Lonely Planet claims Georgia to be “one of the most beautiful countries on earth”. I have traveled a lot and I can only agree with this statement.
This is my first blog post in a series about my amazing travel experiences in Georgia or Sakartvelo. You will get to know all the reasons, why you should visit Sakartvelo (Georgia) without any hesitation now. I am the hunter of authentic experiences. Hence you may expect to get the travel advice from the authentic perspective even if you plan to take some “ordinary tours”, which is not always a bad thing.
- Georgia Is Not Georgia Anymore!
- 8 Reasons Why Travel To Sakartvelo May Be Your Best Travel Experience
- Why Travel To Sakartvelo From Latvia And/Or With A Latvian Is A Good Choice
- Travel To Georgia Off-Season
- Meet Georgian Hospitality!
- Why Waking Up In Tbilisi Is Awesome?
- Tours From Tbilisi
- Some Conclusions
Georgia Is Not Georgia Anymore!
Most of the World still know this amazing country like Georgia. However, Georgians themselves do not really like this name very much. The Georgian constitution of 1995 declared the official name of the nation as Sakartvelo, with the name of Georgia as its English equivalent.
Thus the official name of the country in the Georgian language is Sakartvelo. Georgians try to promote this new name internationally as much as possible. If you travel to Georgia, you will notice it being repeated by many local guides so that it stays in memory. However, it is still not widely known yet. The first country, which has officially recognized it, is actually Lithuania. Let’s hope others will follow Lithuania’s lead. I will start with myself and will stick to Sarkarvelo name as much as possible, using “Georgian” only in some places for convenience.
In any case, Georgians will appreciate a lot the use of the new name of their country. You can still call it Georgia. But please, please do not mix country Georgia with the state of Georgia in the US. This already becomes boring if not to say stupid. It is probably another reason Georgians want to call their country Sakartvelo internationally now. Just my guess.
8 Reasons Why Travel To Sakartvelo May Be Your Best Travel Experience
I am pretty sure you cannot get very bad experience while traveling to Sakartvelo. Don’t expect that everything here will be as smooth as in popular tourist destinations. Yet that’s the good thing about Sakartvelo. In fact, the chances are that you will fall in love with Sakartvelo forever.
#1 Nature & Hiking
The main reason somebody like me would choose to travel to Sakartvelo is, of course, nature and primarily hiking in mountains. Nature is still wild and pristine in Sakartvelo.
Hiking trails in the mountains are gorgeous. Some of them like the ones in Svaneti, Tusheti, and Kazbegi are accessible only in the summer. This prevents these regions to be overdeveloped. Yet, it’s not for long. Svaneti is a distant but already well-known travel destination. Kazbegi gets even more visitors during the summer season as it is not that far from Tbilisi and it is gorgeous. We had a great hike near Juta village there that I will tell more about in one of my next posts.
The life in the mountain villages of Sakartvelo is still very much authentic and free from novelties of the modern World. In many places, you can combine hiking in the mountains with a homestay in these villages. Hence you do not have to carry your tent and food with you. In Svaneti region, you can plan your hiking from one village to another. The 4 days’ hiking trek from Mestia to Ushguli village is the most popular one for hikers. The locals will receive and feed you with tasty home food for a very reasonable price. In most places you can still get a homestay without any prior booking, especially going there off-season. Just ask locals to recommend you any good place or book it for you. They most probably will. Such a spontaneous travel gives you more freedom and it is safe in Sakartvelo.
The Guardian gives A backpacker’s guide to Georgia: one-month itinerary including all the above-mentioned hiking destinations in Georgia.
#2 Unique Ancient Cultural Heritage And Traditions
Standing on the crossway between Europe and Asia Sakartvelo has unique an ancient historical legacy. Christianity is deeply rooted in Sakartvelo. It has its own orthodox church branch. You will see many churches of different age on your way.
Georgian traditions encompass wast hospitality, rich table culture, dancing, wine, tasty food, and orthodox Christianity all at the same time. All you are asked to enjoy the unique experiences there are an open heart and respect for the traditions.
