An up-to-date guide for visiting David Gareja (Davit Gareji) Cave Monastery: News about the border situation, what’s open and what’s closed, plus other things to do in Udabno including Natlismtsemeli Monastery and hiking in the Rainbow Hills.
Along with Vardzia and Uplistsikhe, David Gareja makes up Georgia’s trifecta of well-preserved medieval cave monasteries. Because of its close proximity to the capital, it’s always been considered one of the best day trips from Tbilisi.
A lot has changed since my first trip to David Gareja back in 2017. As I discovered on my most recent visit this fall, a large part of the complex remains closed to tourists following a row between Georgia and Azerbaijan that flared up in the summer of 2019.
With no immediate resolution in sight and part of the complex still closed, it’s worth asking: Is it still worth visiting David Gareja?
In this guide, I’ll give you some background information about the situation, tell you what it’s like to visit David Gareja today, and outline exactly what’s open and what’s closed. I’ll also run through everything you need to plan a David Gareja day trip from Tbilisi should you still decide to go.
* Important: All information in this post is relevant and up-to-date as of 2022. As the situation evolves, I will update the text to reflect any changes. Please note that the situation on the ground can change without notice. This guide is for informational purposes only – exercise your own judgement when deciding whether to visit or not. *
Please note: This post contains affiliate links, meaning I may earn a commission if you make a purchase by clicking a link (at no extra cost to you). Learn more.
Note: My recent visit to David Gareja was part of a day trip hosted by Weekend Travelers. All recommendations and opinions are 100% my own.
Interested in a David Gareja and Rainbow Mountains day trip from Tbilisi? My preferred tour company, Friendly.ge, is offering my readers a 10% discount off their private tour and group tour. Use the promo code wanderlush at checkout.
A very brief history of Davit Gareja
David Gareja Monastery (known as Keshikchidagh in Azerbaijan) is located in the far-southern corner of Georgia’s Kakheti region, approximately 100 kilometres or 1.5-2 hours by road from Tbilisi. The closest town is Udabno, which is 15 kilometres away.
The name David Gareja commonly refers to a complex of two monasteries, Lavra and Udabno, which are located in close proximity to each other on the borderline between Georgia and Azerbaijan. The David Gareja Monasteries actually represents a much larger site – at least 21 separate hermitages scattered across the desert.
The monasteries were constructed during the time of St. David Garejeli, one of the Thirteen Assyrian Fathers who were sent to Georgia from Mesopotamia in the 6th century to strengthen Christianity. The impression the monks made on the landscape is nothing short of miraculous: More than 5,000 cells were carved from the plateau of colourful rock, ranging in size from tiny living chambers to sprawling monasteries composed of chapels, refectories, libraries and watchtowers. Some of the ‘cave monasteries’ were big enough to house several hundred people.
It’s believed that St. David chose this isolated location because he wanted his Disciples to lead a life of piety independent from the rest of society. Many of the monasteries became important sites of theology and culture and were loaded with precious icons, books and manuscripts. They came to incorporate villages and agricultural lands too. Ornate frescoes and rock carvings that depict Orthodox figures and King Tamar, who ruled at the time, further added to their value.
The semi-desert that forms a backdrop for David Gareja is every bit as impressive as the monasteries themselves. The undulating hills are formed by the Eurasian and Afro-Arabnian tectonic plates – this is literally the place where two continents collide.
The most impressive feature of the landscape is the mineral-rich sedimentary rock, which looks as if it’s been painted with brightly coloured stripes. It’s possible to hike through the Rainbow Hills – more on this later.
Beautiful as the site is, it’s also inherently unstable. Weather damage and erosion have wreaked havoc on many of the monasteries. The fact that some were used by Soviet troops for firing practice certainly didn’t help. At Udabno Monastery, you can clearly see bullet holes around (and in) many of the frescoes.
Rivalry between Georgia and Azerbaijan
The monasteries lie in very close proximity to the Georgia-Azerbaijan border, a large portion of which is not delimited (formally drawn up). One structure, Bertubani Monastery, actually falls on the Azerbaijani side. Meanwhile Lavra and Udabno Monasteries – the two most popular monasteries for tourists – sit right on the border line, literally divided between the two states.
If you keep a close eye on Google Maps when travelling from Tbilisi to David Gareja, you’ll notice there’s a 150-metre stretch of highway where you actually cross over the border. Access to Udabno (the upper monastery at David Gareja) is similarly reached by hiking along a ridge that technically falls on Azerbaijani territory.
The two countries both lay claim to the monasteries, which has obviously resulted in tensions. In recent years, it’s been largely peaceful, with an agreement between parties to put politics aside and give tourists and pilgrims full access to the site regardless.
