No trip to Georgia would be complete without a visit to the Greater Caucasus, the mountain range that forms a natural land border with Russia.
In the south of the country, the Lesser Caucasus offer similarly spectacular landscapes prime for trekking, skiing, and more.
The backdrop to countless novels and, more recently, the adventure film The Loneliest Planet, the scenery in the Caucasus is hard to beat. On top of the majestic views, you have the rich cultures and traditions of the different ethnic groups who have lived in these valleys for centuries.
Wondering what to pack for your Caucasus mountains getaway? Here’s my complete Georgia packing list.
While trying to devise the perfect Caucasus itinerary for our first trip to the region, I kept getting hung up on which mountain region/s we should visit. I found a lot of conflicting information online, and struggled to figure out which area would best suit our travel style.
So, to help you plan your own Georgia itinerary, I’ve put together a brief comparison of Georgia’s three most popular mountain regions: Kazbegi (Stepantsminda), Svaneti (Mestia) and Tusheti . At the end of the post, I list some alternative destinations in Georgia where you can get your mountain fix.
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Greater Caucasus Mountains: Introduction
The Greater Caucasus mountains stretch 1,200 kilometres along the Georgia/Azerbaijan-Russia border, from the Taman Peninsula of the Black Sea to the Absheron Peninsula of the Caspian Sea. The north part of the range borders the Russian territories of Ossetia, Chechnya and Daghestan.
To the south, descendants of ancient tribes and warrior clans reside in what is now present-day Georgia and Azerbaijan. Due to its geography (steep peaks, deep valleys, impassable mountains), the Caucasus has an incredible cultural and ethnic plurality. It’s second only to Papua New Guinea in terms of linguistic diversity.
Mountaineers will be familiar with the Greater Caucasus mountains as a premier hiking destination. For the average tourist, visiting one or more of these mountainous regions will be an unforgettable part of your itinerary.
Out of all of Georgia’s mountainous regions, the town of Kazbegi – often called by its new name, Stepantsminda – sees the most tourists. The iconic Gergeti Trinity Church (pictured above) has become a symbol for Georgia’s booming tourism industry.
Kazbegi is the most accessible of the three regions covered here and unlike the other two, the roads are conveniently open year-round. Located 150km due north of Tbilisi, it’s the best option for anyone who’s on a tight schedule and looking for an easy mountain escape from the capital.
On the downside, Kazbegi is also the most touristed of the three spots, and its location on the arterial Georgian Military Highway means the town has an almost-constant soundtrack of roaring lorry trucks. Thankfully, the traffic doesn’t detract from the scenery, which is absolutely breathtaking.
Good for: Easy hikes, scenery, luxury.
Accessibility: Excellent. It’s fast and cheap to get to Stepantsminda from Tbilisi’s Didube station (and to travel back to Tbilisi from Kazbegi). Expect to pay around 25 GEL for a seat in a shared taxi (drive time: around 3 hours) or 10 GEL for a marshrutka ticket (drive time: around 3.5-4 hours). My preferred way to travel is with a private driver hired through GoTrip. If you’re coming from elsewhere in Georgia, you must transit through Tbilisi (there is also a direct route from Kakheti).
Recommended time to spend in Kazbegi: 1-2 nights. Allow a full day for hiking to Gergeti Trinity or a half day if you plan to go by 4WD.
Top things to see and do in Kazbegi
- Georgian Military Highway: The Georgian Military Highway is spectacularly scenic. Hire a shared taxi or private car to stop off on the way at Ananuri and the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument.
- Gergeti Trinity Church: A Georgia icon, Gergeti Trinity is a must-see. The church is perched high over the town, so you can gaze at it from wherever you are in Stepantsminda. But it’s also worth going up for a closer look. The hike is wonderful, provided you follow my advice and take the correct path! Otherwise, you can opt for a 4WD transfer. Entrance to the church is free.
- Gergeti Glacier: Located past Gergeti Trinity on the southeastern slope of Mount Kazbek, Gergeti Glacier is a strenuous eight-hour return walk from Stepantsminda. Serious hikers can also summit Mount Kazbegi.
- Rooms Hotel Kazbegi: In Soviet times, Kazbegi was a health retreat. The old sanatorium was recently transformed into Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, one of Georgia’s premier boutique hotels (brought to you by the same crowd as Fabrika in Tbilisi). Even if you aren’t staying at Rooms, it’s well worth dropping in for lunch or a glass of wine (or both) on the deck, which boasts lovely views of the town and mountains.
Where to stay in Kazbegi
- Budget: Red Stone Guest House, a lovely family-run guesthouse with a homecooked breakfast each morning.
- Mid-range: Hotel Stancia in town offers comfortable rooms and a terrific Georgian restaurant.
- Luxury: Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, with its spa and outdoor hot tub, makes for a wonderful mountain retreat.
Also check out these spectacular mountain cabins in Kazbegi.