Georgian people are very friendly, simple, patriotic, hospitable and always ready to help, even if they do not speak your language and despite they might not smile at you all the time. It is deeply rooted in Georgian culture that any guest is almost God, even if the guest is an enemy otherwise.
I experienced the open Georgian heart many times while traveling in Georgia. And it is not just because I am Latvian. Be aware that in more traditional homestays there is still some hierarchy in the Georgian families. Unless you are a guest, women, and children come the to table after the men. Also, women must wear headcovers, if they enter the church. Yet, it is all deeply rooted in the Georgian culture. Don’t try to convince Georgians that this is not right. You are a guest, so you should behave like a guest with all the respect to the local traditions.
Wine in Sakartvelo is really good, especially the red one. It makes sense, as Sakartvelo is among the oldest wine producers in the world. Almost every Georgian host in lowlands makes his own home wine and has his home wine cellar. There is a lot of semi-sweet wines but they are sometimes better than the dry ones.
The most popular commercial brands are Kindzmarauli and Saperavi. What’s even more interesting, Kindzmarauli that you can buy in small shops in plastic bottles for a price like 10 Lari (~3 EUR) per litter can be sometimes even better than the fancy bottled ones in the factory shops. You will never have a hangover after a good Georgian wine.
Also, the white wine is special here. It is being aged in clay dishes. This gives wine distinctive taste that is very different compared to the white wine aged in the traditional oak barrels. You may like it or not but the wine is mostly of good quality and certainly something typical for Sakartvelo.
To experience the wine harvest time and enjoy fresh Georgian wine you must go to the wine region Kakheti in early fall, i.e. mid-September to mid-October.
Apart from the wine you must try the unique and strong Georgian vodka made from grapes and called chacha. You can buy in everywhere in Sakartvelo. Yet note that the quality may differ greatly.
A tip from the locals: don’t by the wine on the street, even if it is homemade and seems very authentic. It might be exposed to the sun for a longer time period, and this does not bring anything good to its quality.
Georgian cuisine is tasty. It is based a lot on Georgian bread filled with meat, beans or cheese in different combinations. Variety of fruits and greens is not that big in the spring. Yet, you can expect their abundance if you travel to Sakartvelo in August and early fall, i.e. September.
The most popular Georgian foods
- Khachapuri is a cheese-filled bred in different variations (see my first breakfast below).
- Khinkali is probably the most famous Georgian food. These are folded dumplings stuffed with meat, herbs and sometimes mushrooms instead of meat. I did not become a big fan of these during this trip. Maybe I just did not get really good ones. Yet most people enjoy them a lot. It is also one of the most affordable foods in Sakartvelo. Usually, you may order not less than five, but it is more than enough for a good meal.
- Mtsvadi is the Georgian name for the marinated meat on sticks cooked on open flame. The most popular here is beef and lamb mtsvadi. Yet this type of food is also very popular in Latvia and in other countries. We just call it “šašliks” and have more focus on pork and chicken. Historically people have always eaten the meat cooked on sticks. Yet Georgians have their own yummy recipes to prepare it.
- Kharcho is the most popular Georgian soup from the meet, local spices, and some other local ingredients. This soup is very well-known in the post-soviet area as very filling (as in fact everything in Sakartvelo).
- Pkhali is a vegetarian dish. It is made of different vegetables (carrots, spinach, and beets are the most common) and usually served with bread. I tried it without bread once just because it was served without one, and I was not blown away. Probably it is because Latvians eat almost everything with bread. Maybe it is just because I am not a vegetarian (although I like veggies a lot). Whatever is the reason I recommend having pkhali with fresh Georgian bread (it is always fresh there though).
- Lobiani is disks of bean-filled bread. We had lots of them as a snack on our way to the village of Stepansminda (Kazbegi). Lobiani is, of course, again very filling and spicy.
- Churchkhela is more or less healthy sweets made from concentrated grape juice and different nuts. These protein and sugar-rich snacks are excellent to take with you on your hiking or any other day trip to Georgia. These are also easy to take with you home if you wish to take something with you from Sarkarvelo (apart from the wine of course).
There are also specific and tasty dishes in the Svaneti region like Kubdaar (Kubdari) and Chvishtari. These I will come back to more in detail in my post about our trip to Svaneti.
