Tips on Arranging a Trip to Georgia
Travel throughout Georgia armed with valuable information
Are looking for a new place to go to? Are you tired of the mundane and seeing the same thing over again? Maybe you want to try something different. Well, there is a destination just right for you. It’s Georgia. Georgia is a small country that is located south of Russia and has recently been in the news because of a brief war with Russia last year.
However, don’t let the war scare you. The war only lasted five days and everything now is peaceful and safe. Furthermore, the Georgian government makes it very easy for American and European tourists to visit the country which has many magical wonders and ancient places to visit. Georgia has many churches and castles that date back to the 6th Century. The Georgian people also are very hospitable and willing to help you find your way.
How to get to Georgia
Georgia is that it is a small country and there are no direct flights from US cities to Tbilisi, which is the city that you are most likely to fly into as it is capital of the country.
Most flights into Georgia are from Europe or Turkey and fly during the night, so when you arrive in Tbilisi you may want to have an extra day to rest. There are several ways to get from the United States to Georgia and the most common routes are listed below.
1. United Airlines and Lufthansa are the easiest route to Georgia from the United States. Both airlines are members of the Star Alliance and operate each other’s flights. You can fly either Lufthansa or United from Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles to Munich. You will fly out of the United States in either the early afternoon or in the evening and you will arrive in Munich at different times.
The United flights arrive in the morning and the Lufthansa flights arrive in Munich in the early afternoon the next day. You will have a long layover in Munich, then at 9:30 p.m. Munich time, the Lufthansa flight for Tbilisi flies out and arrives in Tbilisi at 3:00 a.m. the next morning.
The flights from Chicago or New York to Munich average about eight to nine hours and the flight from Los Angeles to Munich average about 10 to 12 hours. The flight from Munich to Tbilisi averages about three to four hours.
2. Austrian Airlines flies out of both Chicago and New York to Vienna. These flights last about eight to nine hours. The connecting flight from Vienna to Tbilisi leaves around 10 in the evening and arrives in Tbilisi at 4:00 a.m. the next morning.
3. Turkish Airlines flies out of both Chicago and New York to either Istanbul or Ankara. From there is a flight to Tbilisi also.
These are the most reliable routes to Georgia from the United States and your luggage can be checked through to your final destination, Tbilisi.
What to do, when you arrive at Tbilisi International Airport
When you arrive at Tbilisi International Airport, you will find that the border people are very friendly and are more than willing to help you through the few formalities there are required to enter Georgia. Upon arrival, you will find that passport control is just a stone’s throw away from the jet way where you come off the plane.
If you are a citizen of the United States, Israel, member nations of the EU, Switzerland, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, you are not required to apply for a visa to enter Georgia. If you live in the United States on a green card and are a citizen of another country other than the above-mentioned countries, you might need to apply for a visa.
Applying for a visa in Georgia is not difficult at all. In fact you can apply right at the airport. You should have some passport photos available and visa fees are not expensive.
When crossing the border control at the airport, you will be required to have your passport ready and the border officer will have you look into a face scanning camera and stamp your passport and you then can go on to baggage claim.
Baggage claim and customs at Tbilisi International Airport
After going through passport control, you will need to go on to baggage claim to claim your luggage. You should have your luggage tickets available, because the baggage claim people check those regularly to prevent luggage theft. Customs is practically nonexistent and if you need to go through customs, your bag will have a special sticker on it.
This sticker is only placed on luggage that looks suspicious through an X-ray machine. If you do not have a sticker on your luggage, which you more than likely won’t, you can go on and find busses or taxis to take you to the various hotels.
Other ways to enter Georgia
There are also other ways you can enter Georgia besides by air. For example, if you are touring Turkey, you can take a bus to Trapzon and from there go to Sarpi. Sarpi is the border between Turkey and Georgia and is in a beautiful setting on the Black Sea.
You can drive into Georgia through Sarpi or Kars. You can also cross the border into Georgia on foot in Sarpi. From Sarpi, you can take a micro bus or taxi to Batumi which is five or ten minutes north of Sarpi.
Kars is a border town in Turkey which is right on the Georgian border. If you choose to travel to Georgia by rail from Ankara, the train will stop in Kars and you will have to get off the train and cross the border on foot. On the Georgian side of the border is the town, Vale, from where you can take a train or bus to Tbilisi.
Azerbaijan is another country from which you can travel into Georgia from over land. If you happen to be visiting Baku, you can take a train or bus from Baku to Tbilisi. There is also a flight from Baku to Tbilisi which is about 30 minutes.
Armenia is to the south of Georgia and if you are visiting Yerevan, you can take a train or a bus from Yerevan to Tbilisi.
