauces; more of everything than you could possibly eat — but you’re encouraged to make your best effort to finish it all. It’s a culture that embraces the feast, perhaps more than any other culture I’ve seen.
There are the classics: khachapuri (ხაჭაპური), khinkali (ხინკალი), lobiani (ლობიანი), churchkhela (ჩურჩხელა)… all fantastic.
But don’t miss out on the lesser-known dishes. Ostri (ოსტრი), ghomi and kharcho (ღომი ხარჩო), chashushuli (ჩაშუშული), and more. Try everything set in front of you, and wash it down with some of that Georgian wine or — if you’re bold — chacha (ჭაჭა), the Georgian home-brewed firewater that will leave you wishing you’d stuck to wine when the next morning rolls around.
Check out my city guide for Tbilisi here, and you’ll find some recommendations for some of my favorite spots in Georgia’s capital.
Trekking in the Southern Caucasus
Georgia is swiftly becoming one of the premier hiking destinations in Europe, if not the world. With mountains along its whole northern border and much of the interior, Georgia has plenty of places to be explored, and the tourism infrastructure is still in its infancy throughout much of the territory — giving it a wilder feel. Some danger goes hand in hand with that wildness, however. It’s not uncommon to have to deal with shepherd dogs while on many trails (my experience hiking 75 km from Shatili to Omalo in Tusheti is a perfect example), and weather conditions can be harsh and change swiftly. Altitude is also a factor, as can be theft.
But the rewards… the rewards are vast. Ruined monasteries and hill fortresses can be found in verdant valleys, surrounded on all sides by snow-crowned peaks. Vast screes glisten with melt-water from the glaciers above, and waking up in the morning to the sun cresting the opposite ridge-line is one of those memories that will stick with you for the rest of your life. The Tusheti area is magnificent, as is the area around Gergeti Trinity Church. But perhaps my favorite area for hiking was Racha.
When you visit Georgia and travel through Oni, stay at the Gallery Guest House in Oni — the food and hospitality there is out of this world! And say hi to Nika and his family while you’re there.
Study One of the Most Unique Languages in the World
Georgian is an old language, and one of a small family of languages exclusive to the old territory of the kingdom of Kartli. It’s an isolated tongue, linguistically distinct from other languages save for the 3 other dialects within the Kartvelian language family. With about 4 million native speakers, it’s not the most practical of languages for outsiders to study, but there is an appeal. A truly unique tongue, an alphabet used in only one country, some of the most truly difficult sounds to ever come forth from a human’s throat…
All kidding aside, studying Georgian before you visit Georgia is a great way to increase your appreciation for the culture there. At least learn the alphabet — it’s phonetic and not too difficult — so that you can order food with ease at hole-in-the-wall restaurants around the country. I recommend Beginner’s Georgian by Dodona Kiziria — it’s a great course with audio CD accompaniment that served me well for my several months of language study leading up to the trip.
Visit a Place with History Stretching Back More Than 8,000 Years
Georgia’s geographical position between the Caspian and Black Sea has made it a nexus of history — mainly as a territory caught up in the ebb and flow of larger empires. Starting out as the empires of Colchis and Iberia — the former of which will sound familiar to fans of Homer — the tiny state went on to be conquered and controlled by the Mongol, Iranian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires before eventually becoming part of the Soviet Union. Its incarnation as the Republic of Georgia has only been official since 1991.
These ebbs and flows have left traces scattered throughout the country — from the pre-Christian ruins of Uplistsikhe to the ruins of the old Persian fortress now known as Narikala in Tbilisi. There are even some Ottoman-style baths in the Old Quarter of Tbilisi still in operation. Soviet architecture, monuments, and more can be found without even trying.
Experience a True Georgian Supra
The Georgian supra (სუფრა) is one of the most iconic aspects of Georgian culture, as it takes the Georgian love of food, wine, and song and combines everything into one extravaganza of all three. A supra, put simply, is a feast, but there is so much more to it than that. There are social aspects to it, deep-rooted traditions involving the role of the tamada (toastmaster) and the profundity of toasts throughout the meal.
