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 Vardzia should be on your Georgia bucketlist as its the biggest, majestic, and simply amazing among other cave towns of the country.
Visiting Vardzia – understanding history
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.
Visiting Vardzia – Everything you need to know
Vardzia Opening Hours
Vardzia Opening Hours have changed since I last visited the cave complex. Before it was closed on Mondays, but with new schedule, it’s open every day. However, the times changed according to the season, so make sure you plan your visit accordingly:
- March 1 to May 1: 10 am – 6 pm
- May 1 to October 1: 10 am – 7 pm
- October 1 to November 15: 10 am – 6 pm
- November 15 to March 1: 10 am – 5 pm
Vardzia Entrance Fee
Similar to the opening hours, Vardzia entrance fee has changed and increased compared to last time I was there.
- Adults – 15 GEL
- Guide – 45 GEL
- Audio guide – 15 GEL
- Minibus service – 2 GEL
The minibus takes you to the very entrance of the trail to start the exploration. Its only a km away from the ticket office and you can easily walk; however, its a bit steep one.
What to wear
Visiting Vardzia means a lot of walking on hilly and uneven surfaces, therefore wear comfortable shoes and clothes. The complex has short tunnels, steep walkaways, and uneven stairs. When visiting Vardzia, remember that it’s a one-way path so you don’t take the same path as you entered the monastery complex. To exit the area, you’ll need to walk down those cave-carved steep stairs nestled sometimes outside, sometimes inside a tunnel. Afterward, there’s a flat path to walk on.
Even though its a monastery complex, there are no strict rules on clothing. However, dress modestly and cover knees and shoulders as usual when visiting churches and monasteries across Georgia. Shorts and miniskirts are prohibited according to the signs at the entrance, but I have seen people in such clothes and no one said a word.
When entering the church within the complex though, men should wear long pants and women long skirts and cover the head with a scarf as usual. Wrap-around skirts and scarfs are available at the entrance of the church.
What to bring
Bring lots of water if you’ll be visiting Vardzia during the summer months. During the day it gets quite hot here. If you are doing the trip on your own using marshrutkas, I would advise to pack a light lunch too. However, there are several cafes and magazines at the entrance of the complex if you’ll need to buy snacks or drinks. The prices might be high, as expected from a touristic place.
How to get to Vardizia
Unfortunately, Georgia doesn’t have a good inland transportation system, and getting to Vardzia is a bit of a pain and requires a hassle. There are no direct buses or minibusses from Tbilisi to Vardzia. Visiting Vardzia is also possible as a day trip from Kutaisi, but similar to Tbilisi, there are no direct buses. Your best bet with public transportation is to change buses in Akhaltsikhe either from Tbilisi or Kutaisi. Alternatively, if you’ll be spending some time in Borjomi, you can also plan a visit to Vardzia from Borjomi via Akhaltsikhe.
If you plan on visiting Vardzia as a day trip from Tbilisi, the best option for you is to book an organized tour that stops at Rabati in Akhaltsikhe and Borjomi. Alternatively, you can rent a car and drive on your own, or rent a car with a driver at GoTrip.
Tbilisi to Vardiza with public transport via Akhaltsikhe
If you decide to use public transportation to visit Vardzia, find the Tbilisi to Akhaltsikhe minibuses at Didube Bus Station. They depart every 30-60 minutes or when full each day and the journey takes around 3 hours. Ticket costs 10 GEL.
Marshrutkas from Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia depart daily three times a day leaving at 9 am, 10 am, and 3 pm. The ticket costs 5 GEL and the trip lasts for another 1:30 hr.
Kutaisi to Vardzia with public transporation via Akhaltsikhe
If you want to make a day trip from Kutaisi to Vardzia, find the marshrutka to Akhaltsikhe at Kutaisi’s bus station near McDonald’s. Currently, there are only two daily buses leaving at 8:20 am and 1 pm. The price is 12 GEL and it takes around 3:30 hr. Then, change to Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia at the bust station
Borjomi to Vardzia marshrutka via Akhaltsikhe
To cut the journey time on short and also add one place to your Georgia itinerary, visiting Vardzia from Borjomi could be a nice option. Marshrutkas from Borjomi to Akhlatsikhe depart daily from the bust stop in front of the Municipality. The first one leaves Borjomi at 8:35 am and takes only one hour to arrive in Akhlatiskhe. Then, as mentioned above, take another one to Vardzia.
Getting back from Vardzia to Akhaltsikhe
Marshrutkas from Vardzia to Akhlatsikhe depart from the entrance of the complex near the cafes and shops three times a day: 9 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm. Therefore, make sure you don’t miss the last van. Otherwise, you’ll have to find an accommodation in Vardzia or nearby villages.
Where to stay in Vardzia
The town Vardzia itself has a limited number of hotels. This part of the country is very special and remote, so for the full local experience and their hospitality, I would recommend to spend a night or two at a homestay or guesthouses. However, I will enlist several options for every budget traveler.
Vardzia Resort – if you are looking for a bit of luxury with an outdoor swimming pool, a bar, and comfortable rooms with flat TV and other amenities.
Hotel Vardzia Terrace – a budget-friendly hotel only 2.1 km drive away from the cave monastery. It offers typically equipped rooms and a view of the complex from its terrace.
SADA Guesthouse – located only 300 meters from the cave monastery, this guesthouse features a nice garden and typical rooms.
Guest House Alexandre – this is where I stayed during my last visit to Vardzia. Located in a small village of Tmogvi, only 6 km away from Vardzia, this family-run homestay is ideal for those who would like to relax in a peaceful environment and meet local hosts that welcome you with huge smiles and open hearts. Alexandre has four family rooms with a private bathroom that can accommodate 1-3 people in each room.
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
– 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