The ancient rock-cut city of Vardzia is an unforgettable sight in Georgia. The cave city sits high above the Mtkvari River deep in a rural valley of sandy-coloured rugged rock. From afar, it appears like a montage of hollow windows but, in fact, it’s the remains of one of Georgia’s largest cave monasteries and cities of the 12th century. A day trip to Vardzia is certainly a highlight from my time in Georgia and it’s surprisingly quite accessible despite it feeling quite remote.
Many people reach the ancient city on a tour, however, it’s also possible to plan a day trip to Vardzia as an independent and budget traveller. Here’s a comprehensive guide on getting to Vardzia independently, whether you plan on doing it within a day from Tbilisi or have the time to stop for the night.
What is Vardzia?
The Vardzia cave complex in south western Georgia is the largest and most impressive of the ancient cave towns in Georgia. Construction first began in the 12th century and continued to expand under Queen Tamar into one of the largest cave cities in the region. At its peak it was home to up to 50, 000 people within its 6000 rooms and for many years it was safe from impending Mongol attacks.
An earthquake in the late 13th century destroyed much of the city but monks continued to live within the caves until a Persian attack in 1551. It was completely abandoned in the 16th century when the region came under Ottoman rule.
The caves and tunnels had a throne room, a church, a wine cellar and a bell tower and remnants of these structures can still be seen at the complex today. The Church of the Dormition is the most impressive part of the site with intricate paintings, archways and hanging bells.
For the most part, you are free to roam through the tunnels and in the caves. The Church is one of the places you’ll come across at the beginning and then you can make your way through the place at your leisure. At the other side of the complex, you’ll find a tunnel that leads to the bottom and loops back to the entrance and ticket office.
Essential information for a day trip to Vardzia
Opening hours: Every day from 10am until 7pm
Entry ticket: The entrance ticket is 7 Lari (AU$3.50) and there’s also the option of paying 1 Lari for a vehicle transfer to the main entrance which is just up the hill.
Audio guide: An audio guide is available for independent travellers and costs 10 Lari (AU$5).
How long to spend at Vardzia: 2-3 hours is enough time to wander the cave city independently.
What to do in Vardzia
You can easily spend 2-3 hours wandering around the cave city of Vardzia, especially if you want to take your time and enjoy every corner of the complex. If you’re short on time, you can spend just an hour at the caves which will be enough time to take a one-way walk through the main caves and churches before heading back to the parking lot.
If you’ve hired your own driver or taxi, there are also a couple of other sights in the area worth seeing. Just before Vardzia is Tmogvi Castle, a hilltop fortress dating back to the 9th century. Back at the road junction between the main road to Akhaltsikhe and the side road to Vardzia, you’ll find Khertvisi Fortress, an impressive structure built between the 10th and 14th centuries. This would turn it into a full day tour from Akhaltsikhe by private transport.
How to get to Vardzia
Many people join an organised tour from Tbilisi which is often a day trip to Vardzia. There are many tour agencies that offer these day trips and in high season, they have daily departures. They cost from around 120 lari (AU$60) per person depending on how many people join and generally, take 12 hours return trip with a stop in Borjomi and other sights on the way.
However, it’s also possible to get to Vardzia independently, either on your own day trip or as an overnight or weekend-style trip from Tbilisi. Vardzia is not very well serviced by marshrutkas or public minivans from major cities, as it really is just a tiny settlement with very few inhabitants. The best way to reach Vardzia by marshrutka is by transferring in Akhaltsikhe, the closest major transport hub and only 1.5 hours from Vardzia. Here’s how you can plan your overnight or day trip to Vardzia using marshrutka.
Marshrutkas or minivans leave Tbilisi’s Didube station whenever they’re full or at least once an hour from 8am until 7pm. The journey from Tbilisi to Akhaltsikhe takes around four hours and costs 10 Lari (AU$5).
There are four marshrutka that travel between Kutaisi and Akhaltsikhe every day. There are around three departures in the morning and one in the early afternoon, but you’d have to double check the exact times. The journey takes around three to four hours and costs 8 Lari (AU$4).
Alternatively, you can take a more frequent marshrutka between Kutaisi and Khashuri and then change to another marshrutka to Akhaltsikhe.
There are regular marshrutka and buses travelling the one hour trip between Borjomi and Akhaltsikhe. You should be able to find a service every 30 minutes and it will cost around 4 Lari (AU$2).
From Borjomi, there are almost hourly services onwards to Tbilisi.
