If you have more than a few days in Georgia – get out of Tbilisi and explore the Caucasus Mountains.
Craggy peaks huddle around the horizon, topped with a dusting of snow and a halo of mist. In the valleys you’ll find small villages where cattle wander down dirt roads and colourful lines of washing hang in the cool mountain air. Trucks and vans (that have seen better days) rumble down roads that wind and twist up and down the mountainside.
As soon as you leave the tourist shops and hipster cafes of the capital – you’ll see a completely different side of Georgia.
Lee and I took a trip from Tbilisi to Kazbegi and spent a few days in this beautiful mountain village. We had actually planned to go there in January, but the roads had been blocked by an avalanche of snow – so we ended up in Gudauri instead.
When we eventually went to Kazbegi, it was in June – when the mountains were mostly lush and green except for a bit of permanent snow on their tips. It was gorgeous – although I imagine that there’s no bad time of year to visit somewhere so beautiful.
Here are some of the things that you should know before you travel to this pretty little alpine location.
1. You CAN Visit on a Day Trip from Tbilisi, But It’s Better to Stay Overnight
As I explained in my guide to getting to Stepantsminda from Tbilisi, it is possible to reach this destination on a day trip from Tbilisi. It’s a 3 hour journey each way, so technically you could take an early marshrutka, hang around for a few hours in the mountains and then head back to Tbilisi in the evening.
However, I would recommend staying over for at least one night in Stepantsminda. It will break up your travel time, so that you don’t have to sit in a marshrutka for 6 hours in one day.
You’ll have more time to do stuff in this little mountain outpost. There’s actually plenty of fun outdoor activities to enjoy here, such as:
- Hiking or taking a taxi to the stunning Gergeti Trinity Church.
- Hiking to the Gergeti Glacier.
- Rafting in the Snotskali River.
- Kayaking in the Tergi River.
- Visiting the waterfalls in Gveleti and Arsha-Pansheti.
- Bathing in the nearby mineral water springs.
- Horseback riding in the mountains.
- And much more!
Also, it will give you more time to enjoy the mountains. They look different throughout the day – from the early morning mist to the bright afternoon sunlight to the warm glow of the sunset.
Plus, on your second day you can treat yourself to the glorious breakfast at Rooms Hotel (even if you aren’t staying there!) Which leads me to my next point…
2. The Breakfast At Rooms Is Worth It
If you are awake and hungry in the morning before 11am, treat yourself to the breakfast buffet at Rooms Hotel. It was one of my favourite things about Stepantsminda.
Yes, it costs about 40 gel. (15 USD) To put that into perspective, you could get an entire meal for two, including wine, for that price at many restaurants in Tbilisi.
It’s not a cheap meal, but oh my is it ever glorious.
Crusty baguettes, smoked salmon, thick cream cheese, trays laden with freshly baked pastries and muffins, plates of delicate thinly shaved prosciutto, warm, crispy bacon, baked baby potatoes with tarragon, yogurt, muesli, waffles, nutella, honey… it’s a cornucopia of breakfast goodness.
Depending on the season there will be an array of fresh fruit – when we were there in June I gorged on ripe, juicy cherries and watermelon. There’s also bottomless coffee, tea and juice.
Oh, and there’s also an egg station where you can order your eggs exactly how you like them and they will cook them for you and bring them to your table.
It’s a pretty amazing way to start your day.
3. But You Don’t Have to Stay There To Enjoy It
If you really want to stay at Rooms, the fanciest hotel in Kazbegi by far, you can. However, the rates are around $200 US per night – so it’s really not budget friendly.
The thing about Rooms is that you can enjoy most of the best features of the hotel – the restaurant, the pool and the incredible views on the terrace – without having to be a guest there.
We stayed at a small local guesthouse only a five minute walk away from Rooms, which only cost about $40 US per night. Of course, the room was a lot more basic – but it was still clean and comfortable. (After all, when there is so much to see and do, you only really need somewhere to lay your head.)
So, our per-night cost was 80% cheaper, but we were still able to make the stroll over to Rooms Hotel every time we wanted to eat in the restaurant or admire the views from the deck.
The view from our hotel wasn’t bad either.
I mean, this place really is stunning.
4. The Roads Are Winding
It’s all about the journey, right?
Be warned: to get to Kazbegi, you’ll need to take the Georgian Military Highway which weaves through the Caucasus Mountains. There are some parts of the road that are pretty steep and winding. After all, the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia are some of the largest mountains in Europe.
If you are prone to motion sickness you might feel a little queasy as the marshrutka zig zags around the narrow switchbacks up the mountain. Make sure that you take your motion sickness medication before you go. Our marshrutka had to pull over a couple of times because an American girl needed to jump out and be sick at the side of the road.
