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Georgia (Georgian: საქართველო, transliterated as Sakartvelo) is a land of considerable natural diversity, flanked by the Black Sea on its west and the Greater Caucasus Mountains on the north. Warm seaside towns like Batumi are complete with palms and cypresses, exuding a delightful exotic feel, while further inland, the lush Kakheti region and its many miles of vineyards is world-renowned for the quality of its wine.
It seems appropriate, then, that Georgian culture be as diverse and distinctive as the Georgian landscape. Long recognized by major civilizations as a strategic location, the region passed through Mongolian, Turkish, Greek, Arabian, Persian and Russian hands. The influences of these cultures have shaped modern-day Georgia into a perplexing land, where East and West meet and fuse.
Evidence for the earliest occupation of the territory of present day Georgia goes back to about 1.8 million years ago, as evident from the excavations of Dmanisi in the south-eastern part of the country. Later prehistoric remains are known from numerous cave and open-air sites in Georgia.
The two early Georgian kingdoms of late antiquity, known to ancient Greeks and Romans as Iberia and Colchis were among the first nations in the region to adopt Christianity in the 4th century AD. In the last centuries of the pre-Christian era, the area, in the form of the kingdom of Kartli-Iberia, was strongly influenced by Greece to the west and Persia to the east. After the Roman Empire completed its conquest of the Caucasus region in 66 BC, the kingdom was a Roman client state and ally for nearly 400 years.
The Georgian Kingdom reached its zenith in the 12th to early 13th centuries. This period has been widely termed as Georgia's Golden Age or Georgian Renaissance. Georgia was subjected, between 1386 and 1404, to several disastrous invasions by Timur. Neighbouring kingdoms exploited the situation and from the 16th century, the Persian Empire and the Ottoman Empire subjugated the eastern and western regions of Georgia, respectively. As a result of wars the population of Georgia was reduced to 250,000 inhabitants at one point.
In 1783, Russia and the eastern Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti signed the Treaty of Georgievsk, according to which Kartli-Kakheti received protection by Russia. On December 22, 1800, Tsar Paul I of Russia, at the alleged request of the Georgian King George XII, signed the proclamation on the incorporation of Georgia within the Russian Empire, which was finalized by a decree on January 8, 1801, and confirmed by Tsar Alexander I on September 12, 1801.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Georgia declared independence on May 26, 1918 in the midst of the Russian Civil War. The country's independence did not last long, however. Georgia was under British protection from 1918-1920.
In February 1921 Georgia was attacked by the Red Army. The Georgian army was defeated and the Social-Democrat government fled the country. On February 25, 1921 the Red Army entered capital Tbilisi and installed a Moscow directed communist government. From 1941 to 1945, during World War II, almost 700,000 Georgians fought in the Red Army against Nazi Germany.
On April 9, 1991, shortly before the collapse of the USSR, Georgia declared independence. On May 26, 1991, Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected as a first President of independent Georgia. Gamsakhurdia stoked Georgian nationalism and vowed to assert Tbilisi's authority over regions such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia that had been classified as autonomous oblasts under the Soviet Union. In 1995, Shevardnadze was officially elected as president of Georgia. At the same time, simmering disputes within two regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, between local separatists and the majority Georgian populations, erupted into widespread inter-ethnic violence and wars. Supported by Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with the exception of some "pockets" of territory, achieved de facto independence from Georgia.
In 2003, Shevardnadze (who won reelection in 2000) was deposed by the Rose Revolution, after Georgian opposition and international monitors asserted that the November 2 parliamentary elections were marred by fraud. Mikheil Saakashvili was elected as President of Georgia in 2004. The latest conflict was the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia about South Ossetia.
Although Georgia may seem as a relatively small country, it is big on geographical diversity. It has its own seashore, with the cities of Batumi in Adjara and Sokhumi in Abkhazia being hotspots in summer. The northern regions are as mountainous as could be, with eternal snow on the highest summits, like Mount Kazbeg, which rises over 5000 metres above the central fertile valley of Georgia. This mountains are not always easily accesible though and some areas are better visited with a local guide who knows the people.
