Oh Georgia, you stole my heart. After our trip to Tbilisi last year, I knew we will be back to explore this beautiful and unique country more. So here we are again, in the land that is a home to Caucasus Mountain villages, Black Sea beaches and the birth place of wine. This time we are visiting Kutaisi, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities.
If you wish to read more about Tbilisi, you may be interested in my other articles: Your Complete Guide to Tbilisi, Best Restaurants In Tbilisi Recommended By Locals, or 13 Most Instagrammable Places in Tbilisi.
1. Basic facts about Kutaisi
Kutaisi is built on the banks of the Rioni River and is one of the most ancient cities in the world. Can you believe it was founded around 4 millenniums ago? The city has a rich history, as it was the hub of multiple conflicts between Georgian kings and Russian and Ottoman rulers. It was also an industrial centre when Georgia formed a part of the Soviet Union. The city was political, economical and cultural heart of the country until 1122, when Tbilisi took that role over. Nowadays, Kutaisi is an important industrial centre, producing trucks, pumps, mining machinery, textiles (especially silk), foodstuffs, and other consumer goods. And of course, it’s a touristic point on the Georgian map, especially since WIZZ Air started operating from Kutaisi International Airport in 2012.
Currency & payments in Georgia
The official local currency is Georgian lari. Majority of hotels, markets, restaurants and points of sales accept payments in cash or with debit and credit cards. Be prepared that smaller places or family run vineyards accept only cash. ATMs are available in many places in the city and the exchange rate is the same in all of them.
You should however be careful with the FX of your own bank. Since lari is not among the main currency group, it will be most likely converted to EUR or USD first and then to your local currency (if this is none of those). Usually those exchange rates are not low so I would recommend either have a card in one of those currencies or ideally, use account like Revolut which has very narrow currency spreads.
Transportation & wifi
The city is rather small, so you will be able to get to many places just by walking. Taxis are available all around Kutaisi and it’s a very convenient way of transportation. It’s also really affordable when comparing the rates to western European countries. Taxi from the airport to city centre costs around 10 EUR for a 30 km ride and 5 km ride through the city costs around 5 lari (1,5 EUR). Drivers are friendly and candid, but be prepared they may not speak English. The most used language, except Georgian of course, is Russian.
When it comes to wifi I would recommend to purchase a local sim card already at the airport. The selling point is right at the exit from the arrivals terminal and the cost varies by provider but you should not pay more than 15 EUR per 8GB. There are also cheaper options (less GB) available.
2. When is the best time to plan your visit?
While in Tbilisi all the attractions, restaurants and bars are open all year round, it is not the case of Kutaisi. Here you can notice seasonality so some of the places you may want to visit may be closed during winter time or can operate in a shortened time schedule. I would advice spring and autumn as best time to visit Kutaisi. The weather is pleasant and mostly sunny with low probability of rain. Summers in Kutaisi are very hot and temperatures easily exceed 40C what makes sightseeing more challenging.
If you are interested in the wine tourism, it’s good to know that most of the vineyards are closed from December until March. The best time for wine adventures is November, when all the vineyards are still open but not so packed with tourists. It’s also the time of the year when winemakers are celebrating the finish of wine harvest. Good fun and best wines guaranteed!
3. Kutaisi must see places
Bagrati Cathedral is an ancient architectural landmark of Kutaisi, overlooking the city on the hill of Ukimerioni. It’s named after Bagrat III, the first king of a united Georgia and holds special importance in the country’s history, as an architectural and cultural monument. The cathedral is placed in the city, just a short walk form Colchis Fountain.
The Gelati Monastery was founded in 1106 and was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. For a long time is was the main cultural and scientific centre in old Georgia, together with its famous Academy that gathered the greatest Georgian scientists, theologians and philosophers. You can still enter both, the monastery and the academy, which is located just next door. The Gelati Monastery has preserved a great number of spectacular murals and manuscripts and it’s also a burial place of one of the greatest Georgian kings, David the Builder. The enter is free of charge.
The fountain is located in the city centre and presents golden figures in shapes of horses, rams, tigers and other animals. Take a closer look as among them you can also spot a figure of tamada, a toast-maker during Georgian feast, greeting guests with a horn of wine in his hand. Not many people know that the fountain is an important symbol of Georgia. It represents enlarged versions of tiny figures made of gold and bronze which were found at archaeological diggings all over the country.
