In my view a visit to Svaneti National Park should be on everyone’s itinerary. If you enjoy trekking I recommend hiking from Mestia to Ushguli over 4 days. However, I believe this is a worthwhile destination even if you do not since the prettiest villages, Adishi and Ushguli, can be visited by car.
Upper Svaneti has a strong culture, which is different from the rest of the country. They even have their own unwritten language. Historically, this was an area full of bandits and bloody feuds.
The stone towers the area is famous for were built to house inhabitants during invasion. Today the area is safe, and tourism has transformed the lives of the villagers.
This post will coverShould You Visit Svaneti or Kazbegi or Tusheti?
Visiting Adishi and Ushguli Without Doing the Mestia Ushguli Trek
Where to Stay in Svaneti National Park
When to Go
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Svaneti National Park or Kazbegi or Tusheti?
Svaneti is wild and mystic with some of the most picturesque villages in Georgia. But as you can see from any map of the country, it is a long way from the other tourist sites such as Tbilisi. Whichever way you decide to get here, it will take time. Therefore I think that you need to spend at least a couple of full days here to make the long journey worthwhile.
If you can fit both Svaneti and Kazbegi into your itinerary that would be my recommendation since they are very different from one another. I would suggest spending less time in other areas of Georgia to be able to fit both areas in since these two areas were my favourites.
If you must pick one, I would pick Svaneti and Ben would pick Kazbegi but I am not sure whether that helps you make a decision. The question is would you like a couple of days staying in comfortable accommodation or traditional villages? Both options will provide you with good mountain views. Rooms Hotel Kazbegi is probably the best hotel in Georgia but the village itself cannot match Adishi or Ushguli.
Tusheti is more basic than Svaneti and Kazbegi and just as difficult to get to as Svaneti. We did not go to Tusheti but from talking to other travelers I believe this area is mainly about the hiking.
Visiting Svaneti National Park Without Doing the Mestia Ushguli Trek
You should not leave without seeing Adishi and Ushguli. Although you can see plenty of the famous stone towers in Mestia, the remote location and feeling of being off the beaten path at Adishi and Ushguli makes the travelling to get there worthwhile.
The most atmospheric but also the most difficult to get to of the Svan villages. The road to Ushguli is being paved but to get to Adishi a 4×4 is recommended (although the locals use a normal car). Be prepared for a slow drive. It takes about 2 hours to get here from Mestia.
There are two viewpoints not to miss:
- Look for the church half way up the hill. If you continue walking uphill on any of the paths through the village, they will eventually take you there. Rather than walking all the way to the church (which is locked), continue to the left on the well-defined track (this is where hikers on the Mestia Ushguli trek approach). After 100-200m, turn around to get the view in the photo below.
- The second viewpoint involves less uphill. As you walk back down, pass the church and Gunther’s guesthouse. At the corner of this building take a left. Cross the wooden bridge and walk until the path takes a sharp left. This is my favourite view which is particularly nice in the morning with the sun shining on the towers and colourful houses.
There are two small cafes but do not expect either to maintain regular hours. Even if they are open, they only serve drinks.
When we visited the owner of one of the cafes was asleep and it was impossible to wake him up! The prices of drinks were clearly visible so the customers started an “honesty-box” and served themselves, leaving the right amount of money. The owner had a shock when he woke up to a cafe full of guests and was happy to have made a good income while being asleep all afternoon.
Consisting of four separate villages – Murkmeli, Chazhashi, Chviniani and Zhibiani – Ushguli is at 2,100m. It is Europe’s highest permanently inhabited settlement.
Did you know that the highest mountain range in Europe is not the Alps but the Caucasus? And that 4 of Europe’s 10 highest mountains are in Georgia? I did not. It was also news to me that Shkhara, the mountain you see in the distance, is the third highest in Europe at 5,193m, 400m higher than Mt Blanc.
