The first time I visited Gori, I did what most tourists do – I spent most of my short stay inside the Stalin Museum and neglected the rest of the city. Little did I know, there are plenty of other things to do in Gori that have nothing to do with Stalin.
Second time around, I was determined to learn more about the city that’s overlooked or underestimated by most tourists. I budgeted three whole days for exploring Gori on foot and one afternoon, I enlisted the help of local guide, Zhana Odiashvili, to show me around.
Turns out there is indeed a Gori beyond the Stalin Museum… It’s a friendly, green city with fabulous old town architecture, a distinctive fortress, a vibrant local market, several important churches, and a synagogue.
There’s local cuisine to taste, breezy outdoor cafes to kick back in, and lots of opportunities to learn about other chapters in Gori’s history through alternative museums and street art.
Gori is just 1.5 hours’ by marshrutka from the capital, so you can easily visit on a day trip from Tbilisi. However, I think it’s worth spending at least one night here. As you’ll see, there’s plenty enough to keep you occupied for 2 full days, especially if you add a side trip to Uplistsikhe cave city.
I hope this list of 15 things to do in Gori will convince you to stay a little longer and explore Gori beyond the Stalin Museum!
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Gori is Georgia’s seventh-largest city by population and serves as the administrative capital for the Shida Kartli region. Located roughly halfway between Tbilisi and Kutaisi, it served as an important waypoint on east-west trading routes (including the Silk Road) for centuries.
The name ‘Gori’ comes from the Georgian word gora meaning ‘heap’ or ‘hill’. As you approach by road or train, you can immediately see where the inspiration for the moniker comes from: A huge flat-topped sandstone hill rises up from the pancake-flat plain in the centre of the city, not far from where the Mtkvari and Liakhvi rivers meet.
In medieval times, Gori was an important military stronghold. Gori Fortress, the city’s distinctive tiered castle, cascades down the hill’s north-western side, forming stone terraces and lookout points. It’s from here that soldiers attempted to deflect a succession of assaults unleashed by Mongol, Ottoman and Persian forces.
Gori also has an interesting contemporary history. In 1920, an earthquake struck near the city. Just as Gyumri in neighbouring Armenia was almost completely destroyed by tremors 60 years later, Gori’s centre was all but flattened. The fortress sustained significant damage and restorations are still underway.
Looking at the map of Georgia, you’ll notice that Gori sits uncomfortably close to the dotted line that designates the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone. Tskhinvali, capital of the South Ossetia breakaway republic, is less than an hour’s drive away.
In 2008, when the Russo-Georgian War unfolded, this put Gori directly in the firing line. The city came under attack from airstrikes and was occupied by ground troops. According to Human Rights Watch, scores of civilians were killed by cluster bombs. The so-called Five Day War left a massive scar on Gori (both physically and psychologically).
‘Border creep’ and the threat of gradual invasion still hangs like a cloud over this part of Georgia. Along with Abkhazia, South Ossetia constitutes the 20% of Georgia’s territory that is controlled by Russia. Needless to say, it’s strictly off-limits to tourists.
Its recent history might have been characterised by natural disasters, war and border conflict, but the Gori of today is a very beautiful little city indeed.
My enduring memories of Gori from my first visit in 2017 are of sun-drenched suburbs with wide streets and bountiful vines strung in front of each and every home.
On my return visit, the trellises weren’t heavy with wine grapes as I remembered, but in the process of being trimmed back in preparation for incoming spring weather.
Strolling through Gori’s peaceful streets, I always feel an overwhelming sense of ease.
There’s just one more thing to note about Gori. Both inside Georgia and around the world, the city is best known for being the birthplace of Ioseb Djugashvili, AKA Joseph Stalin. I’ll bet this is what first put Gori on your radar – indeed, it’s the reason I first wanted to visit.
Stalin was born in Gori in 1878, reportedly inside the small wooden cottage that now sits under a stone portico in the centre of the city. This monument is one part of the Stalin Museum complex, which also includes his private railway carriage and a two-story memorial hall dedicated to the Soviet leader, mostly covering the earliest chapters of his life in Gori.
There’s a still a cult of personality surrounding the former dictator, but it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone in Gori loves Stalin (far from it).
Stalin Museum, Stalin Park, Stalin Avenue – it’s difficult to avoid reminders of the dictator. But try not to let that colour your experience of Gori.
Should you visit the Stalin Museum?
