Tips for Visiting Svaneti

Svaneti region is split into two parts, the Upper Svaneti and Lower Svaneti. The Mestia municipality, Upper Svaneti is the most beautiful and well-known part. The region is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I definitely suggest to anyone to visit this area.

History of the Region

The region was always very remote and very difficult to access. The paved road to Mestia was done only about a decade ago. Until then, getting there from other regions was taking far longer, than now. Nowadays, the time for driving from Zugdidi to Mestia is about 3 hours. Besides this, the flights from near Tbilisi made Mestia more accessible. The road from Mestia to Ushguli – the highest permanent settlement in Europe is now being paved, however, there is at least a dirt road, where cars can drive. In the old times, this road was only possible to cover on foot through very difficult terrain. I don’t imagine, how people managed to get out of there at all. I guess that’s the reason, they were mostly cut off from the other regions.

As a result of this remote location, for centuries Upper Svaneti had no “lord” and they pride themselves with that. They were in the kingdom of Georgia and recognized the Kings; however, they were never ruled by a local ruler, unlike the Lower Svaneti, which was ruled by the Dadeshkelianis.

They have adapted to the harsh living conditions. Their life was very difficult, up until very recently, they were only sustaining themselves with husbandry, hunting, etc. As they have told us, they would take cows and other animals to the higher parts of the mountains over summer and were themselves living in the huts there. Nowadays, tourism helps a lot and their life has gotten somewhat better.

As you can guess Svans, the ethnic sub-group of Georgians, are known for being very firm in their decisions (stubborn 😊). They have their own language, which does not have an alphabet. However, they still speak it among themselves, although not always.

When to visit Svaneti

You can technically visit this region any time of the year. The road to Mestia is open most of the time, unless there’s a heavy snowfall. In that case, it’s cleared quite quickly still.

Summer is definitely the best time to visit, as any of the places you will want to see here are accessible (of course, depending on the weather, it would be dangerous in cases of heavy rain). The temperatures in summer are milder, we only needed jackets, but it can get pretty cold, especially on rainy days so do bring sweaters along.

Winter (which here lasts basically from November to April – this changes) is also a popular time to visit for the lovers of skiing. The skiing resort on Hatsvali is well developed and attracts more and more people. At this time though many other places of attraction are inaccessible.

Spring and Autumn are very short periods and off season. Particularly spring is known for its rains. During these periods some locations may not be accessible, although you still could visit some if you are lucky, depending on the weather conditions of course.

Overall, unless you have a lot of time in Georgia, I wouldn’t risk it coming all this way outside summertime, when you could actually see and do everything this amazing region has to offer.

How to Get to Svaneti

There are several options for getting to Mestia.

By Plane

The most convenient way is to fly from Natakhtari Airport (a small airport near Tbilisi) directly to Mestia (the company flying is Vanila Sky). Tickets can be purchased online here. The issue is that tickets sell out very fast and need to be booked way in advance. The flight takes approximately an hour, and the views are simply gorgeous. Make sure to sit on the right side, while flying to Mestia and on the left side from Mestia. This way you will have amazing views of Caucasus mountains.

To get to Natakhtari Airport, they actually pick all passengers up with a bus from central location in Tbilisi – bicycle statue in front of Radisson Blue. They will also drop you off here after arriving to Natakhtari from Mestia.

From Mestia Airport (which is tiny and has only one flight), you can get to the city even on foot. We did that in about 15-20 minutes.

A major disadvantage of the flight is that it highly depends on the weather. So if the weather doesn’t allow, it may get cancelled, which can affect your plans significantly. So be aware of this possibility and plan accordingly to avoid disappointment.

Note: there are also flights of Vanila Sky from Kutaisi to Mestia, but only twice a week, so it’s not convenient.

By Train and Mini Bus

Another option is taking the train to Zugdidi and then a minibus from there to Mestia. This option is time-consuming, as the train takes about 6 hours and then minibus takes about 3 hours (unless there are delays on the road). There’s one train a day in each direction – 8.40 departure from Tbilisi arriving to Zugdidi at 14.30; 17.25 departure from Zugdidi arriving to Tbilisi at 23.15pm.