Russia is the only country from which you cannot cross legally into Georgia. It is possible to go from South Ossetia or Abkhazia into Russia, but that is not recommended. These two areas along with the border with Georgia proper are dangerous.
In fact Abkhazia and South Ossetia are two regions in Georgia where tourists should not visit. Stay away from the Gali region near Abkhazia. If you do plan to travel to Georgia from Russia, you will need to go through a third country.
The Black Sea is another way you can enter Georgia through Georgia’s two ports on the Black Sea, which are Poti and Batumi. Poti is Georgia’s major commercial port and there are many freighters that sail into Poti bringing all kinds of durable goods from all over the world. Batumi is mainly a resort town but it does have an oil terminal and a small port also.
Both ports have passport and customs controls. There are railroad ferries that sail in and out of both Poti and Batumi to other parts of the Black Sea. These railway ferries also transport trucks and cars as well as a limited number of passengers.
Batumi is Georgia’s smaller port and has mainly train ferries that sail to Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria or Turkey.
Travel on railway ferries to and from Georgia is affordable and you pay for your meals along with your tickets if you travel with Ukrferry Shipping Services. This shipping company is the most reliable and their ships are clean and have good service.
You can find out about the prices for Ukrferry passenger services rate for state rooms here and you can turn your trip to Georgia into an interesting trip around the Black Sea. You will find the conditions on board the ships to be comfortable, but basic. Ukrferry has two ships that travel from Georgia to Ilyichievsk, Ukraine, near Odessa. You can sail from Ilyichevsk to Poti aboard the MS Greifswald.
The MS Greifswald is a railway equipped ferry that was built in East Germany in the early 1980s as a simple ferry to ferry freight wagons from Rostock across the Baltic to the former Soviet Union. As the Soviet Union fell and Germany was reunited, the MS Greifswald was sold to Ukrainian owned Ukrferry Shipping Company to serve the Ilyichievsk-Poti route.
The ship was refitted to accommodate passengers, private cars, trucks, and railway wagons. The MS Greifswald has room for 75 passengers and has a crew of over 30 people.
If you choose to sail on the Greifswald, you need to share the ship’s cafeteria with the crew, so passenger meal time will be announced on the ship’s public address system. You can take a road trip from Europe to Ukraine and have your car on the Greifswald to enter Georgia at Poti.
The Greifswald has to ferry decks which can transport 1000 railway wagons, 1500 semi trucks and 2000 private cars. For passengers, the MS Greifswald has a cafeteria which serves basic Ukrainian meals such as borsch and kasha, a bar, which has a pay service and some open decks for passengers to enjoy the fresh Black Sea air. Travel time from Ilyichievsk to Poti takes about two and a half days.
The Geroitie na Sevastopolia is a Bulgarian made railway ferry which is twice the size of the MS Greifswald and serves the Ilyichievsk-Batumi route. The Geroitie na Sevastopolia is equipped with three ferry decks which can transport over 1500 railway wagons, 2000 semi trucks, and 2500 private cars. The ship also accommodates over 150 passengers and offers the similar on-board services as does the MS Greifswald of the Poti route.
Onboard emergency services on both ships are to Western standards with a clearly defined escape route and every stateroom is equipped with enough life jackets for all people that can sleep in that stateroom.
Furthermore, both ships have an onboard physician with a clinic that is up to Western standards with all the up-to-date medical equipment needed should a medical emergency arise while at sea. Medical services are provided for free to passengers who need it.
Policies passengers need to follow while sailing to and from Georgia on Ukrferry’s ships going to and from both Poti or Batumi are rather simple. Upon boarding, you need to get to the first passenger deck and you will see a service desk, much like one that you would see when you check into a hotel on land. You will need to surrender your passport to the service desk upon boarding for border control purposes.
The crew uses your documents for the ship’s log to keep track of all the passengers in case of an emergency. Like checking into a hotel, you will be given a key to your stateroom and on the keychain will be a number. That number is your assigned seat number at the cafeteria for meal time. Avoid being late for meals because meal time is about an hour, then the ship’s cafeteria is turned over to the crew.
Things to do in Georgia
Georgia is in a unique part of the world. The country is about the size of the state of Tennessee, but depending on the location, the climate varies from Mediterranean subtropical climate in the western regions along the Black Sea coast with orange and other citrus trees growing to semi arid subtropical climates in the eastern regions from Kvemo Kartli and Kakheti.
Georgia has three mountain ranges which are the Caucasus to the north along the border with Russia. These are also the highest mountains in Georgia.
