Mountains That Move You: A Detailed Guide to Kazbegi, Georgia
From the moment we first set foot in Georgia, I was in awe.
Unlike most people who start their travels in Tbilisi, we crossed into Georgia from Russia which meant two things:
◈ Our journey from Vladikavkaz to Tbilisi was slightly nerve-wracking given the current state of affairs between Russia and Georgia. We expected the worst, hoped for the best and (luckily) had a problem-free border crossing.
◈ Our very first day in Georgia was spent driving the Georgian Military Highway through the beautiful region of Kazbegi. As far as first impressions go, we really couldn’t have asked for a better start to our month long adventure.
We were expecting a simple bus ride and ended up getting a scenic tour through the Caucasus mountain range. Our driver steered skillfully through winding roads stopping only for the occasional flock of sheep or stubborn cow. We stared out the minibus windows with smiles on our faces, excited to finally be in Georgia. With mountainous views that rivaled those we’ve enjoyed in Switzerland and Canada, we knew this one drive wasn’t enough to do Kazbegi justice.
We’d have to come back to see more.
A couple of weeks later, we returned to spend a night in a region that has since become our favourite part of the country (so far). Today we’re sharing essential tips and advice to help you make the most of your time in Kazbegi, Georgia. At the end of this post you’ll find a map highlighting the main points of interest in Kazbegi as well as a breakdown of our total costs for this getaway. And, if you’re still not sure why everyone seems to be talking about Georgia lately, our film below hints at what awaits you:
About the region
Before our visit, I had read that no trip to Georgia is complete without seeing the mountains. I now wholeheartedly agree. Kazbegi is one of many mountainous regions in Georgia and it happens to be the easiest to reach from Tbilisi. Visitors come to get up close to the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range and be surrounded by towering peaks that are sprinkled with snow even at the height of summer.
Despite being one of the most visited sites in Georgia, Kazbegi’s impressive landscapes offer a sense of peace and tranquility away from crowds and tourist shops. The crisp morning air and occasional wandering cattle make it easy to forget you’re only three hours from Tbilisi. Whether you’re an avid hiker, curious birder, photographer or simply looking for a small taste of adventure, you’ll be rewarded here.
What can sometimes cause confusion is that the small town of Stepantsminda also goes by the name Kazbegi. With roughly 2,000 residents, it’s the most populated part of the region and a central hub for visitors. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, Stepantsminda is your beautiful (and practical) base for exploring Kazbegi, Georgia.
Top things to do in Kazbegi, Georgia
|| Visit Gergeti Trinity Church
By far the highlight of our stay and the most popular thing to do in Kazbegi is to visit Gergeti Trinity Church. It sits atop a hill at the base of Gergeti Glacier and offers beautiful views of the town of Stepantsminda and surroundings. We recommend hiking up to get a full impression of how stunning the landscapes are:
Start by making your way to Gergeti Cafe. This served as an excellent reference point for us and also happens to be near a fountain of fresh spring water. There are a few different routes up to the monastery and surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, since we’re in Georgia) none are well marked. Luckily, we came across a helpful guide and used Emily’s advice to take the lefternmost path. As soon as you pass the gate at Gergeti Cafe, you’ll notice a very steep path on the right and a less travelled path on the left. We’ve highlighted the recommended path in a photo below and, while it takes a little bit longer to reach the top, it’s worth the detour for a more enjoyable walk.
In the past, the only other option to reach the hilltop was via a steep dirt road that required a 4x4 vehicle. Construction of a newly paved road with a series of hairpin turns was completed at the end of 2018 which means the church has never been more accessible (or crowded).
Additional tips for hiking to Gergeti Trinity Church:
◈ Hiking boots aren’t necessary but you should definitely wear suitable shoes for this hike.
◈ Bring enough water and some snacks with you. The church is isolated and you won’t find anything around until you’re back in town.
◈ Be mindful if travelling with young children as there are areas with no guardrails.
◈ Hold on to your belongings at the top because it can get quite windy.
◈ Wear modest clothing if you plan to enter the church.
◈ Expect to see groups of people coming in waves so you may have to wander away from the church for some solitude to truly enjoy the experience.
◈ If you’re unable to hike up, taxis in town offer return trips to Gergeti for 40-50 GEL.
|| Continue the hike to Gergeti Glacier: Confident hikers can continue past the church on a steep hike up the glacier. At a minimum of 9 hours round-trip, Wes and I happily saved this one for next time. If you’re up for the challenge, Freya from The Sandy Feet shares her accounts of hiking in Kazbegi here.
|| Visit the famed Rooms Hotel Kazbegi: For those unwilling to fork up 500 GEL for a night, you can still enjoy the atmosphere of this 4-star hotel and its perfect views from the terrace. We had planned to go for lunch but were still full from our guesthouse breakfast and settled on a coffee and glass of wine. I was pleasantly surprised to see they have a relatively fairly priced menu considering the cost to stay in one of their rooms.
|| Venture beyond Stepantsminda: If you’re staying in the area for more than a day or two, there is plenty to see in Kazbegi. Rewarding day trip options include Gveleti waterfall, Sno Valley and the small village of Juta. As far as activities go, there are options to join a horse riding tour in the mountains or go paragliding (near Gudauri).