Another architectural gem located only 6 km from Kutaisi and dated back to 8th century. Motsameta attracts many also because of the legend it holds. If one crawls three times under the ark and makes a wish while touching the hallows, the wish will come true. Try it by yourself and thank me later ;)
Prometheus Cave is another Georgian gem. It’s located in Tskaltubo municipality in the Kumistavi village, 22 km away from Kutaisi. You can easily get there with a taxi. There are 22 underground halls found in total and 6 of them are open for tourists. It is possible to walk through the length of 1420 meters in the cave’s territory, visit the halls and even enjoy a boat tour through underground river. Unfortunately during our visit, due to the rain and high water level, boat tours were not operating. The ticket to Prometheus Cave costs 23 lari (7,3 EUR) per person and includes an English speaking guide. You need to plan around 1 hour for your visit.
Kutaisi Botanical Garden is located in the city centre, on the right bank of River Rioni. It was founded in 1969 and plants were brought from Botanical Gardens in Batumi, Sokhumi, Tbilisi, and part of species from Botanical Gardens of the former Soviet Union. Nowadays, this beautiful city garden holds about 700 plant species of trees and shrubs from all the floristic regions of the world. Beautiful place for a relaxing stroll.
Tskaltubo abandoned sanatorium
This decaying remains of a once-luxurious Soviet spa town has been a long time on my travel list. In its days of prosperity, Tskaltubo was one of the Soviet Union’s flagship spa resorts. Local therapeutic mineral springs and radon water therapy has been attracting many. At the time of the peak, four trains from Moscow arrived in town every day bringing visitors from the whole Soviet Union on health retreats. The whole complex consisted of 19 impressive sanatoriums and 9 bathhouses located in a large park. Even though the buildings are now abandoned and in a poor condition, you can still easily notice its former beauty and architectural momentum. It is possible to visit the place but it’s good to know few things before going there.
- Tskaltubo is located 12 km away from Kutaisi and you can get there with a local bus or a taxi.
- You need to plan at least 2 hours for your visit as buildings are scattered all over a park and you need some time to walk or drive from one to another and to explore it.
- Visiting abandoned buildings is legal and free of charge, but you need to take a proper responsibility for your actions. These buildings are not in a great condition, so always take your safety as priority and avoid unnecessary risk. No picture is worth your safety or health.
- Some of the buildings are currently inhabited by refugees. You will notice that immediately from the laundry hanging outside and electricity wires. Just keep a proper distance and respect their privacy.
- Famous Stalin’s Bath is placed in the building that is currently operating as a SPA. Once you enter the place ask the staff working there and they will show you the bath room. Really worth seeing!
- Some of the old abandoned buildings were just recently bought by a Georgian billionaire, and will be most probably restored soon. Those buildings are officially not allowed to enter but the problem at the time of our visit was, there where no visible signs or fences. The best solution is to ask employees of the operating SPA for the advice. This is what we did and we were told which buildings we can legally enter and which are already a private property.
Wild hot springs
Located literally in the middle of nowhere, wild hot springs with magnificent mountain view are a must see place when in Kutaisi. It is not that easy to find it so I marked that place on the map above. Even though it’s a wild spot, you will find there a wooden changing room, table and benches. You can also meet locals enjoying drinks while having a bath, but it should not be crowded. Just remember to keep this place clean. I noticed some rubbish and plastic bottles around and it made me really sad. Nature is giving us its best and we should use it respectfully.
4. Georgian food you need to try
Georgia may be a small country, but there is an abundance of delicious food you will not find anywhere else in the world. Local cuisine is reach in ingredients, full of spices and surprises with unusual combinations. It perfectly uses all the western and eastern influences the country was experiencing over the centuries. It’s undoubtedly among the most delicious cuisines I have ever tried. A mix of flavours from Greece and the Mediterranean, as well as influences from Turkey and Persia.
What you should try:
Shotis puri – traditional bread made in a round clay oven, called “tone”. The dough is then stuck around the walls of the oven and baked. Only skilled bakers are able to achieve the delicious bread.
Khinkali (Georgian Dumplings) – Beautifully twisted knobs of dough, typically stuffed with meat and spices, then served boiled or steamed. The trick with khinkali is to eat them without making a mess or spilling the hot broth that is inside of the dumpling. Be like a Georgian and do not use cutlery. You need to grab the dumpling with your hand by the top handle and turn it upside down. Take small bites from the side and slurp some broth. It’s so good!