The best part of Georgian foodies I tried later in my homestays though. Follow my coming posts for these experiences!
#6 Clean Drinking Water
Georgia is also a place of amazingly clean drinking water. You can drink the tap water here everywhere.
I love mineralized sparkling water. Hence, I enjoy bottled Borjomi or Langkawi mineral water very much. You can buy 1 litter of Borjomi mineral water in Riga for ca. 1.50 EUR. In Tbilisi, it costs around 30 Euro Cents! A bit salty taste and plenty of gas may not appeal to everybody. Yet, it is a real mineral water with minerals in it, and not just a still tap water sold in bottles. See the difference?
The only thing that is disappointing is the lack of plastic recycle management system. Borjomi or Langkawi mineral water bottles are made of thick plastic. They could be reused many times before their disposal. Yet, to be honest not every EU country has such a recycle system too.
The saltiness of bottled mineral water is nothing compared to the mineral water you can try from the mineral springs scattered across the country. You can fill your bottles with mineral water right from the mineral springs, such as in Borjomi or on the way to Kazbegi on Georgian Military road (the one in the picture above).
Finally, while hiking in mountains you can easily fill your bottles with the water from streams. It clean and tasty.
#7 Public Transport And Taxis: Incredibly Cheap
I arrived in Tbilisi on a warm May’s morning at 3:25 a.m. The best way to get to the Tbilisi center at this time is with the bus No 37. It is ridiculously cheap and costs only 0.50 Lari, which is around 20 Euro Cents! Although the bus from the airport is inexpensive you will need a 50 Tatri (0.50 Lari) coin to pay for the ticket once you are on the bus. The ticket machine accepts no other coins. Thus, be sure you get at least one 50 Tatri coin when you are in the airport. I didn’t. Yet, a very kind local man just gave me one and refused to take any compensation for that.
I must note that most of the public transport in Sakartvelo is very affordable and safe. Thus, I can highly recommend using it.
#8 Taxi Drivers May Run For You!
Tbilisi city center is almost empty in the early morning. In fact, you meet only taxi drivers “hunting” for their clients. Tbilisi is also one of the rare places I have been to, where it is ok to pick up a taxi on the street and be reasonably sure that you won’t be ripped off. Just be sure you agree on the price before you go. Within the Tbilisi center, the price to any destination is on average 10 Lari (~2 EUR) per ride.
I did not take a taxi in the morning I arrived. Yet, later I did not hesitate to use it extensively.
Once I got an extremely polite and positive Armenian taxi driver. In some 15 minutes, we talked a lot about life and some old good movies from the Soviet times. He refused to take any tip on the top of the agreed price, which was already very low.
Another taxi driver became almost a hero to me. We booked a taxi to the central railway station to continue our trip in Sakartvelo to the gorgeous Svaneti Region. I left my Samsung Galaxy S8 phone in his car and did not even notice that. Half an hour later I saw my taxi driver running at the railway station towards me with a worried and serious expression on his face. He knew at what time my train leaves and hurried back from the opposite side of the city (!) just to give me back my phone. I was left speechless.
Why Travel To Sakartvelo From Latvia And/Or With A Latvian Is A Good Choice
Travel to Sakartvelo is really a breeze if you live in Latvia or if you go there via Latvia. We have direct flights to Tbilisi or Kutaisi from Riga. You can get to the capital city of Sakartvelo Tbilisi by Latvian national airlines airBaltic. Wizair operates the flights from Riga to the third biggest city in Georgia – Kutaisi. In both cases, it is about 3 – 4 hours flight.
There are also other flight connections to Tbilisi from EU. Some of them are direct, some will need a transfer in Latvia – Riga (airBaltic), some in Istambul (Turkish Airlines) but some in Kijev (Ukrainian Airlines). airBaltic flights from Riga arrive in Tbilisi early. Hence you gain one full extra day in Sakartvelo.
The Baltic States and Sakartvelo have a long friendship history, as we once shared the same destiny of being part of the big Soviet Union and resisting the regime. Hence, we are very often especially welcomed and greeted, while traveling in Sakartvelo.
