Last Updated on May 5, 2022 by Nellie Huang
Planning a trip to the Caucasus? This is a detailed Caucasus travel guide including 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). After spending a few weeks traveling the region, I’ve compiled a detailed Caucasus travel guide to help you plan your own trip there.
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.
Table of Contents
- Caucasus Travel Guide
- 1. Things to Do in Georgia
- 2. Things to Do in Armenia
- 3. Things to Do in Azerbaijan
- Caucasus Travel Guide – Highlights of the Caucasus
- Safety and Ease of Travel in the Caucasus
- How to Get to the Caucasus
- Visa Requirements for the Caucasus
- How to Get Around the Caucasus
- Where to Stay in the Caucasus
- What to Eat in the Caucasus
- Cost of Travel in the Caucasus
Caucasus Travel Guide
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.
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). 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.
1. Things to Do in 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 historical and diverse. 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.
Even if you’re short on time, you can easily pack in mountain hikes in your Georgia itinerary. 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.
2. Things to Do in 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). 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.
3. Things to Do in 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. 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 – Highlights of the Caucasus
- 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.
Safety and Ease of Travel in the Caucasus
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.
How to Get to the Caucasus
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 with Envoy Tours 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. It cost around 155 GEL = US$60, but it’s a full-day trip that goes from 9 am to 8pm and includes a barbecue lunch as well as the immigration. 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. A return ticket from Tbilisi to Baku is around US$100.
Visa Requirements for the Caucasus
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. 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.
How to Get Around the Caucasus
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 24 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).
Recommended Day Tours:
- Mount Kazbegi from Tbilisi
- Wine Tasting in Kahketi from Tbilisi
- Mtskheta, Gori and Uplistsikhe Full-Day Tour
- Vardzia Bojomi and Akhaltsikhe Tour
- Lake Sevan from Yerevan
Where to Stay in the Caucasus
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 of Tbilisi. The best place to find good affordable accommodation is the Avlabari district, which can feel like a residential area, but is actually just a 10-minute walk to the Old Town.
7 Rooms Hotel — 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. We really enjoyed staying there as it was cheap but still really comfortable and well located. Book here.
Hotel Rasta — 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. You won’t need to use any taxi to get around the attractions because of its awesome location. Find the latest prices here.
Rooms Hotel Tbilisi — For those looking to splurge, the best place to stay in Tbilisi (in my opinion) 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. I think it’s the most stylish and cool hotel in the city. Find the best prices.
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.
Elysium Gallery Hotel – 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. Although it was a bit tight for us, we liked how it was in the heart of the city and we could easily walk to the restaurants and bars nearby. Book here.
Park Apartments on Mashtots Avenue – 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. Find out more here.
Paris Hotel Yerevan – For high-end options, I would go for Paris Hotel Yerevan, a four-star hotel with incredible prices considering the quality of accommodation and its location just 100m from the Republic Square. Check the latest prices here.
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.
Baku Old City Hostel – A private double room (with shared bathroom) in the only costs $21/night. It’s located right inside the walls of the old town, within the labyrinth of stone-walled old houses. Book here.
Old East Hotel – Also in the Old Town Baku, this guesthouse (around $38/night for a room) is 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. I had dinner at its rooftop restaurant and loved the view and atmosphere there. I definitely recommend staying here if you’re a flashpacker and looking for something comfortable and not too expensive. Check for the best prices here.
Shah Palace Hotel – To experience living like an Azeri royalty, the Shah Palace Hotel (around $80/night for a room) has the opulence of an ancient Arabian palace. It’s a gorgeous heritage hotel designed for royalty – probably the best hotel in the old town. If you like sleeping on a gold-crusted bed, then this hotel will be perfect for you. Check for the latest prices here.
What to Eat in the Caucasus
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. Check out this guide on where to eat in Tbilisi.
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.
Cost of Travel in the Caucasus
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$1050 for all my food, transport, day trips, accommodation and expenses. That’s really good, considering I wasn’t on a particularly tight budget and didn’t watch my spending that carefully.
Planning a trip to the Caucasus? I hope this Caucasus travel guide will help you plan your trip. Let me know if you have any questions below!