This was still the attitude when I first visited David Gareja in spring 2017. The entire complex was open then, including the 3 kilometre ridge hike to Udabno Monastery. Apart from a brief, cordial exchange with a pair of border guards, there was no hint that anything was array.
That all changed in June 2019, when tensions reached a peak. Activists congregated at the site and additional border guards were deployed. Eventually access became restricted.
What’s still open to tourists, and what’s off limits?
In the beginning, the situation at David Gareja was changing daily. One tour company described it as ‘safe but unpredictable’ – some days the Georgian border guards would let tourists up, other times only Georgian citizens were given permission for a few hours during the day. Some days, the site was completely closed.
Talks between Georgia and Azerbaijan were scheduled but the situation remained unresolved. Now with the pandemic and other events unfolding in the region, it seems David Gareja has been put on the backburner.
As of January 2022, access to St. David’s Monastery (Lavra Monastery) is unrestricted. Udabno Monastery, the upper monastery, is still inaccessible.
With Udabno Monastery closed, you can no longer walk the trail along the ridge, nor can you view the pastel-coloured cave frescoes at Udabno Monastery, including the rare image of King Tamar. If you try to venture up to the trail, Georgian border guards will turn you back.
You can still go inside St. David’s Monastery (Lavra Monastery), which is accessed from the bottom of the hill. You can walk the wooden balconies for a view of the caves cut from a triangular wedge of rock, and you go all the way down into the yard to view the engraved tombstones and visit the chapel.
Previously you could see Lavra from afar as you descended the mountain from Udabno, but now it’s only possible to walk 100-200 metres up the hill for a view of the cells.
Is David Gareja still worth visiting?
Yes. Despite the fact that half the complex is closed and the hiking route is inaccessible, I still think it’s worth visiting David Gareja.
Lavra Monastery, the lower monastery that remains open, is quite magnificent. When I visited in 2017, the yard was closed off for reconstruction and the chapel was inaccessible. Rehabilitation work is still underway (hence the scaffolding on the cave wall), but now you can see the monastery in much closer detail.
This includes the caves, a set of beautiful tombstones, and of course the interior of the chapel. The balconies, tunnels, stone towers and walls are well-preserved and also very impressive.
A few areas are signed as off-limits, but otherwise you have complete freedom to wander around and view the monastery from different levels.
Although you can no longer hike up for panoramic views of Azerbaijan, you can still get a good look at the Udabno landscape on the Georgian side.
A new visitor’s centre has also been added at David Gareja, with toilets and a church shop where the resident Monks sell candles, church oil, postcards and other gifts.
Is David Gareja safe?
Although the presence of border guards is much more noticeable now, David Gareja still feels safe. I visited with a small group of foreign guests and a Georgian guide and I personally didn’t feel unsafe or threatened.
Remember David Gareja is an active monastery with monks living onsite. You’re much more likely to interact with a priest than a border guard – unless you try to follow the path up to Udabno. Based on reports from friends and other travellers who have visited recently, the guards are congenial.
Having said this, there is always a certain level of uncertainty. The situation often changes at short notice and in the past, there have been spontaneous demonstrations at David Gareja. My advice is to do your research before you go and exercise your best judgement while you’re there.
Although I wasn’t asked to show ID, I still recommend carrying your passport/ID card with you when you visit. Be mindful when taking photos outside the monastery, and probably don’t fly a drone. If in doubt, ask the guards first.
How to get from Tbilisi to David Gareja
The monastery is located 100 kilometres or 1.5-2 hours by road south-east of Tbilisi.
The road from Tbilisi to David Gareja is much better now than it was just a couple of years ago. It’s now fully paved right up to the monastery, with a compact gravel section near Udabno. Road works were underway when I last visited, so there’s a good chance the entire road will be tarred by the time you get there.
A vehicle with high clearance is recommended but a 4WD is definitely not required.
With no regular marshrutka service to David Gareja, transport is limited to private vehicles (unless you want to hitchhike or take a taxi from Sagarejo).
Here are four convenient ways to take a day trip to David Gareja from Tbilisi.
Option 1: Use the Gareji Line transfer service
I used Gareji Line when I visited in 2017. This hands-off transfer service offers transport to and from David Gareja.
For 30 GEL, a minivan will take you to the monastery, give you 3 hours to explore independently with a paper map, then stop for dinner in Udabno on the way back to Tbilisi. The season runs from April 1 until October 31, with guaranteed departures every day (the monastery is open 7 days a week). No advance bookings are required. If there’s enough demand, they’ll still organise trips outside of these months – just message them on Facebook to enquire.
In 2019 when the border row was at its height, Gareji Line continued running trips. Check for future updates on their Facebook Page.
