Georgia Transport Guide: Marshrutka Madness

Georgia Transport Guide: Marshrutka Madness

Georgia Transport Guide: Marshrutka Madness

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Georgia is a very well-connected country. Trains connect major cities, and marshrutkas largely pick up the slack for getting you to other locations around the country. You’ll be able to find train timetables online, but marshrutka timings are a mystery unless you speak to locals or other travellers that have taken the same route.

Before we got to Georgia, I had read a lot of less than shining reviews of Georgian drivers, in particular marshrutka drivers.

Were our experiences as terrifying as the reviews had made out that they would be? Absolutely not, not even close. And we took loads of marshrutkas all around the country over six (ish) months.

Our experiences were largely positive, but there definitely were some hair-raising moments, bouts of serious motion sickness, and times where we nearly fell out of our seats. But, you know, it’s all part of the authentic Georgian experience, and really, you haven’t properly been to Georgia if you haven’t had at least one marshrutka ride!

This Georgia transport guide will help you prepare for the marshrutka madness on your next trip to this astounding country.

So what even is a marshrutka?

A marshrutka is essentially a minivan. You generally find them in ex-Soviet republics – the Stans, the Caucasus and some in Eastern Europe. They travel a set route from A to B, have very little leg room or luggage space and are usually the cheapest transport option.

Georgia Transport

How well-connected are the cities?

If you are in Tbilisi, you will be able to get a direct route to almost anywhere in the country. If you’re in Batumi or Kutaisi, you will (more or less) be able to get anywhere in the west of the country. For other smaller locations, you will largely be able to get to other relatively nearby locations. So for example, you’re in Kutaisi and you want to get to Telavi in the very east: you will have to go to Tbilisi and change marshrutka. All roads quite literally lead to Tbilisi.

Where can I find timetables?

Now, this is a tricky one, because timetables don’t really exist online. There isn’t anything official, but you’ll be able to find information for your next destination once you are at the bus station. Your other option is to ask locals, check with your accommodation host, or read up on articles like ours about destinations in Georgia. Basically, you need to find people in the know.

We have had many accommodation hosts in smaller towns or villages literally call the driver to check timings. I guess there is maybe one guy who services the route.

When should I get to the bus station?

As a rule of thumb, we plan to get there twenty/thirty minutes early. This is a rule that we have stuck to throughout our travels so far and it works pretty nicely. It means you have time to find the right marshrutka and get your luggage packed up before others have arrived. However, it all depends on the rules of the specific marshrutka.

Every marshrutka, bar one, that we have taken in Georgia (and we’ve travelled around the country for near on six months) has left at a designated time. Some, however, just leave when they are full, or when they have enough money from the passengers to make it worth them taking the journey.

We took a marshrutka from Zugdidi up to Mestia that was meant to leave around 12, that actually ended up leaving at 10:45. The only reason we arrived this early was because I had read up online that the Zugdidi Mestia marshrutkas leave when full, so we got there an hour and a half early. Good job we did this!

Are there marshrutka stations?

So where do you get the marshrutka from? The bus station. Georgia doesn’t really have many intercity buses or coaches. But the stations from which you get your marshrutka are referred to as ‘bus stations’, even though they are really marshrutka stations. Some cities will have a bus station that is just a couple of marshrutkas parked up at the side of the road, others are absolute mayhem like Didube in Tbilisi. You will usually be able to find the bus station locations on Maps.me or Google Maps, but not always. If in doubt, just ask around: Georgians are really helpful and friendly.

things to do in gori, street art

Which Tbilisi station should I go to?

Tbilisi was the only city we came across that had several different stations servicing different areas of the country, so bear that in mind. 

Marshrutkas leaving from Didube head to most of the country. If you’re going to Kazbegi, Mtskheta, Gori, Borjomi, and further west in the country: head to Didube.

stalin museum, things to do in gori

If you are heading to anywhere in the Kakheti region or over to the east, these marshrutkas leave from Ortachala. Some people may tell you to pick it up from Isani, but that’s not actually where the marshrutkas depart from: they just stop here to pick people up. So, if you have luggage, want to secure yourself a seat, or are just unsure about flagging down a marshrutka, go to Ortachala ahead of time instead. The closest metro station is called Isani. From here, it is a twenty minute walk downhill to Ortachala.

These are the two stations that service the majority of the country, but there are also other odd places around Tbilisi. For example, we have seen signs for marshrutkas to Mestia leaving from the car park in front of Tbilisi Central Train station. If in doubt ask around, because Didube and Ortachala are absolutely nowhere near each other.

Georgia Transport

How do I pay for the ride?

Now this can vary, but the common factor is that you will always have to pay in cash. Sometimes, you have to pay at a ticket desk at the bus station, and then show the driver the ticket. Sometimes, you pay the driver in cash when you get on the marshrutka at the bus station. Sometimes, and this is the most common, you just pay the driver when you get off the marshrutka. Try to have more or less correct change for the driver. Paying for a 5 GEL trip with a 100 GEL note won’t go down too well. If the first two options are required, the driver will let you know.

How much does a journey cost?

Really not much at all. Travelling by marshrutka is the cheapest way (bar hitchhiking) to get around the country. An hour long trip to Gori, cost us 5 GEL. A four and a half hour mountain road trip up to Mestia cost us 40 GEL. The most expensive that we have seen advertised is Mestia to Tbilisi at 50 GEL, but that is literally a journey from one end of the country to the other, so it’s not bad at all.

What if I need to get out before the final destination?

The marshrutka is driven a specific route, and you can get on or off at any point along this route. Just get out of your seat and tell the driver when you want to get off. We took a marshrutka from Ozurgeti, heading to Batumi, but got off half way at Kobuleti. We have even got out early because the marshrutka route was right past our accommodation, so instead of stopping at the bus station, we just jumped out five minutes early.

If you know the route that the marshrutka takes, you can even stand at the side of the road and just flag it down as it comes past. This is a little riskier though, purely because there might not be seats available. And if you have large backpacks like ours, it means it can cause some awkwardness as you try to squeeze into the already small marshrutka with them (you might get some disapproving looks!).

