Everything you need to plan the perfect Mtskheta day trip – including the 10 best things to do in Mtskheta and detailed instructions for how to travel to Mtskheta from Tbilisi by tour, bus or car.
“They call it the ‘Second Jerusalem’,” my guide Diana said as we crossed the river into Mtskheta. Despite this being my third visit to Georgia’s Ancient Capital, the view of Jvari Monastery on its hilltop perch still took my breath away.
The sheer number of Holy relics and historical monuments present in Mtskheta makes this city one of the most important – if not the most important – historical and religious sites in the whole of Georgia.
The city is best known for Jvari, the impressive mountaintop monastery that overlooks the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers, and the 4th century Svetitskoveli Cathedral, one of Georgia’s oldest and largest churches. But that’s only the beginning.
There are countless other things to see in Mtskheta, many covered under the UNESCO-listed Ancient Monuments of Mtskheta. These range from monasteries and convents to fortresses and palaces.
This guide brings together 10 of my favourite things to do in Mtskheta, organised into an easy-to-follow day trip itinerary from Tbilisi. I’ll also cover my tour recommendations, what to do in Mtskheta at night and restaurant suggestions, plus provide detailed transport instructions and my best Mtskheta travel tips.
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Transparency: My day trip to Mtskheta was hosted by Friendly.ge. All options and recommendations are 100% my own.
When is the best time to visit Mtskheta?
You can visit Mtskheta at any time of year. I’ve been in late winter, in summer and in fall, and every season offers something different. The churches and ancient sites are open year-round, including over the Orthodox Christmas and Easter holidays.
I would say it’s more pleasant to go in the ‘green’ months when the landscape is nice and verdant, or in autumn (October/November) when the fall foliage takes over.
Every year on October 14, a religious celebration called Svetitskhovloba (Mtskhetoba) takes place in the city. It has a more reverent tone compared to some other Georgian festivals, but it’s still very lively and a great time to visit. On the day, the Catholicos-Patriarch hosts a ceremony for pilgrims and a mass-baptism. Song and dance performances and a food market are staged in the square outside the cathedral.
Like Tbilisi, Mtskheta gets extremely hot in summer so make sure you come prepared with sun protection gear and plenty of drinking water if you’re visiting in the warmer months (June to September).
It does tend to get a little busier in Mtskheta over the weekend with locals visiting from Tbilisi. If you’re using marshrutka vans to travel to and from Mtskheta (more on that in a moment), you may have trouble getting a seat on the weekend.
Most Mtskheta attractions are outdoors, so try to pick a day with good weather. My biggest tip is to leave Tbilisi early and get a headstart before the tour buses pour in. Aim to arrive in Mtskheta before 9am if possible. Most monasteries and convents open their gates between 9am-10am and stay open until around 6pm.
Is one day in Mtskheta enough?
If you’re travelling on a tour or by private car, then one day in Mtskheta is plenty of time to see the main landmarks. As an indication, it took me around 8 hours to visit all 10 locations on this list, including a break in the middle of the day for lunch.
If you want to make your visit a half-day trip or combine Mtskheta with Gori and Uplistsikhe, then you’ll need to be more selective about what you do in Mtskheta. I would recommend sticking to Jvari plus the landmarks within walking distance of the Old Town and skipping the more remote hilltop monasteries. The same logic applies if you’re travelling by minivan rather than with a car.
If you decide to extend your time in Mtskheta, you’ll find my accommodation recommendations at the end of the post.
Do you need a guide for Mtskheta?
Mtskheta is one of the few places in Georgia where I do suggest you go with a guide. That’s because there is very little signage onsite, and relatively little information online that you can read before you go.
Georgia’s entire national history and heritage of Christianity is on display in Mtskheta. It’s hard to overstate how important this place is to Georgia and the region.
But if you want your day trip to be a learning experience, then you have to know what questions to ask. As mentioned, I had visited Mtskheta a couple of times previously and never enjoyed it much – I always thought it was overrated and over-touristy. When I had a guide to explain everything to me, my impression completely changed.