After the train, you may find minibuses, which are waiting for the train to arrive and continue your journey. Other times of the day minibuses depart from next to the Zugdidi market (somewhere around this area, do ask the people there to direct you).

Note: waiting for minibuses can be frustrating, as they wait till they are full. We visited during the covid times and we had to wait for the morning minibus to depart for about 3 hours. Some days they may fill easier, while other slow days you may have to wait for long.

Alternatively, if you want to break your journey in two, you can spend a night in Zugdidi. We arrived in the afternoon, visited the Dadiani palace and walked around Zugdidi and next morning we took minibus to Mestia. On the way back catching 17.25 train is certainly easier.

You could also take the train to Kutaisi first (train runs at 8.50 at arrives to Kutaisi at 14.30, on the way back you can catch a 12.25 train). From the train station you will need to go to the Kutaisi bus station (near McDonalds around this area). From the bus station you can catch a minibus to Mestia, which should take around 5 hours.

By Mini Bus

The direct option is taking minibuses from Samgori bus station. They run only once a day at 7am. This should take about 10 hours.

Driving to Mestia

You can drive to Mestia with any type of car. The road is winding but paved and not dangerous. However, once you get to Mestia, unless you have a 4×4 and are very experienced driver, don’t attempt to go to other areas of Svaneti. So basically, hiring a car for driving to Mestia doesn’t make sense.

The minibuses will drop you off in a central location in Mestia. You can take a minibus from Mestia at this location as well.

Where to Stay

There aren’t many options outside Mestia in the region. It’s best to stay in Mestia and do day trips from there. If you hike however, then you have a lot of options for camping.

Mestia has several hotels and guesthouses to choose from. Check for relevant accommodation for you.

Choosing a location of the accommodation in Mestia is pretty easy, they are mostly in the central walkable areas (I highly doubt you will find any transport around Mestia, so you gotta walk). Also note that the old area, where all the towers are located is on the steep slope, so if your accommodation is there, climbing might be complicated.

We stayed at Svaneti apartments about 5-10 minutes’ walk from the towers and the restaurant area. It was cheap and spacious. I doubt they speak English, however, you should be able to communicate via Google translate.

Transportation in Svaneti

This is the most complicated issue and this is where it gets most expensive.

If you like hiking and are here for a long while, then you won’t need to look for the drivers with 4×4. You can hike to Ushguli in 4 days for instance, while Koruldi Lakes is a 1 day hike (although must be a very long day). I wouldn’t do this alone, if you are travelling solo. Try to find travel companions.

Cafes and Restaurants in Mestia

While Svaneti became quite touristy lately, there aren’t too many restaurants and cafes around here. Still you have enough options. Do note that many of these, even though called cafes, are basically restaurants serving Georgian food:

  • Café Leila – this café/restaurant was where we ate almost every day. At the time we visited there were few tourists around (while COVID was still not spread in Georgia, borders were already closed), so the café wasn’t always that crowded, but usually it’s a very popular place. They offer Georgian dishes, as well as coffee and sweets.
  • Café Lanchvali – this café is located nearby the Margiani tower/museum, so pop in while exploring the area. Their food was nice and they have a lovely view, so definitely sit on a terrace.
  • Erti Kava – this coffee chain we discovered first in Mestia. We enjoyed their coffee and sweets a lot. This is the only real coffee shop in town I believe, as all others serve food and don’t specialize on coffee. I believe they now serve food as well.
  • Café Bar Buba – we popped in here once to check it out. It has a small space. Their food was fine, but nothing outstanding for us to come back again.
  • Lushnu Qor Restaurant Beer Garden – the atmosphere here was nice. They have a lovely old style yard with wooden decorations. Their food is pretty good and worth checking out.
  • Old House Hotel/Restaurant – is a popular restaurant, although we didn’t check it out.
  • Zuruldi – this café/restaurant is located on top of Hatsvali and you get here via Ski lift (see details below on how to get to Hatsvali). The place has great views and even if you don’t eat or drink anything here, just walk around its balconies for those views.

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