So what’s the situation with luggage?

This is where it can get awkward. Marshrutkas generally only have a tiny space behind the last row of seats to store luggage. Your bag will either be slid under the last row of seats or squeezed between the back of the seat and the back door. Sometimes though, there might be other people with luggage too, or the marshrutka might be dropping products off to someone en route (therefore no luggage space!). In this circumstance, get ready to do some jiggery pokery to get your bag in a position that doesn’t block the way for everyone else in the marshrutka. (I have genuinely had situations where I have had my knees round my ears, and had to have my 20 kg backpack on my knees for a full journey in Armenia. But that’s a story for another time.) For popular routes, Kutaisi to Mestia as an example, the marshrutka might have an extension that they attach to the back of the vehicle. You don’t have to pay extra for your luggage.

My advice is to pack light when visiting Georgia!

Georgia Transport

How uncomfortable is a marshrutka journey?

I guess it really depends on how long your legs are! I, at about 5’6’’, have no issues with leg room. Chris at 6’2’’ish usually has more difficulty and has to put his legs out into the aisle. Get prepared to get cosy with the other passengers, is my advice. Even when the seats are all full, the marshrutka will stop along the route to pick up others. There is always space for more in a marshrutka, even if it means standing. Marshrutkas are great for shorter journeys – maybe up to three hours. Anything longer, and I would recommend trying to get the train.

What is the road safety like?

So, marshrutka drivers go pretty quickly, and Georgian drivers overall aren’t the most cautious. There aren’t seatbelts in marshrutkas so hold on tight. Marshrutka journeys down winding mountain roads are the most difficult to stomach; we both ended up feeling ill and we don’t really get motion sickness.

Have you taken a marshrutka in Georgia? What was your experience?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations and questions.

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Top Tips for the Tbilisi to Yerevan Train

Top Tips for the Tbilisi to Yerevan Train

Top Tips for the Tbilisi to Yerevan Train

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For a budget backpacker, an overnight journey always feels like a win because you save on a night’s accommodation! And while you save money, you often lose the will to live once you arrive at your destination because you are so knackered from the night before. Now, don’t get me wrong, this overnight train isn’t strictly an exception to the rule; you will be tired. But, because of the timings of border crossings, and the (half) decent sleeping conditions, you’ll likely be in a better state than you were expecting when you get to the other side. Also, this is an experience in and of itself!

We have put together this guide to share all our tips on taking the Tbilisi to Yerevan train overnight, and hopefully answer the questions that you might have.

How long is the journey?

Our journey took about eleven hours. Obviously, if there is a hold-up at the border for whatever reason, the time could vary, but this gives you a general idea. The train leaves Tbilisi Central Station promptly at 20:20, and we arrived into Yerevan Railway Station at about 07:00 the next day.

What are the sleeping arrangements like?

Well, it depends on your ticket. Fancy first class is two beds in a cabin, second class is four bunks in a cabin, while third class is an open carriage with loads of bunks (only ever two bunks high). We travelled in third class, and honestly, it was pretty good. Everyone was given a beige sheet, pillow and pillowcase, and the bunks themselves were comfortable enough.

tbilisi to yerevan train

What facilities are on board?

There are toilets and evidently a shower (because we were given a towel with our bedding), but we didn’t try it out.

There is nowhere to buy food on board, so you need to buy everything that you would need for the whole journey in Tbilisi beforehand. Some people brought small kettles with them. Others brought litre bottles of vodka. There is a water dispenser, but I would still recommend bringing your own water.

The top bunks have access to a thin window, while the bottom bunks have a small table in between them. Each bunk has power outlets, reading lights, a couple of hooks to hang up jackets and a pocket to put your important stuff in while you sleep.

The bottom bunks have luggage storage under the bunks, while the top bunks have luggage storage above the bunks. So if you have heavy bags, it’s better to go for the lower bunks.

night bus from Plovdiv to Istanbul

How is best to buy tickets?

We bought our tickets at Tbilisi Central station as we didn’t have much luck working out how to do it online. When you reach the station take the escalators to the top floor, and take a ticket from the machine. (There was no one there when we arrived, but still, we were asked to take a ticket.)

Make sure you have cash and your passport with you. If you need cash, the Liberty ATM on the floor below by the Turkish coffee stand does not charge withdrawal fees.

Our third class tickets cost 85.8 GEL each. 

I would always recommend booking the tickets at least a few days in advance. Having said that though, there were people buying tickets on the day while we were waiting for the train; they got on with no problems.

How often does the train run?

Now, this is something that is forever changing. Back in the olden days (I mean 2022/23), the train ran every evening in the summer months, and every odd-numbered date in the winter months. This year (2024), my understanding is that the odd-numbered date rule has remained throughout the whole year of 2023 and into 2024. My advice would be to assume that you can travel only on the 1st, 3rd, 5th etc. of each month, and plan your accommodation around this just in case.

What is the Georgia border crossing like?

You should get to the Georgia border crossing at around 22:00. Everyone had to get off the train and queue to have passports checked and stamped. Once everyone has a stamp and is back on the train, border security walks the full length of the train to double check all the stamps have been issued. The whole process took 60 – 90 minutes.

What is the Armenia border crossing like?

We got to the border at around 00:30. The border guards came on to the train with portable passport checking devices. They scanned everyone’s passports, and stamped them on board. We were the only non-Russian speakers on the train, and so we were unable to communicate with the border guards. Maybe this was a blessing in disguise, because they couldn’t ask us any questions! Again, this probably took about 60 – 90 minutes.

Arrival into Yerevan

So, the rest of the journey is smooth sailing until you reach Yerevan at around 07:00, so you could get a good five hours of solid sleep.

Onward travel in Yerevan

Yerevan Railway Station is right next to Sasuntsi David metro station, so you can use this to get into the centre of the city. The metro starts running at around 07:30, so no need to rush off the sleeper train! You’ll need to pay 100 AMD in cash for a plastic token to ride the metro. There is an ATM in the metro if you haven’t got any local currency yet.

