Things to do in Zugdidi Georgia
Zugdidi in Georgia is the small capital of the lush and green Samegrelo province. This old city has a strategic location in Western Georgia. Therefore many travellers end up in Zugdidi, but most only use it as a short stop over on their way to Svaneti or Abkhazia.
I also first visited Zugdidi on my way to Mestia and had a couple of hours to spare. There was not much information in my guidebook, but my first impressions walking around town were very good. Based on this experience I decided to spend 2 days in Zugdidi on my second trip to Georgia.
Why visit Zugdidi, Georgia?
You probably want to know if Zugdidi is worth your time. Based on my experience I can say, yes. Zugdidi is not just a transit point, It is a very interesting and pleasant city with a strong cultural identity. Zugdidi is home to the Mingrelian people that have their own language, traditions and food.
Megrelian cuisine alone, is a great reason to spend more time in Zugdidi. The delicious dishes that are unique to this area are not always easy to find elsewhere in Georgia. For me, it was an unexpected culinary destination and it was not hard to understand why Mingrelians are so proud of their food.
Zugdidi is also a great city if you love history. Because of its turbulent past there are few historical sights that remain. Yet, there is enough to see and do for a day or two, especially if you use Zugdidi as a base to explore Samegrelo province
A history of Zugdidi, Georgia
Samegrelo was once part of the ancient kingdom of Colchis. A kingdom that the Greeks already mentioned as a land rich in gold and honey and home to Medea and the Golden Fleece. It was a strategic and important area that later saw the invasions of the Romans, Byzantines, Mongols, Turks, Persians and Russians.
Zugdidi soon developed as the cultural and political center of Western Georgia and served as the capital of the principality of Mingrelia ruled by the Dadiani dynasty. Western Georgia has always been politically and culturally separate from the rest of the country. It was only under Soviet rule that it was fully integrated into the Georgian Soviet republic, but the Mingrelians still see themselves as a distinct ethnic group.
Things to do in Zugdidi Georgia
The powerful Dadiani family ruled Samegrelo for centuries with Zugdidi as their capital. The Dadiani palace is one of the few palaces built by the family that still survives. Others were destroyed by either war, fires or neglect.
The Dadiani palace we see today in Zugdidi was the palace built for Queen Ekaterina in 1873. The residence complex also had a botanical garden, a large library, stables and a bathhouse. Nowadays it is home to a museum that shows some of the artworks and other special possessions of the Dadiani family.
The Botanical gardens were a gift from Prince David Dariani to his wife Ekaterina. She loved her garden and planted a variety of local and foreign species of plants, flowers and trees. Elaterina took great care of it until she died. After that the gardens were neglected.
Now it is the Zugdidi city council that is in charge. It is clear that they too struggle to maintain it properly. Although it now looks more like a city park there are still over 80 exotic plant species.
Saint Virgin Mary of Vlacherna church
Near the Dadiani palace is the 19th century church of the Saint Virgin Mary of Vlacherna. Every year in July it is home to a big pilgrimage festival when a robe, believed to be from Saint Mary, is taken from the Dadiani palace museum into the church.
Try Megrelian cuisine
I already mentioned that Megrelian cuisine was one of the highlights of my visit to Zugdidi. What sets it apart from the general Georgian food is that it tends to be more spicy and lots of dishes feature walnuts and Ajika. Ajika is a hot and spicy sauce that is popular throughout the country, but actually originates in Samegrelo.
Also, Megrelians seem to love cheese even more than the average Georgian. You probably know khachapuri. The beloved cheese breads that are sold everywhere. The Megrelian khachapuri has cheese on top of the bread as well as inside.
Other cheesy Megrelian dishes to indulge in are Gebzhalia and Elarji. Gebzhalia is a softened cheese filled with garlic, mint and other herbs. Elarji is made by boiling cornflour, water and traditional sulguni cheese together until it becomes a stretchy dough-like consistency. It tastes absolutely delicious with Kharcho.
