Georgia is a mountainous country in the Caucasus - the area sandwiched between Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Despite of being a former republic of the Soviet Union, and having given birth to its most notorious leader, Joseph Stalin, Georgia is ethnically and culturally far removed from its Russian neighbour in the north.
Highlights: Spectacular nature, picturesque churches on hilltops, extreme hospitality, unique culture and language, their own cuisine and wine production, dilapidated but charming cities with a unique blend of architectures.
Georgia has a lot to offer the adventurous tourist, and the fact that the country remains relatively unknown in the west, enhances the feeling of adventure.
Apart from snowcapped mountains and beatiful churches, the Georgians themselves are one of the main reasons to visit. They are a heartwarmingly hospitable, chivalrous, and proud people. There's a sculpture leaning over the capital Tbilisi, called the mother of Georgia, perfectly summing up the national character: In one hand she has a glass of wine, welcoming visitors, and in the other a sword drawn to fight her enemies.
Places to see
Tbilisi is probably the capital city of the former Soviet Union that has kept the most of its historical atmosphere. Think narrow streets with leaning houses, mangled stairways, and balconies stretching out, sometimes supported by nothing but good faith.
In the west you'll find the Black Sea coastline, with Batumi being the main destination and resort. It is a pleasant enough city with pebble stone beaches, but with more of a modernized and touristic feel to it compared to the capital.
Kakheti is the wine producing region in the east, with Sighnaghi being the prettiest city.
The northern part of the country is where the mountains lie. There are three main destinations: the Svaneti area in the northwest, Stepantsminda in the central north, and the remote Tusheti region in the northeast.
There are also two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that are recognized as Georgian territory by most of the world. They are functioning as de-facto countries of their own, and we have chosen to treat them as such, since we are dealing with the practical aspects of travelling.
The territory of modern-day Georgia has a long and complicated history, and has seen wars with some of the worlds greatest empires.
The early days
In 4th century BC, the predecessor states of Golchis and Iberia unified to become a Georgian kingdom. In year 66 BC, as the Roman Empire expanded eastwards, Golchis was incorporated as one of its provinces, while Iberia became a vassal kingdom. Paying tribute to Rome was seen as a fair exchange for their protection, and they remained close allies for the next 400 years.
In the 4th century, the Roman woman Saint Nino started preaching Christianity around the kingdom. After helping the queen curing an illness, she convinced her to become a Christian, and in turn she was able to convince the king as well. In 337 AD, king Mirian declared Christianity to be the state religion, as the second nation in the world (after Armenia). The conversion gave the Gerogians a cultural push to the west, tying them to the neighbouring Eastern Roman Empire, and setting them on a different course than the Muslims in the area.
Because of its location on the crossroads between great empires, and protracted wars between the Romans and the Persians, the country slowly disintegrated into feudal regions. This made them a target for Muslim conquests, but even though Tbilisi was captured, the region retained considerable independence under their new rulers.
By the early 11th century, the Kingdom of Georgia had converged into a single realm again, much to the honour of King David IV, who centralized power, and effectively dealt with foreign threats, defeating large Turkish armies, and liberating Tbilisi. With his newfound status, he also started opposing the doctrines of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Three generations later saw the enthronement of King Tamar, the first female ruler of Georgia - a fact emphasized by her masculine title. She is still praised today as one of the most successful rulers in the nations history, pacifying internal tensions, abolishing torture and death penalties. Her close relationship with the military elite enabled her to fight off enemies, and you can still visit the destroyed cave-city of Vardzia where she adressed her troops marching off to fight the Turks.
Tamar was married to a prince of the Kyivian Rus, but divorced an expelled him after he participated in a coup attempt. She chose herself a new prince from the North Caucasus, and had a boy and a girl, both of which succeded her as monarchs of Georgia.