Option 2: Join a day tour
If you’re travelling out of season or you just want a more hands-on experience with a guide, then I recommend visiting David Gareja on an organised day tour from Tbilisi.
Lots of companies offer this itinerary. My personal top choice is Friendly.ge, a small tour company that works with Georgian guides and drivers. I’ve travelled with them before (to Mtskheta) and found them to be extremely professional and safe on the roads. Their tours are well-paced, thoughtful and extremely informative.
They currently offer two itineraries for David Gareja:
- Private off-road tour to the monasteries & Rainbow Mountains (my top choice)
- Group tour to David Gareja & Udabno (great for solo or budget travellers)
If you’re interested in booking with Friendly.ge, you can use the promo code wanderlush to get 10% off.
My recent visit to David Gareja was hosted by Weekend Travelers, an alternative provider aimed at expats and long-stay tourists. The organisers were kind enough to have me along free of charge so that I could get a feel for their tours – regardless, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them for organised, efficient and fun day trips and hiking excursions.
Option 3: Private transfer with GoTrip
GoTrip is a terrific service for organising private transfers in Georgia (think of it as a long-distance Uber). You can stop as often as you like along the route, as long as you complete your trip within a 24-hour window.
A car and driver from Tbilisi to David Gareja and back costs around 150 GEL when booked through GoTrip. Check prices here.
Option 4: Hire a car
Hiring a car and driving to David Gareja will give you the most flexibility to see other things in the area. If you haven’t driven in Georgian before, make sure you check out my road trip tips before you hit the highway.
As I mentioned, road conditions are pretty good. I saw plenty of sedans on the road so I don’t think a 4WD is obligatory unless you plan to go off road. Either way, I would choose a car with high undercarriage clearance to be safe.
Do not attempt to go off-road after heavy rain – this area is extremely muddy and it would be very easy to get bogged!
I personally use Local Rent for hiring cars in Georgia.
Important: If you’re driving yourself to David Gareja, be sure to follow the right route. The best road to take is through Sagarejo and Udabno (not the road through Rustavi, which is unpaved and requires a 4WD). Start by driving to Sagarejo via the Kakheti Highway. Take the turnoff towards Udabno. From there, you should be able to follow signs the rest of the way to the monastery. Google Maps now recognises this route so you can plug it in and rely on the GPS to get you there safely.
Other things to do near David Gareja
While it previously took a good 2.5-3 hours to explore David Gareja on foot, you can now see it in around 30-40 minutes.
This is a pretty remote part of the country, but there are a few other things that are worth seeing if you find yourself with some extra time up your sleeve.
Hiking in the Rainbow Hills
The largest and most impressive of the Udabno ‘Rainbow Hills’ are further northwest around Mravaltskaro Reservoir. I plan to check these out at a later date. There is a set of smaller hills near David Gareja that are similarly vivid.
On my trip with Weekend Travelers, we got out of our car around this point and hiked all the way up to Lavra via a surreal landscape of dried mud and pink lakes. As you track up and down the hills, you can see the striations of colour up close. At points you break out into grassy fields and dry river beds.
There was heavy rain the night before so the hike was extremely muddy and slippery in parts. It’s also very exposed and windy, so you’ll definitely want to check the weather conditions before you go.
There are dozens more cave monasteries in the hills around David Gareja. Natlismtsemeli (‘The Baptism’) is one of the better-known ones.
Located in Mravaltskaro on the edge of neighbouring Kvemo Karli region, about 10 kilometres north-west of Lavra, it was founded at the end of the 7th century by Luciane, one of David Gareja’s students.
The complex sits near the top of a ridge and is accessible via a long rocky path and a grand stone gate. As you approach the monastery, you can see a series of small caves hewn from the rocky ledge above.
The main chapel, a cavernous semi-underground room, is located below. In the back left corner of the chapel there are some damaged frescoes, one of which is believed to be an image of King Tamar. The iconostasis (the wall that separates the priest from parishioners) is covered with delicate stonework and framed 18th century icons.
Also noteworthy is the unusual belltower, which is decorated with blue tiles. Some of the cave cells have been fitted with new glass windows and serve as accommodation for those working on the site. The monastery also contains a refectory and a library, and a stone watchtower.
There are several unpaved roads to Natlismtsemeli from the main highway. It’s a rough track, so I suggest taking a 4WD.
Oasis Club Udabno
There are a handful of restaurants and accommodations in Udabno, the closest town to David Gareja. One of them, Oasis Club, is run by a Polish couple who wanted to bring life back into the largely abandoned refugee settlement and create employment opportunities for locals.
