Both in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region in southwestern Georgia, Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia are two places you definitely want to make time to visit when planning your travels through Georgia. Located approximately 20-miles apart, these two towns feel entirely different from one another. Akhaltsikhe is on the Potskhovi river and home to a beautifully preserved castle – Rabati Castle, with the contrasting feeling of old and new. While Vardzia, a carved-out cave in the Erusheti Mountain, highlights Georgia when people first began to settle.
This guide focuses on basing yourself in Akhaltsikhe while exploring the surrounding areas including a visit to the Vardzia Cave.
Are you planning a trip to Georgia? Don’t miss: Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Georgia
A Guide to Visiting Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia
Akhaltsikhe is the capital city of Samtskhe-Javakheti and thus the biggest city in the region. The region itself was formed when the Meskheti (Samtskhe) region and the Javakheti regions became one after the conflict with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. (Currently, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia are controlled by Russia, and tourists are not permitted to visit).
This region of Georgia is incredibly beautiful with rolling green hills, rivers cutting through valleys, and mountains. When driving through the region you’ll want to keep an eye out for hidden monasteries, scenic viewpoints, and even cattle that sometimes cross the roads unattended.
Getting to Akhaltsikhe + How Much Time to Spend
Because Akhaltsikhe is quite small, you only truly need to spend a day here. While you can spend the night if you’re traveling between cities (i.e. Batumi and Tbilisi), you can also make it a day trip from Kutaisi or Tbilisi. Akhaltsikhe is a three-hour drive from both Kutaisi and Tbilisi and a five-hour drive from Batumi. When I traveled through Georgia I broke up my drive from Batumi to Tbilisi by spending the night in Akhaltsikhe.
Are you planning to visit Kutaisi and/or Tbilisi as well? Don’t miss these posts:
While you can cheaply travel to Akhaltsikhe using the marshrutka (the buses that run through the country), I found it much more enjoyable (and faster) to travel via private car. You can do this by simply asking your hotel or guesthouse to call a private ride for you (make sure you ask the price ahead of time), or you can use GoTrip. I personally used GoTrip for my travels through Georgia; they were cheap and reliable and I highly recommend booking a car through their website. If for some reason GoTrip doesn’t have any cars available you can also reach out to Budget Georgia and request a custom transfer, but in my experience, GoTrip was always the cheaper option. No matter which private option you choose, if this is a day trip make sure to make it clear which areas of the region you want to see. Your driver should be fine with waiting around while you explore, eat, etc.
How to Spend a Day in Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia
Start your day in Akhaltsikhe at Rabati Castle. The castle is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm. Rabati Castle is a medieval fortress that was built in the 9th century. The complex itself is huge with bars and restaurants inside as well as fountains, lookout towers, and even a mosque. You can add a speaking guide to the cost of your entrance ticket, which I highly recommend if you want to learn the history of Rabati.
From Rabati, hop in the car and head an hour southeast to Khertvisi Fortress. This fortress is one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia, and while few infographics are set up to explain the importance of the fortress, the fortress itself is beautiful as is the area that it’s in. The cost to enter is 10 Lari.
After spending some time at Khertvisi, make your way to the gem of the region – Vardzia. Vardzia is only a fifteen-minute drive south of Khertvisi Fortress. As mentioned earlier, Vardzia is a cave city that was built in the 12th century. 600 rooms are carved into Erusheti Mountain and to this day, you can still walk through the rooms! The cost of entrance is 15 Lari but I highly recommend hiring a private guide to take you through Vardzia and explain its importance in history and the complexities of the structure.
Upon leaving Vardzia make your way back towards Akhaltsikhe and stop at Sapara Monastery outside of Akhaltsikhe. Sapara Monastery is a beautiful Monastery that is nestled in the trees. The entrance is free but make sure to remember to cover your legs if you plan to enter. Note: If this is a day trip and you don’t want to spend the night in Akhaltsikhe then after Rabati Castle head to Sapara Monastery, then Khertvisi Fortress, and end at Vardzia.
While you may be tempted to skip this area in Georgia for more popular destinations (like the incredibly beautiful Svaneti Region), I highly recommend slowing down and stopping here for a day. The area is unbelievable and the history is fascinating. Have you visited Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia before? Let me know in the comments what your thoughts were!
For a more visual look at this region, head to my Instagram page and search #ppingeorgia or watch my Georgia 2 highlight reel!