Located just 50 km (31 mi) from Kutaisi or just over an hour by road, Nokalakevi is a great option for an alternative day trip or a stopover when road tripping to/from the Black Sea Coast.

One of Georgia’s most important archaeological sites and magnificent examples of a Roman fortification in the region, Nokalakevi was developed during the Byzantine era (from the 4th century AD). Some historians have posited Nokalakevi as the ancient Colchian city of Aia, from where Jason snatched the Golden Fleece.

We recently stopped at Nokalakevi on a drive back east from Poti. While I’m the first to admit that I’m not a huge fortress person, I was extremely impressed by Nokalakevi – both by the scale and condition of the ruins, and by the beauty of the Tekhuri (Terek) River and the surrounding landscape.

View of stone ruins and walls at Nokalakevi Fortress from the upper citadel.
Nokalakevi Fortress.

When paired with a soak in the nearby hot springs, Nokalakevi is a terrific day out. I especially recommend it to families with kids or anyone who’s interested in Ancient Roman/Colchian history.

Here is a quick guide to visiting Nokalakevi Fortress and the sulfur springs at Jikha.


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History of Nokalakevi

Nokalakevi (known as Archaeopolis in Ancient Greek and Tsikhegoji in Georgian) hovers on the edge of a canyon at a bend in the Terek River in Western Georgia’s historic Samegrelo region. The site has likely been occupied from as early as the 8th century BC, with most of the construction work taking place during the 4th-6th centuries AD.

Nokalakevi is one of a dozen fortified Roman cities in Georgia, with other key sites being Petra and Gonio (both near Batumi), Sukhumi, Pitsunda and Gagra in Abkhazia, Phasis (now Poti), and Armazi near Mtskheta.

Protected on three sides by sheer limestone cliffs, Nokalakevi is enclosed on its eastern side by an impressive defensive wall. It sits at the edge of the Colchian plain and played an important strategic role in the Byzantine-Sasanian wars fought between the Persian and Eastern Roman Empires from 572 AD.

A covered pavillion houses an archaeological site at Nokalakevi, Georgia.
A covered archaeological site inside the castle walls.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, members of the Dadiani family used the site as a royal residence, adding Nokalakevi to their real estate empire (the Dadiani Palace in Zugdidi and Levan’s summer house in Salkhino are other notable properties).

The fortress was and still is divided into three parts: A lower city, a middle castle and the upper citadel. Various palaces, baths, churches and temples have been unearthed here, along with a tunnel and an irrigation system that made the complex self-sustainable.

Excavations started at Nokalakevi in 1833 and are ongoing today. Unearthed relics are displayed at the small fortress-museum located within the walls.


How to get to Nokalakevi

Nokalakevi is located just off the highway that runs between Kutaisi and Poti. If you have your own car, it is very easy to navigate to using Google Maps. There is ample room for parking at the main entrance.

Travelling by public transport from Kutaisi, you can take either a Poti or Senaki marshrutka from the Central Bus Station and request to be dropped off early. Another option is to transit through Khoni and change vans there.

Note that Kutaisi-Batumi vans and vans travelling to Batumi from Tbilisi take a different highway and do not pass through Jikha.


Visiting Nokalakevi Fortress

Opening hours & ticket price

Nokalakevi is administered by Georgia’s Heritage Sites. It is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am until 6pm (closed Mondays).

Tickets cost 10 GEL per person, with free entrance for children under 6 years. English, Georgian and Russian language guided tours are available for an additional 30 GEL per group.

General tips

I recommend you allow at least 1-2 hours for visiting Nokalakevi – potentially longer if you’re taking the guided tour or you want to soak up every little detail. It takes a good 60 minutes just to walk around the sprawling complex.

The lower citadel is mostly flat. If you have mobility issues, there are electric buggies like the ones in Vardzia available to hire, although they were not in use at the time of our visit. As with many places in Georgia, there are steep drop-offs and precarious ledges that are not roped off, so watch your footing at all times and take extra care if you’re travelling with your children.

There are bathrooms inside the complex, but no food or drink facilities. Remember to bring plenty of drinking water with you.

Avoid visiting during the middle of the day – the site is completely open and exposed with virtually no shade.

What to see at Nokalakevi Fortress

The most impressive architectural feature at Nokalakevi – and the first thing you encounter after the ticket desk – is the eastern wall. It is monumentally high with several arched openings and detailed battlements.

The eastern wall and main gate to Nokalakevi Fortress, an ancient Colchian castle in Samegrelo, Georgia.
The eastern wall and main gate to Nokalakevi Fortress.