Another typical part of Georgia is the wine region in the northeast and east of the country, in particular Kakheti, where different sort of grapes are grown, waiting to become wine eventually and join a good Georgian party.
Georgia is divided into nine regions, two autonomous republics, and one city.
The region of South Ossetia since 2008 is now also an autonomous republic and occupied by Russian forces. Entry into this area for travellers is now forbidden and controled by border check points.
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Travelling north from Tbilisi towards the border with Russia, the landscapes get more beautiful around every bend. After about two thirds of the three hour trip to Kazbegi, you can enjoy the Khada Valley and its ski resort of Gudauri. Kazbegi itself is a small town, not far from the border with Russia which is closed to foreigners. Its setting is as pretty as you can imagine, with snowcapped Mount Kazbeg (5030 m) towering above the town. Being here feels a bit strange as well, because you are actually very close to areas where, to say the least, safety matters are not what you would call very fine. North and northeast is Chechnya and (north)west are North and South Ossetia, the former in Russia, the latter in Georgia itself. Kazbegi remains safe though and you will feel very welcome in this place. A great day hike is the walk towards Tsminda Sameba, the hilltop Georgian church, with great views across the mountain ranges on either side of the valley that Kazbegi is in.
Ushguli is one of the oldest settlements in Europe and a visit to this area is a step back in time. Take a guide and don't wander around by yourself. The Upper Svaneti region of the Caucasus is on the UNESCO World Heritage List because of its exceptional example of mountain scenery with medieval-type villages and tower-houses; the village of Chazhashi has more than 200 of these very unusual houses, which were used both as dwellings and as defence posts against the invaders of the region.
Kutaisi is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the 11th century Bagrati Cathedral and the slightly younger Gelati Monastery with its mosaics and paintings. Both represent the highly developed society of the medieval location of today's Georgia.
It might not be a beautiful town, but it has historic significance. Josef Dzhugshvili, better known as Josef Stalin, was born here in 1878. Gori is one of the last places on earth where his statue can be found, lonely on the central square. Another major attraction is the Stalin museum, with Stalin's train carriage next to it. Apart from this, Gori has a very nice fortress overlooking the town and the mountains to the north.
Mtskheta and its historic churches are on the UNESCO World Heritage List as well. The former capital of Georgia has outstanding examples of medieval religious architecture in the Caucasus.
The Georgian Pankisi Gorge is situated in the very heart of the High Caucasus and is one of the most northern regions of Georgia. There are lots of pedestrian and horse trails running through the region, making it a great destination for outdoor activities including hiking, treks and climbing. Ruins of old forifications, turrets and churches are visible throughout the valley. You can reach the gorge from Ortaczala bus station in Tbilisi by the marszrutka, a type of minibus, which runs on a regular basis. The travel time is approximately 3.5 hours.
Because of its geographical diversity, Georgia has both distinct season as huge differences between the different areas. In general though, it is best to avoid Georgia in the winter months of November through March and the hot summer months of July and August, when Tbilisi can become an oven. Visit Georgia in late spring (late May through to June) and early autumn (September to early October), when you will enjoy warm weather in the valley, along the Black Sea, and higher up in the mountains. It is usually dry in these months with some showers to cool things off now and then, and you can enjoy both the beach and hiking in the Caucasus Mountains.
If you do visit Georgia in winter or summer, bear in mind though that temperatures can be as low as -25 °C or as high as 42 °C, respectively. Batumi has a more temperate climate, but it is more humid as well. And of course, in winter you can enjoy some good skiing, especially in the area around Gudauri, north of Tbilisi on the Military Highway.
Tbilisi International Airport (IATA: TBS; ICAO: UGTB) is the main gateway of the country. There are connections to most neighbouring countries and the Middle East. Direct flights from Europe can be taken from London, Munich, Riga, Vienna, Amsterdam, Kiev and Athens. Comming from Asia is best to connect through Dubai or Istanbul. Direct flights via Moscow and Russia at the time of writing have been suspended.
