Everything you need to know before you visit Akhaltsikhe – including the best things to do in Akhaltsikhe beyond Rabati Fortress, where to stay, eat, and how to get around.
Akhaltsikhe, the main hub in southern Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region, is best known for being home to Rabati Castle, the massive 12th-century fortification that gives the surrounding settlement (‘New Castle’ in Georgian) its name.
Beyond Rabati, Akhaltsikhe is a small city by any measure. But it’s still worthy of an overnight stay, longer if you want to use it as a base for exploring this part of Georgia.
A short walk through Akhaltsikhe will introduce you to a clutch of religious buildings representing every denomination, a compact and leafy downtown, cute backstreets, and a few nice restaurants. A large number of Armenian and Meskhetian families live in this area, making for an interesting cultural mix.
Whether you’re using it as a whistle-stop on your way around Georgia or as a departure point for crossing the Armenian border to Gyumri, here’s how to spend your time in Akhaltsikhe, including the best things to do in and around the city, where to stay, and where to eat.
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Akhaltsikhe day trip from Tbilisi
While this guide is mostly geared towards anyone planning to spend a day or two in Akhaltsikhe, it’s also possible to visit the city on an extended day trip from Tbilisi. Because of the distance and long drive time involved, I recommend joining a guided tour.
This private tour with Friendly.ge, my preferred day trip provider in Georgia, pairs Rabati Fortress with Vardzia Cave City and Borjomi. Prices start from 70 USD/person. Use the code wanderlush to get a 10% discount.
If you’re on a tight budget, you might prefer this group day tour, which starts from 39 USD/person. It follows a similar itinerary and includes round-trip transfers from Avlabari Metro Station in Tbilisi.
Where to stay in Akhaltsikhe
For a comfortable bed, a lavish breakfast spread and an ample dose of hospitality, I highly recommend Old Street. This guesthouse is located on the road up to the fortress and is footsteps from both the bus station and the main entrance to the castle. They can organise well-priced private transfers and day tours for you, handy if you plan on visiting the castles and caves around Akhaltsikhe.
I’ve stayed with this family on numerous occasions and they always find a way to help us out – whether it’s preparing breakfast the night before so we could eat before our early bus, or chaperoning us around the city on a Saturday morning while we looked for a mechanic to change our tire.
Rooms are extremely comfortable, and free parking is available onsite.
Things to do in Akhaltsikhe
1. Explore Rabati Castle
There’s no questioning what Akhaltsikhe’s main attraction is: The castle dominates the landscape. Rabati is a vast double-walled fortress complex that dates back to the 9th century (with most structures erected during the 12th century), a time when Akhaltsikhe was known as Lomsia.
The castle underwent extensive restorations in 2011-12, the results of which are quite impressive. There is a definite Disneyland-esque vibe to the place – but at the same time, it’s very grand.
Highlights include the Ahmediyye mosque with its glimmering golden dome – a fixture from the 1500s when the Ottomans took over Akhaltsikhe and made it the residence for the pasha. There are at least two bath houses outside the fortress walls, but they’ve both been reduced to ruins and are not really accessible.
The main fortress includes a tall flag tower that you can summit for a view over the complex and a trio of other observation towers. Wander through the gardens, across terraces, past pavilions and through alleyways formed by ivory-coloured arches, find towers reflected in shimmering shallow pools, and visit the church, madrasa and Meskhetian Oda house.
Other structures house remains of the medieval citadel – including a court, a treasury, an arsenal and a mint – and are signposted as such.
Archaeological finds from the area are displayed inside the Samtskhe-Javakheti History Museum along with stone carvings, weaponry and regional costumes.
Opening hours (fortress): 9am-6pm daily (upper fortress)
Opening hours (museum): 10am-6pm Tuesday to Sunday (closed Mondays)
Cost: 15 GEL
Tip: The lower part of the complex is free to visit, but the upper part (including the mosque, citadel and museum) requires a ticket. Be sure to pay at the desk when you first enter to avoid having to double back.
2. Get a castle view from Rabati St. Marine Church
Throughout its long history, Akhaltsikhe was always known as a place of ethnic and religious diversity – a reputation befitting its location at the crossroads of empires. This atmosphere endures today, and you can find synagogues, a mosque, Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches scattered around.
The first church to visit serves Georgian Orthodox worshippers. Perched high above the fortress on a winding backstreet, the main reason to make your way to St. Marine is for the views: From the back of the yard, you can look square onto the citadel fortification below.
Take a moment to pop inside to view the frescoes as well.
3. Get a city view from Surb Nshan Armenian Church
At the opposite end of town, Surb Nshan Armenian Church commands equally impressive views, this time of Akhaltsikhe city with the fortress as a subtle backdrop. You can see how the fortress walls melt into the rocky hills.
