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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finish by crossing over the new pedestrian bridge to look back at the fortress from the opposite side of the river.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
UP-SCALE: Best Western Kutaisi (⭐ 8.3). Situated at the end of the White Bridge, footsteps from Kutaisi centre, this hotel has a magnificent rooftop bar-grill with river views. Quality service, well-appointed rooms and a generous buffet breakfast are all on-point with the Best Western brand.
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.