On the border of Europe and Asia lies the region known as the Caucasus, and while Iran, Russia and Turkey form part of the area’s mountainous ranges, the focus of its central plains falls mainly on Georgia and Armenia (and Azerbaijan).
Armenia was occupied by the Soviets from 1920—and Georgia from 1921—until independence in 1991 and as a result, both countries have remained relatively isolated and largely unknown. Yet word of the area has been gaining momentum as history enthusiasts and diehard trekkers have been itching to explore a region that has long been (and still is in parts) off-limits and fought over.
Both countries are notable for their abundance of churches and monasteries, as well as landscapes steeped in rich history dating back to ancient times with periods of Persian, Byzantine and Ottoman rule. Georgia and Armenia were also the first nations to adopt Christianity as their state religion in the early 4th century, and Yerevan, Armenia is considered to be one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Any itinerary here, therefore, is laden with visits to the most spectacular and ancient of religious sites and ruins, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage listed.
While many historical buildings—and cultural traditions—were destroyed during the Soviet occupation, many have been rebuilt and reinstated. Old Soviet ways remain and you’ll see its influence in everyday life. (Speaking Russian here is helpful.) You’ll sense an older generation nostalgic for the Soviet era and a younger one trying to rebuild a country left scarred by the occupation. Despite the struggle however, both Georgia and Armenia are growing, and their capital cities serve as testaments to their progress.
Georgia: Preserved Heritage, Outdoor Haven
Tbilisi is thriving, yet modern additions like funky wine bars, high-end fashion outlets and the hillside Mtatsminda Park do not overshadow its deep-rooted and intact historical hubs. Lose yourself here in the old town’s winding alleyways. Marvel at the gateways, courtyards, abandoned churches and the wonky, crumbling houses with their old and delicate décor. Stroll the cobblestone roads around revived churches, mosques and synagogues, and experience the soothing traditions of the Sulfur Baths. Take the cable car up to the ruins of the Narikala Fortress for an incredible panoramic view of the city. Looking out over its rooftops and glistening new additions sitting side by side is an excellent way to understand its mixed modern-day persona.
Sioni and Mtatsminda Church, with its sweeping views, and the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi, are the best options for those wanting to church hop. Stick around and you might catch a ceremony, or be invited by the locals to feast on dumplings after a service.
Outside of Tbilisi lies a diverse landscape of mountains and valley vistas. Travellers mainly head north to Kazbegi, taking the famous, scenic Military Highway to get there. You’ll find many a hardcore hiker tackling the steep ridges; however, for those looking for something more manageable, the climb to Gergeti Trinity Church begins with a stroll through one of the villages before the slow, winding climb up the hillside.
Kakheti, southeast of Tbilisi, is said to be one of the oldest wine regions in the world. The area is home to hidden monasteries in hillsides and quiet villages, giving you the opportunity to tour various wineries.
Armenia: Artistic Capital and Barren Land
The capital, Yerevan, is a small city with art and culture in abundance. Beautifully decorated cafés line most of its main streets; edgy bars pulse at night; and all day, the city’s National Gallery in Republic Square displays various artworks, a genocide memorial museum and a huge library.
Most notably, the terraces of The Cascade attract the crowds. Completed in 1980, it’s simply a giant stairway of art. Modern designs and structures line a series of steps and ledges, including giant carvings, sculptures and installations. Each level of The Cascade also hosts various art museums and gallery rooms and at the very top stands the Mother Armenia statue erected in in 1967 (replacing the one of Stalin).
Outside of Yerevan, Armenia remains largely untouched and sparsely populated landscape, with tucked away villages and a more barren landscape. Nearby sites include Lake Sevan, the famous Echmiadzin Cathedral and the ancient Roman temple of Garni and provide some great day trips from the city.
A region plagued by civil and ethic wars and political territorial disputes, Georgia and Armenia are now both accessible and fascinatingly open. With their laid-back lifestyle, amazing cuisine and preserved historical treasures, now is the time to experience the cultural and natural landscapes of two countries still finding their modern voices.
Come and experience it for yourself on the Best of Georgia & Armenia with G Adventures. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours—check out our small group trips here.