Going to the Blue Lagoon is a must for anyone traveling to Iceland! It’s the most popular tourist attraction in Iceland — it seems like nearly everyone who visits Iceland works a trip to the Blue Lagoon into their itinerary.
And being the most popular destination, there are plenty of guides and how-tos for the Blue Lagoon Iceland. But to be honest, I was surprised by how many things I didn’t know.
I’ve visited the Iceland Blue Lagoon several times, in different kinds of weather. As you can see by my photos, I’ve seen the Blue Lagoon on a gorgeous day in May; I’ve also visited the Blue Lagoon on a cold and rainy August day. It wasn’t ideal, but it was still worth visiting the Blue Lagoon in the rain.
Before you go to the Blue Lagoon, here’s what you should know.
This post was updated in October 2019.
Book the Blue Lagoon with Transportation from Reykjavik
Blue Lagoon Iceland
Is the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik?
The Blue Lagoon is not in Reykjavik. It’s in Grindavík, close to the airport and about 45 minutes from Reykjavik.
Two-thirds of Iceland’s population may live in Reykjavik, but the Blue Lagoon is quite a distance away. If you haven’t rented a car, you’ll need to book a transfer with a tour company. You can book Blue Lagoon tickets with round-trip transportation from Reykjavik here. The drive takes about 45 minutes each way.
That said, Reykjavik is a fabulous city and being based here is the best option for visiting the Blue Lagoon and exploring the nearby region. See below for where to stay in Reykjavik.
Is the Blue Lagoon a natural spring?
The Iceland Blue Lagoon is not a natural spring. While Iceland is a country brimming with natural hot springs, the Blue Lagoon isn’t one of them. The land is natural, as is the lava that shapes the pool, but the water is actually the result of runoff from the geothermal plant next door.
The plant was built first, and it uses Iceland’s volcanic landscape to produce heat power. The runoff is filtered straight into the Blue Lagoon, which is what heats the water.
That doesn’t mean it’s dangerous or toxic — far from it! It’s just not the natural phenomenon that many people believe it to be.
Best Time to Go to Blue Lagoon
When is the best time to go to the Blue Lagoon? If you want to have the space to yourselves, I recommend going as soon as it opens, first thing in the morning. If you’re waiting at the Blue Lagoon right as they open and you rush in the locker room, you could be one of the first people in it! (This is also the best option if you want to get photos without other people in them.)
If you want to be a bit of an overachiever, you could check the flight schedule at Reykjavik airport and plan your trip when the fewest flights are arriving and departing. Personally, I think this is a bit overkill, but some people who live for data enjoy doing this.
In terms of the best time to visit Iceland, you have options. While Iceland is very popular throughout the year, there are the fewest tourists during the winter months. If you want to experience a quieter Iceland, I highly recommend visiting during the winter. Keep in mind that it’s a cheaper time to visit, flights will likely be less expensive, and fewer tours and activities will be available.
The Northern Lights are most likely to be seen during the winter months and around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (March 21 and September 21). You are extremely unlikely to see them in the summer. As always, you can plan to see the Northern Lights, but they are finicky and unpredictable and many an Iceland tourist has been disappointed at missing their chance.
My advice? Don’t make your trip all about the Northern Lights. (Frankly, there are places much more reliable than Iceland to see the Northern Lights, like Alaska and northern Norway.) Go in with cautious optimism. If you see them, great! If you don’t, you’ve still had a fun trip to Iceland.
Most tourists choose to travel to Iceland during the busy summer months. This is when you’ll have the best (and warmest) weather, though keep in mind Iceland weather can be brutal and ever-changing! You’ll also have the greatest amount of sunlight. This is when Iceland will be at its most crowded and expensive, but most activities should be available.
If you choose to visit Iceland during the summer, be sure to book as much as you can ahead of time. Many hotels, flights, and activities will sell out in advance.
Book the Blue Lagoon with Transportation from Reykjavik
Blue Lagoon at Night, via Pixabay
Blue Lagoon at Night
Can you visit the Blue Lagoon at night? Yes — but the opening hours vary based on the time of year. From June through mid-August, the Blue Lagoon is open until 11:00 PM or midnight.
Iceland Blue Lagoon Hours:
1 January – 30 May: 8:00 AM-9:00 PM
31 May – 27 June: 7:00 AM – 11:00 PM
28 June – 18 August: 7:00 AM – 12:00 AM
19 August – 31 December: 8:00 AM – 9:00 PM
One advantage of visiting the Iceland Blue Lagoon at night is that it has a peaceful, dusky, almost spooky atmosphere. Most of the visiting children will have left by night.
However, don’t plan to get images of the Blue Lagoon at night underneath a dark sky. If you visit during the summer months, midnight in July will only be a bit dusky; frankly, it will be a lot darker in late December at 9:00 PM.
Is it possible to see the Northern Lights at the Blue Lagoon Iceland? Don’t plan on it. Most of the images you’ve seen of the Northern Lights have been in places with little to no light pollution. The Blue Lagoon is full of light. Proper Northern Lights tours will take you far outside the city to see them.
Snorkeling Silfra: The Coolest Thing I Did in Iceland
How Deep is the Blue Lagoon?
The Blue Lagoon is a maximum of 1.7 meters (4.7 feet) deep. For this reason, all children are required to have a guardian while in the Blue Lagoon.
Blue Lagoon Temperature
The Blue Lagoon has a temperature usually ranging between 37 and 40 degrees Celsius (98 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit). It feels like a nice warm bath. However, keep in mind that the outdoor temperature and weather mean that the temperature can fluctuate a bit higher and lower.
Do you have to shower before going into the Blue Lagoon?
Not unlike spas in Europe and around the world, you must take a shower before going into the pool. The Iceland Blue Lagoon goes one step further and requires you to shower naked. Don’t worry if you don’t want to be naked in public: while some showers are out in the open, there are now several shower stalls that lock for privacy.
Once you’re rinsed and your hair is conditioned, you can put your bathing suit back on and head on into the Blue Lagoon.
Should you book the Blue Lagoon before or after your flight to Iceland?
Try to time your visit to the Blue Lagoon to your flight to Iceland. If you have super early flights to Iceland, you may not be able to do this — but if you have a morning or afternoon arrival or an afternoon or evening departure, you should take advantage of hitting up the Blue Lagoon on the way to the airport.
The Blue Lagoon is much closer to the airport than Reykjavik. Going to the Blue Lagoon en route to the airport will save you time.
If that’s the case, I recommend booking a private airport transfer via the Blue Lagoon. This will give you two hours to enjoy the lagoon on the way to the airport, giving yourself more time to spend doing other things in Iceland, plus you won’t have to worry about getting onto a bus with strangers.
If you’re visiting Iceland as a stopover between North America and Europe, you’ll find much more convenient times for visiting the Blue Lagoon from North America to Iceland to Europe than if you are flying from Europe to Iceland to North America.
Did you book the cheapest flight to Iceland?
Skyscanner usually has the best deals.
Should you combine a Blue Lagoon visit with another tour in Iceland?
If you’re only visiting Iceland for a few days, you can save time and money by booking tours that include multiple activities in a day. Here are some suggestions:
1) Visit the Blue Lagoon and tour the Golden Circle.
2) Visit the Blue Lagoon, tour the Golden Circle, and visit Kerid volcano crater.
3) Visit the Blue Lagoon and go on a whale watching cruise.
4) Visit the Blue Lagoon and go on a cultural sightseeing tour of Reykjavik.
All four of these tours include admission to the Blue Lagoon in the price.
Your hair will get DESTROYED at the Blue Lagoon.
