day trips from Tbilisi, Stepancminda

Tourism in Georgia is based upon two pillars – the seaside and the mountains. The mountains of the Caucasus have it all – breath-taking views, clean air, traditional foods and folk architecture. For your long weekend, choose one of the following destinations:

1.RACHA

Racha – It will take you around 5 hours to get there. Take the motorway in the direction of western Georgia and turn towards Terjola. On the way to Racha, stop for pictures by the beautiful Shaori water reservoir. I would recommend staying at the guest house aptly called Artist’s House in Oni. Everything inside is handmade.

The host specialises in traditional Georgian woodwork and carved all of the furniture including bed frames, tables, window mouldings and doors. The hostess, a graduate of Tbilisi Art Academy, decorated the house with her own lampshades, pictures, curtains and little knick-knacks. On top of this, she cooks only organic food (she even makes her own spice blends from the herbs she grows in her garden).

The town of Oni used to shelter many Jewish families and so you will see an 18th-century synagogue with religious books dating back 2 centuries. Do not miss visiting the 18the-century Barakoni Church and the 11th-century Nikortsminda Church, the latter renowned for the Georgian-style ornaments on its façade. Most importantly, take the road to the tiny mountain villages surrounding Oni and bask in the spectacular views and vistas.

Racha is home of the famous Georgian wine called Khvanchkara so make sure to sample a glass while you are there. Racha is also known for its mouth-watering smoked ham. Of course, this is one of the many local food items on offer at the Artist’s House, home-made by the host and his family.

day trips from Tbilisi, Stepancminda

2. SVANETI

Svaneti – Until recently, the trip to Svaneti was difficult and exhausting. This mountainous region was formerly only accessible by means of challenging serpentine roads. However, after road reconstruction, Svaneti became one of the main tourist attractions on the Georgia travel map. I visited there last year and the experience exceeded all of my expectations.

Continue on the road to western Georgia and turn in the direction of Zugdidi. The trip to Zugdidi takes around 5 hours so plan to stop for lunch along the way. Not only will you get a chance to relax before the 2-hour drive up the Caucasus, but you will have the opportunity to try (and completely enjoy!) authentic Megrelian food. I have travelled to every region in Georgia and partook in many meals but nothing compares to the real deal – real Megrelian food from the region of Samegrelo. If you like spicy, herby, flavourful dishes – stop at Diaroni or Mendzeli and order away.

On the road to Mestia, stop and see the Inguri Dam – the world’s highest concrete arch dam. Once you arrive in Svaneti itself, take in the 3,000-5,000 meter-high peaks that you will see all around. Look, too, at the region’s own architectural gems – the famous Svanetian towers which were erected in the 9th-12th centuries.

These towers belong to families are passed down from generation to generation. You will see many of them standing like sentinels in people’s backyards. Svaneti’s hallmark towers are included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Svanetian cuisine is unique – you must try the kubdari meat-filled pie, chvistari (cornbread stuffed with cheese) and tashmujabi (potatoes with cheese). My favourite part about Svanetian food is the special salt which the local cooks use to season their food – svanuri marili or Svanetian Salt. Every family has its own secret recipe containing herbs, hot peppers and lots of garlic.

Finally, finish your visit with a stop in the village of Ushguli. It’s Europe’s highest permanent settlement and, of course, another on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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Rent Toyota Prado, spacious and practical car to explore Georgia’s breath-taking mountain regions.

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