Everything you need to know to plan your visit to Vardzia, Georgia’s oldest and most impressive cave city.
After pouring over photos for so long, finally seeing Vardzia in the flesh was every bit as magical as I expected. I’ve since been back several times in different seasons.
This Vardzia guide, updated for 2022, will help you make the most of your trip to Georgia’s famous cave city. If you have any further questions, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.
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Looking for the best Vardzia day trip from Tbilisi or Kutaisi? From Tbilisi, I recommend this private full-day tour with Friendly.ge. Use the promo code wanderlush at checkout and get 10% off. If you’re visiting Vardzia from Kutaisi, I recommend this group tour with Budget Georgia.
Inhabited since the Bronze Age and developed into a sophisticated monastic and defensive site between the 11th and 13th centuries, Vardzia is a massive complex of man-made caves hewn from a sheer rock wall. It teeters over the Kura river in the south-western part of Georgia, close to the Armenian border.
Vardzia was first conceived by King Giorgi III as a place where villagers could take shelter in the face of enemy raids. It was originally designed to accommodate up to 50,000 people for this purpose.
Vardzia flourished during the reign of Georgia’s only female monarch, King (or Queen) Tamar, who reimagined the complex as a self-sufficient city rather than just a place for temporary shelter.
Legend says the duo gave the site its name: Vardzia sounds like c var dzia, or ‘I am here, uncle’, a phrase apparently uttered by a young Tamar after she got lost in the caves.
Tamar, who is remembered in a rare wall fresco inside the chapel, even had her own room at Vardzia. But but she never lived here – a woman would not have been permitted to live inside the monastery – she only sheltered here once, along with other women and children, during a particularly vicious invasion.
A recent 3D-scan of the site revealed around 641 separate chambers spread over 13 levels, stretching for some 500 metres along the cliff face. Nestled deep in the belly of the rock, the caves are connected by a labyrinth of tunnels (some more than 150 metres long), staircases and terraces.
It’s huge – yet what you see today is just a tiny fraction of the original Vardzia.
At its zenith, the complex had more than 6,000 rooms on 19 levels that served all kinds of purposes – as sleeping quarters for the 200 resident monks, as defensive structures, chapels and apothecaries. There were at least 25 wine cellars plus a nunnery on the upper level.
In 1283, an earthquake destroyed most of the complex, shaving away half of the cliff to reveal the site’s inner workings. Ottoman invasions saw the caves and the precious manuscripts they held burned to a crisp, which is why most of the rock chambers are blackened inside.
Vardzia was completely abandoned in the 16th century and left untouched until excavations began in the Soviet era. In 1988, the monks moved back in. Today there are just three monks living at Vardzia.
Today, Vardzia is an active monastery, a popular Orthodox pilgrimage site, and one of Georgia’s must-see tourist attractions.
In 2021, Vardzia took out the European Union prize for cultural heritage.
Vardzia opening hours for 2022
Vardzia is open 7 days a week, including on Mondays and holidays. There are different opening hours for the summer and winter months, so take note of the schedule below when planning your visit.
- March 1–May 1: 10am until 6pm
- May 1–October 1: 10am until 7pm
- October 1–November 15: 10am until 6pm
- November 15–March 1: 10am until 5pm
Vardzia ticket price for 2022
Entrance to Vardzia costs 15 GEL.
If you want to take an electric car to the entrance (highly recommended), this will cost an additional 2 GEL per person. The audioguide (also recommended) costs 15 GEL, or you can hire a guide for an hour or so for 45 GEL.
The ticket booth accepts both cash (Georgian lari) and debit/credit card.
How to get to Vardzia
Vardzia is located in southern Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region, roughly 270 kilometres (4.5-5 hours by road) from Tbilisi or 60 kilometres (1.5-2 hours by road) from the nearest major city of Akhaltsikhe.
It’s possible to visit Vardzia as a day trip from Tbilisi or as a side trip from Kutaisi, Borjomi or Akhaltsikhe. There are plenty of accommodation options close to the complex and in the surrounding villages, so it’s also an option to spend the night nearby.
If your Georgia itinerary allows for it, I suggest arriving the night before, staying in a local guest house, then getting up early to visit the caves in the quieter morning hours.
Note that there are two Vardzias in Georgia! If you’re using Google Maps to navigate, be careful not to mistake the town of Vardzia near Zestafoni (Imereti) with the cave city Vardzia near Aspindza. The correct GPS location is marked here.
Getting to Vardzia with public transport (marshrutka)
There are a couple of direct vans between Tbilisi and Vardzia departing from Bus Station Nige (inside Didube) in the mid-morning. Another option is to change marshrutka vans in Akhaltsikhe. This is also an option if you’re coming from Batumi, Kutaisi or Borjomi.
