Tskaltubo is, without a doubt, one of Georgia’s most unique destinations. The former spa town, home to a plethora of grand Stalin-era classical buildings, is now mostly in ruin. Long used by Soviet citizens for healing and relaxation, the decaying structures are now popular pilgrimage spots for adventurous urban explorers.
Just don’t expect to find yourself completely alone. A few of the bathhouses and hotels do, in fact, remain in use. Locals still come to soak in the chemically unique waters to cure things like nervous and skin diseases. But the current number can be nowhere near the 125,000 annual visitors that would flock here in Soviet times.
Before your visit to Tskaltubo, it’s important to understand that many of the crumbling buildings are not fully empty. For the past few decades, they’ve been home to thousands of Georgian refugees who escaped Abkhazia in the early ’90s.
Tskaltubo is an easy 20-minute trip via public transport from Kutaisi (more below). Even if you’re not big into urban exploration, a walk around Tskaltubo should not be missed. There’s probably no other place in the world where you learn about Stalinist architecture, special healing water and an ongoing refugee crisis in a single day trip.
Tskaltubo: A Brief History
Tskaltubo’s unique mineral rich-water has been known about for hundreds of years. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic designated it as a special healing center and balneology (bath treatment) resort. Soon, patients from all around the Soviet Union were being sent to Tskaltubo for healing and rest.
The town layout, which can still be seen today, was implemented in the 1950s. Nine bathhouses were constructed within the central park, while over a dozen sanatoriums were built surrounding them where patients could lodge and relax.
Tskaltubo was so popular that even Stalin himself was a regular visitor, even building his own summer house atop a nearby hill (he was, of course, was a Georgian native).
And many of the buildings take on the Stalinist style of architecture which was largely modeled on classical European and Russian buildings. These ornate buildings are a far cry from the featureless concrete apartment blocks that have become so synonymous with Soviet-era architecture.
After decades of prosperity, Tskaltubo’s glory days would end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, and many of the town’s hotels and bathhouses have been left to rot for decades.
Recently, however, billionaire and politician Bidzina Ivanishvili has announced his plan to buy up most of the abandoned hotels and build new ones in their places. But it’s hard to see how domestic demand could ever meet such a supply.
As mentioned above, there’s even more to Tskaltubo’s story. In the early 1990s, the western territory of Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia, and thousands of ethnic Georgians were forced to flee the region.
The Georgian government thought of a temporary solution. Why not let some of the ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) stay in the unused hotels of Tskaltubo for a little while? And that’s what happened, except the temporary solution turned out to be a permanent one.
To this day, many of the former hotels of Tskaltubo remain home to thousands of refugees and their children, for whom the crumbling hotels are the only home they’ve ever known.
If you speak Russian or Georgian, you might enjoy going to visit the buildings in which the IDPs live to meet them and hear their stories. But if your main goal for the day is urban exploration, there are also plenty of buildings that remain completely empty.
The idea of wandering around and taking photos in buildings that people call home seems strange to me. Therefore, I decided to stick solely to buildings that lacked IDP’s. Luckily, there was still enough of them to take up an entire day.
If you want to visit the other buildings in addition to the ones mentioned below, arrange for at least two days in Tskaltubo. You can find some great guides here and here which go into a bit more detail on those buildings.
RECOMMENDED WALKING ROUTE: Starting from the bus terminal, walk east to Sanatorium Iveria. From there, take a look at Hotel Shakhtiori from the outside, then visit Hotel Savane.
When finished, head across the street to the grassy central park area where all the bathhouses are located. Start with Bathhouse 5, just across from Hotel Savane. Then proceed to Bathhouse 6 (currently in use) and Bathhouse 8 (abandoned).
Next, head south. You can check out the Tskaltubo Railway Station to admire its architecture, though it no longer houses the tourist information center. West of the central park, walk up the hill to find Josef Stalin’s abandoned summer house compound.
When finished, there’s no need to walk all the way back to the bus terminal. Simply head to a bus stop along the main highway and hail a bus back to Kutaisi.
Despite being abandoned, Sanatorium Iveria remains a beautiful building. It was constructed between 1952-62 and contains hundreds of rooms. But its days may be numbered.
Sold to a wealthy investor in 2017, the plan is to demolish the building and construct a brand new hotel in its place. As of the summer of 2020, however, nothing has been done except for the addition of a security fence.
