Beautiful monasteries to visit in Georgia… combined with close-by must-see sights

Guide to visiting Georgia’s incredible Christian Orthodox churches and rock-hewn cave-monasteries

Often described as a nation at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, the country of Georgia lies in the heart of the Caucasus region. The many reasons why Georgia is such a beguiling place to visit include the warmth and friendliness of its people, the delectable food and wine, and the breathtaking landscapes and mountain views. This may be the ultimate travel writer’s cliché but with Georgia, it fits the mould. How many other countries hand out bottles of wine to tourists at passport control? (Although potential visitors will be disappointed to learn that this practice has now ceased). Georgia is also home to some of the world’s oldest and most captivating Christian Orthodox monasteries.

For many, the highlight of a holiday to Georgia is discovering the innumerable Orthodox churches and cave monasteries found in every corner of this Eurasian land. However, although its Orthodox monasteries are an integral part of any Georgia holiday, they are just one reason to visit Georgia. In some cases, it is more about the spectacular location rather than the monastery itself that makes a visit special. Georgia highlights include exploring the eclectic melting pot of Tbilisi, discovering the birthplace of wine, savouring mouthwatering Georgian cuisine, and seeing jaw-dropping scenery from canyon ravines to the mountains of the High Caucasus. 

There is a risk of ‘church burnout’ if your itinerary isn’t balanced, so, to address this and add variety, our guide to the best monasteries to visit in Georgia highlights other nearby places that can be incorporated into your itinerary, and also shouldn’t be missed. 

An introduction to Georgian monasteries

Georgia was an early adopter of Christianity which was brought to the region by St. Nino early in the 4th century. In the centuries that followed, the church prospered and hundreds of churches and monasteries were built, many in the iconic style seen today: blocky stone structures topped with a conical dome.

Religion wasn’t quashed altogether during Soviet times (from 1921 to 1991), but it was heavily discouraged. These days, however, in a new and independent Georgia, the church is thriving once more and over 80% of the population are members of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Spending time discovering these archetypal structures is a tremendous way to begin to understand this country and its people. 

Tbilisi church rooftops, Georgia
Churches dot the landscape of Old Tbilisi

The best monasteries and churches in and around Tbilisi

Although there is more to see in Tbilisi than its churches and monasteries, the Georgian capital is a good place to dip your toe into the country’s ecclesiastical offerings. One popular activity in Tbilisi is to take the cable from Rike Park, over the Mktvari River, across the Old Town and up to the Narikala Fortress. The short ride provides an alternative perspective of Tbilisi with a birds-eye view of some of the city’s distinctive churches. These include St. Virgin Mary Church of Norashen (which is actually an Armenian church) and Betlemi Lower Church. 

Impossible-to-miss Metekhi Church is perched on a cliffside overlooking the Mtkvari River and has become a symbol of Tbilisi. As well as being one of the must-see churches in Tbilisi, Mekekhi – or The Virgin Mary Assumption Church of Metekhi to give it its full name – is also among the oldest churches in Georgia. It is worth visiting to take in the superb vistas of the old town of Tbilisi from beneath the equally distinctive statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, traditionally considered to be Tbilisi’s founding father. 

In contrast, the immense modern Holy Trinity Cathedral (often called Sameba) was constructed in 1995, took nine years to build, and is one of the tallest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world.

A short drive from Tbilisi will bring you to the ancient Georgian city of Mtskheta. Mtskheta’s historical churches, including the majestic Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and the lovely Jvari Monastery, are listed by UNESCO as outstanding examples of medieval architecture in the Caucasus. Mtskheta is an attractive town and a very pleasant place for a stroll through the quiet streets; the perfect respite from busy Tbilisi.

Luxury tailor-made holidays to Georgia that feature Tbilisi: As an essential part of any holiday to the Caucasus, all of our Georgia suggested itineraries include Tbilisi. If you want to enjoy some of the best hotels Georgia has to offer, take a look at our Luxury Georgia holiday. Alternatively, our Classic Georgia holiday includes time at leisure in Tbilisi, allowing you to make the most of this spirited city. 

But Georgia is more than Tbilisi and some of the Caucasus’s more impressive monasteries are away from Georgia’s lively capital, many with magnificent settings…

The best monasteries and churches in Western Georgia

From the Mountains of Adjara to the Black Sea Coast, Western Georgia is both culturally and geographically diverse with plenty of attractions to include in your Georgia itinerary. Georgia’s second city, Kutaisi, is a good base from which to explore highlights such as Prometheus Cave and Okatse Canyon as well as some of Georgia’s remarkable monasteries. 

Bagrati Cathedral

An invigorating stroll from Kutaisi, the 11th-century historic Bagrati cathedral offers impressive views across the city. The medieval house of worship was at serious risk of being lost forever until it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It was subsequently reconstructed, only to be removed from the list after extensive renovations proved too controversial. Despite the modern-day fall from grace, Bagrati is still an imposing sight and well-worth seeing while in Kutaisi. 

Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi, Georgia
Bagrati Cathedral, Kutaisi

Gelati Monastery

A little further away, although still a very easy half-day excursion from Kutaisi, Gelati Monastery was founded in 1106 and is one of the largest medieval Orthodox monasteries in the country. For centuries Gelati was an important centre of culture in ancient Georgia. Unlike Bagrati, Gelati has retained its UNESCO status and is cited as a masterpiece of the Golden Age of medieval Georgia.

Above: Gelati Monastery

Motsameta Monastery

Close to Gelati and nestled in the hills above the Rioni River, Motsameta is a small but beautiful monastery built in the classic Caucasus style of round turrets and conical domes. Motsameta completes the trio of the best monasteries to visit in Kutaisi. 

