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Mtskheta: Discover the Sacred Capital of Georgia

Mtskheta is the most sacred place in the country. It is also a picturesque town surrounded by mountains where you can breathe quite calmly. Its churches have been a World Heritage Site since 1994 and they are authentic gems of Georgian religious architecture.

The city spreads to the place where the Mtkavari and Aragvi rivers meet, only 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Tbilisi. It is well connected with the capital and it is usually a nice day trip. Although lately some hotels, B & Bs, cafes, and restaurants have opened for tourists with very attractive prices and so staying the night is not so bad at all.

For eight hundred years, this picturesque little town was the capital of the kingdom of Iberia (Kartli) and it was the transit area of important trading routes. Although in the sixth century A. D. the capital was moved to Tbilisi, Mtskheta continued being the place for coronations and burials of the Georgian kings.

Today, this small town is like a museum and it is a very quiet place to spend a couple of days. It has just 10,000 inhabitants and it offers many options for holidaymakers. It is well connected and it is perfect if you’re looking to get away from the bustle of the capital.

History

The town has been inhabited for at least three thousand years. It was the capital of the former Kingdom of Iberia from the 3rd century B.C. to the 6th century. And it was already a sacred place during the pagan era, with temples dedicated to Armazi – god of the moon – and other pre-Christian figures.

The Greek philosopher Strabo described it as “a very advanced city with a water supply system, markets and stone houses” during his trip to the Caucasus. In the 4th century, Saint Nino arrived from Cappadocia preaching the faith of Christ and she revolutionized the spiritual plane, not only of the large city but throughout Georgia. In 337, King Mirian III decided to make it the official religion of his domain.

Since then, the city became the spiritual center of the new dogma and churches began to rise in honor of God. At the end of the 5th century, King Vakhtang Gorgasali founded Tbilisi and a few years later, Mtskheta ceased to be the capital of the kingdom in favor of the new city, which was much easier to defend. However, it is still the heart of Georgia’s spiritual and cultural life.

What to See in Mtskheta?

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Address: 3 Arsukidze Street

Opening Hours: from 8:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

This is a cathedral of epic proportions and it looks solid as a mountain. It was built in the eleventh century. This religious structure is surrounded by legends.

According to the stories, a primitive wooden church was built in the fourth century. One hundred years later, King Vakhtang Gorgasali replaced it with a stone basilica.

Svetitskhoveli was the location for the crowning of the Georgian kings and here rest the remains of some of the most important kings of the nation’s past. The apse of the altar is painted with a huge image of Jesus dating from the seventeenth century. There is an atmosphere of great solemnity inside the temple.

Legend of the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

The cathedral rises over the place where the robes of Christ are believed to be buried. Apparently, a citizen of Mtskheta, who was in Jerusalem during the crucifixion, bought it from a Roman soldier on Mount Calvary. When he arrived in Georgia, he gave it to his sister, Sidonia, and when she held it, she died in such in deep ecstasy.

They could not even tear the garment from her hands once she was dead, so they decided to bury her with it. When Iberia converted to Christianity, Nino advised King Miriam III to build a church in the place on which Sidonia rested. In the garden, there was a Lebanese cedar that they cut and used for wood in order to build the seven pillars that were going to support the weight of the cathedral.

Legend has it that the last of them, the largest, had magical properties and that it floated in the air. After a whole night of prayers, Nino got the wood to settle on the floor. It was said that this column healed people and did all kinds of miracles.

That’s why they called it Sveti Tskhoveli: the pillar that gives life, which ended up becoming the name of the cathedral. Today, a quadrangular structure painted on the outside marks the place where it is thought that the holy robe may be buried.

Samtavro Church

Opening Hours: from 8:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

The impressive church that was built between 1030 and 1040 stands out as where Nino lived during his time in Mtskheta.

Inside the complex, there rest the remains of King Mirian III and his wife Nana, along with the kings who decreed Christianity as the official religion of the Caucasian kingdom of Iberia.

The church consists of a bell tower of the XV-XVI century, the great Church of the Saviour (11th century), and the small sanctuary of Saint Nino, which was built in the 4th century. Samtavro has been a convent since 1811.

Jvari Church

Opening Hours: from 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Jvari is one of the masterpieces of Georgian architecture. It stands on top of a hill from where you can see the place where Mtkavari and Aragvi rivers converge.

Its figure is visible from almost any point of Mtskheta. Its name means ‘The cross’. Why? The sanctuary, which was built by the feudal lord Stepanoz I between 586 and 604, stands at the point where Nino built a large wooden cross. They say that the cross was capable of working miracles.

That cross was worshiped by the Caucasian nations for years and it was set to commemorate the conversion of the kingdom in the same place where there had been a pagan temple before.