To the south are the Trialeti and Adjara Mountains which make the border with Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. In these areas there are places for hiking, skiing, and mountain climbing. Lodging is easy to find upon arrival in Georgia. Though lodging might be a bit pricy in Tbilisi, there is a family-operated bed-and-breakfast in Tbilisi’s Vake neighborhood.
Cities and sights to see in Georgia
There are many interesting sights to see all over Georgia. First, let’s start with Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.
1. Tbilisi is Georgia’s capital and is situated on the Mtkvari River. You can take a stroll along Rustaveli Avenue and buy nice hand-made souvenirs ranging from traditional daggers and swords to carved-out goat horns made for drinking wine to T-shirts with Georgian motifs.
At the east end of Rustaveli Avenue is Tavisuplebis Moedani or Freedom Square. You can take the underpass that goes under the square to Leselidze St. Leselidze St. goes into the old city, which has old houses with charming wood carved balconies.
At the end of Leselidze St., you come to the Maidan Neighborhood, which is home to the Sioni-Dormition Cathedral, which was built in the 12th Century. The Maidan Neighborhood is also home to Tbilisi’s oldest synagogue which was built in the 17th Century.
At Maidan, you can go away from the Mtkvari to the hot sulfur water baths which King Vakhtang discovered when he founded Tbilisi. It is because of these hot baths that Tbilisi got its name. Tbilisi actually comes from the Georgian word “tbili” which means “warm,” and Tbilisi actually means “Warm City.” Just pass the hot baths, you can go up to the Nariqala Fortress and the St. Nicholas Church. Behind and below the Nariqala Fortress are the Tbilisi Botanical Gardens which has some of the best floral specimens in the region.
2. Mtskheta is only twenty minutes west of Tbilisi by micro bus or regular bus. Mtskheta was the capital of Georgia until King Vakhtang founded Tbilisi in the Fourth Century. Mtskheta is home to the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral which at one time was fortified with a moat.
The fortification walls still surround the cathedral. Svetitskhoveli was built in the 12th Century. Mtskheta is a rather small town that is situated where the Aragvi River flows into the Mtkvari.
3. The Ananuri Fortress is about an hour-and-a-half north of Mtskheta upstream on the Aragvi River. The Ananuri Fortress was built in the Tenth Century and is situated in the foothills of the southern Caucasus Mountains.
4. The Kakheti Region is the easternmost region of Georgia, spanning east of Tbilisi to the Azerbaijani border. The Kakheti Region is the heart of Georgian culture. Kakheti is home to some of Georgia’s best and most famous wineries such as Kindzmarauli, Tsinandali, Saperavi and Alazani Valley.
The regional seat of Kakheti is Telavi, home to the palace of King Erekle II who was the last fully ruling monarch of Georgia before his son Prince Georgi signed the Giorgievsky Trakt, making Georgia a protectorate of Russia at the end of the 18th Century. Other places of interest in Kakheti include:
a. Tsinandali is the home of Alexander Chavchavadze. You can visit the House Museum of Alexander Chavchavadze which was built by Alexander Chavchavadze in the early 19th Century with the design drawn by French architects.
The gardens of the Alexander Chavchavadze are absolutely stunning with a mixture of east and west. In the basement of the house, you can try the wines that the Tsinandali Winery produces.
b. The Alaverdi Monastery is one of the largest churches in the region and was built in the 10th Century.
c. The Alazani Valley is Georgia’s largest and most stunning natural feature. The valley is made by the Alazani River which flows from the Caucasus into Azerbaijan. On a clear day, you can see across the valley and the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus Mountains.
d. Sighnaghi is the showcase city of the current regime of Georgia. Sighnaghi has just been restored and is especially intended for tourists. The city was built in the 6th Century and still has all of its fortifications in tact.
Sighnaghi is situated on the top of a bluff overlooking the Alazani Valley. Sighnaghi has a citadel at its highest point with the Church of St. Stephan in it. You climb the fortified tower of the citadel and enjoy the breathtaking views.
e. Dedoplistsqaro is one of the easternmost towns of the Kakheti region, being only 30 km from the Azerbaijani border. Dedoplistsqaro is home to some stunning natural monuments plus the area around Dedoplistsqaro has some literary history. Many famous writers called Dedoplistsqaro home for some time. Some of these writers include Alexander Dumas, Alexander Pushkin and Lermontov.
Some other places to see in Dedoplistsqaro is the Tamar Fortress which is two large pieces of rock towering up on the side of the plateau. This is an excellent place for rock climbing and hiking. At the Tamar Fortress you can enjoy breathtaking views of the Alazani Valley and on a clear day you can even see into Azerbaijan.