The end of her reign marked the beginning of a gradual decline, due to persistent Mongol invasions, and the spread of the Black Death. After the Eastern Roman Empire disintegrated, Georgia became an isolated Christian enclave surrounded by hostile neighbours. From the 16th to 18th century, the Ottoman Empire and Iran ate away at Georgia from both sides.
The Georgians were seeking aid from Westen European powers as early as the 15th century, but didn't get the help they were hoping for. Facing powerful enemies, they were left with no choice but to align themselves with the Russian Emprie.
The Empire arrives
In 1783, the eastern Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti signed a treaty recognizing it as a protectorate of Russia. Despite of these events, the Iranians invaded and sacked Tbilisi in 1795. A punitive campaing was launched back only the next year, and a period of fighting culminated in the 1801 Russian annexation of eastern Georgia. The western part of Georgia tried to restore their neighbours autonomy through diplomacy, but was invaded from within, and became a Russian vassal state by 1804. Behind the scenes, the leader tried to negotiate protection from the Ottoman Emprie, but he was dethroned in the end, and the region had to pledge allegiance to the Russian tsar.
Despite of having a shared religion, and similar systems of land-owning aristocrats and serfs, it was not until the mid-19th century that tensions died down, and Georgia became a more integrated part of the Empire.
German and British protection (1918-1920)
After the communists took power in Russia in 1917, several of the outlying territories declared their independence, resulting in a string of civil wars. Georgia was proclaimed as a republic in 1918, and ruled by the Menshevik faction of the Social Democratic Party. They were recognized by major Western powers, and even Soviet Russia, but to secure their independence, they became a protectorate of the German Emprie, a short-lived but fairly successful partnership.
After the German defeat in World War I, they had to retreat from Georgia, and they were replaced by British protection and influence. The British involvement was mainly focused on keeping Russia away from the oil fields near Baku, and less conserned about the internal affairs of the country. As a result, they were less liked than the Germans, but still viewed as a stabilizing force.
Georgia and the Soviet Union
After signing a controversial treaty with Russia, Britain withdrew from Georgia in 1920. Soon after, the Red Army attacked, and on 25 February 1921 they entered Tbilisi, and installed a government loyal to Moscow.
The opposition was successfully suppressed, and Georgia was incorporated into the Transcaucasian SFSR together with Armenia and Azerbaijan, before it was separated into the Georgian SSR in 1936.
One of the most prominent figures among the Russian Bolsheviks was Joseph Stalin, an ethnic Georgian from Gori. He rose to the highest positing, ruling the Soviet Union with an iron fist between 1922 and 1953.
During World War II, almost 700,000 Georgians fought in the Red Army, and about half of them died on the battlefields of the Eastern Front.
When the winds of change started shaking the USSR in the late 80's, a peaceful anti-Soviet demonstration in Tbilisi ended in tragedy, with several participants being shot by Soviet troops. These kind of events helped the anticommunits faction Free Georgia to surge to victory, when the first multi-party elections were held in the Soviet Union in 1990. They won by a clear margin, receiving more than twice the number of seats than the ruling Communist Party did.
Georgia declared their independence on 9 April 1991, shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed. The first president, Gamsakhurdia, was a nationalist, vowing to assert authority over the former autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He was however deposed in a coup, resulting in a bitter civil war, lasting until 1994. Georgias former Soviet Minister of Foreing Affairs, Eduard Shevardnadze, was part of that coup, and in 1995 he was elected president of Georgia.
In the meantime Abkhazia and South Ossetia had fought violent wars and achieved de facto independence with Russian support. Their fight for independence resulted in ethnic cleansing of Georgians on a massive scale, and more than 200,000 people had to flee Abkhazia.
Shevardnadze was re-elected in 2000, but after allegations of fraud, he was deposed from power in the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003. The revolution was spearhaded by pro-western Mikheil Saakashvili, a former member of Shevardnadze's ruling party, and he was elected President of Georgia in 2004.