Mtskheta is the most popular day trip option from Tbilisi so there is no shortage of companies offering day tours. When deciding, look out for a tour that departs early, has small group sizes (or even better, offers private tours) and uses qualified guides.
The guide I travelled with, Diana, has a background in history and archaeology and knows Mtskheta inside and out. If you want an in-depth tour of Mtskheta then I highly recommend her – you can request a private tour with Diana through Friendly.ge.
I’ve partnered with Friendly.ge to offer my readers 10% off all their Georgia tours. Use the promo code wanderlush at checkout to apply the discount.
→ Check prices and availability for a Mtskheta day tour here.
How to travel from Tbilisi to Mtskheta
In this section I’ll briefly cover how to get to Mtskheta and how to travel back to Tbilisi from Mtskheta. There are four options to consider depending on your timeline and budget: Day tour, GoTrip transfer, marshrutka or self-driving.
There are passenger trains between Mtskheta and Tbilisi, but the schedule is sporadic and the station in Mtskheta is quite far from the centre. I have heard reports from other travellers who showed up to catch a train only to find no services were running. Thus I won’t be covering the train here.
Mtskheta tour from Tbilisi
If you want to visit Mtskheta with a professional guide and have your transport to and from Tbilisi taken care of, then your best option by far is to join a guided tour. There are dozens of options to choose from, ranging from low-cost, large group tours to private excursions.
My day trip to Mtskheta was organised by Friendly.ge, a small company based out of Tbilisi. They work with local guides and vetted drivers to offer thoughtful itineraries – theirs is the one of the only Mtskheta tours I’ve found that includes Shio-Mgvime.
Their private half-day tour runs for 3-4 hours and covers most of the places on my list of Mtskheta must-sees.
→ Click here to check prices and availability for a private tour. Remember to use the promo code wanderlush to get 10% off.
If you prefer to join with other travellers and share some of the costs, Friendly.ge also runs group tours to Mtskheta that follow the same itinerary.
→ Book a place on the group tour through Viator. Prices start from $35 per person.
Round-trip transfer with GoTrip
If you’re happy to explore Mtskheta at your own pace without a guide, but you still want to travel to and from Tbilisi in comfort and safety, then I suggest booking a private transfer through GoTrip.ge.
GoTrip is one of my favourite services in Georgia. Think of it as a long-distance Uber: You use the platform to craft a direct transfer or multi-stop itinerary, choose a driver you like the sound of, then pay in cash when the trip is complete. Prices are fixed in advance and you can stop wherever and whenever you like along the way. All drivers and cars are vetted for good road safety practices.
GoTrip is very affordable, too. This example itinerary for Mtskheta that I created includes all 10 stops mentioned below plus door to door transfers from Tbilisi with prices starting from just 30 USD per car.
Tbilisi to Mtskheta bus (marshrutka)
If you’re on a tight budget, it’s quite straightforward to get to Mtskheta by marshrutka minivan. This will limit how much you can see when you arrive – you won’t be able to get to any of the more remote monasteries mentioned here without hiring a driver.
Marshrutka vans depart from Didube Station in Tbilisi throughout the day, starting from around 8am. Vans leave when full. You can expect there to be a departure every 20-30 minutes or so depending on the time of day. I recommend arriving nice and early to ensure you get away on time.
The fare to Mtskheta costs approximately 2 GEL, and the travel time is 25-35 minutes. Paper tickets should be purchased from the cash desk before you board the bus.
To find the departure point: When you arrive at Didube Metro Station, go straight through the underpass and cross the road. Turn right and walk through the narrow market alley, then turn left. You will see the ticket counter and marshrutka vans with ‘Mtskheta’ written on their dashboards. If in doubt, just ask someone and they will point you in the right direction.