The interior of this church is more austere, but the facade with its multiple bell towers can be spotted from anywhere in the city.
4. Find Akhaltsikhe’s twin synagogues
With the mosque, Orthodox and Armenian churches accounted for, the final element in Akhaltsikhe’s quartet of religious edifices are its twin synagogues. In 1886, people of Jewish faith accounted for almost 20% of Akhaltsikhe’s population. Just like in Oni in Racha, most families have since moved away.
Akhaltsikhe’s main synagogue doesn’t have a large enough congregation to hold regular services – a Minyan calls for 10 men and there are only three living in the city. The caretaker will gladly open the door for you and show you the restored interior and the 500-year-old copy of the Torah kept inside.
A second synagogue is located across the street and is totally abandoned. You can sometimes find it unlocked.
5. Wander through new Akhaltsikhe
There are two parts to Akhaltsikhe: The old town around Rabati Fortress and the new part of the city on the opposite bank of the Potskhovistskali river. Cross the main bridge and you’ll find yourself in a small park facing a church and an imposing statue (more on that in a moment).
Though there’s nothing else of particular note to see on this side of town, if you have time, it’s nice to stroll the main road and pop down a few of the side streets.
You’ll find Armenian-style lavash shops, hatters, thrift stores and old-school barbers along the way.
6. Photograph Amaghleba Church
This new church, reconstructed in 2020, is the centrepiece of new Akhaltsikhe and the first thing you that commands your attention after crossing the bridge. The statue out front depicts Queen (King) Tamar, whose gaze is firmly fixed on the castle in the distance.
Visitors are welcome to enter the church through the portal and admire the icons of the beloved ‘girl king’ that decorate the altar. This church is dedicated to Tamar, whose reign predates the House of Akhaltsikhe, rulers of this territory from the 12th century.
Every May 14, Akhaltsikhe hosts Tamarob’s Day, a festival dedicated to the queen who ushered in Georgia’s Golden Age.
7. Eat Meskhetian cuisine
The Meskhetians are thought to have occupied historical Meskheti region (now known as Samtskhe) from as early as the 2nd millennium BCE. Many families in this part of Georgia identify as Meskhs, speaking their own dialect and observing their own cultural customs.
Meskhetian food is one of my favourite regional cuisines in Georgia. If you can find a local restaurant that specialises in Meskhetian (Old Bar is a great choice), be sure to order a few of the local dishes.
My favourites are Meskhetian Khinkali filled with either pumpkin or dried, salted beef and served with crispy shallots and/or garlic sauce, Meskhetian Khachapuri – an extra-crispy, layered cheese pie – and of course Tenili cheese (more on that later).
You can also find Meskhetian Khachapuri at Chveni restaurant in Tbilisi.
Some of the restaurants in Akhaltsikhe are owned by Armenian families, making this a good place to sample Armenian cuisine as well.
Things to do around Akhaltsikhe
8. Visit the 12 churches of Sapara Monastery
Sapara is an Orthodox monastery complex perched on a forested cliff 12km southeast of Akhaltsikhe. The buildings here date back to the 9th century, while the largest of the dozen churches, Saint Saba’s, was completed in the 13th century.
The complex was saved from destruction at the hands of Ottoman invaders because of its clandestine location. This makes it a bit tricky to get to from Akhaltsikhe – you’ll certainly need a car. Organise a driver through your guesthouse or take a taxi for around 20 GEL return.
9. Explore Vardzia Cave City
Georgia’s oldest monastic cave complex, Vardzia, lies 60km south of Akhaltsikhe and can be reached in a little over an hour by road. This place really needs no introduction: If you’re not familiar with Vardzia and its historical importance, you can find more information here in my visitor’s guide.
I recommend combining a day trip to Vardzia from Akhaltsikhe with stops at Khertvisi Fortress and Vanis Kvabebi. Old Street can organise a round-trip transfer with their trusted driver for around 70 GEL per car, or you can travel by marshrtuka. For more details, see my guide on how to get to Vardzia.
10. Visit the smaller caves at Vanis Kvabebi
Vanis Kvabebi is a much smaller cave complex compared to Vardzia (its appearance is closer to that of David Gareja in Kakheti), but the engineering required to sculpt living quarters from the sheer rock is no less impressive. The site is located quite high up so you need to do a bit of walking to reach the track that winds past the caves and church.
11. Drop by Khertvisi Fortress
Driving into Vardzia from Akhaltsikhe, you’ll have two opportunities to behold the 13th-century Khertvisi Fortress: Once from the opposite bank of the river, a vantage point that affords a breathtaking view of the entire fortress in profile, and again from directly below as you fly down the hill. From this angle you can clearly see how Khertvisi is roosted on a dramatic rocky perch overhanging the Mtkvari river.
