Whether you’re an aspiring sommelier or an unapologetic beer drinker, raising a glass of red in Kakheti, Georgia’s premier wine region, is just one of those things you have to do.
Viniculture is as old as the hills in Georgia. The country’s signature vino – which uses the whole grape (skin, stems and all) and is made in an underground clay vessel called a qvevri – is unlike any wine you’ve tasted before. Sampling wine is a lesson in Georgian history, and just a few hours’ drive from Tbilisi, Kakheti is an increasingly popular place for visitors to do this.
Kakheti is a region of Eastern Georgia that borders on Tusheti and Russia to the north, and Azerbaijan to the east and the south. The area has a long history of conflict and conquest, traded back and forth between feudal monarchs, Persian conquerors and Russian imperialists before King David the Builder finally incorporated it into Georgia in the 12th century.
A good chunk of Kakheti’s landscape is semi-desert, which gives it a very different look and feel to the rest of the country. There’s an upside to the hot and sometimes blustery weather: as it turns out, Kakheti’s Mediterranean climate provides the ideal conditions for cultivating grapes. Wine was first made and drunk here in the Neolithic period – a tradition that continues to this day, with many Georgian families holding land in Kakheti where they bottle their own wine and chacha.
Kakheti’s two main towns, Sighnaghi and Telavi, have both undergone significant re-development in recent years and have a lot to offer tourists as a result. Red-roofed Sighnaghi is certainly the more atmospheric of the two; Telavi, Kakheti’s capital, is better networked in terms of inter-city transportation. Either can be used as a base for day trips around Kakheti’s winery-studded countryside, which is by far the most popular thing to do in this part of Georgia.
Excursions are best done by private car and can be organised through your guesthouse (more on that later). Aside from vineyards and cellar doors, you’ll also be whisked around ancient churches and impressive monasteries. Back in town, you’ll find excellent restaurants, cultural attractions and friendly guesthouses in both Sighnaghi and Telavi. All in all, Kakheti makes for a very pleasant long weekender that you could easily spin out into a four- or five-day stay.
If you’re planning to travel in Georgia or you’re just curious about the country’s wine region, I hope this tried and tested three-day itinerary for Kakheti can offer you some inspiration. Skip to the end of the post for practical tips for visiting Kakheti, including accommodation, transport, budgeting, and which town is best to base yourself in.
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DAY ONE: SIGHNAGHI
Hit the ground running – spend your first day in Kakheti exploring the wineries and monasteries that surround Sighnaghi. Ask your guesthouse to organise a full or half-day tour (more on that here), sit back, and enjoy the drive. Highlights include:
Perched perilously high on a forested slope, parts of this monastery date back to the 4th century. To reach the basilica, take the chartered marshrutka up the hill (2 GEL per person). Hunt around for the wine room where you can see a set of qvevris embedded in the floor. Think this combination of religion and alcohol is strange? You’d better get used to it.
Built in the 8th century, this is the only double-domed church in Georgia. It’s not the most spectacular church you’ll ever see, but the short walk through the forest to get there is delightful.
An impressive 16th-century church, also at high elevation. This time you’ll have to climb the stairs. For a few extra GEL, you can see a small museum display and climb up the bell tower for excellent views over Kakheti.
A very slick operation, Kindzmarauli offers group tours where you can see the wine making and bottling process. Tastings are reasonably priced and there’s an opportunity to buy a bottle or two at the end.
The most impressive cellar door you’ll visit in Kakheti is also the most expensive. You’ll need to fork out around 10 GEL to tour the huge tunnels cut into the mountainside – originally they were intended as bomb shelters but since the war finished before construction did, they were co-opted for storing the local community’s wine instead. Wine label Khareba eventually bought them out. The temperature in the tunnels is a chilly 12-14 degrees year-round.
(Visiting these five spots took us a full day, around 10am to 5pm.)
If you have some time left over in the late afternoon, take a quick stroll through Sighnaghi’s Museum of History and Ethnography. One of Georgia’s most famous artists, Niko Pirosmani, was born in Sighnaghi, and this small gallery/museum displays a few of his paintings alongside a collection of historical artefacts from the region. (If you’ve eaten at Samikitno in Tbilisi, you’ll recognise Pirosmani’s style – reproductions of some of his best-known paintings are hung in the restaurants.)