Another area near Dedoplistsqaro is the Eagle Canyon which is formed in between two walls of rock that form an image of an eagle in flight. Dedoplistsqaro is also home to Elias Mountain, which is home to a monastery that is currently being restored.
f. The Vashlovani Nature Reserve is one of Georgia’s biggest nature reserves. The Vashlovani Nature reserve spans along the Azerbaijani border along the Alazani River and spans northward to Lagodekhi and the Caucasus Mountains.
The Vashlovani Nature Reserve is great for the nature lover because the reserve has several echo systems, being arid to semi-arid near Dedoplistsqaro to swamp and forest north near Lagodekhi.
Information about lodging in Kakheti
Kakheti is Georgia’s largest region and there are many places to stay. Telavi, however, is Kakheti’s regional seat and largest city. Telavi has plenty of hotels which you can find from any tour office in Tbilisi.
You can also get guided tours of Telavi from tour agencies in Tbilisi with hotel accommodations. Some places, such as Tsinandali, Qvareli, Shua Mta, Alaverdi and Gremi are within close proximity to Telavi and make great day trips if you choose to spend a week in Telavi.
As far as the eastern parts of the Kakheti region are concerned, there are many bed-and-breakfasts available in both Dedoplistsqaro and Lagodekhi. In Dedoplistsqaro, you can contact the Vashlovani Nature Reserve Ranger’s office to organize a tour of the Vashlovani Nature Reserve and the people at the Vashlovani Ranger’s office can also find you bed-and-breakfasts in Dedoplistsqaro and arrange tours to the Tamar Fortress, Eagle Canyon and Elias Mountain.
Shida Kartli is Georgia’s second largest region and is located to the west of Tbilisi. There are many interesting sights to see in Shida Kartli as well. Shida Kartli is considered to be the central region of Georgia and places of interest in Shida Kartli to visit are as follows:
1. Gori is the regional seat of Shida Kartli. Gori is also home to the Stalin Museum. This museum is a must see for anyone visiting Georgia. The Stalin Museum has a huge building with magnificent architecture and stained glass windows.
In this museum, you can see every aspect of Stalin’s life, from his boyhood to when he was the Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. There are many historic artifacts in the museum. Furthermore, on the museum grounds you can visit the house where Stalin was born and grew up as well as the railway wagon that carried Stalin and his apparachiks to the Potsdam conference that decided how to divide Germany at the end of the war.
2. Uplistsikhe, which literally means “God’s Fortress.” This is an interesting site to see and is not far from Gori. Uplistsikhe is a town that is made from a series of caves carved into a rocky cliff and was an ancient civilization around 5000 BC. The civilization in Uplistsikhe was about as, if not more sophisticated as the Roman Empire.
These people baked bread, made wine, had cement, medicines, and a system of government. In the 12th Century AD, St. Tamar was able to stop the Persians and the Turks from advancing and taking over Georgia at Uplistsikhe and at the top of this mountain is a church that was built after a massive Georgian victory.
3. Igoeti is not really a tourist area, however, in this tiny village on the way from Tbilisi to Gori was a checkpoint set up by the Russians during the five day war with Georgia in August of 2008. However, as the Georgian authorities have been working to repair the highway from war damage, they discovered an ancient archeological find and it might be possible to see some of the finds.
South Georgia, Trialeti and Adjara
Most of Shida Kartli is in the Mtkvari River Valley and to the north are the Caucasus Mountains, but that area is South Ossetia and is not recommended to visit. To the south, however, is Trialeti. Trialeti is no longer in Shida Kartli but Trialeti. In the Trialeti Mountains there are two places of interest and they are:
1. Borjomi is a mineral water spring set on the banks of the Mtkvari River. You can take a day trip to Borjomi from Tbilisi by rail. The train leaves Tbilisi around nine in the morning local time and you will arrive in Borjomi at lunch time.
The train leaves Borjomi at six in the evening and arrives in Tbilisi at 10 in the evening. You can get to the Mineral water springs from the Borjomi train station by foot. It is about a five minute walk. There are several springs in Borjomi.
You can cross a rapid stream that flows into the Mtkvari on a shaky metal bridge and the spring comes up out of the ground through a pipe in a cage. Ten people can fit into that cage to take water from the spring. Water bottles are sold at the park where the springs are located.
The bottles hold one gallon of water and cost two Georgian lari. The second spring is inside the Borjomi Park. These are warm water springs and this water has sulfur in it and is very good for people with digestive problems. Borjomi’s park also has some beautiful forests where you can hike.
2. Bakuriani is south of Borjomi. This requires several days to travel to Bakuriani. You can get to Bakuriani by taking the train from Tbilisi to Borjomi and then get off at the stop just before Borjomi and board a narrow-gauge train, known as the Kukushka.
