The city of Kutaisi is an ancient place full of legends. As a former capital of Western Georgia, it rivals the fame of Tbilisi, however, compared to the capital it is more laid back and less touristy. (Ehm, I think. I haven´t made it to Tbilisi just yet so I am just making awful assumptions based on what I´ve heard!) At the same time, it is easily accessible by plane, train, bus or hitchhiking and thus makes a popular stop for travelers in Georgia.
As Greek stories tell, Kutaisi is the ancient city of Colchis where Iason and his Argonauts came in search for the golden sheep skin. However, this is just one of the many legends and stories that form the charm of the Caucasus region.
I have spent almost three weeks exploring the neighborhoods of Kutaisi and nearby villages while volunteering in a hostel and I have immediately fallen for the relaxed vibe, slack beauty and soft summer light shimmering in the train-like windows of Soviet era panel houses.
Kutaisi is one of the oldest cities in the world; one of the first mentions of it is the Greek poem of Argonautica, written 3300 years ago. Built on the fast-paced Rioni River, it has a lot of green spots and chill-out places, as well as secret corners and urbex spots. (Careful though – what might seem abandoned, can actually still be inhabited!)
Sightseeing in Kutaisi
Many one-day visitors opt for a quick tour of the downtown and perhaps a trip to the famous Gelati monastery. However, for a slow traveler, there is a lot more to see – if you are not rushed by an upcoming plane ticket and spending a longer time in Georgia, Kutaisi is worth at least a few days of peaceful exploring.
To enter an orthodox monastery, you should wear long trousers (for men) and a headdress (for women). Usually, they have shawls and such available for people whose clothes are not deemed decent enough. All the monasteries I mention in this article are free to enter.
The most popular in this area is the UNESCO heritage listed monastery in Gelati. Along with the building of the church, adorned by the typically (ugh, I know I´m not supposed to say that, but it´s true!) weirdly shaped colorful medieval paintings of saints, there is also the ancient academy which used to be a famous center of knowledge centuries ago. Gelati is located about 12 km from the city and easy to hitchhike to.
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The nearby Motsameta monastery is only 6 km from Kutaisi and stands tall on a rock over a river bend amidst a hilly forest. The paintings inside the church are not too old, but its location and architecture make it worth a visit – the views of the river are slightly more spectacular than the view of the valley from Gelati! The name of the monastery refers to an old story about two tortured brothers who were captured by Arab armies. The brothers were the rulers of this region in the 8th century, but after refusing to convert to Islam, they were thrown into the river with stones tied to their necks by the conquerors. Their bodies washed up under the monastery and were buried in Motsameta, although the crypt has also been destroyed by the Arabs.
There has been a church and a village on this spot at least since the 4th century. This place is less visited than Gelati and offers a different atmosphere – personally, I liked it better.
It is possible to walk from Motsameta to Gelati along the railway if you are up for a bit of hiking. The railway passes right in from of the Motsameta monastery and leads to the Gelati village from where it is a steep uphill hike to the monastery of Gelati. I am not too sure how often does the train go, but you might want to watch out for it – it is the train from Kutaisi to Tkibuli.
The more than 1000 years old Bagrati Cathedral is the easiest one to reach as it stands on top of the Ukimerioni hill right above the downtown of Kutaisi. It is the perfect spot for a sunset picnic with its green grass and a wide view of the city landscape. As the sun goes down, the golden light reflects on the white walls of Bagrati and the city plunges into soft shadows. On a clear day, you can watch the moon rise up above Kutaisi while sipping a local wine (that you can get in the downtown) or water (that flows from the tap right next to Bagrati church).
Also have a look at the ruins of the palace-citadel right next to it that has origins in the 6th century and was destroyed in 1769 during the war with Turks and Russians. Funnily enough, the cathedral is on the UNESCO endangered places list because of its recently finished renovation – apparently, there is a risk of loss of authenticity. You be the judge!
The first time we walked to Bagrati, we met a local guy who claimed to be a descendant of the old royal family. He said he lives right next to the cathedral and seemed a little disappointed about the lack of respect for his royalty among his fellow countrymen.