While it’s technically possible to do a day trip to Vardzia using public transport in the summer months, it’s a very tight turnaround and you might only have an hour or so to explore the caves. On top of that, you won’t have time for any of the other attractions in the area such as Rabati Castle. For this reason, I highly recommend joining a day tour or hiring a private driver.
→ For detailed transport instructions including public transport from Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi and Akhaltsikhe, please see my Vardzia Transport Guide.
Tbilisi to Vardzia tour
Best option: Vardzia, Rabati and Borjomi private tour with Friendly.ge. This full-day (12-hour) day trip with my preferred tour company, Friendly.ge, visits the caves plus Rabati Fortress and Borjomi Central Park. Hotel transfer from Tbilisi and a private guide are included.
→ Book here via the website and use the promo code wanderlush for a 10% discount.
Budget option: Full-day tour of Vardzia, Rabati and Borjomi. This day trip with Gamarjoba Tours follows a similar itinerary but instead of having a private guide, you’ll be travelling with a small group. Hotel transfers are not included (instead, you rendezvous at a meeting point).
Flexible option: Private round-trip transfer with GoTrip. If you want to take things at your own pace, stop at the viewpoint and explore the surrounding area but you don’t want to join a tour, then I suggest hiring a private driver for the day via GoTrip. This is a door-to-door service, and you can stop for photos anywhere you want.
Kutaisi to Vardzia tour
Day trip: Budget Georgia, my favourite tour company in Kutaisi, offers small group day trips to Vardzia, Borjomi and Rabati Fortress departing from Kutaisi. Tours are available throughout the year (including in winter). Check prices and availability here on Viator.
Private transfer with GoTrip: Round-trip transfers to Borjomi, Rabati and Vardzia from Kutaisi are also available on GoTrip. Book a private driver here.
Driving to Vardzia
The main road to Vardzia from Akhaltsikhe was recently repaired. It is now completely sealed and very easy to manage in a regular sedan. I have driven it multiple times, including twice in a Prius.
If you have a 4WD, there is an alternative road into Vardzia that makes for a much more spectacular entrance. It originates in the village of Apnia, and winds its way down the Mtkvari River Canyon to approach Vardzia from the south.
Best time to visit Vardzia
Vardzia is busiest during the summer high season (late June through September). This is when you’re most likely to encounter large groups of tourists. It’s also very, very hot in summer. If you’re sensitive to the heat then I don’t recommend visiting during the summer months, especially not July or August.
For the best landscape colours and fewer crowds, I recommend visiting either in late spring (late April/May) or autumn (late September through October).
As an alternative, Vardzia looks very beautiful in winter when it’s wrapped in a blanket of snow. I assume the terrain is quite slippery when it’s icy and snowy so take this into account.
How long should you spend at Vardzia?
While you could speed through Vardzia in as little as 45 minutes, you should budget at least 2 hours to walk through the caves at a steady pace. If you opt for the audio guide, you’ll need around 3 hours.
When it’s crowded, there tends to be bottlenecks at the tunnels and the church, so it may take a little longer to get around.
What to wear to Vardzia
You’re going to be doing a fair amount of walking on uneven terrain, so it’s a good idea to wear decent walking shoes. Sun protection gear is also essential. If there’s even a slight chance of rain, bring a jacket and/or umbrella.
There is no strict dress code for Vardzia, but because it is an active monastery, it’s recommended to dress modestly (covered shoulders and knees). Signage at the entrance indicates that miniskirts and shorts are prohibited.
To enter the chapel inside Vardzia, men need to be wearing long pants and women a long skirt. If you’re wearing shorts, you might be denied entry to the church. Women must also cover their hair before entering. I recommend carrying your own lightweight scarf rather than using a communal one.
I recently revisited Vardzia in summer 2022 and the priest has apparently relaxed the rules considerably. Out of respect, I still recommend covering your hair and dressing conservatively.
Also read: My complete packing list for Georgia.
What to pack for Vardzia
You do not need your passport or ID card to buy tickets for Vardzia.
Walking around Vardzia is thirsty work, especially if you’re visiting in summer. There is a spring water fountain at the entrance to the caves (at the spot where the electric car drops you off) where you can fill up.
There are a couple of shops and a restaurant near the entrance to the caves, but it’s a good idea to bring your own snacks as well. There used to be an EthnoDesign shop near the ticket booth where you could purchase a souvenir, but it is permanently closed.
But don’t bring chewing gum!
Some websites mention a special ‘chewing gum tree’ at Vardzia where you can make a wish by sticking your gum to the trunk. The tree was removed years ago. Please don’t bring gum or leave any other trash in the area – use the bins provided.