When you arrive in Mtskheta, the van will stop in the very centre of town. To get back to Tbilisi from Mtskheta, you can simply return to the same place and flag down any van travelling the opposite way with ‘Tbilisi’ on the dashboard. Pay the fare directly to the driver when you disembark.
Alternatively, a taxi to or from Tbilisi costs 20-25 GEL when booked through Bolt, and a seat in a shared taxi costs around 5-7 GEL. Taxis can be found at Didube Station in Tbilisi or near the main square in Mtskheta.
Driving to Mtskheta
If you’re thinking of hiring a car in Georgia, Mtskheta is an easy drive from Tbilisi and can be visited en route to Gori or Kazbegi via the Georgian Military Highway.
I recommend using Local Rent to hire a car from a local agent. Prices are great, and insurance is often included in the price. Make sure you read up on my tips for self-driving in Georgia before you hit the road.
All the Mtskheta attractions mentioned here are reached via good quality, paved roads. A sedan is all you need for this trip. Parking can be tricky in the centre so I recommend arriving early and/or finding a spot to leave your car away from the Old Town. There is secure (paid) parking available here.
What to wear & what to bring with you
- Most of your day in Mtskheta will be spent visiting religious monuments, so make sure you dress appropriately. For ease, I recommend you wear long pants and have covered shoulders. Ladies should also bring a scarf to cover their hair.
- Bring plenty of drinking water, especially if you’re travelling in summer. There are lots of small shops and markets in Mtskheta where you can buy drinks and snacks, but it’s best to bring a reusable drinking bottle and save on plastic waste.
- Bring small change for buying candles or making donations at the various churches and monasteries you visit. All the market stalls I’ve encountered in Mtskheta only accept cash. There are a couple of ATMs around if you need them, including one at the end of the market stalls in the Old Town.
10 best things to do in Mtskheta
If you’re travelling by car, you can quite comfortably visit all these Mtskheta landmarks in a day. At the end of the list you’ll find my suggested itinerary.
If you’re travelling by marshrutka or you have less time, stick to the monuments that are walking distance from the Old Town and hire a taxi to take you up to Jvari and back.
1. Jvari Monastery of Mtskheta
Jvari Monastery is the most famous landmark in Mtskheta and the perfect place to start your day. Perched atop a rocky cliff overlooking Mtskheta, it’s instantly recognisable as one of Georgia’s most striking Orthodox churches (along with Gergeti Trinity in Kazbegi).
Jvari dates back to the 6th century and is tied to the story of Saint Nino, one of Georgia’s patron saints and the woman responsible for spreading Christianity through this territory. As the story goes, this was the first place Saint Nino arrived after returning to Georgia from Armenia. Finding a pagan temple on this site, she erected a large cross – famously crafted from twisted grape vines fasted together with stands of her own hair – making this one of the country’s first Christian pilgrimage sites. The stone church was added later, between 590-605 AD.
The church building itself is important because it represents Early Medieval Georgian architecture and is the first ‘Jvari’-style church of its kind. But in all honesty it’s the view from the yard that I find most impressive.
The two rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi meet directly below the monastery and at certain times of year, you can see a distinct colour difference between the two waters. The city of Mtskheta and the giant Svetitskhoveli Cathedral can also be seen at the point where the rivers meet, framed by a backdrop of mountains. It’s said that King Mirian III and Queen Nana of Iberia – the first Georgian monarchs to embrace Christianity – were baptised by Saint Nino at the point where the rivers converge.
When it was constructed, Jvari had an underground tunnel network that led all the way down the hill and under the river to Svetitskhoveli. Under threat of invasion, monks would deliver the Holy Relics from the cathedral up to Jvari via the tunnel for safekeeping.
The underground passages extend to other important monasteries in the area – including Shio-Mgvime and Zedazeni. Along with Svetitskhoveli and St. John’s Monastery to the south, these five structures form a giant crucifix arrangement, with Jvari in the centre.