The cathedral of Bagrati is also a symbol of united Georgia as it was built by the king Bagrat III in the 10th century who led the war for unification and later constructed it on top of the hill over his capital city.
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The #Bagrati Cathedral is watching over the town of #Kutaisi from the hill. It is more than 1000 years old and we´ve met a guy in front of it who claimed he was the descendant of the royal family and vaguely complained that nobody respects them anymore, in spite of the government clearly not being apt for the job. Kingdom enthusiasm aside, Bagrati is a nice place to watch the evening light shine over the white walls and disappear while the moon is rising over the city. #GirlAstrayInGeorgia #FancySchmancyCathedralFrom10thCentury • • • • • • • • • #Georgiathecountry #georgiatrip #georgia #кутаиси #georgianwine #georgialife #georgiatravel #грузия #грузиятрип #discovernew #easterneurope #easterneuropean #easterneuropetrip #backpackerstory #adventurer #adventureseeker #creativefolk #adventureculture #exploretheglobe #primerolacomunidad #createcomune #cathedrals #churches #orthodox
There are also other monasteries scattered throughout Kutaisi and you will run into them when you walk around the corners. One of them is on a hill above the dam, in the Jewish quarter, but it doesn´t have a great view and it was closed when I went. Another one is over the river – you can see it when you walk towards the Botanical garden. Take a walk and you will surely discover more.
The center of Kutaisi consists of a combination of old architecture with communist housing. Many of the buildings need a thorough renovation, but for a visitor who doesn´t need to endure a cold winter here, the cracked façades and old wooden windows have their own charm.
The heart of the downtown is the Central park where the locals gather in the evenings. You can get drinking water for free in one of the taps here, refresh yourself in the shadow and see the big Colchis fountain with golden rams designed with reference to the legends of Iason and Medea, inspired by the golden artifacts from Vani.
There are a few stylish cafés and restaurants with hipster interior décor, cobblestoned streets and a pedestrian bridge with a funny statue of a boy with two hats. Awkwardly enough, this bridge is not on the map.
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My city is famous for its funny statues and tourists love posing with them. Although I don't take statue selfies in Bratislava, I couldn't resist this Picasso's boy (apparently that's his name!) in #Kutaisi. Do you have quirky statues where you come from? #girlastrayingeorgia #picassosboy #kutaisigram . . . . . . . #colormyworld #colorfulart #urbanlandscape #urbanromantix #cityscapes #Georgiathecountry #georgiatrip #kutaisi #georgia #кутаиси #georgianwine #georgialife #georgiatravel #грузия #грузиятрип #discovernew #easterneurope #easterneuropean #easterneuropetrip #femaletravelbloggers #Globalstorybook #girlslovetravel #dametraveler #darlingescapes #statues
You will also see the theater and the Golden Marquee and other fancy-schmancy historical buildings ou can read about in every tourist flier.
What is on the map is a lane poetically called Ganja Street. I went to have a look but there were no potheads around, so you shouldn´t get your hopes too high.
You definitely shouldn´t miss the local market though. You will easily find it when you enter the building behind the orange façade with reliefs of grapes, strong people and a couple of Kalashnikovs. The bazaar is the best place to get the freshest produce – in the summer season, the apricots cost 1 lari per kg and the tomatoes are bloody red. If you are Colombian, you will be excited to see that they also sell cilantro (called kinzi in Georgian) – the fresh coriander is a common ingredient in the local cuisine. Note: only buy the fresh milk in the morning.
The Opera house with its Vienna inspired statues is something hard to miss, but there is also a historical museum (which I happily didn´t enter) that is apparently quite good. If you enjoy museums, that is – on the other hand, they say it is rather small!
All in all, the city of Kutaisi has an air of a capital, but is relaxed and calm, without too much rush in the streets. (Except for the drunks driving home at 9 am, right.) There is a lot to see, but at the same time, it is not crowded with tourists and souvenir stands.
Unfortunately, it happened to us more than once or twice to get scammed. In several shops, we were charged extra products, higher price or a bigger amount than what we actually bought. The prices are not too high, but it is still a bit unpleasant, especially because when pointed out, the sellers mostly refuse to budge. The bill being in Georgian alphabet, it is hard to argue with them. It might be a good idea to check how much you are supposed to pay.