In Georgia, Kharcho often refers to a hearty tomato based beef soup, but in Samegrelo it is a filling and flavourful stew with walnuts and either beef or chicken. This really is a must try when you are in Zugdidi and was one of my favourite dishes in Georgia.
If you are not a cheese fan, you can also eat your kharcho with Ghomi. Another Megrelian dish that is similar to Elarji, but then prepared without the cheese. Do note that most Megrelians still add cheese to ghomi at the end to let it melt into the dish before they eat it.
Zugdidi main market
One of the reasons why Megrelian cuisine is so good is the use of fresh produce that you can find in the lively Zugdidi bazaar. The perfect place to get a sense of local life and buy some spices so you can try to make some of the dishes at home.
I had a go preparing Kharcho. The Georgian soup as well as the Megrelian walnut based stew. Both turned out pretty good, but it helped that I brought some ingredients with me that I bought at the local markets.
Adjika is a lovely spicy paste that can add flavour to a range of dishes. Although popular throughout Georgia it originates from Samegrelo and therefore Zugdidi bazaar is one of the best places to buy it. Beware that it will be more spicy if you ever tried a supermarket variety that is often watered down. At the Zugdidi market you can choose between red and green ajika as well as wet or dried versions.
Another key ingredient in a lot of Georgian dishes is a spice mix called Khmeli suneli. This you can buy all over Georgia if you like and you can find it in the Zugdidi bazaar as well. You can also buy Svan salt, a spiced salt mix from Svaneti.
Rukhi is one of the oldest villages near Zugdidi and famous for the medieval Rukhi castle built by Levan Dadiani. He built the fortress near Zugdidi and the Enguri river to protect Zugdidi from invaders.
A visit to the ruins of Rukhi castle is an easy half day trip from Zugdidi. Nowadays the castle is right at the border with Abkhazia. From the top of the ruins you have great views into the break away state.
Rukhi Soviet mosaics
I came to Rukhi to see the Rukhi castle, but I loved Rukhi most of all because of its beautiful Soviet mosaics. The mosaics made me look further into Rukhi’s history and in Soviet times it was an important tea planting area.
The village had a cultural house, a cinema, a library and several schools. All beautifully decorated with the iconic Soviet mosaics. When I was there a lot of these buildings looked abandoned, but the mosaics are still there.
If you are interested in seeing the mosaics, you can simply walk from the Rukhi castle along the main road through the village. At the school is a beautiful mosaic of children playing. Opposite the school is an orthodox church, the old cinema and the former palace of culture with more beautiful mosaics
Zugdidi Georgia travel tips
How to get to Zugdidi Georgia
Zugdidi is easy to reach by minibus from either Tbilisi (5 – 6 hours), Kutaisi (2 – 3 hours) or Batumi (2 – 3 hours).
The most comfortable way to travel from Tbilisi to Zugdidi is by train. The day train takes about 6 hours and there is also a very slow night train. The night train from Tbilisi is convenient if you want to travel directly onwards to Mestia. Minivans at the station are waiting for the arrival of the train and directly leave once full.
Hopefully I have convinced you to spend at least one day in Zugdidi before moving onwards.
Where to sleep
For those on a very tight budget there are the dormitories at Moon hostel. However, I can truly recommend spending just a little bit more to experience heartwarming Georgian hospitality at Shorena Guesthouse. Guesthouse Levan II Dadiani also gets good reviews.
Where to eat
Zugdidi is a great destination if you love Georgian food and the unique Megrelian cuisine. Diaroni restaurant is without doubt the best restaurant in Zugdidi that serves all the Megrelian classics such as Elarji, Kharcho and Ghomi.
When to visit
The best time to visit Zugdidi and Samegrelo is spring and autumn when the temperatures are pleasant. Summers can be warm, but this is the best time to go hiking in Svaneti and the Caucasus mountains north of Zugdidi.
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