6 quick Vardzia tips
1. Get there early, as soon as gates open
By afternoon, the sun dips over the valley, which makes the view back towards the bell tower a bit too glary. Organised tour groups tend to visit mid-morning, so try to arrive as soon as the ticket office opens if you want to avoid the crowds.
I have visited Vardzia three times now, always in the month of July. On my first two trips I had the complex almost all to myself. That’s because I arrived before gates opened and made sure I was the first person inside. By the time I was done walking through, other groups had started to arrive.
2. Say ‘yes’ to the optional electric car transfer
I highly recommend paying the extra 2 GEL to get driven in a golf cart from the ticket booth to the main entrance of the caves. This allows you to bypass the initial steep uphill climb to the entrance.
3. There is limited signage, so take a guide
If you’re visiting Vardzia independently, you have the option to hire a private guide for 45 GEL or an audio guide for 15 GEL. Since there isn’t any signage, I recommend taking the audio guide.
Tip: The audio device is quite loud so two people can easily share one audio guide between them.
Guides carry keys to a few ‘secret’ passages and caves that you can’t otherwise enter, but note that English-speaking guides might not always be available. As with many places in Georgia, most guides at Vardzia tend to follow a set script and talk very quickly.
4. Note that it’s a one-way route
The only way to see the complex is by following a marked, one-way walking route. You can double back or take a detour whenever you want, but try to see everything in order (following the numbered audio guide signs) to avoid getting lost.
Once you’re done, you exit on the opposite side of the complex via a long flight of partially covered stairs. At the bottom, there is a long, flat walking path that traces the entire length of the caves and takes you back down to the ticket booth and carpark.
5. Accessibility at Vardzia
Visiting Vardzia involves quite a bit of uphill walking and negotiating uneven stairs. There are pitched tunnels, steep paths, and some precarious ledges. Vardzia is not wheelchair accessible, and may not be suitable for anyone who’s generally unsteady on their feet.
Take extra care if you’re visiting with small children as some areas do not have railings.
6. Remember that Vardzia is an active monastery
Vardzia is a sacred site, so please treat it as such. You should refrain from talking loudly or running. You need to cover up when visiting the church (see more in the next section). Note that photography is prohibited inside the church but permitted everywhere else.
What to see at Vardzia
The Bell Tower
The first structure you come to as you enter the complex, the Bell Tower juts out from the cliff face and offers stunning views of the caves stretched out before you. It was constructed after the earthquake destroyed most of the complex. The heavy bell that once hung here was stolen during a Mongol invasion, along with gilded manuscripts and other treasures.
Church of the Dormition & Queen Tamar fresco
The spiritual centre of Vardzia, this stone chapel has a soaring 30-foot ceiling plastered with colourful Medieval frescoes. Most notably, the church interior features a painting of Queen Tamara – one of only three in Georgia, and the only one in the country where she is depicted as an unmarried woman without the customary headdress. You can also see faded frescoes on the church’s exterior.
Tears of Queen Tamara
This natural spring is hidden deep within the complex and accessible via a low tunnel. Water appears to seep from the rock walls, filling a deep pond drop by drop (hence the name).
The actual spring is blocked off with perspex. Pilgrims can fill their bottles with the healing holy water from a special container nearby.
One of the first cave chambers you come to on the path. You can clearly see bench seating carved from stone along the two opposing walls (the arrangement ensured that no monk had his back to another person). The rounded holes in the floor are the remains of bread ovens; the narrow channel was used to direct smoke from the wood fire.
Located on one of the upper levels and visible from the path, the apothecary was used to make and store tinctures. You can clearly see the little nook shelves hewn from the rock where the glass bottles must have sat.
The Museum of Medicine in Tbilisi has a great display dedicated to Vardzia and the herbal medicines of the era, including a recreation of the apothecary.
Vardzia had at least 25 wine cellars in its heyday, and you can still see the necks of clay amphora embedded in some of the stone floors.
Monks produced up to 80 tonnes of wine using grapes cultivated on steep terraces, a method traditional to this area. Much of the wine went to soldiers as they passed through the area on their way to the battlefront.
Vardzia had a sophisticated irrigation system to channel drinking water down to the lower levels. Remains of clay water pipes embedded in some of the walls are among the oldest relics at Vardzia, dating to the 12th century.
Where to get the best view of Vardzia
The intricacies of Vardzia are a treat to explore close-up, but it’s difficult to appreciate the sheer scale of the complex when you’re inside.
To get a good overview of the caves from afar, you should stop off at Vardzia Cavetown Viewpoint on the opposite bank of the river. It’s located just off the road that leads to the ticket booth. View the exact location here.
Visiting Vardzia at night
After hours, Vardzia is illuminated by a series of spotlights set in the river valley below. The complex looks pretty spectacular when it’s lit up – a good reason to stay overnight in Vardzia and pop back for a look after dinner.