Also, our marshrutka had to slow down at one point because the road was full of sheep and we couldn’t pass. Just a typical day in rural Georgia!
5. Most of The Locals You Meet Won’t Speak English
Be patient and think of creative ways to express yourself. I recommend downloading the Google Translate app on your phone. You can type in the English word and it will translate it to Georgian for you.
Google image search can come in handy too. When Lee and I needed more toilet paper for our hotel room, I just showed the guesthouse owner a picture of a roll of toilet paper and she got it right away.
6. It Gets Cool at Night
In the mountains when the sun goes down at night, the temperature can drop quite significantly (even if it was hot during the day.) So, be prepared with a jacket or sweater for the evenings.
I was packing the bags and forgot to pack Lee a jacket – so he was pretty cold in the evenings! Don’t make the same mistake I did.
7. Check Out the Gergeti Trinity Church
The main attraction in Stepantsminda is the Gergeti Trinity Church, a humble 14th century church that is perched high on a mountain peak. It has a lot of importance in Georgian history.
In the 18th century the author Vakhushti Batonishvili wrote that in times of danger the precious relics from the church in Mtskheta (such as St. Nino’s cross) were brought here for safe keeping. I can see why, as this church is NOT easy to get to.
The church itself is not the most spectacular or architecturally stunning building you’ll see in Georgia – but it’s location that makes it special. It is perched 2200m high on a mountain overlooking the small village of Stepantsminda, surrounded by towering snowy peaks on all sides.
Getting to the Gergeti Trinity Church
You have two options to get there – taking a taxi from the center of Stepantsminda or hiking up the mountain.
- Many of the taxi drivers will quote you 70 gel ($28.50 US) to take you on the short 20 minute drive up the mountain, wait for you for 30 minutes, then drive you back down.
- This seemed incredibly expensive to us, compared to the prices we were used to paying for taxi transport in other areas of Georgia. I guess the drivers here have a monopoly on the main tourist attraction.
- However, once the taxi driver saw us balk at 70 gel, it wasn’t too difficult to haggle him down to 45 gel ($18 US) – which we thought was reasonable.
- Be prepared – the road up to the church is basically just a dirt track and this is a very bumpy ride.
- The other option for getting up to the top of the mountain where the church is located is to hike there.
- It’s a two hour trek and although you are making your way up a steep hill, it’s said to be “entry level” difficulty.
- Emily Lush from Wander-Lush.org wrote a great blog post about hiking from Stepantsminda to Gergeti Trinity Church. Check it out for detailed instructions for where to travel to.
Whichever way you get to the top – the views are completely worth it.
Ladies, if you want to go inside the church and admire the candles and wall hangings you must cover up.
Around the side of the church you’ll find some scarves you can wrap around your head and aprons for wrapping around your waist (unless you are already wearing a skirt). It’s always important to make sure you dress appropriately out of respect for the local religion.
8. There’s Plenty to See on the Way
If you don’t take a marshrutka from Tbilisi to Kazbegi and you choose to drive your own vehicle or hire a private vehicle, you will have the freedom to stop along the way and enjoy some of the attractions between Tbilisi and Kazbegi.
And you should! There are a lot of interesting things to check out along the way, such as:
- Mtskheta: Only 30 minutes outside of Tbilisi you’ll pass by this cute, historic town. Take a trip up to the Jvari Monastery on top of the hill and admire the view. (Read our blog post about Mtskheta)
- Zhinvali Water Reservoir: The dam was built in 1986, creating a beautiful artificial lake with a perfect blue surface.
- Gudauri: A mountain ski resort town located about 2 hours from Tbilisi. (Read our blog post about Gudauri here)
- Ananuri Castle: An old fortress that was constructed in the 18th century. It is considered one of the most beautiful churches in all of Georgia.
- The Soviet-Georgian Friendship Memorial: Built in the 1980s, this unique semi-circular stone structure is covered in colourful murals that depict scenes from Georgian tradition and mythology. It is located in a very scenic perch, surrounded by dramatic peaks.
- Darial Gorge: This historically important mountain pass is one of the only two crossings in the Caucasus Mountains – the other one being the Derbent Pass. It has been fortified since 150 BC and you can see the ruins of an ancient fortress.
Do you have any questions about Kazbegi?
I was completely blown away by the beauty of the Caucasus Mountains and I found myself just staring at them in awe. They are so huge and imposing that they don’t even feel real. If you have the time when visiting Georgia, I highly recommend that you see them with your own eyes.
Do you have any questions about Stepantsminda, how to get there or what to expect when you are there? Please feel free to ask me in the comments or contact us on Facebook or Twitter. I know it can sometimes be hard to find info about off-the-beaten-path destinations, so I’ll do my best to help by sharing what I know – so that you can plan your travels around Georgia!