Otherwise, you can jump in a taxi. I would recommend downloading GG Taxi, a local Armenian taxi app so that you don’t have to barter with the drivers. You’ve only just entered the country, you don’t know the going rate of a taxi ride, haven’t got a grasp of the new currency yet either, and are tired, which means that taxi drivers are likely to rip you off! Sasuntsi David metro station supposedly has free wifi. If not, see if a local could call you a GG, you can jump in and pay in cash.

So what was the whole experience like overall?

It was pretty painless actually. The train left on time, the beds were comfortable enough, the border crossings were smooth. My main criticism is the fact that the third class area doesn’t have much ventilation which means that their gets very breathy and sweaty. It didn’t seem the healthiest especially in the post-COVID era.

But would I recommend it? Yes. It was an experience to get the old Soviet train to take you from A to B, and it was more comfortable than a marshrutka would have been.

Don’t fancy an 11-hour sleeper train?

I get it, it’s not everyone’s bag. There are a few marshrutkas that run this route every day from Avlabari and Ortachala bus stations in Tbilisi. They tend to leave when they are full, so turn up early and prepare yourself for an hour or so’s wait. The marshrutka will then arrive into Kilikia bus station in Yerevan.

The journey is quicker than the train, and cheaper than the train, so if you’ve done the old Soviet train thing, and are just looking to get the journey done, this alternative might be for you. 

Marshrutkas are small, have little leg room or luggage space, can get really uncomfortably packed and claustrophobic, and the drivers are generally not the most cautious.

Fancy giving this route a go? Or have you already travelled this way? 

I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations or questions.

Thanks for reading!

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Tbilisi Sulphur Baths: Brutal Yet Therapeutic

Tbilisi Sulphur Baths: Brutal Yet Therapeutic

Tbilisi Sulphur Baths: Brutal Yet Therapeutic

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A quick trip to Tbilisi sulphur baths is a unique and authentic experience. The smell, the temperature, the roughness of the scrub down; it’s not something you will forget in a hurry. And while it may not be the most relaxing experience, it was definitely a highlight of our Tbilisi trip. Find everything we wished we had known before we visited the Tbilisi sulphur baths in this guide.

Tbilisi sulphur bath

Bathing in the thermal waters is a quintessential Georgian experience, and I really wanted to give it a go (Chris not so much, but he came along anyway). From the outside, it seems a bit dodgy, maybe because it’s underground and hidden? A little nervous as to what was in store, we booked ourselves in and just went with the flow… and I can report that it is not dodgy. It is however, also not a luxurious spa-type experience. It was brutal from the start to the end of the hour, but I would do it all over again if I were to get the chance!

This is one of our favourite things to do in Tbilisi in winter. Find out more about winter in Tbilisi here.

This guide will give you a good idea of what a Tbilisi  sulphur bath experience is all about, what to expect and top tips to get the most out of your visit.

History of the Baths

Legend says that King Vakhtang Gorgasali founded the city of Tbilisi when discovering the natural thermal springs of this area, Tbilisi literally meaning ‘warm place’.

The capital city of Georgia at this time was Mtskheta (about a thirty minute drive north of Tbilisi), but was relocated to Tbilisi after its founding and establishment in around the 5th century AD.

Believed to have healing properties, bathing in the thermal, sulphur-rich waters became popular for locals and visitors alike: Tbilisi’s position on the Silk Road made the baths more accessible.

While several baths are still functioning, the tradition maybe isn’t as prominent as previously. Still, the baths are frequented by locals and tourists alike seeking the healing properties or to learn/experience this ancient Georgian tradition.

Which bathhouse is best?

I can only recommend one as we only experienced the baths at Gulo’s Thermal Spa. We were recommended this through the Tbilisi free walking tour, and I can say it was definitely good advice.

100 GEL got us an hour in a private room with mosaic decoration, a hot pool, and a cold pool. I paid an extra 10 GEL for a kisi scrub (more on that later).

The bathhouse was clean and well-organised, and the staff were really friendly and helpful.

Gulo's Thermal spa, tbilisi sulphur bath

How to book your appointment

We just turned up to the bathhouse and booked our slot a few days in advance. Some places will take bookings over Facebook etc. Otherwise, you can call ahead and book. Or ask your Tbilisi accommodation host to do this for you.

We visited in December, so the prime time while people want to warm up from the cold, and we had no problems booking. When we arrived on the day, the slot before us was empty, so we were able to start earlier. My point is, even if you only have the one day and you really want to try it out but haven’t booked yet, turn up and ask the question: chances are, there will be something free for you.

How much does it cost?

For a private room, expect to pay 70 – 120 GEL. We went for quite a large room that had a hot and cold pool which came to 100 GEL. Some rooms also have saunas and the cost will be on the higher end of this scale.

For a public bath, the cost should be less than 10 GEL each.

For a kisi scrub, which I would fully recommend, it costs an extra 10-20 GEL.

Do you have to go in the nude?

This is the bit that got me! Was it going to be expected that everyone stripped down to go in the baths?! If you book your own private room, you can wear whatever you want. Go naked or wear your swimmers: whichever makes you more comfortable. There will be no one else there (unless you book a traditional kisi scrub – more on that later) and you can even lock the door from the inside if you are concerned.

I haven’t tried the public baths, but I understand that it is expected that you go full on starkers with a bunch of strangers here in sex-segregated baths.

What is in the private room?

It completely depends on the room that you book. However, most will have an area for you to change and leave your things, an area to shower or use the toilet and then an area with the hot pool and somewhere to sit/lay down. We had a room with a hot pool and a cold pool (which I would highly recommend as a bit of respite from the searingly hot water). Some more expensive rooms have sauna facilities too.

sulphur baths

What to bring with you

The rooms are really steamy and the water is almost sceriously hot, hovering around 40°C. So if you only take one thing to the baths, I would make it a bottle of water. Apart from this, we brought swimmers, a towel, and a bag for our wet stuff. I made sure I had a hair band to tie my hair up so that it didn’t get in the sulphury water too.

