Monasteries in Georgia you should visit
This post is about the best monasteries in Georgia. Georgia is a small country in the Caucasus mountains. Georgia and Armenia were among the first countries in the world to adopt christianity as a state religion. As a result, the country is home to some of the oldest and most beautiful monasteries in the world.
Monasteries in Georgia: a history
Georgia was an unlikely candidate to adopt christianity. The country was at the crossroads of different cultures. It was frequently under attack from the Mongols, the Persians, the Russians and the Ottomans.
Saint Nino and others started to preach the new religion as early as the first century. Christianity then became the state religion of Georgia in 319. This makes the Georgian church one of the oldest in the world. Older than, for example, the Greek or Russian church.
But being Christian in Georgia wasn’t always easy. Invasions and persecutions were commonplace. Therefore, monks choose to settle in isolated places that were difficult to reach.
Sometimes the location of the monasteries in Georgia are more spectacular than the building itself. Being far from the rest of the world, the monks often had to be self-sufficient. Monks grew their own food in their gardens, orchards and vine yards.
The monasteries in Georgia developed their own way of making wine. The grapes were left to ferment underground in large clay pots. The qvevri method is still in use today
Below is a list of monasteries in Georgia that are well worth a visit. Either because of their spectacular location, their historical importance or their beauty.
The most beautiful monasteries in Georgia
Gelati was one of the largest monasteries in Georgia. King David built the first church in 1130. It soon developed into an important center of culture, religion and education.
The monastery still reflects the Golden age of Georgia. Most of its impressive structures are still intact. Large archways and thick stonewalls made the monastery visible from far away.
It s biggest attraction is inside though. The beautiful mosaics and mural paintings in the main building are impressive. Some are as old as the 12th century.
How to get there: Gelati is an easy day trip from Kutaisi. Behind the theatre in Kutaisi is a small bus station. Minivans to Gelati depart at 8 AM, 11 AM, 2 PM, 4 PM and 6 PM
Where to stay: it is best to stay in Kutaisi where I can recommend Guesthouse Darejani
Not far from the Gelati monastery is the smaller Motsameta monastery. Motsameta might not be as important as Gelati, but the location is spectacular. On top of a cliff with the Rioni river valley far below.
Motsameta was built around the same time as the Gelati monastery. A rumour claims that there is a secret tunnel between them. The church also holds the relics of two brother saints. They died while fighting against the Arabs in the 8th century.
How to get there: Motsameta is an easy day trip from Kutaisi. Behind the theatre in Kutaisi is a small bus station. Minivans to Gelati depart at 8 AM, 11 AM, 2 PM, 4 PM and 6 PM. The Motsameta monastery is only 1.8 kilometers from the road to Gelati. Ask the bus driver to let you out. It is a short and nice walk.
Where to stay: it is best to stay in Kutaisi where I can recommend Guesthouse Darejani
Vardzia cave monastery
The Vardzia monastery was part of an elaborate cave town. People lived here as early as the 8th century. Vardzia reminded me a lot of Kandovan in Iran. Some will also compare it to Cappadocia. Vardzia is definitely smaller, but much less touristy and there are still monks living on site.
Nowadays visitors have access to almost 300 rooms. They connect with each other by narrow tunnels, passageways and steep staircases. But this is only a fraction of the original size. In its glory days during the 14th century it spread over 13 levels with over 6000 rooms including libraries and pharmacies.
How to get there: There is no direct transport from Tbilisi to Vardzia. That is the reason why most people decide to visit Vardzia on an organised day tour. Although they offer good value for money it is possible to take public transport. From Tbilisi you need to take a marshrutka to Akhaltsikhe (3 – 4 hours). From there to Vardzia there are 3 – 4 daily minivans. The journey takes about 1 – 2 hours and costs 5 – 6 GEL.
Where to stay: Budget friendly choices are the Vardzia Terrace hotel that has a nice garden and views on the cave monastery or the friendly Sada guesthouse
David Gareja monastery
David gareja is another cave monastery where monks lived an isolated life for hundreds of years. They survived several invasions and it was only during the Soviet rule that they had to close their doors.
As soon as Georgia was independent, the monks returned. Unfortunately new borders did not take into account the monastery. The upper caves including the Udabno monastery are officially within Azerbaijan while the lower Lavra monastery is in Georgia.
For Georgians this is difficult to accept. They proposed a land swap, but so far Azerbaijan refused. Border guards even closed off access to Udabno. Nevertheless, David gareja is still worth a visit. It’s location on a hill overlooking a semi desert like landscape is spectacular.
How to get there: Public transport goes as far as Udabno village from where it is still quite far from the monastery itself. More conveniently it is to take the Gareji line that runs a daily minivan at 11 AM from Tbilisi all the way to the monastery.
