Kutaisi, the second-largest city in Georgia, is a hidden gem that offers a perfect blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. Spending a week in this vibrant city will expose you to its rich heritage, delicious cuisine, and breathtaking landscapes. From exploring ancient landmarks to indulging in mouthwatering Khachapuri, Kutaisi has something for everyone.
Unfortunately for me, I arrived on what was the worst flight of my life due to extreme turbulence and very bad weather. It felt like the plane was either going to break up mid-air or crash on landing, that’s how scary it was! Oh, and did I mention that I ended up getting ‘seasick’ and had to use the sick bag?! However, thanks to the experienced pilots, we landed smoothly despite the seemingly hurricane force winds and torrential rain outside! I was pretty much in a mess nonetheless and it didn’t really help that I arrived at my Airbnb apartment at around 4 o’clock in the morning although the warm welcoming hug from my Airbnb host did restore my faculties a little bit!
After just around 4 hours of sleep I woke up to much appreciated Georgian hospitality as my Airbnb host invited me over to her house next door and quickly whipped up a breakfast of Georgian toast, an omelette and a Turkish coffee – just the perfect antidote to clear my still-foggy brain! Lali, my Airbnb host, was actually one of the highlights of my trip as she was a really kind-hearted woman fussing over me and making sure I was happy and well-fed. She also prepared dinner twice for me; a typical babushka if you like, although I’m not sure I can call her that in a country that doesn’t really like the Russians! I definitely recommend staying at her place here if you happen to be in Kutaisi as it’s only a few minutes away from the city centre and with free street parking outside if you’re renting a car.
My misfortune continued, especially on my second day in Georgia, when I was also went through my worst driving experience ever – my car sliding all over the place in pouring rain and poor visibility on a narrow icy road that had been dug up and that had been made even narrower by the snow piled up by the side of the road! Suffice to say, I didn’t manage to go to any of the places I planned to visit on that day as they were all snowbound! “It’s safe to visit these places,” my rental car rep had told me. No, it definitely wasn’t, and despite the fact that I’m an experienced traveller and a competent driver, I consider this particular road trip the most dangerous I’ve ever done in my entire life!
Thankfully, my luck changed on my third day as the day dawned crisp and clear, so I made up for lost time by visiting as many places as I could. Interestingly, at my first stop at Martvili Canyon, I was greeted by a guy who offered to take me on a ‘guided’ tour in his ‘jeep’. He said it would cost 100 Georgian lari (around 33 euro) but I quickly cut his slack by calling out 50 lari. We ended up settling for 60 lari (around 20 euros), still a very good deal for that guy for a drive lasting less than an hour in which I thought I would lose my life a million times as he drove along narrow roads and around sharp curves and blind spots at top speed! Although to be fair, he did cross himself several times each time we passed a religious shrine, around 6 or 7 times in total! That’s what probably kept the car on the road I think!
If you are up for an adventure, make your way to the nearby Okatse Canyon. This breathtaking natural marvel offers incredible views of the lush green valley and the spectacular Kinchkha Waterfall. Embark on the daring walkway suspended over the canyon, allowing you to immerse yourself in the awe-inspiring scenery. Unfortunately for me, the walkway was suspended in another way as it was closed due to the atrocious weather conditions! At least I did get to see the waterfall from far-off as a guy in a four-wheel-drive vehicle offered to take me to see it across rough terrain and snowy roads. Well, offered isn’t exactly the right word! I haggled his price down to 50 Georgian lari (around 17 euros) for the privilege of taking me on yes another one-hour round-trip drive.
Having said that, one thing I strongly recommend when visiting Kutaisi is renting a car as it offers unparalleled convenience and flexibility. With a car, you can freely explore the city’s attractions, such as Bagrati Cathedral and Prometheus Cave, at your own pace. It also allows you to venture to nearby destinations like Gelati and Motsameta monasteries and Sataplia Nature Reserve effortlessly, although I found the latter closed despite visiting during normal opening hours.
Just a short drive from the city, you can discover the remarkable Prometheus Cave. This underground wonderland stretches over 20 kilometres, featuring stunning stalactites and stalagmites that create otherworldly formations. Take a guided tour and prepare to be amazed by the natural beauty hidden beneath the earth’s surface.
Guide books say that upon arriving in Kutaisi, it is impossible not to notice the stunning architecture and the warm, welcoming atmosphere. In my case, what I noticed was the run-down state of the city with broken pavements, dug-up roads, crazy drivers, haphazard parking and policemen in their police cars barking out orders through their car speakers (in Georgian, obviously)! And there also isn’t much to see in the city itself apart from the main square, the iconic Bagrati Cathedral, and the Gelati and Motsameta monasteries.
