Vardzia cave town and monastery: a travel guide
Vardzia cave town is an ancient cave settlement in the slopes of the Erusheti mountains in Georgia. It is both a historical monument and an active place of worship. Monks still live in the Vardzia cave monastery that was once part of a much larger cave town.
A history of Vardzia cave town
People already lived in Varzia during the Bronze Age. Some of the oldest caves in the area date as early as the 8th century. These were simple cave dwellings though.
The building of a sophisticated cave town in Vardzia started in 1184 under the reign of king Giorgi the third. This was the Golden age of Georgia when art and literature flourished. It was also a time that Georgia was constantly under attack from the Mongols and the Persians. Its original purpose was therefore a military fort.
After Giorgi’s death, his daughter Tamar became queen. She played an important role in Georgian history and is famous for her courage and strength. Her rule saw many cultural achievements as well as military successes.
Queen Tamar truly developed Vardzia cave town into a large complex. She ordered the caves to be dug deep inside the mountains so that invaders could not get in. Vardzia also became a religious site as Tamar ordered the construction of the Vardzia cave monastery where more than 2000 monks could live.
By the early 13th century, Vardzia cave town was spread over 13 levels with more than 6000 rooms, wine cellars, stables, a bakery, a pharmacy and a library. There was even an irrigation system that could sustain the gardens planted by the monks.
Vardzia cave town was a self-sustaining city that managed to protect itself from outsiders, but not from mother nature. It saw severe damage from an earthquake in 1238. Most people left, but the monks stayed and rebuilt the church. They kept living in the monastery till the 16th century. In 1551 the Persians invaded the monastery and killed all the monks.
The legends of Vardzia and the warrior queen Tamar lived on though. Monks returned after the fall of the Soviet Union. Nowadays 7 monks live in the caves of Vardzia to preserve this unique cultural heritage.
Why visit Vardzia cave town
If it’s intriguing history is not enough reason to visit Vardzia cave town, you should come to see its spectacular location. Vardzia lies in the lower foothills of the Caucasus mountains in Samtskhe-javakheti. A region known for its natural beauty and greenery. The caves were carved out of the side of the Erusheti mountain, high above the shores of the Mtkvari river.
From the monastery you have beautiful views over the fertile valley below. The sight of Vardzia cave town from the opposite side of the river is no less spectacular. It almost looks like a honeycomb that stretches over the cliff for more than 500 meters.
Considering the fact that what you see is only a fraction of its original size, it is here that you truly get a sense of how big it once was. Nowadays visitors have access to almost 300 rooms that are connected with each other by narrow tunnels, winding passageways and steep staircases.
Vardzia is not the only cave town in Georgia. Close to Gori you have the much older cave town of Uplistsikhe and near the border with Azerbaijan is the remote David Gareja cave monastery. If you have the chance I would recommend to visit all of them, because each site is unique.
If you are interested in cave towns I also recommend Kandovan in Iran. Like Capadaccia in Turkey, it is a troglodyte village where people have lived in the caves, carved out from the volcanic rocks, for centuries. Kandovan is still inhabited and an interesting place to visit.
Things to do in Vardzia cave town
Vardzia cave monastery
The main attraction in Vardzia cave town remains the church of the Dormition and the adjacent bell tower. Within the cave church are stunning Georgian mural paintings. Some are still the original paintings from the 12th century. Others were added by the monks after the earthquake.
The upper walls portray the life of Christ, behind the altar are the twelve church fathers and on the northern wall Georgian rulers including king Giorgi the third and Queen Tamar.
Explore the cave rooms
Besides the Vardzia cave monastery, there are about 300 rooms to explore. If you look well you can still see traces of the ovens for baking breads, of what was once a dining room, an apothecary and wine storage cellars. You can also still see traces of the clay pipes that are part of the ancient irrigation system.