The original fortress, built at this location in the 2nd century, is said to have been destroyed by Alexander the Great. I’ve never been inside the recently renovated complex – the view from outside is impressive enough – but if you’re passing by, you might like to stop in and scale the stairs and walls.
12. Cross the Wagon Bridge
If you’re travelling east after Vardzia, make a pit stop at the ‘Wagon Bridge’ just outside the city of Akhalkalaki. As the name suggests, this footbridge over the Paravani River is made from a disused railway carriage.
Somehow the wagon is the perfect length to span the narrow river and provide safe passage for anyone wanting to cross. It’s not so safe nowadays, though – large parts of the floor have rusted away, so best to behold this one from the safety of the river bed.
13. Star gaze at the observatory in Abastumani
The resort town of Abastumani, with its legendary Astrophysical Observatory, can be reached in under an hour by road from Akhaltsikhe, making it an alternative day trip option. The road up into the foothills of Borjomi National Park is paved and in pretty good condition save for a few obvious potholes.
Abastumani flourished in the 1880s after a member of the Russian imperial family sought treatment here for TB. A number of spas and later sanatoria were erected to accommodate the growing number of visitors who flocked to Abastumani to take advantage of the sulfur waters and fresh air.
Aristocratic families built gorgeous houses along the main street, many of which have recently been restored.
As well as roaming the charming town centre, you can ride the cable car up to the observatory – the first mountain-top observatory of its kind to be built in the Soviet Union and responsible for a number of important galactic discoveries – for a guided tour. It too was recently renovated and is currently undergoing further work to restore it to its former glory.
The easiest way to get to Abastumi is by taxi. When booked through Old Street, a transfer costs 40 GEL per car return.
14. Visit a Tenili cheese maker in Andriatsminda
Tenili cheese is just one in an atlas of artisanal cheeses that Georgia lays claim to. This one is special because it’s made according to a curious technique that involves heating cow’s milk curds and ‘pulling’ them until they turn into long, ultra-thin strands of cheese.
Tenili is a Meskhetian tradition and there are only a couple of families left in the area who still possess the knowledge to make it. I visited one such workshop in Andriatsminda, a tiny village 20 minutes from Akhaltsikhe behind Sapara Monastery. I recommend organising your visit through a guide.
Where to eat & drink in Akhaltsikhe: Best restaurants & cafes
- Mimino: My favourite restaurant in Akhaltsikhe. Friendly service and large portions of delicious Georgian food, with all the classics accounted for.
- Cafe Bar Furano: A cute outdoor cafe with colourful wall murals and plenty of outdoor seating. Ideal for an afternoon drink.
- Old Bar: Georgian fare and regional Meskhetian food.
- Kantora 19: A new cafe-bar serving cocktails and burgers.
- Saghighino: A popular gastro-bar opposite the train station. Popular with locals.
Akhaltsikhe travel map
How to get to Akhaltsikhe
With no active passenger train service to Akhaltsikhe, the only way to get to the city is by marshrutka van or private car. A handful of vans per day depart from Tbilisi’s Didube Station. Check times and fares locally.
A one-way transfer to Akhaltsikhe from Tbilisi with a driver starts from 47 USD per car when booked through GoTrip.
Vans to Akhaltsikhe from Borjomi and Kutaisi are more frequent.
Looking for a day tour to Akhalstike from Tbilisi? This private tour with Friendly.ge visits Rabati Fortress, Vardzia Cave City and Borjomi. Prices start from 70 USD/person. Use the code wanderlush to get a 10% discount.
→ Book your discounted day trip to Akhaltsikhe here.
Onward travel from Akhaltsikhe to Armenia or Turkey
Akhaltsikhe is a convenient place to stop if you’re travelling onwards to continue your Caucasus trip in Armenia or venturing to eastern Turkey. It helps that the Akhaltsikhe bus station is probably the most well-organised in all of Georgia. Times are fares are clearly posted inside the station building, and tickets can be purchased from the cashier in advance.
The Armenian border crossing at Ninotsminda-Bavra is roughly a 2-hour drive from Akhaltsikhe. There is one direct van to Gyumri from Akhaltsikhe and another direct van that goes all the way to Yerevan. Both depart from the bus station at 7am. Tickets can be purchased from the cash desk or from the driver.
The Turkish border crossing at Vale-Turkgozu is just 25 minutes by road from Akhaltsikhe. Vans depart for the border every 30-60 minutes, starting from 8.30am. From there, you’ll need to cross by foot then grab another van or taxi on the Turkish side.
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