Svaneti - 3 - 5 day travel itinerary of the must sees in these mesmerising mountain villages
Key information at a glance
|Budget:||25 GEL/person in a Matrushka, 150GEL/person in a Minivan to get to Mestia; 90GEL/person/day for accomodation incl. breakfast and dinner|
|How long to stay:||min. 3 days; we recommend at lest 5 days to get a real sense of Svaneti|
|Best time to travel:||May-October; December to March; Svaneti is a hiker’s paradise but also allows for skiing|
|Top sights:||Mestia; Ushguli; Shkhara Glacier; Zagari Pass|
|How to get there:||From Kutaisi via Didi Tchkoni to Mestia and Ushguli can be done by car and taxi; the Zagari pass can be done when the conditions allow, but is usually not done by taxi drivers|
Considered the capital of Zemo (Upper) Svaneti, Mestia is a must-stop on any trip to the region. 140km from Zugdidi, it is a 3h drive into the Northern Caucasus ranges along the Enguri river to reach Mestia. While efforts are made to improve the road through the gorge, it can be in a challenging condition and should be avoided in winter and after heavy rainfall. Since its opening in 2010, Queen Tamar Airport offers a direct connection via Plain from Tbilisi and Kutaisi to Mestia, which is arguably the easiest way to access the area.
The town is a great base for hiking, with various paths through the gorges and over the surrounding mountain ranges. One of the most beautiful, but also more demanding ones, is the hike from Mestia to Ushguli. The 56km trail has a gain of 3,000m positive and will take you 3-4 days. Time seems to stand still in the ancient villages that offer you a bed and something to eat along the way.
Apart from the beautiful hikes, Mestia is packed with historic sites that tell the story of the Svan people. You shouldn’t miss the History and Ethnography Museum, the Mikheil Khegiani House Museum and of course the impressive Svan towers. Are you wondering whether you can climb into one? Wait for Ushguli :)
Finally, if you are into winter sport, it is worth visiting Mestia during the winter months. Just be aware that there are only 3 prepared runs as of this writing, but certainly more possibilities for free riders and tourers.
Explore Ushguli and the famous Shkhara Glacier
Personally, we thought Ushguli was the most amazing place in Svaneti. It is quite a bit smaller than Mestia and seems to have retained much of its original appearance. We woke up to the sun rising over Georgia’s highest peak, the Shkhara, and watched the shepherds drive the flocks over the steep pastures that surround the village.
We highly recommend booking a horse ride to the Shkhara Glacier, which pushes down from the mountain with the same name and marks the source of the Enguri river. The horses will take you to the beautiful valley up to a small restaurant. From there it is a 45min hike that leads directly to the foot of the Glacier. Standing in front of a slowly moving snow mass that big is a unique experience.
Climb into the main tower of Queen Tamar’s Castle
Doubtlessly, one of the more adventurous highlights to do in Ushguli, but definitely not for the faint of heart. The main tower is built with particularly dark stones and on the top of the hill. As it is the case with all Svan towers, the entrance is on the first floor, so the only way to enter the tower is to climb a ladder that leans on the outside. Once inside, you will have to climb the tower floor by floor - don’t look for a stair or a ladder, there are none. If you climbed all the way to the top there is an opening in the roof, revealing a spectacular view on Ushguli with Shkhara in the background.
If you want to get a first-hand report, have a look at this reel.
On a side note, the Castle is actually not in Ushguli, but in Chazhashi. But you can’t actually tell the difference between the two villages, because they are really just next to each other.
Drive over Zagari, one of the most beautiful mountain passes
The second route in and out of Ushguli is via the Zagari pass, a 2620m mountain pass with unpaved road and impeccably beautiful nature. The Windows 95 Background was very likely photographed right there ;)
It is important to talk to a few locals before heading that way, as it is definitely the lesser frequented road compared to coming from Mestia. Some of the villages along the way are partly or fully abandoned and most of it is still a dirt road. When we drove the pass in Fall 2021, there were major construction sites at the end, connecting the capital of Lower Svaneti, Lentechi, with a tar road. Overall, the road is very manageable, but we would only recommend to drive it with an SUV with proper clearance and with stable weather conditions.
In case the weather is favourable, we highly recommend you head over the Zagari pass. We were very hesitant at first, having read on some blogs that trucks easily get stuck in the mud, forcing you to drive all the way back, but we didn’t experience any major issues and thought it was one of the most beautiful drives in Georgia.
