For many years, Georgian hidden gem Svaneti region was off the beaten track for most travellers – just a little too cut off to make it an easy add on to other, more accessible regions of the country. But all that’s changed. These days, there are direct flights from the capital Tbilisi to the area hub of Mestia and resurfacing of the road in and out of the region has cut journey times by half. Yet many organised tours still don’t include Svaneti on their itineraries. Here’s what you’d miss.
Georgian hidden gem Svaneti
Mestia – a convenient hub
The largest settlement in the region, Mestia is still little more than a village. Its tourist infrastructure – restaurants, transport connections and plentiful accommodation choices – make this the most convenient base for travellers exploring the region. Mestia’s charm comes in no small part from the Caucasus Mountains that form a snow-capped backdrop and the traditional Svan towers that litter its back streets.
A summer and winter destination
Near Mestia are some new but increasingly popular ski resorts which are beginning to draw a crowd in the winter season. Hatsvali, 8km distant, is the closest to Mestia. The resort opened three years ago with a chairlift whisking skiers to the top of Zuruldi Mountain in around 15 minutes. Slightly further afield is the ski resort of Tetnuldi, operational since 2015, with three POMA lifts carrying skiers up to an altitude of 3165m. Summer hikers can use the chairlift at Hatsvali to open up a range of hiking routes in the surrounding countryside.
Easy and more challenging hikes
The tourist information centre in the middle of Mestia offers a range of free hiking maps, with trails clearly marked and levels of difficulty accurately measured. It’s an easy walk to the Chalaadi Glacier via the airport road. Arrange for a taxi to pick up and drop off to make it even less effort to reach the spectacular glacier via the woodland trail. There are longer hikes, such as the day hike to and from the Koruldi Lakes in the shadow of twin-horned Mount Ushba. Under blue skies, these are some of the most beautiful hikes in the world and you’ll pass few other travellers as you wander.
One of the most scenic settlements in the whole of Svaneti is Ushguli. A cluster of villages that straggle up the valley overlooked by Shkhara, Georgia’s highest mountain, which soars to over 5000m. Five villages form the settlement of Ushguli: Murkmeli which you pass as you go in; Chazhashi where your driver will park; and then higher up Chvibiani, Zhibiani and Lamjurishi, the highest of which claims to be the highest permanently settled village in Europe. Each has its own charm, and part of the attraction is immersing yourself in an agricultural way of life where time has almost stood still for centuries. The ethnographic museum housed in one of the towers in Chazhashi offers a fascinating insight into those traditional ways. While most people arrange transport from Mestia, it is possible to complete a multi-day hike and walk – if the weather permits, of course.
When to visit
The short summer season of Georgian hidden gem Svaneti lasts from June until August, after which time bad weather can make hiking difficult. Ski season kicks off in December and lasts until about April.