What To Know Before You Go: Republic of Georgia

What To Know Before You Go: Republic of Georgia

MIR’s Insider Tips on Travel to Unconventional Destinations MIR Vice President Annie Lucas shares her insider tips on what to see, do, eat, and drink in the gorgeous Republic of Georgia.


Georgia: Tucked into the South Caucasus region, the little country of Georgia is a gorgeous place boasting fabulous food, music and mountains. Its warm Mediterranean climate, deep black soil, saw-toothed mountains and Black Sea coast combine to make Georgia a Garden of Eden, overflowing with wine and rich in culinary flair – everything you could wish for in a destination.

Interested in traveling to Georgia? Here are our insider tips:

About Our Georgia Travel Expert: Annie LucasMIR Vice President Annie Lucas’ first trip to Georgia was in the early 1990s in the dead of winter. In spite of some chilly nights spent bundled in all her clothes when the old government-run system experienced electrical shortages – commonplace back then – she was totally taken with the congenial generosity of the people, the joyous feasts, free-flowing wine, and spontaneous songs, as well as the incredible beauty of the country’s soaring mountains and sheltered valleys.

Since then she has been back countless times, observing the gradual emergence of a top-flight tourism industry, the appearance of five star luxury hotels and cozy renovated properties where heating hasn’t been a problem ever since Georgia emerged from the darkness of those post-Soviet times.

Georgia: Where to Go and What to Do

Toastmasters at a traditional Georgian Table

Toasting at a traditional Georgian Table
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Astonishing

  • Hospitality

These are people who know how to have a good time, and they want you to have one, too. A proud independent spirit, a long tradition of lavish hospitality and an abundance of Nature’s gifts combine to make the Georgian people fabulous hosts, imaginative chefs, creative artists and open-hearted friends.

Annie Lucas with a new Georgian friend. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Annie Lucas with a new Georgian friend
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

  • Polyphonic singing

Georgia has one of the oldest and most intriguing polyphonic vocal traditions in Europe. Developing independently of Western European rules of harmony, Georgian vocal music has been passed down by ear for hundreds of years – possibly since the 5th century BC. It seems like everyone here can sing.

One of the country’s traditional songs, sung in the complex polyphony of the mountainous Svaneti region, was launched into space aboard Voyager I in 1977, along with other representative information about the humans from Earth. In 2008, the polyphonic vocal music of Georgia was elected to UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of humanity.

  • Wine legacy

Arguably the oldest wine producing area in Europe, Georgia today is generating a contemporary wine-making scene that harks back to its 8,000-year-old roots, when organic grapes were aged in huge earthenware vessels, called qvevri, and buried in the earth until they ripened into wonderfully full-bodied wines. This traditional wine-making method has also been added to UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Georgian wine has been made in qvevri for thousands of years. Photo: Mariana Noble

Georgian wine has been made in qvevri for thousands of years
Photo credit: Mariana Noble

  • Ancient humans

Four 1.7 million-year-old H. erectus skulls, and one even older, were discovered at the archaeological site of Dmanisi, a medieval Georgian town overlooking the confluence of two rivers where Silk Road caravans used to pass. They are thought to belong to some of the earliest hominids found outside of Africa, electrifying the paleontological world.

Excavation in Dmanisi, Georgia

Excavation in Dmanisi, Georgia
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

  • Georgian alphabet

The flowing Georgian script is one of perhaps only 20 true alphabets in the world. The winding characters of the alphabet resemble the trailing growth of the grapevine, and this motif is found in Georgian architecture throughout the country.

Essential

Make sure you take time for:

  • Walking in Old Town Tbilisi

Strolling the Old Town is a wonderful way to catch the flavor of the city. Stop for coffee or an aperitif, or buy a piece of gooey, cheesy khachapuri to consume as you walk along. The winding cobbled streets meander around to shops, old churches, schools and cafés, and the balconies of the upstairs apartments hang over your head. A few of the buildings are renovated, but many have not yet been touched – battered but handsome specimens of architectural delight.

Old Town Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo credit: Michel Behar

Old Town Tbilisi
Photo credit: Michel Behar

  • Touring Wine Country

Kakheti is wine country. Throughout the eastern Kakheti region, nearly every rural home has its own garden, grapevines, apple tree and chickens. Around every turn is another little winery tucked into the trees, and you can stop and taste the red and amber wines as you nibble on crusty bread and salty cheese.

On a hill overlooking the Alazani Valley, the Kakhetian town of Signagi boasts narrow cobbled streets overhung with wooden balconies that are richly carved with lacey ornamentation. Panoramic views of the brilliant green valley surround the town, and the steep Greater Caucasus Mountains loom in the distance.

