If you want to take a day trip from Tbilisi, Mtskheta is simple to reach – and easy on the eyes.
The only difficult thing about this peaceful small town is pronouncing the name, which looks to most English speakers like a random handful of Scrabble letters.
Whether you are a tourist in Georgia or you are living abroad in Tbilisi, this nearby town is absolutely worth a visit. It’s only about 30 minutes away, so you don’t have to spend the entire day there.
Some people just head up there for lunch or dinner, or for a couple of hours. Lee and I went in the afternoon, which gave us a few hours to wander around and then get dinner before heading back to Tbilisi in the evening.
It has a completely different feel than the city streets of Tbilisi and it is home to some truly gorgeous religious architecture and great restaurants.
Mtskheta is one of the most ancient cities in the country of Georgia, located just 12 miles north of Tbilisi on the Aragvi River. It was one of the birthplaces of Christianity in Georgia and was declared a “Holy City” by the Georgian Orthodox Church in 2014.
This city was originally established in the 5th century BC. This picturesque mountain town was the capital city of the early Georgian Kingdom known as Iberia during the period of time from the 3rd century BC until the 5th century AD. It’s not hard to believe that this city was the birthplace of Christianity in Georgia or that it still serves as the main headquarters of the traditional Georgian Orthodox Church. It is packed with beautiful religious architecture – an incredible amount of stunning churches for a town this size.
How to Get to Mtskheta
It’s wonderfully easy to visit Mtskheta on a day trip from Tbilisi, even if you don’t speak any Georgian. We took a taxi to get there, which only cost us 25 GEL ($9.30 USD). Download the Taxify app to your phone so that you can request a taxi more easily – it’s very similar to Uber or Lyft.
Or, the cheaper option is to take a combination of the Tbilisi Metro and a mini-bus. You can take the Tbilisi Metro to the Didube Station, you’ll just need to purchase a card and top it up at the machines so that you can scan it as you enter the Metro.
Then, when you get to Didube you can exit the metro and head to the marketplace and bus area. There will be plenty of taxi drivers milling about, but you are looking for the “marshrutka” or mini-bus. When you reach the minibus area you can buy a ticket from the cashier counter, or you can just pay the driver when you are on the minibus.
A round trip to Mtskheta and back on public transport should cost around 1 GEL per person ($0.37 USD). This is certainly the cheapest way to get from Tbilisi to Mtskheta!
How Do You Pronounce Mtskheta?
If you are trying to ask the locals about this town, you might find that they have confused looks on their faces when you try to spit out this jumble of consonants.
The name of this town is very difficult for native English speakers to pronounce. The first two letters are almost silent, so it sounds a bit like “M’Skheta.” The M barely makes a sound, but if you listen carefully it is there.
You can hear the correct pronunciation of the name of the town in this video:
What to Do in Mtskheta
Even though Mtskheta isn’t very far from Tbilisi, it feels quite different. You’ll notice right away that the air is fresher, perhaps with a hint of woodsmoke. It felt slightly cooler and it was wonderfully quiet – no background noise of honking horns. It’s a delightful change of pace from the noisy city streets of the capital.
Here are some of the things that you can see and do in this picturesque little mountain town while on a day trip from Tbilisi.
Visit Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
This is one of the most significant Georgian Christian buildings in the town. It’s name translates to “Cathedral of the Living Pillar” and it is considered an architectural masterpiece of the Early Middle Ages. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the second largest church in Georgia, after the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi.
This cathedral was important to Christian pilgrims in the Middle Ages as it was thought to be the burial place of Christ’s mantle, the seamless robe that Jesus was said to have been wearing during his crucifixion. There has been a church on this site since the early 4th century, but the structure that you will see was completed in 1029.
The name of the church (also very difficult to pronounce!) means ‘Life-Giving Column.” This refers to the enormous wooden column that was designed to stand in the center of the church. When it was being constructed in the 4th century under the command of King Mirian, the column could not be raised from the ground.
St. Nino spent a night praying and in the morning the column had moved all on it’s own to the site of the robe’s burial where the church was planned to be built. The column became known for these miracles and religious pilgrims came from all around to see it.
Visit Samtavro Monastery
Yet another completely gorgeous religious building in Mtskheta, it is thought that this monastery was originally constructed in the 4th century, under the rule of King Mirian III of Iberia. It is where the ruler King Mirian and his wife Nana are buried – they were the first to accept Christianity into Georgia from St.Nino in the year 337. You can see their tombs within, placed under a 19th century Italianate marble canopy in the southwest corner of the church.
This church is also the final resting place of the legendary Georgian monk known as Gabriel. It is still an active convent and in the churchyard you will see many pilgrims and worshipers.
It’s a bit of a shame, but the priceless frescos inside were lost due to whitewashing by the Russian Imperial authorities. A few portions of the frescos have been restored and if you use your imagination you can still get an idea of what they would have looked like in their full splendor.
Note: Women Must Cover Their Hair
If you plan on going into any of the Orthodox churches here (and you should, because they are beautiful!) you’ll need to cover your head. You can simply wrap a scarf or a shawl around your head before you enter.
