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10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling to the Republic of Georgia
Make the most of your trip to one of the world’s up-and-coming destinations with these tips from a seasoned Georgiaphile.
No matter how many times I visit the Republic of Georgia, there are some things I’ll never get used to—woolly traffic jams, milky tripe stew, and hair-of-the-dog chacha shots, to name a few. Every country has its quirks, and when planning a trip to Georgia, knowing what to expect is the first step in ensuring a relaxed, wrinkle-free vacation. Whether you find yourself sunbathing on the Black Sea coast or trekking some uncharted corner of the Caucasus, be sure to keep these pointers—gleaned from six trips of learning the hard way—in your back pocket.
Georgian food isn’t just khachapuri
Despite what Instagram may lead you to believe, adjaruli khachapuri—the canoe-shaped cheese bread crowned with a sunny egg and a knob of butter—isn’t the crown jewel of Georgian cuisine but rather fast food, Caucasian style. More memorable are dishes like Tushetian khinkali, fist-sized dumplings bursting with juicy, caraway-scented lamb; satsivi, braised turkey cloaked in a rich, garlicky walnut sauce; and ajapsandali, a spicy vegetable medley enlivened by handfuls of cilantro, parsley, and dill.
To sate your brain as well as your stomach, sign up for an all-day food tour with Culinary Backstreets Tbilisi. While noshing on homemade pickles in a locals-only recess of the Dezerter Bazaar or sipping from unlabeled bottles in a subterranean wine bar, your guide, Paul Rimple, will demystify Georgia’s enigmatic cuisine—and give you a brief history lesson while he’s at it.
In Tbilisi, excellent hotels abound
A decade ago, most sophisticated travelers turned their nose up at Tbilisi for its lack of fine hotels; these days, there are almost too many to choose from. Alternative types and solo travelers will fit right in at Fabrika, a graffitied art hostel housed in a Soviet-era sewing factory. Rooms Tbilisi, with its Brooklyn-cool aesthetic, is the go-to among the international yuppy set, while Stamba—the city’s most luxurious hotel, opened to much fanfare earlier this year—is turning heads with its glass-bottomed rooftop swimming pool, freestanding brass bathtubs, and in-room McIntosh sound systems.
Not all wines are amber
Chances are, if you spot a Georgian wine on a menu outside Georgia, it’s going to be of the trendy amber variety. But in Georgia, these grippy, distinctive wines—fermented in kvevri (underground clay vats) according to a millennia-old tradition—account for less than five percent of production and don’t appear on most standard wine lists. Seek out rare ambers at Vino Underground or g.Vino, wine bars in Tbilisi that buy directly from independent growers.
You can visit Abkhazia (even if the State Department says not to)
Abkhazia is the disputed seaside territory that de facto seceded from Georgia in 1994 and has remained in something of a time warp since. Before ethnic conflict ravaged the region, it was known as the Russian Riviera for its long, European-style boardwalks and lush tropical gardens. Today, skeletons of grand Soviet buildings are reminders of this erstwhile splendor that never fully returned—even if the Russian vacationers have. Beyond the (scenic if decrepit) beaches, natural attractions here include the mile-long New Athos Cave, crystal-clear Lake Ritsa, and misty Yupsharskiy Canyon. The State Department advises against visiting Abkhazia due to “civil unrest, crime, and landmines,” but this assessment is obsolete; the region was deemed landmine free in 2012, and there hasn’t been any significant conflict in years.
Go when it’s warm
If hitting the slopes is your jam, then by all means, visit Georgia in the winter—lift tickets cost a fraction of what they do in the Alps, and the scenery is just as stunning. But otherwise, plan your vacation between June and September, when roads to far-flung villages like Ushguli, one of the highest continually inhabited settlements in Europe, and Omalo, in the heart of Tusheti National Park, are guaranteed to be open. Summer is also the best time to post up in a seaside resort like Batumi or Gonio.
It pays to hire a guide
Unless you’re an intrepid driver accustomed to white-knuckle switchbacks, save the money you’d spend on a rental and invest in a guide instead. Companies like Inter Georgia Travel charge around $120 (per day, flat rate) for a chauffeur who also doubles as a translator and tour guide—priceless services in small towns where hardly anybody speaks English.
Tbilisi might be the next Berlin
If you’ve ever fantasized about clubbing in Berlin in its rakish, gritty heyday, listen close: Tbilisi might be the closest you’re going to get. From dusk till dawn, up-and-coming DJs blast everything from techno to house to disco in nightclubs like Mtkvarze, which boasts a coveted Void Acoustics sound system, and Bassiani (the “Berghain of Tbilisi,” according to clubbers), an anything-goes techno temple that occupies an abandoned swimming pool.
Marshrutki are the cheapest way to get from A to B
If you’re on a budget, marshrutki, or minibuses, are your best bet for intercity transportation. You’ll pay a paltry $1 (2.50 GEL) per 50 kilometers, but prepare for a bumpy ride: Marshrutki are invariably old, beat-up vans with threadbare seats and creaky transmissions. Avoid getting swindled by negotiating the price with the driver up front, and be prepared to stand on shorter routes.
Don’t ask, don’t tell
Discrimination against LGBT people may be illegal in Georgia, but homosexuality is still frowned upon in most circles because of the Georgian Orthodox Church’s hardline anti-gay stance. Far-right homophobic groups, backed by the Church, regularly intimidate and silence LGBT activists; this year, they succeeded in canceling a gay rights rally. For these reasons, it’s unwise, and potentially dangerous, for same-sex couples to show affection in public. Thankfully a handful of nightlife venues in Tbilisi—such as Success, Divan, and Cafe Gallery—are gay-friendly.
It’s cheap—like, Southeast Asia cheap
Food, accommodations, beer—you name it: Everything is probably cheaper in Georgia than wherever you call home. A light, simple meal clocks in around $4, and a night in a basic hotel will run you about $25 (breakfast included). Be ready to haggle in the bazaars and markets, though: vendors usually have separate, inflated prices for tourists.