There are showers there, so if you wanted to shower, bring your shower gel, shampoo etc. or just go back to your accommodation to shower (bear in mind that showering at the baths will eat into your booked hour). For a small fee, you can hire a towel, slippers etc. Make sure you ask about this before going into the room.

What extras are worth paying for?

Some bathhouses offer a massage or a kisi scrub. My understanding is that the traditional thing to do is get a kisi scrub. It is definitely an experience in itself and only costs an extra 10 GEL (about £3). Do not sign up for this thinking that you are going to get a spa treatment. It is rough and shocking, but your skin will feel soft and smooth by the end of the ten minutes. Find my kisi scrub experience at the end of this post.

tbilisi sulphur bath

Things to bear in mind

  • It gets bloody hot in the pools. Like really hot. Around 40°C hot. I was honestly shocked when I first dipped my toe in. Bring some water with you because you could easily become dehydrated.
  • The floors will be slippery. Watch your step and maybe use the slippers.
  • You may experience light-headedness. I can’t say that I have ever really had that feeling except after going from the hot pool to cold pool, and then trying to stand up. Steady on.

My experience at the sulphur bath with a kisi scrub

We arrived about 15 minutes early and were let straight into our room. We weren’t given any instruction, just shown to our room, the door shut and that was that. This was when the clock on our one hour slot started, not on the hour as we had booked. I requested a kisi scrub before we went into the room.

Inside our room was a small cloakroom with a bench and pegs to hang our clothes up. We left our clothes there, and went in in our swimmers. I took a few photos of the rooms before we jumped in. We did not lock the door, as the merkise (the person doing the kisi scrub), would need to come in at some point.

We took our water bottle down to the pools (which I would recommend you do too), and then I tested the water of the pool with my foot. It was so so hot, to the extent where I thought there was some kind of mistake. How were we meant to bathe in this water?! I stepped one foot in, let it acclimatise a bit and then stepped the other foot in. I held on to the side of the pool and very gingerly lowered myself towards the water. After about five minutes or gradually lowering my body millimetre by millimetre into the searing hot water, I finally had the water level above my shoulders. Bloody hell, this was intense.

After a couple of minutes, my body decided that was enough. I stood up and made my way into the cold pool. The contrast between the scalding hot and freezing cold was a major shock, and so again, I had to use the same method of gently lowering myself in.

Just as I made it in to the cold pool, a woman walked in, saying ‘gamarjoba!’ (hello). The merkise had arrived to do my kisi scrub. I stood up to get out of the pool and suddenly went really lightheaded; these extreme temperatures had messed with my head! I sat on the stone bench. She dunked a big bucket into the hot pool and threw the water at me. What?! Then she dunked the bucket into the cold pool and threw it at me. This was not how I was expecting it to go!

‘Take off your top and lay on your front’ she ordered. Erm, ok? She took an abrasive exfoliating mitt, slapped me all over and then vigorously scrubbed at my body from neck to toes. She stopped for a few seconds before throwing a bucket of the searing hot water over me again. ‘Turn over’. Slapping and scrubbing was repeated on the front, followed by another bucket of water chucked at me.

Next, she grabs what looks like a pillowcase, dunks it in a soapy bucket and rubs it all over my body before (yes, you guessed it) chucking two hot buckets of water, followed by a bucket of cold water at me. And that was the end. After less than ten minutes; the merkise picked up her stuff and just walked out.

I sat there a bit confused and shocked at the bizarre and brutal experience. But I had baby-soft skin, so you know, swings and roundabouts. I got myself back together and went and dunked myself in the hot pool again. By this point, my skin had become used to the extreme temperatures swings, and I was able to get into the pool much easier. Spending no more than five minutes in either pool, we were switching between them. Scalding, freezing, scalding, freezing.

And as we started to get used to it and actually enjoy it, there was a knock on our door by someone telling us we had ten minutes left. We got out the pool, didn’t use the showers because we were going straight back to our apartment, got changed, and went and paid for at reception by card.

So what was my verdict on the Tbilisi sulphur bath with kisi scrub? In the moment, it seemed bizarre, but looking back on it makes me want to try it out again! I did feel really good after, the pools were beautiful and the staff were professional. I would highly recommend it as an authentic and definitely memorable Tbilisi experience.

Have you been to a Tbilisi sulphur bath? Or are you planning on giving it a go?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations and questions.

Thanks for reading!

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11 Great Things to Do in Gori (except the Stalin Museum)

11 Great Things to Do in Gori (except the Stalin Museum)

11 Great Things to Do in Gori (except the Stalin Museum)

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Looking on the map, I was a little concerned how close Gori sits to the border of the Russian occupied territory of South Ossetia. With the claim to fame of being the birthplace of Stalin, as well as housing a museum dedicated to him, it all just felt wrong. But, there had to be more to this city than its relation to Stalin and proximity to Russian occupiers. So we booked our accommodation and off we went in search of all the things to do in Gori.

And it was a really good move.

Gori ended up being one of the most underrated parts of Georgia that we visited, especially if you’re in to modern history like us: the city is full of Soviet relics.

Gori has such charm with its retro and Soviet detailing, its old town, fortress, memorials, churches and street art. And the city also works as a great base to visit the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe. But, unfortunately, it is the dark tourism and pull of the controversial Stalin museum that still brings in Gori’s visitors. Let’s try to change this narrative and start visiting Gori for Gori, because it really is a fascinating place irrespective of the bizarre museum. I hope I can answer your questions on Gori and convince you to visit with this post!

How to Get to Gori

Gori is an easy journey from Tbilisi taking just over an hour whether you travel by train or marshrutka.

We took the 08:50 train from Tbilisi Central Station and arrived into Gori just after the 10:00. The ticket price was 8 GEL (+1 GEL online booking fee if you book through TKT.ge). Once you get off the train, walk across the abandoned tracks and head over the bridge into town. We walked to our accommodation which took about 20 minutes, but local buses kept stopping for us to offer us a lift (probably because it was so bloody cold!).

