Planning to travel to Georgia and looking for more things to than just visiting the big cities? Go to Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia, two of the most unique places to visit in Georgia. Akhaltsikhe has one of the most beautiful fortresses I’ve ever seen in my life and Vardzia is an extraordinary example of an underground secret cave city. In this blog post, you read everything about what you need to know about Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia, and I’ll give you more tips for places to visit in the area.
Choose Akhaltsikhe as your base
Some choose to visit Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia on a day trip from Tbilisi, but I would not recommend this. The distance is too great, making it a grueling day. Instead, I would advise to stay one or two nights in Akhaltsikhe and use this city as a base to explore the region. If you are looking for recommendations for accommodations: I stayed at Guesthouse Host Family. Nato and her family rent out two rooms with private bathrooms. Not only are they incredibly welcoming (which is pretty standard in Georgia), the family makes their own red wine, the house is a 5-minute walk from Rabati Castle and a room only costs 10 to 15 EUR per night. I highly recommend it!
Picture-perfect Rabati Castle
You travel to Akhaltsikhe for one thing: to visit Rabati Castle. That is pretty much all that the town has to offer. But trust me: this castle is worth the detour. The history of the Rabati Castle dates all the way back to the 9th century. In the centuries that followed, the fortress was ruled over by the House of Jaqeli (Georgian), the Ottomans and the Russians. In 2011 and 2012, the complex was completely renovated, making it look almost new.
The Rabati Castle consists of an upper and lower part. In the upper section, you will find all the sights. Visit the castle of the House of Jaqeli, the museum, and a bathhouse. Thanks to the multicultural history of this place, you will also find several religious buildings here. For example, there is a mosque, an Orthodox church, a synagogue, and a Catholic church. The lower part of the fort is set up as a public square. You can climb the towers here for a spectacular view over the fort.
Entrance fee: the lower part is free to visit. For the upper section you have to pay 7 GEL (possible to pay with credit card).
Sapara Forest Monastery
After exploring Rabati, we had set our eyes on exploring more sights outside of Akhaltsikhe. Visiting all of these by marshrutka was too difficult. Everything was too scattered. Fortunately, our guesthouse offered excursions. We paid 65 GEL for a tour to three sights, plus a few quick stops along the way. First up was the Sapara Monastery, located 10 kilometers outside Akhaltsikhe. The best thing about this monastery is the location and the drive to it. It is tucked away in the woods high above Akhaltsikhe. Sapara Monastery is almost as old as the Rabati Castle, but it is not as renovated as the castle. It consists of twelve churches. The most beautiful one is the St. Saba’s Church, the one you see when you walk towards the entrance.
Secret rock city: Vardzia cave monastery
Driving from Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia took well over an hour, but time flew by. The ride was beautiful. Vardzia is one of the three cave monasteries in Georgia. The complex was built in 1185. Queen Tamar gave the order to build a sanctuary with more than 6,000 rooms, a wine cellar, a throne room, and a church. It was a secret city in a rock to protect the local people against the Mongolian invasion. Unfortunately, an earthquake swept away parts of the front of the rock. This is why the rooms are now visible for the outside world.
Parts of the cave complex are still inhabited by monks. Visitors are not allowed to go to these sections, but there is plenty left to explore, including the Church of Dormition. Important to know: this is a religious place. Be a responsible, respectful traveler and cover shoulders and legs.
Entrance fee: 7 GEL (possible to pay with credit card).
Impressive Khertvisi Fort
On the way back from Vardzia to Akhaltsikhe, we made a final stop at the Khertvisi Fort. We were the only tourists here, apart from a few seniors hanging around. Most likely locals from the village, who like to gather here and chat. They helped us to locate the ticket seller and we were able to enter. The Khertvisi Fort is one of the oldest castles in all of Georgia. The walls were built in the 2nd century. Khertvisi reached its peak in the 12th century but was badly damaged during the Mongol invasion. Today it is a ruin, there is little to see inside. However, the castle offers an amazing view of the valley. Also, try to view the fort from a distance. It reminded me so much of the Games of Thrones series.
Entrance fee: 5 GEL.
Would you visit Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia?