From climbing Svan Towers and basking in mountain air, to baking Kudbari and drinking homemade Cha cha, here are the best things to do in Mestia, Georgia.

“Winter,” said Lasha, our driver, with a matter-of-fact sigh that suggested he’d surrendered himself to the forces of nature that dictate life in the high mountains of Svaneti. “No internet. No signal. No Chacha.”

This was moments after we’d almost been swept off the road by an avalanche. Lasha was soaked through and covered in snow after rescuing one of the other drivers in our convoy who’d just been buried up to his neck in snowfall. We hadn’t even made it to Mestia yet, and already, the Georgian mountains were proving almost insurmountable.

It’s foolish really, attempting to visit Mestia – the capital of Svaneti, Georgia’s northwestern mountain province – in late January. Yet here we were, caught in the worst storm they’d seen in over two decades, fearing for our lives as snow and rocks crashed down from the mountaintops. Svans are made from hardy stuff, though, and we painstakingly inched our way along the hairpin turns and through ever-mounting snow, following in the tread marks of a digger attempting to clear the path.

Hours after darkness had fallen, we limped into Mestia, where stone Svan Towers were lit up on the mountainsides. Mestia sits in the shadow of some of the highest mountains in the Caucasus, and in winter, it’s a seriously off-the-beaten-track ski destination (as long as you avoid the avalanches). In spring, summer and autumn, Mestia is an adventure playground for hikers and mountaineers. And that’s before you factor in the Svan food, Cha Cha, and a trip to Ushguli, the highest settlement in Europe that’s continually inhabited, all year round.

Things to do in Mestia

Sitting at an altitude of around 1500 metres, Mestia is the hub of life in the Georgian region of Svaneti. The town (population: approx 2000 people) is the gateway to the remote reaches of the Caucasus Mountains, and even with a paved road leading from Zugdidi to Mestia, getting here in one piece can be a challenge (especially, as I discovered on my latest trip in January 2024, when you travel here in winter!).

Svaneti is a land apart from Georgia, and people speak the Svan language (distinct from Georgian) and are rightly proud of their independent history. This was once the wild west of Georgia, and the tall stone Svan Towers that scar the landscape is a reminder of the blood feuds and endemic warfare that once flourished here.

I’ve visited Mestia twice now, and I feel it’s still a genuinely remote place. It’s not quite so wild as Tusheti, another mountain region to the east (which is closed off from the outside world for almost half the year), but you do feel the isolation when you’re hiking in the shadow of the 5000-metre-high mountains on the border with Russia. It’s still lawless in a way, as shown by the recent Bitcoin scandals that shook Mestia (ask about the crypto mining priest) when locals abused the free electricity from a nearby hydroelectric dam to mine cryptocurrency!

You need at least a week to make the journey here worthwhile, and you won’t be disappointed with an even longer stay. My honest advice though? Don’t visit in winter, unless you’re a diehard skier. As my introduction to this article has hopefully shown, the winding, avalanche-prone mountain road to Mestia is incredibly dangerous.

Mestia clad in winter snow.

Read more: Is Georgia a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

1. Visit the Svan Towers

The first things you’ll spot when you arrive in Savneti are the distinctive ‘Svan Towers’. Hand-built from stone and standing several stories high, the mountain slopes and valleys are lined with these unique defensive structures. Svan Towers were designed to defend entire families in times of war, feuds, and avalanches, and the majority are thought to date back to sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries AD.

Some 200 Svan Towers remain in the Upper Svaneti region, and they’re an important reason why the area was granted UNESCO World Heritage status. They’re a lasting tribute to hardier, bloodier days of old, and many have now been turned into museums. In Mestia, there are several you can visit, and if you brave rickety wooden ladders (designed to be hauled into the towers when they were under siege) you’ll have exceptional views over the town. Visit the Mikhail Khergiani House Museum or Margiani’s House Museum for a taster of Svan Tower life.

Svan Tower inception. One Svan Tower is viewed from another Svan Tower.

2. Explore the Museum of History and Ethnography

“Human settlement in Svaneti dates to 3000 BC,” said Rusudan Japaridze, a guide at the Museum of History and Ethnography in Mestia. “The legend of the Golden Fleece is connected to Svaneti because of the gold extraction that occurred here in ancient times. Svaneti was connected to the extensive trade networks that reached deep into Alexander the Great’s empire.”

A visit to the Museum of History and Ethnography is one of the best things to do in Mestia, and I’d highly recommend hiring one of the museum’s guides for fascinating insight into Svaneti’s ancient past. The museum itself is located within a brutalist building constructed in 1936, but the artefacts inside stretch back millennia.

The Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography.

3. Hike to the Chalaadi Glacier

Visit Mestia in summer, and a hike to the Chalaadi Glacier is an exhilarating experience. You need zero technical equipment and only moderate fitness to make the hike, but trust me when I say that the views are exceptional!