Lots of Georgians speak English. However, while youngsters succeed well in this, most of the older generation does not speak any foreign language other than Russian. As many Latvians, including me, speak fluent Russian, we sometimes get more out of our travel to Sakartvelo than probably somebody else from the Western World would.
Hence if you plan a trip to Sakartvelo you will probably find even more authentic experiences together with a like-minded Latvian travel mate. Should you consider doing this, feel free to contact me.
Travel To Georgia Off-Season
May is still off-season in Sakartvelo. Therefore, I actually chose going there in the spring and not in July, July or August. There are some trade-offs going somewhere off-season too. Yet, I am sure there are still more gains.
It also depends on the activities you plan to do. In case you aim for hiking in the mountains, the spring and autumn might be a tricky time. Amazing Svaneti region met me with heavy rainfalls and temperatures around and below 15 degrees Celsius (~60 degrees Fahrenheit). It did not reduce the beauty of this area in any way though. It also gave me a chance enjoy Svaneti from a totally different perspective without the crowds of tourists.
I also had had a compensation for the rainy weather in Svaneti some days before we went there. The great sunny day hike in David Gareja and hiking on the trails near Kazbegi mountain were a great balance.
Read more about these places and hiking adventures there in my upcoming posts!
Tbilisi was already a hot city in May and a bit crowded too. Yet, it was so beautiful that nothing could really spoil my experience there.
Overall, you can expect less hustle and lower prices, if you travel to Sakartvelo, not in the peak season of summer months. Besides, while traveling to Sakartvelo off-season, you will bring some more income to the local small businesses not just during the summer period. You will also help to reduce the potential problem of over tourism. This is probably not yet a general problem in Sakartvelo, but almost certainly it will be in the coming years.
Meet Georgian Hospitality!
There is some appeal in arriving Tbilisi center early morning. The city felt very welcoming even being almost empty at that hour.
It was not a problem to find my hostel. I tried to ring the bell as shortly as I could. When nobody responded, I tried a bit harder – still noting! After the third time, an old woman finally opened the door. She spoke nor English, neither understandable Russian. Then she disappeared in the dead silent and dark corridor for a while and returned with a guy, wearing something that could be called Italian football fans’ outfit or something.
When It Pays Off To Be A Latvian
Communication in English was a bit of problem with the stuff in the hostel; the same as finding the right reservation in Booking.com. Suddenly I realized that the guy simply had the worst hangover ever. I would call it the “mother of all hangovers” probably. So, I decided to simplify his life a bit and switched to Russian.
I have rarely seen such a drastic change of the mood is such a short time for a person that is so tired. The guy suddenly smiled widely at me and asked a logical question: “Why didn’t you say that you speak Russian and you’re from Latvia? Welcome my friend!”
Irakli was the name of this guy and he was actually the host of the hostel. I apologized for the disturbance in such an early morning and asked if I can just leave my language somewhere and leave. I had not booked anything there for the first morning anyway. However, Irakli was as hospitable as you would expect from a Georgian. He refused to let me out on the street at 5 am and gave me a single room so I could have a sleep and rest. For the next three nights, I stayed in this room alone even though I had booked only a bed before. I was also not charged more than I had already paid for two nights. Hence any minor inconveniences become irrelevant.
The hostel had an amazing terrace and the view from it was worth it alone. Hence my hunting for authentic experiences was really successful so far.
Why Waking Up In Tbilisi Is Awesome?
Although my single room was very basic it was very comfy and waking up on a sunny morning there was a satisfying experience. After a quick shower, I headed to the city keen to explore it. Being an eco-adventure traveler I am not a big fan of the cities. At least I try not staying there for a long time. But “my gosh” Tbilisi is a beautiful place.
I started my morning with a Khachapuri. Sometimes this cheese filled bread dish is enriched with an egg, probably to remind you that you are actually eating breakfast. I took one and could not finish it.
Morning walk in Tbilisi is a pleasant thing to do as well. It is not that hot yet, and Tbilisi is a green city. You also feel safe and most welcomed. Don’t expect that everybody will smile at you in the morning, but the people are friendly and helpful. Also, the architecture of the Tbilisi Old Town is amazing. The city offers you plenty of restaurants and modern facilities, yet keeping its authentic local charm.
