10 Things to Do in Mysterious Georgia

No, the other Georgia. The one that lies just south of the Caucasus Mountains, on the cusp of Asia and Europe. The one you’ve probably heard of but know little or nothing about. Here’s what you need to know for a deep dive into this fascinating but little-known land.

By: Mark Orwoll

Photo By: Mark Orwoll

Photo By: Mark Orwoll

Photo By: Mark Orwoll

Photo By: Mark Orwoll

Photo By: Mark Orwoll

Photo By: Mark Orwoll

Photo By: Mark Orwoll

Photo By: Mark Orwoll

Photo By: Mark Orwoll

Photo By: Mark Orwoll

Why Georgia?

Once a vassal of the Soviet Union, Georgia has reclaimed its national identity and age-old traditions, from music to wine, since gaining independence in 1991. The country’s budding culinary scene is a hot topic among foodies worldwide. The ancient mountaintop monasteries still exert their mysterious allure. And the wild mountain scenery is incomparable. Read on to discover 10 great ways to experience this underrated destination.

Explore Tbilisi’s Old Town

Tbilisi is Georgia’s leafy capital, with picturesque plane trees lining broad avenues and surrounded by green hillsides. Of all the neighborhoods, it’s hard to beat the charm of Old Town, with its twisting cobblestone lanes, colorful houses sporting ornate wooden balconies and red-tile roofs, and a lively street scene. Old Town is full of bars, shops, restaurants and outdoor cafés, many of which are clustered on pedestrian-friendly roads like the pulsating Erekle II. In recent years, the local government has mounted a campaign to save these centuries-old buildings from decay, so for the immediate future expect to hear the sounds of buzz saws and hammers in the pursuit of historic preservation.

Take a Bath

Tbilisi was founded in 458 A.D. on the site of the sulfur hot springs that still flow here today. You can soak in one of the brick-domed hammams and get a traditional massage, or you can just wander among the hilly streets whose buildings recall the Arabian Nights. The Abanotubani Bath Quarter, as the neighborhood is known, is a peaceful place for a stroll. A boardwalk runs alongside the sulfur-laden creek leading to a secluded 50-foot waterfall. Arched bridges cross the waterway, including a span on which lovers have attached thousands of bicycle locks to profess their love.

Eat Like a Local

Georgia’s cuisine is on every food-traveler’s lips these days, and rightly so. Its blend of peasant-style dishes and sophisticated seasonings makes dining here an unforgettable experience. Wherever you go in Georgia you’ll find khachapuri—flatbread filled with various styles of cheese (crumbly imeruli is especially popular) or variations filled with buttery curds, potatoes, beans or eggs. Vying for title of national dish is lobio (pictured)—baked red beans with onions and spices served in a clay pot with mchadi (Georgian cornbread) on the side. Expect exotic spices like crushed marigold and blue fenugreek, the freshest of vegetables, farm-raised carp, hundreds of cheese varieties and spicy chicken. Just don’t expect to walk away hungry.

Shop the Markets

Some are outdoors, others are in rickety old structures, still others are in side streets and alleyways. But wherever they are, you must visit one of Georgia’s colorful and chaotic food markets, or bazaars. At the market in Telavi, capital of the Kakheti Valley, you’ll find sour, spicy sulguni cheese with walnuts, fruit "leather" (boiled, pureed, rolled and dried fruit, a popular snack), flowers, spices, even skull caps and rusty electrical outlets. The Bodbiskhevi Bazaar in Tsnori is a massive outdoor market that will leave you reeling from the sensory onslaught. In Tbilisi, the Dezerter Bazaar is organized mayhem. Although you won’t find black-market weapons there as in the Soviet days, you can pick up some packets of aromatic spices to experiment with back home.

