Complete guide to visiting Pankisi Valley, the centre of the Kist community in Georgia and a unique cultural destination.
Located in Kakheti between the Greater Caucasus mountains and the Alazani Valley wine region, Pankisi Valley (or Pankisi Gorge) is one of the most visually spectacular and culturally unique places in Georgia.
After years living in the shadow of negative stereotypes perpetuated by the media, community-based tourism was introduced in 2007 – led by Nazy’s Guest House and the Valley Tourism & Development Association (PVTDA) – as a way for families to improve their livelihoods and change opinions about Pankisi.
Today, Pankisi is an overwhelmingly safe place to visit and one of the most rewarding travel experiences you can have in Georgia. Having visited several times for long periods and helping Nazy to extend her work, one of the most special places in Georgia and a place I recommend you visit.
In this guide, tips for visiting Pankisi and things to do in the valley and the surrounding area, including Kist cultural activities, local history and cuisine, hiking, horseback riding, and more.
Please note: This blog post is adapted from ‘The Pankisi Valley Travel Guide’, the first ever printed guide for Pankisi, which was created in 2021 in partnership with the PVTDA and USAID. You can pick up a hard copy of the guidebook at Nazy’s Guest House or download the PDF from the Pankisi Valley website.
Please note: This post contains affiliate links, meaning I may earn a commission if you make a purchase by clicking a link (at no extra cost to you). Learn more.
About Pankisi Valley
Pankisi Valley is a small community of a few thousand people in Eastern Georgia’s Kakheti region, roughly 130 kilometres north-east of Tbilisi.
The majority of families who live in the collection of villages scattered along the 10-kilometre-long valley are Kists, the descendants of Chechen settlers who migrated to Georgia between 1830 and 1870.
The Kists have their own language, cuisine and cultural customs, and follow Sunni Muslim traditions.
There are eight major settlements in the valley: Duisi, Jokolo, Birkiani, Dzibakhevi, Omalo, Dumasturi, Khalatsani and Tsinubani. The closest town is Akhmeta and the nearest city is Telavi, located 40 kilometres to the south-east.
Learn more about community tourism in Pankisi in my post about Nazy’s Guest House and the Association. Learn more about ecotourism in Georgia in this guide.
How to get to Pankisi from Tbilisi
Pankisi Valley is approximately 2.5-3 hours’ drive from Tbilisi via the Gombori Pass and Telavi. You can easily reach the valley by public transport or private car.
While it’s possible to visit as a day trip, I recommend spending at least one night (preferably two nights) in Pankisi, basing yourself at a local guesthouse in Jokolo.
Marshrutka vans to Pankisi depart from Ortachala Station in Tbilisi at 7.30am and 2.20pm daily. Travel time is roughly 3 hours, and the fare is ~10 GEL. Vans to Akhmeta and Telavi (the closest town/city to Pankisi) depart from the same station every 60 minutes or so from 8am. Tickets cost ~7 GEL. Once in Telavi or Akhmeta, you can easily find another van or taxi to take you the rest of the way to Jokolo or Duisi.
Alternatively, a private transfer to Jokolo from Tbilisi costs ~160 GEL per car when booked through GoTrip.
Your host in Pankisi can confirm van times and may be able to phone ahead to save you a seat. Returning from Pankisi to Tbilisi, ask your host to reserve your place on the marshrutka or to arrange a shared or private taxi.
Where to stay in Pankisi
Nazy’s Guest House in the village of Jokolo is the most established accommodation in Pankisi Valley. As well as providing accommodation and home-cooked meals, the Dakishvili family can assist with organising walking tours, horse riding, bike hire and other activities.
There are a number of other guesthouses around the valley in Jokolo, Duisi and beyond. Reservations can be made directly or through a booking platform such as Booking.com.
Things to do in Pankisi Valley for history & culture
Pankisi Valley is the only place in Georgia where visitors can observe and learn about Kist culture. Cultural monuments scattered around the valley recall the days of the early Chechen settlers, while new community programs ensure customs such as folk music, dance and feltmaking are preserved for the next generation.
1. Cultural Walking Tour
A Cultural Walking Tour with a local Kist guide is an ideal introduction to Pankisi and the area’s history. Itineraries typically cover several villages and key landmarks including the Old Mosque and the Ethnographic Museum. As well as getting to know the area, you’ll have a chance to hear about daily life in Pankisi from a local perspective.
