Georgia’s main tourist attractions can pretty much be summed up in two words: mountains and monasteries. It’s no wonder then, why the mountaintop Gergeti Trinity Church has become an icon of the country. Located in the town of Kazbegi, just a few hours’ drive from Tbilisi, hiking to Gergeti Trinity Church deserves a prominent spot on your Georgia itinerary. The hike can be accomplished in just half a day, while the view from the top is among the country’s most spectacular.
Confusingly, Kazbegi is now officially known as Stepantsminda, which was also the town’s original name. The Russians then changed it to the more pronounceable Kazbegi, after Alexander Kazbegi – a local nobleman, novelist and shepherd. And while the name officially reverted to Stepantsminda in 2006, many locals and tourists alike still prefer calling it Kazbegi. As such, we’ll be calling it Kazbegi throughout the rest of this guide.
From Tbilisi, you have two options to get to Kazbegi: a marshrutka (shared minibus) or private minivan (see more below). My plan was to take whichever vehicle was departing first, and that ended up being the minivan. Despite being the more expensive option, I’m definitely glad that I did. Unlike the marshrutka, the minivan makes two stops along the way, which turned out to be well worth the extra time and money.
Ananuri Lake View Point
Our first stop was Ananuri, an area about 45 km outside of Tbilisi. Ananuri is most known for its old fortress that sadly, wasn’t one of the stops. We could, at least, get a glimpse from the car window. Instead, we stopped at the serene Ananuri Lake, which was hardly something to complain about.
The ‘lake,’ it turns out, is really an artificial reservoir. It formed upon the construction of the Zhinvali Dam which was built in 1986.
We spent about 15 minutes at the viewpoint area, which also had some kiosks and toilets. And then it was time to get back in the van for the twistiest, most nausea-inducing part of the journey.
The Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument in Gudauri
Our second (and for me, much-needed) stop was at the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument in the ski resort town of Gudauri.
Georgia and Russia have a history with each other that goes a long way back. Georgia first became a protectorate of the Russian Empire in the 18th century, and would later, of course, be absorbed into the Soviet Union. This colorful monument was erected in 1983, along the highway near the international border, as a way to commemorate the connection.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Russia and Georgia is especially bitter right now. The two countries went to war in 2008, and many Georgians now accuse Russia of ‘occupying’ Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Georgia claims as theirs.
The colorful murals adorning the semicircular monument depicts historical scenes that will probably be lost on most foreign visitors. But the monument also doubles as a lookout pavilion for Gudauri’s scenic mountains.
I took in the views while taking deep breaths of the fresh mountain air, which helped some of the dizziness from the minivan subside.
Hiking to Gergeti Trinity Church
The hike up to the Gergeti Trinity Church can be accomplished within a few hours. It takes around 90 minutes to get up, and slightly less to come down. This makes it feasible to accomplish during a day trip from Tbilisi, though at least a night or two in the area is recommended.
While I had plans to do the longer hike to Gergeti Glacier the next day, which begins with the same trail up to the church, I decided to visit the church on my first evening anyway. Arriving in Kazbegi in late afternoon, I’d have plenty of time for the hike.
Gergeti Trinity Church can be seen from all around Kazbegi, so you’ll immediately know which general direction to head. Coming from the center of town, you’ll need to find the bridge which takes you to the opposite (west side) of the Terek River. This general area is called Gergeti (hence the name for the church and glacier) and there’s also some accommodation around here too.
You’ll need to continue uphill until you get to the main village, and from here you have a few options.
Arriving in the village, most people turn left and then head uphill. This path takes you to a ruined tower, from where you have the choice between three different paths. This is the path I chose, but I later found out about yet another path up to the church.
This fourth path can be accessed by making the next right turn and then heading straight. This is the one recommended by the Bradt guide book to Georgia, which the author describes as the easiest.
But as I didn’t take that path, I’ll cover what happens once you see the ruined tower.
As mentioned, once you see the ruined defensive tower up ahead, you have three options. The most straightforward and popular path is to simply walk straight past the tower, continuing along the trail uphill.