Napareuli Vineyard, Georgia; Photo: Ia Tabagari

Napareuli Vineyard in the Kakheti region of Georgia
Photo credit: Ia Tabagari

  • Wining and dining at Pheasant’s Tears in Signagi

While you’re in Signagi, be sure to take a tour of Pheasant’s Tears Restaurant and Winery, a gem of a place producing robust organic wines and fantastic cuisine. The name of the winery comes from a Georgian legend in which the hero claims that it takes a “wine beyond measure” to make a pheasant cry tears of joy.

Sample Pheasant’s Tears wines, including some ancient varietals, see the vineyards where the grapes are grown, and visit the cellars where the grapes are macerated and aged in huge ceramic vessels. Called qvevri, the clay jugs have been used for winemaking for over 8,000 years in this part of the world.

Back at the restaurant, enjoy a feast of dozens of succulent dishes, with singing, dancing, a selection of organic wines, and a traditional tamada to lead the toasts.

An evening at the Pheasant's Tears restaurant in Signagi, Georgia Photo credit: John Wurdeman

An evening at the Pheasant’s Tears restaurant in Signagi, Georgia
Photo credit: John Wurdeman

  • Getting into the Caucasus Mountains

You really must try to get up into the Caucasus Mountains – they are such a characteristic part of the country.

You could embark on an exploration along the Georgian Military Highway, the only north-south route through the Greater Caucasus from Russia to Georgia. The spectacular highway runs from Tbilisi through rolling green hills and steep arid mountains dotted with ancient stone defensive towers, then over the Krestovy Pass at almost 8,000 feet. Along the way, herds of sheep may spill across the road and old fortress-like churches watch over the villages.

Alternately, head up to Svaneti, a remote and distinct mountainous region designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its remarkably preserved medieval appearance. Unreachable by car until 1935 when the cart track from the town of Zugdidi was widened to allow car traffic, Svaneti has maintained its own way of life for centuries. Plunging ravines and soaring sharp peaks get more and more dramatic as you drive up to this cultural wellspring, considered “more Georgian” than the rest of the country.

The Georgian Military Highway winds through jagged mountains and valleys in South CaucasusPhoto credit: Martin Klimenta

The Georgian Military Highway winds through jagged mountains and valleys in the South Caucasus
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Local Color

The delightful and unassuming Phoka Convent of St. Nino just off the roadside on the way to Vardzia has a lovely gift shop where they have tastings of the many varieties of cheese they produce themselves. The convent encompasses gardens, an apiary, a vineyard, and pastures where their animals graze. The Phoka nuns make not only cheese, but honey products from their bees, and chocolates.

A Phoka sister is surrounded by the convent’s delicious handiwork – cheese, honey, wines, flavored oils and jams. Photo credit:  Douglas Grimes

A Phoka sister is surrounded by the convent’s delicious handiwork – cheese, honey, wines, flavored oils and jams
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Expendable

While a visit to the Stalin Museum in the dictator’s hometown, Gori, is a one-of-a-kind educational experience, it might be too far away from Tbilisi if you are short on time. If time is an issue for you, you can still gain a clear understanding of the Soviet period in Georgia at the permanent exhibit, “Museum of Soviet Occupation,” at the Georgian National Museum in central Tbilisi.

Stalin House Museum in Gori, Georgia

Stalin House Museum in Gori, Georgia
Photo credit: Peter Guttman

 

Georgia: The Inside Scoop

Becho Valley in Svaneti, Georgia. Photo credit: Mariana Noble

Fall colors in Becho Valley in mountainous Svaneti, Georgia
Photo credit: Mariana Noble

To Everything There is a Season: When to Go

It’s possible to visit year-round, but the best weather is April-mid June and September-October. It’s quite hot in lowlands in mid July and early August, and snowy and cold in the mountains in the winter.

The summertime greenery in Tbilisi, Georgia

The summertime greenery in Tbilisi, Georgia

Oh, Snap: Best Photo Opps

Take a day trip up the Georgian Military Highway and start snapping. Also, be sure to capture some photos of the Alazani Valley below the hilltown of Signagi: The view from the balcony of the Kabadoni Hotel is the best.

A view from Signagi Photo credit: Mariana Noble

A view of Signagi from the Kabadoni Hotel
Photo credit: Mariana Noble

Shop Savvy: Local Treasures

Check out the textiles at La Maison Blue Craft Studio, a small studio established in 1994 by five artists, where you can watch them do batik dyeing. Don’t miss getting yourself and your friends at home some organic Georgian wine, especially from Pheasant’s Tears Winery. You can find all kinds of natural wines at the Vino Underground in Tbilisi.

Pick up some bottles of local organic wine at the Pheasant's Tears Winery. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Pick up some bottles of local organic wine at the Pheasant’s Tears Winery
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Pack This

Very important: Stock up on sturdy bubble wrap or flight safety bags for all the wine you’re going to want to bring home to family and friends!

Also, women should bring along a head scarf in their purse or daypack. You’ll feel like you fit right in when stepping inside the Orthodox churches.