This train will take you to Bakuriani. The best time to visit Bakuriani is in the winter time. Bakuriani is Georgia’s best known ski resort. In the summer time, Bakuriani has many trails through the Trialeti Mountains that are ideal for hikers.
Batumi is Georgia’s prime resort town on the Black Sea. The best time to visit Batumi is in the summer time and you can enjoy swimming in the Black Sea and you can also go to other Black Sea ports from Batumi’s small port.
Sarpi and the Adjara Mountains that make Georgia’s border with Turkey are home to a Megrelian-speaking people known as the Laz. Though the Laz are mostly in Turkey, this small part of Georgia is also Laz. You can walk up the trails into the Adjara Mountains surrounded by orange and mandarin groves with breathtaking views of the Black Sea and Sarpi.
You can also cross the border into Turkey in Sarpi and take a day trip in the part of Turkey that was once part of Georgia such as Trapzon.
Western Georgia consists of five regions. These regions are Samegrelo, Svanetia, Guria, Imereti, and Racha. These regions are some of the lushest regions in Georgia. There are many interesting places to visit in the western regions of Georgia.
A. Imereti is the largest of the western regions in Georgia. Imereti is a historical part of Georgia. Places to see in Imereti include:
1. Kutaisi is the regional seat of Imereti. Kutaisi has many historic sites including the Bagrat Cathedral, which at one time was the church where the kings of Georgia were crowned. The Bagrat Cathedral has been in ruins for a long time, but is currently undergoing restoration.
2. Gelati is not far from Kutaisi and is a large monastery and was also a place where the kings of Georgia were crowned.
B. Guria is one of the most subtropical regions of Georgia. Guria borders the Black Sea, but unlike the beaches in Batumi and Sarpi, which are rocky, the beaches in Guria are sandy. The sand is black and has magnetic properties. The main town to see in Guria is its regional seat, Ozurgeti.
In Ozurgeti is the Shemokmedi Cathedral which is uniquely built and is built with different colored stones and surrounded by palm trees and other gorgeous subtropical flowering and fruit baring plants.
C. Samegrelo is a region in Georgia which speaks another language besides Georgian. Samegrelo is home to the Megrelian people and their language is related to Georgian but is very close to Basque. Megrelian cuisine is some of the spiciest of Georgian cuisine and has some interesting meals, such as kupati sausage. Places to visit in Samegrelo include:
1. Zugdidi is the regional seat of Samegrelo and is an old city with many historic sites.
2. Poti is Georgia’s major seaport. The area around Poti is also believed to be the place where Jason and the Argonauts landed in their quest to find the Golden Fleece. The Golden Fleece is originally from Svanetia.
D. Svanetia is a small region in between Samegrelo and Abkhazia high up in the Caucasus Mountains. The regional seat of Svanetia is Mestia and Svanetia is best known for its towers that were built in the 6th Century. Svanetia is also the origin of the Golden Fleece. The Golden Fleece is how the Svans catch gold dust from the mountain streams of Svanetia.
They take a fleece and submerge it into the water and the fleece will trap the gold dust. In the past the gold dust was so abundant in the mountain rivers that the fleeces would come out of the water gleaming with gold dust and this is what Jason and the Argonauts saw.
E. Racha is also in the mountains and its regional center is Oni. Racha is well-known for its lakes and rivers and is a great place for recreation. Racha is also home to the Khvanchkara Wineries. Khvanchkara was one of Stalin’s favorite wines.
Georgia is a great country to visit, however, the people are very traditionalist, so there are a few things you should respect. Georgia is predominantly Orthodox Christian and many of the churches mentioned in this article are functioning and many of the historic sites have functioning churches as well. Keep this in mind. The local people come to these places to pray.
Rules to respect when entering an Orthodox church
There are several rules to respect for both men and women when entering and visiting an Orthodox church.
1. Must wear long pants and long sleeve shirts. No shorts or short sleeve shirts or T-shirts should be worn inside an Orthodox church.
2. Remove your hat when you enter a church.
1. Women must wear a skirt or dress that goes down to at least the knees. If wearing a skirt, the blouse must have long sleeves. A dress must have long sleeves also.
2. Head covering of some sort should be worn by women when entering in an Orthodox church. This head covering can be either a hat of some sort or a shawl.
If you follow these rules you should not have any problems. Also keep in mind that the taking of pictures or videos inside churches is strictly forbidden unless the lead priest gives you his blessing to do so. While visiting churches in Georgia, you should be quiet and speak softly. Try not to visit the churches when services are going on.
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