Editor’s Note: CNN Travel’s series often carry sponsorship originating from the countries and regions we profile. However, CNN retains full editorial control over all of its reports. Read the policy.
Georgia may be small in size, but it still packs an astounding geographical punch.
In the west, you’ll find subtropical citrus groves that edge toward the Black Sea, while in the east, rolling vineyards give way to parched steppes punctuated by thousand-year-old monasteries.
It’s also home to three of Europe’s six tallest mountains; in their shadow, the wilderness of the Caucasus extends in every direction with bears, eagles, and wolves sharing real estate with some of the remotest – and most scenic – mountain villages you’ve never heard of.
Here are 10 stunning places in Georgia that will ignite your wanderlust.
Mutso, a fortified town spread over three towering crags on the border with Chechnya, was northern Georgia’s most impregnable stronghold throughout the Middle Ages, but it was essentially abandoned in the 20th century due to water shortages and crumbling infrastructure.
By the new millennium just 22 Khevsurs (the local ethnic community with pagan-Christian rituals and distinctive dances and dress) remained.
Help finally came in 2014, with a $1.2 million grant funded by the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia.
Ancient guard towers were restored, houses rebuilt, and electric cables were laid, all with painstaking care so as to not disrupt the village’s historical and ethnological integrity.
Today, Mutso is ready for its close up, and the whole world is watching. In 2019, the town bagged the Europa Nostra Award, Europe’s most coveted award in cultural heritage.
Ushguli is one of the highest continually inhabited settlements in Europe at an elevation of 6,900 feet.
Hidden deep in the Caucasian wilderness and snowbound for around eight months of the year, its isolation allowed it to preserve its millennium-old culture distinguished by bareback horse racing, animist rituals, and an unwritten 4,000-year-old language.
The jury’s out on what’s more jaw-dropping: Ushguli’s dozens of crenelated UNESCO-protected watchtowers, some of which are over a thousand years old, or its awesome setting against the snowy folds of Shkhara glacier.
Despite its fascinating history and sheer prettiness, most tourists don’t make it to Vardzia, the nine-tiered cave complex rising above the parched foothills of Samtskhe-Javakheti.
This is mainly due to the nauseous five-hour drive from Tbilisi (or one-hour trek from the closest market town, Akhaltsikhe) visitors must undertake to reach it.
But those who do brave the journey are rewarded with one of Georgia’s most remarkable sights: an entire mountainside pocked with man made caves inviting hours of exploration.
Built as an elaborate bunker by Giorgi III during Georgia’s golden age, it purportedly spanned 19 stories at its apogee and was fully self-sufficient.
A devastating earthquake in the 13th century marked the beginning of Vardzia’s demise and its last full time inhabitants, a cohort of monks, fled the site in 1578 under siege by the Ottomans.
Visitors can duck inside the complex’s rough-hewn pathways leading from frescoed chapels to wine cellars to living quarters connected by trapdoors and bowed stone staircases.
Upon entering the Church of the Assumption, don’t forget to look up to savor a rare depiction of Queen Tamar, Georgia’s greatest ruler.
Step into the Cathedral of the Virgin at Gelati Monastery, six miles north of Kutaisi, and you’re immediately engulfed in a sea of technicolor Byzantine-style frescoes erupting from the lowest stone baseboard to the highest reaches of the conical dome.
It’s a miracle that these vivid specimens have survived, and show shockingly little damage, since most frescoes in Georgian churches were whitewashed by Russian imperialists in the 19th century.
When you reach the apse, be sure to take in the church’s most impressive feature, a 12th century mosaic of nearly three million tiles showing the Virgin and Child flanked by the archangels Michael and Gabriel.
Gergeti Trinity Church
Having graced the covers of countless guides and travel magazines, Gergeti Trinity Church has long evoked “oohs” and “aahs” thanks to its dramatic hilltop position in the shadow of Mount Kazbek, Europe’s fifth-highest summit.
It’s hard to believe 14th century peasants were able to haul such massive ashlar stones up the mountainside to build this harmonious church, distinguished by its conical dome and freestanding belfry fuzzed with orange lichen.
A few black-cloaked monks still live in the adjoining building. Enter the church wearing shorts, a hat, or anything revealing, and you risk their ire.
If Soviet bureaucrats had had their way, you’d be able to strap on a snorkel to admire Ananuri, the church-fortress complex 40 miles north of Tbilisi that narrowly escaped being drowned by a reservoir.
Thankfully Ananuri’s 12th century watchtower, crenelated keep, and two 17th century churches with pagan motifs (see if you can spot grape bunches, rams’ heads, and dragons) have stood the test of time.
Insider tip: After snapping panoramic pics of the churches backed by the turquoise lake, drive 15 miles north along the main road to Pasanauri Restaurant to feast on what many Georgians consider to be the best khinkali (soup dumplings) in Georgia.
Guria is a small rural region in western Georgia known for its tea plantations, egg-filled khachapuri (cheese bread), shrill yodeling (krimanchuli), and idyllic mountain retreats like Gomismta, where shepherds bring their sheep to pasture in the summer.
A far cry from more popular mountain areas like Stepantsminda, Borjomi, and Mestia, Gomismta is a little known haven where you can hole up in a guest house alongside friendly vacationing Georgians.
The colorful shepherds’ huts and vast amphitheater of mountains are the area’s main attractions, but the village mosque, housed in a defunct Soviet oil container, is a curiosity worth tracking down.
There are no addresses or street names here – so you’ll need to ask a local to point you in the right direction.
Forget the opulent wine châteaux of Bordeaux, enotourism in Georgia is a cozy, rustic affair geared toward down-to-earth travelers with a penchant for zany natural wines.
Travelers can sample Georgia’s famous underground-fermented (kvevri) wines by two of the country’s top producers – Okro’s Wines and Pheasant’s Tears – in the storybook town of Sighnaghi.
Here red-roofed Italianate houses overlook the sprawling Alazani Valley and you can even see the snow-capped Caucasus mountains on clear days.
You’ll need an off-road vehicle, a Georgian-speaking guide (we recommend Inter Georgia Travel) and a taste for adventure to reach Dartlo, the prettiest hamlet in the untamed mountain region of Tusheti.
Clinging to a near-sheer mountainside, it’s a time-warpy paradise of stone towers, wildflower-blanketed meadows, and charming old houses that smell like woodsmoke and down-home cooking.
Keep an eye out for khatebi, the low stone huts on the fringes of town that the indigenous Tush people visit for worship and animal sacrifice.
To trace the origins of the David Gareja monastery complex, a series of nearly 30 frescoed monasteries hewn into sandstone, you have to time travel to the sixth century AD, when the Holy Assyrian Father St. David broke ground here to establish an order of Christian monks.
By the Middle Ages, a vibrant spiritual community had taken root with an estimated 6,000 monks in residence – they’d subsequently be annihilated by Abbas the Great.
Just three monasteries remain active today, presided over by an ever-shrinking cadre of Georgian Orthodox monks.
Built in the sixth century, the photogenic caves of Lavra Monastery, whose lower court houses the tombs of David and his disciple Lukian, are located at the heart of the complex.
Benjamin Kemper followed the siren song of jamón ibérico from Brooklyn to Madrid, where he’s been writing about the places that make him hungriest since 2014.