Out on the fringes of Europe, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia is a country shrouded in mystery.
Sandwiched between the Caucasus Mountains to the north, the Black Sea to the west and dry deserts to the south, this small country, which borders Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey, is not only a crossroad of cultures, but has a wealth of spectacular landscapes.
Until recently, many would have struggled to place the country of Georgia on the map (or at least mistake it for the U.S. state of the same name), but it’s quickly becoming one of Europe’s hottest new destinations.
Here are nine reasons to visit Georgia now.
1. Tbilisi: An eclectic melting pot
From the hanging balconies in the crumbling Old Tbilisi district and the Persian-style sulfur baths clad in turquoise mosaics, to unique art nouveau buildings falling into disrepair sitting side by side with futuristic glass structures, Tbilisi is a city that inspires.
The Georgian capital lies on the banks of the Mtkvari River and is surrounded by mountains on all three sides.
Archeologists trace the first settlement in today’s Tbilisi to the 4th millennium B.C.
Its position on the old Silk Road turned it into a multicultural hub, reflected today in the city’s ethnic diversity and eclectic architecture.
The baths in Abanotubani follow the Persian tradition, only the thermal water bubbles up naturally from the ground below.
Tbilisi gets its name from the Old Georgian word “tbili,” meaning warm, due to its hot, sulfurous water.
Moving away from Abanotubani, a walk into the Old Town reveals old Georgian and Armenian churches, mosques and synagogues and even the ruins of the most northern Zoroastrian fire temple.
Tbilisi’s multicultural atmosphere is on full display this fall at the Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre, which runs from September 25 to October 8.
2. Ushguli: Europe’s highest village
Way up in the Caucasus Mountains around 2,200 meters above sea level, this small village is Europe’s highest continuously inhabited settlement.
Sitting at the foot of Mount Shkhara, Georgia’s highest point, Ushguli is famous for the medieval defensive towers connected to each house.
It’s deep in the Svaneti region, known for its unique culture that was once cut off from the rest of the country.
The main town of Mestia is on its way to becoming the Georgian equivalent of a Swiss resort but Ushguli has been saved by its poor transport routes, which have helped preserve the village’s timeless feel.
Young men gallop through the dirt tracks on horseback between the crumbling towers, dodging the livestock in the street.
Ushguli and the region of Upper Svaneti are classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
3. The birthplace of wine
When we think of the origin of wine we tend to think of France, Italy, Greece or Persia, but Georgia is in fact one of the world’s oldest wine regions.
In 2003 archaeologists found evidence that Stone Age people were producing wine here up to 8,000 years ago.
Since then, wine has played a core part in Georgia’s national identity.
The country’s ancient tradition of fermenting grape juice in clay vessels, known as kvevris, has made it onto UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
There are hundreds of indigenous grape varieties and Georgian wine is slowly gaining recognition globally.
While some of the homemade varieties aren’t particularly palatable, there are some excellent vineyards in Georgia producing premium wines.
A good place to start is with a red wine aged in oak barrels made from the Saperavi grape from Mukuzani in the wine region of Kakheti, such as those from Teliani Valley, or a white Tsindali, made from a blend of Rkatsteli and Mtvani grapes.
Soviet dictator and Georgian native Joseph Stalin was a fan of Khvanchkara, a sweet red wine from the Racha mountain region in the Caucasus.
4. Mysterious cave cities
Georgia is home to some of the most unusual cave cities in Europe.
By themselves, they’re reason alone to visit the country.
The oldest is Uplitstsikhe, an ancient settlement that resembles a lunar landscape.
Others include Davit Gareja, a vast monastic complex carved into the rock of Mount Gareja, andVardzia, a spectacular underground city that once housed 2,000 monks.
5. Supra: A traditional Georgian feast
One of the best ways to get to know the country is through its food.
In fact, if you haven’t tried a Georgian “supra,” or feast, you haven’t experienced Georgia.
The local cheese bread is called “khachapuri,” the most famous being the Adjaran variety.
It’s a baked bread boat filled with gooey, melted, tangy “sulguni” cheese, a whole egg yolk and some slivers of butter. Yes, it’s heart stopping, but so delicious.
“Khinkhali” dumplings come with a spiced meat filling that releases its juices when cooked, so you have to suck out the stock before eating.
Then there are delectable walnut dressing salads, bean stews cooked with fragrant cilantro and “shashlik,” tender marinated meat cooked on a kebab skewer.
They’re best enjoyed, of course, with some excellent Georgian wine.
6. Remote mountain villages
The remote regions of Khevsureti and Tusheti in the Caucasus Mountains are home to spectacular medieval villages with small communities that still retain their ancient pagan traditions.
The roads going up here are an adrenaline rush in themselves.
The ruined fortress of Mutso and the settlement of Shatili in Khevsureti look like something described by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Set dramatically against the mountains, they’re so close to Chechnya you can see the border guards walking up and down the ridge.
Tusheti is a cluster of communities, kind of like a Georgian Shangri La, full of old towers, churches, villages and spectacular mountain scenery with wild flowers and trees with leaves that almost look golden.
Tusheti has numerous hiking trails and the locals are known for their generous mountain hospitality.
7. Europe’s most surreal museum
To learn about the life of Old Joe, visit Stalin’s hometown, Gori, and the bizarre Joseph Stalin Museum.
You might know Stalin as a dictator responsible for millions of deaths, but in this hometown attraction there is a sense of pride about the “local boy made good.”
There aren’t any references to his purges beyond a small backroom that doesn’t feature on the tour, but there are pictures aplenty of Stalin, including one of the leader voting for himself.
There are also various statues, his death mask, carpets and frescoes featuring the dear leader’s face, his personal green railway carriage and — the star attraction — his one-bedroom childhood home preserved in perfect condition.
The museum has been criticized for being a “falsification of history” and an example of “Soviet propaganda.”
There were plans to transform the museum into a museum of Russian aggression, but so far this is limited to a little room hidden beside the entrance.
The museum is worth visiting as it captures the essence of Stalin, including his own self-glorification and propaganda, even if that was not its intended purpose.
8. Beautiful and ancient churches
Georgia adopted Christianity back in 324 AD and the country is full of spectacular churches and cathedrals in incredible locations.
Whether it’s the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Mtskheta’s Svetitskhoveli Cathedral or Kutaisi’s Bagrati Cathedral, or the dramatic hill top position of the church in Kazbegi, Georgia’s churches never fail to paint a pretty picture.
Kazbegi is also home to one of the world’s most spectacular marathon routes.
You can cheer on runners in this year’s Kazbegi Trail Marathon on September 5, 2015.
9. The people and Georgian hospitality
Some Georgians might appear a serious bunch at first, but most of them are kind and welcoming.
For Georgians, a guest is a sacred thing and they will often go out of their way to help you.
Their generosity and hospitality will often take the form of lots of food and even more drink.
As they say in Georgia, “Gaumarjos!” (Cheers!).
Jennifer Walker is an Anglo-Hungarian former nuclear physicist turned writer based in Budapest, Hungary. She’s a compulsive traveler and has lived in the UK, Hungary, Spain, Germany and Georgia.