Tours are available in four languages (including English and Russian) and can be tailored to your interests. This program supports young people from the community to improve their language skills and earn a living.
Half-day and full-day Cultural Walking Tours can be organised through Nazy’s Guest House.
2. Ethnographic Museum
Located in Duisi, the Pankisi Ethnographic Museum catalogues artefacts and objects gathered from around the valley. Displays include traditional instruments, woven carpets, feltwork and various antiques alongside tools, coins and other small objects of archaeological value.
The museum is curated and managed by Khaso Khangoshvili, a local historian and passionate guardian of Kist culture.
An appointment is required to visit the museum. Because there is limited signage, it’s advisable to visit with a local guide who can interpret the displays.
3. The Old Mosque in Duisi
Located off the main road in Duisi, the Old Mosque was constructed in 1902 and was the first mosque in the valley. It continues to function as an active place of worship for the Pankisi community. The mosque’s distinctive minaret features black and red bricks arranged in a decorative pattern.
If the gate is unlocked, visitors are welcome to enter the yard and view the minaret from the outside. On Friday mornings, visitors are welcome to sit in on the women’s Zikr ceremony.
4. Sufi Zikr Ceremony
Every Friday, women from around the valley gather at the Old Mosque in Duisi to perform Zikr, an ancient spiritual rite rooted in Sufi mysticism. Similar to the Whirling Dervishes in Turkey, the ritual sees participants move around in a circle at an ever-increasing pace while chanting, singing and clapping their hands.
Practiced by Muslim communities around the world, Zikr is a way to achieve unity with Allah. In Pankisi, many of the Sufi hymns and Nazms performed in Chechen language and Kist dialect call for peace and forgiveness and condemn violence.
There are two active Sufi sects in the valley today. Pankisi has special significance because it is the only place in the South Caucasus where women are permitted to perform Zikr in the mosque as men do.
A second Zikr ceremony performed by the Hadjists, a Sufi order established by Kunta Hadji Kishiev in the 19th century, takes place on Wednesdays at Melissa’s Guest House in Duisi.
Visitors are welcome to sit in on the Zikr ceremony. Please dress appropriately and ask for permission before taking photos. Inquire at your guesthouse for further details.
5. The New Mosque
Located on the main road in Duisi, the New Mosque is one of Pankisi Valley’s most recognisable landmarks. It was completed in 2002 and is constructed from red bricks with traditional minaret and half-crescent ornaments.
6. Duisi watchtower & other ruins
There are three stone watchtowers in the hills around Pankisi Valley. In the past, these were used to signal the threat of invasion by sending white and black smoke signals.
The ancient stone tower above Duisi is one of the most prominent landmarks in the valley. From the base of the tower, visitors get sweeping views of the fields and villages.
To get to the tower, follow the marked path that starts from the main road in Duisi.
Meanwhile, the foothills around Pankisi Valley are a treasure trove of ancient ruins including old stone houses, churches and monuments – some of which date back to the reign of Queen Tamara. Work to clean, restore and document these ruins is an ongoing project.
7. Amphitheatre & WWII Memorial
Located adjacent to the watchtower, the Amphitheatre and war Memorial sits on a ridge overlooking Duisi. The complex was built in 1985 to commemorate soldiers from Pankisi and Akhmeta who lost their lives in WWII.
The Amphitheatre is the centre of community life and is used for all kinds of events and celebrations, including Pankisoba, the biggest festival in the valley held during spring. Panoramic views of the entire valley can be found from the top, making it a must-visit.
8 Kist Cuisine
Kist cuisine combines Chechen and Georgian culinary traditions while making heavy use of locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables such as nettles, jonjoli and pumpkin. Hand-churned butter, homemade cheeses, creams and yogurts are all staples of Kist cuisine, and many households make their own bread from stone-ground maize.
Specialty dishes such as Chaabilgish (Chechen Khachapuri stuffed with pumpkin) and Zhizhig Galnash (dumpling-noodles with mutton) cannot be found anywhere else in Georgia.
Sample home cooking at your accommodation in Pankisi or inquire at Nazy’s Guest House about food tours and other gastronomic experiences.
9. Kisturi Beer
Kisturi Ludi (Kist beer) is a unique Georgian beverage made from highland fruits and wild herbs, including rose hip and black hawthorn. The ancient, all-natural fermented drink has a pleasant flavour and a Kombucha-like tang. In keeping with the area’s traditions, it is non-alcoholic.
