A Complete Travel Guide to the Caucasus

Posted on November 30, 2016 by

caucasus travel guide

Caucasus Travel Guide

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.

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.

An Overview

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. 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.

caucasus travel guide

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. 

caucasus travel guide

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

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.
  • 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

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.

caucasus travel guide

Caucasus Travel Guide – Getting There

Most people traveling the Caucasus will fly into Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia first. It’s easy to find cheap flights to Tbilisi from many major cities in Europe. My flight from Madrid to Tbilisi on Pegasus Airline was only 150 euros return. I met an Austrian guy who paid 70 euros for his return flights on Wizz Air.

Check for airfares to Tbilisi here.

From Georgia to Armenia

It’s easy to travel overland from Georgia into Armenia either by train, car or private tour. I traveled on a day trip from Tbilisi to Yerevan and highly recommend it. It’s an easy way to cross from one country to the other and experience northern Armenia at the same time. A popular way to do the same route is by taking the night train that’s reasonably priced but hard to book online. You’ll have to book it in advance at the train station itself.

If you intend to travel independently by public bus, your best bet is to use the Sadakhlo-Bagratashen border crossing, which is just an hour’s drive from Tbilisi. Based on research, it’s relatively easy to get a mini-bus from Tbilisi to Ortachala Bus Station and then taxi to the border.The border crossing is very modern, clean and organized. It took our group of around 15 people to cross from one country to another in less than an hour.

From Armenia to Azerbaijan

To go from Armenia to Azerbaijan or the other way round, you’ll need to go back to Georgia (as explained earlier, they’re at war.) Some people say that it’s better to go to Azerbaijan before Armenia (rather than after), as custom officers at the Azerbaijan borders can refuse you entry if they see an Armenian passport stamp.

I didn’t have a problem going to Azerbaijan after Armenia despite having a stamp, and there were no questions asked at all. Keep in mind that I flew into Baku, and sometimes airport arrivals can be easier than overland border crossings. If you go to Nagorno Karabakh, you’ll definitely be refused entry into Azerbaijan.

caucasus travel guide

Caucasus Travel Guide – Visas

Most nationalities can enter Georgia without a visa, including travellers from United States, Canada, Australia and members of the European Union. Those who need a visa can easily apply for an e-visa online.

To enter Armenia, travelers from the USA, European Union members, and the Schengen Acquis states do not need a visa. If you need a visa (like I do), you can easily get it online on the Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. It’s cheap (only US$6) and is also processed very quickly; you’ll usually get it within 24 hours of application. 

Traveling to Azerbaijan is probably the most troublesome for most of us. Some nationalities can get a visa on arrival, including citizens of China, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore. Most nationalities need to get their visas in advance, through online travel agents. For those who can get it on arrival, note that the prices differ for each nationality (my visa cost US$20) and you’ll need to pay in cash (USD or Azerbaijan Manat). There’s an ATM at the airport where you can withdraw both USD and Manat.

Caucasus Travel Guide – Getting Around

In all three countries, public transport is affordable and simple to navigate. Within the capital cities, you can easily hop on a mashrutka (Russian van) — they are everywhere. In Tbilisi, bus stops even have electronic boards that indicate what time the next bus will come. You can usually pay with coins in the public bus or metro system, except in Baku where you’ll need to get a transit card from one of the subway stations.

To travel around each country, it is possible to go on your own to most areas on public transport. It’s easy in Georgia and Azerbaijan, while slightly trickier in Armenia as most of the rural areas aren’t serviced by public transport. We took quite a few day trips as that was the easiest way to explore more within a limited time frame, and they were all very affordable. For instance, our day trip to Lake Sevan from Yerevan was just 13 euros and it lasted six hours.

It’s also straightforward to travel from one country to another, as mentioned earlier. We used a shared taxi service to get back from Yerevan to Tbilisi, instead of the night train, as it was much faster and flexible (only six hours and cost around US$15 each), and flew from Tbilsi to Baku, which took an hour instead of 18 hours on the train (and cost around US$120 return).

caucasus travel guide beach

Caucasus Travel Guide – Accommodation

There’s a wide array of accommodation available in all of the three countries for different types of budget. You can easily find cheap accommodation (starting from US$15 per person) that are of pretty high standards. We based ourselves mostly in the capital cities and explored the surroundings from there. You’ll usually find more variety and better prices in accommodation in the capitals.

Where to Stay in Georgia

Hotels in Tbilisi are cheap and plentiful — expect to pay around US$25 to $50 for a private double room in a budget hotel. You can find great deals if you don’t mind staying outside of the Old Town. In Tbilisi, we stayed at the 7 Rooms Hotel ($25/night for a room) — one of the cheapest hotels with the best reviews on Booking.com. It’s located in the Avlabari district, which can feel like a residential area, but is actually just a 10-minute walk to the Old Town.

If you’d rather stay in Old Town Tbilisi, I recommend Hotel Rasta, which is not too expensive (at $75/night for a room) and it’s just 850m from Liberty Square, the heart of the city. It’s also very stylish and comfortable, great for those looking for a bit more luxury.

For those looking to splurge, the best place to stay in Tbilisi (for me) is Rooms Hotel Tbilisi ($150/night for a room). The boutique hotel is chic and hip, but has an old-world charm about it, thanks to vintage decor and brown suede sofas. It’s a 5-minute walk from Rustaveli metro station and you can easily explore the city by metro from here.

