Caucasian

The best places to see in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Lodged between Asia and Europe, the Caucasus is truly in the confluence of East and West. It stands at the crossroads of the two continents and thus is a compelling blend of European and Asian cultures and heritage, packed full of stunning, natural landscapes that can rival that of neighboring Central Asia (the Stans). The following Caucasus travel guide will help pick out everything visitors need to know.

This region is relatively safe, cheap and easy to reach (from both Europe and Asia), and yet, it’s still pretty much off the beaten path. When I mentioned to my friends that I was going to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, most people didn’t know where these countries are; some have never even heard of them. Granted, the Caucasus has been plagued by conflict since the collapse of the Soviet Union (in 1991), but for most parts, they are safe to travel to and can offer rewarding experiences to curious travelers.

An Overview of the Caucasus

The Caucasus is made up of six countries: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Russia. In this guide, I’ll be covering only three of them — Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan — based on my recent trip there. To read more about the other countries that I’ve visited previously, click on the links here: Turkey and Iran.

Each country has its own draw and I highly recommend you visit the region before it gets discovered by mass tourism. I visited during the low season, so the entire region was pretty much void of tourists (museums/sights were empty and no long lines at border crossings), but then again even during peak season, this region doesn’t get quite as many tourists as Europe does. For those who like traveling off the beaten path (like myself), the Caucasus is definitely a worthwhile place to travel and explore.

Georgia

Most people who have traveled the Caucasus like Georgia best, out of the three, and I can see why. In general, Georgia is more European. It has retained its historical heritage rather well, and the country has a larger variety of landscapes. There are so many things to do in Tbilisi, and even more beyond the capital city.

As a mountainous country, it’s got the pristine and rugged slopes that many outdoor lovers seek. I absolutely loved Kazbegi National Park in the north. The Great Caucasus Mountain Range are extremely dramatic there. The drive through the winding valleys and steep slopes is just stunning and the backcountry just makes me want to stay and explore more.

Georgia also has a bounty of interesting architecture and Orthodox churches for culture buffs, and amazing food and wineries for those who love to indulge (it’s said to have invented wine). Of all the churches and monasteries we visited, my favorite has got to be the 14th century Ananuri Fortress. It overlooks the Aragvi River and backed by the Great Caucasus Mountain Range. I’ve also heard lots of good things about Kutaisi and Imereti,

Armenia

Armenia isn’t usually an instant hit with travelers. But strangely, I liked Armenia instantly and it’s my favorite country of the three. Perhaps because of my propensity for unconventional places or my interest for places with a tragic past. Regardless, Armenia won my heart despite the short amount of time we spent there.

In comparison to its Caucasus neighbors, Armenia is truly unique in its culture and history. The country has got its own alphabets and language family, own ethnicity, and cultural identity. At times it feels like Asia and at times it’s very much European. The charming blend of East and West is very evident here, in this intriguing country.

For me, the main draw of Armenia is its history — over 1.5 million Armenians were killed or displaced by the Turks during the genocide (dubbed the first genocide in history). It was a shame that the Yerevan Genocide Memorial and Museum were closed off for special guests (I heard Putin was in town, so maybe it was him!) as I was really curious to learn more there. But speaking to young Armenians I met, it seems that they’ve put the past behind them and moved ahead. You can see this forward-thinking characteristic in Yerevan, the capital city, as it’s very modern and vibrant.

Azerbaijan

The most different of the three is Azerbaijan, which is extremely modern and has a well-developed tourism infrastructure (you’ll see English signs everywhere pointing to tourist attractions). Unlike in Georgia and Armenia, most people in Azerbaijan are Muslims, which explains the difference in terms of architecture and traditions. Its language and roots are closer to that of Turkey’s, so there are definitely some similarities between Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Because of its oil-generated wealth, the capital city Baku is very developed, and has an odd mix of old and new. The only part of the city I really liked was the old town of Baku is surprisingly well-preserved – but also artificially restored in some parts – and reminds me of ancient cities like Khiva in Uzbekistan and Urgup in Turkey with sandstone buildings and cobblestoned streets. It really isn’t my cup of tea, but I can see how others would enjoy it. If I had come here during my Silk Road trip, I would have welcomed the first world comforts here after roughing it in harsher parts of Central Asia.