Following the revolution, a series of reforms were launched, to stabilize the country's army and its economy. The new president successfully reasserted authority in the southwestern region of Ajaria, that was on the brink of becoming a new breakaway region. He also intensified efforts in South Ossetia, but without success. Combined with accusations of Georgian inolvement in the Chechen War, the relations with Russia started to deteriorate, but despite difficulties, they signed a bilateral agreement where the Russians agreed to vacate Soviet military bases on Georgian territory.
War with Russia
In 2008, tensions again escalated in South Ossetia, with several exchanges of hostilities. On 1 August, separatist began shelling Georgian villages, and the Georgian troops responded. On 7 August, president Saakashvili announced a unilateral ceasifire and a no-response order, but the attacks on Georgian villages intensified, forcing the Georgian troops towards Tskhinvali, the regions capital. On the other side of the montainous northern border, parts of the Russian army were already staged for attack.
The Georgians reached the centre of Tshkinvali on the morning of 8 August. At that point Russia accused Georgia of "aggression", and under the guise of a peacekeeping operation, they sent in their forces. Within five days, South Ossetia was retaken, and military infrastructure across Georgia was hit by air strikes. At the same time, forces in Abkhazia opened a second front, attacking a gorge still held by Georgia. The Georgian coast was blockaded, and several cities where occupied.
The same kind of ethinc cleansing that had happened in Abkhazia now took place in South Ossetia, and even though many of them were able to return to their homes after the war ended, thousands of Georgians remain displaced. A ceasefire agreement was negotated on 12 August, and the Russian forces started to pull out again on 17 August.
In the aftermath of the war, Russia gave its recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia as separate republics. In retaliation, Georgia severed all diplomatic relations, but the relationship has slowly but steadily normalized in the years since.
The legacy of Saakashvili
Saakashvili has been, and continues to be a divisive figure in Georgia. In 2012 he admitted his party's defeat at the general election, and the government has since taken big steps in distancing itself from him. He is now facing criminal charges in Georgia, some say politically motivated, and he has been living in exile since leaving the presidency. In 2015 he was appointed as the mayor of Odessa, Ukraine.
The critics tend to focus on his authorative way of rule, and while even his closests allies would probably tend to agree, he is also lauded for some of his achievments during his tenure as president. The most visible change is in law enforcement, where he virtually eliminated low-level corruption, while stabilizing several of the countries regions. This was achieved by launching agressive reforms, and firing the entire traffic police force. Massive construction projects were started in Tbilisi, and language education made a dramatic shift towards English, effectively replacing Russian as the second language.
The current government has continued the path leading westwards, but with more pragmatism towards its neighbour in the north. They have however been accused of lacking the enthusiasm and drive that was seen during the Saakashvili years.
Georgians are ethnically unique from the nations surrounding them, and there are only speculative theories linking them with other peoples. The people are split between the majority Kartveli group, and ethnic subgroups with different but related languages.
The three core pillars of the Georgian mentality are hospitaly, chivalry and codes of personal honour. There is a Georgian proverb, "Every guest is God-sent", and they truly live up it. If you're invited to go somewhere, it can be almost impossible to pay for anything, and even raising the subject can be seen as offensive. If you're invited to a private home for dinner, it can be a good idea to bring a bottle of wine, or some sweets.
The Georgians are heavy drinkers, and will often drink full wine glasses like shots. The oldest evidence of wine production worldwide was found in Georgia, 8000-year old wine jars, showing that the current affection has deep roots.
Orthodox Christianity is the main religion in Georgia, and plays a significant role in their culture. You'll ofte see people crossing themselves several times when they walk or drive past a church, and these gestures are observed by young and elders alike. There is also a muslim minorty, predominantly in the regions close to the Turkish and Azerbaijani borders. If you're visiting a religios building, dress conservatively, and avoid shorts and sleeveless shirts. Women are required to war a head cover, and a skirt, sometimes provided by the entrance.