Lobio – My second favorite dish from the Georgian selection. The consistency and taste of lobio varies widely. It’s made of beans, containing coriander, walnuts, garlic and onion and can be served hot or cold. It’s most delicious accompanied by a round of mchadi, which is a Georgian corn bread.
Khachapuri – also spelled as Hachapuri is a traditional Georgian dish of cheese-filled bread served hot. It’s favourite throughout Georgia and involves putting the egg into the hot cheese to achieve a perfect taste.
Qababi (Kebabs) – Grilled minced meat perfectly spiced up and wrapped in a thin lavash-like bread. A must try for every meat lover.
Badrijani – This dish is also known as nigvziani badrijani. It’s made of fried eggplant stuffed with spiced walnut and garlic paste, often topped with pomegranate seeds.
Georgian cheese and yogurt – if there is one food that Georgians cannot live without, I would say it’s cheese. And I am not surprised. Cheese in Georgia will take you to the next level of tasteness. Try dambalkhcho, which is a traditional meal from Pshavi region. It gained the status of cultural heritage due to its method of preparation. It’s made from buttermilk cottage cheese that remains after churning butter. Then dried and kept in clay pots until the cottage cheese develops special kind of mold which makes it spicy. It takes few months to prepare it, but the result is worth all the waiting.
5. Best restaurants in Kutaisi
We have tested quite a few food and wine places in Kutaisi so here are my top recommendations.
El Depo – this is the place where locals go. Obviously, you will meet other tourists there too, but most of the tables will be occupied by Georgians. This is always the best recommendation, right? El Depo is open 24/7 and we tried it on different days and different time of the day, and the food was always same delicious. Try Georgian kebab and khinkali – traditional Georgian dumplings. All fresh made and so good that even the biggest portion will disappear from your plate.
Palaty – another great place in the centre to try Georgian cuisine. Very pleasant interior and varied menu, perfect for a nice lunch and to try some local specialities.
Sisters – Relatively new place on the Kutaisi’s culinary map. The interior will literally leave you speechless. I loved every single detail of this cozy decorated, loft style restaurant. Menu is a mix of traditional and modern Georgian food, and what you definitely cannot miss is the selection of Georgian cheese.
Sapere – This winery will be a perfect not only for a wine break but also for dinner. The menu offers variety of Georgian dishes, salads, soups and probably the biggest wine selection you can find in town. With a kind help of a sommelier you will enjoy quite a nice journey through Georgian wine lands. A must go to place in Kutaisi.
Toma’s Wine Cellar – this place you will see as the top recommendation in majority of food guides in Kutaisi. Indeed, the food is absolutely delicious, homemade, fresh and definitely worth going to. What can be confusing is the name of the place. It says “wine cellar”, but in fact it’s not a winery where you will test various types of wine. Toma’s Wine Cellar offers fixed menu with two types of house wine, red and white. Also, the wine cellar that you will be walk through is an exhibition and not a real place where the wine is produced. It’s good to keep that in mind once going there just to position your expectations correctly.
Anyway, I truly recommend this place if this is your first time in Georgia and you want to be walked through Georgian food. Toma, the owner, is truly the kindest person that will explain you everything about Georgian cuisine and wine. Toma’s Wine Cellar is a bit away from the centre so it’s good to take a taxi and to book your table upfront.
6. Getting to Kutaisi
Since there is a direct WIZZ air flight to Kutaisi from many European cities, this is the cheapest and fastest option. We paid for our tickets 42 EUR per person, and the flight took 3 hours 20 minutes one way. The airport in Kutaisi is located around 30 km from the city centre and you can get there with a bus or a taxi. The bus ticket costs 2 euro per person, taxi costs around 10 euro. A really nice surprise is a small bottle of Georgian wine you get at the passport control as your Georgian welcome gift. If only other countries do it too!
7. Where to stay in Kutaisi
Kutaisi’s hotel base is not that developed like, for comparison, in Tbilisi. You will notice that easily once you check any booking portal. There are plenty of hostels and similar standard accommodation, but when it comes to a bit higher standard, the choice is very limited. What I can advise it to avoid the cheapest options and go for something from the middle price range. We have chosen Gala Boutique Hotel. Although it is not a design boutique hotel in the western definition, the hotel is clean and the staff working there is really friendly. Rooms are simply furnished and the hotel is centrally located, just a short walk from many bars, restaurants and Kutaisi’s attractions.