Svaneti is a secluded region hemmed in by jagged mountains which for centuries escaped the grasp of the kings and armies which repeatedly marauded the rest of Georgia. The Svan people speak a language all their own and survived through the ages by mustering their fearless warrior mentality and Svaneti’s foreboding geographic location to keep invaders at bay.
Svaneti might well be the most beautiful undiscovered region in the world. But that’s likely to change rapidly, so read on to learn why you should travel to Svaneti, Georgia before the masses arrive. At the end of this post, I’ll include a mini-travel guide with the basic information you need to know to go to Svaneti.
Svaneti: The Pearl of Georgia
Today, Svaneti is like a time capsule buried deep in the mountains. You won’t find chain hotels, souvenir shacks, or ski resorts here. Instead, you’ll find small medieval villages nestled in lush green valleys set against 4,000 meter snow-capped peaks stretching into the blue mountain sky. Stone watchtowers still stand sentry over those villages, as if at any minute invading Mongols or Persians might yet ride through the narrow glaciated passes which serve as the only opening to the outside world.
Families still plow their fields by hand, while livestock freely roam the dirt streets of Svaneti’s tiny hamlets. And, despite the Svan people’s reputation for combat, travelers will be welcomed into crumbling but friendly family guesthouses offering warm fleece beds and dinners consisting of strong wine and food quite literally home-grown.
The country of Georgia is filled with stunning landscapes like Abkhazia and Kazbegi, as well as vibrant cities like Batumi and Tbilisi. But after asking a half dozen locals for the best spot in the country, there was a clear consensus: the prettiest place in Georgia is Svaneti.
Getting to Svaneti is Part of the Charm
Getting there is part of the charm, however, as Svaneti’s gorgeous valleys are protected on all sides by peaks that would challenge even the most experienced mountaineers. Seeking to encourage more visitors, the government of Georgia just recently launched daily flights to Mestia, the largest town in Svaneti. But the 15 seat planes, though affordable at a mere 65 lari, fill up months in advance. That leaves only the old way of access — via a three hour shared minibus ride up a bumpy and winding road from Zugdidi, a town that itself is already seven hours from Tbilisi.
Mestia is a small town set against a dramatic mountain landscape. It is starting to resemble an American or Swiss ski town, though, as visitors are beginning to pour in after hearing Svaneti described as one of Europe’s last remaining untouched gems. But, despite being the most accessible base for tourists seeking a taste of Svaneti, the town has done an excellent job of maintaining an authentic feel even as it develops. Just steps from the main square you can still watch locals driving cattle to pasture or buy fresh baked kachapuri (cheese bread) for 30 cents from a bakery sitting in a centuries-old stone building.
Ushguli: The Highlight of Svaneti
Many gorgeous day hikes are accessible from Mestia, but the intrepid traveler will be rewarded for venturing deeper into Svaneti and to Ushguli, four small villages tucked away in the mountains that together make up the highest permanent settlement in Europe. Ushguli is only accessible via a single road that winds for hours around mountain gorges. Until ten years ago, that road was rife with bandits and thieves, making travel to Ushguli a mission for only the most daring.
Ushguli’s two hundred residents survive harsh conditions during long winters but, by the time of my visit in June spring had brought along bubbling streams fed by glacial melt, the soft squeal of newly birthed piglets, and horses galloping high on the green hillsides to feast on the green buffet now finally open to them.
Ushguli is a base for a gorgeous hike to a glacier high near the mountain peaks separating Georgia from Russia. When I did it, I was joined for the hike by a handful of travelers I met on the ride up and, after a few kilometers, we picked up four more companions: a motley crew of friendly canines eager to join us on our jaunt.
The hike takes you through stunning scenery — the best I’ve seen since hiking Ala Archa National Park in Kyrgyzstan — and is fairly easy, if you don’t mind wading through glacially cold streams!
The next day, joined by one of the same dogs who hiked with us the day before, I set about to photograph as much of this incredible time capsule as I could. With the road from Mestia being slowly paved, a part of me couldn’t help but worry that I was witnessing Ushguli’s last few days before it is cracked out of its amber by modernity.
Beat the Masses to Svaneti
With Georgia’s meteoric rise on the travel scene, it’s inevitable that more travelers will find their way to Svaneti. And why shouldn’t they? It’s one of the most mysterious, beautiful, and secluded places I’ve visited. And the locals, many of whom still live very basic agrarian lives, certainly seem to welcome the infusion of cash.
Svaneti survived for centuries without being compromised by the Persian, the Arabs, the Mongols, or the Ottomans. I desperately want to believe that Svaneti will be able to responsibly handle what I think will be an oncoming hoard of a different kind: mass tourism. No stone watchtower or treacherous mountain pass will help in this fight. I think the real secret to Svaneti’s persistence through the ages, though, is the determined attitude of the Svan people.
And I wouldn’t count the Svan out in any battle, no matter the odds.
Svaneti Mini Travel Guide and Practicalities
- Getting to Svaneti: The new, easiest way is via the cheap, government-subsidized flights now leaving periodically from Tbilisi for Mestia. Book via email to Vanilla Sky. But be forewarned: they book up fast! Alternatively, shared buses and minivans leave frequently each morning from Tbilisi for the grueling 8 hour journey to Svaneti. Buses cost around 30 GEL. The journey is easier if done from Kutaisi, Batumi, or Zugdidi.
- Where to Stay in Svaneti: Accommodation options are relatively affordable throughout Svaneti, and there is still a culture — leftover from the Silk Road – of family run guesthouses that accept walk-up travelers. This is especially true in Ushguli, and makes for an an interesting evening having dinner and copious homemade wine with a Svan family. For the budget traveler who prefers to book in advance, Nino’s Ratiani Guesthouse in Mestia is a popular and excellent choice [disclosure: affiliate link may provide me a small commission at no extra cost to you].
- Trekking in Svaneti: The 4 day trek from Mestia to Ushguli is quite popular, but be aware that the pass can be closed off by snow even into the early summer.
- Getting Around Svaneti: Although the Georgian government is investing heavily in improving the long, winding road between Mestia and Ushguli, the road remains only passable in a 4WD vehicle for now. Most guesthouses can arrange for the drive at reasonable prices.
- Language: Svan and Georgian are spoken. Russian is also spoken, especially by the older generation, while younger Svan people are more likely to know at least some basic English. In my experience, families would often call for their children to act as translators. English prevalence is much higher in Mestia than Ushguli.
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