The one thing that everyone says is, “Use lots of leave-in conditioner.” The locker rooms at the Iceland Blue Lagoon offer lots of conditioner, so that made it easy.
The water at the Blue Lagoon is not good for your hair. I would especially be cautious if you have natural, curly, or color-treated hair.
I thought my curly hair would be okay. Well, after covering my hair in conditioner, twisting it up in a French twist, leaving the conditioner in, and going into the Blue Lagoon, then coming out, rinsing my hair, conditioning it like crazy, and leaving it in again — my hair was destroyed for the next five days.
Take my advice — even if you condition your hair, don’t let it touch the water. You’re not missing out on much if you don’t.
Iceland Blue Lagoon Pricing
The Blue Lagoon doesn’t make it easy to find out how much they charge. They don’t have a list of prices; you can only see the prices on specific days, five to six months in advance. Adult tickets are sold to those who are age 14 and older.
Tickets are sold in tiers: Comfort, Premium, and Retreat Spa. Comfort and Premium just vary in terms of amenities, but the much more expensive Retreat Spa tier gives you access to a private spa and private area of the Blue Lagoon Iceland.
Comfort tickets at the Blue Lagoon cost 76 EUR to 86 EUR ($84-94), depending on the time of year. Comfort tickets include entrance to the Blue Lagoon, silica mud mask, use of towel, and first free drink of your choice.
Premium tickets at the Blue Lagoon cost 98 EUR to 107 ($108-118), depending on the time of year. Premium tickets include entrance to the Blue Lagoon, silica mud mask, use of towel, first free drink of your choice, second mask of your choice, dining reservation (optional), and sparkling wine with your dining reservation.
Retreat Spa tickets at the Blue Lagoon cost 565 EUR ($621). Retreat spa tickets include entrance to the Blue Lagoon, access to the private Retreat Spa (four hours), access to a private changing room, The Blue Lagoon Ritual, Retreat Lagoon, skin care amenities, access to the Spa Restaurant, and first free drink of your choice.
Which tier is best at the Iceland Blue Lagoon? Personally, I think that Comfort is more than fine — there’s no real point to Premium. But if you want to go all out and have the cash to spend, go ahead and do the Retreat Spa.
Iceland’s Phallological Museum: A Strange Must-See
Blue Lagoon Experience
I enjoyed my time at the Blue Lagoon. Being the kind of girl who loves extreme heat, I thought the water wouldn’t be hot enough for me, but it turns out that there is a super-hot section just for cold-blooded ones like myself! You can see it in the above picture — it’s where the steam is coming out.
It never gets too hot in Iceland — in my spring and summer trips, temperatures hovered in mid-40s Fahrenheit (about 10 C), which made the pool nice and toasty, and not so cold that walking outside was like Nordic torture. It felt just fine.
If you visit the Blue Lagoon in winter, it will be colder, but that just means you should get in the water a little bit faster. It’s nice and cozy year-round.
The Blue Lagoon gives you wristbands that you can use for purchases while in the water. This is a brilliant way of paying for items without having to keep an eye on your purse or wallet. The wristband system also prevents people from buying more than three alcoholic drinks.
The Blue Lagoon has a sauna and steam room, as well as an exclusive section. You can get a variety of spa treatments, including a massage on a float right in the Blue Lagoon! There are cocktails at the swim-up bar, but I prefer the smoothies instead, which you can conveniently pay for with your wristband.
Overall, if you’re going to Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is one of those experiences that you just have to try. But if you can, I recommend you do it on the way to or from the airport — and I beg you, don’t let that water touch your hair!
Blue Lagoon Iceland Address
Visit the Blue Lagoon in Iceland at:
Blue Lagoon Iceland
Norðurljósavegur 9, 240 Grindavík
+354 420 8800
Reykjavik, Iceland — image via Pixabay.
Where to Stay In Iceland
Where’s the best place to stay in Iceland? If you’re only staying in Iceland for a few days, Reykjavik makes an excellent base for exploring western Iceland. Here are my recommendations for Reykjavik accommodation:
Luxury: 41 — A Townhouse Hotel
Mid-range: Hotel Odinsve
Budget: Igdlo Guesthouse
Hostel: KEX Hostel
Check out more hotels in Reykjavik here.
Why Iceland is Perfect for First-Time Solo Female Travelers
Essential Info: The Blue Lagoon Iceland has several different tiers of pricing: Comfort, Premium, and Retreat Spa, with entry as cheap as 76 EUR ($84 USD) in the colder months. Ticket prices vary based on the date and time of booking. Book tickets to the Blue Lagoon including a transfer from Reykjavik here.
Iceland is full of awesome tours, from ice climbing to whale watching to snorkeling between the techtonic plates. Check out some of the best tours here.
For flights to Iceland, I find the best rates on Skyscanner. Double-check here to make sure you got a good rate.
Looking for a group tour to Iceland? G Adventures has several Iceland tours, all with small groups.
The best way to get from the airport to downtown Reykjavik is the Flybus. It’s cheap, easy, and runs frequently.
While Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world, it’s vital to get travel insurance before your trip. If you get seriously injured and require an air ambulance home, it could save you literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. I don’t travel anywhere without insurance, and I use and recommend World Nomads.
Many thanks to the Iceland Tourism Board and the Blue Lagoon Iceland for hosting my first visit in 2012. I’ve since returned and have paid my own way. All opinions, as always, are my own.
The post Things No One Tells You About the Blue Lagoon, Iceland appeared first on Adventurous Kate.
Sometimes a moment makes your month. That’s what happened in September.
At Traverse in Trentino in June, the closing keynote included blogger Sassy Wyatt, who writes about travel and disability and is visually impaired. She pointed out that bloggers should be writing descriptions of their photos in the alt text field, because that’s what visually impaired people use to understand the photos.
At that point I had been blogging for seventeen years, professionally for nine years, and had no clue that alt text was for this purpose. I didn’t know it was even a thing. And that shows how little people with disabilities are given consideration in the blogging/online publishing world.
“Whenever I write my alt text,” my friend Alistair said as he moderated the keynote panel, “I pretend that I’m writing directly to Sassy.”
I started writing image descriptions in my alt text immediately — and I, too, pretended I was writing directly to Sassy. That top photo reads, “Kate wears overalls and jumps in the air, holding skewers of lamb in each hand, mountains and blue sky behind her, in Gran Sasso National Park.” It takes a bit more time, but it’s not complicated, and it makes a huge difference. Sometimes I’ll put jokes in the descriptions.
That’s not all I’m doing, though. If you follow me on Instagram at @adventurouskate, you may have noticed that whenever I talk in my Stories, there is now a transcription underneath. And that’s something I should have known better about — I have friends who are deaf, including friends in the travel blogging community. I should have been doing this all along.
It’s not perfect, and I know I have a long way to go — but I hope that this is making my site more accessible to more people. And this month I found out that yes, it is.
I saw Sassy at Borderless Live in London this month and got a chance to talk to her in between sessions.
“I just wanted to let you know that since your talk at Traverse, I’ve started using descriptions in my alt text,” I told her.
“I know you did! I read your blog,” she said with a grin.
That didn’t just make my day — it made my month. Sometimes it can feel like the behind-the-scenes work is screaming into the void — but knowing that someone is now directly benefiting from the alt text made me SO happy.
Bloggers, start writing descriptions in your alt text. You probably already have visually impaired readers reading your site, and this will make it much more enjoyable for them!