Despite of the hostilities between Gerogia and Russians, most Georgians will be respectful also towards Russian tourists. You should however be careful with discussing politics, in particular the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgian is the only official language in Georgia. The second most spoken language is Russian, with the majority of the population able to participate in simple conversations. Since the Rose Revolution, education has focused heavily on English, and it seems poised to take over as the second language on the long term. The knowledge of English still has a long way to go, but you should be able to find people of the younger generation with a reasonable command. In Tbilisi the situation is slightly better than the rest of the country.
The Georgian language
Georgian is a member of the Kartvelian language group, sometimes just referred to as Georgian languages. This makes the group completely isolated and distinct from any other known languages.
The language is heavy on consonants, and with a lot of gutteral sounds, outsiders often compare the way it sounds to Arabic.
The Georgian alphabet is beautiful, but unintelligible for most people, potentially causing confusion in restaurants and shops. In function it's easy enough to learn, and many letters correspond to similar sounds letter/sound-combinations in European languages. The letters are however often similar in appearance, and it can take some training to be able to distinguish them. The Georgian name of their language, Kartuli, is written like this: ქართული.
An interesting fact is that the modern version of the Georgian alphabet has no concept of capital letters.
When Georgians meet, it's customary to greet each other with a friendly "Gamarjoba". Often translated simply as "hello", the literal meaning is "victory to you", revealing a whole lot about their troubled history in a simple word. The proper response is "Gagimarjos", which translates as "may you be victorious".
Learning only a few phrases is likely to put a big smile on the people you meet - Georgians take immense pride in their culture and their language.
The Georgian currency is lari, and one lari corresponds to 100 tetri. The official abbreviation is GEL.
ATMs are available in most cities, and most of them accept foreign cards, but we always recommend you to carry a bit of emergency cash, just in case.
If you want to exchange money in a bank, they are likely to ask for your passport / ID, while the smaller money changer booths generally don't care about such formalities.
Tipping in Georgia is uncommon, but in some places, including most restaurants and cafes in Tbilisi, a service charge of 10-18% will be added to the menu prices. This is normally noted somewhere in the menu.
All nationals of the European Union / EEA and a long list of other countries can visit Georgia for a full year without a visa.
If your country is not on the list, you can apply for a visa online. African and Asian nationals (except East Timor) are issued with multiple-entry visas valid for 30 days in a 120-day period. For others, the visa is valid for 90 days in a 180-day period.
The following countries can visit Georgia visa-free for a full year, or the amount of time specified in parantheses:
All EU citizens (may also enter using ID card)
Antigua and Barbuda
Bosnia and Herzegovina
British Virgin Islands
Chile (90 days)
Iran (45 days)
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Turkey (may also enter using ID card)
Turks and Caicos Islands
United Arab Emirates
Uruguay (90 days)
For more details, check the Wikipedia article about the Visa policy of Georgia.
Georgia is generally safe for travellers, with more caution necessary in the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. To minimize the risk of a robbery, you should avoid flashing wealth and wearing eye-catching jewellery.
Corruption has become almost invisible after the Rose Revolution, and is not something you are likely to encounter as a tourist. The police is generally trustworthy, and likely to help you in the case of trouble.
Seat belts are mandatory when driving, and radars are installed at many junctions and highways around the country. Despite of this, the Georgians are aggressive drivers, and walking across the road can sometimes be frightening, even on the zebra crossings. Somewhat surprisingly, the traffic related deaths per inhabitant are only about 20% above the European average.
Travel to Abkhazia and South Ossetia is often adviced against by western governments. The reasons are mainly that they don't recognize their breakaway status, and that they have no diplomatic presence on the ground. While these areas are slightly more wild in nature, you are not likely to encounter any trouble as long as you take your precautions. Abkhazia is considered safer than South Ossetia.
Georgian men are very chivalrous, and when taking interest in a woman, they can be more pushy than people from western cultures are used to. Staying in a group with men will make uncomfortable situations less likely to occur.
The emergency number 112 unifies three different services in Georgia: patrol police, fire/rescue and medical services.