Where to Stay in Armenia

In general, Armenia is the cheapest country of the three. You can easily find hotel rooms for US$20 to $40 a night in Yerevan’s city centre. We stayed at Elysium Gallery Hotel ($40/night for two), a budget hotel that is very centrally located but its rooms are on the small end.

If you’re on a budget, I recommend checking out Park Apartments on Mashtots Avenue ($20/night for a 2-bedroom apartment with full kitchen). It’s very spacious and has a great location, just 300m from the Armenian Opera House. You can walk to the Cascades from there and there are lots of restaurants and cafes in the area.

For high-end options, I would go for Paris Hotel Yerevan ($78/night for a room), a four-star hotel with incredible prices considering the quality of accommodation and its location just 100m from the Republic Square.

Where to Stay in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is more expensive than the other two countries, so expect to budget more for your accommodation here. As I was traveling solo here, I opted for the cheapest hostel in Baku which turned out to be a great place to stay. A private double room (with shared bathroom) in the Baku Old City Hostel only costs $21/night. It’s located right inside the walls of the old town, within the labyrinth of stone-walled old houses.

Also in the Old Town Baku is the Old East Hotel ($38/night for a room), one of the top picks in Baku on booking.com. It’s got a cool old-world charm, pretty simple but vintage rooms and a rooftop restaurant with panoramic views.

To experience living like an Azeri royalty, the Shah Palace Hotel ($78/night for a room) has the opulence of an ancient Arabian palace. If you like sleeping on a gold-crusted bed, then this hotel will be perfect for you.

caucasus travel guide

Caucasus Travel Guide – Food

Georgian food is a main draw of the country, with the melting concoction of eastern and oriental heritage resulting in very strong and unique flavors. It’s often considered to be the world’s original fusion cuisine, with culinary influences from the Mongols, Ottomans and Persians. Regarded as Georgia’s unofficial national dish, khachapuri (fresh baked bread with cheese) is a local favourite, found everywhere from street side stalls to traditional taverns. Each region of Georgia has its own version of the khachapuri, but the most popular one is the khachapuri acharuli (topped with an egg) from the country’s west.

Another traditional Georgian staple is the khinkali, large steamed dumplings filled with meat, cheese or vegetables that are similar to the Chinese dumplings. Rustic khinkali eateries are found throughout Tbilisi – but our favourite is Pasanauri off bustling Rustaveli Avenue, a simple place where locals come for comfort food and slush them all down with vodka.

Armenian food is also just as outstanding, but it has closer ties with Turkish and Persian cuisine. You’ll probably find some Armenian staples quite familiar as they’re commonly found in the neighboring countries — they include dolma (stuffed vine leaves), lamb kebab (meat skewers), beef kofta (meatballs) and pilaf rice. In Yerevan, you can easily find a range of fast food restaurants or taverns that serve up lahmacun (Armenian pizza) or kebab meat. The best meal we had was at the famous restaurant chain Tavern Yerevan, that has a few branches around the city.

In contrast, Azerbaijan doesn’t have a distinctive culinary culture as compared to the other two countries. Azerbaijani cuisine is similar to that of Armenia, with traditional dishes like pilaf with fragrant saffron, juicy kebab and dolma. Another popular dish here is the kutab, a palm-sized, thin patty stuffed with meat filling.

There aren’t as many traditional restaurants around. You’ll find more kebab and shawarma shops  as well as global cafe and restaurant chains in Baku. If you’ve been traveling in the region for a few months and craving some food from home, you’ll find it in Baku.

caucasus travel guide food

Caucasus Travel Guide – Budget

The whole region is cheap to travel in, especially when compared to Russia or continental Europe.  Of the three, Armenia is the cheapest. Prices for a meal are around US$5, and a three-star hotel room in the city centre for US$20. Georgia is still cheap, with taxi fares anywhere in the city for just US$3 and meals for US$7.

Azerbaijan is the most expensive, but still cheaper than most European cities. Accommodation is cheap but everything else is pretty pricey. There aren’t as many tour operators that offer day tours. I signed up for a day tour with Baku Old City Hostel and because only two of us signed up, the day  trip turned out rather expensive, at US$30 per person.

For the entire two-week trip in the Caucasus, I spent around US$650 for all my food, transport, day trips, accommodation and expenses. That’s not too bad, considering I wasn’t on a particularly tight budget and didn’t watch my spending that carefully.

caucasus travel guide

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About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

5 Responses to “A Complete Travel Guide to the Caucasus”

  1. Libbie Griffin December 2, 2016 11:26 am #

    Thank you for an excellent post. So much good information about a place few of us know. I will keep this one and refer to it again.
    Happy new year!

    • Nellie Huang December 2, 2016 11:39 am #

      Thanks Libbie for the kind words! I hope to see you around!

  2. Saro April 13, 2017 7:52 am #

    Where have you visited within Yerevan so far? Maybe I can suggest you some more local or historical places to check out next time you decide to fly out there again.

  3. Apfelwein May 14, 2017 12:57 pm #

    Excellent article. I have already been to Azerbaijan and am just preparing a trip to Georgia and possibly Armenia. This article is a very good starting point.

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