New York, NY
Bologna, Ostuni, Lecce, Monopoli, Bari, Matera, Altamura, Turi, Alberobello, Locorotondo, Foggia, San Domino, San Nicola, Termoli, Gran Sasso National Park, Cupra Marittima, Porto San Giorgio, Porto Recanati, Loreto, Urbino, Ravenna, Quattro Castella, Reggio Emilia, Basilicagoiano, Polesine Parmense, and Parma, Italy
Prague, Czech Republic
Lecce. A low-key city in many ways, filled with beautiful and sometimes perplexing architecture. Hot year-round, cheap year-round, and not too discovered by tourist hordes just yet.
Monopoli. The perfect base for a week of Puglia exploration. A small but oh-so-beautiful town perched on the beach, with lots of good restaurants and perhaps Italy’s best gelato.
Parma. Man, I thought I liked it before, but now I REALLY love Parma! So much joy and color, so many cool shops, interesting and artsy and cheap, cheap, cheap.
A great Borderless Live conference in London. This was the first Borderless Live conference ever, and I loved listening to inspiring creators talk about how they work. I also gave a talk on the current state of blogging, ethical issues, and writing for your existing, faithful audience rather than catering 100% to newcomers from SEO.
Spending extended time in Puglia. I’ve been to Puglia once before, a brief trip to Gargano and Alberobello, but this time I spent nearly two weeks and got to see a ton of the region. Puglia is amazing — great weather, gorgeous coastline, and excellent food, especially if you don’t eat meat.
I revisited Alberobello but enjoyed so many places, especially Lecce, which was interesting and low-key in all the right ways; the coastal town of Monopoli, which was such a beautiful and perfect base; and the inland town of Locorotondo, which may be one of the prettiest small towns in Italy I’ve ever visited. It ended with a VERY Italian trip to the Tremiti Islands, which it turns out are quite pretty but quite dead in September!
Visiting four new Italian regions. My goal to visit all 20 Italian regions is coming along nicely, as I visited Basilicata, Termoli, Abruzzo, and Le Marche for the first time ever! I made sure to have a memorable experience in each region.
First up was Basilicata, and I visited the stunning city of Matera, built on sassi (caves) where people were still living as late as the 1960s. I’ve wanted to visit Matera for well over a decade and was happy to finally get there. Also, it was my 150th UNESCO World Heritage Site! Hopefully next time in Basilicata I’ll head to the west coast to see Maratea.
Molise is the least visited region in Italy, but we dropped by the seaside town of Termoli and had a local Molise specialty: a pampanella sandwich (peppery, vinegary ribs on a bun). It was tasty. Molise is a small region and doesn’t have much for attractions, so I doubt I’ll make it a priority to return — but you never know…
Next up was Abruzzo, and we drove through Gran Sasso National Park, which is astounding in its beauty. Best of all was stopping at Ristoro Giuliani, a butcher shop in the middle of absolute nowhere, surrounded by mountains. You buy your meat — including arrosticini, the local specialty, or little skewers of lamb — and cook it on one of the grills in front of the shop! It was such a special experience, the kind of place that you can’t believe exists. I want to go back to Abruzzo and see more of the national park!
After that, we had a few days in Le Marche, staying at an agriturismo near the coast. Le Marche doesn’t get the fame of its neighbors like Tucany and Umbria, but there’s a lot to love here. There was a food festival, a Porsche festival, and two hilltop towns: Loreto and Urbino. Urbino was a highlight of the trip — such a beautiful town. They have a local pasta called passatelli, made from bread crumbs, parmigiano, and egg.
A return to Emilia-Romagna. You guys have been listening to me rave about Emilia-Romagna for eight years now, so there’s nothing new there. I think Emilia-Romagna is like Italy in miniature, with cool cities and incredible cuisine. It was fun to return to old favorites, like Parma and Ravenna, and have some new experiences, too — like learning all about culatello, one of the world’s finest meats. I actually bought half a culatello to bring back to Prague.
A great STS conference in Ravenna. I always have a good time at STS and it was great to see friends, pick up tips, and spend time discussing how we can best influence people in our industry to do better, more ethical work.
Arriving in Prague for the first time in 15 years! Can you believe it’s been that long? Last night I was here, I was a 20-year-old college student, drinking Bailey’s and hot chocolate on the street and dancing all night long at the five-floor club.
This time is different — my boyfriend has lived in Prague for the past 18 years and is fluent in Czech, so I’m experiencing the local side of the city. A lot of people complain about how touristy the Old Town is — but the Old Town is such a tiny part of Prague. You see almost no tourists outside the city center.
Lots of good times with friends. Good times with friends up and down Italy, especially in Emilia-Romagna. Probably my favorite moments was in Bologna when I briefly dropped out of sight and my friends’ three-year-old daughter said, “Hey, where’d that little guy go?”
An illness that snowballed into horrific insomnia. I felt like I was getting sick on the flight to Europe, and the cold hit in full force once I arrived in Bologna. I went to the farmacia for my usual pills (you know you spend a lot of time in Italy when you have a go-to brand of Italian decongestant pills). They didn’t work very well.
And suddenly, the night before my presentation in London — just like the night before my last presentation in Trentino — I was up ALL NIGHT and could not sleep. It just could not happen. Melatonin had no impact. Then the same thing happened two nights later. I was an exhausted mess and wanted to cry.
It turns out it was the medication — pseudoephedrine can cause insomnia. Who knew?! My mom told me she can’t take Sudafed for that same reason. As soon as I got off it, I was sleeping well again.
Just keep that in mind — if you are taking pseudoephedrine and can’t sleep, that’s probably the reason.
A pinched nerve — just to start. I had a sore neck, blamed it on crappy Italian pillows, then the pain began to shoot down my arm a few days later. Most likely a pinched nerve — and a physio visit in Prague showed me that my body really needs some alignment work. I guess this happens when I’m on the road and out of the gym for a few months. It will take some work getting back to normal.
Blog Posts of the Month
Reasons to Travel to the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Canada — This was my favorite stop on my 10-day OneOcean Eastern Canada expedition this July. Here’s what made it so special.
What’s It REALLY Like to Travel to Baku, Azerbaijan? — Baku was a strange, offbeat city, and while I had a good time, I doubt I’d go back. Here’s why.
Most Popular Photo on Instagram
This is the first full-length bathing suit photo that I’ve published since 2011. Up until now, I’ve only done bathing suit photos from the waist up. It feels GOOD. For more updates from my travels, follow me on Instagram at @adventurouskate.
What I Read This Month
Four books read this month and I am up to 64 in 2019, which means that I will most likely exceed my record of 72. I guess I can officially say goodbye to reading 100 in 2019…that’s not going to happen!
There There by Tommy Orange (2018) — This novel is told from the point of view of several American Indians living in and around Oakland, California, in the days leading up to the Big Oakland Powwow. There’s the teenager who knows nothing of his heritage and teaches himself how to dance from YouTube, the woman fleeing her abusive husband in Oklahoma, the documentary filmmaker eager to tell Indian stories. They all converge on the powwow, which erupts in conflict.
This book painted such a different view of Indians. (First off, learning that the “Don’t say Indian — say Native American or American Indian!” drilled into me from childhood is wrong.) I never knew anything about Indians living in urban areas today. This tells the story of people trying to survive after having their culture, family, and meaning torn away from them. Some people believe that PTSD can be passed down generation by generation — this shows that it’s the case. Generational poverty and substance abuse continue to harm Indian communities today. But even as it’s an “important” book, it’s also a beautiful, engrossing, and entertaining novel. Highly recommended.
Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done by Jon Acuff (2017) — Why do so many people struggle with finishing what they start? This book sets to figure out why. Jon Acuff ran a course helping people achieve their goals, he was surprised to learn what actually got people across the finish line. In a nutshell, it wasn’t getting people to work harder — it was taking the pressure off. The greatest obstacle to us achieving our goals is perfectionism, and that’s what keeps people from finishing.