Generally speaking, entering the abandoned buildings of Tskaltubo is completely fine, and people will hardly even glance at you as you walk in or out. The locals are clearly used to it, and even the town’s official tourism office enthusiastically offers tips! But Sanatorium Iveria is the one place where you have to be a little sneaky.
Walking around the fence, it wasn’t long before I spotted an opening to squeeze through. While I’d read that there were guards on site, I thankfully didn’t encounter any.
Not sure quite what to expect, I remained on high alert as I snapped photos of the run down, decrepit hotel. I listened closely for any footsteps in the distance as I stealthily peered down the hallways. It was the biggest adrenaline rush I’d had in awhile.
Eventually, I arrived in the hotel’s central lobby. The large hole in the middle of an otherwise ornately decorated ceiling has since become one of the most common images to represent modern Tskaltubo.
Heading up the steps, you can also see the hole from above. Obviously, when exploring such places – especially a building that’s officially off-limits – your safety is your own responsibility.
Keeping that in mind, I only used the wider and seemingly more stable staircases in the center. Some of the smaller ones down the halls were simply stuck to the wall, lacking any kind of support underneath.
Sanatorium Iveria’s hundreds of rooms are all still there, waiting to be entered again after decades of vacancy. But with all the furniture gone, there’s little to see inside except some peeling wallpaper and decaying floorboards.
Carefully exiting the hotel the same way I came, I safely made it back to the street. The day was only just beginning.
Hotel Shakhtiori is Tskaltubo’s largest and most impressive building. But unlike Sanatorium Iveria, discretely sneaking in is not an option here. A large portion of the fence surrounding it is transparent, and I didn’t see an opening anyway.
Nevertheless, it’s still worth admiring from the outside as you’re exploring the area.
Further southeast is yet another abandoned hotel called Savane. While this one is supposed to be completely uninhabited, I did see some people carrying some goods into the far end of the building in the distance.
In any case, the hotel is so big that I never encountered or even heard anyone while inside.
Aside from its circular entranceway, there aren’t many distinct features which sets Hotel Savane apart from the others. It’s especially dirty and dusty, with most of its exterior is covered in overgrowth.
Be that as it may, fans of urban exploration will still enjoy walking down its dimly lit hallways, peeking into its seemingly endless number of rooms.
Just across the street from Hotel Savane is Bathhouse #5, situated within Tskaltubo’s grassy central park area. It’s a large, ornate building that was likely reserved for the upper echelons of Soviet society.
It’s definitely one of the most interesting buildings to explore in town.
There are a lot of different rooms to check out, many of which have distinct designs and layouts. You’ll find both individual bathtubs as well as what seem like communal pools. Or perhaps they were just large private bathtubs for the elite.
Bathhouse 5 happened to be the only abandoned building in Tskaltubo where I encountered another person inside. We were both a bit startled at first, but then we just nodded and waved at each other before going about our way.
Given this bathhouse’s proximity to a main road, it’s likely that some locals enjoy passing through here while out for a stroll.
All in all, I never felt in danger during my explorations throughout Tskaltubo, and no other travel web sites seem to have reported any incidents either. With that being said, explore these abandoned buildings at your own risk.
As mentioned, some of Tskaltubo’s bathhouses remain in use and seem to be quite popular with locals. Among them is Bathhouse 6, the favored bathing spot of Josef Stalin himself.
In contrast to the empty, decaying structures elsewhere around town, it was bizarre to suddenly encounter this pristine building complete with an ornate fountain out front. Coming here straight from Bathhouse 5, I felt like I’d just traversed worlds.
While this was always the most elaborate bathhouse, even in Tskaltubo’s prime, it offers a sense of what the other buildings would’ve looked like just a few decades ago. If you’re up for it, perhaps you can arrange for a dip in the water yourself.
Bathhouse 8, one of Tskaltubo’s smaller spas, can be found near the western edge of the park. In contrast to the others mentioned above, this seems to have been a relatively low-budget public bath. As we all know by now, things were far from equal in Communist USSR.
The circular baths have long since dried up and a tree now grows in the center of the room, largely thanks to the large hole which punctures the domed ceiling.
You can also make out the cartoon-like nature scenes on the walls which separate the bathing spaces.
The Train Station
Though I’d read accounts of people visiting Josef Stalin’s former dacha, or summer house, the place isn’t marked on any map. And details on its location were rather vague.