Enjoy a well-earned Georgian feast at Nikala Restaurant in the centre of town (order the khinkali) or if it’s an option, eat a home-cooked meal at your guesthouse.
DAY TWO: SIGHNAGHI
Spend your second day a little closer to town and discover enchanting Sighnaghi by foot. Start with an easy 1km walk to nearby Bodbe Monastery, taking in views of Sighnaghi’s red roofs, city wall and the valley as you go.
Bodbe probably has the best-kept grounds of any monastery in Georgia. When we mentioned this to a Georgian friend, she told us the reason: it’s nuns, not monks, who live here and are responsible for tending the gardens. A woman’s touch!
Follow the steps behind the monastery down to Nino’s Spring, where pilgrims kick off their boots and bathe in the holy water.
As the busloads of tourists start to arrive at around 11am, that’s your cue to leave. Return along the same road or hitch a ride with the local priest back into town. If it’s a weekend, you’ll no doubt notice drivers careering around the hilly roads and leaning on their horns. This is a tradition in Sighnaghi – nicknamed ‘the city of love’ for all the weddings it hosts, cars carrying the bridal party honk incessantly for good luck.
Pheasant’s Tears, one of Sighnaghi’s best-known wineries, operates a restaurant in the centre of town. Eat a light lunch here while you sample the wine. Before you leave, have a snoop through the carpet shop at the back of the restaurant.
Continue on foot through town, following the reconstructed old city walls and climbing up the lookout towers for views of the low-lying town of Tsnori.
Along some of Sighnaghi’s cobbled streets you’ll see groups of old women knitting. Stop to say hello and buy yourself a pair of handmade wool socks.
Stop in at Pancho Villa for dinner where the chef, a Sighnaghi local, cooks up the best Tex-Mex anywhere in Georgia. Try the Saperavi dessert, an ingenious sponge and cream cake flavoured with syrup made from locally grown red wine.
DAY THREE: TELAVI
Telavi is located just 60km from Sighnaghi but it has a very different vibe. Start your day with a self-led walking tour of the city, taking in the Giant Plane Tree (a major source of civic pride) and the cobbled old city. After grabbing a bite to eat at one of the bakeries on the main street, it’s time to explore more monasteries and wineries around Telavi. Try some of these options:
The house and estate of Georgian aristocrat Alexander Chavchavadze is a must-visit. Take a guided tour of the house and its restored rooms for a taste of how the other half lived in 19th-century Georgia. It was raining on the day we visited so we couldn’t fully explore the manicured gardens – but you could easily spend hours wandering around.
This complex includes the Church of Transfiguration and the crumbling ruins of an old academy where Shota Rustaveli (Georgia’s national poet) was tutored as a boy.
You may be reaching church-and-monastery saturation point at this stage, but Alaverdi is truly impressive. The huge basilica was the tallest in Georgia until Sameba Cathedral was erected in Tbilisi.
As well as wine making facilities, Shumi has a small house museum and a collection of antique qvevris. The tour and wine tasting are free.
Back in town, eat dinner on the fairy lit terrace at Bravo before cracking open a bottle of wine back at your guesthouse.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT TO KAKHETI
A few pieces of advice for accommodation, transport and other logistics.
A note on visiting Davit Gareja…
Davit Gareja, the incredible cave monastery that straddles the border of Kakheti and Azerbaijan, is one of Georgia’s highlights. Some people choose to visit as a day trip from Kakheti, and many guesthouses offer this option. Sure, it might look close on a map – but because of the way the road runs (almost all the way back to Tbilisi), it takes the same amount of time to get to Davit Gareja from Sighnagi as it does from Tbilisi (about three hours). In my opinion, it’s much better to visit the monastery as a day trip from Tbilisi instead and save your time in Kakheti for other activities.
When to visit Kakheti
A good time to visit Kakheti is during the annual Rtveli, or grape harvest, which usually happens in mid to late September. The vintage coincides with the last days of summer and is a time of national celebration. We visited Kakheti during shoulder season in March/April – the weather was pleasant, it wasn’t too busy, and the cherry blossoms and flowers were out. Bliss.
