We share the best things to do in Kazbegi, Georgia’s spectacular northern frontier hiding in the clouds of the Caucasus
After trekking the Highlander Svaneti, I headed for Kazbegi in northeastern Georgia. Surrounded on three sides by Russia and occupied South Ossetia, the nature-packed borderland is famed for its rich medley of deep green gorges, snow-capped summits and implausibly-placed medieval churches.
The region’s main town is Stepantsminda (more commonly known as Kazbegi), huddled in the lee of the imposing Mt Kazbek which at 5,054m (16,581ft) is Georgia’s third-highest peak and the seventh-highest in the Caucasus Mountains.
Unsurprisingly, hiking takes centre stage in this dramatic destination, with Stepantsminda the perfectly positioned gateway to the region’s mountains and valleys.
Best things to do in Kazbegi
From its iconic mountaintop church to natural mineral springs known for their healing powers, these are the best things to do in Kazbegi.
1. Gergeti Trinity Church
The mountain-top church is probably Georgia’s most recognised symbol. Perched on a bluff at 2,200m (7,218ft), with the striking Mt Kazbek rising behind, the Gergeti Trinity Church (Tsminda Sameba) is certainly one of the most photogenic.
Built in the 14th century, the stone church and adjoining clergy houses can be reached from Stepantsminda either by a short but steep hike or by road. The out-and-back 5.5km hike takes one to two hours on the way up but is, naturally, much quicker on the way down. It takes 15 minutes to cover the 6km winding road by car. Taxis and minibuses can be organised in town starting from around 15 GEL per person ($6 USD). Admission to the church complex is free.
2. Gergeti Glacier
From Gergeti Trinity Church, it’s possible to continue hiking over the Arsha Pass to the meteorological station at Bethlemi Hut. From here, you will get an intimate view of the Gergeti Glacier enveloping the southeastern slopes of Mt Kazbek. The scene is stupendous but the hike is not for the fainthearted with the trail reaching a literally breathtaking height of 3,634m (11,922ft).
The 26km return route is a challenging day hike. It ascends nearly 2,000m (6,562ft) and takes around 10-12 hours to complete. Another option is to only go as far as the Gergeti Glacier lookout point at 2,950m (9,678ft) which is a 13.8km return hike and takes 5-7 hours.
3. Gveleti Waterfalls and Dariali Gorge
Meaning ‘places of snakes’ (keep an eye on where you tread), Gveleti has two waterfalls, one significantly larger and more impressive than the other. Nestled along the narrow and lush Dariali Gorge, the beanstalk waterfall barrages over a narrow nick in the cliffside before fanning out as it cascades into the pool at its base. It’s at its most powerful in spring while in the winter it freezes, becoming a popular ice-climbing spot.
Atlas & Boots
The Gveleti Waterfalls and Dariali Gorge
The 3.5km return hike up the steamy Dariali Gorge is a relatively straightforward affair with only a few steep scrambles in places, mainly towards the end. From the car park, allow two to three hours for the return hike assuming you visit both waterfalls. Plan for longer if you intend on taking a dip. It can be slippery in places so make sure you use appropriate footwear.
The car park for the Gveleti Waterfalls is an 8km/12-minute drive from Stepantsminda.
4. Zakagori Fortress and the Truso Valley
The peaceful Truso Valley is home to a number of cultural and natural sites including abandoned villages, lonely churches, decaying monasteries, sheltered lakes, limestone travertines and mineral-rich hot springs. At the end of the wide valley lie the ruins of Zakagori Fortress rooted atop a grassy hillock overlooking the mostly abandoned village of Keterisi. The fortress was once part of the defences of the medieval kingdom of Alania. Today, it marks the border between Georgia and the Russian-occupied state of South Ossetia.
Located around 36km from Stepantsminda, the ruins can only be accessed via the Truso Valley, either by foot or a 4×4 vehicle. Full day-hiking trips can be organised in Stepantsminda via Mountain Freaks (starting from 45 GEL/$17 USD each way). They will drop you off in the morning and collect you in the afternoon from the trailhead at the village of Kvemo Okrokana. The return hike, up the valley to the fortress, is around 22km and takes 4-6 hours.
As the fortress is close to the South Ossetia demarcation, there may be border guards in the area so you must carry your passport with you at all times.
5. Sno Giant Head Sculptures
Blink and you’ll miss the tiny village of Sno with its smudge of houses, orthodox church, statue of King Vakhtang I of Iberia and lone 16th-century fortified tower. The village is also home to a small collection of monolithic granite sculptures depicting famous Georgian poets, artists and leaders.
The statues are the work of local sculptor Merab Piranishvili and are not too dissimilar in appearance to the Moai of Easter Island. Carved from a single block of locally sourced stone, the giant heads are spread across the hillside. Piranishvili has stated he intends to carve 500 monoliths in total for his village’s nascent open-air museum.
