Stunning mountain scenery and unique cultural heritage vie for your attention in the Caucasus, the point where Europe and Asia converge. In a region so complex and diverse, it can be hard to know what experiences to prioritise and how best to plan your travel time.
With that in mind, TravelLocal’s experts in Georgia and Armenia have put together their top recommendations for would-be travellers. Whether you want to sample culinary highlights, stroll through cities or lose yourself in mountain peaks; these are their top tips.
The finest alpine landscape you’ve never heard of, and just a 4.5 hour flight from the UK, Georgia is simply waiting to be explored. Alongside vibrant cities and sprawling wine regions, it is an ideal gateway for exploring the pristine landscapes of the Caucasus. Higher than the alps, the mountain regions boast a largely intact ancient culture with links to Queen Tamar and the Kingdom of Colchis.
Sample the world’s oldest wine
Widely considered to be the original home of wine-making, with vessels recently found dating back 8000 years, Georgians pride themselves on upholding their ancient traditions. Tbilisi’s bustling streets boast countless wine bars but the most authentic experiences are found outside the city streets. Just an hour’s drive from the capital, nestled in the Sighnaghi region, is one of the finest wineries in the country.
Family owned, internationally acclaimed and entirely organic, Iago’s wine is simply delicious. Before tasting begins, Iago himself will show you around the winery and talk you through the methods he uses. The wine is made in large clay amphorae, qveris in Georgian, which are buried under the ground.
The grapes are thrown in whole and the shape of the vessel forces the skins down to the bottom of the jar; acting as a natural filter. After the tour, take a seat in the gorgeous tasting room and enjoy a carefully selected wine flight paired with traditional Georgian dishes. Be sure to check out our article on the Best Georgian Food.
Discover the secrets of Svaneti
Georgia’s northern region, known as Svaneti, offers one of the most unique and unforgettable travel experiences in the country. Cut off from the rest of the country by mountain peaks, the area has its own language, culture and traditions which remain largely intact despite years of invasion. Mestia is the place most travellers head for as it’s an ideal starting point for day hikes. It also has a wonderful ethnography museum and cooking courses which showcase traditional Svan dishes including Kudbari (beef and onion filled bread loaf) and Chvishtari (cornbread baked with cheese). (Find our more about Georgian Food in our Ultimate Guide to what to eat in Georgia) If you’re wanting to get even further from the beaten track, it is worth journeying deeper into the mountains. A two hour drive, or multi-day trek, from Mestia lies Ushguli, Europe’s highest inhabited village.
Covered by snow for just under half the year, it offers an incredible insight into the ancient traditions of rural Georgian life. For a half day hike, walk through fields carpeted with wildflowers to Queen Tamar’s tower. Now lying in ruins, the ancient structure is widely believed to have been the summer home of Georgia’s most famous ruler. If you fancy a longer walk, set out early for the Shkkara glacier.
Step into ancient Georgia
Uplistsikhe, meaning ‘Lord’s Fortress’ in Georgian, is an ancient cave town in Eastern Georgia. Founded around 1000 BC, it was a thriving settlement and trading point until the late 13th Century when it was looted and dispersed by the Mongols. Architectural finds suggest that the town was the capital of the pre-Christian Kartli empire and that inhabitants worshipped a sun deity.
Despite being incredibly well preserved, Uplistsikhe is still a relatively unknown site and few tourists make the ninety minute journey from Tbilisi. If you arrive between midday and 3pm, you are likely to have the complex to yourself and can either hire a guide or explore at your leisure.
Experience even more of Georgia, with a trip up the Georgian Highway to the ethereal Kazbegi
Walk the halls of Geghard Monastery
At the foot of soaring cliffs, behind the snaking form of the Azat river, you can find one of the most stunning examples of Armenian monastic architecture; the Geghard Monastery. While the complex’s main church was built in the 13th century, other chapels and monastic cells were carved into the surrounding rock face. These date back as far as the 4th century and are still in use today. The walls are adorned with intricate carvings, many of which feature khachkar – ornate crosses which are unique to Armenia.
The monastery offers a glimpse into the ancient religious traditions of what is widely believed to to be the world’s first Christian nation, and is also home to an extremely special cultural experience. In one of the stone carved chapels, local monks perform traditional choral music for visitors. Ethereal and utterly unique, it’s a spine-tingling experience which is sure to be a highlight of your time in Armenia!
Soak in natural hot springs
With its name meaning ‘warm’ in Armenian, the small alpine town of Jermuk has captured the imagination of visitors for centuries. It is encircled by two mountain ranges, Vardenis to the north and Vayk to the south, and is surrounded by sprawling forests and meadows of alpine wildflowers. As well as being a hiker’s paradise, it’s also the perfect place to unwind and take a break from the modern world.
Over the years, Jermuk has become a kind of spa resort thanks to the natural hot springs which surround it. These springs, thought to have medicinal properties, were once the chosen retreat of Soviet Union officials who would spend their summers in the town’s sanatoriums. If you’re looking for a day trip, head out of town and visit some of the hot springs and geysers which dot the landscape or trek to Jermuk’s famous waterfall, locally known as ‘Mermaid’s Hair’. At 72 metres tall, it is the second highest in Armenia.
Live it up in Yerevan
A hub of culture, colour and fine food, Yerevan is quickly finding its way onto plenty of city break wish-lists. For those wanting to get to know more than just the average highlights, there are some places you simply must visit. First of all, you must get acquainted with one of Armenia’s most famous exports: brandy.
One of the country’s most famous brands, Ararat, have opened their factory doors to visitors and are now running tours and tastings. Learn how the brandy is made and discover its role in Armenian culture before sampling Winston Churchill’s favourite brand of cognac. Check out our Beer Snack suggestions for what to eat with Armenian beers.
If you want to try classic Armenian cuisine while in Yerevan, there’s no shortage of options. For fine dining try Dolmama or if you prefer a more relaxed atmosphere, often accompanied by live music and dancing, Old Erivan is a safe bet. Expect mezze, stuffed vegetables, flatbreads and griddled meats, all generously flavoured with herbs and spices.
If you’re wanting to plan a trip to the Caucasus, TravelLocal’s experts in Georgia and Armenia can help you!