This book was a really great read, and highly recommended for self-employed creatives. Acuff has a great sense of humor, too, and I chuckled throughout the book. A lot of these examples make a lot of sense. But the truth is that reading books like these is all for naught unless you put what you learn into practice.
When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink (2019) — Timing is a lot more scientific than we think. There are different “chronotypes” that people fall into — the times that we work best as humans. Most people work best in the morning, fade in the afternoon, then rally back in the evening. But not everyone is like that. This book breaks down how timing affects how we work, and how we can best organize our days to get our work done.
Well, I’m now terrified of ever having to see a doctor in the afternoon thanks to this book. In all seriousness, though, I found it to be a fascinating read. I’m not quite sure where I lie — there have been times when I’ve gotten so much work done between midnight and 3 AM, but I feel a lot better about myself when I get a day’s worth of work done by 7 PM. Maybe I should keep experimenting. But the single best tip I got from this book is the “nappuccino” — drink a coffee, then take a short nap. Caffeine takes about 25 minutes to kick in, so once you wake up, you’ll feel amazingly refreshed and ready to work again.
A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult (2018) — This novel, told backwards in time, describes the day a terrorist murders several people at an abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi, and takes several others hostage. It’s told from several points of view: the cop talking the terrorist through the situation from the outside; his teenage daughter, who was in the clinic to get birth control; an undercover anti-choice protestor pretending to be a patient; the doctor, whom I knew immediately was based on Dr. Willie Parker; and some other characters.
Typical Jodi Picoult novel — you know exactly what you’re going to get. Morality issue. Legal-medical drama. Surprise twist ending. Cop or firefighter husband talking about how much he loves his wife even though she’s put on weight in recent years (though this book tended to be more about him gushing about his daughter). Gay characters with perfect romantic relationships without a single blemish. But damn if they’re not engrossing books. This one was an easy read that kept me enthralled until the end — and I actually didn’t guess the ending this time. And the book is a sobering reminder of how difficult red states make it for women to access abortion care: one clinic serving an entire huge state, mandatory two-day procedures, court orders that can be delayed simply by a judge going on vacation. We need to work to make it easier for low-income and disadvantaged women to access these services.
Coming Up in October 2019
My original late September plan was to drive north from Emilia-Romagna into Friuli-Venezia Giulia then drive to Prague via Slovenia and Austria — but we had to be in Prague a little earlier than expected, so we switched it around. I’ll be in Prague for a little over two weeks, including a weekend getaway to Olomouc, which I hear is a lovely city. It will be nice to discover a bit more of the Czech Republic, a country that is too often overlooked.
After that, I’m flying to Venice, not visiting Venice, but driving east into Friuli, visiting Trieste, Aquileia, and staying at another agriturismo. Italian region #17! What can I say about Italy at this point that I haven’t yet?
After that, I head back to Bologna briefly to catch my flight, then I fly back to New York and will remain there the rest of the month. After being on the road more or less constantly since June 1, I’ll be glad to be back in one place. Halloween in Harlem is INSANE — Broadway swarms with thousands upon thousands of kids, no joke — but this year I hope to finally make it to the Village’s Halloween parade.
Any suggestions for Prague? Share away!
The post AK Monthly Recap: September 2019 appeared first on Adventurous Kate.
For the past few years, I’ve toasted the New Year with a glass of champagne and said, “This will be the year that I finally travel to Georgia.” For around a decade, Georgia has been at the absolute top of my travel wish list, and dreams of mountain peaks and khachapuri swirled in my head.
So what took me so long? I don’t know. I think I was waiting for the perfect opportunity. And this summer, while drinking wine at a bar in Trento, Italy, the perfect opportunity arose.
Lots of my friends were going to be in Georgia this summer, it turned out. And JayWay Travel wanted to run a blog trip to one of their newest destinations: Georgia. I knew I had to hop on to that!
Within weeks, a trip was planned — six of my blogger friends and I would explore Georgia as JayWay Travel guests.
I touched down in Tbilisi on my 35th birthday and spent the next two weeks exploring the country. We drank qvevri wine fermented on rooftops. We hiked through villages covered with ancient stone towers. We explored hidden architectural treasures behind unassuming doors. We stomped through a mud-drenched road.
Did Georgia live up to my expectations? It absolutely did. I consider Georgia my favorite new country of 2019, and of the 82 I’ve visited, I think Georgia definitely merits a spot in the top 10.
There are so many reasons. Tbilisi is such a unique city — I can see why so many people love it. And Svaneti brought epic scenery. I loved the churches and monasteries and natural wonders.
But there is one factor where Georgia absolutely outdid itself, and it’s the food. Georgian food is EXCEPTIONALLY good, and inventive, and different from what you’ve had elsewhere. Georgian food is so good that I felt like every night, I was having one of the best meals of my life. I can’t believe it’s not more famous in the States.
Let’s dive into what makes Georgia great.
Table of Contents
Tbilisi is one of the coolest capital cities I’ve discovered in recent years. Its beauty hits you in different ways — in its setting on the Vere River, cliffs rising up on either side. Tbilisi is a beguiling mix of centuries-old monasteries and modern architectural marvels, like the Peace Bridge, pictured above.
Tbilisi is so unique that I’m having trouble comparing it to any other city. If we’re talking about looks, perhaps Istanbul comes the closest, if you swapped out the mosques for churches.
Some of Tbilisi’s tree-lined streets remind me of the Vinohrady neighborhood in Prague or the Palermo Viejo neighborhood in Buenos Aires. And the orange roofs bring the Balkans to mind — maybe a bit of Albania mixed with Croatia. I feel echoes of Medellín in the wavy hills of the city.
But how does Tbilisi feel? It’s a huge, sprawling city rife with endless possibilities. It’s filled with outstanding food for perplexingly cheap prices. It’s got nightlife into the early hours and people out on the streets. It’s got luxurious surprises tucked into unexpected places. And it’s a lot of fun — but could easily be a little too much fun. In that sense, Tbilisi is Bangkok!
Tbilisi is toasting local orange wine on the rooftop of a restaurant against a blue-purple sunset.
Tbilisi is the Baths District, where you can walk on ancient bridges and stroll past waterfalls before going for a soak in buildings that look straight out of Uzbekistan.
Tbilisi is full of cats. Like in Istanbul, people take care of the strays. Meg from Food Fun Travel actually carries cat food in her purse to feed the Tbilisi kitties!
Tbilisi is long blocks of crumbling gray buildings interspersed with bursts of color — like Pin Pon, a neon yellow and green coffeeshop.
Tbilisi is a colorful riverfront, where cable cars zoom to the other side and monasteries watch from above.
Tbilisi is bright yellow vans parked against mural-covered walls.
And Tbilisi is on its way to becoming the new Digital Nomad Land. Yes, the work-online-and-travel set has discovered Tbilisi!
A lot of my location independent friends have made Tbilisi their home, both temporarily and long-term. And for good reason — Tbilisi is cheap, fun, and has a thriving expat community.
Fabrika is the center of this community — it considers itself an “urban hotspot and multifunctional place” and it’s part coworking space, part lounge, part hostel, part artist studio. I’m fairly sure that if I lived in Tbilisi, I’d work here all the time. Some of my friends chose their Tbilisi apartments based on proximity to Fabrika!
But if you’re not living in Tbilisi long-term, it’s also a great place to stay for a few days. And I stayed at the best place.
JayWay booked a special hotel for my birthday — the Communal Sololaki. This is my favorite hotel where I stayed in 2019, and I recommend it SO SO SO highly. If you’re willing to spend the money, you will be thrilled with it.
