Georgia is a country of mountain and sea, with the north Caucasus Mountains along its northern border with Russia and the Black Sea to the west. Its close proximity to Asia, the Middle East, and Europe has made it a cultural crossroads throughout history the Silk Road brought travelers and merchants from the East and West to this central location. Georgia was unified under one king as early as the 4th century B.C., and was the location of the legendary Golden Fleece which Jason and the Argonauts sought in Greek mythology. It is no wonder that a place of such intrigue and splendor found its way into classical legends.
Many travelers begin exploring Georgia with a visit to Tbilisi. Tbilisi is Georgia's historic capital city since the 6th century A.D. It was named for the hot springs that abound in the area, as the word "Tpili" means 'warm' in Georgian. Tbilisi is the largest city in the country, with over one million inhabitants and is situated in the beautiful Mtkvari River Valley. Being a major cultural, industrial, and social center of Georgia, it typifies the blend of cultures seen across the country, with a mix of architectural styles and inhabitants. Although the main religion is Orthodox Christianity, mosques are found next to synagogues, and modern European city planning mixes with meandering medieval roads.
Tbilisi contains a charming Old Town with wooden houses, open-air balconies and winding streets. For those interested in cultural attractions, Tbilisi offers many museums to showcase the history and art of the area, including the Georgian State History Museum, Georgian Art Museum, Tbilisi Museum, and the Museum of Folk Architecture and many art galleries. Other cultural entertainment venues include the Tbilisi State Conservatoire, Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre, Shota Rustaveli State Academic Theatre, and Marjanishvili State Academic Theatre. For sports fan, the city houses multiple stadiums, especially for soccer and basketball.
Those of any religion appreciate the beauty and historic significance of the medieval Sioni Cathedral and fabulous Sameba Cathedral, finished, in 2004 to commemorate the 1,500 anniversary of the autonomy of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Metekhi area of the city also offers an impressive medieval church, an unusual example of a domed Georgian Orthodox church, perched above Tbilisi on a cliff. The mountains surrounding the city provide impressive views. A must-see is Narikala, an ancient fortress founded in the 4th century and now nestled in between hot springs and botanic gardens. Another place to find great views of Tbilisi is Mount Mtatsminda (Holy Mountain), with its Pantheon necropolis for famous Georgian artists and public figures. Tbilisi also boasts more than half a dozen universities.
Although Tbilisi has been the capital city for about almost 1500 years, the city of Mtshketa, just north of Tbilisi held that honor in ancient times. The city still shows its importance as a cultural center of the country and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Two of Georgia's most important religious monuments can be found here: the Sveti-tskhoveli Cathedral and Jvari Monastery, both examples of medieval architecture, which contain inscriptions provinge clues to the origins of the early Georgian alphabet. Other sights in Mtshketa include the ruins of the Armaztsikhe fortress from the 3rd century B.C. and the acropolis from the 1st century B.C., the remains of Pompey's bridge, according to legend built by Roman troops under Pompey the Great, and Bebris Tsikhe castle.
Wine lovers must visit the region of Kakheti in eastern Georgia, also the gateway to the gorgeous Tusheti mountain region, bordering Russia. Hundreds of varieties of grapes are grown in Kakheti, and it is famous for its drinking songs and genial hospitality. In the southern part of Kakheti, near the border with Azerbaijan, is Davit Gareja. This monastery complex is the highlight of a visit to the region and includes over a dozen monasteries within desert caves. The complex was founded by St. David Garejeli in the 6th century and remained inhabited until the Soviet takeover in 1921. Today, the monastery complex is one again active and a popular tourist and pilgrimage site.
The Tusheti region, part of Kakheti, is known for its traditional mountain communities, which have kept their historic ways of life for hundreds of years. Eagles soar in the Caucasus Mountains here, and villages are known for their tall black slate towers. Tucked away in the eastern mountains visitors can find unusual treasures like the town of Shatili, where one can see kvitkirebi, traditional multi-level stone towers that served as both residences and fortifications.
Georgia is said to have the most spectacular scenery in the region, and the beauty of the Caucasus mountain range has been compared to that of thee Alps and Himalayas. Wildflowers blossom in mountain meadows in May and June, and traditional harvest festivals can be found amidst the colorful foliage of autumn. Hiking opportunities abound in the regions of Svaneti, Khevi, and Khevsureti, with the main climbing areas being Kazbegi and Mestia. Kazbegi lies on the border with Russia and boasts Mt. Kazbek, an extinct volcano with a glacier, as well as the Kazbegi Nature Reserve, while Mestia offers the twin peaks of Ushba, called the Matterhorn of the Caucasus. For those who enjoy horseback riding, the Caucasus area has a long tradition of riding, still an important transportation method in many areas. To enjoy the mountains in the winter, check out the ski resorts at Bakuriani, once the most popular ski resort in all of the Soviet Union, or Gudauri, a modern resort boasting a four-star hotel.
Other sights along the famed Georgian Military Highway besides Gudauri and Kazbegi include Ananuri, Jvari Pass, Truso Gorge, Dariali Gorge, and Tsminda Sameba. Ananuri is a fortress between Tbilisi and Mtskheta and the northern mountainous regions, built by the nobility in the 17th century. The fortified castle saw many battles in its day and visitors can now view the peaceful surrounds by climbing to its top. Further north, travelers will encounter Jvari Pass, just after the ski resort of Gudauri. Jvari Pass, meaning Pass of the Cross, was named for the cross erected here by David the Builder in the 1100s and lost over time. A replacement of red stone now stands at the Pass, which is also the site of many natural springs. Not far past Jvari Pass is Truso Gorge, which offers beautiful hikes by cliffs, woods, and lakes. Further on the highway, near the Russian border, lies Dariali Gorge, with steep granite cliffs and the ruins of a castle. Between the two gorges is the town of Gergeti, where Puskin was inspired to write a poem about the Tsminda Sameba, the most important church in the region. It is said that in times of threat, treasures from Mtshketa were moved to Tsminda Sameba for safekeeping.
Further gems await travelers to the southwest edges of Georgia. The town of Borjomi sports the romantic Mineral Water Park, where visitors enjoy the special springs of the area, a museum showcasing treasures from a local Romanov palace, and Petres-Tsikhe, a medieval fortress with a good view of the Mtkvari Valley. Not to be missed in this region is the medieval cave city of Vardzia, a beloved symbol of Georgian culture. Built in the 12th century as a fort, the popular Georgian Queen Tamar changed it into a monastery which then blossomed into a city of 50,000. The striking feature was that the city's inhabitants lived in houses carved into the rock on thirteen different levels, surrounding the beautifully frescoed Church of the Assumption.
Georgia offers a range of scenery and cultural sites, so the intrepid traveler can visit balmy citrus groves along the ocean, craggy mountain peaks, and arid desert, while exploring vibrant and diverse localities with histories dating back thousands of years. Protected by mountains and fanned by warm breezes from the sea, Georgia's weather is generally mild, and makes it a lovely destination in any seasons.