If it’s majestic mountains that are beckoning you to visit the Caucasus, the Georgian Military Highway will feel like the road to heaven.
This 200km north-south arterial connects Tbilisi with Russia via the town of Kazbegi (Stepantsminda), home of the iconic Gergeti Trinity Church. Driving (or rather, being driven) along the Georgian Military Highway is one of the quickest and most convenient ways to immerse yourself in the Greater Caucasus.
I’ve travelled the Military Road four times – twice by marshrutka, once by taxi, and most recently in a private car. Along with Svaneti, it remains one of my favourite mountainous areas to visit in Georgia.
When planning your journey from Tbilisi to Kazbegi (or the reverse route, Kazbegi to Tbilisi), don’t rush it. Take your time to soak up the views, inhale some mountain air, and do some sightseeing along the way. Ideally, you should set aside a full day for driving the Military Highway and visiting the various churches, lookout points and monuments along the way.
In this guide, I’ll introduce you to 9 places along the Georgian Military Highway that are more than worthy of a stop-off. You’ll also find complete instructions on how to travel the Georgian Military Road by van, taxi or private car.
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What is the Georgian Military Highway?
The Georgian Military Highway was first carved out by traders and invaders alike in the 1st century BC. There have been many iterations over the years, but its function as a land bridge between Georgia and Russia, Europe and Asia, has remained the same for centuries.
The E117 highway as it’s known today technically starts 30km north of Tbilisi, just before the village of Natakhtari. In the old days, the highway ran all the way to the capital. Most tourists travel the portion of the road between Natakhtari and Kazbegi. After Kazbegi, the highway continues all the way to the Kazbegi-Verkhni Lars border crossing before finishing at Vladikavkaz, the capital of Russia’s North Ossetia-Alania Oblast.
In the beginning, the road was the only pass through the otherwise impenetrable Greater Caucasus. As you move along the highway today, you can still see watch towers and hideouts hewn from the rocky cliffs that rise up from the road shoulder.
In the 1780s, a thousand-odd soldiers were given the unenviable task of converting the narrow horse track into a formal highway fit to accommodate carriages. A few decades later, when Georgia was annexed by the Russian Empire, the road was improved upon again and iron bridges were added.
At the time, the highway was heralded as the Caucasus’ answer to the Simplon Pass (the scenery is certainly on par!). So lovely was the landscape, Tolstoy and Dumas, among others, thought it prudent to make mention of the road in their writings.
The highway is still an important trading thoroughfare. Today, it’s lorries travelling between Russia, Turkey and beyond that ply the route. In winter, long queues of brightly coloured trucks often line one side of the asphalt. Galleries added to protect the road from avalanches aren’t wide enough for two trucks to pass each other safely, so the traffic must take turns. The tunnels are only open for a few hours a day, so it’s not uncommon for drivers to wait days – even weeks if the weather is bad – to pass through.
How to travel the Georgian Military Highway
Marshrutka van is the cheapest option, but vans don’t make any photo stops (only a rest stop near Gudauri). Shared taxis offer more flexibility, but stops are at the discretion of the driver and other passengers. Similarly, organised day trips usually only include a couple of the 9 stops recommended below.
If you want to see everything at your own pace and pause at all the viewpoints for photos, then the best way to travel the Georgian Military Highway is by hiring a private car and driver for the day.
My preferred way to organise a transfer in Georgia is using GoTrip, an online service that pairs travellers and professional drivers. You can design your own itinerary by plugging in some (or all) of the 9 attractions below. You can stop for as long as you like at each, and even if you add additional stops on the day, the fare won’t change.
Prices are up to 60% lower when you book through GoTrip, and fares are set in advance, so you know exactly how much you have to pay (no negotiating required). Read my full review of GoTrip for more information on how to use the service, and what to expect.
If you fit all your sightseeing into one day, you can take a cheaper van or taxi back to Tbilisi from Kazbegi. This is exactly what we did on our most recent trip.
It’s also possible to hire a car and drive yourself to Kazbegi, but unless you’re experienced with mountain roads and confident with Georgian traffic, I strongly advise against it.
Georgian Military Highway road trip: 9 places to stop between Tbilisi and Kazbegi
This guide covers 9 places to stop between Tbilisi and Kazbegi. At the end, there’s a map you can use to plan your own travel route.