In Pankisi’s Omalo village, Shengeli Toxosashvili runs the Kisturi Beer Brewery, offering tastings and tours of his small production facility. His beer is also served at Cafe Pankisi in Duisi and sold at some specialty grocers in Tbilisi, plus online through Soplidan.
10. Feltmaking & Kist handicrafts
Kist handicrafts such as feltmaking represent a continuation of Chechen traditions. In every village in Pankisi, you can find small home-workshops where artisans produce feltwork from sheep’s wool according to age-old techniques.
Felt is used for shepherds’ hats and coats, and more recently for decorative wall hangings and small souvenirs. Many designs feature Chechen and Kist symbols. At the Community Center in Duisi, children are taught feltwork and clay pottery as part of a program to keep Kist heritage crafts alive.
Zizi is Pankisi’s most famous artisan and has been practicing Chechen-style feltwork since the 1960s. Her home-studio in Duisi doubles as a small gift shop where visitors can observe the felting process and purchase handmade souvenirs.
11. St. George’s Church
Located in Jokolo near Nazy’s Guest House, St. George’s Church was consecrated in 1888 and served Pankisi’s Christian community for decades. Though no longer in use, the church is considered an important cultural monument and is maintained by the Kists out of respect for their Orthodox neighbours.
Thanks to donations from a local philanthropist, the church was recently refurbished and new icons were purchased for the humble, whitewashed interior of the chapel.
A local family cares for the church. Visitors are welcome to go inside – inquire with your guesthouse to get the keys.
12. Kist cemeteries
The valley’s most important cultural heritage monuments related to the Kists are burial grounds. The oldest, Jokolo’s first cemetery, was established by the original Chechen settlers. Some gravestones date back to the 1800s and carry inscriptions in both Arabic and Georgian. Islamic motifs such as the star and crescent moon can also be seen.
These cemeteries are currently under rehabilitation. Recently, a community project to erect a wire fence and re-assemble some of the damaged graves was completed, restoring this critical landmark to its former glory.
13. Heritage houses in Omalo & Dzibakhevi
Beautiful examples of traditional Kakhetian architecture can be found in Omalo village on the eastern bank of the river and in Dzibakhevi village at the north-western end of the valley. Here, solid timber houses are adorned with carved balconies, intricate lattice work and shushabandi ‘gallery’ windows along the top level.
This style of architecture is tailored for the climate and typical for the region. Other houses are built of heavy stones or brick. Though many of the oldest houses are abandoned, some are still attentively maintained by their current owners.
14. Vainakh Tower House
Vainakh tower houses date back to the 1st century AD and are found across Chechnya as well as in Tusheti. Similar to Svan towers in the north-western Caucasus, they were used for both military and residential purposes.
Pankisi’s very own Tower House was built by a local man in his backyard and is modelled on traditional Vainakh architecture. Visitors are welcome to climb the stairs to the top for sweeping views.
To arrange a visit to the Tower House, ask your guesthouse host to call ahead in advance.
Things to do in Pankisi for nature & adventure
Along with its cultural richness, another of Pankisi Valley’s greatest assets is its close proximity to nature. Some of Georgia’s most remote and pristine landscapes – including Batsara Nature Reserve and the Tusheti Protected Areas – are within reach of Pankisi.
15. Marked hiking trails & viewpoints
The recent addition of several marked trails has opened Pankisi Valley up to hikers. The popular circular route to Pankisi Fortress starts from Khalatsani village and runs for 4.6km round-trip, taking around 2.5 hours to complete.
Other hill trails lead visitors to open pastures, waterfalls and ancient ruins.
For an easy walk, hike up the hill to this viewpoint, known as the Duisi Panorama, for sunset.
16. Mountain biking
Mountain bike hire and guided biking tours are an alternative way to explore the hill tracks. Dedicated dirt biking routes are also under development.
Inquire at Nazy’s Guest House for daily bike hire rates or to arrange a guided bike tour with local operator, Zelimkhan.
17. Horseback riding in Pankisi
Horses are revered in Kist culture, thus Pankisi Valley is one of the best places in Georgia for horse riding. Expert guides offer single and multi-day horse trekking itineraries through Pankisi Adventure Treks. Safety gear and high-quality leather saddles are included.
Choose from short rides between villages in the valley, longer overnight treks into Batsara Nature Reserve, or multi-day itineraries that go all the way up to Tusheti.
18. The Alazani river
The wide river basin that runs through Pankisi has many rocky pathways that can be explored on mountain bike or foot. When the waters are high, fishing, kayaking and tyre-rafting are also available.
A favourite spot among Pankisi locals, the riverside area is a peaceful place for an afternoon stroll, bike ride or a picnic.
19. Batsara Nature Reserve
Batsara Nature Reserve sits at the north-western end of the valley and is home to one of the largest and oldest preserved groves of Yew trees in the world, covering more than 270 hectares in total.
Beech, hornbeam, maple, lime and oak tree forests are also found in this area, making it one of Georgia’s most unique and biodiverse landscapes.
Trips to Batsara Nature Reserve can be arranged through the Agency of Protected Areas.
20. Khadori waterfall
Located at the northern end of the valley beyond the last village, Khadori Waterfall is a towering rock-wall cascade with a small pool at the bottom. It can easily be reached on foot or by horse or car from Birkiani.
In 2001, a hydroelectricity plant was constructed in the area.
Located at the edge of Batsara Reserve, Tbatana is a scenic mountain plateau and lookout point that can be reached by bike, 4WD or on horseback. Sublime panoramic views of the Greater Caucasus and the Alazani Valley can be found here.
Local shepherds occupy mountain huts during the summer months (June to September), which is also the best time to go hiking in this area. Along the way, visitors can observe traditional cheese-making and other skills.
Tips for visiting Pankisi Valley
Pankisi Valley is one of the most intriguing places in Georgia and easily one of the country’s most rewarding travel experiences. If your Georgia itinerary allows, I suggest spending 2-3 full days in Pankisi.
Best time to visit Pankisi
The best time to visit Pankisi Valley is from May to November. The climate is similar to the southern Italian Alps, with mild springs, hot summers and short but cold winters.
Early spring (March and April) brings pleasant weather, while the month of May is warm and clear. The heat rises in summer (June-August), making this an ideal time for hiking and horseback riding in the mountains.
Autumn (September-November) sees the valley transform into a tapestry of fall colours. Winter (December-February) is cold and snowy.
Orientation & getting around Pankisi Valley
A central road runs through Pankisi, connecting the different villages. Public transport is limited, so the best way to get around is either on foot or by hiring a bicycle. Most major landmarks are within walking distance of Jokolo/Duisi.
Eating & drinking
Guesthouses serve breakfast, lunch and dinner on request and can cater to special dietary needs. Some guesthouses offer shared kitchen facilities that guests can use to cook their own food. Eating Chechen cuisine is one of the highlights of a trip to Pankisi, so be sure to take your host up on the offer of a home-cooked meal.
There are small shops in Pankisi where you can purchase basic groceries and snacks. Clean, fresh drinking water is readily available from springs all around the valley – don’t forget to pack your reusable drink bottle.
Note that most guesthouses are dry and do not serve alcohol or permit drinking on the premises.
ATMs & money
There is an ATM in Duisi, but it’s recommended to bring enough cash with you to cover your expenses. Guesthouses only accept cash.
Connection speeds in Pankisi can be slower than elsewhere in Georgia, but are sufficient for general internet use. All guesthouses provide free WIFI for guests.
Cultural etiquette, dress code & other tips
- To make the most of your visit, you should plan to spend at least 2-3 full days in Pankisi. This will give you ample time to see the area’s cultural and natural attractions.
- Traditional Zikr ceremonies take place at the Old Mosque on Friday mornings, so plan your trip accordingly if you wish to observe the ritual.
- There are shops and pharmacies in Pankisi where you can buy basic toiletries and medicines.
- A camping gear hire service is available from Nazy’s Guest House. When horse riding or dirt bike riding, safety helmets are provided.
- It’s advisable to dress conservatively when visiting Pankisi. Men should wear long pants and women should cover their shoulders and knees. Pack a light cotton scarf to cover your hair when entering the mosque.
- It’s polite to remove your shoes before entering a home. Most guesthouses provide slippers for guests.
- When taking photos of people, it’s advisable to seek permission first to avoid embarrassment. Always ask before you photograph a woman or child, and be sensitive when photographing places of worship.
- Please do not bring alcohol into the valley.
Are you planning a visit to Pankisi Valley? Do you have any questions? Please leave your comments below and I will do my best to help out.