If you are lucky enough to be invited to a supra, accept the invitation and soak in the experience. Make every toast, try every dish, and join in on every song — even if you just hum and clap along as your hosts wow you with their harmonization skills. After all, every Georgian is a musician.
Make a Visit (or a Pilgrimage?) to the Birthplace of Stalin
While I didn’t have much interest in this aspect of Georgia, there is a certain morbid fascination with seeing the childhood stomping grounds of Georgia’s most famous (or infamous) son, one Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili — a man who would later become known as Joseph Stalin. His hometown of Gori (გორი) is a short bus ride from Tbilisi and features a Stalin museum which, by many accounts, is well worth the visit.
With exhibits including his childhood house, railway carriage, and even a copy of his death mask, it’s said to be an unsettlingly fawning collection of memorabilia.
I didn’t go, so I can’t verify that. I’m of the belief that someone responsible for the deaths of millions of his own subjects (anywhere from 6 to upwards of 20 million depending on the source) deserves to be relegated to the dustbin of history. If you’re of a similar mind, there’s another reason to visit Gori, which brings us to our next point…
Explore the Caverns of One of Several Cave Cities
Cave cities. Georgia’s got several of them; the grandest of which is Vardzia (ვარძია), the seat of power for Queen Tamar — one of Georgia’s most beloved monarchs. Located in the country’s southwest, Vardzia was an entire city built into the side of a cliff, with rooms hollowed out of caves and elaborate escape passages dug out into the valley. I was lucky enough to visit with my friend Nino, who literally grew up around the corner from the cave complex. She was able to give me an insider’s tour of Vardzia — how cool is that?!
Another cave complex is located just outside of Stalin’s Gori: the pre-Christian ruins of Uplistsikhe (უფლისციხე). Settled as early as 8,000 years ago, the city was a bastion of power and influence in the kingdom of Kartli. The rise of Christendom coincided with its downfall, however, a slow deterioration which led to the total abandonment of the settlement during the Mongol raids of the 14th century. Now, it’s a shell, but one steeped in age and atmosphere. Highly recommended when (not if) you visit Georgia!
Shred the Slopes at a Fraction of the Cost
I’m going to start off this recommendation by addressing the elephant in the room. Remember that video that surfaced in early 2018 about a ski resort in some ex-Soviet backwater that malfunctioned and was hurling skiers and snowboarders through the air as its chairs sped backward before crashing into a tangled pile of metal? Yeah, that was in Georgia. This is the video.
Now that THAT bit of unpleasantness is out of the way, there are some good winter sports options in the northern parts of the country. If you’re still keen to shred the slopes after watching that video, Georgia offers a great alternative to the pricey ski resorts of the Alps. Check out Gudairi (გუდაური), Bakuriani (ბაკურიანი), and Mestia (მესტია). Just, you know, don’t get too cozy on those chairs.
Be ready to bail.
Be Smothered in Wonderful, Georgian Hospitality
One of the biggest reasons to visit Georgia is the culture of hospitality that infuses it. In a country where wine flows freely and food is piled high on tables and picnic cloths for guests to enjoy, it’s no wonder that most travelers leave Georgia with a warm and fuzzy impression of the place.
I know my experience was largely shaped by the friendship and generosity of my good friend Nino and all the wonderful people I met through her. Nino basically declared herself my tour guide and introduced me to Georgian food, to the traditions of the supra, to the Tbilisi jazz scene, and so much more. Then, at the end of my trip, she took me to her childhood home of Vardzia and showed me the home of the legendary Queen Tamar.
When you visit Georgia, make an effort to meet some Georgians. Learn a bit of the language and be fearless about butchering the pronunciation — it’s not a matter of if, but when. People will love you for trying, and doors will open.
And most importantly, try every bit of food and drink that is thrust your way. You’ll be glad you did!
How about you? Have you ever been to visit Georgia? How was your overall impression of the place? What would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments below!