Mention Georgia and people will usually think about one of United-States’ 50 states, forgetting that it is also a country in the Caucasus region. Neighboured by such superpowers as Russia and Turkey, Georgia was always at the crossroads of the West and the East. As such, its history is one of invasions and conquests but the country managed to embrace foreign influences and still maintain its unique cultural identity, culminating in its independence in 1991.
Georgia was first unified as a kingdom as early as the 8th century and then developed into a brilliant civilization, under such rulers as King David IV the Builder and Queen Tamar, nurturing scholars and artists. It is believed to be one of the first countries that ever converted to Christianity, along with nearby Armenia. Despite invasions from the Mongols, constant struggle against the Ottoman and Iranian Empires and the later annexation into the anti-religious USSR, Christianity remained a cornerstone of Georgian identity, still vivid to this day.
Despite all odds, Georgian culture withstood the test of time, from its unique alphabet to its tradition of wine-making. Mountainous landscapes, beautiful Orthodox Churches, genuine hospitality and rich cultural heritage are what Georgia is about all that. Before you hop on the next plane to Tbilisi, here are five things you should know before visiting the country.
1. Use Tbilisi as your base
Tbilisi is said to be one of the most beautiful cities in the Caucasus and it has no shortage of interesting sights. Built in the mid-5th century AD, Georgia’s capital city boasts a vibrant history. Nowhere does the diversity of the country show more than in this very city, where an ancient Ottoman mosque is built next to an Iranian-like blue-tiled bathhouse, just a few steps away from an Orthodox church and an even older Zoroastrian temple.
This sheer diversity makes Tbilisi an essential introduction to the country but its location is also an asset to discover Georgia even further. Indeed and despite its relatively small size, Georgia isn’t easy to navigate without your own car and most public transportation routes go through Tbilisi or even start from there. It is therefore a good idea to use Tbilisi as a base to explore the country.
A day trip can take you lots of places, from the snow-capped peak of Mount Kazbegi up north to the desert monastery of Davit Gareji, close to the Azerbaijan border, or the hill-top village of Sighnaghi in the wine region of Kakheti, looking straight out of Tuscany.
2. Get familiar with the word marshrutka
If you wish to explore Georgia without a rental car, public transportation is the way to go. Trains are few and far between and buses are not exactly a thing, leaving you with one option: the marshrutka.
Marshrutkas are basically mini-vans or taxicabs that connect Georgian cities. Some operate on regular schedules but others just leave whenever they’re full, which is why it is always best to come ahead of schedule and take your seat as early as you can. Buying tickets ahead of time is a rarity though and most of the time, you’ll end paying up in cash directly to the driver.
Travelling through marshrutkas is inexpensive, with most trips ranging from 5 to 10 geli per person, sometimes even less. Sure, comfort isn’t the best and you’ll have to take into account lots of unexpected stops along the way to pick up people straight from the side of the road. If that bothers you, sharing a taxi can always be a more comfy solution for a reasonable amount of money. In Tbilisi, most marshrutkas and shared taxis depart from the Didube station and a few leave from Samgori station.
3. Brush off your Russian or even learn some Georgian alphabet
Georgia’s history with Russia is complex and conflicting. The Russian Empire had always aimed at integrating Georgia into its territory and it managed to make it happen during the 19th century. Georgia was then forcibly incorporated into the USSR and had to wait until 1991 to become independent again.
This shared history left its mark on the country, especially since Russia never entirely ceased to glance at its neighbour, as demonstrated by the 2008 border conflict between both countries. This explains why Russian is still widely spoken throughout the country, mostly by the elderly. Younger generations largely speak English as a second language but the taxi and marshrutka drivers or even guesthouse owners you’ll meet will most likely speak Russian rather than English.
Learning a bit of Russian beforehand can therefore come in handy, even if you just focus on learning numbers to do a bit of bargaining. You can also try and learn some Georgian to be able to decipher the local alphabet. Although English signs are more and more prominent, some marshrutkas for instance will only hang a sign written in Russian and Georgian so why not give a go at the vernacular?
4. Get ready to drink even if you don’t like wine
Wine is a huge part of Georgia’s culture and the pride of its people as Georgia is one of the world’s oldest wine regions, with wine production dating back 8000 years. The Kakheti region in the eastern part of the country stands out the most when it comes to wine and many organized tours are dedicated to discovering the local wine scene.
Yet, wine in Georgia isn’t just about prominent winemakers getting the spotlight, it is a matter for all Georgian people. Wherever you go, you’ll see grapevines growing freely right and left, under the porch of a house or on a façade, even within the city. Many people make their own wine and offering a drink is instrumental to the long-standing tradition of hospitality in the country.
Refusing to sip can be taken the wrong way so be prepared to drink, even if you’re not into wine. We don’t promise that this will be the best glass of wine of your life but it will be offered with heartfelt warmth. Beyond wine, Georgian cuisine itself is a matter of fresh, locally-grown products and many food staples are homemade, just like Georgian cheese or Churchkhelas.
5. Apply a specific dress code when visiting churches
Being one of the first countries in the world to embrace Christianity, religion is a source of pride for most Georgians and a matter that is taken seriously. Although it is still up to debate who became Christian first, Armenians or Georgians, implying the former isn’t the best way to start a conversation.
Orthodox churches have been built all across the country, from the top of mountains to the heart of cities. They boast an incredible diversity of architecture and amazing arts on the inside, especially colourful icons and frescos. Some of the finest churches in the country are found in and around Tbilisi, like the Anchiskhati Basilica, the oldest-surviving church in the city, the recent and grand Holy Trinity Cathedral or the Svetiskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta. When it comes to outstanding mosaics and frescos though, the Gelati Monastery in Kutaisi wins a landslide victory.
No matter which church you visit though, be aware that they are not only tourist landmarks but rather thriving spiritual centres that require a specific dress code to visit. Men and women are expected to cover their legs and shoulders. Most importantly, women have to cover their heads so do not forget to pack up a scarf in your bag. Free headscarves are usually on display in baskets at church entrances but you never know how many heads they’ve been on so it’s best to bring your own.