Regular marshrutkas also head to Gori each day. Get to Didube bus station (brace yourself, it’s manic) which is easily accessible by metro, and ask for Gori. Someone will point you to the right van. Pay on the bus in cash. It will likely be around the same price as the train (between 5 and 10 GEL). Gori bus station is in the north of the city and is a good 30 minute walk into the centre. Local buses will take you into the centre; just ask around at the bus station.

When to Visit Gori

Gori has a definite no-go season: this was the time that we visited! Winter is brutal here; we have never experienced cold like it. The weather forecast was misleading. When we were planning our trip, we saw that the temperature was expected to be around the freezing mark, maybe a little below. However, this did not factor in the real feel, which was at least ten degrees colder because of the icy wind.

So, yes, we were exploring Gori in -13°C real feel. Taking my gloves off for a minute to take a picture would genuinely feel like the blood in my fingers was icing up. Having said that, we really enjoyed the city (more than we were expecting) even in Arctic conditions, so that speaks volumes. I’d recommend heading to Gori no earlier in the year than March.

How Long to Spend in Gori

We stayed for five days, which I think is a record based on the surprised faces of everyone who asked how long we were in town. I would recommend allowing for two full days to get a chance to see everything in Gori and take a day/half day trip out of the city.

A Short Gori History

Gori was founded by King David the Builder in the seventh century. As the medieval kingdom of Georgia started to fall into decline, the city came under the control of several empires, namely Persian, Ottoman and Russian.

An earthquake destroyed most of the city in 1920. As Gori was the birthplace of Stalin, the city was largely rebuilt during Soviet rule under Stalin’s orders.

In 2008, the Russo-Georgian War saw Gori controlled by Russian and South Ossetian military for less than two weeks, before control returning to Georgia.

Today, Gori still has a distinctly Soviet feel about it.

The South Ossetian region, as with Abkhazia, is run by its own separate government alongside Russia. These two areas make up the 20% of Georgian territory controlled and occupied by Russia.

2008 Wasn’t Too Long Ago. Is the Situation Now Safe?

When we were in Gori, we felt safe the entire time (as we have done throughout the rest of the country). The town is not so close to the border that the likes of gov.uk recommend against visiting. The biggest current issue is ‘border creep’, where locals living near the border wake up one morning to find that the border has been moved forward and their garden is now sitting in the ‘occupied territory’. However, the main city of Gori is not in this zone.

South Ossetia, however, is completely off limits for tourists visiting from Georgia.

things to do in gori, street art

Should You Visit the Stalin Museum?

Is it the right thing to do? I had my reservations before visiting, as I had read many reviews about how appalled visitors were about the museum almost feeling like a shrine. I do feel that you should visit the museum, just take everything you are told in the museum with a big old pinch of salt. Full blog post on the Stalin Museum is on its way.

stalin museum, things to do in gori

Things to Do in Gori

Search for all the Retro Details

Keep an eye out and you will no doubt find examples of Soviet retro-ness all over Gori. Rusted signs and staircases, hammer and sickle symbols, letterboxes in Cyrillic, classic Ladas parked up roadside, communist style apartment blocks, propaganda-style memorials.

soviet letterbox, things to do in gori

retro sign, things to do in gori

war memorial, things to do in gori

Spot the Relevant and Thought-provoking Street Art

You will find really good street art around the city, in particular the new pieces in the underpasses near the town hall. There are a few pieces that perfectly depict very current issues that Gori is going through. The best-known displays the tragic reality of border creep on a bullet-hole ridden wall from the recent barrage from the Russian occupation of 2008.

As well as street art, Gori has its own Art House. When we visited in January, it was unfortunately closed, so we didn’t get a chance to see any of the exhibitions. If you have had the chance to visit, please let us know how it was!

street art, things to do in gori

Walk up to the Fortress for Uninterrupted City Views

Gori Fortress offers beautiful panoramic views over the city and surrounding mountains. The fortress itself isn’t much to rave about, but the views from up here are worth the short climb. There is no entrance fee for the fortress.

fortress views, things to do in gori

See the Creative Memorial for Georgian War Heroes

The memorial is at the base of the fortress. It consists of large statues of soldiers sat in a circle with varying degrees of woundedness. Completely different to any other memorials we have seen in Georgia, this is particularly striking and thought-provoking. Definitely worthy of a visit.

war memorial, things to do in gori

war memorial, things to do in gori

Take a Free Walking Tour with Zhana

Taking a walking tour with a local always gives you a great flavour for the city, and Zhana’s free walking tour is no exception. With plenty of insight into the current political situation, the Russian occupation of 2008 and the continuation of border creep, Zhana helps you to understand what the people of Gori and IDPs of South Ossetia have gone/are still going through. Explore the rest of city and get some great restaurant recommendations. Contact Zhana on Facebook to arrange your tour.

Stop by the Holy Archangels Church

Close to the base of the fortress and the Georgian War Heroes memorial is the Holy Archangels Church. Step inside to see the brightly painted walls.

See the Unique Designs of All 1001 Tiles

1001 Tiles is an art installation of (you guessed it) 1001 ceramic tiles. Each is decorated with traditional Georgian designs, patterns and pictures. The end result of all these carefully curated tiles placed together is beautiful.

1001 tiles, things to do in gori

1001 tiles, things to do in gori

Pop your Head into Gori Train Station Waiting Room

Inside Gori train station you will find two waiting rooms: one where you can actually wait for your train, and another that is off limits (ish). Inside the off limits waiting room is a huge statue of Stalin. There are signs on all the doors forbidding entry, but the doors are made of glass so you can easily see the statue and/or get a half decent picture.

Stalin statue in train station, things to do in gori

Wander the Ethnographic Museum

The Ethnographic Museum has some really interesting pieces including deer-shaped drinking vessels and small, mysterious human figures with their hands raised. It is a small museum that won’t take you more than thirty minutes to get around. Entrance is 5 GEL to be paid in cash.