Tbilisi has decent medical facilities, but outside the city, they can be limited. Make sure you have valid travel insurance, and funds to cover costs you will have to get refunded. 112 is the emergency number for police and medical services.
Venomous snakes are common, particularly in early summer.
Bottled water is widely available, and we don't recommend drinking tap water unless it's boiled.
Georgia's calling code is +995, and the network uses GSM (900/1800 Mhz).
The main providers are Geocell (external link), Magti (external link), and BeeLine (external link). Cell coverage is generally good in non-mountainous areas, while the 3G coverage is centered around the cities.
SIM cards can be purchased at the offices of mobile operators and in supermarkets. Geocell cards are free, but the shops often charge you 1-5 GEL in spite of this. You might have to show your passport when purchasing. Calling within Georgia costs about 0.2 GEL/min. You can top up your SIM card balance at most shops that sell them, and at Pay Boxes (orange machines situated all over the cities).
To buy a data package for a Geocell card, your first need to top up your card, then dial *135#, to access the menu for purchases. Some of the options are 500 MB for 3 GEL, and 2 GB for 7 GEL (June 2016).
The land-based internet connections are generally very fast in bigger cities, and many restaurants and places of accomodation offer free Wi-Fi.
You'll find internet cafés in major cities.
As tourism is increasing, the number of hotels and guesthouses in Georgia is growing year by year. You'll also find lots of homestays in the mountain areas, and in villages.
The more luxurious offerings generally provide far less value than the budget options, with resorts often charging European prices for a far lower standard.
There are international airports in Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi, train connections to Armenia and Azerbaijan, international ports in Poti and Batumi, and open road borders with Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, and the breakaway republic of Abkhazia.
For domestic travel, minibuses are the cheapest and most efficient option for most destinations. Travel by train is a good option between Batumi-Kutaisi-Tbilisi.
Take notice that if you enter the breakaway republics, you need to exit through the same border. If you cross through Abkhazia from Russia, and continue into Georgia proper, you will find yourself in trouble. From the persepective of the Georgian border guards, you will have entered the country illegally.
The public transport is good enough, and the traffic conditions are bad enough, that the average traveller will be better off in the passenger seat.
Taxis are readily available, and fairly cheap in most cities. In addition to the official taxis, you can flag down normal cars from the street by putting your hand out towards the street palm down, in a waving motion. Unless the driver puts on the meter, it is a good idea to agree on a price before you get in.
Hitchhiking in Georgia is an easy and fun way of traveling. People are friendly, and you normally don't have to wait long for a ride (except for in the mountain regions). The police is more likely to give you a ride, than to bother you, even if you're hitchhiking on the highways.
There are three international airports in Georgia: Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi.
The only budget airline that serves Georgia is Wizzair, with flights to Kutaisi from a handful of European destinations. Apart from that, most of the cheaper connections go through Ukraine and Russia.
There are few domestic flights within Georgia, but there is a small company offering flights from Tbilisi and Kutaisi to Mestia at times.
There is a direct bus connection between Istanbul and Tbilisi, with several stops along the way. There are also non-stop services to Baku.
Minibuses also criss-cross the borders from Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Iran.
Local minibuses, also known as marshrutkas, connect most cities and towns in Georgia, and also operate within the cities. Their signs are often written in Georgian only, so unless you know the route number, you might have to ask around to find the one you need. Marshrutkas can generally be stopped anywhere, and you can flag one down by holding your hand out in the street palm down.
A bike can be a wonderful way to get around the country, and really take in the nature. It is however a hilly experience, and many of the roads are unpaved.
There are ferries crossing the Black Sea from Batumi and Poti to Odessa (Ukraine) and Varna (Bulgaria).
There are night trains departing Tbilisi for Baku (Azerbaijan) and Yerevan (Armenia). A train connection to the Turkish city of Kars is being constructed, and is after many delays scheduled for opening in 2017. In summer there is a train from Yerevan (Armenia) to Batumi.