The photo you often see with Shkhara mountain in the background (and the photo at the top of this post) is taken from the hill behind Chazhashi, the second village you get to. Walk past the stone houses, cross the small river and walk up the hill on the other side. The weather tends to be clearest in the morning, so this is the best time to visit this spot.
I love getting “lost” down little side streets and this is the perfect place to do so. Walking the paths, looking at the buildings that are increasingly being done-up and converted into guest houses, is a pleasant way to spend half a day. Up close the mix between new and old becomes more apparent but the mystique and feeling of being in the middle of nowhere remains.
Another point of interest not to miss is the 12th Century Lamaria church. Be sure to use one of the scarfs (which can be found outside) to cover up. This was the only place on our Caucasus holiday where we were told by the attendant that we were not dressed correctly – and we were not the only ones.
Suggested Itinerary Without Hiking
Day 1 – Arriving in Mestia
If it fits into your itinerary, a flight is a good way to get here. If not, I would recommend taking the train. You have two train options:
- Take the day train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi and arrive in Mestia around 4.30-5pm. Consider arranging your car hire for the following day on arrival.
- If you take the night train from Tbilisi to Svaneti you will arrive at 10am. You can either do the 5-hour return hike to the Cross (route described in Lonely Planet but I recommend using the maps.me app) or travel to Ushguli. The transfer time to Ushguli is a little under 1.5 hours and given the improvements in the road you no longer need a 4×4 (although the last part is a bit rough).
For further information of how to get to Mestia, read the transportation section of my Mestia Ushguli trekking guide here.
Day 2/3 – Visit Ushguli
Enjoy Ushguli (as detailed above) and get a true feel for the local culture and region.
Many day hikes start at Ushguli, and it is worth spending the night if you can. The best-known is the 8km hike up to Shkhara Glacier which takes 6 hours for the round trip.
Day 3/4 – Visit Adishi and Return to Mestia
Hire a car for the day to take you back to Mestia via Adishi. The road to Adishi is bumpy and you will be better off with a 4×4 on this route (although you can do it in a car).
Spend a couple of hours walking around Adishi, wondering what life must be like for those living here. Most families grow their own food and rely on taking in hikers to make some money during the summer. From late October to Easter the road will be covered by snow. In the winter life is hard and people are cut off, not just from the rest of the world but from the rest of Georgia.
After a couple of days spent in the smaller villages, Mestia will seem like a city. It will also seem less authentic than it felt when you first arrived.
Where to Stay in Svaneti National Park
If you don’t mind spending one or two nights in basic but en-suite accommodation, I recommend staying in Ushguli. If you prefer a higher standard of accommodation, returning to Mestia each afternoon would allow you to stay in one of the hotels described below.
Until recently only guesthouses were available, but now there are two hotels, Chalet Mestia and Sunset Terrace.
We stayed at Chalet Mestia, a new hotel in the centre of town. After a couple of days hiking, staying in accommodation with communal bathrooms, checking in here felt like bliss. The bed was comfortable and the bathroom was tiled and modern (no bathtub).
Ushguli mainly caters for backpackers with most accommodation having communal bathrooms. Hotel Tekla and Ushguli Cabins are two en-suite options. We did not stay at either but saw the rooms at Hotel Tekla, which were basic but clean.
When to Go to Svaneti National Park
Spring – The second best time of year to go in my view, after September. It rains more in May and June than in September.
Summer – If you don’t need to travel in the European and Georgian Summer holiday season, I would avoid the Summer months of July and August since it can get very busy.
Autumn – In my view September is the best month to travel and this was when we went. The school holidays are over, which means fewer crowds and it rains less than in May and June. The first snow arrives at the end of September. This is not a big concern, unless you are hiking, but make sure your accommodation has heating if you go at this time.
Winter – With skiing areas opening, such as Tutneldi, winter travel is becoming more interesting. However, skiing will likely be the main focus since villages such as Adishi, are likely to be cut off by snow.