Besarion Gabashvili Amusement park
For any dedicated sovietourist, this is really a treat. Take an old cable car across the river for 0,50 lari and it will take you up the hill to this old amusement park, complete with an old colorful Ferris wheel and a couple more nostalgically outdated attractions. You can also walk to Bagrati from here and save your feet a bit of a climb.
The Jewish quarter of Kutaisi is probably my favorite part. I liked walking there a few hours before sunset when the light reflects on the colors of old houses with patios and garden fences covered with flowering Passiflora. There are two synagogues – one of them is usually open and you can have a peek inside (in the Boris Gaponov street), the other one was closed whenever I passed by.
Elderly ladies gossip on the narrow benches as soon as the heat of the day recedes and you can easily walk to the dam, or take the way to Gelati from here.
The dam is the freshest part of the town, with a wild plum tree for a snack, a romantic bench perched between two wide trees and wild flowers calling for a photo-shoot. Starting from the Colchid fountain (with golden sheep), you simply need to follow the river until you get to a narrow staircase going down. There you cross the gates and the rushing water and can enjoy the freshness of the air. When the water is low, there are wooden pontoons you can walk on and get closer to the water. The dam has a lot of sediment though and is not too clean – it didn´t seem inviting enough to swim there.
At this point you can also cross to the other side of the river; you will end up next to the botanical garden which is a nice park with an entrance of 1 lari.
I have seen a lot of caves in my life (I come from a mountainous country after all) but I was still impressed by this one. The entrance is 7 lari (3,50 for a student, guess who used their old student’s card) and the guided tours are in Russian and English. The cave itself is impressively long, with many stalactites and stalagmites and stalagnates and whatnot, with streams of water trickling to small pools and colorful lights casting shadows on the rocks. There is a background of Vivaldi´s music as a final touch.
The tour itself is fast paced and crowded so we opted out of it after a minute – we stayed behind and enjoyed the natural shapes on our own. We still made it on time to get picked up by the tourist train that takes the groups back to the entrance in the end. We might have missed the exact spot where a dinosaur bone was found, but we enjoyed ourselves a lot more this way.
Nearby is also the Sataplia natural reserve and the canyon of Okatse, but unfortunately, my hiking abilities are still a bit limited at this point so I haven´t made it there.
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Urbex in Kutaisi
There are many abandoned buildings in Georgia and Kutaisi is not an exception. I was told there is a cool abandoned hospital with a lot of original equipment, but when we went to take a look, there were guards and everything was thoroughly locked. Feeling a bit down, we explored a nearby house so that we wouldn´t have to go home feeling like losers.
In general, the architecture in Kutaisi is worn down most of the time and although I am sure the locals would love an upgrade, I loved photographing this side of the city. It felt to me like going back in time in my own city of Bratislava that has had a lot of relatively recent renovations going on.
There are also a lot of old cars around (in all of the country) and some of them are in a great shape – if you have no money for a trip to Cuba, come to Georgia instead! Well, it will be quite a different experience though.
Read more: Sleeping in a ghost hotel in Sicily
Where to stay in Kutaisi?
Couchsurfing in Kutaisi (as in all of Georgia) proved to be harder than I´d think; most of hosts didn´t bother to answer, those who did were traveling and one even declined with a “Sorry, I just want sex :)” message. (Reported him, bye boy!)
There are a few hostels around, many of them near the Rioni river and apparently, a common price is 20 lari per night in a shared room.
We were lucky to find a work exchange deal where we helped the owner with photographing the property and creating their website in exchange for a place to stay and food so we could enjoy Kutaisi for two weeks and some. We haven´t stayed in a hostel for ages (having couch-surfed, camped and in the end rented a flat in Turkey during our many months there) so the company of other travelers (mostly Polish, Germans and some British) was refreshing and more than welcome to us.
Kutaisi is rather small so if you stay in the downtown, you can easily walk to all the attractions (well, not to the Prometheus cave, but yeah). If you are very short on money, I´d recommend you to try camping on the dam – there is a nice flat spot with a fireplace and although you might get some noisy party makers, the most probable thing is that you´ll get invited to share their feast. Georgians are pretty relaxed about everything so I don´t think somebody would show up to kick you out for freecamping like in some other places. (Yes, that´s you, California!)