While this post is all about things to do in Gori besides the Stalin Museum, that doesn’t mean I would discourage you from visiting. It is Gori’s main attraction, after all.
I still believe it’s worthwhile to see the museum, provided you take the guided tour (since there is so little information in English, it’s not worth it otherwise).
Just be aware of what you’re entering into, and know that the exhibits and the guides are quite biased towards portraying a rose-coloured-glasses version of history (well, that’s putting it mildly).
My tip: Don’t make this the first or only thing you do in Gori. Take some time to explore the city (using my tips below) and get a feel for the ‘real Gori’ before you go immersing yourself in the world of Stalin. Everything in balance.
If you do plan on visiting the State Museum of Joseph Stalin, here is my guide to the museum and some clues on what to expect from the guided tour.
Gori often gets billed as a ‘dark tourism’ destination, and I think that’s a huge shame. As you’ll see, there’s so much more to Gori than just its association with Stalin.
Where to stay in Gori
There aren’t many hotels in Gori, but there are plenty of homely, family run guesthouses set up in local homes to accommodate travellers.
Nitsa Guest House
My top choice in Gori is Nitsa Guest House. The location close to the Stalin Museum and centre of town is perfect. Rooms are cosy, shared bathrooms, kitchen and laundry are all spick and span, and there’s plenty of comfy common spaces to relax.
Most importantly, host Lia is a wonderful person who will absolutely overwhelm you with her generous hospitality and helpfulness. We stayed with Lia for 3 nights on our most recent visit and loved getting to know her (especially when she plied us with homemade wine and taught us a series of traditional Georgian dances!).
In the cooler months, ask for a room at the back of the house – these ones catch the afternoon sunlight. And definitely opt in for the traditional breakfast.
Nukri Guest House
The first time we visited Gori, we stayed at Nukri Guest House. It’s another solid choice, but the location across the river (near the Railway Station) is less desirable and requires a bit more walking to get into town.
The hosts, Nukri and his wife, speak Russian and Georgian – even if you can’t communicate, they are warm people who will go out of their way to ensure you have a good time. During our stay, Nukri gave us the grand tour of Gori in his Lada!
If you’re looking for something with a bit more privacy, Hotel Continental offers tidy self-contained apartments with kitchenettes and washing machines. The location 800m from the Stalin Museum is ideal.
I haven’t stayed here personally, but the hotel has high reviews from other guests (9.7 out of 10 on Booking.com).
15 awesome things to do in Gori, Georgia
For a city of its size, Gori has a lot to offer visitors. You can easily fill 2 slow-paced days with the activities listed below, more if you plan on exploring the surrounding countryside.
All of these places can be visited on foot with the exception of St. George’s Church, which is a bit far to walk and requires a car.
Here are all the best things to do in Gori, Georgia.
Join the Gori Free Walking Tour
If you want to get to the heart of Gori and experience a city few tourists take the time for, sign up for the Gori Free Walking Tour. It departs daily at 12 midday (advance bookings are recommended) and lasts for about 3 hours, visiting most of the city’s main attractions, including two alternative museums, the bazaar, and the fortress.
Free walking tours are typically reserved for larger cities like Tbilisi and Kutaisi, so it’s a real treat to be able to see Gori through a local’s eyes. This is a passion project (and a one-woman show) started by Zhana Odiashvili, who’s on a mission to show visitors that her home city had a history before (and after) Stalin.
Zhana knows everything there is to know about Gori, and no question is off limits.
One of the most interesting stories she told us was the one about the Stalin statue. Up until 2010, an imposing bronze statue of Stalin stood in front of Gori’s main government building. One night, at around 2am, it was torn from its plinth and relocated to a small village outside town.
Gori’s local communist party was furious and petitioned the state government (the ones responsible for moving the statue) to reinstate it. The response from Gori’s residents was mixed – some wanted to see the statue returned, others were glad to see the back of it.
The way Zhana tells the story, it’s obviously a motif for ongoing tensions in Gori.
Climb to the top of Gori Fortress
Gori’s most distinguishing landmark dates back to the 7th century when a fortified castle was built atop the city’s only hill. It was designed to house a garrison to safeguard the land and water trading routes that passed through the city. When the capital was being raided, kings Rostom of Kartli and Erekle II sought refuge here.
I had no idea that Gori was located on a tributary of the ancient Silk Road. Relics discovered during digs (and unearthed of their own accord in the 1920 earthquake) include Arabic coins from Gori’s days as an important trading post.