So first I decided to head toward the Tskaltubo Railway Station which I’d read was home to the local tourist information center. And the station itself, also constructed in the Soviet classical style, is a remarkable architectural highlight in its own right.
But contrary to what I’d read, there was no tourism office in sight. In fact, the whole place seemed to be empty, except for a few people loading some boxes onto a truck.
As I was about to walk away, a man asked me in English what I was looking for. It turned out that he was from the tourism office, and they were just in the process of moving to a new location at that very moment!
Thankfully, he kindly gave me the information I was after. As for the new location, you should be able to find it somewhere further south along the main road, not far from (the inhabited) Hotel Sakartvelo.
Stalin's Summer House
Stalin’s summer house is situated atop a hill in the southwestern part of town. To get there, walk toward Hotel Sakartvelo and head uphill along the road next to it, with the hotel on your left. The road will curve sharply in the shape of a U before straightening out again as it ascends.
After passing several buildings, you should eventually find the entrance to the summer house complex on your right. But it isn’t obvious at first. If you’re using the Maps.me app, it’s marked as a place called ‘KKB’ for whatever reason I’ve also placed a marker on the Google map above for reference.
The first structure you’ll encounter is two stories, with one area by the edge completely covered in tiles. Stalin probably had his own bath up here as well.
The upper floor features dozens of rooms, but with nothing left inside, it’s unclear what their original functions were.
Moving further into the complex, there are an additional three or four structures, including a house and a barn. Compared with the bathhouses and hotels mentioned above, the abandoned buildings up on this hill aren’t especially noteworthy. But their backstory makes it a truly unique experience.
This is where one of world history’s most notorious mass murderers came to relax during leisure trips to his home country. What kind of things would’ve crossed his mind? Perhaps it’s best we never find out.
Having been on my feet all day, I took a seat outside for awhile when I heard some voices in the distance.
It wasn’t a guard, nor was it an old Soviet ghost coming back for revenge. Local children were playing a game, and their ball had rolled into the compound. They glanced at me briefly before carrying on with their fun.
Taking one more quick look around, I headed back down the hill and caught the bus back to Kutaisi. I proceeded to spend the rest of the hot summer day in the comfort of my air-conditioned hotel room.
Getting to Tskaltubo from Kutaisi is cheap, quick and easy. First you’ll want to head toward the Red Bridge just to the west of the city center.
On the western side of the Rioni River, you’ll find a small parking lot where several minibuses are parked. Look for vehicle 30 or 40, confirm with the driver that he’s indeed headed to Tskaltubo, and you’re good to go.
The ride just lasts 15-20 minutes and finishes at Tskaltubo’s bus terminal, which is also where I recommend you start your walking tour.
As mentioned above, to get back to Kutaisi you can just wait at a bus stop along the main road to the south of the central park area.
Kutaisi was chosen by budget airlines like Wizz Air to be Georgia’s main hotspot for European budget airlines. As such, many travelers from the EU start their Georgia trip in the city. Personally, I think Kutaisi makes for a better first impression of the country than overcrowded Tbilisi.
For those coming from elsewhere, you can easily find marshrutkas to Kutaisi at all times of day, as it’s one of the tiny nation’s prominent cities. I just showed up at Tbilisi’s Didube Bus Terminal and within a minute, I found a minivan that was just about to depart.
From Tbilisi, the journey is supposed to take around 3 hours. But mine took 4 due to the needlessly long breaks we took at rest areas.
From Batumi, the journey by marshrutka is just about 2 hours. Kutaisi is also connected to both Tbilisi and Batumi by rail. But with minivans leaving so frequently, they’re surely the more convenient option.
The city of Kutaisi has two main areas: the very central area around the Colchis Fountain and Kutaisi Park, and the quieter hilly area just across the Rioni River to the west. The two districts are pretty easily walkable from one another, so I chose to stay in the western part of town.
My booking was for Guest House TasuNia, but the same family also owns Hotel Argo Palace just next door. Being one of the only guests there due to the coronavirus pandemic, they kindly offered me a larger single room at Argo Palace for just a small extra fee.
Breakfast wasn’t included, but it cost around 10 GEL for a huge amount of food. (I’m not a big fan of Georgian food in general, but it sure is filling.)
It’s also worth noting that this hotel and general area is a very easy walk to the buses that leave for Tskaltubo just by the Red Bridge.