The Communal Hotel is decorated in a mid-century-modern meets bohemian style, and I love how they don’t shy away from bold, dark colors. I stayed in the bathtub suite, lined with mirror tiles. That’s where my infamous birthday bathtub photo was taken!
Communal Sololaki also has one of the best hotel breakfasts I’ve ever had — perhaps even the best. Breads and cakes and all kinds of fruits, dishes full of berries, juices and vegetables and several kinds of cheeses. Everything served on a collection of mixed dishes, some ornately patterned, some vintage, that went together so well. And on top of that, they’d make you eggs if you wanted.
The hotel has a communal focus, so the guests share a table together. You’ll enjoy chatting with the guests — people who travel to Georgia tend to be interesting and well-traveled.
But for me — and for most people — the absolute highlight of Georgia is the food. Georgian cuisine is perhaps the single best thing about traveling in Georgia.
Of course, the food is one of the highlights of every travel destination — but Georgia goes further. The quality is consistently excellent, the food is unique, and the dishes are something that you’ll crave long after leaving Georgia. Over and over, I felt like I was eating one of the best meals of my life in Georgia.
So what will you be eating?
If you’ve heard of any one Georgian food, it’s probably khachapuri — Georgian cheese pie. Typical khachapuri are flat, closed, and stuffed with sulguni cheese.
I was under the impression that khachapuri all looked like the one that I’m holding in the photo above — boat-shaped, with an open top, with an egg yolk and pat of butter. Not the case! That’s actually an adjaruli khachapuri, a popular variety originating in southwest Georgia. You tear off the ends and use them to mix up the egg, butter, and cheese, then you keep tearing off the bread and dipping it in the middle.
Just know that if you order a khachapuri, it will look like the closed, flat one above. If you want the fun-shaped one, make sure it’s an adjaruli khachapuri.
Most meals in Georgia start with a variety of dips, usually walnut-based, and we would eat them with bread. Beets and pomegranate seeds add bursts of color.
And now, meet the love of my life — Georgian walnut salad. It’s made from cucumbers, tomatoes, a few red onions, and held together with a walnut paste made with herbs. I was OBSESSED with this salad. How can something so simple be so outrageously delicious?!
The absolute best walnut salad I had was from Bina 37 in Tbilisi. It may have been the best thing I ate in Georgia.
Lobio was also a standard at every meal — Georgian stewed beans. That’s not the greatest photo above, but these beans were SO delicious and fresh, always served in a vase-like container. I’m not a big fan of beans, but I served myself a generous portion of lobio whenever possible.
For main courses, stew-like dishes were popular. This was chicken stewed in onions and tomatoes with fresh herbs.
Grilled meats were popular as well — usually chicken or pork. This was pork grilled with red onions.
Oh, and khinkali. These dumplings are ubiquitous and are usually stuffed with meat, though they sometimes have cheese, mushroom, and potato khinkali as well. They usually cost no more than 25 cents each. I think the most I ever ate in a single sitting was five or six, so that is one cheap meal!
Lots of restaurants have khinkali on the menu but won’t allow you to order a ton because they won’t make any money. Stick to khinkali shops if you want a giant plate of dumplings.
If I had to point out any flaws about Georgian cuisine, perhaps it’s that they often cook grilled meats into oblivion rather than leaving them juicy. And Georgian cuisine is fairly bread-heavy; it’s unfortunate that celiacs can’t eat signature Georgian dishes like khachapuri and khinkali. Vegetarians can eat well in Georgia; vegans are more limited but can find plenty of things to eat. Overall, there wasn’t a ton of variety in Georgia — we tended to eat dips and walnut salad and lobio and khachapuri at every meal.
My advice is to stay active throughout your Georgia trip, take a break from the heavy stuff occasionally, and plan to eat on the healthier side after you come back.
Georgian restaurants are very popular throughout Central and Eastern Europe, but they haven’t caught on in Western Europe and North America. But between the increased travel to Georgia and growing media coverage of Georgian cuisine, I’m sure that we will see more Georgian restaurants within the next decade.
If I had to pick the single best meal of my trip, it was at Shavi Lomi in Tbilisi. Get a reservation in advance.
Georgian Wine Country
Did you know that the Georgians were some of the earliest wine-makers in the world? They’ve been at it since roughly 6000 BCE, taking advantage of the soft climate with mountains and breezes from the Black Sea.
Most wine tourists in Georgia will head eastward to the Kakheti wine region and towns like Telavi and Sighnaghi. It’s an easy day trip from Tbilisi.
But we did something different — we went to Baia’s Vineyard in the Imereti region of Georgia, just outside Kutaisi in the northwest of the country. This is a bit off the beaten path for Georgia tourism but it was worth the journey. Especially to visit a women-owned winery!
Baia specializes in small batch wines made with organic methods. The wine is made in qvevris — clay jars that are stored in the ground.
What a fantastic stop. Frolicking amongst the vines was fun; learning about qvevri wine and seeing the holes in the ground was interesting; the meal they served us was sensational.
Kutaisi is a worthwhile stop on the way to Svaneti — it breaks up a very long trip from Tbilisi. Make the most of your time in Kutaisi by including a stop at a wonderful Imereti winery like Baia’s.
But if you want to go somewhere truly special in Georgia, I highly recommend that you travel to Svaneti. It is massively out of the way, but it’s a gorgeous, interesting region that is so different from the rest of the country.
When I dreamed of traveling to Georgia, Svaneti was always at the top of my Georgia travel list — I would painstakingly plan out itineraries, then fret that I didn’t have enough time to include the mountainous region.
I’m so thrilled that this trip was centered on Svaneti. Svaneti is easily the most picturesque place I visited in Georgia, mountains and villages strewn with ancient towers.
Mestia is the largest city in the Svaneti region and your base to exploring the mountains. It’s a developing town built around the needs of tourists: you’ve got mountain chalets and simple guesthouses, pubs and restaurants with fireplaces, shops selling outdoor gear, and one great coffeeshop (Erti Kava) if you need your fix. Mestia reminded me a lot of Zakopane, Poland, another popular getaway to the mountains.
Mestia is also a good place for getting to know Svan culture. First up was Margiani’s House Museum, with a recreation of a Svan home from medieval times. (While it was closed when we arrived, our JayWay guide pulled some strings and got us a private visit.)
I especially appreciated the Museum of Ethnography, which is a surprisingly modern museum filled with interesting art and artifacts. There are outstanding views of Mestia from the roof.
Another highlight of my time in Georgia was taking the cable car in Mestia to the top of Zuruldi ridge. You take two sets of cable cars to the top, where you can enjoy the highest restaurant in Mestia! There are views of the mountains in all directions and it makes a spectacular backdrop for photos.
And one of the best nights of the trip was when we went to a bar in Mestia and got to see some impromptu Georgian dancing!
There is essentially one road to Mestia — it takes about three to four hours from Zugdidi, in the northwest of the country. You can get a marshrutka from the train station; marshrutkas usually include a one-hour break on the way. Some people push straight through from Kutaisi (4.5-5 hours) or even Tbilisi (8-9 hours). Some travelers like to take the overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi.
There are also limited flights on Vanilla Sky Airlines from Tbilisi to Mestia. The flight takes one hour and only costs 90 GEL ($30). These flights tend to sell out in advance and can only be booked at the office; my JayWay contact in Tbilisi booked the tickets before I arrived.
If you travel to Svaneti with JayWay, you’ll have private transportation by car.