For additional information about the area, you can also visit the new Kazbegi National Park Visitor’s Centre which is just around the corner from the bus stop.
Where to Stay in Kazbegi, Georgia
Many people choose to visit as a day trip from Tbilisi but I highly recommend spending at least one night in Kazbegi. We lucked out with a couple of sunny days in the forecast and booked our getaway at the very last minute. Our only regret was not having stayed a second night but, alas, there was more for us to see in Georgia.
You can have a look at the map at the bottom of this post to get a feel for how the town of Stepantsminda is laid out. You’ll notice it’s divided by the Georgian Military Highway and the Terek River. On the far east side, you have Rooms Hotel with unbeatable views of Mount Kazbek and Gergeti Trinity Church. Accommodations on the western side put you closer to the base of the church which reduces your walking time should you choose to visit on foot.
Most restaurants and services in Kazbegi are sprinkled around the bus station which is less of a station and more of a place where taxis and marshrutkas park. The further you stay from the main road, the fewer amenities you’ll see. It takes roughly 40 minutes to walk the width of Stepantsminda, from Rooms Hotel to Gergeti Cafe. For such a small town, we found ourselves doing a fair bit of walking to get around. Enough to justify eating an extra khinkali (or two).
Kazbegi offers a wide range of accommodations to choose from and guesthouses are the most common choice by a long shot. For those unfamiliar with guesthouses in Georgia, we’ve written a post about what you can expect to help you decide if it’s the right accommodation for you.
|| Guest House Tamta: We were welcomed by our friendly host and had a really comfortable stay in a spacious room. The home is about a 15 minute walk from the bus stop and offers a perfect view of Mount Kazbek from the front porch. For an additional 15 GEL each, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast spread that consisted of an omelette, tomato and cucumber salad, carrot and coriander salad, assorted cheeses, pastries, jam and peaches from the garden. Another Georgian breakfast that did not disappoint.
I’m hesitant to recommend a list of places to stay in Kazbegi considering I’ve only stayed in one home and there are dozens of hosts offering warm beds, filling breakfasts and that genuine Georgian hospitality. You can find budget-friendly dorms in Kazbegi for under 25 GEL, private rooms in guesthouses for around 50 GEL and mountain-view hotel rooms starting from 80 GEL. Anyone looking to splurge will be delighted with the service and design at Rooms Hotel Kazbegi (at 500 GEL or more).
Travel Tips for visiting Kazbegi, Georgia
WEATHER || To see the best of Kazbegi, it helps to actually see the stunning scenery and mountains. Keep an eye on the forecast and try to plan your visit for a day with clear skies. We made a habit of checking the weather almost every day during our month in Tbilisi. This helped us avoid going when there were predictions for rain or poor visibility. Visiting Kazbegi between late spring and early fall will increase your chances of better weather. End of May to end of September are generally ideal since the snow should be melted and hiking paths should be clear.
CLOTHING || The temperatures can change quickly and quite drastically so be sure to pack clothing that can easily be layered. At the top of our hike, we were relaxing in the sunshine wearing short-sleeve shirts. As soon as the sun started setting, temperatures dropped to 12ºC and we weren’t prepared for a chilly August night.
ALTITUDE || It took us a while to realize why we were out of breath in Kazbegi and then it clicked: the altitude. The first thing we did (after checking in) was make our way up to Gergeti Trinity Church. Within a few hours, we had gone from the 400m altitude of Tbilisi to 1700m in Stepantsminda to 2100m at the peak of our hike. If you decide to do any hiking in the region, give yourself some time to adjust to the altitude or you might find you’re huffing and puffing more than usual.
MONEY || The further you get from Tbilisi, the more you will rely on cash in Georgia. You’ll want to bring enough cash for your stay in Kazbegi as the few ATMs in town are not the most reliable. Some establishments (like the Rooms Hotel) will accept credit cards but our guesthouse and the other small restaurants we went to did not.
Getting from Tbilisi to Kazbegi, Georgia
If you’re travelling to Kazbegi from another region in Georgia like Sighnaghi, Kutaisi or Batumi, you will likely have to make a connection in Tbilisi. Because of its popularity, Stepantsminda is well connected and fairly straight-forward to get to from the capital. Any driver or sign indicating a ride to Kazbegi will land you in the town of Stepantsminda which is where you want to be.