Optionally, you can also veer to the left on a path that begins before the tower. This will take you downhill toward the river, and then eventually back up again at a less steep incline. Though I didn’t take this path myself, it seems both slower and slightly easier. But it ultimately connects with the main path at some point after the tower.
During my initial visit, when I arrived at the tower, I just happened to see some people climbing down the steep rocky cliff behind me. Atop it was a Georgian flag waving on the wind, seemingly beckoning me to climb up to it.
And so I ended up climbing the steepest and rockiest path to get to Gergeti Trinity Church, though this route isn’t for everyone. While it provided some great views, I’d later learn that it wasn’t much quicker than the most straightforward path beginning past the tower.
As I climbed up the rocks, there was no obvious path in sight. After appreciating the views from the flag, I knew I had to keep climbing upward, but this took me right through a dense forest.
Furthermore, while I consider myself to be in pretty decent shape, the steep incline caused me to stop and take a breather on multiple occasions. But at least there was some great scenery to admire as I repeatedly took breaks for air and water.
Walking through the unmarked forest, I was relieved to see some other hikers on their way down. While I wasn’t sure how much farther I had to go, I could at least be certain I was headed in the right direction.
Eventually, through the gap in the trees, I finally spotted the church. And though I’d hardly passed anyone on my way up, I could already see a sizable crowd in the distance. While not a very long hike, most visitors, it seems, visit the church by car. But where’s the fun in that?
Arrival at the Church
I arrived near the base of the church just as the sun was beginning its descent. I could see Mt. Kazbek, the region’s highest mountain, though much of it was shrouded by clouds. And through those clouds, the sun beamed down in rays, right onto a cross erected along the cliffside. The scenery on the way up couldn’t have been any more dramatic.
As I was at the back of the church, I found a winding path that would take me around to the front entrance. I passed by a herd of grazing sheep, stopped to refill my water bottle, and then went on to explore.
Gergeti Trinity Church was built in the 14th century and it stands at over 2100 meters above sea level. Given the church’s isolation, relics from elsewhere in Georgia, such as Mtskheta, were often brought here in times of crisis.
Due to its photogenic setting, this is arguably Georgia’s most famous church. Up close, however, there’s nothing too remarkable about it architecturally. If you’ve visited any other churches in Georgia before, you know exactly what to expect. The interior, at least, contains some nice fresco paintings.
While the church itself may be a bit anticlimactic, its grounds offer numerous spectacular vantage points of the Kazbek mountain range. Note that to get the famous shot of Gergeti Trinity Church from afar with the mountains in the background, you’ll need to climb around ten to fifteen minutes further uphill in the direction of the glacier.
The Journey Back Down
On my way back to town, I wasn’t too eager to take the same steep, rocky path I’d climbed up. Looking downhill from the church, I could see people walking down across the large grassy area, and I decided to check it out. This turned out to be the most common path people use to get up and down the mountain.
I walked for several minutes over the grass downhill until I eventually came across a distinct dirt path. Over to my right, I could see the narrow river flowing down below, while some colorful flowers were blossoming along the hill to my left. And unlike during the climb up, I encountered at least a couple dozen people during the descent.
There was only one direction in which to go, and I took my time heading down, taking in the scenery along the way. And about an hour or so later, I came across a familiar sight in the distance: the ruined tower.
I saw some people walking up to the tower, which seemed like a fun little climb. But I decided to give it a pass. I hadn’t eaten since hopping in the minivan in Tbilisi and I was starving. I walked back downhill, through the sleepy village of Gergeti, back across the river, and finally made it to the heart of Kazbegi.
Back in the center of town, I found a restaurant with an outdoor seating area. It offered a clear view of Gergeti Church and Mt. Kazbek. And luckily, I arrived just in time for sunset. I gazed out at the mountain scenery as I enjoyed a meal of salad and khachapuri. Finally, I headed back to my hotel to get an early rest.
Tomorrow would be a much longer day. And as part of the trek up to the Gergeti Glacier, I’d repeat the same walk up to church yet again. Though this time, hiking to Gergeti Trinity Church would only constitute a small portion of the adventure.