While the options for restaurants, cafés and bars naturally become more limited, the smaller the villages, you will get an excellent Georgian breakfast and dinner in pretty much any guesthouse you stay. Although we do love to go out, often times we just indulged ourselves and enjoyed the home made menus by our wonderful hosts. That being said, there are some great places not to miss in Svaneti as well:
- Granny bar: Hearty food and heavy drinks in an actual barn
- Cafe Lanchvali: Try to get one of the tables on the upper floor and enjoy the views
- ERTI KAVA coffee room: Just as good as the one in Tbilisi, but with better views
- Pub & Cinema DEDE: Lovely Turkish restaurant on top of the river
- Café Shumeri: On top of the hill, at the entrance to the beautiful hike to Shkhara with wonderful views
- CAFE-LEMI: It really is just next to the other one, but you definitely have to try both :)
The beauty of Georgia really is the hospitality. Once you leave the big cities and hit the remote mountain villages, you will feel this heartiness immediately. We highly recommend you to avoid the profit-driven lodgings and look for the family-owned businesses. Here are some recommendations:
You will only find guest houses in Ushguli, all of which are very affordable and nice
If you have just 3 days to spare for Svaneti, you have to make them count. Luckily, that is easily possible:
Day 1: Enter the Caucasus and get to Mestia
Start early and drive from Kutaisi via Didi Tchkoni to Mestia. This will take you at least 5 hours, but it is an immensely beautiful drive, as you avoid the highway and drive along the foot of the mountains before entering the gorge that will slowly lead you to Mestia. Once in Mestia, we recommend to go for one of the hikes, since the mountains simply are the main attraction of the area.
You can drive to the mountain station of the Mestia Ski Lift and hike up to the ridge from there. Enjoy the panorama views from up there before you head back to Mestia. A word of warning: There are many routes shown on Google Maps that take you up the mountain - even all the way up to the ridge. There might be some Georgian badasses you actually do that, but please believe us if we tell you that you will dearly regret trying to drive up there. Laura almost had a heart attack and we definitely won’t try this again 😅
Day 2: Explore beautiful Ushguli
After the best (and most extensive) breakfast you ever had, get in your car (or taxi) early and start your drive to Ushguli. Even for a short 3-day trip we highly recommend you to go there. It is absolutely worth it. To our mind, Ushguli is still much less influenced by massive tourism and shows Svaneti in its most original way.
Once you dropped your bags in the guesthouse of your choice, go and explore the village. The Lamaria Church at the north-east end of the village offers an unobstructed view to the Shkhara Glacier, if you are lucky with the weather. A few meters from the church at the road you can rest a bit, while enjoying a coffee or beer at Cafe-Lemi.
Collect all your willpower and go to the other end of the village, where you will find Queen Tamara’s Svan Tower. If you dare, take the ladder and climb to what is probably the view over Svaneti. I almost fainted doing so (I have vertigo), but I would do it again, just because the views from the top are so spectacular.
Day 3: Marvel at the mesmerising landscapes of Zagari
You probably guessed it, but the itinerary end with one of the most marvellous drives through the Caucasus - the Zagari pass. Ask you landlady or some locals regarding the condition of the street. If they haven’t heard of anything significant happening, it’s probably save to drive. The route starts at the road triangle in the south-east corner of the village. Once you crossed the pass and got down to the next gorge, replenish your energy with a coffee at Cafe Natia in Tsana.
After 4.5 hours you should arrive back in Kutaisi.
For this itinerary we recommend to just add one day to Mestia and Ushguli. The options to spend your time in Mestia are ample - you could go for one of the longer hikes or explore the various museums and churches in and around the village. If you are staying in a family-run guesthouse, you might even find yourself joining a traditional Supra (meaning ‘tablecloth’). It is basically wine, bread, toasts and songs. We guarantee it to be a lasting memory :)
For your additional day in Ushguli you definitely have to do the horse ride to the Shkhara Glacier. You get a horse and a guide for a very reasonable price, just ask at your guesthouse. The horses will take you to a small restaurant, from which you have to hike to glacier (the path is too tight and stony for the horses). Once you arrived, you will find yourself in front of an incredibly wall of ice that is constantly moving. Quite a site to behold.