Insider tip1: Get there early before the tour buses arrive and the sunlight is at its best for photography. From the entrance you follow a one way route so make sure you take things in as you go, because you won’t come back. The whole route takes about 2 – 3 hours.
Dress code: Wear sturdy shoes and prepare for steep staircases and narrow passageways. Because Vardzia is still an active monastery it will be appreciated if you dress modestly so make sure you cover at least your shoulders and knees.
Vardzia cave town viewpoint
The best view of Vardzia cave town is on the opposite site of the Mtkvari river. The exact location is on google maps with the name “Vardzia cave town viewpoint”. It is just off the road before you cross the river towards the entrance.
Relax at the Mtkvari river
As you drive to Vardzia, the last part of the road you will follow the scenic Mtkvari river. It’s the perfect place to relax after a visit to Vardzia cave town. Either bring your own picnic lunch or choose one of the restaurants on the banks of the river.
Things to do near Vardzia Cave town
The area around Vardzia cave town is full of natural beauty and history. The road from Akhaltsike to Vardzia is one of the most scenic road journeys in Georgia. As you follow the road along the Mtkvari river you pass through lush and green hills with ancient ruins of fortresses and castles.
Although it is possible to visit Vardzia as a day trip from either Tbilisi, Kutaisi or Borjomi, the area has enough to offer to stay longer. On a day trip you will likely only visit the Vardzia cave monastery. However, there are a number of underrated sights nearby that get few visitors, but that are no less interesting.
Only a few kilometers south of Vardzia cave town are the ruins of the Tmogvi fortress. Perched on the top of a cliff high above the gorge, it offers even more spectacular views than the cave monastery.
In the 9th century this was a large complex and military stronghold in the region. It was severely damaged in the earthquake of 1238 and now all that remains are ruins that leave much to the imagination. The stunning views on the lush and green landscapes of the Mtkvari river valley are the main reason to come here.
How to get there: From Vardzia you can hike the 13 kilometer Tmogvi fortress trail. If you have your own car you can also drive to Tmogvi village. After you cross the pedestrian bridge in Tmogvi you have two options. You can take the steep footpath up to the fortress or the longer, but easier dirt road.
Vardzia hot springs
Very few people know that within walking distance of the Vardzia cave monastery are a number of hot springs. Facilities are very basic compared to the sulphur baths in Tbilisi, but it is certainly a relaxing experience after hiking in the area.
The natural hot springs are a bit of a hidden secret. They are difficult to find as there are no signs or advertisements. Locals do know about the location so ask around and someone will show you. Expect to pay about 5 lari.
One of them is on google maps under the name sulphur bath. It is a 20 minute walk from the Vardzia cave monastery.
4 kilometers from Vardzia cave monastery are the caves of Vanis kvabebi. These caves get very little attention, but are in fact even older than Vardzia. In the 8th century this was an important cave monastery.
A couple of monks still live here, but otherwise the site is largely left abandoned. Most likely you will be alone here, free to explore what is left of this cave town.
The most impressive part is the remains of the Saint George church. Another white domed church is higher up after a series of steep staircases and narrow passageways. It is not as well maintained as Vardzia and therefore a little bit scary at times
How to get there: From Vardzia it is a 3 kilometer walk up to Vanis Kvabebi. If you have a car it is a 600 meter climb from the road.
The Khertvisi castle is one of the oldest castles in Georgia. Due to its strategic location on a hill top at the confluence of two rivers, it was invaded and reconstructed many times in its long history.
As it is right next to the road from Akhaktsike to Vardzia it makes for a convenient stop if you have your own transport. The citadel and fortress walls are quite impressive.
Akhaltsikhe is an important town in the Samtskhe-javakheti region. It is mostly famous for the Rabati castle. Although the first castle at this location was built in the 9th century, the current building is the mixed result of a recent restoration project. In my personal opinion it felt a bit disney like and it has lost any feeling of history.