The village of Sno is a 7km/10-minute drive from Stepantsminda along the route to Juta.
Located at around 2,200m (7218ft), Juta is one of the region’s highest villages and probably its most favoured hiking spot. However, despite its popularity, the trails along the Juta Valley are never crowded.
The views from the Juta Valley to Chaukhi Lake just below the saw-toothed ridges of the Chaukhi Mountains are as idyllic as they are imposing. The fabulous 23.5km return hike can be easily completed on a day trip but it’s worth staying overnight at Juta to get the most out of a visit and witness the sunrise and sunset.
There is a smattering of lodges and campgrounds at Juta, the best of which is Fifth Season which occupies a prime plot at the top of a small ridge overlooking the gorgeous Upper Juta Valley with the striking ridgelines of the Chaukhi Mountains at the end.
Juta is a 21km, 40-minute drive from Stepantsminda. Mountain Freaks can organise transfers to Juta, starting at 45 GEL/$17 USD each way.
7. DARIALI MONASTERY
Just a stone’s throw from the Russian border, the Dariali Monastery Complex suffers a little from its proximity to the unsightly barriers and wire fencing, not to mention the constant stream of lorries rumbling by. But if you keep your back to the road and ignore the fact that it was only constructed in 2005, the monastery’s location, nestled on the floor of the Dariali Gorge and banked by forest-clad mountains, is downright fantastical. Unfortunately for Dariali, there’s a church just up the road that will always steal the show.
The complex is a 10.5km/15–minute drive from Stepantsminda and is located just a bit further along the road from the Gveleti Waterfalls car park. You’ll know you’ve gone too far if you’re asked for your passport on arrival.
8. Pansheti Mineral Pools
Just a 2.5km (30-40-minute) walk from Stepantsminda is the open-air ‘swimming pool’ fed by underground natural mineral springs known for their healing properties. Surrounded by an arresting amphitheatre of rocky peaks and lush slopes, the pistachio-hued waters are among the most dramatic outdoor bathing spots in the world. But be warned, the spring is not thermal so expect the water to be brisk, bordering on glacial.
Currently, there’s not much in the way of infrastructure at Pansheti (no toilets or changing rooms) but apparently, there are plans to build a state-of-the-art development nearby.
9. Ioane Natlismcemeli
With mountain vistas every bit as sensational as Gergeti, this monastery in miniature looks across Stepantsminda from the opposite side of the valley. Barely bigger than a shrine, Ioane Natlismcemeli (St Ilya Orthodox Church) makes for an Insta-worthy photo from any angle.
There is a 3km loop trail leading from Stepantsminda up to Ioane Natlismcemel and then around the mountainside back into town. It shouldn’t take more than two hours to complete.
Things to do in Kazbegi: the essentials
What: The best things to do in Kazbegi, Georgia.
Where: I stayed at Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, Stepantsminda’s premier hotel. Formally a Soviet spa, the striking wood-and-glass brutalist structure is positioned across the valley from Gergeti Trinity Church and Mt Kazbek. The vistas from the hotel grounds are dazzling, particularly at sunrise and sunset.
Atlas & Boots, Rooms
A room with a view at Hotel Kazbegi
Even if you don’t stay in the hotel, it’s worth stopping by for lunch or dinner to sit out on the terrace and watch the shadows of the Caucasus creep across the valley town and its surrounding mountains, not to mention the iconic hilltop church.
When: May, June or September are the best months for visiting Kazbegi and Georgia as you will avoid July and August, the busiest, hottest and most humid summer months. As Kazbegi is a mountainous region, the evenings can get cold and the weather is susceptible to change quickly so make sure you pack warm and waterproof clothing.
I visited Georgia in late August to trek the Highlander Svaneti (this year it ran from 25th to 27th August), which is a good time for trekking in the region. I then went on to explore Tbilisi and Kazbegi in early September.
How: Stepantsminda is around 155km north of Tbilisi via the epic Georgian Military Highway. The twisting route into the mountains is an attraction in its own right and features several worthwhile stops and viewpoints along the way including the Ananuri Fortress Complex, Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument and Travertine Mineral Springs.
There are public minibuses, known as marshrutka vans, running from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda. The minibuses to Stepantsminda depart from Tbilisi’s Didube Bus Terminal up to 11 times a day, seven days a week. Prices begin at 15 GEL ($6 USD) per person.
It is easier and quicker to organise a private transfer from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda starting from around $40 USD.
Another option is to rent a car in Tbilisi which will give you the most freedom both en route and in Stepantsminda. Local Rent has good deals starting at around $30 USD per day.
I flew to Tbilisi from London via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines. Book flights via Skyscanner for the best prices.