Because of its remote location in far north-eastern Georgia, Tusheti offers the most off-the-beaten track mountain experience of the three regions.
It may be more difficult (and more expensive) to get into Tusheti National Park; but once you’re there, you’ll be rewarded with incomparable scenery and great Georgian hospitality.
Tusheti is the only mountain region we personally didn’t get to visit (due to road closures). It’s top of our list for next time!
Good for: Solitude, multi-day hikes, scenery.
Accessibility: Remote. A single (and treacherous) one-way road connects Omalo, Tusheti’s biggest town, with Telavi and Sighnaghi in Georgia’s Kakheti wine region. The Abano Pass is only open at certain times of year. In the winter, most residents move south and the road closes. When we were in Georgia in late May, the pass was still yet to open for the year. If you do happen to be there at the right time, it’s only possible to get to Omalo with a 4WD and an experienced driver.
Recommended time to spend in Tusheti: It takes a full day of travel to get to Tusheti from Tbilisi or Kakheti, so you’ll want to take your time once you arrive. I recommend staying for at least 3 nights.
Top things to see and do in Tusheti
- Abano Pass: One of the world’s most dangerous roads, the journey to and from Tusheti via the Abano Pass is an adventure in and of itself.
- Omalo: Most tourists base themselves in Omalo, Tusheti’s main population centre, where you can find good guesthouses and beautiful scenery.
- Shatili: The 5-day, 75km trek from Omalo to the village of Shatili is one of the most popular hiking routes in all of Georgia. Read more about it here.
- Shenaqo and Diklo: 6.4km east of Omalo, Shenaqo is a pretty village full of balconied houses. It boasts the only functional Orthodox church in the region. 4km east of Shenaqo, Diklo village is known for its old fortress and valley views.
- Dartlo: 12km east of Omalo, Dartlo overlooks the Pirikiti Alazani Valley. There are a few guesthouses in town, making it an ideal place to stop if you’re on a multi-day hike.
- Stone towers: Dotted throughout Tusheti’s villages (and also found in Svaneti and beyond), stone defensive towers or murkvam are reminders of the Caucasus’s tumultuous past. Whole families once lived inside the towers, designed to protect the residents of valley hamlets from invaders and marauders. Built between the 9th and 13th century, the towers can be up to 25 metres tall and are an unmissable feature of the Greater Caucasus landscape.
Where to stay in Tusheti
- Omalo: Nabadi has modern rooms and a lovely stone dining room.
- Shatili: Jurkha’s Shatili Tower offers accommodation inside a historic stone tower.
I’m told that the traditional residents of Svaneti, the Svan,still got around in chain mail up until the mid-19th century. Home to one of the Caucasus’s most fascinating ethnic groups, this is a great place to experience not only hiking and nature but Svanetian culture, history and food.
Located in north-western Georgia, the biggest town of Mestia is just 245km from Kutaisi, making Svaneti an ideal choice for anyone flying in and out of David the Builder airport (now serviced by Wizz Air). Even if you’re transiting through Tbilisi but your itinerary includes Western Georgia, Svaneti is a must-visit.
Good for: Culture, history, food, single- and multi-day hikes.
Accessibility: Good. Svaneti’s main town, Mestia, can be reached by marshrutka from Kutaisi (25 GEL; drive time: approximately 5.5 hours) or Batumi via Zugdidi (35 GEL; drive time: approximately 6 hours). See this guide for details.
The road to Mestia is open year-round, but the more treacherous drive to Ushguli along a steep cliff face is often closed in winter summer months (roughly November to May).
Recommended time to spend in Svaneti: 3-4 nights. Mestia has great accommodation options and is a very comfortable little town, with the best range of restaurants, cafes and bars of any of the three regions mentioned here.
It’s a good place to relax for a couple of days – and after the drive up, you’ll need a day or two to recuperate.
Top things to see and do in Svaneti
- Mestia: Svaneti’s main popular centre is well-equipped for tourists. The main town square is a pretty spot to sit and sunbathe. It’s also where 4WDs and marshrutka wait each morning to ferry tourists to Ushguli.
- Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography: Located in Mesia, this award-winning museum defied my expectations. Exhibits cover various aspects of Svanetian history and culture (including a large section devoted to costume and textiles), and will help you to better understand the local area.
- Ushguli: Technically a collection of several villages, Ushguli lies 47km (or about 2.5 hours drive) west of Mestia at the head of the Enguri gorge. Chazhashi, one of the villages, is preserved as a museum-reserve and is home to more than 200 murkvam stone towers. Incredibly, many of them are still occupied by families today. Minivans depart Mestia for Ushguli daily (during the on-season) and cost 30 GEL per person return. Alternatively, you can hike to Ushguli over 4 days.
- The Tower of Love: Located on the road from Mestia to Ushguli, the Tower of Love was set up by an enterprising local resident. Basically, it’s a fine example of a murkvam stone tower sitting on the bank of a delightful little stream. Pay the small fee, and you can climb the series of wooden ladders right to the top. It’s worth doing for the chance to see what the living conditions are like inside.