You can travel through big parts of Georgia by train, but they are generally much slower than minibuses. If you like the mode of transport, it's still a decent alternative between Tbilisi and the Black Sea.
The express trains have toilets, Wi-Fi (although it doesn't always work very well) and coffee machines. Reserve your seats in advance, particularly during weekends.
Food and drinksSources
The Georgian cuisine is very famous in other countries of the former USSR, and you will find many Georgian restaurants in places like Russia. The cuisine is heavy on bread and vegetables, with several options for vegatarians in most restaurants.
- Kchachapuri is one of the main staples of the Georgian cuisine. A bread filled with cheese, eggs, vegetables or meat. Found at almost any place that sells food.
- Khinkali is type of dumpling, normally filled with potatoes, cheese, mushrooms or meat. You eat them by grabbing the nexus at the top, which is normally left aside on the plate. You'll often see Georgian men eat these by the dozens.
- For a refreshing appetizer, try Badrijani, a dish of sliced eggplants with walnut paste.
- Lobio is a dish of prepared beans with coriander, garlic, walnuts and onion, normally served in a ceramic pot.
- Mtsvadi, also known as Shashlik, is a popular dish all over Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It consist of pieces of meat, most commonly pork, grilled on a skewer.
- Churchkhela is a sausage-shaped candy, made of nuts strung on a thread and dipped in a grape juice. They are often found at stalls in market places, but quality and taste varies widely between vendors.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are cheap, and you'll find lots of fresh produce in local markets. For a quick snack, you can buy pastries and bread wiht different fillings at very low cost in small shops around the cities.
If you are lucky enough to be invited for dinner at at someone's home, you might expand your culinary horizons futher. While most restaurants stick to a set of preselected items, the cuisine has far wider range, and you might end up trying a whole new set of dishes for your very first time.
When Georgians organize a feast, also called a "supra", the table will generally be covered with different dishes, and the hosts will often be happy to stuff their guests with as much food as they can afford, while toasting repeatedly in wine or brandy.
Georgian wine, while remaining relatively unknown in the West, is highly regarded in the former Soviet Union. It comes in all varieties, but generally seems to be sweeter in taste than its West-European counterparts. Saperavi is one of the more famous grape varieties produced.
If you feel like going wild, have a crack at the chacha, a fruit-based liquor similar to Italian grappa, often home made. It's normally made from the grape residue left after making wine, and has an alcohol percentage ranging between 40 and 60%. Be aware that chacha's on the country side often come in milk glasses, and the sheer amount of alcohol might be too much for the untrained.
Georgia is also famous for its mineral waters, with strong and unfamiliar tastes. The most famous ones are Borjomi, Likani, and Nabeglavi. The taste and smell might take some getting used to.
Georgian lemonades are fizzy soft drinks sold in most supermarkets and places that sell food. They're often cheaper than the american soda varieties, at 0.50-1.50 GEL for 0.5 L. The most common brands are Natakhtari, Zedazeni, Taglaura and Lagidze, and some of the more interesting flavours are tarkhun (green, prepared with tarragon leaves), saperavi (red, made of grapes) and pear.
- You'll find a lot of anitique shops and markets selling everything from rusty spoons to high quality Soviet memorabilia.
- Georgian wine is a nice gift to bring home. With 521 original grape varieties, you will have more than enough to select from.
- The local cognac is produced from Georgian grapes, and also worth trying. The producer Saradjishvili is famous for its variant "Tbilisi".
- It's possible to find original hand-made carpets.
- If you have a friend at home that likes the strong stuff, make sure to pack a bottle of chacha, a strong grape liquor for the hardcore.
- Gourmets will also find Georgian specialities such as Svan salt (aromatic blend of herbs and salt), tkemali and adjika (sauce) and churchkhela (grape/nut-candy)
Detailed information about customs can be found on the website of the Georgian Revenue Service.