And if you REALLY want travel bragging rights, you’ll travel to Ushguli. Ushguli is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed village in Upper Svaneti and it feels like you’re teetering on the edge of the world.
Why does it earn you bragging rights? Because the drive there from Mestia is TERRIFYING. The first 40 minutes or so are a bit bumpy, but then it turns into giant swells back and forth where you creep along at a snail’s pace. I couldn’t even watch — I lay down with my eyes closed and my headphones in.
I can’t stress this enough: driving in Georgia is complicated enough as is, but the drive to Ushguli is even more so, requires a 4X4, and should only be driven by professionals. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DRIVE YOURSELF TO USHGULI. BOOK A RIDE IN MESTIA. We ended up passing tourists who thought they could make it but gave up halfway through.
Once you arrive, though — you’ll be amazed.
Ushguli is comprised of several villages along the road. Only one, Chazhashi, has the UNESCO designation. The main village, Chvibiani, is where you’ll find most amenities for travelers.
From what I heard, Ushguli has changed a lot in recent years. You can tell by seeing how many new properties have sprung up among the stone towers.
I have a guidebook to the Caucasus from a few years ago saved to my phone. It was published in 2016 and states that Ushguli only has accommodation with shared bathrooms. I’m glad to update that — in the past few years, several Ushguli hotels now have ensuite bathrooms, including the Hotel Panorama, where we stayed.
Keep in mind that Ushguli is as basic as it comes. Don’t expect internet access or luxury hotels. Being somewhere so isolated is its own luxury.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Georgia
Georgia has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Gelati Monastery, Historical Monuments of Mtskheta, and Upper Svaneti. All are worth visiting.
Upper Svaneti, my favorite of the three sites, does not constitute all of Svaneti — the only village with UNESCO designation is Chazhashi, which is part of Ushguli and is pictured above. It’s hard to get to but unique and very much the rough journey, in my opinion.
“Preserved by its long isolation, the Upper Svaneti region of the Caucasus is an exceptional example of mountain scenery with medieval-type villages and tower-houses. The village of Chazhashi still has more than 200 of these very unusual houses, which were used both as dwellings and as defence posts against the invaders who plagued the region.” —UNESCO
Gelati Monastery is just outside Kutaisi. It’s known for its architecture and design — and if you go, it has nice views over the hills.
“Founded in 1106 in the west of Georgia, the Monastery of Gelati is a masterpiece of the Golden Age of medieval Georgia, a period of political strength and economic growth between the 11th and 13th centuries. It is characterized by the facades of smoothly hewn large blocks, balanced proportions and blind arches for exterior decoration. The Gelati monastery, one of the largest medieval Orthodox monasteries, was also a centre of science and education and the Academy it housed was one of the most important centres of culture in ancient Georgia.” —UNESCO
The inside is a celebration of Georgian sacred art.
Is Kutaisi worth visiting as a city? While Gelati Monastery is lovely, Kutaisi isn’t the most exciting city around. I recommend spending half a day exploring Kutaisi and use the rest of your time exploring the surrounding areas, like the wineries of Imereti and Prometheus Cave. I had some great khinkali at a place called El-Depo.
The city of Mtskheta is just outside Tbilisi and an easy day trip (or even just an afternoon day trip). Here you’ll find three monuments that together make up the UNESCO World Heritage-listed properties of Mtskheta: Jvari Monastery, Svetitstkhoveli Cathedral, and Samtavro Monastery.
“The historic churches of Mtskheta, former capital of Georgia, are outstanding examples of medieval religious architecture in the Caucasus. They show the high artistic and cultural level attained by this ancient kingdom.” —UNESCO
Mtskheta is a popular place for Tbilisi residents to get married. Keep your eyes out for bridal parties!
Georgia has 15 sites on the UNESCO tentative list — Davit Gareji Monastery, Tbilisi Historic District, Uplistsikhe Cave Town. Who knows what we’ll see added next?
Georgia is CHEAP, CHEAP, CHEAP!
Georgia is a phenomenally budget-friendly destination. If you live simply in Georgia, pricing is similar to Eastern Europe and even some parts of Southeast Asia (!!). While the Caucasus region is budget-friendly in general, Georgia is cheaper than both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
If you’re traveling Georgia on a backpacker’s budget — hostels or simple guesthouses, mostly cheap meals and lots of khinkali, limited paid activities, transport via marshrutka — you can get by on as little as $30-40 per day.
If you’re going out to a nice dinner with wine, it would be tough to go more than $25 per person, and you could have a nice meal with wine for $10.
If you’re stopping in Tbilisi, you can stay at the high-end design hotel Communal Sololaki for $91 per night or one of the suites for $125 per night. Or head to Fabrika, the coworking space and hostel, where a nice double with a shared bathroom goes for $40 and a dorm room bed goes for $6. (You know when I last paid $6 for a dorm bed? Vietnam in 2011!!)
I was stunned at the cost of a flight from Mestia to Tbilisi on Vanilla Sky — just 90 GEL, or about $30 USD.
Georgia is occupied by Russia.
Not all of Georgia is accessible and open to tourists — there are two parts that are currently occupied, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If you want to visit either of them, you’ll need to secure visas to these regions.
Abkhazia, a semi-autonomous region in Georgia’s northwest, has a long, complicated and sad history. It’s been in conflict with both Georgia and Russia since the 1920s, and things intensified when the Soviet Union disbanded. At one point the Abkhaz took part in expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Georgians. I recommend reading up on the conflict; it’s more than I can summarize here. Georgia contends today that Abkhazia is occupied by Russia.
Visiting Abkhazia is complicated — they get very few Western visitors. That said, this region does have some tourism value. It’s a popular spot for Russian travelers to enjoy the mountains and the Black Sea. My friend Megan has written a guide to traveling Abkhazia here.
South Ossetia, a region in north central Georgia, was invaded by Russia in 2008 — you may remember that news story continuously interrupting the Beijing Olympics. South Ossetia also requires special travel permits, but unlike Abkhazia, it doesn’t have much tourism value.
I have a Georgian friend from South Ossetia who lives in Tbilisi now, and he hasn’t gone back since the invasion.
Why do I mention this? It’s a sensitive subject for Georgians. Know that if you travel to Abkhazia or South Ossetia — particularly Abkhazia — Georgians may be furious with you. If you talk about these conflicts with Georgians, this is a time to listen more than you talk.
I love a country that comes with its own set of quirks, and that’s definitely Georgia! Probably the most outlandish thing I did in Georgia was check out Stalin’s personal train in the city of Gori.
Most people assume that Stalin was Russian — but he was actually Georgian. Stalin was born in Gori in 1878 when Georgia was part of Russian Empire and came to power when the Soviet Union was founded in 1922.
Gori has gone a bit all in on Stalin — the train is part of a Stalin Museum and there’s a Stalin statue you can pose with. But most insane are the collections of souvenirs with that infamous “young hot Stalin” picture, where early 1900s Stalin could pass for a 2019 hipster. (Not including it here. You can Google it.)
And the writing! I was in love with the Georgian script — so elegant and flowing and long and skinny.
If I were into tattoos and cultural appropriation, I’d probably end up getting inked with some Georgian script.
Georgia runs on Dunkin! Don’t you love that sign?
Georgia has some monasteries built into caves! This was a very cool monastery perched on a cliff in the town of Chiatura.
Georgian monasteries are strict about attire. Women need to cover their heads and wear a long skirt that covers their knees, even if they’re wearing pants. Monasteries will have baskets near the front with head coverings and tie-on skirts for women. Men wearing shorts will not be allowed in.