The base upon which the cross was settled on is still preserved. The sanctuary is located about 3 miles from the downtown of Mtskheta and you have to walk through the mountain to get there. A nice trek can be enjoyed but the locals warn that it is a snake area, so be careful. The alternative option is to go by taxi (20 GEL round trip).

Armaztsikhe (Bagineti)

This is located on the right side of Mtkavari. It is one of the places with the most important archaeological remains of the country and where the kings of Iberia established their residence.

Its name is closely linked to that of Armazi, the god of the moon, the supreme figure of the pre-Christian pantheon of the kingdom. The complex had its own system of walls, cellar, temple, bathhouses, mausoleum, and a swimming pool.

Practical Information

Mtskheta Tourist Office

Address: 3 Arsukidze Street

Phone: +995 32 251 21 28

Summertime: from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

You can find the tourist office in front of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. They offer brochures and all kinds of information about accommodation, transport, activities, and restaurants.

Transportation

  • Marshrutkas: To get from Tbilisi to Mtskheta, there are marshrutkas leaving every twenty minutes from the Didube station (6:30 a.m- 8:00 p.m.). To make the trip back, there are marshrutkas to Tbilisi every twenty minutes (6:00 a.m – 8:00 p.m.) leaving the Davit Aghmashenebelis bus stop.
  • Trains: There is also a railway station where the Tbilisi-Borjomi-Tbilisi line passes. Operation hours: Mtskheta-Tbilisi: 11:00 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. Mtskheta-Gori-Borjomi: 7:07 a.m. and 4:37 p.m. Check out the exact schedules at the Mtskheta tourist office or on the web – railway.ge 

Accommodations

Cheap Lodging

Machitadze Nana Guest House

Address: 14 Gamsakhurdia Street (Mtskheta)

Phone: +995 5 99 35 31 04

It is in downtown and it offers two double rooms. Rate: 20 GEL without breakfast

Medium Price Lodging

Armadzi Hotel

Address: 17 Arsukidze Street (Mtskheta)

Phone: +995 599 171 625/+995 599 553 017

This is a charming hotel in front of Svetitskhovel Cathedral. It occupies a traditional house made of stone and wood. Clean and spacious rooms. It has double and single rooms with private bathrooms. Some of them have their own terrace.

Tamarindi Hotel

Address: 23 Arsukidze Street (Mtskheta)

Phone: +995 5 79 03 77 72

It is a small hotel in front of the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, a few miles from the tourist office. It is managed by Yemal, a Georgian who speaks English. It has a beautiful roof terrace with views over the cathedral. Double rooms with private bathroom: 100 GEL. With shared bathroom: 50 GEL.

Mtskheta Palace Hotel

Address: 7 David Agmashenebeli Alley

Phone: +995 593 078 585. +995 32 291 02 02/ +995 32 25 12 777

E-mail: mtskhetapalace@gmail.com 

It has double rooms and suites. It is a little bit too far from the downtown, in a quiet area on the banks of Mtkvari. It has an indoor pool, bar, and a nice lobby. It has rooms with balconies and has a reputation for being the best hotel in town. Price of standard rooms: 150 GEL.

Restaurants

Cheap Restaurants

Old Taverna Bar-Restaurant

Address: 21 Arsukidze Street

This is located in front of the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and it is a good place to have a couple of beers, lunch, or dinner. They specialize in Georgian cuisine and they offer homemade wine. In summer, a small terrace with umbrellas is set up out on the street.

Medium Price Restaurant

Kartuli Ezo Restaurant (Georgian Yard)

Address: 40 Arsukidze Street

Opening Hours: from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

It has a nice patio for lunch or dinner in the summer. The restaurant has traditional decoration in wood and they offer Georgian cuisine. The average menu price is around 20 GEL.

Activities

  • Tour by the Aragvi River. Phone: +995 598 373 044. E-mail: mtskheta.crusie@gmail.com. This is a small-group tour that goes up to Aragvi by boat. You will learn more about Mtskheta and its surroundings from the water. The tour starts from a jetty not far from the tourist office. Price: 18 GEL/person.
  • Rafting. If you are looking for some excitement, it is possible to do rafting in Fasanauri, thirty-six miles from Mtskheta. You should contact Giordi Naskhidashvili +995 599 996 104.

Festivals and Carnivals

Mtskhetoba-Svetitskhovloba

This festival takes place on the 14th of October. That day, the streets of Mtskheta are filled with visitors from all over the country and there are craft stalls, traditional dances, polyphonic chants, and many other interesting events. You will surely enjoy your visit if you come during the time of the festival and it will be a great time to meet new people and the locals as well.