Batumi International Airport (IATA: BUS) on the Back Sea Coast also has direct flights from Ukraine (Georgian Airways) and Turkey (Turkish Airlines).
With Georgia being more and more popular lately, more connections are being linked with Tbilisi.
You can enter Georgia from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey. Borders with Russia are closed to foreigners though. Be sure to have your visa, passport and car registration documents in order and have a international driving permit. Main roads in Georgia are quite good, though some border crossings can be pretty bad, such as the crossing through Georgia between Turkey and Armenia in the southwest.
There are connections to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, either by bus or by marshrutka, the Georgian minibus. Buses travel as far as Istanbul and Athens which can take up to 2 full days to get there. Currently, the border with Russia is closed to foreigners and travelling across this border is not recommended anyway. Also, you can not enter from Russia to Georgia via Abkhazia, as this is considered illegial by Georgian authorities.
There are ferries from the Black Sea ports of Poti and Batumi, mainly to Sochi in Russia and to Ukraine, although occasionally there are crossings further away to Bulgaria (Burgas) and to Trabzon in Turkey, mainly in summer. Sokhumi has a port with ferry crossings to Sochi only, not with other ports in Georgia.
A new ferry operates between Sochi, Russia to Batumi, Georgia. It is a high speed hydrofoil which operates three times a week, Wednesdays at 10:30am, Fridays at 9:30am, Sundays at 10:30am. Check the port of Sochi for more information about those crossings.
One of the main operators is UKR Ferry between Georgia and Ukraine.
Airzena Georgian Airlines flies to and from Tbilisi, Butani, Kutaisi and Senaki.
There are several train connections in Georgia which are worth it. The main line runs from Batumi in the west to Tbilisi in the east and from there it runs further to Azerbaijan. It also stops in Kutaisi and Gori.
Renting a car is a possibility and you can even bring your own car if you are an EU citizen. Still, it is best to rent a car with a driver, either for smaller trips or extended multiple day trips to places like Svaneti in the central northwest. Some roads are in good condition but driving skills of locals and a lack of fuel can make things just a bit harder.
Although there are larger buses that might of use when you travelling between the bigger cities, getting around Georgia is best done by marshrutkas (minvans), which ply most routes on a more frequent basis than buses. They leave when full and are a great way of meeting the friendly locals.
Probably the only option to travel around by boat is when you want to go out on the Black Sea, but services between Batumi and Poti (the two main ports) are erratic to say the least. Your best bet will be with the Ukrainian company UKR Ferry which provides the international services as well.
Georgia has been easying there visa regulations during the last years. This means that, together with the former Soviet Union republics, travellers from most countries in Europe and several other countries don't need a visa anymore to enter the country. Passport holders from the following countries do not require a visa for visits for up to 90 days:
All countries of the European Union, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Canada, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan, Bahrain, Liechtenstein, Moldova, Norway, Oman, Andorra, Iceland, San Marino, South Korea, Kuwait, Qatar, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States, Uzbekistan and Vatican City.
Things change very often in this part of the world, so check the specific situation for your country before you go. For example at the Governmental website or at the nearest embassy or consulate.
See also: Money Matters
The official currency is the Georgian Lari (ISO code: GEL). One lari is divided into 100 tetri.
Banknotes come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 lari.
Coins in circulation are 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 tetri, 1 and 2 lari.
Georgian, together with a few other languages spoken in Georgia and Northeastern Turkey, belongs to a unique language family, one out of about a dozen in the whole world. It is one of the oldest languages in the world as well, and the alphabet, containing 33 letters, is not related to any other. Like the cyrillic alphabet, it is not that difficult to learn the letters, so try it to get the best out of your travellers. Also try some basic Georgian words, which can cause wonders and at least a smile on the faces of the local people.
