Despite the fact that Georgia is a relatively small country, it is quite diverse offering unique sites to its visitors. Famous for breathtaking nature, historical sights, medieval defense towers, and tasty cuisine, the country has something to offer to any type of traveler. If some of you are keen on discovering unusual sites, then visiting caves in Georgia should be on your bucket list. There are several cave towns in Georgia from which Vardzia is the biggest, majestic, and simply amazing.
A small history lesson about Vardzia caves
In the late 1100s, Georgia was withstanding the aggression of the Mongols, one of the most destructive powers Europe has seen. Queen Tamar, or King Tamar as locals call her, ordered the creation of this underground shrine in 1185.
Dug on the side of the Erusheti Mountain, it was quite a hard job for many workers. However, the legend has it that King Tamar distributed a pick-ax to the workers which had gold in the middle and promised that once done, the gold will be theirs.
What distinguishes Vardzia from other caves is its design. Vardzia served as a functioning city during the invasion. The complex has 13 stores and contains around 6,000 rooms, a throne room, wine cellars, a church, and a bell tower. Additionally, there are terraces for cultivation with obscure irrigation systems.
It’s believed that the only access to this sanctuary was through a secret tunnel leading from the Mtkvari River. Moreover, some of the rooms of Vardzia lead nowhere in order to disorientate the enemy.
Unfortunately, the glorious days of Vardzia didn’t last long. Even though it was safe from Mongol invasions, a devastating earthquake in 1283 destroyed the majority of the town. However, a monastery community continued to live here until the Persian attack in 1551. Some of the important cultural relics such as the famous fresco of the Virgin Mary, doors made of gold and steel, and many cultural treasures of that time were lost.
And when Ottomans took over the region in the 16th century, inhabitants fully abandoned Vardzia cave monastery.
Today, Vardzia is part of a state heritage reserve and on a tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sights along with Khertivisi Fortress. You can wander through around 300 apartments, rooms, and tunnels, as well as visit the church and admire some of the most important wall paintings that still remain in its best shape.
The legend of the derivation of the name
King George III together with his counterparts and daughter Tamar, was hunting in the area. Entertained with a fun activity, they completely forgot about the child, who got lost in the caves when playing around.
When realized that Tamar was missing, the hunting has stopped and everyone started to search for her. One of the huntsmans started to shout: “Where are you, Tamar?”.
He finally heard Tamar calling from inside the cave: “Aq Var Dzia!” which translates into English as “I am here Uncle!”. Hence the name Vardzia.
How to get to Vardzia
Unfortunately, Georgia doesn’t have a good bad inland transportation system. There are no direct buses or minibusses from Tbilisi to Vardzia. Therefore, the best way to get to Vardzia is to rent a car and drive on your own and stop whenever and wherever you want.
Alternatively, you can go by minibus from Tbilisi to Akhaltsikhe from Didube Bus Station and then take another minibus from Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia. However, the schedule of the minibusses might be inconsistent, so be prepared to stay overnight in Akhaltsikhe.
Vardzia caves opening hours & ticket price
- Opening hours: every day from 10 a.m – 7 p.m. Closed on Mondays
- Entrance Fee: Adults – 10 GEL; School children – 1 GEL; Guide – 45 GEL; Audio guide – 15 GEL
Prepare for the trip
To ease your travel planning, check out all the posts about Georgia travel. Additionally, here are some of the websites and services I use when preparing for my next adventure anywhere in the world.
– Book affordable flights on Kiwi.com, a platform that shows the best routes and flight deals to your destination. There’s a money-back guarantee if you miss the flight!
– Check iVisa to see if you need a tourist visa to visit Georgia, how to apply online if applicable, or where’s the nearest embassy or consulate
– Find budget-friendly deals on all sorts of accommodation types on Booking and Agoda, or find a cool apartment on Airbnb and get $34 off on your first stay (my invite expires in 30 days after you sign up! )
– Pre-book a private car transfer from Tbilisi Airport to your hotel
– Buy the most flexible and budget-friendly travel insurance, SafetyWing, to cover all sorts of health problems on the road