- Khatsvali Ski Resort: Outside of skiing season, this fir-tree lined resort transforms into a day hikers’ paradise. Chairlifts operate year-round.
- Single-day hikes: There is a wealth of single-day hikes to do around Mestia—the most popular being to Chalaadi Glacier and Koruldi Lakes.
- Svanetian cuisine: When in Svaneti, you must sample the region’s distinctive (and indulgent) cuisine. Highlights include kubdari, or Svanetian meat pie, a khachapuri bread stuffed with mince meat, and chvishtari, a pan-fried cornmeal bread stuffed with cheese. Cafe Laila, right on the town square, is the most popular eatery in town and serves all the local favourites.
- Eat Svanetian salt: Trust me, it’s worth a mention! Svanetian salt is an addictive concoction made from sea salt and spices: fenugreek, dill, coriander, cumin, marigold and red pepper. You’ll find it on the dining tables of every good guesthouse and restaurant in the area. We purchased a few bags from our guesthouse to take back to Tbilisi as a gift for our Airbnb hosts – it went down very well.
Where to stay in Mestia
- Budget: Mononi’s Guesthouse offers comfortable rooms and home-cooked meals.
- Cabins: Eco Huts in Mestia is a lovely wood cabin set in a pine forest walking distance from town.
- Mid-range: Guest House Old Seti offers modern rooms.
Alternative Caucasus mountains destinations
Looking for something different? Try one of these alternative mountain destinations in Georgia.
Home to Georgia’s Kist minority group, this gorgeous valley is a great jumping-off point for treks or horse-riding expeditions in Tusheti. There are marked trails in the hills around Jokolo Village, where you’ll also find a handful of homestays. Pankisi offers a great combination of history, culture and outdoors.
A ski resort town located off the Georgian Military Highway between Tbilisi and Kazbegi. Sitting on the south-facing plateau of the Greater Caucasus mountains, Gudauri boasts fantastic views of the mountain range.
One of Kazbegi’s highest settlements, Juta is located 24km east of Stepantsminda, close to the Chaukhi mountain range. Check out Fifth Season cabins if you’re headed this way.
Located 100km (approximately 4 hours by marshrutka) northeast of Kutaisi, Racha-Lechkhum-Kvemo Svaneti Planned National Park, or Racha, sits in the upper Rioni river valley at the foot of the Greater Caucasus mountains. As well as gorgeous mountain-scapes, the park contains Shaori, the region’s largest lake, and the town of Nikortmsinda, with its 10th century temple. Learn more about visiting Racha here.
Lagodekhi Protected Areas
Located in the northeast corner of Georgia’s Kakheti district, where Georgia meets Azerbaijan and Russia, Lagodekhi Protected Areas is one of the country’s most unique landscapes. From the town of Lagodekhi (150km east of Tbilisi), you can take a multi-day hike right up to the mountains and lakes that form the border with Daghestan.
It’s not the Greater Caucasus mountains, but Bakuriani in Georgia’s southern Borjomi district is another popular mountainous spot for tourists, especially those who like to ski. Located on the northern slope of the Trialeti Range, Bakuriani is 180km from both Tbilisi and Kutaisi. You can visit Bakuriani as a day trip from Tbilisi.
There is, of course, a huge swathe of mountains that lies between the population centres mentioned above. It’s possible to explore a lot of it on foot, either independently or with a guide. I’m no trekker (did you notice?), so if you’re looking for more advanced hiking routes in the Caucasus, I’ll refer you to Caucasus Trekking, the premier authority on the subject.
Here are some of the websites and services I use when I’m planning a trip to Georgia and the Caucasus. Remember to check out my full list of travel resources for more tips.
- Find affordable flights to Tbilisi, Batumi or Kutaisi on Skyscanner.
- Use iVisa to check if you need a tourist visa for Georgia and apply for an expedited visa online.
- Insure your trip with HeyMondo, my preferred provider for single-trip and annual travel insurance.
- Pre-book a private transfer from Tbilisi Airport to your hotel (from $13) or from Kutaisi Airport to Tbilisi (from $70) with my preferred partners at GoTrip.ge.
- Find a great deal on a rental car in Georgia – use the Local Rent website to book through a local agent (from $20/day).
- Buy your tickets for the Tbilisi to Baku or Yerevan sleeper train online in advance through my partners at Geotrend (get a discount when you use the code in this post).
- Find the best Georgia hotel deals on Booking.com, book a Georgia hostel, or find a unique Airbnb in Tbilisi.
- Find the best city tours and day excursions in Georgia on Get Your Guide.
- Compare mobile providers and pick up a local Georgian sim card.
- Order a copy of the latest Lonely Planet Caucasus guidebook (published February 2022).
Have you spent time in Georgia’s Greater Caucasus mountains? What is your favourite spot?