The Chronicles of Georgia are one of the stranger monuments in the country! It’s meant to look ancient, but it was built in 1985 and perched on the edge of the “Tbilisi Sea” (or the “Tbili-sea,” as my portmanteau-coining self called it.) It’s covered with images of Georgian historic figures and scenes from the Bible. I’m surprised we haven’t see it in a Marvel movie yet.
And if you’re as big an SNL fan as me, you’ll have “The Chronic!” “What?” “Cles of Geor-gi-a!” stuck in your head for the rest of the day.
And there was a very memorable meal in Mestia where the restaurant owner and his uncle took a shine to our group. They were blown away when they found out we came from so many countries — the US, UK, Australia, Italy, and Argentina. The nephew kept bringing us wine and chacha, a potent Georgian liquor; the uncle didn’t speak much English but loved saying, “Wow!” and singing James Brown’s “I Feel Good!”
The nephew gave Tom a glass of wine that was filled to the brim, then they drank their glasses in one go with their arms entwined, the Georgian way!
Then the uncle wanted to join in — they brought Tom another extremely full glass (!) and the uncle entwined his arm with Tom’s, downing the glass in less than ten seconds.
“Now kiss!” said the uncle.
“Wait, what?!” Tom exclaimed.
It’s normal, the nephew told him. In Svaneti they kiss on the cheek after sharing wine.
Is Georgia Safe?
Generally speaking, Georgia is a safe travel destination. Most travelers who do proper research in advance and use common sense will travel Georgia without any major safety issues. And when it comes to gun violence, Georgia is a thousand times safer than the United States.
The only aspect where I give pause is the driving. Georgians are very often reckless drivers, speeding and overtaking continuously. I recommend being extra cautious when crossing the street and always using your seat belt when riding in a vehicle.
While Abkhazia and South Ossetia are typically no-go destinations, the vast majority of Georgia travelers will not set foot in these regions.
As for solo female travelers, I traveled with a group of friends on this trip, so I don’t personally have solo female travel experience here. But judging by what I experienced, as well as what other trusted friends of mine have experienced, I see no reason not to travel Georgia alone. I would love to return and travel solo in Georgia.
As a developing country with limited travel infrastructure, I wouldn’t recommend Georgia for first-time solo female travelers or first-time international travelers unless you were traveling on a guided trip.
Top 10 Travel Safety Tips for Women
Cheap Flights to Georgia
One of the problems of Georgia travel is that Tbilisi is not a major air hub. If you’re flying into Tbilisi, you’ll likely connect through Istanbul, Kyiv, Doha, or another major city. Kyiv is a common stopover for Americans; I loved Kyiv and even got to visit Chernobyl! Flights can be pricey depending on the time of year and when you book. Skyscanner tends to find the best prices.
BUT — there’s a much cheaper option. Nowadays there are cheap flights to Georgia, but not to Tbilisi — to Kutaisi instead. The budget airline WizzAir has very cheap flights to Kutaisi from destinations all over Europe, including London Luton, Berlin, Prague, Copenhagen, Poznań, Barcelona, Tallinn, and many more.
Is it worth it to fly into Kutaisi? If you’re heading toward Svaneti, you absolutely should. It cuts down a few hours of the drive. You could explore in and around Kutaisi, travel on to Svaneti, take the Vanilla Sky flight back to Tbilisi, then take a marshrutka to Kutaisi for your flight out.
But even if you’re not traveling to Svaneti, if a cheap flight to Kutaisi shaves a few hundred dollars off your expected fare, why not do it?
If you’re flying from the US, I’d recommend pricing out two round-trip fares: one to a major European city, and another from that city to Kutaisi on WizzAir. Keep in mind that as they’re separate fares, you’ll be in trouble if one set of flights is delayed and you miss one. Give yourself a wide berth, and get travel insurance (I use and recommend World Nomads) just in case your luggage gets lost along the way.
I flew WizzAir from Kutaisi to London Luton. WizzAir is actually pretty decent if you fly “Wizz Go,” which includes a checked bag, carry-on bag, better seating options, and priority boarding. Hilariously, WizzAir is the only airline currently flying into Kutaisi Airport.
How cheap is cheap?
Price out the latest flights to Kutaisi and Tbilisi on Skyscanner.
The Downsides of Traveling in Georgia
I’ll be honest with you — Georgia travel is still very rough in many ways. You should know this before you plan your trip. That picture above was when we arrived at our hotel in Kutaisi and found out that THE ENTIRE ROAD had been torn up, even sidewalks, and once it started raining, turned into a mud pit. Thankfully our driver was able to get the car out and JayWay moved us to another hotel for the trip back.
I found traveling in Georgia very similar to traveling in Albania. You can read about what travel in Albania is like here. In both countries, you’ve got limited and rough transportation, awful driving, poor road and sidewalk conditions, and limited information available on the internet.
Transportation in Georgia is rough. Most of the transportation between cities is via marshrutka, or shared minibus. While sometimes they can be comfortable, often they’re more akin to a chicken bus in Latin America, cramming in people and luggage. (Ask our friend Nate, who was given a child to hold on his lap on one marshrutka journey!)
There are a few trains in Georgia, but the only trains that make sense for tourists to take would be the one from Tbilisi to Batumi, and the one from Tbilisi to Zugdidi (if you wanted to catch a marshrutka to Svaneti), and the ones eastward into Azerbaijan or southward into Armenia.
There are very few domestic flights in Georgia — there’s a flight from Tbilisi to Batumi on Georgian Airways, and I actually got to fly the route from Mestia to Tbilisi on Vanilla Sky Airlines. You can’t book Vanilla Sky online — you need a travel agent to go to the office in Tbilisi.
But if you travel with JayWay Travel, as we did, transportation is much more comfortable — we had private drivers for the whole time in Georgia and they booked my Vanilla Sky flight for me so all I had to do was show up.
Not a lot of businesses have much of an internet presence. This made it especially hard to do things like check restaurant menus in advance. Most restaurants, bars, and cafes tended to have a Facebook page rather than a website.
Most significantly, the driving in Georgia is horrific. I’ve seen a lot of bad driving around the world, and while I’m convinced that the Maltese are the most reckless drivers in the world, the Georgians aren’t far behind them. You see a lot of speeding and overtaking while driving into oncoming traffic. If you hail a taxi in Tbilisi, it isn’t unusual for drivers to smoke out the window and talk on the phone constantly. Also, 40% of the cars have the steering wheel on the wrong side.
I would not recommend the vast majority of travelers rent a car in Georgia. You should only drive here if you’re a highly skilled driver who thrives on adrenaline.
Finally, I would not recommend Georgia to travelers with mobility issues. The roads and especially sidewalks are uneven and torn up — very difficult to get around, and nearly impossible if you use a wheelchair.
Ordinarily, I would say that Georgia is best for travelers who are accustomed to traveling in developing countries. BUT — if you’re not, traveling with JayWay Travel makes it so much easier to travel in a developing country.
Travel to Georgia with JayWay Travel
I traveled on this Georgia trip as a guest of JayWay Travel, a bespoke travel agency specializing in Central and Eastern Europe. I’ve worked with JayWay Travel for trips to Ukraine and the Caucasus, and both were great trips. JayWay added Georgia as a destination in 2018.
JayWay builds custom trips to destinations and organizes your trip in full, arranging hotels, transportation, special experiences, and guides along the way. They also give you a SIM card or even a cell phone so you can stay in touch easily.
Not all travelers need that amount of trip planning — but the best thing that JayWay does is make developing countries easier to handle. For example, their drivers are so much better than typical Georgian drivers. You don’t have to deal with a driver who constantly smokes out the window — JayWay’s drivers have much nicer vehicles and take their jobs seriously.