Gorge on Ossurian Khachapuri

Oohh, I am big khachapuri fan. And on our travels around the country, I hunt down regional varieties of these cheesy and fluffy breads (or pies depending on who you are talking to). Ossurian khachapuri is traditional to South Ossetia so you can find it here, in nearby Gori. It is a beautifully baked bread stuffed with cheese and potato. It’s pretty substantial because it is essentially carbs stuffed with carbs, but it is absolutely perfect for the cold weather we were experiencing in Gori.

ossurian khachapuri, things to do

Take a Half-day Trip out to Uplistsikhe Ancient Cave City

Uplistsikhe is about a twenty minute drive away from Gori, and so makes a perfect side trip. The ancient city carved into the rock is reminiscent of those in Petra and Cappadocia but on a much smaller scale.

uplistsikhe, things to do in gori

Have you been to Gori? Or maybe you have other suggestions to add to the list?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations and questions.

Thanks for reading!

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Why You Should Visit Tbilisi in Winter: 12 Great Reasons

Why You Should Visit Tbilisi in Winter: 12 Great Reasons

Why You Should Visit Tbilisi in Winter: 12 Great Reasons

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Tbilisi is the ultimate winter city break destination. This characterful and historical city is full of unique things to do, cosy cafes and bars to retreat to when you get too cold, fascinating cultural differences, and of course the best comfort food.

After spending five weeks here over Christmas, we knew that we had to let you guys in on how amazing this city is. Find our top reasons for exploring Tbilisi in winter in this guide.

You Can Celebrate Christmas Twice!

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: what? Georgia is an Orthodox Christian country which means that Christmas is not celebrated on 25th December, like in the west. Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on 7th January in Georgia, so you can celebrate on both days.

Makle sure to get hold of some gozinaki (caramelised nut brittle) and churchkela (nuts coated in thickened grape juice) over Christmas.

christmas tree, tbilisi in winter

You Can Also Celebrate New Year Twice!

New Year on 31st December seems to be a bigger deal than Christmas in Georgia, and Georgia really loves its fireworks. In Tbilisi, you’ll hear fireworks being let off each evening running up to the end of the year, and then 31st December is really where everyone goes to town with all the fireworks!

We have never experienced anything like it. Make sure you are somewhere with a good view over the city from a window, and just settle in with a drink for a good hour or two. The lightshow is constant.

There isn’t an organised display, this is purely the people of Tbilisi setting their own fireworks, which makes it all the more impressive.

Orthodox New Year (or Epiphany) is a much smaller affair celebrated again with fireworks on 14th January (so the evening of 13th Jan).

Warm Up with a Traditional Sulphur Baths Experience

Hot mineral springs run under Tbilisi, and this is actually what inspired the name for the city: Tbilisi literally means ‘warm place’ in Georgian. People have been bathing in the hot mineral rich waters for centuries as it is believed to have medicinal properties.

There are plenty of options of bathhouses in Abanotubani district of Tbilisi, from the extravagant to the very much rough and ready. BUT (and this is a big but) do not go into this expecting a relaxing spa-like experience, because that is absolutely not what you will have. The water is naturally very very hot, hovering around 40°C, so it takes some getting used to. And if you get yourself a kisi scrub, it is brutal, but in a good way!

Genuinely, it is an amazing experience, and the perfect way to warm up after exploring the city in the cold. I will definitely be going to another thermal bath when we return to Tbilisi! Watch this space for a full blog post on what to expect at a Tbilisi sulphur bath.

sulphur baths, tbilisi in winter

Walk with the Alilo Christmas Parade

Every Orthodox Christmas Day (7th January), there is a parade of people that walks along the whole of Rustaveli Avenue through the centre of Tbilisi. People wave Georgian flags and wear traditional Georgian dress. Each year there is a different theme. The 2023 theme was ‘caravan’ which was to do with the role of Tbilisi and Georgia on the ancient Silk Road. This meant that there were floats in the shape of huge elephants and camels.

This is such a wholesome and patriotic event to witness.

alilo christmas parade tbilisi in winter

Georgian Cuisine is the Ultimate Comfort Food

Take a break from exploring the city by hopping into one of the many amazing restaurants. In Tbilisi in winter when it’s cold outside, there is absolutely nothing better than comforting, carb heavy Georgian food. Lobio (spiced baked beans) with a khachapuri (cheesy bread), or maybe get a plateful of steaming herby mushroom khinkali (soupy dumplings).

adjarian khachapuri, tbilisi in winter

khinkali, tbilisi in winter

Take a Break from the Cold with a Glass of Georgian Wine or Chacha

Georgians know how to make the tastiest wines, so hop into a cosy bar to give them a try! My favourites are Tsinandali, Tsolikauri and Pirosmani (all whites), but if red is more your thing, try Saperavi which is probably Georgia’s most well-known wine. If you prefer spirits, or are just looking for a quick shot of warmth, get yourself a chacha. This is a local liquor that burns as it travels down your throat and into your stomach, instantly warming you up!

Georgia has many interesting and unique drinks. Find out about them all in this blog post.

Learn About Georgia in Tbilisi’s Many Museums

Tbilisi has loads of museums, and good ones at that! Our favourites are the Wine Museum, the Georgian Museum of Fine Arts, and the Georgian National Museum. As well as these more official museums, I would recommend a stop at the Tea Museum at Bitadze Tea Shop. This has a very small selection of tea memorabilia, but the guys running the place will tell you all about the history of tea in Georgia as well as give you a tea tasting. Who knew Georgia was tea making country?!

Feel Festive at the Christmas Markets

Since Christmas is a couple of weeks after 25th December, the markets start in late December and continue into the beginning of January. There are usually different markets all across the city. You’ll find stalls selling handmade Christmas gifts and mulled wine along Rustaveli Avenue, near the metro station. Fabrika usually opens its courtyard for a weekend to be turned into a Christmas market. And Antoneli Street becomes a Christmas market street with stalls and decorations as a semi-permanent fixture for a couple of weeks.