- Zhinvali Reservoir
- Ananuri Fortress
- Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument
- Jvari Pass
Georgia’s former royal capital, Mtskheta, is located just off the highway 25km north of Tbilisi. If you haven’t yet had a chance to visit Mtskheta on a day trip from Tbilisi, it’s worth the very slight detour to see the old town and visit the Historical Monuments of Mtskheta, one of Georgia’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Mtskheta’s must-see, Jvari Monastery, sits on a hill on the eastern bank of the river. On the drive up and from the church yard, you get a stunning panorama of the valley and the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers.
The enormous 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (visible on the bottom right in the photo above) is located in the centre of Mtskheta. This Orthodox church houses the remains of two Georgian monarchs, kings Erekle II and Vakhtang Gorgasali.
The next point of interest on the Georgian Military Highway is Zhinvali Reservoir, 40km north of Mtskheta. There are a series of viewpoints just off the highway where you can stop for a quick photo. From here, you can appreciate the scale of the man-made lake and its surreal blue waters.
Like nearby Sioni and other reservoirs across Georgia, Zhinvali was created when a dam was installed, flooding the valley. In this case, it happened in 1986. When the waters were let loose, part of the old Georgian Military Highway that ran through the valley was completely submerged. So too was a small village.
In winter, when the water level is low, you can see parts of the old road and its narrow bridges. You can also see evidence of the village that was erased from the map. The tiny stone church clinging to the reservoir wall is a very melancholy sight indeed.
It’s only another 10km from Zhinvali to Ananuri Fortress, one of the most popular stops on the Georgian Military Road. The walled complex dates back to the 13th century when the region’s leaders built two defensive castles on the bank of the Aragvi river. The main building, the silver-topped Church of the Mother of God, was added in 1689.
The most interesting thing to see at Ananuri, in my opinion, is the carvings on the church facade. As you enter through the gates, you’re greeted with a massive stone wall dressed head to toe with the plump curls of the Georgian script, an earlier version of the alphabet used today.
Don a skirt and headscarf and go inside the church, where you’ll find partially restored frescoes illuminated by votive candles.
From the bottom of the complex, you get a wonderful view of the Truso Valley river basin. Be sure to walk up behind the church as well to see the grapevine cross on the southern facade.
The best view of the fortress is from the nearby bridge. From there, you can see more evidence of the old highway (a concrete bridge that’s only exposed in the dry months) as well as the remains of the second, lower part of Ananuri Fortress.
There are snack stands and cafes in the parking lot if you need to grab a churchkhela or something to drink.
Many people refer to Pasanauri as ‘the home of khinkali‘ (there’s even a chain of restaurants in Tbilisi named after the town). I can confirm that the soup dumplings here are some of the best in the entire country.
Pasanauri is the best place on the highway to stop for lunch – the difficult part is choosing which of the half a dozen restaurants to try.
On our latest trip, we originally planned to eat at Restaurant Guda (one of the fancier restaurants that comes highly recommended). But on our driver’s recommendation, we ate at Korbuda instead. Not only do they serve some of the most succulent, tasty khinkali I’ve ever eaten, they also make the best Imeretian khachapuri I’ve ever had – hands down.
Believe me when I tell you it’s worth driving up from Tbilisi just for the food!
There are dozens of mineral water springs all along the highway where you can stop and fill up a water bottle or two. For locals, this is part of the ritual of driving the Military Highway.
Some springs release sparkling mineral water. We stopped at this spring near the town of Sakuriani. I was a bit skeptical when I saw it was caked in rust-coloured mineral deposits – but according to our driver, the water is highly sought-after for its therapeutic benefits. I thought it tasted a bit metallic myself.
Looking at Sakuriani on the map, you’ll notice this is where the highway turns into a set of hairpin bends. We unfortunately missed it, but it looks like you can get a glorious panorama from this viewpoint.
After Sakuriani, the road gets progressively curlier and steeper as you start to ascend into the mountains for the final stretch of the trip to Kazbegi. The landscape immediately changes from flat plains to lofty mountains as you enter into Gudauri Recreational Area.
Gudauri is one of Georgia’s premier ski resorts. As you pass through town, you’ll see the road is lined with chalets and cabins. Chairlifts rise up from the hills beyond the road, ferrying holiday makers up to the ski fields.
You have the option here of stopping off to ride the chairlift or take the cable car from Gudauri to the village of Kobi and back. If you’re in the mood for adventure, you’ll also find a couple of paragliding companies in Gudauri.
Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument
Located just 5 minutes’ drive from Gudauri, the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument is without a doubt the most iconic landmark on the Georgian Military Highway. The much-photographed semi-circular mosaic is perched on an outcrop overlooking one of the most scenic parts of the mountain range.
The monument was built in 1983 to commemorate the 200-year anniversary of the Treaty of Georgievsk and celebrate diplomatic relations between Georgia and its neighbour to the north. It was designed by Georgian architect George Chakhava, and the colourful mosaics are the work of artists Zurab Kapanadze, Zurab Lezhava and Nodar Malazoni.
The interior mural is an abstract panorama of different scenes from Georgian and Russian history. The narratives converge at the centrepoint where a mother and child embrace, a Georgian Orthodox church on one side and a Russian Orthodox church on the other.
Stone archways along the bottom of the monument open out to a series of balconies, each of which reveals amazing views of the so-called Devil’s Valley below. As you look down, you can see an emerald eye staring back at you – a water reservoir cut from the valley floor.
The final stretch of the Georgian Military Highway after Gudauri and the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument is the most scenic. Here, the road reaches its highest point – and your trip will reach its crescendo – as you glide along the Jvari Pass (Cross Pass).
It’s here that you start to appreciate the grandeur of the Greater Caucasus. Covered in snow or wrapped in a blanket of emerald-green foliage, it’s stunning no matter the season.
The Jvari Pass is a wind-down-the-window moment – take in the awesome views and soak up the fresh air for the final 25km stretch of the drive to Kazbegi.
Sno is a short detour off the highway just before you reach Kazbegi, but it’s worth a quick stop if you have time. This tiny, idyllic alpine village is best-known for its mineral water springs (you can buy Sno water in supermarkets around the country).
It’s also home to a rather odd attraction – something called ‘Gigantic Sculptures’ on Google Maps. Just before you reach the village, you’ll see a collection of four larger-than-life stone heads scattered around a rolling field.
Each one bears the profile of one of Georgia’s most beloved national poets. The work of local artist Merab Piranishvili, some call this Georgia’s very own Easter Island! You can be the judge.
Inside the village, Sno Castle, a ruined stone tower, can be climbed for a view.
East of Sno, it’s the rugged heart of Kazbegi National Park and the Chaukhi Pass, one of the country’s premier hiking spots. The nearby village of Juta is a nice alternative to Kazbegi if you’re looking for something off-the-beaten-track. Fifth Season Cabin, a wonderful mountaineer’s hut nestled among snow-capped peaks, is one of Georgia’s coolest accommodations.
From Sno, it’s another 10 minutes to Kazbegi.
Georgian Military Highway map
- The Georgian Military Highway is open year-round. However, parts of the road are sometimes closed in winter due to snowfall. Check ahead before you plan to travel.
- The road is windy in parts. If you suffer from motion sickness, make sure you have your preferred medication on hand.
- Without stops, it takes around 3.5 hours to travel between Tbilisi and Kazbegi. With the 9 recommended stops, you should set aside a full day (7-8 hours) to see everything at a reasonable pace.
Where to stay in Kazbegi
Budget: Family-run Red Stone Guesthouse is warm and spacious. An incredible home-cooked breakfast comes included in the rate. Check prices and availability for Red Stone Guest House on Booking.com.
Mid-range:For something more upscale, Hotel Stancia in the centre of town near the bus stop is chic, modern, and still very affordable. Check prices and availability for Hotel Stancia on Booking.com.
Luxury: For a truly memorable Georgian mountain experience, don’t look past Rooms Kazbegi. Housed in a converted sanatorium, this is one of the coolest boutique hotels in the whole country. Check prices and availability for Rooms Kazbegi on Booking.com.
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 Kiwi.com, a booking site that mixes and matches airlines to find the best route (there’s a money back guarantee if you miss a connection).
– Use iVisa to check if you need a tourist visa for Georgia and apply for an expedited visa online.
– Pre-book a private transfer from Tbilisi Airport to your hotel or from Kutaisi Airport to Tbilisi.
– 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 (use this link to sign up and get $55 AUD off your first Airbnb booking).
– Find the best city tours and day excursions in Georgia.
– Compare mobile providers and pick up a local Georgian sim card.
– Pre-order the new Lonely Planet Caucasus guidebook (coming out in June 2020).