Marshrutkas are the most common and readily available option in Georgia, whether you’re heading to the next town or venturing across the country. These shared minibuses travel fixed routes and generally fit anywhere from 10-20 passengers at a time (though a driver won’t hesitate to fill his van past capacity).
Unless you’ve opted to take a guided tour, your journey to Kazbegi starts at Tbilisi’s Didube bus station. Didube is a stop on the Akhmeteli-Varketili line and easily accessible by metro. You can also use Bolt or Yandex to Didube for around 6 GEL from the city centre.
Once there, things can be a bit hectic. Didube is a main hub for marshrutkas, buses, vans and taxis heading to various destinations in Georgia. Drivers are eager to fill their vehicles and get moving meaning there’s a sense of urgency in the air. Apparently the station is sectioned off in a practical way but it’s hard to notice any order at all when you’re constantly being approached by drivers. From Didube, there are two main ways to get to Kazbegi:
Via marshrutka: There is a designated booth for marshrutkas to Kazbegi and you’ll find tickets available for sale under a raised yellow sign that reads ‘Stefancminda-Kazbegy.’ These run on a set schedule and leave Didube almost every hour. The current going rate for this option is 10 GEL (under $4 USD). Your driver will likely make one stop about halfway through the drive for a brief bathroom/snack break. In our experience, even when there is a designated booth, there are several other drivers at Didube with marshrutkas heading to Kazbegi as well.
Via taxi/minivan: For 20 GEL (less than $7 USD), you can opt for a minivan or taxi that will make a couple of scenic stops along the way. The scenery was a selling point for us so we joined 6 other travellers in a minivan. Our driver made stops at both the Ananuri Fortress and Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument for about 20 minutes each. The lookout point at our second stop was particularly impressive and it would have been nice to have more time to take photos here but we settled for what we got. Our van was more comfortable and spacious than a marshrutka and we felt this justified the extra 10 GEL.
Regardless of which option you choose, it’s safe to estimate at least 3 hours for the drive from Tbilisi to Kazbegi. Traffic jams (cars or cattle) and road conditions can add to your travel time. When your driver pulls over to a parking lot on the side of the road, you’ve made it to the bus station of Stepantsminda. This is also where you’ll see a small stand with an elevated timetable posting departures to Tbilisi.
As of August 2019, the ride back is also 10 GEL and the schedule for marshrutkas from Kazbegi to Tbilisi is:
Daily from: 7:00, 8:00, 9:00, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 13:30, 14:00, 15:30, 17:00, 18:00
These tend to fill up quickly during peak season so you might want to buy your return ticket in advance. On the day we were leaving Kazbegi, we made it to the stand just after 1pm and the 1:30pm marshrutka was nearly full. A nearby driver had space for 2 more passengers so we opted for a more comfortable ride in his sedan for 20 GEL each.
Stops along the Georgian Military Highway
To say the drive to Kazbegi is scenic would be an understatement. If your budget allows you to hire a private driver, take advantage of these photo-worthy stops along the Georgian Military Highway:
Jvari Monastery near Mtskheta
Ananuri Fortress Complex
Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument (Gudauri Viewing Point on Google Maps)
Gudauri Ski Resort
Mineral Springs near Kobi
With so many interesting things to see on the way to Kazbegi, it’s only natural to consider renting a car in Georgia. Now, we’re big fans of road trips. We’ve driven across Canada, around Ireland and Northern Ireland, and are planning for a road trip through Hungary next month. But driving in Georgia, especially along the Georgian Military Highway, is something I’d only recommend for skilled and confident drivers.
You see, some locals in Georgia drive like invincible stuntmen. They will pass on bends while speeding. They will talk on their phones while passing. They will zigzag through sheep. They will drive in the wrong direction on a one-way street. Solid lines and stop signs don’t mean much at all. Ready to share the road with Georgians? Comfortable driving down narrow roads alongside big trailers and buses?
If your answer is yes, then go for it. A car will give you the ultimate freedom to explore. But I personally wouldn’t recommend it to any of my friends or family considering a road trip in Georgia. It may be surprising to read that I’d instead recommend you get in the back seat of one of these manic marshrutkas (especially given the high probability that you won’t have a seat belt), but there’s no denying that no one knows the roads better than the locals who drive them day in and day out.
|| Total costs ||
For 2 people staying 1 night in Kazbegi, Georgia in August of 2019:
Transportation: 80 GEL
20 GEL each way per person
Accommodation: 50 GEL
1 night at Guesthouse Tamta
Food & Drink: 110 GEL
TOTAL: 240 GEL or approximately $82 USD
|| PIN FOR LATER ||