The winding road from Tbilisi to Akhaltsikhe takes you through the beautiful Borjomi Valley and unspoiled pine forests, eventually bringing you to the heart of the city, a historical quarter called Rabati, where Akhaltsikhe Fortress is proudly standing. This is a true symbol of tolerance here.
Tolerance is not some new-fangled idea to the people of Akhaltsikhe. It has become so ingrained in the local populace that some say it is in their very genes. Within the walls of the fortress you will find an Orthodox church, a synagogue, a mosque, and a Catholic church. With so much religious strife around the world, it is heartwarming to see people of different faiths have been able to coexist here for centuries.
The history of Akhaltsikhe Fortress starts in the 9th century and is closely tied to the development of the city around it. As an important commercial and economic center, it has always caught the eye of would-be conquerors, who sacked the fortified city more than once. It was restored for the first time in the 12th-13th centuries by the Jakeli noble family, who then lived there themselves.
The upper part of the fortress is where the historical buildings are. For example, there is the Samtskhe-Javakheti Historical Museum, which is located in the ancestral palace of the Jakelis. Beside that, there is a beautiful mosque, a madrasa, a 9th-century Orthodox church, the pasha’s sleeping quarters, a citadel, and more.
Rabati is the that special place in Samtskhe-Javakheti where Georgians, Armenians, Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Greeks, and Russians lived together side-by-side.
No city in Georgia exists without its unique twists on Georgian cuisine. Akhaltsikhe’s claim to fame is that it is the only place in Georgia where snails have made their way onto the menu. From the first frost of winter to the first thunderstorm of spring, the people of Akhaltsikhe make all manner of foods using snails, even khinkali!
During snail season, locals go out in groups to “hunt” snails, as a single kilogram of food requires as many as 150 individual snails. The end result is a delightfully unique take on traditional Georgian flavors.
Of course, multicultural Akhaltsikhe boasts cuisine as diverse as Rabati itself. While in Akhaltsikhe, you should try tatarberaki, an ancient Meskhetian dish that goes well with matsoni. Tatarberaki is made from thin strips of fried dough slathered in melted butter, fried onions, and crushed garlic.
There is also Meskhetian apokhti: a salted, dried meat that has its roots as a winter food produced in every village. It is served sliced into small pieces, sprinkled with garlic and pepper, and mixed together to be used as a khinkali filling.
As a nation proud of its cheesemaking heritage, Akhaltsikhe also has its tenili cheese. This stringy cheese is left to age in clay pots for several months, giving it a unique taste and texture unlike cheeses produced elsewhere in the country.
The desserts in Akhaltsikhe are also delicious, such as kada, a sweet, rich layered pastry.
Meskheti has been known for its wine making for a very long time, and you’ll see vines arranged in terraces on mountains all over the region. This is different to the wide, flat vineyards you might have seen elsewhere, as terraced vineyards are better suited to the mountainous terrain.
Modern winemakers have refined the practice of terraced vineyards, having discovered twenty four unique local grape varieties that they masterfully craft into delicious wines that you can sample at local wineries such as Meskhuri Mtsvane, White Chitiskverstskha, Tskhenisdzudzu, Tamaris Vazi, and more.
Akhaltsikhe is also famous for its vodka. You can try mulberry, plum, honey, cornel, fruit, and mint vodkas here. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you could try them all and see which is your favourite!
Akhaltsikhe is also famous for the carbonic, magnesium, and sodium mineral hot springs that bubble up out of the depths of the earth here, maintaining a constant temperature of 39 degrees Celsius. Bathing in these waters is said to be very helpful for those with skeletal and joint issues, diseases of the peripheral nervous system, and chronic gynecological diseases.
If you’ve finished all there is to see, do, and eat in Akhaltsikhe, you’ll be pleased to know that one of Georgia’s most fascinating historic sites sits just an hour’s drive from the city.
Vardzia is a fascinating city carved into the cliffside. Historians date the city’s founding to the reign of King Tamar (XII century CE), and although much of the city was destroyed by an earthquake, it is still possible to wander its darkened halls, gaze out over the valley from various viewpoints, and spend a moment in quiet contemplation in an ancient church.
Nearby Atskuri Fortress is also worth a visit. This was once a vitally important defensive complex, and you can still get an impression of how imposing it must have been in its heyday.
On the road between Akhaltsikhe and Borjomi is the entrance to popular Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, where you’ll find picnic areas, hiking trails through the primeval forest, cool rivers and streams, towering mountains and cliffs, and the impressive Kvabiskhevi Church of the Dormition. Within the church, itself carved into a cliff, you’ll find frescoes depicting a man and a woman who locals believe to be King Tamar and Shota Rustaveli.
Following this same road will eventually bring you to the aptly named Green Monastery, surrounded by a verdant forest. Spending a moment to soak in the serenity at this ancient place of worship is well worth the drive.
While you’re in the area, you should also pay a visit to the resort city of Borjomi, famed for its beautiful landscapes and the pride of the city - Borjomi Park, where you can sample the famous mineral water that is served in restaurants across Georgia and beyond.
It might not be as well known as Batumi, Kazbegi, or Tbilisi, but Akhaltsikhe is a hidden gem packed with charm. Add it to your bucket list!