From Gyumri in Armenia
This might surprise you but there is a daily marshrutka from Gyumri in Armenia across the border to Akhaltsikhe in Georgia. The minivan leaves at 10am and costs 4000 AMD (AU$13). The journey takes four hours and the border crossing is a breeze for nationalities who don’t need a visa.
I went to the marshrutka parking lot in Gyumri (labelled as Avtokayan on Maps.Me) the day before to secure a ticket but the drivers all told me to just arrive in the morning at 9.30. I managed to get a seat just fine on the day, but I was travelling in November which is low season. Still, very few tourists use this route as most people tend to cross between Yerevan and Tbilisi instead.
Once you’ve found yourself in Akhaltsikhe, there are four daily departures between Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia. The marshrutkas leave at 10.30am, 12.30pm, 3pm and 4pm, although this changes occasionally outside of the main travel season, depending on demand.
The journey takes 1.5 hours and costs 5 Lari (AU$2.50). You have to buy a ticket from a counter inside the main building and the marshrutkas just park up outside.
From Vardzia back to Akhaltsikhe, there are departures at 9am, 1pm and 3pm.
How to travel from Tbilisi to Vardzia and back in one day by public transport
If you want to complete your own day trip to Vardzia from Tbilisi, you’ll be in for a long one and you’ll also need the marshrutkas to leave on time. But, you can make it work.
To do this, you’ll have to take the earliest marshrutka from Tbilisi to Akhaltsikhe which start from 8am. This should get you to Akhaltsikhe in time for the 12.30pm marshrutka to Vardzia. You’ll arrive in Vardzia at 2pm and you’ll only have 1 hour there to see the complex.
Then, you’ll need to make sure that you take the last marshrutka from Vardzia back to Akhaltsikhe at 3pm. From Akhaltsikhe, you’ll be able to get one of the late afternoon marshrutkas back to Tbilisi. You’ll be back in Tbilisi at around 9pm.
Read next: 11 Free Things to Do in Tbilisi
Where to stay in Vardzia
There are a few guesthouses in Vardzia to stay if you prefer the quiet nature of the village. This also means you can see the cave complex before or after the day-trippers have left.
Guesthouse Imedi | This a cosy place with a lovely garden and a delicious breakfast. The owners are beautiful people providing the best of Georgian hospitality. It’s a few kilometres away from the actual cave complex, but it’s within walking distance to Tmogvi Castle. Private rooms start from 50 Lari (AU$25), check availability here.
Taoskari Hotel | This is the closest hotel to the Vardzia cave complex. They have a nice garden and outdoor swimming pool for the summer, but it’s best feature is the balcony views of the caves. Check prices here.
The small town of Akhaltsikhe may not be the most exciting place to spend your time, but it’s close proximity to Vardzia as well as being home to the beautiful Rabati Castle makes it worthwhile. It’s the perfect town to use as an overnight stop between Tbilisi and Vardzia and it has all the amenities and tourist infrastructure you’ll need.
There’s a major supermarket across from the marshrutka station. You’ll also find some high-quality Georgian restaurants around the guesthouses at the bottom of the Rabati Castle. I ate at Mimino Restaurant a couple of times and can highly recommend.
Where to stay in Akhaltsikhe
Considering it’s a small town, there are actually plenty of good accommodation options in Akhaltsikhe. I loved the place I stayed and I think it was one of the better value places from my time in Georgia.
Kessane Guesthouse | This place has large, modern rooms with a kettle, desk and bean bags. The Wi-Fi was very strong and the family owners provide a delicious breakfast in their restaurant across the street. It’s just a five-minute walk up to the castle entrance and an eight-minute walk down to the marshrutka station. It cost me 22 Lari (AU$11) for a room, check availability here.
What to do in Akhaltsikhe
The Rabati Castle steals the show in Akhaltsikhe and is the town’s main attraction. This medieval fortress and worshipping complex was originally built in the 9th century. It underwent an extensive reconstruction effort a decade ago and certainly appears far less ancient now. Still, the gardens inside are beautifully designed and the viewpoints from the main tower and ramparts offer sweeping vistas.
The entrance ticket costs 6 Lari (AU$3) and is certainly worth a couple of hours of your time if you’re staying overnight or have some spare time in Akhaltsikhe.
If you still have more time, you can take a taxi to Sapara Monastery, just 10km from Akhaltsikhe town. It’s a lovely complex on top of a hill covered in dense forest. A taxi will charge around 25 Lari (AU$12.50) round trip.
Travelling around Georgia and the Caucasus?
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- A Complete Guide to the Mestia to Ushguli Trek
- The Ultimate Travel Guide to Georgia
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