Today, with discount flights and highly developed tourism all around the world, it can feel like there are no new places to go. But sometimes, historical shifts can open up completely new horizons. Georgia, located on the crossroads of Asia and Eastern Europe, is one of the still relatively unknown gems in the West.
This ancient country in the Caucasus was part of the Soviet Union for most of the 20th century, followed by a turbulent 1990s that saw civil war and economical crisis. But today Georgia is emerging from the complex transition with world-class architecture, a strong youth culture, booming techno scene and a whole lot to offer travellers.
Across its 70,000 square kilometres (approximately a quarter of the size of Italy) Georgia has literally everything: mountains more spectacular than the Alps, wineries to compete with France, wild nature reserves that rival California – and all of it just a few hours drive from one another. Travel in Georgia also has that air of adventure largely lost elsewhere in the West, which basically means you’ll be trying to figure out your way around towns and villages where hardly anyone speaks English or riding a creaky minibus on a mountain road. But overall, hospitality is at the core of Georgian culture, and combined with exquisite taste and innovative design ideas this is a pretty perfect holiday destination, and all for a fraction of price you’d pay in Europe. Here’s our guide to the country’s hippest attractions.
Techno and raves
Raving in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi is not a mere weekend pastime – it’s a statement of belonging for the new and free-spirited culture. Young crowds party with passion here (they could easily outdo Berliners). The main techno destination – Bassiani – is located in the basement of a Soviet stadium, where the concrete bowl of the former swimming pool is used as the dance floor. Parties here go on every weekend into early hours of the morning and always with an option of carrying on in a more central and laid back Cafe Gallery.
In recent years Georgia has got some new hotels design that could easily rival the Ace Hotels or Soho Houses of London or New York. The spot to stay in Tbilisi is Fabrika, a cross between a hostel, design hotel and creative cluster located in the former textile factory. The design is based on a modernization of the austere Soviet style. And with a spacious courtyard filled with bars, cafes and shops and a spectacular roof terrace, Fabrika is also popular among local creative crowds. Rooms Hotels, with locations in Tbilisi and up in the mountains of Kazbegi, are also top destinations: built using the empty shells of former Soviet buildings, a publishing house and a resort for Soviet party officials respectively, they offer a perfect combination of comfort, design and authenticity.
Fashion’s new wave
Famous as the birthplace of Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia, Georgia has its own bourgeoning fashion scene. Young designers are looking for a new Georgian identity in the global world, and it’s having garnering some spectacular results. Try and come back home with a pleated skirt and plastic sunglasses by George Keburia, a perfect pantsuit by Tiko Paksa, crazy footwear from Atelier Kikala or a luxury leather jumpsuit by Tamuna Ingorokva. While you’re in Tbilisi, check out Chaos Concept Store – the ultimate cool kids destination with its own skate ramp and exhibition space. If Chaos is good for the selection of the world’s most hip labels, DOTS and Materiel are perfect for shopping for homegrown talent. Everything in the store is designed and produced in Tbilisi.
Mineral waters and unconventional spas
Georgia has an abundance of mineral springs all over the country. As soon as you arrive you should really try a bottle of salty Borjomi – a local’s hangover cure. In the town with the same name you can swim in the outdoor mineral water pool with temperatures just over 30 degrees all year round and for free. Tbilisi is practically built on hot water with historical sulfur baths supposedly being the perfect treatment for skin diseases, anxiety and insomnia. And when prices for treatments start at 20 euros there’s no excuse not to. All around Georgia there are more unusual options too: in resort of Tskaltubo, which enjoyed its heyday in the Soviet era, you can bath in a radon spring – and, if you want, you can even bathe in the same bathhouse as Joseph Stalin.
Abundant dinners and huge feasts that last for hours are an integral part of Georgian culture. Culinary highlights include Khachapuri, cheesy bread of multiple varieties, and Khinkali, huge broth-filled dumplings with meat, cheese or mushrooms. Each Georgian region has its own speciality, but all over the country you can enjoy the endless variety of fresh herbs and nuts, spices, homemade cheese, and wild pomegranates and persimmons.
Georgia has over 500 varieties of grapes and the heritage of wine making that dates back over eight thousands years. The unique traditional method qvevri (or kvevri) – wine fermenting in the underground clay jars – is still alive and well. And thanks to the popularity of natural and biodynamic wine, Georgian vineyards are finally having their moment. (Qvevri wines are mostly produced with no additives or human intervention.) The region of Kakheti also offers great possibilities for wine tourism with winery tours, tastings and sunlit hectares of grapevines to see.
Georgia’s complex history is reflected fully in its architecture. Orthodox Christian churches dating back to the 6th century AD, mind-blowing Soviet modernism (the headquarters of the bank of Georgia in Tbilisi is a must), mosaics and abandoned Soviet sanatoriums, the shiny glass and steel architecture of the new Tbilisi – Georgia has it all.
Georgia’s mountains landscapes are incredible. Aside from feeling like you’re on top of the world, they are great for hiking, have some very affordable ski resorts and long winding road with spectacular views, which are ideal for road trips. Each of the mountain regions – Kazbegi, Svaneti, Bakuriani, Ushguli – has a unique scenery and local culture. Trips to glaciers, waterfalls and ancient Orthodox Christian churches offer a glimpse into the treasures of this unspoilt wilderness.
Georgia’s Black Sea coast has a variety of resorts for the summer months. Batumi is the main seaside city and a big port: the atmosphere gets pretty wild with gambling, new glitzy architecture and the aura of noisy Eastern bazaar. It could almost pass for a tattered cross between Miami and Tangier. In any case, the seaside is also only five hours drive from the capital – perfect for a weekend escape.
It’s hard to overestimate the natural beauty and variety of Georgian landscapes: it has fairy tale woods and waterfalls (best explored at national park Lagodekhi on the border of Azerbaijan), mountain rivers and prehistoric glaciers, which you can literally touch (Mestia and Ushguli in Svaneti), spectacular limitless badlands (on the road to David Goreja monastery and at Vashlovani nature reserve). Whether you’re into wild camping or just looking for a temporary sanctuary from contemporary world, there is plenty of natural beauty to get lost in.