You Can Hike Through Medieval Towers And The Caucasus Mountains In Svaneti, Georgia
There’s really only one reason to come to Svaneti, Georgia, and that’s to spend time outside in the panoramic mountains and hike among the signature Svan towers.
It’s a totally unique landscape, with short stone towers set against the dramatic Caucasus mountains. The towers date back to the medieval times when families used them for defense against invading armies or rival families. And you can hike through valleys filled with the brown stone towers and even climb in some on a Svanetian adventure.
Exploring The Mountains
The most popular trek in Svaneti leads from alpine resort town Mestia to Ushguli, a UNESCO World Heritage Site high in the mountains. It takes about five days to complete the hike, depending on how fast you’re capable of walking at the high altitude. The Svaneti region is home to the highest mountain in Georgia, Mount Ushba. You can stay overnight in charming village lodges along the route or camp.
When we visited, the ice hadn’t melted enough to open a risky mountain pass to hikers, so we hired a car in Mestia to drive us to the magical village of Ushguli. If you’re not feeling the five-day hike, you can grab a ride for about $200. Split four ways, that’s basically a $50 Uber ride. And we’ve all taken a $50 Uber ride for less interesting reasons than to see the highest, continuously inhabited village in Europe.
If you have to pick just one hike, we’d suggest climbing the hill right above the town of Mestia. There’s a scenic overlook up there, as well as an iron cross that appears minuscule from the city center but is huge up close. The trail leaves directly from the town plaza and extends up to the Koruldi Lakes past the cross for an even longer hike. You’ll need at least two hours to reach the cross, and the lakes require a couple more.
When you’re ready to adventure a little further from Mestia, you can get a taxi to take you to the Chalaadi Glacier trailhead. It’s possible to walk, but it’s a boring walk full of cows and potholes. Save your energy for the hike.
It’s a more relaxed trail, mostly flat and leading past a rushing glacial-fed river, through birch groves to an enormous wall of ice. That’s Chalaadi Glacier and you can get close enough to climb on it. It’s all very “Game of Thrones” — you’re basically a Wildling here.
There is an infinite number of other routes you could hike here, from climbing toward Mount Ushba to trekking between small towns like Adishi or Lakhushdi. But make sure to arrange your ride to and from the trailhead ahead of time. There’s no Uber to call up a car on demand when you’re done trekking in the middle of rural Georgia.
And remember the altitude. We’ve never felt so out of shape as we huffed and puffed uphill. So you’ll want to give yourself a little more time than if you were doing a hike at home. But we can promise that once we saw the mountain views as we emerged out of the trees, the breathlessness was 100 percent worth it.
Staying In The Villages
Right now, Mestia is the best place to stay. The town is pleasant chaos, with cows wandering free down every street, friendly giant bear dogs running up to greet you, fresh bread baked in wide-open ovens and guesthouse after guesthouse ready to host hikers.
We stayed at Nino Ratiani Guesthouse in Mestia and were charmed by it the moment we walked in when we were offered tea and served steaming mugs accompanied by massive slices of homemade cake. It’s the kind of place where everyone hangs out on the rustic deck after returning from the mountains, sips Georgian wine, swaps trail stories and trades tips for the next day of exploring the Caucasus Mountains.
But there’s no shortage of guesthouses in the area. Mestia is undergoing giant renovations in order to welcome more tourists to Svaneti. So right now is the time to go, as the places to stay expand but the place hasn’t lost its rough-hewn charm.
Hanging Out With The Svans
In Georgia, they speak Georgian. In Svaneti (known as it’s own unique region within the country), they speak Svan. But the language barrier was never a problem for us. Most young people spoke perfect English and we were offered rides to trailheads by locals who didn’t speak a word of English.
The best part of any trip to Georgia is the people eager to show off their amazing country over a glass of Georgian wine or chacha (homemade brandy/moonshine). A word of warning: Late nights drinking chacha and early morning hiking can be a little rough. Yes, we speak from experience. And yes, we still climbed to the summit of the hike. Just make sure to ask your new local friends — and you’ll basically be family after two glasses of super-strong chacha — where to find natural springs on your hiking trail to refill your water bottle.
Getting To Svaneti
If you’re traveling from Tbilisi, it’s a big hop from the capital all the way to Svaneti. We’d suggest stopping in Kutaisi, a smaller city in the center of the country, full of good food, nice churches and decent places to stay to break up the long eight-hour journey.
For those not renting a car, you’ll have to go via marshrutka. Marshrutkas are minibusses (or vans, depending on if you’re a glass half full or half empty kind of traveler) that operate on a “leave when full” kind of schedule.
There’s also a train to and from Zugdidi, a small city outside the mountains. You can take a marshrutka to Zugdidi from several larger cities and the train connects to Tbilisi through Batumi (the biggest city on the Georgian coast).
If you have some space in your budget and a larger group, we’d suggest hiring a car. You can reach Tbilisi in a relaxing eight hours on your own schedule — bathroom breaks, food stops and last-minute pull-overs to take photos — instead of being at the mercy of your marshrutka driver’s smoking schedule.
And while we’re talking about budget, we have some great news that may convince you to buy a ticket to Georgia immediately: it’s super cheap. Once you’re on the ground, hiking is free and you can get a post-trekking Georgian feast for the price of a mediocre lunch in the U.S.