It’s what pushes us as travelers to reach such far-flung destinations. The allure of the unknown, delving into the flavors of unique cultures, or the chance to tell a new story that will become an integral part of your identity.
The Svaneti region is in a remote corner of Georgia’s Northwestern Caucasus mountains. This area has remained largely cut off from the rest of the world until recently when a road was built to connect the remote villages to the mainland of Georgia. Despite this, getting here is not easy and requires effort, making Svaneti off most travelers’ itineraries.
Svaneti is a bewildering mix of ancient stone villages, unique Caucasus cultures, and stunning mountain vistas. Those who brave the journey here will be rewarded with a story to bring home. Discover Georgia’s best-kept secret, welcome to Svaneti, Georgia, a destination I have wanted to visit for a long time!
Getting to Svaneti, Georgia
Fly to Svaneti, Georgia
Once you realize the distance between Georgia’s capital city Tbilisi to Svaneti you might start thinking about flying. The flight only takes one hour, but it books up months in advance and due to weather-related disturbances is canceled often. If you have a lot of time on your hands this might be a good option for you, but it will require a lot of patience.
Drive to Svaneti Georgia
This was the best option for me. It’s a scenic and beautiful drive from Tbilisi to Mestia with a stop for lunch in Zugdidi. However, I do not recommend this option for everyone. Georgians are some of the nicest people you will meet, but this changes when they drive. They are aggressive and reckless when they drive. The roads in Georgia are also terrible, many sections of the highway break off into traffic-clogged mud roads and in the mountains, the weather can cause rocks to randomly fall, destroying sections of the road.
If you have experience driving in countries with little to no road laws and understand how to drive in the mountains, then this will be as pleasurable of a drive for you as it was for me! Total driving took about 9 hours from Tbilisi to Mestia.
Public Transport to Svaneti
This is the longest and most painful option. Marshrutka or minivans drive the Tbilisi/Zugdidi Road at the speed of light daily. From Zugdidi, you can take a connection to Mestia, the capital of Svaneti via the mountain road. Public transport will often take 12 – 15 hours, weather dependent of course.
Mestia, The Capital of Georgia
Arriving in the evening to Mestia I could see the lights within the medieval towers dominating the skyline of the town. Looming above the Caucasus mountains surrounded the village hiding this valley paradise. It’s quiet here, the bustling cities of the lowlands didn’t make their mark here. Often you can count more pigs and cows on the town streets than people.
Mestia being the capital of Svaneti provides a decent base to explore the rest of the region. You can find nice hotels, great restaurants, and plenty of tourist information to help plan your trip to Svaneti. The town itself also has some great sights to keep you here for a day or two.
Top Things to See in Mestia, Svaneti
Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography
Svaneti is an archaeologist’s dream, the region has remained largely unexplored. What has been found here was discovered primarily by farmers and locals donating family heirlooms. These can all be found in Mestia’s, Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography. It’s a small, but very well put together museum displaying cultural artifacts dating back to 2000 BC.
Svaneti Cultural Museum in Tower
As it is unmarked, this tower can be difficult. But if you head up the hill and ask locals where the “Tower Museum” is they will point you in the right direction. For me, this was one of the best sights in Mestia. It is the only of the Svanetian towers in Mestia you can climb! It also provides amazing views of the town and admission is free.
Hiking Around Mestia, Svaneti
Hikes around Mestia range from easy to difficult. The best hikes can be found HERE. I highly enjoyed hiking from the town of Becho to Mazeri just a few kilometers south of Mestia. This hike provides stunning views of Mount Ushba. Another popular hike is to the Koruldi Lakes north of Mestia. Both hikes require the whole day and a lot of stamina.
Top Foods to Try in Svaneti
This is the real reason to visit Svaneti. Svaneti is known across Georgia to have some of the best food and spices! Mestia has some great restaurants as well, Café Laila and Chalet Mestia are just a few to name. While in Svaneti I highly recommend trying Kubdari a popular Georgia bread filled with beef/pork laced with the famous Svaneti Salt Spice!
The cheese in Svaneti is also renowned for its flavor and funk particularly the cheese known as “Sulguni”, which goes great with Georgian red wine. Lastly, you cannot leave Svaneti without trying Kharcho, a heart Svanetian stew made with chicken, walnuts, and rice also calling on another famous Georgian spice called Khemeli Suneli.
Getting to Ushguli
This, for Many, is the main draw to visiting the Svaneti Region. Ushguli is often labeled “the highest elevation village in Europe” sitting at a soaring 2100 meters (6900 feet).
The road to Ushguli is a bumpy, kidney bruising three-hour journey, but one that offers a stunning view of Mount Ushba, pristine high-altitude lakes, and a stop where you can climb up a 13th-century Svanetian tower located in the middle of a river.
Getting to Ushguli you have a few options, first do not, by any means try to drive your car rental here, unless however, you rented a 4×4. Most take the daily Mashrutka 4×4 to Ushguli, I do not recommend this option as you will only have a few hours in Ushguli to explore, but if your strap for cash then this is the cheapest option.
I rented a 4×4 and driver for 80 USD. This allowed me as a photographer plenty of time in Ushguli to witness the sunset and lots of stops along the way to photograph. I highly recommend spending the extra, so you have ample time to truly appreciate Svaneti’s top sight.
The Town of Ushguli
This is why I made all that effort to visit Svaneti. Ushguli is set atop a hill in a stunning valley surrounded by some of the Caucasus’ most dramatic mountains. Ushguli attained UNESCO status and has the largest concentration of Svaneti’s Medieval stone towers. Roughly 70 families (200 people) call Svaneti home each family maintains their towers and homes living as they have for centuries.
Navigating Ushguli by foot is easy, start by walking through the town up the hill towards the easily recognized Laria Monastery. From here you can see all of Ushguli and if you continue on north, you can see epic views of the Caucasus’ tallest peaks.
Just South of the Enguri Café is a hill with another medieval stone tower. If you are brave enough to climb the ladder which looks as old as the tower you will be provided with yet another amazing view over the town west of Ushguli called Cazhashi, which by the way is also worth exploring.
As the sun began to set the shadows of the towers stretched across the valley while the clouds seemingly pushed off the looming mountains above reminiscing a painting you might find in the Louvre. It was an astonishingly beautiful scene in which we shared with only locals as all of the other tourists had left hours before. This was my favorite experience in Svaneti, one story I tell many who want to know more about this remote, perfect town.