As most people will pass through Akhaltsikhe anyways on their way to Vardzia it is convenient to stop here. If you use public transport you will have to change here to another marshrutka and if you have your own transport a quick stop won’t hurt.
Vardzia Cave Town Travel Tips
Where to Sleep
There are a number of accomodation options itself in Vardzia. The most luxurious is the 4 star Vardzia resort. More budget friendly choices are the Vardzia Terrace hotel that has a nice garden and views on the cave monastery or the friendly Sada guesthouse
Where to Eat
There are no places to eat inside the Vardzia cave monastery, but in Vardzia town you will find a small number of restaurants. I had a delicious lunch in a restaurant right next to the river where I tried Tatar Boraki. An Armenian recipy of pasta with caramelized onions and yoghurt sauce.
Because you are close to the border with Armenia, the restaurants serve a mix of Geirgian and Armenian food.
How to get there
There is no direct transport from Tbilisi to Vardzia and that is the reason why most people decide to visit Vardzia on an organised day tour. If you really have only one day to spare they are indeed the best option and most tour operators offer good value for money.
In my opinion, Vardzia cave town and its surroundings are beautiful enough to stay longer. There is more to see than the cave monastery alone and it will allow you to get there early before the tour groups do.
Although getting there will require a couple of changes in minivans, it isn’t as difficult as you might think.
Step 1: Getting to Akhaltsikhe
From Tbilisi or Kutaisi you first need to take a minivan to Akhaltsikhe. There are a few direct minivans from these cities. However, you could also change in Kashuri. From this town there are more frequent connections to and from Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Akhaltsikhe. Either way the journey takes about 3 – 4 hours and should cost between 10 – 12 GEL.
In Tbilisi, minivans to Kashuri or Akhaltsikhe leave from the Didube bus station. I recommend leaving early in the morning, so you reach Akhaltsikhe in time to catch the afternoon marshrutka to Vardzia cave town.
I travelled from Borjomi and there were frequent minivans to Akhaltsikhe. The journey only took 2 hours.
Step 2: from Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia
Between Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia cave town there are 3 – 4 daily minivans. The journey takes about 1 – 2 hours and costs 5 – 6 GEL. Check the most recent times as they change frequently. But there should be two in the morning and two in the afternoon.
If you don’t want to get stuck in Vardzia make sure you don’t miss the last bus. It is not easy arranging a last minute taxi on the spot in Vardzia.
If you do prefer to go by taxi it is best to arrange this in Akhaltsikhe. Make sure to include stops on the way at Khertvisi castle and Vanis kvabebi if time allows.
When to visit
Vardzia is a year round destination and each season has its charms. In general, people avoid the winter, but seeing the caves covered in snow for sure is beautiful. The views on the Mtkvari valley change with the seasons. Wildflowers in spring, lush greenery in summer and golden colours in the trees in autumn.
Vardzia cave monastery is open every day from 10 AM till 6 pm in summer and 5 pm in winter.
Entrance Fee is 15 Lari. You can choose to pay more for a private (45 lari) or audio guide (15 lari).
Vardzia cave monastery etiquette
Vardzia cave monastery is an active place of worship. Although there is no enforced dress code it is appreciated to dress modestly.
If you want to enter the church men should cover their legs and women should wear a long skirt and cover their hair. There are communal scarves at the entrance, but you might want to bring your own. They come in handy in Georgia a lot, because most churches ask you to do so.
You cannot take pictures inside the church. Outside of the church you can, but if you want to take pictures of the monks, ask permission before clicking away.
What to bring
Water and snacks: there is no restaurant inside the Vardzia cave monastery. A visit to Vardzia cave monastery can take up to 2 or 3 hours so bring enough water and snacks with you.
Sturdy shoes: A visit to Vardzia means lots of walking through sometimes uneven terrain. Wear some sturdy walking shoes.
Lightweight scarf: women should consider bringing their own lightweight scarf to cover their hair. Most churches in Georgia demand you to do so, so you will use this not only in Vardzia.