As you walk through the main gate, to the right you will see stairs built into the wall. You are free to climb these – and any other staircases that are not cordoned off – for a view.

A second set of stairs takes you to the upper citadel, the highest readily accessible point at Nokalakevi. I was very reluctant to walk all the way up at first, but I’m glad I did. After the stone steps end, the way turns into a path that is mostly shaded. The view from the top is sublime.

A shaded walking path leads to the upper citadel at Nokalakevi Fortress in Georgia.
Part of the shaded walking path to the upper citadel.

Back on the lower level, continue into the complex to explore the main part of the citadel. Ruins are clustered together and linked by marked walking paths. The highlight here is the Forty Martyrs Church. Built in the 6th century, it is the oldest church in Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region. Originally it was an aisled basilica but today it takes the form of a fairly modest dome church. It is an active Orthodox church with services every Sunday morning.

Forty Martyrs Church, an ancient stone Orthodox church inside Nokalakevi Fortress.
Forty Martyrs Church.

Near the church, the only part of the complex that is indoors, the Archaeological Museum displays around 3,500 objects unearthed during various digs, including clay ritual figurines, old coins and Colchian ceramics.

The lower citadel continues along with the curve of the river and gradually tapers off. More fortifications are spread along the water-facing facade, while a second section of upper citadel nestled in the tight curve of the river can be reached by hiking through the forest (we didn’t have enough time for the hike – allow around 1 hour each way).

The most interesting part of Nokalakevi is the very rear of the complex where it meets the river. Here, you’ll find the entrance to a long stone tunnel carved out of the cliffside. It has been restored so you can follow the steps all the way down to the river, where the blue water laps at the stone platform.

In the past, this was an escape route and a vital way to access drinking water when the fortress was under siege.

A man stands in the opening of a tunnel at Nokalakevi Fortress.
The tunnel leads right down to the river’s edge.

Finish by crossing over the new pedestrian bridge to look back at the fortress from the opposite side of the river.

A stone castle, Nokalakevi, on the bank of a river in Georgia's Samegrelo region.
View of the riverside battlements from the pedestrian bridge.

Nokalakevi is very well-kept, especially when compared to some other similar sites in Georgia. There are model armoured soldiers cast in wire dotted around the grounds that add to the atmosphere – I actually think they have been done quite tastefully.

Soldiers made from chain mail and wire stand on the high wall at Nokalakevi Fortress in Western Georgia.
Model soldiers on the eastern wall.

But unfortunately there is no signage whatsoever. The few signboards there are have completely faded away. Nokalakevi is desperately wanting for some information panels. If you want anything more than a superficial look at the site and its history, a guide is mandatory.


Nokalakevi sulfur spring

Having first heard about these natural hot springs when I stayed at Karma Hostel in Martvili last summer, I was eager to finally visit. The sulfur spring is just 3.5 km (around 10 minutes by car) further up the Terek River from Nokalakevi Fortress, making it very easy to visit both at once.

Nicknamed Dedamoka (‘Pregnant mother’ in Georgian), the hot spring is associated with a legend: A pregnant woman jumped into the river to escape from the encroaching enemy and perished in the water before transforming into a stone.

Mineral travertines at Nokalakevi sulfur spring, a natural sulfur pool in Samegrelo region in Georgia.
Nokalakevi sulfur spring.

The sulfur spring is very unusual and nothing like the other natural pools I’ve visited in Georgia. A single water source bursts out of the high bank above the river, and has created a huge mineral travertine on the earth cliff. The steaming, bubbling waters spill down and flow into the cold Terek, painting the river stones shades of moss and rust.

You can either sit beneath the gentle cascade of water, or lounge in one of the deeper puddles that forms near the river. The sulfurous water is extremely hot so be careful! If it gets too steamy, you can jump in the river to cool off.

Also read: Visiting the Dikhashkho sulfur geyser in Vani.

There are several concrete structures on the waterway above the river that once served as bathhouses but appear to be abandoned. This is a popular place to camp overnight, so you might find one or more campers occupying the small lot.

The drive up to the hot springs from the fortress is very beautiful as the road winds around and below rock formations. The entrance point is tricky to spot when approaching from the south: Look out for the hairpin bend in the road on the right. This steep trail takes you down to the river’s edge and the access point for the hot spring. The final section is unpaved, but our Prius managed just fine.


Other things to see in the area

The Tekhuri River & Betlemi

The entire length of the Tekhuri (Terek) River is extremely picturesque and dotted with various waterfalls and natural swimming holes. Nearby Martvili Canyon is located on a different river (the Abasha), but the scenery is somewhat similar, with iridescent blue waters skimmed by sinuous moss-coloured tree branches opening up into emerald green pools.