I think the authorities in Kutaisi should take a leaf out of the book of North Macedonia’s quirky capital city Skopje and begin cleaning up the city and adding monuments and renovating old buildings to spice it up and to improve its value for money. Despite this, a visit to the above-mentioned UNESCO World Heritage sites should still be at the top of your itinerary of course.
Bagrati Cathedral is an iconic landmark situated in the city of Kutaisi. Built in the 11th century by King Bagrat III, it is renowned for its remarkable architecture and historical significance. The cathedral features a fusion of Byzantine and Georgian architectural styles, with intricate frescoes adorning its walls. Bagrati Cathedral is a prime example of Georgian medieval architecture and attracts countless visitors who marvel at its beauty and spiritual ambiance. Sadly, in my case, I was more concerned with not getting my car stuck in the snow rather than admiring the architecture!
The Gelati Monastery, founded in the 12th century, is not only a sacred place but also a centre of education and culture during medieval times. Its stunning medieval architecture, intricate frescoes, and breathtaking landscape make it a true gem. Explore its rich history, admire the craftsmanship, and bask in the peaceful atmosphere. An unforgettable experience awaits!
Motsameta Monastery is also a must-visit destination for several reasons. The monastery is perched on a cliff, offering breathtaking panoramic views. It showcases stunning architectural beauty and holds great historical significance. The peaceful ambience makes it an ideal spot for relaxation and spiritual rejuvenation.
When it comes to cuisine, Kutaisi does not disappoint. Georgian food is known for its bold flavours and heavy use of herbs and spices. While in Kutaisi, you must indulge in the local specialty: Khachapuri. This traditional cheese-filled bread is a culinary delight and will leave you craving more. Another must-try dish is Khinkali, Georgian dumplings filled with meat or cheese. Pair these mouthwatering delicacies with a glass of Georgian wine, and you are in for a gastronomic treat.
Kutaisi is also an excellent starting point for exploring the rest of western Georgia. From here, you can easily access the picturesque city of Batumi on the Black Sea coast or venture into the Svaneti region, known for its pristine mountain landscapes and ancient stone towers. With a week in Kutaisi, you will have enough time to embark on day trips and experience the diversity of this region.
Batumi, located on the Black Sea coast of Georgia, is a vibrant and picturesque city that offers a unique blend of cultures and attractions. One of the prime reasons to visit Batumi is its stunning natural beauty. With its pristine beaches, lush green mountains, and a scenic promenade along the coastline, it is a perfect destination for nature lovers and relaxation seekers, although not that much in winter of course!
Another compelling reason to visit Batumi is its rich history and architectural wonders. The city boasts an array of stunning buildings and landmarks that blend different architectural styles, showcasing its diverse cultural influences. The Batumi Boulevard, a 7km-long promenade, is lined with beautifully designed buildings, trendy cafes, and shops. The iconic Alphabet Tower, adorned with Georgian script letters, serves as a symbol of national pride and is a popular spot for panoramic views of the city.
Another city I recommend visiting, and only 20 minutes away by car from Kutaisi, is Tskaltubo. It’s famous for its natural hot springs and mineral-rich waters that are believed to have therapeutic properties. During the Soviet era, Tskaltubo was a popular spa destination, attracting both locals and international visitors. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the town suffered a decline in tourism. In recent years, efforts have been made to revive Tskaltubo as a tourist destination, with some of its Soviet-era sanatoriums being renovated into luxury hotels. However, there are still plenty of long-abandoned historic sanatoriums that you can still explore.
Regrettably, this was the only country I’ve ever visited where I felt a certain sense of relief when my one-week stay was over. Few people spoke even basic English and most of the people were indifferent and unenthusiastic. Customer care is non-existent and I was made to feel that I was not welcome although this could have been due to the language barrier. Furthermore, most of the things we take for granted in the modern western world don’t exist here and Georgians don’t seem to know how to queue up as they just barge past you and push you out of the way as if they have some divine right to be ahead of everyone else!
This happened particularly at the airport where they have this crazy illogical system where everyone, whatever flight you are on, has to join the same queue to check-in even if you are only carrying hand luggage. And yes, I was also pushed out of the way while standing at the head of the priority lane while waiting for boarding by a family who did not even have priority boarding; I sincerely hope that this was just a case of not understanding the system on their part rather than disrespect and bad manners!
Unfortunately, my week-long stay in western Georgia left me with a rather bitter taste in my mouth and I don’t really recommend travelling there due to several reasons. Firstly, the region is prone to frequent rainfall and unpredictable weather, which can hinder outdoor activities as happened to me when I basically lost two days due to the snow. Additionally and even more so, the infrastructure is underdeveloped and transportation options can be limited unless you rent a car. Moreover, the region lacks major tourist attractions and amenities that can make a trip memorable and enjoyable.