Where to stay: There is no accomodation at David Gareji. It is best to visit the monastery on a day trip from Tbilisi. In Tbilisi I can recommend Maria’s homestay.
Alaverdi is one of the oldest monasteries in Georgia. An Assyrian monk founded the monastery in the 6th century, but the large cathedral is from a later period. This is when Alaverdi was already famous for its wines.
The monastery was surrounded by fertile vineyards and produced up to 4000 liters per year. You can still see some of the ancient qvevri clay pots. At some point the monks stopped making wine. However, when the cellars were renovated in 2006 production started again. Visitors can buy Alaverdi wine at the monastery and join a tour to see the wine making process.
How to get there: It is best to visit Alaverdi on a day trip from Telavi. There is not a lot of public transport, so it is best to get a taxi.
Where to stay: In Telavi I recommend Tinikos guesthouse and Top floor guest house
Nekresi monastery, Kakheti
The Nekresi monastery is located on top of a hill with beautiful views over the Alazani valley in Kakheti. Being in the midst of Georgia’s wine growing region, the monastery has an old wine cellar where you can see the ancient qvevri clay pots. At Nekresi they are no longer in use.
Nekresi monastery is still a place of worship. After the fall of the Soviet Union, monks returned to resume their religious duties.
How to get there: It is best to visit Nekresi on a day trip from Telavi or Sighnaghi. There is no public transport, so it is best to get a taxi.
Where to stay: In Telavi I recommend Tinikos guesthouse and Top floor guest house. In Sighnaghi I stayed at I stayed at Abramichi Guesthouse. It was one of the cheapest options and I was very happy there. The people are very friendly and their balcony has a lovely view on Sighnaghi and the mountains.
Bodbe monastery, Kakheti
The Bodbe monastery near Sighnaghi is an important pilgrimage site because of the holy St.Nino spring. Saint Nino was a woman who became famous for preaching christianity in the Caucasus region. She managed to convert Georgia’s royal family and later retreated at the Bodbe gorge in Kakheti.
After her death she was buried at the Bodbe gorge and a small monastery was built to honour her. Nowadays it is a nunnery with beautiful gardens. Pilgrims head to the Nino spring below the hill whose waters are believed to have healing properties.
How to get there: Bodbe monastery is just outside Sighnaghi and a nice walk from the town center
Where to stay: In Sighnaghi I stayed at I stayed at Abramichi Guesthouse. It was one of the cheapest options and I was very happy there. The people are very friendly and their balcony has a lovely view on Sighnaghi and the mountains.
Jvari monastery, Mtskheta
Jvari monastery is also related to Saint Nino. It was here that Saint Nino put a christian cross on a pagan zoroastrian temple. Since then miracles started to happen and pilgrims came from all over the region.
The Jvari monastery was built in the 6th century in Mtskheta. Mtshketa is one of the oldest cities and at that time it was the capital of Georgia. There are a number of other important churches that are now all on the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Jvari is located somewhat outside the city. On the top of a hill it overlooks the old city. In fact, the views are the most important reason to visit Jvari. The monastery itself is austere and simple.
How to get there: Jvari monastery is just outside of Mtshketa. It is best to organize a taxi to bring you there.
Where to stay: You can visit Mtskheta on a day trip from Tbilisi or as a stop on the Georgian military highway.
Mtsvane monastery, Borjomi
12 kilometers South of Borjomi is the Green Monastery. It has a peaceful location in the middle of the forest, but actually has a dark history
The Borjomi valley saw lots of wars. In the 1550’s the Persian Shah Tahmasp killed all the monks. People believe that this explains why the stones in the river still have a reddish color that remains regardless of season or water temperature.
Other evidence of the monastery’s turbulent past are the bones that the monks find in the area. Somewhere in the 18th century the monastery was abandoned. It was only in 2003 that a few monks started to live there again.
How to get there: there is no public transport, but it is easy to arrange a taxi in Borjomi
Where to sleep: Borjomi has lots of accomodation options. I stayed at Apartment Erekle and I can truly recommend this, because of the super friendly owner and the somewhat Soviet experience of staying in a Soviet flat apartment. Other budget hotels with good reviews include guesthouse Zuriko and guesthouse Metreveli
Monasteries in Georgia Travel tips
Like other orthodox churches it is important to dress modestly. Women should cover their hair and wear a skirt. Most monasteries have head scarves and wrap around skirts at the entrance for visitors to use, but you might want to bring your own head scarf. Anything that will cover your hair will do.
Shorts and tank tops are definetly a no go. These rules also apply to men who should make sure to cover their shoulders and wear long pants. In addition, men are expected to take their hats off before entering.
Be respectful and quiet. Always ask permission to take pictures of other people and don’t take pictures where it is clearly stated you can not. At last, don’t use flash to protect ancient frescoes and murals.
The altar is sacred and you should not step on it. Neither should you sit on the chair in the middle of the church.
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