Capital of several historical kingdoms within Georgia, Kutaisi is today being revitalised after years of post-Soviet decline. Georgia’s parliament was transferred from Tbilisi to brand-new quarters here in 2012, and Kutaisi's airport has become a destination for international budget airlines. There are several interesting natural, historical and architectural attractions within day-trip reach of the city.
Kutaisi is built around the Rioni River, with the city centre, first developed in the 17th century, on its left bank. To its north, the right bank rises up to an older area where the landmark Bagrati Cathedral overlooks the city.
The Katskhi pillar is a natural limestone monolith located at the village of Katskhi in western Georgian region of Imereti, near the town of Chiatura. It is approximately 40 metres (130 ft) high, and overlooks the small river valley of Katskhura, a right affluent of the Q'virila. The rock, with visible church ruins on its top surface of around 150 sq m (1,600 sq ft), has been venerated by locals as the Pillar of Life. It remained unclimbed by researchers and unsurveyed until 1944 and was more systematically studied from 1999 to 2009. These studies revealed the early medieval hermitage, dating from the 9th or 10th century. Religious activity started to revive in 1995, with the arrival of the monk Maxim, a native of Chiatura. Between 2005 and 2009, the monastery building on the top of the pillar was restored with the support of the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia. The rock is now accessible through an iron ladder running from its base to the top.
From the Jachvis Khidi (Chain Bridge), you can walk up cobbled streets to the stately Bagrati Cathedral on Ukimerioni Hill. The cathedral was built in 1003 by Bagrat III, with a tall drum and pointed dome resting on four free-standing pillars. In 1692 a Turkish explosion brought down drum, dome and ceiling to leave the cathedral in a ruined state. It was fully renovated between 2009 and 2012, with a mix of old and new stone and a few steel sections.
The cathedral gained Unesco World Heritage listing in 1994 following intermittent restoration efforts through the 20th century. Ironically the recent renovation has put it on Unesco's World Heritage in Danger list, due to threats to the ‘integrity and authenticity of the site’.
The palace-citadel immediately east of the cathedral dates back to the 6th century. It was wrecked in 1769 during Georgian-Russo-Turkish wars, but you can discern remains of wine cellars and a church.
Georgia is a paradise for hikers, with its mountains and valleys, unspoiled villages and off-the-beaten-path treks.
Now is a wonderful moment to visit, as recent investment in the hiking infrastructure has made it easier to navigate, but the trails are still quiet and wild enough to feel at one with nature.
Hiking is best enjoyed in the country in late spring and early summer. Before this, travelling to the mountains can be made difficult by melting snow and occasional landslides, while from late July the summer can be very hot. Each trail is different though, and winter offers other options, such as skiing and snowshoeing.
Here are five fantastic hikes to whet your walking appetite.
1. Trek to Black Rock Lake in Lagodekhi National Park
Best for: Nature Lovers
Many of Georgia’s walking trails are packed with geological and stunning views, but thanks to the terrain, there can be few animals to spot. If you’re keen on wildlife, keep a look out for red deer, Eurasian lynx, grey wolf, chamois and brown bear, and look up to spot a variety of eagles. Lagodekhi National Park is the oldest protected park in Georgia, and is a nature lover’s paradise of glacial lakes, waterfalls, preserved forests, and lush valleys. It’s a three-day hike to the lake, but many other trails are available in the area, including the walk to the Ninoskhevi Waterfall or ‘big’ waterfall, and other beautiful trails.
2. Nikoloz Romanov's trail in the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park
Best for: Greenery
This protected park in the centre of Georgia has 11 tourist trails that vary in difficulty. The Nikoloz Romanov trail is a good introduction to the area, as it takes you from one end to the other over three days. You can also do part of the trail on horseback and if you’re lucky you may spot some rare animals that live in the park.
3. Crossing the Pirikiti range, Tusheti region
Best for: Seeing the local way of life
The peaks and valleys of the Tusheti region offer a rewarding, if tiring, trek, and contains one of the largest protected natural areas in Europe. Starting at the village of Omalo, you’ll make your way through stunning landscape to the beautiful hillside village of Dartlo, one of the most attractive in the Tusheti region, followed by Chesho and Parsma. You’ll be able to stay in guest houses along the way, and can easily spend a couple of days in this area alone. If you go further, you’ll come across the abandoned village of Dadikurta and connect with another trail going through the river valley, dotted with more abandoned villages, and returning eventually to Omalo. Another popular option is to continue the journey from the village of Parma towards the Atsunta pass. Once you’ve crossed this you’ll find yourself in Khevsureti, a remote, high mountain region in the north-east.
If you find this interesting you may want to visit more abandoned villages in the valley to the west before returning to Omalo.
4. Walk in the Truso Valley
Best for: A relatively easy day trip, landscapes, nature
This serene walk will take you through a near-deserted valley. You can see spectacular nature, including some remarkable travertine formations, and history too, as the route passes by ancient towers and abandoned settlements. The whole valley is not accessible unfortunately - you won't be able to go further than the ruins of Zakagori Fortress. But still, it takes approximately six hours to walk from Kvemo Okrokana village to the ruins of Zakagori Fortress and back.
5. Hike through the Chaukhi pass
Best for: Rocky terrain and beautiful lakes
This moderate trail runs through an area often called the ‘Georgian Dolomites’ and connects two regions. You can do the trek in one day starting in Juta and ending in Roshka. Or you can stay in Roshka overnight and continue the next day if you want to take it slower. A real highlight is the Abudelauri lakes on the far side of the Chaukhi pass - colored alpine lakes that make scaling to 3431m utterly worth it. The pass is a good place to stop for lunch and take in the views. Because of its high elevation, it’s passable for fewer months than elsewhere in the country and is best explored between July and September.
6. Udziro Lake in Racha
Best for: Breathtaking views
A trip to the stunning Alpine lake Udziro (which literally translates as ‘without bottom’), on the slopes of Mount Katitsvera is one of the country’s best hikes. For more experienced climbers, it’s the perfect two-day trip to see panoramic views of the Caucasus, and you can camp out at the lake, at 2800m altitude, and wake up to pristine mountain air. The first day requires a steep ascent but one of the most marvellous views in the world awaits.
7. Matskhvarishi to Lentekhi
Best for: Adventurous explorers
The starting point for this hike is the small village of Matsevani in Tetri tskharo district, Kvemo Kartli region. A three-day trek, for fit, experienced hikers, this route initially takes you up past St. George Church of Lahili and via a tricky path to the Church of St. Michael, from where you have panoramic views from Peak Ushba to Peak Tetnuldi. Nearby Shepherd’s huts signal your camping spot. Day two is trickier, with snow and ice for a few kilometres, the amount varying with the season. You will reach the highest, most rewarding point, the peak of Mount Chkeeru (3587m) before the trail becomes easier and you descend to the second camping point. The last day is a long, pleasant descent back down the gorge, ending in the town of Lentekhi.