Find a quiet spot on the river for a swim, or head to the town of Betlemi further up the river. Betlemi is an adventure tourism destination with hiking trails, ropes courses, rafting and other river sports.

Bandza Synagogue & Jewish cemetery

Back on the highway, Bandza is a small town located between Nokalakevi and Kutaisi. It has a magnificent, lofty stone synagogue and a Jewish cemetery that are well worth a quick stop off if you’re passing through.

Bandza Synagogue in Georgia.
Bandza Synagogue.

Senaki

Travelling in the opposite direction towards the Black Sea, Senaki is a larger regional city known for its airbase. The centre is quite charming and is worth a pit stop if only to admire the Soviet-style apartment mosaics and the gorgeous powder-blue Akaki Khorava State Drama Theater, designed in 1953-59 by Vakhtang Gogoladze and inspired by the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

Power blue Senaki State Drama Theatre in Georgia.
Senaki State Drama Theatre.

Semi-abandoned spa towns Tskaltubo & Menji

If you’re travelling along this road towards Kutaisi, you will pass right by the turn off for Tskaltubo spa town before you hit the city. If you’re into Soviet throwbacks and urbexing, you can alternatively visit the lesser-known sanatoriums located in the opposite direction at Menji.

Also read: A complete guide to Tskaltubo and its 20+ spas and sanatoria.


Where to stay in Kutaisi

If it’s your first time visiting Kutaisi, I highly recommend choosing a hotel that’s located in the city centre. See this neighbourhood guide for detailed recommendations, or check out my top Kutaisi accommodation picks below.

A suite at Communal Kutaisi, a beautiful boutique hotel in Kutaisi, Georgia.
Communal Kutaisi.

TOP CHOICE: Communal Hotel (⭐ 9.7). Launching in autumn 2023, the latest offering from The Communal Company (also of Communal Telavi and Tbilisi) is Kutaisi’s premier boutique hotel. Rooms are cosy and perfectly decorated, and the property has an outdoor pool and onsite restaurant-bar, Doli.


Bunk beds and common spaces at Black Tomato, a popular hostel in Kutaisi, Georgia.
Black Tomato Kutaisi. Photos courtesy of the property.

BUDGET-FRIENDLY: Black Tomato (⭐ 9.2). This popular hostel in historic Sapichkhia offers both dorms and private doubles with ensuites. The terrace garden is lovely, and the onsite Georgian-Jewish restaurant serves a delicious breakfast plus meals throughout the day.


Baby blue facade of the Hotel Newport, a boutique hotel in Kutaisi located inside the old courthouse.
Hotel Newport.

MID-RANGE: Newport Hotel (⭐ 9.1). Located on the cusp of Kutaisi’s historic Jewish Quarter, behind the Colchis Fountain, this hotel is located inside the former Kutaisi Courthouse. Rooms are comfortable, the service is friendly, and the onsite bar-restaurant is excellent.


Modern hotel room at Hotel 1887 in Kutaisi.
Hotel 1887. Photo courtesy of the property.

MID-RANGE: Hotel 1887 (⭐ 9.2). This historic 19th-century house is a 10-minute walk from the Colchis Fountain. Rooms pair original wooden panelling and parquet floors with minimal, Scandi-style furnishings. There is a garden, and some rooms have private balconies.


Hotel Grand Opera Kutaisi, a moody hotel room near the Rioni River and White Bridge.
Hotel Grand Opera. Photo courtesy of the property.

UP-SCALE: Hotel Grand Opera (⭐ 8.7). Situated in the heart of Kutaisi centre, this hotel has a magnificent rooftop bar overlooking the Opera Theatre. Expect well-appointed rooms and a generous breakfast from this hotel with a location that’s impossible to beat.


Georgia essentials

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, a customised round-trip itinerary, or a multi-day trip. 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.

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One Comment

  1. Nokalakevi hot springs were wonderful. We found the water too hot to sit under the cascade, but the pools where perfect with around 38 degrees (celsius). If you drive to the very right end of the parking space (near containers) there is a small ath through the woods or you use the stony way down to the pebble beach and go to the right around a corner. We came through Bandza but at the moment (and I guess for a longer time) you cannot use the bridge in Nokalakevi. Don’t use the small street along the river, it is a burden to go there with a car. Drive on the main street to Dzveli and then into Senaki or (if you come from Kutaisi go straight to Senaki and use the hot springs river side from there. We slept in Bandza, at Tiny house Gencavale, which was nice, with lovely hosts and eco-friendly (but has not two – like advertised -, but only one room per hut).

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