Oops: Travel Bloopers

Thinking you’re expected to eat everything you’re served – and attempting to! Georgian hospitality decrees that the table must still have lots of food on it when every guest is stuffed. It’s a sign of abundance. A host would be terribly ashamed if her guests ate up everything she gave them; it would mean they were still hungry.

The bounty of a Georgian Table. Photo credit: Ia Tabagari

The bounty of a Georgian Table
Photo credit: Ia Tabagari

Airport Strategy

There’s no need to fear arrivals or departures from Tbilisi International Airport (Shota Rustaveli Airport) – it’s new, clean and the only place I’ve ever been where the customs/border patrol agents greet you in true local style: On one memorable occasion, the passport control official said, “Welcome to Georgia,” and handed me a small bottle of the special Saperavi Georgian wine – believe it or not! No visas are required for U.S. citizens, Europeans and many other nations.

 

Georgia: Where to Eat and Sleep

The view from a favorite boutique hotel in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo credit: Mariana Noble

The view from a favorite boutique hotel in Tbilisi, Georgia
Photo credit: Mariana Noble

Hotel Heaven: Tbilisi

  • Classic and upscale: The beautiful five star Marriott Tbilisi Hotel is located in the heart of Tbilisi on Rustaveli Avenue, within walking distance of the Parliament, museums, the Opera House and the Rustaveli Theater.
  • The relatively new Rooms Hotel is definitely also worth a stay.
  • More moderate but excellent: Located right in the city center within walking distance of galleries, gardens, museums and other popular attractions, the four star Marriott Courtyard Hotel offers spacious and comfortable accommodations.
  • Boutique hotels are up and coming in Tbilisi as well. Boutique 12 and Vinotel are among my favorites.

Hotel Heaven: Outside the Capital

  • Vardzia Resort Hotel: Built on a hillside across from the cave town of Vardzia, the Vardzia Resort is beautifully landscaped, with rock terraces, waterfalls and flowering plants. The timbered restaurant serves regional cuisine, and an outdoor swimming pool with a sweeping view is available for guests.
  • Kabadoni Hotel in Signagi: The four star boutique Kabadoni Hotel opened in 2012 and features a restaurant and bar serving Georgian and European cuisine and creative wine selections, a pool, health club, sauna and spa services. Choose a room with a balcony overlooking the Alazani Valley – fantastic! The restaurant has indoor/outdoor seating with spectacular views of the valley, as does their meeting room.

Restaurant Report

  • Black Lion: The trendy Black Lion in Tbilisi is a handsome cellar restaurant found under an alleyway painting of a royal-looking black lion. The food is remarkably eclectic Georgian cuisine, with an emphasis on fresh, local, wild and organic.
  • Azerpesha: Tbilisi’s Azerpesha is a chic wine restaurant with a classy interior decorated with old photos and the huge clay wine vessels called qvevri.
  • Culinarium: Part cooking school, part restaurant, and part wine-pairing experience, Tbilisi’s Culinarium features innovative Georgian fusion cuisine and an extensive list of natural wines.
  • Pheasant’s Tears: This Signagi restaurant serves superb local and organic cuisine. The chef presides over a seasonal menu of savory and surprising dishes, accompanied by the perfect organic Georgian wines.
Pheasant's Tears Restaurant in Signagi, Georgia. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Pheasant’s Tears Restaurant in Signagi, Georgia
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Cheap Eats

You can find the warm cheesy bread called khachapuri on nearly every street corner in Tbilisi, and on most dining tables. It’s round like a pizza, but it doesn’t have tomato sauce – only cheese. Lots of cheese. The cheese is folded into the dough, as well as melted on top. It’s a perfect appetizer or a quick meal when you’re too busy to stop for long.

Laden with cheese, khachapuri is one of Georgia's most famous breads, and one of Devin's favorites Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Laden with cheese, khachapuri is one of Georgia’s most famous breads
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Drink Like a Local

At Tbilisi’s Vino Underground wine bar you can taste and compare the wonderful Georgian wines. The dining menu here has lately expanded as well, so you can experiment with wine pairings and enjoy your wine with a meal, as it is meant to be enjoyed.

The group chatting during our introduction to Georgian wine.Photo: Mariana Noble

The group chatting during an introduction to Georgian wine at Tbilisi’s Vino Underground wine bar
Photo: Mariana Noble

 

Travel to Georgia with MIR

MIR has more than 30 years of unmatched destination expertise and travel planning experience, hand-crafting tours to Georgia and the South Caucasus since 1986. Fall in love with this part of the world on MIR’s small group tours to Georgia:

You can also opt to travel on your dates and at your pace on one of MIR’s private independent trips or on a private journey of Georgia, customized to your desired dates and style.

A colorful performance in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo credit: Richard Fejfar

A colorful performance in Tbilisi, Georgia
Photo credit: Richard Fejfar

Top photo: Pheasant’s Tears Winery co-founder and winegrower John Wurdeman with Annie Lucas and Douglas Grimes (MIR President and Founder)

PUBLISHED: November 11, 2015

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