Some of these are now housed at the Ethnographical Museum.
The fortress has an unusual tiered profile quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The stone walls that spill down one side of Gori hill originally connected the castle directly to the river so that soldiers could source fresh water via a tunnel.
The best view of the castle is from the western side, standing in the park near the statue of Shota Rustaveli.
The city recently received funding to restore the Gori Fortress walls and construct an underground castle museum. It’s an ongoing project. For now, visitors can still hike up the hill to wander around the open castle green and climb the walls and turrets for wonderful city views. Some are crumbling and fenced off for safety, so take care and watch your step.
Entrance to Gori Fortress is free, and it’s open to visitors 24 hours, 7 days a week.
The Memorial of Georgian War Heroes
There are a number of different paths that wind their way up to Gori Fortress. On the eastern side of the hill, the pathway that starts behind the Church of the Holy Archangels features an interesting sculptural park at its foot.
The Memorial of Georgian War Heroes is the work of Georgian sculptor Giorgi Ochiauri. It was originally erected in the 1980s in Vake Park in Tbilisi before being relocated to Gori in 2009.
It consists of 8 larger-than-life soldiers arranged in a ring formation, each seated on a stone block. Some are limbless. One brandishes a partially shattered sword. Others are faceless, perhaps a tribute to the unknown solider.
None are whole; each one is broken in some way. It’s a stirring memorial to lives lost and forever changed by war, which is especially apt for Gori.
Admire the heritage architecture in Gori old town
I certainly wasn’t expecting to find heritage architecture in Gori, so I was taken aback when our guesthouse host, Lia, pointed out Gori old town on her city map.
Located at the southern end of the fortress, the old town takes in the cobbled parts of Kristopher Castel Street and Akaki Tsereteli Street. My favourite facade, the corner building on the right below, is located at 9 Akaki Tsereteli Street.
Here, you can wander through row upon row of beautiful houses and warehouse-like brick buildings. Admire the intricate patterns in the brickwork, the details of the aged wooden doors, and don’t forget to look up at the gorgeous Georgian-style latticed balconies.
A few of the buildings feature cupola windows along the roofline, similar to architecture I’ve seen in the Marjanishvili suburb of Tbilisi.
I wish I knew more about the area’s history and who sponsored the restorations (if you have any information, please let me know!). All I can tell you is that several dozen of the buildings have been recently refurbished inside and out, some turned into shopfronts.
Many sit vacant, but quite a few are being used as second-hand shops and sell pre-loved clothing and shoes. If you’re into rummaging for a bargain, this will probably be your idea of heaven.
Browse Gori bazaar
I’ve never met a market in the Caucasus I didn’t love. Gori’s sprawling fresh produce market stands up among the best and is every bit as interesting as Tbilisi’s Dezerter Bazaar or the GUM Market in Yerevan.
On our first walk around Gori, we stumbled on a flea market on the end of Kartli Street near the Public Services Hall. Here, vendors sell pretty hand-knitted socks and puri bread from the back of their vans. When we returned the next day with Zhana, she led us to the main part of the market, which is actually located on the opposite bank of the river and accessed via a metal bridge just off 26 May Embankment, near the Shota Rustaveli statue.
Gori’s bazaar is a maze of outdoor stalls selling spices, preserves, and all matter of fresh fruit and veg. One lady sold us the most succulent, delicious churchkhela I think I’ve ever tasted!
The undercover part of the market trades in beeswax candles and rounds of farm-fresh cheese. On the far left-hand wall, you’ll find Gori’s go-to pickle vendor. According to Zhana, her small mountains of brightly coloured cabbage, jonjoli and gherkins are unrivaled.
Grab an iced coffee on the avenue
A favourite pastime in Gori is grabbing an iced coffee (and maybe a slice of cake) on the main avenue. Cafes with French-inspired names (L’Avenue, Champs-Elysees) line the eastern side of the street, looking out over the long park that runs through the city centre.
Cafe 22 is my personal favourite. They serve great coffee and a good local breakfast, and there’s a pastry shop attached to the front of the cafe.
An interesting side note: A few years ago, Zhana was part of a group of young people who petitioned to have Gori’s main street (Stalin Avenue) renamed. They were unsuccessful. So for now, if you’re a Gori local, you still rendezvous with your friends on Stalin Avenue.
