Svaneti Georgia : Travel Itinerary

Svaneti Georgia: The Most Interesting Destination on the Planet?

Svaneti, Georgia is easily one of the best places to visit in Georgia.


Well, picture 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, Georgia.

And if you are headed to Georgia, be sure to check out my Georgia Travel Itinerary

Last Updated: January 2019

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.

Ushguli town in Svaneti Georgia
Ushguli town

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.

A watchtower in Svaneti GeorgiaThe 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.

A cow in Svaneti Georgia

Ushguli: The Highlight of Svaneti, Georgia

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.

A Svan man in Svaneti Georgia
A Svan man

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 and is fairly easy, if you don’t mind wading through glacially cold streams! So strap on your travel backpack and get hiking!

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.

Svaneti Georgia: a puppy
A puppy takes a rest in Svaneti, Georgia

Beat the Masses to Svaneti Georgia

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, Georgia: A Mini Travel Guide

  • 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 and one of the best things to do in Georgia. 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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Have more questions about Svaneti? Just ask me in the comments! 

Svaneti is a remarkable isolated mountain region in Georgia (the country). Learn why it's one of the most incredible travel destinations on the planet.

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6 thoughts on “Svaneti Georgia: The Most Interesting Destination on the Planet?”

    1. It’s really an incredible place. I was just there for a couple days, and then a couple more in Mestia. You probably need a minimum of three to do it right. There is a four day hike between Mestia and Ushguli that you can do, though even in June it required some pretty serious skills to get through snow-over passages. Not an easy place to reach!

  1. Marlene LeGates

    We are planning to in mid-September, flying into Mestia and then to Kutaisi. Because of the presumed flight schedule (not yet posted), our choice is either three or five non-travel days (excluding Mestia-Ushguli and back again). Am I right in assuming you would advise 5 days? We are seniors but capable of up to 5 hour hikes daily. Also no problem chilling out in beautiful surroundings. We have 29 days in total for Georgia but 7 days for one location is quite a bit.

    1. Hi Marlene! You’re going to love it! If you’re talking about how much time to spend in Mestia apart from the trip to Ushguli, then I think 3 days is plenty for the area, but of course 5 gives you time to take it at a more relaxing pace. It’s all pretty small, so just a question of much you prefer the extra peaceful time.

      Let me know if I can help with anything else and enjoy your trip to Georgia!

  2. Marlene LeGates

    Actually, there is another question I’m struggling with. We’ll have a few days to go to either Tusheti or Stepantsminda (in both cases, 2 days for travel there and back and 2 days for hiking). I know it’s more difficult to get to Tusheti but I’ve heard it described as “the diamond of Georgia.” If you had to choose one over the other, which would it be??? There’s no way we’ll have time for both.

    1. I loved Stepantsminda but I have heard great things from Tusheti (although I haven’t been yet). I think you’re unlikely to be disappointed by either, so I would go wherever makes your schedule easiest. You’ll have a great time in Georgia!

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