They offer a terrific menu of Georgian and international dishes, including Polish pierogi. Everything is made with local ingredients and is really tasty.
Oasis Club is open daily, but it might be a good idea to call ahead if you’re travelling outside the high season. They also have dorms and private cottages for hire if you want to spend the night in Udabno.
Sartichala Sunflower fields
The small village of Sartichala is located on the Kakhetian Highway just before Sagarejo and the turn off for Davit Gareja. Some seasons, you’ll find several large-scale sunflower fields. (It depends what farmers what to plant that year, though – sometimes corn is grown here instead.)
The flowers are cultivated for their seeds and oil (Kakhetian sunflower oil is a delicacy and a staple of Eastern Georigan cuisine). If you’re looking for a quick road stop, this is a nice place to park and go for a quick wander.
Tips for a successful Davit Gareja day trip
- David Gareja is open 7 days a week. There are no official opening hours that I know of, but the grounds should always be open during daylight hours (from around 10am onwards). There is no entry fee.
- Avoid going in summer. The site is very exposed and gets oppressively hot. Snakes, including venomous Levant vipers, are more prevalent in the warmer months. I recommend going in late spring (April/May) or early fall (October/first weeks of November).
- Cover up. It’s a good idea to wear long sleeves and pants to protect your skin from the elements. A hat and sunscreen are also essential. Remember that these are remote Orthodox monasteries where the dress codes are strictly enforced. Men need to wear long trousers, and women need to cover their hair with a scarf or jacket hood, cover their shoulders, and be wearing a skirt that goes past their knees. Skirts and headscarves are available to borrow at both monasteries mentioned here.
- Carry plenty of water and snacks. There is a spring at David Gareja but not much else, so make sure you have enough drinking water to last you the day. It’s also a good idea to bring some snacks, as there aren’t any shops once you leave the highway. If you’re on a day tour or travelling with Gareji Line, lunch is usually eaten later in the day.
- Bring some small change. Handy if you want to leave a donation the monastery or buy small items from the church shop. Note that it costs 50 tetri to use the bathrooms.
- Be ready for mud. If you’re trekking in the Rainbow Hills, know that it can be very muddy, especially after rain. It’s a good idea to bring a change of shoes and some biodegradable wet wipes to clean up.
- Stay abreast of the border situation. Things change at short notice. Consult a regional news source for the latest (I recommend OC Media) and follow Gareji Line on Facebook as they often post updates. Avoid visiting David Gareja if any demonstrations are planned.
Davit Gareja alternatives
If you decide to skip David Gareja, Georgia has two other notable cave monasteries: Vardzia and Uplistsikhe. The latter is an day trip from Tbilisi when combined with Gori, while Vardzia is further afield and can be visited as a long day trip, or better yet as a side trip from Kutaisi or Borjomi.
All three cave monasteries are very different and worth seeing if you have room in your Caucasus itinerary.
Here are the websites and services I personally use and recommend for Georgia. Check out my full list of travel resources for more tips.
FLIGHTS: Search for affordable flights to Tbilisi, Batumi or Kutaisi on Skyscanner.
TRAVEL INSURANCE: Insure your trip with HeyMondo, my preferred provider for single-trip and annual travel insurance (get 5% off when you book with my link).
SIM CARD: Magti is my preferred provider, with prices starting from 9 GEL/week for unlimited data. See this guide for all the details about buying a Georgian SIM card.
AIRPORT TRANSFERS: Most flights into Georgia arrive in the early hours. For ease, pre-book a private transfer from Tbilisi Airport to your hotel (from $17) or from Kutaisi Airport to Tbilisi (from $90) with my partners at GoTrip.ge.
ACCOMMODATION: Booking.com is the most widely used platform in Georgia. Use it to find family guesthouses, private apartments, hostels and hotels around the country.
CAR HIRE: Find a great deal on a rental car in Georgia – use the Local Rent website to book through a local agent (prices start from $20/day).
DAY TRIPS & CITY TOURS: Use Viator or Get Your Guide to browse a range of day trips and city tours. For off-beat programs, I recommend Friendly.ge (use the promocode wanderlush for 10% off). For in-depth day trips to Georgia’s wine regions, I recommend Eat This! Tours (use the promo code wanderlush for 5% off).
PRIVATE TRANSFERS: GoTrip.ge is a terrific service for booking a private professional driver and car for the day. Use it for A-to-B transfers or to create a customised round-trip itinerary. You can stop wherever you like for as long as you like without the fixed price going up.
NEED SOME HELP?: Need feedback on your itinerary or personalised travel tips? I offer a one-on-one consultation call service for Tbilisi and Georgia. More information and bookings here.
As always, what a great blog.
Many thanks, Doug!