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. Modern Svaneti is still a sparsely populated area with just one town, Mestia, the capital of Upper Svaneti.
What is Svaneti Like
The Svaneti Mountains are the highest mountain range in Georgia. In fact, of the ten highest peaks in the Caucasus, four are here. We are talking about mountains so high that some remain inaccessible during winter. That’s why life in the Svaneti Mountains is so unique, different from the rest of the country and even the region. 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 flights from Kutaisi!
The Svan people are known for their courage and hospitality. Since they believe that a guest brings luck to a home, they are great hosts. Locals are also famous for their great hiking skills. Entire families, including small children, hike together up to the highest peaks. However, The Svan people were not always at peace, especially when there wasn’t enough food for everyone. In order to protect themselves they had to build some kind of stone fortress: the UNESCO listed Svaneti Towers.
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. 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.
Mestia, the Capital of Svaneti
With a population of less than 3000 people Mestia is slightly bigger than a village, and a great base for exploring Svaneti. Mestia is connected to the rest of the country by buses and vans. More than a dozen small hotels, guesthouses and restaurants open every day. A Tourist Info Center, the City Hall, and the Post Office dominate the main plaza. Two tiny rivers flow through the town: the Mulkhra and the Mestiachala. Additionally, the Svaneti Towers dot Mestia, providing beautiful views.
Ushguli: the End of the World
On the other hand, Ushguli is far smaller, less touristy yet surrounded by breathtaking landscape. You can reach Ushguli from Mestia through an unpaved road in about an hour. Unlike Mestia, which is bustling with life, Ushguli feels isolated and stuck in time. The village itself consists of a small settlement and a few even smaller ones along the road. Take your time and walk about in search for towers. Climb as many as you can to enjoy outstanding views. Notice the small River Inguri that runs through the village. Don’t forget to visit the church and the museum.
Where to Stay in Svaneti
Hotels and Guesthouses in Mestia
Mestia is the tourist center of the Svaneti Mountains. Hence, it is the only place with proper hotels. The best guesthouses are here too. Hotel Svaneti is still the only one that offers a spa and a sauna. Other nice hotels in Mestia are the Mountain Mestia, the Old Seti and the Lileo Hotel. There are plenty of guesthouses to choose from if you rather stay at a family run accommodation. We stayed at the fabulous Marina Guesthouse in a super comfy and warm room. The place was fully upgraded recently and renamed Elite House Mestia. Chalet Mestia, Bapsha Guesthouse and the Svan House In Mestia are good options too.
Hotels and Guesthouses in Ushguli
In Ushguli the accommodation offer is limited. Actually, there are no real hotels, just guesthouses. Nevertheless, there are a couple of good places to choose from. Recently renovated Hotel Koshki Ushguli is the best guesthouse in the town. Nearby Guesthouse Ushguli Maspindzeli is another decent option. Both of them are within the village proper. Stay at the Maxvshi Guesthouse if you prefer to be outside of small Ushguli. All three places offer private bathrooms and great views of the Svaneti Mountains.
Elsewhere in Svaneti
Other than in Mestia and Ushguli, there are several guesthouses along the main road and in isolated places. The Svaneti Mountains are increasingly becoming a popular skiing destination. Skiers go to the tiny villages of Chvabiani and Tsaldashi, ideally located close to the skiing tracks. Both villages offer a couple of very nice guesthouses. Arguably the best one is Maia’s Guesthouse in Chvabiani. Another great place for skiers is Tetnuldi Paradise near the Tetnuldi skiing area. If you are into long scenic treks stay at the Grand Hotel Ushba in Mezeri village, in the Bechvi Valley.
Finding the best accommodation depends on the type of traveler you are. However, we believe that Mestia is the best choice for almost everyone because it’s connected to the entire area. Likewise, Mestia offers the best selection of accommodation, restaurants, and excursions. Finally, it is a very relaxed small place but with some life. Staying in Ushguli means you’ll be a bit isolated. If that’s what you are after, the place is absolutely worth it! Even more, stay in one the guesthouses scattered around the mountain for an even deeper foray into nature.
What to Do in Svaneti
The Svaneti Mountains will make you love earth even more. Imposing mountains are everywhere. Luckily for us, you can explore them through several hiking trails. According to some, the best hiking route is the one that connects Mestia and Ushguli. We chose a shorter one and hiked all the way up to the mountain with the cross above Mestia. It’s not a difficult trek, and the views from the top are unforgettable. We spent an entire day just hanging around Mestia. Of course, we visited as many towers as we could, plus the Public Service Hall, Saint Nicolas Church and the Museum of History and Ethnography. On our last day, we explored Ushguli.
Where to Eat in Svaneti
We had no clue that Georgian food was so good. The country is food heaven! The environment is so pristine that you can grow just about anything. Additionally, animals walk about freely and Georgians are superb cooks. To us, a country excels in the culinary arts when you can eat great food everywhere. That’s exactly the case in Mestia, Svaneti. Even the simplest salad tastes delicious. Our favorite restaurant in Mestia and one of the oldest is Café Laila, located on the main square. They offer all kinds of local and international dishes. Other great restaurants are Sunset Café, Café Panorama, and Restaurant Lushnu Qor. Finally, the ERTI KAVA Coffee Room offers the best coffee in town. Eitan would go with a book and read while sipping coffee and in taking the views. Heaven!
When to Visit
The Svaneti Mountains are as pretty as our planet gets. Fortunately, the authentic ancient towers blend perfectly into the landscape. The local vibe, the food and the fresh air complete the feast. To get the most out of nature, go in late spring, summer or early fall. Take note that the weather gets cold beginning in the fall. We were there in early November. Though it was sunny and not especially cold, we used our heater all the time. Do not worry! All of the options we suggested have proper heating. Obviously, go in winter if you want to ski.
How to Get to the Svaneti Mountains
Regular Minibuses to Svaneti
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. These vans 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. There are also regular minibuses from Batumi. From Zugdidi you can travel to Abkhazia or Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.
Transport From and Around Svaneti
On our way out, we took the marshrutka back to Zugdidi (3 hours) and then the train to Tbilisi (5,5 more hours). It wasn’t easy to find a marshrutka in Mestia. It was off season so they didn’t operate every day. Since most locals speak only Georgian and Russian, I had to use all of my Russian skills. Some advice from Eitan: Roads zig-zag endlessly through the Svaneti Mountains so he got dizzy and had a hard time. Therefore, be sure to bring some motion sickness medicine and water. For Ushguli we hired a 4×4 with a driver. We met a lovely Hungarian-Russian couple in Mestia and shared the ride with them. The small Svaneti airport is near Mestia. Planes get full pretty quickly since flights are not regular. Check out the Airline’s site for more info.
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!