The tunnels are closed now but it’s hoped that with the help of UNESCO funding they can be restored in the near future. You can see the old door to the tunnel on the left-hand side of the main viewing platform.
Opening hours: Jvari is open from 10am, but the yard is accessible 24/7. I don’t think it’s mandatory to go inside the church (it’s very austere) – the exterior and views are what makes this place special. So don’t worry if you arrive before the doors are unlocked.
Get there: Take a taxi from the centre of Mtskheta for ~15-20 GEL per car round-trip. Drivers wait near the Tourism Information Office. In the summer months, there is an hourly tourist shuttle bus. Ask staff at the Tourism Office for details. It’s also possible to hike up to Jvari from Mtskheta – see here for detailed instructions.
Insider tip: Visit on a Sunday morning when mass is held to hear polyphonic chanting.
2. Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
The second-largest church in Georgia by volume after Sameba in Tbilisi, Svetitskhoveli sits at the heart of Old Mtskheta and is even more historically significant than Jvari. This is the ‘First Georgian Church’, erected on a spot chosen by Saint Nino herself. It houses dozens of precious relics, including (what is believed to be) Christ’s Mantle, a 4th century baptismal font, and a piece of cedar wood salvaged from the original structure.
Svetitskhoveli translates to ‘Church of the Living Pillar’. The scene of a cedar column being lifted into heaven is an image you’ll see on icons all around Georgia – and the place where the tree sprung from the earth is located right in the centre of the cathedral. I’ll leave the rest of the story for you to hear while you’re there.
Also look out for the zodiac frescoes on the cathedral’s eastern wall, and the many elaborate graves underfoot. Many of Georgia’s most important monarchs are buried here, including King Vakhtang Gorgasali, the founder of Tbilisi.
Note that there are currently repair works going on at Svetitskhoveli so part of the front facade is covered by scaffolding. Entry is still permitted via a side door.
The priest here is known for being extremely congenial and talkative – see if you can track him down for a quick chat!
Opening hours: Daily from 8am.
Get there: Svetitskhovel is located right in the centre of Mtskheta – you can spot it from anywhere in the city.
Insider tip: Visit on October 14 for the annual Svetitskhovloba festival.
3. Shio-Mgvime Monastery
Also perched atop a cliff, Shio-Mgvime sits 11km west of Mtskheta along the Mtkvari River. You’ll need a car to get here, but it’s well worth the extra effort to visit what once was the largest monastic community in Georgia – and to see some of the most vivid, detailed Orthodox frescoes I’ve ever witnessed.
Shio-Mgvime was founded by a monk named Shio, one of the 13 Assyrian Fathers who were sent to Georgia in the 6th century as Christian missionaries. Together, the monks established Zedazeni (which we’ll visit later) before going off in all directions to start their own orders. David Gareja is perhaps the most well-known of the group – he went on to found the famous cave monasteries near the Azerbaijan border.
According to the story, Father Shio was unsure where to start his own monastery and so placed a hot coal in the palm of his hand and let the direction of the smoke guide him. He was led to this site, where he established an elaborate system of caves capable of housing 2,200 monks. Shio himself retreated to a deep cave to live out his final 15 years in solitude.
After visiting the cave (now Shio’s mausoleum), wander the active monastery complex to see beautiful gardens (with olive trees brought to Georgia from Jerusalem) and two churches. The larger church is decorated with jaw-droppingly beautiful frescoes – don’t miss going inside.
Caves can still be seen dotted all over the cliff face that shields the complex.
Opening hours: Daily from 10am.
Get there: 20-minute drive (followed by a short uphill walk) from the centre of Mtskheta.
Insider tip: Buy a couple of candles at the small church shop here – they’re made from natural beeswax and smell like sweet honey.
4. Samtavros Convent
Back in the centre of Mtskheta and walking distance from Svetitskhoveli, Samtavros Convent is a chapel and active nunnery enclosed in a fortress-like wall. Established in the 4th century and at one point in history used by Saint Nino, the site falls under the UNESCO Protected Monuments.