Buy Yourself a Traditional Chichilaki

A chichilaki is a beautiful wooden Georgian Christmas tree. A piece of (usually) hazelnut wood has small layers of wood shaved into spirals. Presidential buildings when we visited in winter 2023 were decorated with the biggest chichilaki we saw, while we bought a mini one off a street vendor to bring a bit of festive spirit to our apartment.

chichilaki, tbilisi in winter

It’s Prime Persimmon Season

Even though all the leaves are falling off the trees, the bright orange persimmons remain (which really shocked us!). Georgian persimmon are juicy, sweet and full of flavour. Buy yourself a bagful, but make sure they are soft. Leave them on the side in your accommodation until they are almost squishy – this means that they will be perfect! If you eat them a bit too early, they have an astringent quality which isn’t the best.

persimmon, tbilisi in winter

A Freshly Baked Lobiani Makes the Perfect Hand Warmer

Georgian bakeries sell a myriad of soft and chewy savoury goods. The absolute ultimate is the lobiani – spiced beans stuffed in a baked bread. Perfect for breakfast, lunch, dinner or even a hefty snack, this is essentially a full meal in itself. We basically lived off these while we visited Georgia.

lobiani, tbilisi in winter

Tbilisi Doesn’t Wake Up Until 11am

This means that there is no reason to get up early and rush to get things done! Most museums, bakeries, shops etc. won’t get going until late morning, so heading out early is only any good if you want to get some quiet street photography shots. So hibernate in your warm cosy bed for longer without feeling guilty. You’re getting in tune with the true way of Tbilisi life!

Have you experienced Tbilisi in winter? Or maybe you’re adding it to your list?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations and questions.

Thanks for reading!

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Top 10 Things to Do in Kutaisi (plus day trips)

Top 10 Things to Do in Kutaisi (plus day trips)

Top 10 Things to Do in Kutaisi (plus day trips)

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Our introduction to Kutaisi was not the best. We had arrived into the city during torrential rains, and we were soaked through. The location we had for our accommodation was wrong, which just added to the fun that we were already having.

Accommodation eventually found, we dried off, and headed for some well-deserved mushroom khinkali. We did the classic ‘nibble a little hole in the dough and drink the soupy juices’, and wow, we were impressed. The tastiest (and least expensive) khinkali that we have found in the whole of Georgia are right here in Kutaisi!

Aside from the delicious khinkali, Kutaisi is a beautiful city that doesn’t have the intense city vibe. Its modern bars and restaurants contrast with its traditional architecture. The ferocious river Rioni flows through the city while traditional Soviet cable cars fly up and over to the hilltop amusement park. And beautiful Bagrati Cathedral stands atop a hill, overlooking charming Kutaisi.

The longer we stayed, the more we discovered the charm of the city, and the more we returned – three times so far! This guide showcases all our favourite things to do in Kutaisi to help you plan your trip here, as well as day trips and onward travel to explore other areas of Georgia too.

A Very Brief Kutaisi History

Kutaisi was the first capital city of the United Kingdom of Georgia for over a hundred years during the middle ages. In the early 1500s, the Ottomans took control of Kutaisi and the Imeretian region as well as south Georgian regions.

Wanting to take the control away from the Ottomans, the Imeretian king turned to the Russian Empire for help. The Russian-Turkish war ensued, resulting in Kutaisi and the Imeretian region being annexed by the Russian Empire in 1810. Georgia (including Kutaisi) gained independence in 1991.

things to do in kutaisi

Travelling to and from Kutaisi

Flights

Kutaisi has a modern international airport (KUT). Serviced by many Wizz Air flights means that Europe to Kutaisi is very much accessible…unless you’re flying from the UK. No direct flights yet means that you’ll have to get a connecting flight elsewhere in Europe first.

Marshrutka

If you are in Tbilisi, head to Didube bus station (easily accessible from Didube metro station).

Marshrutka journeys that we have taken in and out of Kutaisi:

Chiatura to Kutaisi: make your way to the Chiatura bus station located here. Buy a ticket at the office using cash. There are a few marshrutkas each day. We caught the 11:30 which took about two and half hours and cost 10 GEL.

Kutaisi to Chiatura: head to Kutaisi central bus station. You can reach this by catching the #1 marshrutka from Colchis fountain roundabout. Top tip from the woman we spoke to at tourist information – get on at McDonald’s (on the roundabout), and then get off when you spot another McDonald’s right at the bus station (about 15/20 minutes or so). Jump on the marshrutka, pay 60 tetri in cash when you get off.

In the bus station ask around for Chiatura. They will direct you to the ticket office. Pay your 10 GEL in cash and jump on the marshrutka. We caught the 11:45, and they seemed to depart every hour or so.

Kutaisi to Ozurgeti: get to Kutaisi central bus station (see tips above). Ask around for Ozurgeti, and you will be directed to the marshrutka and the ticket office – note that the ticket office for Ozurgeti is in a different part of the station to that for Chiatura. Pay 12 GEL in cash.

We caught the 11:00 (there are also departures at 15:00, 16:15 and 17:30), and the journey lasted an hour and a half.

Trains

We have taken the train from Tbilisi to Rioni (a town just south of Kutaisi) on two occasions. The trains to Rioni tend to be quicker than those heading into Kutaisi.

Buy your train tickets either online at tkt.ge or at the train station directly. I would recommend getting the 08:25 heading to Zugdidi (as this is the fastest), and jump out at Rioni at around 12:00. From here, get the #3 bus into Kutaisi town centre. You can tap your Starling card on board to pay the 1 GEL fee. The bus journey will take maybe twenty minutes.

One point of note, we were unable to get any phone signal at Rioni station with our Magti sim card, so were unable to call a Bolt or Maxim taxi. The bus is really the only way to get into town, unless you’re lucky to spot a taxi hanging around the station.

Accommodation in Kutaisi

On a tight budget? Grab a room at Marco Polo. This guesthouse is run by a really friendly local lady who does not speak a word of English, but will always greet you with a big smile and a ‘gamarjoba’. Simple and clean rooms in the centre of the town.

Nana’s Home is a lovely guesthouse close to the Colchis fountain roundabout but tucked down a quiet side road. The rooms are clean and there are plenty of little nooks, balconies and communal areas to enjoy a glass of wine in the evening/morning coffee. Budget prices, but not quite as budget as Marco Polo.