Hospitals in Kutaisi
I guess most of the tourists don´t need this kind of information, however, I had a hard time finding specialists for the medical checks I needed after my April 2017 car accident or googling the local hospitals in English at all. It can be difficult to choose which hospital is the best for your needs if you don´t speak and write Georgian.
Kutaisi, however, is the second largest city in Georgia and if you know where to go, you will be most probably able to find all kinds of specialists. Apparently, the uniform fee for a medical check is 30 lari – I paid the same for each control I took and it even included the X-ray they´ve done. The doctors generally spoke good English and treated me kindly and politely. Unlike in Turkey, the staff is not shy to examine you by touch so that was a relief for me.
Each time there was a reception where I paid the fee and next, I was directed to the specialist’s door.
Neurologist and Orthopedic control in Kutaisi
I went to the Evex hospital (Otsxeli street (near Topuria street), also called Referral Hospital) for a neurology check and an orthopedist control. They mostly receive emergency cases and the specialists there are very professional as far as I can judge. They have an X-ray and a tomography machine if needed.
They spoke English, Russian and even German at the reception. The doctors also spoke English very well.
Ophthalmology – where to get a glasses prescription in Kutaisi
I also lost my glasses in the accident. They are not able to measure your eyes in the optic shops here though so I needed to get a prescription from a local doctor. I found an English speaking eye doctor in the LJ Clinic who was able to help me with everything.
There are several shops who sell glasses in the downtown of Kutaisi. The fanciest (and priciest) one is Roniko where the glasses range from 130 – 400 lari for a frame. They also sell and make glasses in the clinics, but I haven´t found a frame that I would like there – this, however, is the cheapest option, a frame costing 10 – 50 lari.
Several small opticians sell pretty frames for around 100 lari – if you walk around in the downtown, you will run into those too. I bought a nice frame in a shop called Optimist where they were speaking English and were kind enough not to jump at me and tear the doctor’s recipe right out of my hands right away as in some places, but also advised me with the choice of a frame that would fit my face. You can find this shop on the first floor of a small commercial center when going from the Golden Ram fountain to the Tsereteli Street, right opposite to the Koton clothes store. My glasses cost me 129 for the frame plus 60 for both lenses. (I have chosen the fancier kind; you can also get lenses for 40 lari if you are short on money.)
You can also purchase a frame and have the glasses made directly in the clinic if you wish.
Read more: How I survived a car crash in Turkey
Where to get a Lyme disease blood test in Kutaisi?
I contracted the Borrelia Burgdorferi last year and I needed to do a control exam to be sure the ATB cure was successful after a few months. Most of the hospitals don´t do this test although ticks are common in Georgia and I went to at least five establishments until I found a small laboratory where they could test me for Lyme disease. This laboratory is called Synevo, the Borrelia blood test costs 130 lari and the results are delivered within 2 weeks (you can choose for them to be sent to your email address). The Synevo laboratory is on the Irakli Abashidze Street, very near to the Hotel Continental. They actually sent me in the right direction (a bit to the east from the hotel) at the reception.
Things to do in Kutaisi: Tips from a Slow Traveler
There is a lot of stuff to see and do in Kutaisi, especially when you are not hurried. Most people only stay for a day or two in this city, but part of its charm is that it is not oversaturated with tourism. I loved the views over the river Rioni and relaxing at the dam, exploring the many monasteries and staying in the historical building of our work exchange spot.
I did meet people who managed to stuff our four days activities into one single day, however, for us after almost a year on the road, Kutaisi was a perfect place to wind down, enjoy the sunny weather and simply wander around among the low buildings.
Since there is a good airport connection in Kutaisi (you can even take a plane to Mestia from here – in fact, there are two airports), but also train on the Batumi – Tbilisi railway, it is fairly easy to come and go. For slow travelers and nomads, it is really a great spot to enjoy.
Are you a local or have you been to Kutaisi? Do you have more tips? What was your favorite part? Share with me, I love to hear from you!
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