12 things to know before traveling to Georgia

With its beautiful but rugged mountain ranges, rich culture and Soviet past, Georgia once had a reputation as a challenging travel destination loved by intrepid backpackers. Luckily, it could hardly be easier to visit Georgia these days, and it’s no coincidence that much of the country’s economy is now based on tourism. 

I’ve been visiting Georgia for more than 20 years, and I’ve seen the country transform almost beyond recognition in many respects, while also remaining reassuringly familiar in others. Few countries can boast the charms that win Georgia so many converts among first-time visitors, and it’s rare not to hear people raving about the country after finally getting to visit. Here are a few of the tips I frequently find myself sharing with those about to discover the delights of the country locals call Saqartvelo.

An old city with a church perched on a hill and spreading out downwards towards more modern structures near the river
Allow at least three days to explore Tbilisi, Georgia’s progressive capital city © Tanatat pongphibool, thailand / Getty Images

1. Give yourself plenty of time to explore 

Georgia appears small on a map, leading some first-time visitors to assume it can be seen in just a few days. But due to a combination of mountainous terrain and infrastructural shortcomings, that’s not the case — travel times between regions are significant. Budget at least three full days to explore the capital, Tbilisi, while I’d recommend spending at least a full week in the country to explore some of the best places to visit in Georgia. Internal flights to the mountains allow you to save a day’s driving in each direction if you are very pressed for time.

2. Pack clothes for all climates

The summer can be stiflingly hot in the lowlands, but as soon as you reach any altitude, let alone the High Caucasus themselves, the temperature plummets and you’ll need a fleece and jacket, even in July. Georgia is generally very relaxed about how people dress, with the only exception being in churches, where skin is best not exposed and where women are expected to cover their heads or don (church-provided) wrap skirts to cover up their pants.

3. Be prepared for some rough roads if you’re driving

Any experienced driver who has driven abroad before should feel fine taking the wheel here. Georgia’s roads have improved immeasurably in the past 20 years, and the vast majority are now sealed, though they remain predominantly single-lane, frequently studded with potholes, and lacking in markings or lighting at night. Nowadays it’s only the famously daunting road to Tusheti that should only be attempted by confident drivers in 4WD vehicles. 

4. Locals give far better advice than apps about driving routes

You may be used to having your apps decide what route you take between two given points at home, but Georgia is not somewhere to entrust your journey to a tech giant. While apps are often very helpful, you should always ask locals before setting out on a long car journey, as what your app might not be able to tell you is how good the road it recommends is or even how surfaced it is. Often in the South Caucasus, it pays to take the more circuitous route!

Two hikers follow a path towards a moutain peak passing a small settlement
When out hiking, keep an eye out for potentially aggressive sheepdogs and steer clear of livestock © Maya Karkalicheva / Getty Images

5. Keep an eye out for sheepdogs in the mountains

Sheepdogs in the Caucasus are bred to be fierce and can potentially be dangerous, so give them a wide berth when hiking in the mountains and carry a stick if possible. For this reason, when walking in the mountains, do also avoid walking too closely to herds of livestock – even if you can’t see a sheepdog, one may suddenly appear from nowhere, which might be an unpleasant surprise.

6. Be aware of political sensitivities

While speaking Russian can be very useful with older people who are unlikely to speak English, do bear in mind that to many younger people, it’s considered a colonial relic imposed on the country by an empire that continues to occupy around 20% of Georgia’s sovereign territory. The breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (to which many governments advise against all travel) are both emotive issues for Georgians, so broach them delicately if you want to ask locals for their views on the subject.  

7. Take it easy on the chacha

Georgia’s far stronger version of grappa, chacha is the national drink and you’ll almost certainly run into it during your visit. While commercially produced varieties are around 40% proof, homebrews can be twice as strong, so do genuinely proceed with caution when you inevitably find yourself handed a glass. 

8. Don’t toast with beer 

Georgians only toast their enemies with beer, so make sure you have a glass of wine or chacha to hand if you’re lucky enough to attend a traditional Georgian feast, or supra (dinner party). Toasts, which are elaborate and usually led by a specially selected toast giver (tamada), have their own myriad rules, but it’s easy enough to follow along and just drink when everybody else does.

The top of a turreted castle on the edge of a green lake
Away from the cities, you may face some direct questions about your relationship status © Olena Granko / Shutterstock

9. Rural areas can be very conservative 

Spend a weekend in Tbilisi and you might come away with a rather unrepresentative sense of just how progressive Georgians are. A trip to a remote area, particularly the mountains, will soon even things out. While the people are delightful and welcoming, there’s no denying that the patriarchy still looms large in rural areas and attitudes that some may consider old-fashioned remain common. If you’re not married and don’t have kids, be prepared to field some fairly direct questions about why on earth you don’t.

10. Drink bottled water in the lowlands

The water in the mountains is generally of excellent quality and perfectly safe to drink, but it’s always safest to drink the bottled variety, which is plentiful and very cheap, in the lowlands, particularly in bigger cities. On the plus side, this does at least give you plenty of chances to try Georgia’s much-loved and unique mineral water Borjomi. 

11. Use Tbilisi’s underpasses to cross busy roads 

The Georgian capital is not a great place for crossing the road, particularly along Rustaveli, Tbilisi’s busy main avenue. Luckily, dozens of underpasses allow you to cross the road safely — it’s wise to use them, as one look at the febrile traffic situation is likely to confirm.

12. In big cities, a small tip will be appreciated 

Hot on the heels of international tourism, tipping has now well and truly arrived in Georgia, though it’s still limited to Tbilisi, Batumi and Kutaisi for the most part. In general, leaving a 10% cash tip when you’ve had good service is appropriate in mid-range and top-end restaurants, but not always expected. Do be aware that tips left on credit cards are unlikely to make their way into the hands of your server, though.

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