Things to Do in Kutaisi

See the Colchis Fountain

The Colchis fountain is huge and marks a roundabout in the city centre. It is adorned with golden structures based on archaeological findings throughout the country. Horses, goats, deer, tamada (the toastmaster) all sit on blue pedestals as water jumps around them.

Take a Soviet Cable Car Ride

This is definitely an experience. The Soviets loved putting fairgrounds on top of hills and then connecting a rickety cable car to them, and Kutaisi is not an exception. The fairground rides are not the reason to go (we spent about ten minutes up here before heading back down), the ride in the Soviet cable car up and over the river Rioni is the reason.

Georgia is full of cable cars, but many have fallen into disrepair, and others have been completely revamped into modern versions. Kutaisi’s system has been revamped, but the cable cars themselves have held on to their rickety Soviet feel. I was particularly shocked when we stepped inside and the whole car dropped down with our weight! (You don’t get that sort of excitement in a modern cable car.) Pay 1 GEL, and away you go.

soviet cable car, things to do in kutaisi
soviet cable car, things to do in kutaisi

Admire River Rioni from the White Bridge

The White Bridge stands over Rioni river. See the statue of a boy with two hats that relates to the film ‘An Extraordinary Exhibition’ filmed here. You’ll see Georgian inscription on the walkway and some glass tiles meaning that you can see straight through to the river. Linger here for a little while, enjoying the views.

white bridge, rioni river, things to do in kutaisi
river rioni views from white bridge, things to do in kutaisi

Bargain for Local Produce at the Green Bazaar

The Green Bazaar is a covered market largely selling fresh produce. See stands full of fruit, veg and herbs; cheeses, churchkela and dried fruit, spices, wine and chacha. Make sure you get a shoti (Georgian, canoe-shaped bread) straight from the tone (tandoor-style oven) at Bread and Wine within the bazaar.

green bazaar cheeses, things to do in kutaisi

Explore Kutaisi’s Backstreets

Take a couple of hours to explore some of Kutaisi’s interesting architecture away from the main city centre. Head up to the Green Flower Pantheon and Mtsvanekvavila Church for some stunning views up the river. Walk back down towards Kutaisi synagogue, and then over to what is marked on Google Maps as ‘Old House’.

Take a look into the St. George’s Church complex and walk around the back to head down to the river’s edge. Carry on down the road towards the Holy Annunciation Temple before wandering back into the city centre. We found so many little side roads with characterful architecture, rusted gateways, wonky staircases and doors full of charm. Keep your camera at the ready!

Kutaisi Holy annunciation church, things to do in kutaisi

Venture up to Bagrati Cathedral for Stunning City Views

Bagrati Cathedral is a fifteen minute walk across Kutaisi’s chain bridge and up steps the other side of the river. The building itself is impressive from the outside with blue/green roof tiles, but is very plain and simple inside. Venture up here to get great panoramic views across the city, with mountains in the backdrop.

bagrati cathedral, things to do in kutaisi
city views from bagrati cathedral, things to do in kutaisi

Find Kutaisi’s Old Soviet Friezes

There are a couple of prominent Soviet friezes in Kutaisi, notably at the entrance to the Green Bazaar. This frieze is huge and covers the entire side of a wall. Another is at the Wissol petrol station just below Bagrati Cathedral: you’ll find the artwork on each side of the station.

green bazaar soviet frieze, things to do in kutaisi
Wissol petrol station soviet frieze, things to do in kutaisi

Search for Street Art

Kutaisi has street art concentrated in the centre of the city near Papavero restaurant, and then one by Story restaurant, as well as other locations dotted around the city. They’re generally large murals that cover whole walls and really stand-out pieces.

See the Retro Cinema Signage

Although Kutaisi doesn’t currently have a cinema, it used to have two. You can see the retro signage remnants of both in the city centre – Radium and Mon Plaisir.

radium, things to do in kutaisi
mon plaisir, things to do in kutaisi

Wander the Free Museums

Kutaisi has three museums which have free entry – Georgia Sports, Military Glory, Photo Cinema Chronicles. If you have a rainy day in Kutaisi, you could go for a wander round these. There isn’t much signage in English, but for free entry, they are interesting to wander through.

The Photo Cinema Chronicles was our favourite as it had many old fashioned cameras and old pictures of Kutaisi, Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati and Motsameta Monasteries.

Day Trips and Onward Travel from Kutaisi

Gelati and Motsameta UNESCO Monasteries

This is THE day trip to take from Kutaisi. Jump on a marshrutka out of town to Gelati monastery, and then walk back to town via Motsameta monastery. You will feel like you’re hiking through the rainforest on the way back – honestly breath-taking. A blog post with tips of how to visit the monasteries is on its way.

Tskaltubo – Urbexer’s Paradise

Tskaltubo is a partially abandoned town known for Soviet sanatoriums. The large buildings are really impressive and a playground for urbexers. It is a quick twenty minute marshrutka ride from Kutaisi, so makes a great day/half-day trip.

However, the reviews that I had read on the town didn’t quite set me up for how uncomfortable the place would make me feel. It is such an interesting, historical place, but maybe not for everyone. I will share my experiences in a blog post coming very soon.

tskaltubo sanatoriums, things to do in kutaisi

Chiatura – Soviet Mining Town with Cable Cars

The Soviet mining town is about a two and half hour marshrutka ride away. We stayed for a couple of nights to try out the new cable cars and explore the old, abandoned Soviet ones, and Mgvimevi Monastery built into the cliff face. A Chiatura blog post is coming soon.

Ozurgeti – Tropical Tea Town

The capital of the generally overlooked region of Guria was a very pleasant contrast with the cities we had explored throughout the country so far. Beautiful, characterful, traditional oda-style houses built on stilts with huge winding staircases and balconies, Soviet mosaics, mountain scenery, tea plantations and the friendliest people!

Did I mention the Guruli khachapuri?! Heaven. This area feels so tropical and laid-back. Ozurgeti blog post is in the works.

Have you visited Kutaisi? Or are you planning a visit?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations and questions.

Thanks for reading!

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