JayWay also sets you up with excellent local guides throughout your trip, including a contact in Georgia who runs your trip. Gio is JayWay’s man in Tbilisi, and he doubled as tour leader for our trip. With Gio, you’ll be in excellent hands!
The guides handle so much of the day-to-day in Georgia. They’re accustomed to what Americans expect for customer service (and Georgia really isn’t there yet in terms of service). They can also add more into your trip: we had a few hours of downtime in Tbilisi between flights from Mestia to Yerevan, so they added in a short Mtskheta tour.
We had a few other short-term guides on our trips: Nata taught us about all things Svaneti; Luca took us around the best of Mtskheta, and George took us to his favorite bakery en route from Tbilisi to Kutaisi.
Some of the other advantages of traveling to Georgia with JayWay: they handle things like getting tickets on Vanilla Sky airlines, which is complicated to do if you’re out of the country. When we found out the entire road was torn up in front of the Kutaisi hotel, they switched us to another hotel mid-trip (the hotel was reportedly angry about this, so I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with this myself). And when I got sick, they got me to a pharmacy.
Let me put it this way — my parents are in their sixties and seventies, and while they both have travel experience, it’s almost always been in developed countries. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with them traveling in Georgia independently, but I would feel very comfortable if they were traveling Georgia with JayWay.
Kazbegi — image via Pixabay.
Where Else to Go in Georgia
This is by no means a comprehensive trip to Georgia — there are so many wonderful places that I didn’t visit. Most Georgia travelers don’t take the time to go to Svaneti, and by spending my time there, I missed out on some traditional Georgian destinations.
If you want to immerse yourself in vineyards and wineries, head east to the Kakheti wine region and towns like Telavi and Sighnaghi.
If you want some beach action and nightlife, head west to the Black Sea and the resort town of Batumi.
If you want to be in the mountains but don’t have time for the journey to Svaneti, head to Kazbegi, pictured above, just a few hours from Tbilisi.
If you’re looking for an unusual and visually stunning monastery, Davit Gareja is worth a visit.
This is just the beginning — there are plenty more places to explore!
Traveling in the Caucasus
If you have enough time, I recommend traveling to all three countries of the Caucasus at once. They’re so isolated and tough to get to that this can save you a lot of time. I would only do this if you have a good amount of travel time and are willing to sacrifice more time in Georgia to see Armenia and Azerbaijan.
If you have at least two weeks, you can fit in some highlights of all three countries. If you have ten days, I would primarily base in Georgia with a few days in Armenia and would exclude Azerbaijan. If you have a week or less, spend it all in Georgia. (That being said, if you have two weeks and decide to spend it all in Georgia, that would still be time very well spent.) JayWay puts together custom itineraries; here’s a three-country sample itinerary.
With limited time in Armenia, I would base in Yerevan and do day trips to monasteries: I’d prioritize Khor Virap, Nora Vank, and the Areni wine region. You could also visit Lake Sevan or Dilijan. With limited time in Azerbaijan, I would base in Baku and do a half-day trip to Qobustan.
What’s It Like to Travel to Baku, Azerbaijan?
Travel Insurance for Georgia Travel
Travel insurance is absolutely necessary for travel to Georgia. It’s vital for any destination, but especially for Georgia, a developing country. While I love traveling to developing countries, it can be a huge pain dealing with a travel mishap in a developing country — and travel insurance protects you and your finances from ruin.
Georgia is filled with lots of uneven sidewalks and streets. You could easily trip or fall the wrong way and break an ankle or wrist. If that happens, it sucks — but it’s a lot worse if it happens and you don’t have travel insurance. The same thing if you get appendicitis and need to be hospitalized, or if your wallet is stolen when out in Tbilisi, or if you need to cancel your trip last minute due to a family emergency.
Get travel insurance — seriously. For trips to Georgia, I use and recommend World Nomads travel insurance.
The Future of Tourism in Georgia
If you’ve read any of my blog posts in the past, you’ve heard me say, “Go now, because it’s really nice right now and won’t be like this forever.” That’s an argument I’ve made about Newfoundland, Guyana, and Puglia in Italy; an argument that sadly has come to fruition in the Faroe Islands and Little Corn Island, Nicaragua.
I feel the same way about Georgia — it’s on the verge of being discovered by mass tourism. Once that happens, it will change forever. The time to visit is now.
So what do I think will be happening in the future? For starters, I think soon we’ll begin to see high quality accommodation developed at all price tiers. Perhaps some high-end agriturismo-like farmstays in the wine regions. Tbilisi could use a luxury hostel.
Tourism in Tbilisi is interesting — most of the city is blissfully untouristed, but popular areas already feel overwhelming. Some streets are lined with restaurants where the employees try to get tourists to come in. Areas around the Peace Bridge, the cable car, and the hot springs are actually swarming with touts trying to sell boat tours and the like. Other cities have banned these guides from operating in public areas; I hope we see this happen in Tbilisi.
Speaking of Tbilisi, I think it’s going to be a major new digital nomad hub. Maybe not on the level of Chiang Mai or Medellín — but definitely up there.
I think there is HUGE potential for backpacker transportation companies in Georgia. You see them in Central America, South America, and Southeast Asia — companies that run journeys from backpacker hotspot to backpacker hotspot in comfortable, air-conditioned vans. Let me tell you, taking one of these on a six-hour drive from Lanquín to Flores in Guatemala was a million times better than taking four different chicken buses. Imagine that on a route from Ushguli to Mestia to Zugdidi to Kutaisi to Tbilisi!
I think we’re especially going to see more tourism from Central and Eastern Europe. Travelers from these countries don’t have as much money to spend, but between Georgia’s low costs and the cheap flights to Kutaisi, Georgia is an increasingly attractive option.
Overall, Georgia is going to become a powerhouse destination in the next decade. I recommend visiting before everyone else does.
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Essential Info: This trip was organized by JayWay Travel, a custom private tour operator specializing in Central and Eastern Europe. JayWay plans bespoke trips and I highly recommend them, especially for making travel smoother sailing in developing countries like Georgia.
I recommend getting a Georgia guidebook because there isn’t a lot of information online in Georgia. Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan is great. I recommend buying the digital version direct from Lonely Planet and keeping the PDF on your phone. (I love my Kindle but hate using the Kindle for guidebooks.)
In Tbilisi I stayed at Communal Sololaki, which I absolutely ADORED. It’s a modern design hotel with an outstanding breakfast and a communal ethos. Highly recommended, especially if you can get the bathtub suite.
On my return to Tbilisi I stayed at Boutique Hotel Khokhobi, in the dead center of the Tbilisi Baths district. The hotel was beautiful and comfortable with amazing balcony views, but I would only recommend it for night owls, as there was loud music playing at the surrounding bars until around 12:15 AM. The windows did not block out the noise. If you usually stay up past that time anyway, it’s a solid hotel choice.
In Kutaisi I stayed at two properties. Hotel Ponte was a good, comfortable mid-range hotel in a great location, but they didn’t handle the road construction situation well. Hotel Argo, a few streets away, was much more upscale and sumptuously comfortable with huge suites.
In Mestia I stayed at Chalet Mestia, which had phenomenally comfortable beds and pillows! Great location in the center of town. Poor internet, but that seems to be a Svaneti thing.
In Ushguli I stayed at Hotel Panorama, which had simple ensuite rooms and no internet. Considering the remoteness of Ushguli, it’s one of the best options in town. Nice dinner and breakfast.
Travel insurance is essential for travel to Georgia — it could save your life or your finances. I use and recommend World Nomads travel insurance.
Have you traveled to Georgia? Does it look like your kind of destination? Share away!
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