Check out Gori’s street art
There are a few intriguing street art pieces in Gori, including this mural by Tbilisi-based artist Gagosh. Taking up the entire side wall of a building on the corner of Chavchavadze Street and Stalin Ave, it shows a man and his granddaughter standing under an apple tree and looking out over a barbed-wire fence.
The artwork memorialises the ‘border creep’ that’s currently occurring north of Gori, whereby residents often wake up to find the boundary line that marks occupied South Ossetia has inched a little bit further into their backyard.
Further up the wall, the artist has painted an outline of Georgia and the words ‘The Price of Independence’. There’s also a tiny aircraft dropping shells. Notice that the painter’s canvas is riddled with real bullet holes left from the 2008 occupation.
Visit an alternative museum
Aside from the Stalin Museum, there are several other institutions in Gori that document lesser-known chapters of the city’s history.
The first is the Great Patriotic War Museum. Dedicated to WWII and the Red Army, it displays war medals, Nazi memorabilia, and artillery. The most interesting exhibit is a collection of photos taken in Gori during the so-called Five Day War. In the museum lobby, you can see what’s left of the cluster bomb that was dropped on Gori’s main square.
The second museum, the Gori Municipal Historical-Ethnograpic Museum (also known as the Sergi Makalatia Museum) houses a collection of coins, pottery, textiles and other relics salvaged from the fortress and found in the countryside around Gori. It’s worth paying the extra 5 GEL for an English-speaking guide to show you around the exhibits.
The Great Patriotic War Museum is open daily (except Mondays) from 10am until 5pm, and the Ethnographic Museum is open from 9.30am (closed Sundays and Mondays). Entrance to each costs a few lari.
Step inside Gori’s Virgin Mary Cathedral
Built in 1810 at the foot of the hill, Gori’s most important church was heavily damaged in the 1920 earthquake, but has since been restored. At dusk, the cupola shimmers on the city’s skyline.
The Virgin Mary Cathedral is a functioning Orthodox church, with daily masses and a constant stream of lone worshippers moving through the yard to light candles.
It’s worth popping in to see the interior, which is a lot brighter than most other Orthodox churches in Georgia. Vivid frescoes line every wall and are currently being restored.
Track down Gori’s secret synagogue
If you join Zhana for the Free Walking Tour, put in a special request to visit Gori Synagogue. You can only go inside as part of the tour and if you call ahead.
This is truly one of Gori’s most unique attractions. The tiny synagogue is hidden inside a suburban house on a quiet road beneath the fortress. Looking at the house and gate from the street, you would never guess what’s inside.
Georgian Jews have a long (2,600-year-plus) history, but with only a few thousand believers left in the country, the Jewish community is largely hidden from view.
Gori’s only Jewish assembly hall can accommodate up to 100 worshippers (interestingly, women sit separately from the men in an upper gallery). With no rabbi, members of the community take on the duties. No one can read or write Hebrew, so the Torah is written out phonetically in Georgian characters.
Underneath the house, there’s a second decommissioned synagogue with a much smaller hall. A piece of ancient-looking machinery used to make matzo bread sits forlornly in the corner, covered in cobwebs. This was once the epicentre of matzo bread production for the entire region, but the hand-operated machine has been out of commission for a while.
Speaking to a few members of the synagogue through Zhana, it seems the future of the prayer hall is unknown. It’s really quite remarkable that they’ve managed to keep it running for all these years without a rabbi – and inside a private residence, no less.
Drive (or hike) to St. George’s Church for a magnificent view
Perched 600 metres above the city on the opposite bank of the Mtkvari river, St. George’s is the most impressive house of worship in Gori.
The church itself is modest (and usually locked up anyway), but like Gergeti Trinity in Kazbegi, it’s all about the views. From the yard, you get an incredible 360-degree panorama of Gori and the river basin.
St. George’s was originally built in the 12th century but was razed by the Ottomans during an invasion. The 1920 earthquake wiped it off the map for a second time, then a third church, the one that endures today, was built in the 1980s.
It’s a revered site. Twice a year, locals make a pilgrimage up the hill to pay their respects to the nation’s patron, St. George.
To get there, you can either walk 5km from the centre of town (the final ascent is a steep incline up a totally exposed hill), or take a taxi from outside Chinebuli restaurant. Drivers charge 15 GEL to go up and back with a long pause at the top.
At the bottom of the hill, the village of Gorijvari is home to several sodium mineral water springs. In the season, you can stop off for a therapeutic bath!