Luxury tailor-made holidays to Georgia that feature the monasteries near Kutaisi: Georgia & The High Caucasus and Grand Tour of Georgia.

The best monasteries and churches in Kakheti and Eastern Georgia

The small, mountainous province of Kakheti is a definite must-visit on any holiday to Georgia. Although the region is home to some of the country’s appealing monasteries, it is perhaps best-known as Georgia’s wine region, and some of the nation’s finest vintages are produced in the region’s wineries with some using time-honoured methods that date back to Georgia’s discovery of wine-making 8,000 years ago. Matured in large terracotta pots called qvevri, these ancient methods are also responsible for producing some of today’s innovative and award-winning wines. 

Including Kakheti on your Georgia itinerary will enable you to visit some of the beautiful monasteries in Georgia while sampling the produce of some of Georgia’s finest wineries, at the same time admiring some spectacular scenery. 

Alaverdi Monastery

Two of Kakheti’s much-admired monasteries are Alaverdi and Ikalto. Against a backdrop of vineyards and rolling hills, the 11th century Alaverdi Monastery is surrounded by an impressive fortified wall. The monks at Alaverdi have been making wine here for centuries using qvevri buried in the ground and it’s possible to arrange a wine tasting session during your visit. 

Alaverdi Monastery in Georgia
Alaverdi Monastery

Ikalto Monastery

A short 11km drive from the one-time capital of the Kingdom of Kakheti, Telavi, lies Ikalto monastery which was founded in the 6th century by an Assyrian father. The medieval complex is famed for its ancient philosophical academy where Georgia’s national poet, Shota Rustaveli, is believed to have studied. The grounds are scattered with ancient qvevri, demonstrating the important link between monastery life and wine-producing in Georgia. 

Ikalto Monastery Kakheti Georgia
Traditional qvevri jars at Ikalto Monastery (image © Kathmandu & Beyond)

Other interesting places to discover in the Kakheti region include the charming town of Telavi with its traditional architecture and local atmosphere, the vineyard-dotted scenery of the Alazani Valley, and several other significant monasteries including Nekresi monastery, the site of an early Georgian church, and the fortified citadel at Gremi which served as the region’s capital from the mid-15th century to the mid-17th century.

Gremi Monastery (left) and Nekresi Monastery (right)

Also not-to-be-missed in Kakheti is the ‘Tuscan’ hill town of Sighnaghi, considered by many to be Georgia’s prettiest town. The restored medieval settlement has a fabulous location on a ridge overlooking the wineries of the Alazani Valley framed by the snowy peaks of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. 

Davit Gareja Monastery Complex

No holiday to Georgia is complete without a visit to its unique rock-hewn cave monasteries, particularly the Davit Gareja monastery complex in Kakheti’s southern reaches. This series of Orthodox churches and monasteries were cut into the rock by the Syrian fathers in the 6th century, and the complex enjoys an extraordinary semi-desert landscape close to the Azeri border. Founded in the first part of the 6th-century, highlights include the Lavra and Udabno monasteries with their superbly executed frescoes. 

David Gareja Monastery Complex from above and the cave frescoes

Luxury tailor-made holidays to Georgia that feature the monasteries in and around Kakheti: Classic Georgia, Grand Tour of Georgia and Taste of Georgia, a food and wine themed tour that combines Georgia’s finest gastronomical and degustation experiences with the country’s best sights. 

The best monasteries and churches in Southern Georgia

Rivalling Davit Gareja, the rock-hewn cave monastery of Vardzia is equally formidable. Situated in the south of the country, close to the border with Armenia, a visit to Vardzia is the perfect addition to an off-the-beaten-path itinerary to Georgia. The multi-level cave complex is fascinating to explore and, typical of monastic structures, the ancient frescos that decorate some of the walls are fascinating to see.

Vardzia cave monastery, Georgia
Cave Monastery Complex at Vardzia

Luxury tailor-made holidays to Georgia that feature the monasteries in southern Georgia: Grand Tour of Georgia

The best monasteries and churches in Georgia’s High Caucasus

Gergeti Trinity Church is unquestionably one of the most dramatically located of all Georgia’s monasteries. Towering above Stepantsminda (a village that many still refer to as Kazbegi) at over 5,000 metres is Mount Kazbek. Known locally as Mqinvartsveri, or ‘glacier peak’, Mt. Kazbek’s coned peak is instantly recognisable.

Holy Trinity Church, Kazbegi, Georgia
Holy Trinity Church and Mount Kazbegi

Many visitors catch their first glimpse of Mount Kazbek when travelling from Tbilisi along the scenic Georgian Military Road. There is some dramatic scenery along the highway and it’s worth making a photo stop at the spectacularly-located Ananuri Fortress. The large Church of the Mother of God lies within the walls of this medieval defensive fortress which has a strategic position on the Aragvi River. 

The scenery on the Georgian Military Highway

Once in Stepantsminda, Gergeti Trinity Church, also known as Tsminda Sameba, sits on a ridge high above the village and looks remarkably small in the shadow of Mt. Kazbek. Situated at an altitude of just over 2000 metres, and one of Georgia’s great landmarks, the church sits in splendid isolation and definitely steals the show. 

Luxury tailor-made holidays to Georgia that feature the monasteries in Georgia’s High Caucasus: Luxury Georgia Holiday, Taste of Georgia, Walking in Georgia, and Classic Georgia.

Still not sure where to start with planning your luxury holiday to Georgia? Our destination experts know the Caucasus region intimately and can help put together a personally designed holiday, whatever your interests. 

Beautiful monasteries to visit in Georgia and how to combine them with other sights
Beautiful monasteries to visit in Georgia and which sights to combine them with