Gabriel Urgebadze, better known as Saint Gabriel, is buried in the churchyard here. After setting fire to a Lenin banner during the Tbilisi May Day parade in 1965, the priest was committed and spent his final days at Samtavros. Inside the church, a stunning pink marble sarcophagus stands as a memorial to the Monk Saint, who was canonised in 2012.
King Mirian and Queen Nana are also buried at this church. You can see their twin stone sarcophagi housed in a small stone pavilion at the opposite corner of the church. Two exquisite glass and stone mosaics hang above the graves.
Opening hours: Daily from 9am.
Get there: 10-minute walk from Svetitskhoveli.
5. Mtskheta Antioch
This small 4th-century sandstone convent at the edge of the river is also associated with Saint Nino. Before you enter the tiny chapel, you’ll see four vivid overhead frescoes (painted in the 90s by Irakli Tsintsadze) that represent important chapters in her life, including the baptism of the king and queen and the founding of Svetitskhoveli.
Amazing views of Jvari can be found in the yard here and from the field just outside the gates. After your visit, you can wander down to the river’s edge.
Opening hours: Daily from 9am.
Get there: 5-minute walk from Svetitskhoveli.
6. Old Mtskheta
There are pedestrianised streets around Svetitskhoveli Square where vendors set up market stalls and souvenir shops. You can purchase snacks (churchkhela), spices, fresh juices and in winter, mulled wine here. This is a very touristy area so be aware that prices are high. As I mentioned, vendors only accept cash.
I don’t recommend buying any souvenirs here – most of the products you see are mass-produced. Save your pennies for the shops in Tbilisi instead. There are a few exceptions… We met a potter selling wonderful handmade ceramics from his house on the main road.
This area is worth a short wander to see the beautiful old houses with carved wooden balconies that line the streets.
7. Tree of Life mosaic
When I first visited Mtskheta back in 2017 renovations hadn’t yet started on this building. Now work looks to be (almost?) complete, and I’m so pleased to see that they’ve preserved the Soviet-era mosaic on the facade.
The Archaeological Museum hasn’t officially opened yet, but it’s worth pausing at the former cinema house to view the mosaic. Titled ‘Tree of Life’, it was completed in 1973 and depicts elements of Georgian culture, with a miniature Svetitskhoveli at the centre.
Get there: 5-minute walk from Svetitskhoveli (on the way to Samtavros Convent).
8. Bebristsikhe Fortress
The landscape around Georgia’s historic Kartli region is peppered with fortifications and crumbling citadels – a clue to the area’s strategic importance in medieval times. Bebristsikhe is one such fortress, located 2 kilometres from the centre of Mtskheta on the bank of the Aragvi river.
The once-grand castle has been reduced to ruins and desperately needs some TLC. Maybe one day it will receive the same treatment as Ujarma Fortress in Kakheti and re-open as a tourist site.
For now, you can climb up to the top via a steep path for a view of the river. Just watch your footing as there are loose rocks and a few sheer drops. The trail opens up from the main road and is signposted – you can’t miss it.
Get there: 20-minute walk from Samtavros Convent.
9. Zedazeni Monastery
The final monastery on this list is the most spectacular place to visit in Mtskheta – in my humble opinion. Zedazeni isn’t technically in Mtskheta city but in a forest in neighbouring Saguramo, around 35 kilometres east from Svetitskhoveli. If you’re in the area and you have a car, this is not one to miss.
Zedazeni was the starting place for the 13 Asyrian Fathers who established a monastery here on an old pagan site before they fanned out across the region. (Saint John, one of the Fathers, stayed behind to man the fort.) The monastery’s name comes from Zaden, the idol of fruitfulness, the pagan deity who was previously worshipped here.
Perched up high and fortified by stone walls, the site contains a small chapel, a monastery, and best of all a long ‘balcony’ with amazing views over both Tbilisi and Mtskheta. Even Svetitskhoveli looks tiny from up here!