The guidelines don’t seem that strict and I saw a few tourists without head coverings. However, it’s the respectful thing to do and it shows that you are considerate of the local traditions. I was already wearing a scarf because it was cold, so I simply used it to cover my hair whenever I was inside the churches.
If you forget, many of the churches have baskets of scarves at the front entrance that you can borrow.
Also, make sure that you are dressed appropriately for visiting places of worship. This didn’t apply to us because we visited in November and it was freezing, but if you are visiting in the summer you don’t want to be walking around religious buildings in tiny shorts. Wear long, lightweight pants or a skirt or dress that falls below the knee.
Guys, keep in mind that although it is respectful for women to cover their heads, it is disrespectful for men to do so. If you are wearing a hat you should take it off when you enter the church.
Here is a very informative blog post about the correct etiquette for visiting a Georgian Orthodox church.
Take a Taxi to the Jvari Monastery
As you walk around Mtskheta, you can’t miss the huge, imposing monastery that sits perched on top of the mountain overlooking the town. It’s the Jvari Monastery and it is one of the most important Christian Orthodox buildings in Georgia.
According to the traditional accounts, this church was built here because Saint Nino stopped in this spot to pray and build a wooden cross on the hill above the city in the early 4th century. The architecture is a classic example of the tetra conch style and it served as a model for many other churches in the country. Religious pilgrims from all over the world came to the church and it is said that the tears they shed while praying formed the nearby lake.
The current building is thought to have been built between 590 and 605 and in the late Middle Ages it was fortified with a stone wall and gate, the remnants of which can still be seen. In 1994 it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a truly impressive building, although the stone facades have deteriorated over the years due to the wind and acid rain on the mountain.
You can reach this beautiful sacred site by climbing up the mountain if you are up for it, but the easier way is to hire a taxi from Mtskheta. The driver quoted us 20 GEL for the trip, but it wasn’t too hard to negotiate down to 10 GEL. He drove us up the mountain, waited around for 20 minutes while we took photos and explored the church, then took us back down to Mtskheta. It was one of the highlights of this day trip from Tbilisi.
Watch the Stray Dogs Play
One of the things I loved about Mtskheta is the dogs. There were a lot of them and they all seemed to have a happy, friendly nature. One old friendly dog approached us as soon as we arrived, then followed us around for awhile – as if he was a local tour guide who wanted to greet us and show us the sights.
Watching the stray dogs play and interact was a lot of fun. I saw them being given food by the locals, so I think they lead a pretty good life here.
Drink Coffee on the Sand
As we wandered through the streets of Mtskheta, I came across a vendor selling “Coffee on the Sand.” My interest was piqued by the word coffee of course. I never pass up a chance to try a different type of coffee, like the time I visited a coffee plantation in Colombia and got to taste the freshest dark roast of my life.
“Coffee on the Sand” is a very cool way of making coffee. It’s worth getting one just to watch the process, as well as to drink the coffee.
The little pot of coffee is boiled by immersing it in hot sand. I watched the lady move the pots through the sand gently and the coffee started to bubble, as if by magic. Here’s a video that will show you the process. This is from Batumi, a different city in Georgia, but it will give you an idea of how it works.
How did the coffee taste? Incredibly strong. I was twitching with energy after one cup. I would recommend adding a bit of sugar and cream, even if you don’t usually add some to your coffee. It helps to take the edge off the intense bitter flavour. Since the grounds are floating free in the coffee and they never completely dissolve, you’ll want to gently swish your cup as you are drinking it to re-mix it.
Buy Some Gifts
Spend some time wandering around the market stalls and shops that line the small, cobbled streets of Mtskheta. If you want to bring someone back a gift from your day trip to Mtskheta, you’ll have plenty of choice – from jewellery to handmade dolls to clothing and more. You can also pick up some wine, as we saw many wine cellars around the town.
Eat at Cafe Tatin
The food available in Mtskheta is superb and can be cheaper than a comparable meal in Tbilisi, so it is certainly worth it to stay for a meal.
I can certainly recommend the place where Lee and I ate on our visit. We went there because it had a ridiculously high score on TripAdvisor and we weren’t disappointed.
It was called Cafe Tatin and it is one of the cutest cafes I have ever been to. The decor, with ornate chairs, antiques and walls covered in paintings has a vintage French style to it, like you are in an adorable cafe in Paris. It’s small and cosy, you’ll almost feel as if you are sitting in someone’s living room. If it had been a warmer day, we would have sat on the outdoor terrace and enjoyed the views of the mountains.
Try the tomato and cucumber salad. It is so simple, but the tomatoes and cucumbers are wonderfully fresh and juicy and the dressing is so flavorful.
More Tips for Visiting Mtskheta
- Check the weather before you come – you want to visit on a clear day so that you can get the best views from the Jvari Monastery.
- If you are feeling up for it, you can hike up the mountain to Jvari Monastery. There is a path that you can follow from Teatroni Park that will take you over a pedestrian bridge across a river and then an underpass to cross the highway.
- If you have the time, you may want to stay overnight in Mtskheta so that you have more time to enjoy this city and get a break from Tbilisi. Also, prices for hotels will be cheaper here than in the capital.