Tbilisi is the big star of Georgia, but I want to talk about the country’s second city: Kutaisi. Travelers often skip Kutaisi, or quickly move on to other places after arriving here on a low-cost flight. I must confess that I myself also had low expectations for Kutaisi. The city didn’t seem all that exciting and I thought I would move on pretty quickly. Eventually, I ended up staying for five days. The main reason for this was the day trip options. Kutaisi is a perfect base to explore the Imereti region! In this blog post, I’ll tell you why Kutaisi deserves a spot on your Georgia itinerary and I’ll share fun things to do when you are there.
8 reasons why Kutaisi is worth a visit (+ Things to do)
1. Kutaisi is one of the oldest cities in Georgia
Kutaisi has a very long history. Its roots can be traced back to the 6th century. Kutaisi made a name as the capital of the Kingdom of Colchis. This Caucasus kingdom was known to the Greeks as the ‘Land of the Golden Fleece’. This is a reference to a Greek story about Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the golden fleece of a ram. Georgia has never forgotten this ancient empire. In the center of Kutaisi, you will find the Colchis Fountain, consisting of 30 statues of animals. They are copies of archaeological discoveries from the Colchis era.
To get to the fountain, you have to take a bit of a sprint. It is the middle of a roundabout and there aren’t any pedestrian crossing points. Run!
2. It is A city of locals
Kutaisi is not a touristy city, which is a nice change after Tbilisi. Of course, you will see other tourists in Kutaisi, but the numbers are small. Another difference with other Georgian cities: Kutaisi is mostly low buildings. The skyline is not filled with skyscrapers. This is a city of locals, and where do all those local people come together? At the Green Bazaar. This is a large market place in the city center with many fresh products and traditional delicacies on offer (try the churchkhela!). The biggest eye-catcher of the market is the entrance. Do not miss the orange relief artwork!
3. Kutaisi offers UNESCO World Heritage
Georgia has three UNESCO World Heritage sites, and one of them is near Kutaisi. This is the Gelati Monastery, one of the largest medieval Orthodox monasteries in the country. I was particularly impressed with the frescoes inside. Some frescoes are in better condition than other parts, but this adds to the overall atmosphere of the place.
Up until 2017, Kutaisi had a second UNESCO World Heritage site. The Bagrati Cathedral used to be a UNESCO Heritage site, but after some major reconstruction, it was removed from the list. The Bagrati Cathedral is now placed on a different list: Endangered World Heritage. UNESCO believes that reconstruction has affected the integrity and authenticity of the church.
The Bagrati Cathedral is located up on the hill in Kutaisi (take the Aerial Tramway to get there), the Gelati Monastery is located 8 kilometers outside the city. Marshrutkas depart every two hours (8:00 am, 11:00 am, 2:00 pm, 4:00 pm, and 6:00 pm), departure location is behind the Meskhishvili theater. Another option is taking a taxi to Gelati.
4. Unique day trips: admire the church on a rock
Georgia is a deeply religious country and has many churches, but one of them is extra special. It is even listed as one of the 20 most bizarre churches in the world. Meet the Katskhi Pillar. This is a 45-meter high limestone pillar with a small monastery perched on top of it. This rock was used by the Stylites, a group of early Christians who preferred to live high above the ground to get closer to god. They spent their lives fasting, preaching, and praying. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this hermit tradition was revived when a monk settled on the hill again. Tourists are not allowed to go up, which is okay. The walk to the pillar offers the best views anyway.
Combine a trip to Katshkhi Pillar with a visit to the city Chiatura (see number 6 on this list). Marshrutkas run every hour from Kutaisi bus terminal to Chiatura, 6 GEL per person. First, visit Chiatura and stop at Katshkhi Pillar on the way back to Kutaisi. The marshrutka will drop you off before the start of the path. Look for the white sign with a red church on it. Please note that the last marshrutka back to Kutaisi departs at 5.00 pm in Chiatura, so pay attention to the time.
5. Urban exploring in abandoned Soviet sanatoriums
Did you think that the monastery on the rock was already bizarre? Just wait until you get to Tskaltubo. This town is located 10 kilometers outside Kutaisi and offers a day trip you don’t want to miss. Tskaltubo was once a popular sanitarium destination in the Soviet Union, but almost all sanatoriums and bathhouses have since been abandoned. This is a perfect destination for an afternoon of urban exploring.
6. take a ride in a 1950s cable car (when they open again)
Are you up for a ride in one of ‘Stalin’s death coffins’? This is the nickname for the rusty funicular cabins that connect the center of Chiatura with the hills. The funicular was built in the 1950s on the orders of Stalin to bring miners faster to the mine on the hills. Chiatura had no fewer than seventeen cable cars. A small number of lines was until recently operational. Since the summer of 2019, all Chiatura cable cars are closed for maintenance. They are likely to remain closed until the end of 2020.
The visit to Chiatura left me disappointed, as my sole purpose of going there was to take a ride. The city itself has seen better days, so after a short stroll, we left to see Katskhi Pillar. Good to know: Kutaisi also has a cable car. The cabins are just as small as in Chiatura, but they are technically in far better shape. A ride on the Kutaisi Aerial Tramway costs 1 GEL.
7. There is street art!
When discussing all the great things to do in Kutaisi, I cannot leave out street art. Kutaisi certainly doesn’t have as much street art as the capital Tbilisi, but it is a lot easier to find. In Tbilisi, most street art is hidden in pedestrian tunnels, so you are less likely to ‘run into’ it. In Kutaisi, it is much easier. Everything is concentrated on the square behind the Mon Plaisir arch. I particularly liked the blue painting by the French artist Vinie.
8. Plenty of cafes and restaurants
Apart from things to do in Kutaisi, this city also offers good options for places to eat. My personal favorites were Tea House Foe-Foe and Palaty. Foe-Foe has an endless list of tea options, 90% of which I did not know. I randomly selected something on the menu and luckily I liked it! Looking for a nice dinner place? Go to Palaty, easily one of the best restaurants in Georgia. The walls are filled with post-its from travelers who have eaten here in the past. I also wrote a post-it. When you go to Palaty, let me know if you can find it.
Five more day trips from Kutaisi
Done all the things on this list and still got some time left in Kutaisi? There are more things to do. Can’t get enough of those beautiful Georgian churches? Visit the Motsameta Monastery, located between Kutaisi and the Gelati monastery. Are you a nature lover? Go to Okatse, Martvili Canyon, or the Prometheus Cave. Kami has written a great blog post about 10 day trips from Kutaisi.
Public transport to and from Kutaisi
Georgia is the country of the marshrutkas (= minivans). There are also train options, but they don’t run very often. Marshrutkas are the fastest and cheapest travel option in Georgia, but they are not without risk. The men behind the wheel drive like crazy! To this day the ride from Chiatura to Kutaisi is still the scariest drive I’ve ever experienced.
Most marshrutkas arrive at Kutaisi bus station. This station is located outside the city center next to Kutaisi II train station and a McDonalds (very convenient for free WIFI). To get from the bus station to the city center, take marshrutka number 1. A ride costs 0.40 GEL.
Those are my reasons why you should visit Kutaisi, plus things to do when you are there. Would you like to see this city?