You can photograph Vardzia after hours from the marked viewpoint mentioned above.
Where to eat at Vardzia
There are a number of cafes and restaurants located in the carpark at Vardzia. Admittedly I was skeptical at first, but I ended up having a great meal at Cafe Vardzia on the river.
I highly recommend ordering one of Meskhetian dishes on the menu (the Meskhetian Kada Khachapuri, an ultra crispy cheese pie brushed with ergo, or the Apokhti Khinkali, tiny dumplings filled with dried goose). The coffee here is great too, and the location overlooking the water is very pleasant.
Where to stay near Vardzia
Vardzia Resort (Vardzia)
A 3-minute drive or 30-minute walk from the Vardzia ticket booth, Vardzia Resort is a great option if you want to stay close to the caves. Rooms and common spaces are beautifully decorated with antique carpets and stone finishes. There’s an outdoor pool and bicycle hire available.
Valodias Cottages (Vardzia)
Located 3km downriver from the caves, this impressive agritourism business offers hotel rooms and cabins, plus delicious meals prepared from home-grown vegetables and herbs. The garden and terraced vineyards here are very impressive. They even have a trout farm! This is a great place to spend the night in close proximity to the caves (as long as you have your transport organised), or you can drop in for lunch or dinner (reservations essential).
Guest House Aleksandre (Tmogvi)
If you have your own car or you don’t mind staying a bit further out, Guest House Aleksandre is a beautiful little property in the village of Tmogvi, 6km north of Vardzia along the river.
Private rooms are very simple but cosy with ensuite bathrooms, plus there’s a terrace where home-cooked dinners and breakfasts are served. The back garden, with its hammocks strung between apple trees, is particularly nice. Aleksandre and his wife are very accommodating hosts.
Tirebi Farmhouse (Tmogvi)
Also in Tmogvi, this charming guesthouse was established in 2008 by local couple, Marina and Sergo. They have a Meskhetian oven that they use to prepare delicious local Khachapuri and Kada, a traditional sweet.
Guesthouse Old Street (Akhaltsikhe)
Comfortable rooms have en suites, and the complimentary breakfast is outstanding. Again, the family who runs this property is incredibly kind and gracious.
More things to see & do around Vardzia
Zeda Vardzia (Upper Vardzia) is an active convent located in the hills above the main Vardzia caves. The complex includes several beautiful stone buildings, rose gardens, and an apiary where the resident nuns make their own honey.
Zeda Vardzia is 3.5km or 15 minutes’ by car from the caves. To get there, drive west along the river and take the turn off towards Guest House Vania.
Vanis Kvabebi (Vani Caves)
Just 3.5km from Vardzia back towards Akhaltsikhe, Vanis Kvabebi is another (much smaller) cave complex set back from the river. It dates back to the 8th century, and includes a maze of tunnels that run through rock-cut caves on a sheer cliff wall.
Vanis Kvabebi has been closed for several years now due to the risk of rock fall. At the time of writing (summer 2022), it remains closed.
Gogirdis Abano (Apnia Sulfur Bath)
Located 1km downriver from Vardzia, the sulfur pool at Apnia is one of many natural hot springs in Georgia. It’s not quite as impressive as the geyser in Vani or the hot springs near Nokalakevi, but it’s still worth visiting if you’re in the area and want to have a local experience.
The springs are located alongside the river, down from the main road at this point. The big undercover swimming pool is housed inside a glorified concrete shed, fed by a steaming torrent of water. Facilities are very basic – nothing more than a few towel hooks! Entrance costs a couple of GEL.
One of the largest (and oldest) fortresses in Georgia, this castle sits at the confluence of the Paravani and Mtkvari rivers 16km north of Vardzia. Stop on the northern side of the main highway for a view of the walls towering over the river valley, then drive underneath to see the castle from the bottom up – this vantage point is really something else.
Further along the river in the village of Tmogvi, these castle ruins are set in a dramatic location high above the rocky river gorge. Nothing has been restored, but you can clamber over the walls (carefully!) and enjoy the views.
One of my favourite places in Samtskhe-Javakheti region, this incredible little village is located roughly halfway between Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia. It’s known for its megalithic cyclopean fortress, ancient church, and Meskhetian Oda houses.
A new hiking trail has just been marked here, making it easy to explore the ruins and the spectacular river canyon by foot. Find more information about Saro in my Akhaltsikhe guide, linked below.
Rabati Fortress & Akhaltsikhe
Along with the magnificent Rabati Fortress, the small city of Akhaltsikhe has a few other interesting churches and some great local restaurants. See my Akhaltsikhe city guide for details.
Guide to visiting Vardzia: Save it on Pinterest
Note: My first visit to Vardzia was part of a press trip with Karavanly. I have since revisited Vardzia twice independently.