Each part of Georgia has its unique cuisine with its special flavor. Cafes and restaurants mostly serve two types of food - Georgian and European. Also there are few Chinese and other exotic restaurants in Tbilisi. Fast-food restaurants offer local dishes - Khinkali, Kababi, Georgian Barbecue, Mtsvadi, Khachapuri etc, besides the regular international fast-food menu, like hot-dogs, hamburgers, fried potatoes and etc. Although Coke and Fanta are available almost everywhere, traditional Georgian mineral waters and fruit drinks (lemonades) are worth of tasting as well. They are mostly sold in special shops (e.g. “Lagidze Waters”) along Rustaveli Ave in Tbilisi.
Georgian national cuisine is remarkable for an abundance of various kinds of meat, fish and vegetables, various sorts of cheese, pickles and pungent/hot seasonings. There is less emphasis on lamb or mutton compared to other kinds of meat than in other parts of the Caucasus . Very often served dishes are: roast suckling pig, beef and chicken grilled or casseroled in various sauces, chakhokhbili - a stew involving herbs, tomatoes and paprika. Meals usually start with an array of hot and cold dishes which may include spicy grilled liver and other insides, lobio (beans and walnut salad), marinated aubergines, pkhali (young spinach leaves, pounded together with spices), khachapuri (consisting of layers of flat bread alternated with melting cheese), not to mention assorted fresh and pickled vegetables and cured meat (basturma). Cafés, restaurants and streetfood traditions are very well established in Georgia and the markets are full of locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Georgian cuisine uses very common products but due to varying proportions of its obligatory ingredients such as walnut, aromatic herbs, garlic, vinegar, red pepper, pomegranate grains, barberries and other spices combined with the traditional secrets of the chef ‘s art these familiar products acquire a special taste and aroma, which make Georgian cuisine very popular and unique.
The cuisine makes extensive use of walnuts, which are used to thicken soups and sauces (anything including the word satsivi will be served in a walnut rich sauce flavored with herbs, garlic, and egg). Walnuts also features in desserts, coated in caramelized sugar (gozinaki), or in churchkhela, when its pieces are threaded on a string, dipped in thickened, sweetened grape juice which is subsequently dried into chewy, flavorsome candles.
Tourism infrastructure is rapidly developing in Georgia. Today the country offers hotels and accommodation to different sized groups, small families and luxurious tourists. There are plenty of hotels in Tbilisi and Batumi for business people and official visitors. Some are in fact quite luxurious, and most are amazingly pricey. Such as Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel, Tbilisi Marriot Hotel, Courtyard by Marriot, Sheraton Metekhi Palace in Tbilisi, Radisson Blu Hotel Batumi, Sheraton Batumi Hotel etc.
There are also lots of small family hotels in Georgia. Here are many comfortable boutique hotels and guesthouses in regions. Some of them are very nice for travelers, who like to sleep and dine in Georgian national environment and enjoy traditional Georgian hospitality. These hotels are also located near the tourist attractions.
See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Georgia. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Georgia. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks a vaccination against typhoid.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Malaria only occurs in a few remote regions in the southeast during the summer months, but taking malaria pills is not necessary. Just use mosquito reppelant and wear long sleeves when it is dark.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also: Travel Safety
Although the country and the Caucasus region has been in the news quite often, Georgia itself (that is, apart from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are still considered part of the country) is a very safe and welcoming country. Chances of being victim of serious crimes are even less than in much of Western European countries. You can walk safely around the streets of cities like Tblisi, Gori or Batumi without the risk of being robbed. Petty crime though is still possible, especially in crowded places like markets and busy bus stations.
This and the incredibly friendly and helpful people means that a trip to this beautiful country is definately worth a try without the worrying relatives and friends at home!
See also: International Telephone Calls
Many Georgians have now have access to a mobile phone and as such public payphones are becomming obsolete in the biigger cities, although there are many places offering phone services, usually attached to an internet cafe of 'Xerox' shop. Georgia has three mobile operators. Magti, Bee Line and GeoCell. The best coverage is offered by GeoCell which covers most of the countrie and a fair bit of the mountains. SIM cards can be purchased from all the networks and toped up with scratch cards purchesed from shops or various touch screen 'kiosks' in the bigger cities.
International calling code for Georgia is 995
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