Arguably the most beautiful part of the Caucasus Mountain range, the Svaneti region is a true gem. It’s far more than just stunning nature: a thousand year old defense towers (now a World Heritage site) still stand around several villages. Life close to the highest peaks is relaxed and atmospheric, domestic animals walk freely down quiet alleys; people are calm and food delicious and homey.
However, the Svan people were not always at peace, especially when there wasn’t enough food for everyone, so in order to protect themselves they had to build some kind of stone fortress. Unlike elsewhere in the world where walls were built around entire villages, in Svaneti each family built its own tall stone tower fortress. During a siege, the whole family (up to a hundred people) would hide inside the tower until the oppressor left.
Modern Svaneti is still a sparsely populated area with just one town, Mestia, the capital of Upper Svaneti. With a population of less than 3000 people it is slightly bigger than a village, and a great base for exploring the region, Mestia is connected to the rest of the country by buses and vans. More than a dozen small hotels and guesthouses plus 4 restaurants open every day. Be sure to visit Ushguli, an hour ride on unpaved roads from Mestia, far smaller and isolated, less touristy yet surrounded by breath taking landscape.
Where to stay in Svaneti?
Happy Frog absolutely recommends Mestia for 4 reasons:
- Mestia is the closest place with connections everywhere.
- A better range of accommodation.
- Very relaxed and atmospheric with some life.
- Excursions offered are varied.
Other than gorgeous mountains and great treks, the real highlights of the area are the Old Towers. These massive structures can be found along the road, in isolated villages and in both Ushguli and Mestia. A few are open to visitors and one has been converted into a museum.
Check out this post for the best hiking routes in Svaneti.
Getting to Svaneti was a complete adventure until a couple of years ago. There were no paved roads, the accommodation offer was limited and the area was self governed by local clans. Nowadays there is an airport with regular flights from Tbilisi.
We took a minivan (marshrutka) from Kutaisi (cheap flights from several European cities land there) directly to Mestia, which took more than 5 hours and stopped in Zugdidi, the largest city in the Caucasus (From Zugdidi you can also travel to Abkhazia.) On our way out, we took the marshrutka back to Zugdidi (3 hours) and then the train to Tbilisi (5,5 more hours). These vans in Georgia are a bit uncomfortable, and don’t have a fixed schedule, they will depart once they are full. However, not only will you meet locals, but you will enjoy outstanding views as you go up and down curvy roads. It might be a bit of a hassle to organize a trip to Svaneti on your own, but that’s exactly why it is still an unspoiled first class destination. This is the right moment to go!
Happy Frog recommends Marina’s Guesthouse in Mestia