The drive up through Tbilisi National Park is very beautiful and reminds me of driving through Sabaduri Forest or the Gombori Pass. Note that the final part of the road is a steep stone driveway, and you need to walk a short distance from the car park to reach the entrance.
Before you ascend to the monastery you’ll see a gigantic metal crucifix and a sprawling shrine made up of religious icons and posters. As far as I could gather this is a passion project by the families who live in the houses. You can support them (if you wish) by purchasing a candle or icon from the small shop.
Opening hours: Daily from 11am-7pm
Get there: 40-minute drive from the centre of Mtskheta.
10. Sunset in Mtskheta
If the timing is right, hang around in Mtskheta for sunset. The best vantage point is Jvari Monastery.
Friendly.ge offers a special Sunset Tour of Mtskheta that departs Tbilisi in the afternoon. Just select the ‘sunset tour’ option when you book.
If you’re self-driving, be extra cautious when driving down the mountain after dark.
Suggested Mtskheta day trip itinerary
- 8.30am: Depart Tbilisi
- 9am: Jvari Monastery
- 9.45am: Shio-Mgvime Monastery
- 10.45am: Svetitskoveli Cathedral
- 11.30am: Walk through the Old Town
- 12pm: Lunch
- 1.30pm: Mtskheta Antioch
- 2pm: Samtavro’s Convent
- 3pm: Museum of Mtskheta & Tree of Life mosaic
- 3.30pm: Bebristsikhe Fortress
- 4.30pm: Zedazeni Monastery
- 6pm: Leave to return to Tbilisi or head back to Jvari for sunset
Where to eat in Mtskheta: Best restaurants & cafes
- Ornament Express: This restaurant has the best views in Mtskheta, with a terrace that directly overlooks Svetitskhoveli. Food is fresh and tasty (I recommend the trout with grilled vegetables and pomegranate sauce). → Opening hours & info here.
- Restaurant Check-In Garden: I ate here on my first visit to Mtskheta. Classic Georgian fare, large portions and good prices. The location on the river is pleasant. → Opening hours & info here.
- House of Beans: This Tbilisi institution is located on the highway just outside Mtskheta. The thing to order here is lobio, beans cooked in a clay pot. At the front of the restaurant there’s a memorial fountain for Alexander Pushkin who stopped on this site when travelling around the region. → Opening hours & info here.
Extend your visit: Where to stay in Mtskheta
- Guest House Ebralidze: Centrally located behind Svetitskhoveli with simple rooms and a lovely garden area. → Check prices & availability on Booking.com.
- Hotel Bagineti: Mid-range hotel in the Old Town with comfortable rooms. → Check prices & availability on Booking.com.
- Sevsamora Resort & Spa: Georgia’s first fully accessible hotel, close to Mtskheta/Zedazeni and with a beautiful outdoor pool. → Check prices & availability.
- Chateau Mukhrani: A stunning historic house and winery located 30 minutes north-west of Mtskheta. → Check prices & availability.
- Jewelberry: One of Georgia’s favourite glamping resorts, located in Shuaguli – 25 minutes north of Mtskheta. → Check prices & availability on Booking.com.
Here is everything mentioned in my Mtskheta guide pinned on an interactive map. To save a copy of the map to your Google Drive for later, hit the star icon under the title.
There’s a lot more to discover in Mtskheta, including palaces, more monasteries and archaeological sites. If you can manage to visit these 10 attractions then you’ll come away with a good understanding of Georgia’s ancient capital, especially if you visit Mtskheta with a guide.
If you decide to book a day tour with my preferred partners at Friendly.ge, remember to use the discount code wanderlush to get 10% off.
Are you planning a Mtskheta day trip from Tbilisi? Feel free to leave any questions below and I’ll do my best to answer. If you have any more suggestions for Mtskheta, please share your thoughts!