Drop into Gori Railway Station
Gori’s railway station is an important hub on the cross-country line. Every day, dozens of Soviet-era locomotives chug through the station.
What makes this station famous, though, is the Stalin statue in the waiting room. Remember the statue that was removed from the front of the government building? Well, this isn’t it – but it’s one of many other Stalin effigies you can find around the city (there’s also one made from sandstone in front of the Stalin Museum).
The waiting room is now barricaded off with a big ‘NO ENTRY’ sign – probably to keep tourists like me out. You can snap a photo through the glass door if you wish.
While I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit Gori Railway Station, if you happen to be on the other side of the river, it’s worth a peek.
Try Gorian cutleti, a local specialty
If you’re not familiar with this meatball-like creation, it’s essentially a croquette made from minced beef and pork, flavoured with herbs and spices, and fried in oil. Gori cutleti are pointed at both ends and are served in large portions with mashed or fried potato and a delicious homemade spiced tomato sauce called pamidvris satsebeli on the side.
This is real comfort food – it’s spicy, oily, filling, and usually very cheap. If you’ve eaten at Bikentina’s Kebabery in Kutaisi, you’ll find many places in Gori have a similar no-frills ‘worker’s lunch’ feel.
The best Gori cutleti we ate was at გორის კატლეტი (translation: Gori Cutlet), a humble, dimly lit restaurant on Tsamebuli Street that specialises in the dish. Berikoni in the old town and Chinebuli, Gori’s most popular restaurant located opposite the Stalin Museum, also serve good cutleti.
Eat a home-cooked meal at Shin da Gori
Apart from cutleti joints, Gori has a few good Georgian restaurants that you should save some room for. Shin da Gori is absolutely my favourite – it has a really unique atmosphere.
The obscure location down a quiet suburban street makes it feel like a real hidden gem, although it was quite crowded with local families on the night we visited. In summer, you can sit in the outdoor area with an open view to the kitchen. In winter, there’s a cosy dining room furnished with beautiful antiques.
The ambiance is really special, particularly if there’s live music on. Food is hearty and home-cooked – we especially loved the barbecue pork (mtsvadi).
Catch a show at Eristavi Theater
When it opened, George Eristavi Gori State Drama Theater was the first professional theatre in all of Georgia. During the occupation, the theatre continued to stage Georgian language productions, thus playing an important role in keeping the culture alive.
Today, the theatre still hosts regular shows, including an annual comedy festival and a few contemporary productions (Zhana told us about one play where a German tourist and a guide at the Stalin Museum end up getting into a fight over the Soviet leader’s height).
If you’re interested in seeing a show, you can view the schedule on the theatre website (Georgian only) or just buy tickets directly from the theatre box office.
If there’s nothing on, it’s still worth going inside to see the interior, with its lime-green molding and plum seats (interestingly, the colour scheme mirrors the waiting room at the railway station). There’s also a small museum dedicated to the decorated actors and actresses who have graced the stage over the years.
BONUS: Take a side trip to Uplistsikhe Cave Town
I’m calling this a ‘bonus’ because it’s not technically located within Gori, but rather a short 20-minute drive from town.
Along with Vardzia and David Garjea Monastery, Uplistsikhe is one of several ‘Cave Towns’ in Georgia. At its peak, up to 20,000 people lived in the chambers hewn from the rocky cliff.
A taxi from Gori to Uplistsikhe and back costs around 30 GEL, including wait time. The complex is open daily from 10am, and entrance costs 7 GEL per person.
How to get to Gori from Tbilisi
Gori is connected to Tbilisi, Kutaisi and several other towns and cities in Georgia by marshrutka minivans. It’s also possible to get to Gori by rail, but I don’t recommend taking the train – this route is only for old Soviet trains that run incredibly slow and are quite uncomfortable.
Tbilisi to Gori by marshrutka
Marshrutka vans leave from Tbilisi’s Didube Station every 30-60 minutes starting from 7am until 8pm. Tickets cost 4 GEL, and the travel time is 1.5 hours.
In Gori, drivers will either drop you alongside the Stalin Museum in the centre of town, or at the bus station.
Tbilisi to Gori by taxi
Shared taxis also depart from Didube Station and can take you to Gori for 5 GEL per person.
If you prefer the comfort and safety of a private vehicle, a car and driver booked through GoTrip costs as little as $23.
Alternatively, a round-trip fare including Uplistsikhe costs just $25. If you want to visit both Gori and the cave city in a day, this is by far the most convenient option.
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).