Meditate in a Monastery

Georgia is the second-oldest Christian nation (after Armenia), so there’s no dearth of ancient, often fortresslike monasteries. Ikalto Monastery (pictured), founded in eastern Georgia in the 6th century by 13 Syrian monks, exists today much as it did when it was built. In Alaverdi Monastery, also founded in the 6th century, crowds mill about, light candles, kiss framed icons and kneel before images of saints, lending the interior a timeless aura. Atmospheric Bodbe Monastery, overlooking the Kakheti Valley, is the burial site of St. Nino, who spread Christianity to Georgia in the 4th century. The 7th-century Jvari Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Georgia’s most sacred places, is where St. Nino planted a cross to commemorate the nation’s acceptance of Christianity in 319 A.D.

Follow the Georgian Military Highway

The Georgian Military Highway traces a route across the Caucasus used since time immemorial. Traders, thieves, refugees and warriors have all marched along its rugged heights, topping out at over 7,000 feet. The medieval Dukes of Aragvi raised a 60-foot watchtower at Ananuri Castle along the steep passage to look for marauding armies, which were numerous. More recently, the Soviets widened the road, paved it, smoothed it and built avalanche tunnels so military vehicles could use it even in the snowiest of times. Today the highway is more apt to see skiers heading to the winter-sports center of Gudauri than columns of soldiers.

Drink a Natural Wine

During the Soviet occupation, Georgia produced vast amounts of semi-sweet bulk wine for the Russian masses. Today, a growing number of Georgian winemakers are returning to their roots—literally and figuratively—by replanting native grape varieties that had gone out of fashion and using the traditional, natural method of fermenting wines in huge clay pots, called qvevris, buried in the ground. "Natural wines are less anchored, if you like, because they don’t have additives," says Carla Capalbo, author of Tasting Georgia. Expect to see popular whites like fruity Chinuri and light-bodied Rkatsiteli, favorite reds including deep-ruby Saperavi and semi-dry Tavkveri, plus a Georgian specialty—so-called orange wine, made from white grapes fermented partially in the skins.

Climb a Mountain

The Rooms Hotel Kazbegi in Stepantsminda, high in the mountains near the Russian border, is a former Soviet worker’s resort that has been transformed into an ultra-chic hostelry. The most stunning thing on view, however, is not the groovy lobby but the panorama of Mount Kazbek from the hotel terrace. It’s on par with almost any mountain peak you could name—the Matterhorn, Mount Rainier and Denali included. Put on your hiking boots and follow the trail up to the isolated 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church on the mountain’s slopes. Don’t be surprised to see long-haired mountain sheep, views that change with each passing cloud, and perhaps a cluster of lost hikers trying to find their way back to the steep, narrow and winding path to town.

Listen to Traditional Music

Polyphonia, the traditional Georgian singing style, is rich-throated and sonorous, with roots stretching back more than a millennium. During the Russian era, the style of singing was discouraged, yet the tradition has survived, even thrived—in churches, at family gatherings, restaurants, public events, even impromptu performances in airline terminals. At Pheasant’s Tears Winery in Sighnaghi, you may hear an acapella group singing mournful songs that could make you cry, though you don’t understand a word. The odd harmonies and sad overtones give polyphonia a special air of melancholy, yet like Georgia itself, the richness of the offerings portend an aura of meaningfulness and hope.

Hit the Road

Drive across the hilly highway from Tbilisi to the Kakheti Valley and see wild mushrooms, handmade cheeses, local apples and fresh honey for sale by the roadside in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them villages. Pass the ruins of a centuries-old fortress, watch clouds fill the valleys like smoke in a bowl, and wonder how the conical haystacks in the fields stay upright. Your camera will run out of memory before you lose your fascination with the sights of rural Georgia. But consider going with an organized tour or a private car and driver, says Jonny Bealby, whose Wild Frontiers has run tours in Georgia for 15 years. "I had a friend who tried to do it alone on public transport," says Bealby, "and she missed two UNESCO World Heritage sites because the local bus didn’t stop at them."

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