Where to stay in Kakheti
Most travellers will need to decide between basing themselves in Sighnaghi or Telavi, Kakheti’s two main towns. As I mentioned, Sighnaghi is certainly the more atmospheric of the two. Its charming cobbled streets are made for walking; but it can get overcrowded on weekends with day trippers and wedding parties down from Tbilisi. Telavi is a much bigger city and has far less character. On the plus side, it’s easier to travel onwards to Tbilisi from Telavi.
We compromised and stayed a few nights in Sighnaghi to begin with, with a night in Telavi at the end. We chose two family run guesthouses and I can wholeheartedly recommend them both:
Sighnaghi – Zandarashvili Guest House
70 GEL/night for a double room with private bathroom
Central location; excellent breakfast and a nightly supra
Telavi – Guest House Lilia
40 GEL/night for a double room with shared bathroom
Quiet, suburban location; Lilia is an excellent host
Can Kakheti be done as a day trip from Tbilisi?
Sure – if you’re really pressed for time and prepared to hit the road early. In this instance, I would hire a private taxi for the day and head straight to Sighnaghi and the surrounding wineries. You can hit some of Telavi’s main attractions on the way back through to Tbilisi.
How much should I budget for Kakheti?
Food and accommodation prices in Kakheti are comparable to other parts of Georgia – which is to say, very cheap. The only real expenses you need to budget for are 1) The car/driver if you choose to day trip (see the transport section below for more information), and 2) Entrance fees that the bigger wineries charge. If you want to save money, some of the smaller wineries offer free tours and even free tastings. Consult your driver before you set off and they will steer you in the right direction.
Getting to/from/around Kakheti
We were fully prepared to catch a marshrutka from Tbilisi out to Sighnaghi – that is until the driver who took us to Ortachala station insisted on dropping us at the shared taxi rank instead. I’m not even mad, because it turned out to be a great trip. We wound up paying 10 GEL (4 USD) per person for our seats; we rode with two amiable Georgians and one plucked-and-strung chicken. The trip took about two hours and the driver dropped us right at our guesthouse – far more efficient than a marshrutka.
Day trips around Sighnaghi (and Telavi) can be organised through your guesthouse. Depending on the set up, it’ll either be someone from the family, a relative or a friend driving you around. Tours can be organised once you’ve checked in and you can negotiate the duration and stops. There’s usually a set price for the car, so the more people you travel with, the cheaper the price per person. If you can pair up with a few fellow guests it will work out better for everyone. We paid about 25 GEL (10 USD) each for each of our full-day trips outside of Sighnaghi and Telavi. Considering how much ground we covered, we thought that was an absolute bargain.
Sighnaghi and Telavi are only 60km apart, but getting from one to the other isn’t as easy as you’d think. At the time of our visit, there was only one marshrutka leaving Sighnaghi for Telavi at 9am. It’s not your typical intercity marshrutka either – it stops frequently to pick up and drop off passengers on the side of the road. Tickets cost us 6 GEL (3 USD) per person and the journey was painfully slow, about three hours in total. I suggest enquiring about a taxi if you’re on a tight schedule.
Travelling back to Tbilisi by marshrutka from Telavi took us three hours (that’s factoring in a short stop for a change of tyre) and also cost 6 GEL per person. Unlike Sighnaghi, Telavi has a proper bus station and is serviced by more regular marshrutky.
Where to next?
If you’re travelling on to Western Georgia or maybe Kazbegi, you’ll first need to transit back through Tbilisi. We did exactly that, making it to Gori in the same day (with enough time left over for an afternoon of sightseeing once we arrived). Heading east further into Kakheti, you can visit Lagodekhi National Reserve (we’ve heard good things) and if you want, continue onward into Azerbaijan via the border pass at Matsimi. (Note that you will most likely need to organise a visa for Azerbaijan in advance, depending on your passport.)
Read more: My report on bus travel in Azerbaijan.
If it’s the right season, you can head north from Telavi into Tusheti National Park and take in some of Georgia’s most magnificent mountain scenery. This road is particularly vulnerable to snow and ice, however, and often doesn’t re-open until late May or even June.
It’s possible to make any of these trips from Telavi (or from Sighnaghi via Telavi) – just ask at your guesthouse for assistance.
Have you been to Kakheti? What are your tips for other travellers?
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