Caucasus Travel Guide – Best Places to Visit

  • Kazbegi — My absolute favorite moment of this Caucasus trip was going up to the Gergeti Church, built 2,200m above sea level atop a peak in the Kazbegi Mountains. To get up here, we hired a jeep that took 30 minutes to climb up the narrow, muddy trails (otherwise it takes three hours on foot to hike up). The view from the Gergeti Church down to the town of Kazbeg (locally known as Stepantsminda) is just spectacular.
  • Ananuri Fortress — One of the most scenic buildings in Georgia is the Ananuri Fortress, a castle complex on the Aragvi River just 45 miles (72 kilometres) from Tbilisi. We arrived on a gloomy morning, with the clouds hanging low. The water was so still and calm and the fortress stood regal and imposing over it — it felt like a fairy tale setting.
  • Mtskheta — One of the oldest cities of Georgia, Mtskheta is the ancient capital of the country and is located approximately 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Tbilisi at the confluence of the Aragvi river. As the birthplace and one of the most vibrant centers of Christianity in Georgia, Mtskheta was declared as the “Holy City” by the Georgian Orthodox Church.
  • Tbilisi — Tbilisi Old Town is a labyrinth of narrow streets where wooden balconies look down from old brick-build homes. Doorways lead to hidden courtyards and ancient vines climb to the skies using anything vertical for support. Parts of it have been comprehensively renovated, arguably a little too enthusiastically. Here are some recommended things to do in Tbilisi.
  • Lake Sevan — Situated at 1,900m above sea level, this is the largest high-altitude lake in Armenia and the Caucasus region. It covers almost 5,000 square kilometres in area — an area so massive that makes it look more like a sea than lake. It’s also home to one of the most famous attractions in Armenia: the Sevanavank, a monastic complex founded in 874.
  • Debed Canyon — Located in northern Armenia’s famous Lori region, Debed Canyon is dotted with old world villages, obscure Soviet-era buildings, and two World Heritage–listed monasteries, Haghpat and Sanahin, as well as stunning mountain landscapes.
  • Yerevan — It comes as a surprise to many (including myself) that the Armenian capital city of Yerevan is actually very modern and vibrant. Few traces of the city’s ancient past remain, with much of the city constructed from scratch during the Soviet era. Fortunately, there’s a network of gardens and parks all over the city.

Caucasus Travel Guide – Safety and Ease of Travel

Travel in the Caucasus is generally very easy, as all three countries are relatively developed and have good tourism infrastructure. Armenia travel is slightly more difficult as roads and public transport aren’t as great as in the neighbouring countries. Most people in the Caucasus only speak their native language and Russian, with very little English spoken. But as long as you pick up a few local words and use body language, you shouldn’t face too much problems communicating with locals here.

Safety wise, there’s nothing to worry about. I felt absolutely safe my whole time in the three countries. I was traveling with my best friend (female) in Georgia and Armenia, and solo in Azerbaijan. There was no issue at all whether I was alone or with my friend. The conflicted areas are mainly along the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan, but as long as you avoid the area, you will be fine. You will not feel any tension in the cities, small towns or tourist sights at all.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Armenia and Azerbaijan are still currently at war. The two countries have been fighting for political authority of the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh  for years. Nagorno Karabakh is inhabited by mostly ethnic Armenians but it was given to Azerbaijan by the Russians during the Soviet era. Since the ceasefire in 1994, it is considered a de facto independent state. Today, travel is not allowed between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan. If you have the passport stamp for Nagorno Karabakh, you will not be allowed entry into Azerbaijan.

 

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