From Tbilisi, first take the metro to Didube station and then follow the crowd to the large bus station/outdoor market hybrid. It’s not really a station, but a bunch of vehicles spread out among a huge parking lot.
From Didube, you have two options to get to Kazbegi: a marshrutka (shared minibus) or private minivan. The marshrutka costs 10 GEL and goes straight to Kazbegi, though there will likely be a bathroom break at some point. The minivan/taxi costs double the price, but this will allow you to stop at the Ananuri Lake View Point and the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument mentioned above.
It seems that neither option has a set schedule. The driver will just wait until the vehicle is full. But as the private minivan fits less people, it will likely require less waiting time.
Didube is a chaotic mess and it’s hard to figure out where you’re supposed to go to find the proper vehicle. Fortunately, considering the popularity of the destination, you’ll likely have people coming up to you and asking if you’re going to Kazbegi.
Even though the standard price for the minivan is 20 GEL, don’t be surprised if the drivers quote you a higher price. Annoyingly, you’ll probably need to haggle a bit just to get the basic fare.
For either the minivan or marshrutka, you just pay the fare on the bus. There’s no need to make a purchase from any of the ticket counters.
If you’re prone to carsickness, this ride is going to be a tough one. I was barely able to hold it together, and I was really glad that I hadn’t eaten a large breakfast. Another benefit of taking the private minivan is that the two stops give you some time to recuperate and breathe in some fresh air.
To make matters worse, the road on the journey there reeks badly of exhaust fumes, which certainly doesn’t help with the nausea!
Unlike other popular Georgian mountain towns like Mestia or Ushguli, the town of Kazbegi is pretty dilapidated and rather devoid of charm. There’s not much in town of note to see, aside from the Stepantsminda History Museum, which seemed to be closed during my visit. The town, then, is best thought of as a base from which to hike.
Numerous restaurants and cafes have been built recently to take advantage of the ongoing tourism boom in Georgia. Wherever you base yourself, you won’t have any trouble finding restaurants, coffee shops or supermarkets.
Kazbegi is a small town, so just make sure you’re relatively close to the bridge which takes you to the other side of the river. Or, you can also stay somewhat uphill in Gergeti Village on the opposite side. Gergeti is home to a few guesthouses and restaurants, and staying there would give you a brief head start on your hikes.
I stayed in a small yet modern private room that I booked on Airbnb. While not a completely horrible experience, the walls were paper thin, and I’m not going to recommend it. I could make out every single word the people in the room next door were saying, even when they were talking at a normal volume. It seems that a lot of the newer guesthouses in the area are being built as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
When researching accommodation, I came across several great-looking rooms, all run by different hosts, that all had a common complaint in the reviews: the door wouldn’t lock. Though the room I booked didn’t have any such comments, it turned out that my door wouldn’t lock either!
This is a strange problem that I’ve noticed all over Georgia. It seems like a trend for builders to give up at 99%, without bothering to carry out this final yet crucial step. Mentioning it to the owners doesn’t do much good, as they’ll often just shrug their shoulders. With that in mind, always bring a little lock for your luggage when traveling in Georgia.
If you’re just hiking to Gergeti Church, there’s not a whole lot you need to bring. Just wear close-toed shoes (regular tennis shoes are fine) and prepare a raincoat just in case. You should also bring a small bottle of water.
If you’re hiking onward to the Gergeti Glacier (see more in the following article), you’ll definitely want to bring ample snacks and water. You should also bring a hat and sunscreen. Considering the length of the hike (9-10 hours in total), you’ll definitely want to reapply sunscreen at some point.
Even though the glacier hike is a long and fairly tough one, you don’t really need any special shoes other than a decent pair of tennis shoes. But in case it rains, shoes that hold up fairly well in water are best.
The most important thing is that your shoes don’t hurt your feet as you walk downhill, as the downhill portion of the trek goes on for hours. As you’ll find out soon, I learned this lesson the very hard way!
Prepare a raincoat and long sleeves for the morning, as it can get quite cold in the mountains. Hiking poles would be nice, too, but they’re not an absolute necessity.