I saw predominantly Russian tourists on Tbilisi streets. Yet on my day tours, I met many other travelers from around the world. It is just a matter of proportion for now I think.
Tours From Tbilisi
For the first two days during my travel to Sakartvelo, I decided to take some day tours from Tbilisi to look around. Yet my focus was as always to go out and see real pristine nature and authentic traditions. I did all of that and met some great new like-minded friends on my way.
Irakli turned out to be a fun guy too. Next morning, he tried to convince me to book a “super trooper cosmic” tours with him, promising them to be unforgettable experiences. He also did not hesitate to call all the big tour companies on the street kind of scammers and market manipulators. A day later he admitted though that he only starts his own tour business, trying to get ahead and not knowing much about that. One more day later he even offered me to work as a guide for him, earn a “good share” and live for free in his hostel! Being a bit surprised, I had to disappoint him on this, saying that I have some important people and things to return for at home. He generously accepted this as a valid justification.
Value For Money
Ordinary day tours with a big tour company from Tbilisi are actually a good value for money. They are reasonably priced ranging from 20 to 60 EUR per person depending on the destination. I went to some of them and was very satisfied with what I got. Yet, this way you won’t see much more than an average tourist sees in Sakartvelo.
If you choose to take a private tour with transportation though it will cost much more; something like 200 EUR per day or even more. With some exceptions, this is to say not relay adequate for the overall service level and price range in Georgia for now. But this is the price for privacy and personal approach.
I ended up with some great day tours with a big tour company including the one to the amazing David Gareja area. As I planned to go to Kazbegi mountain area I bought one test tour from my friend Irakli too. That was actually an experience to remember… Further on I was traveling on my own and with the new travel mates that I met on this tour. All these experiences deserve separate stories though that will follow.
Summing up all the experiences with the tours in Sakartvelo I recommend to find out, what’s exactly included in your tour or any other service. Georgians are hospitable people and they truly want you to feel welcomed. Hence sometimes they might keep silent about the things that might not be up to your expected standards or they just may think that they are not that important to make you happy (and in most cases, they really aren’t). The easiest way to get what you want is to ask.
Overall travel to Sakartvelo is an amazing experience that you will not get anywhere else.
At the first glance, it might seem Georgia is a very conservation orthodox country. It is not. After all, Georgia just decriminalized marijuana in small quantities. Since the end of July 2018, it is legal to own and use Cannabis in Georgia (while its sale remains illegal). Many modern European countries have not dared to go that far.
There are just some cultural particularities you should keep in mind while traveling to Georgia.
Georgians are hospitable people and they truly want you to feel welcomed. Hence sometimes they might keep silent about the things that might not comply with your expectations. Or they just may think that these things are not that important to make you happy (and in most cases, they really aren’t). The easiest way to get what you really want is to ask. It’s that easy.
Sakartvelo or Georgia is becoming more and more popular as a tourism destination. Tbilisi is already a very crowded place. I’ve heard the same about Batumi. As Latvia has among the most beautiful sandy beaches in the world, I wouldn’t also consider going to Batumi or Sakarvelo just because of the Black Sea. Yet, all this increasing popularity is, of course, not without a reason. Given the fact of amazing pristine nature, hospitality, affordable prices and convenient location, the interest in this country will only increase.
I would really hope that Sakartvelo or Georgia (whatever you call it) would stay a unique off-the-beaten-path destination with a focus on eco-tourism and adventure travel in the future. It has all the qualities to become a high-end eco-travel destination. Yet for this, there should be a dedicated eco-tourism strategy developed and implemented. It is clear that such a beautiful place will not stick only to eco-tourism for now. The impact of the mass tourism industry is already obvious there. The only factors that limit travel to Sakartvelo a bit today, are the overall service level, not very well-developed infrastructure and limited language skills. However, Sakartvelo works to resolve these issues and in some five years from now, I am sure it will be another kind of travel destination.
Hence, for eco-tourism and adventure travel lovers I highly recommend going there now, while you can still enjoy Sakartvelo’s pristine nature and authenticity in full.
Feel free to share this post to help other travelers! Also, share your experiences while traveling in Sakartvelo (Georgia) in the comments’ section below.