The Chalaadi Glacier is hidden away in a valley beneath the Caucasus Mountains, right on the border with Russia. You’ll follow the path of the Mestiachala River as it charges down from the mountains, crossing over suspension bridges, hiking through the forest, and then finally reaching the glacier itself.

Ask the tourist information for maps and up-to-date info on any avalanche warnings. This is particularly important if you’re here in spring when the snow is still melting on the mountaintops. From Mestia, the hike there and back takes around 5-6 hours. Lots of hikers cut off the first part of the trek by hiring a taxi to the suspension bridge, from where it’s around 2-3 hours there and back.

Chaladi Glacier Georgia
The Chaladi Glacier (Photo taken on my first trip to Georgia, on a much older camera!).

Read more: Avalanches and Snow: The Hike To The Chaladi Glacier

4. Ski or Snowboard at Hatsvali Ski Resort

For those visiting in winter, the Hatsvali Ski Resort offers slopes for both beginners and experienced skiers or snowboarders. The resort is a relatively recent development in the region, reflecting the growing interest in tapping into Georgia’s potential as a winter sports destination. If you don’t ski, then the lifts and gondola provide stunning panoramas of the surrounding peaks, including Mount Ushba, one of the most iconic mountains in the Caucasus (the gondola is open all year round too, so you can ride it to the top in summer as well as winter).

The resort itself is accessible via a short drive from Mestia to the gondola station, or you can hop on the ski lifts in town and then transfer to the gondola. At an altitude of 2340 metres, Zuruldi Restaurant is the highest cafe and bar in Mestia. I spent a few afternoons here (I don’t ski!) just taking in the views and enjoying a beer and Khachapuri at altitude.

You can rent ski gear in the town for reasonable prices (get your gear before heading to the lifts). The cost of a lift pass is excellent value compared to other European resorts. A one-day pass is 50 Georgian Lari (approx £15) and a week’s pass is 370 Georgian Lari (approx £100).

Zuruldi Restaurant, Mestia.

5. Enjoy a Banya at Papa’s Qel

On the winding road leading from Mestia to the Gondola station, you can stop off for a quick Banya at Papa’s Qel. This local ‘spa’ is home to a rustic, wood-fired sauna, a cold water plunge pool and an outdoor hot tub.

I was visiting in winter when the Banya was superbly welcome in the frigid cold of Mestia. It was almost worth risking my life on the avalanche-prone road to Mestia, just for a quick dip in the outdoor hot tub.

While you’re bathing, you’ll probably be offered a few shots of homemade Cha Cha, but maybe skip on the fiery Georgian spirit if you’re about to go skiing! Contact Papa’s Qel through Facebook or Instagram to book a slot in the Banya.

6. Hike to Koruldi Lakes

Another great hike you can tackle in summer takes you from Mestia to Koruldi Lakes. This tough trek is an awe-inspiring journey through alpine meadows to a series of glacial lakes beneath Mount Ushba, a distinctive peak which rises to an altitude of 4700 metres.

From Mestia, the challenging hike takes at least 7 hours there and back. It involves some 1400 metres of uphill hiking, so it’s not for the inexperienced. You can shorten the hike by catching a taxi to ‘The Cross’, a popular viewpoint much closer to the lakes.

Grab a trekking map from tourist information in Mestia, and make sure you’re well-prepared with snacks and warm clothing for this full-day hike.

Read more: Top Things To Do in Georgia!

7. Journey from Mestia to Ushguli

A highlight of any trip to Svaneti is the journey from Mestia to Ushguli. Located deeper into the Caucasus Mountains, Ushguli’s altitude is its claim to fame. At 2100 metres, this is the highest altitude settlement in Europe to be continually inhabited all through the year. That’s right, even in the dark depths of winter, Ushguli’s residents survive, despite regularly being cut off from Mestia.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, make the 2 to 3-hour drive from Mestia (weather permitting of course) and you’ll find a village trapped in the Svan past. Life here is tough, and many of the Svan Towers are still lived in by locals. It’s a spectacular setting though, and well worth the long journey from Mestia to see the almost medieval-like village arrayed beneath Mount Shkhara, Georgia’s highest peak.

In summer, you can step things up a notch and tackle the four-day hike from Mestia to Ushguli. You’ll stop in homestays and Svan Towers along the way, before hitching a ride back to Mestia at the end of the trek. Before setting off, pop into Dede Cinema in Mestia, where you can watch the locally produced film ‘Dede‘ on repeat. It tells a harrowing real-life tale of love, life, loss, and death in Ushguli.

The long road to Ushguli Georgia
Svan Towers in Ushguli.

Read more: The Long Road to Ushguli

8. Dig into Svan cuisine

After traipsing through the snow I arrived at a small, windblown hut on the side of a ravine. Behind the plastic tarpaulin, Lali Nikoloziano was cooking a feast of Svan food as she battled the elements. On the stove, she was heating up mashed potatoes and salty Sulguni cheese, while on the wooden bench, she was demonstrating how to prepare Kudbari, a traditional Svan bread stuffed with meat and spices.

It was a glorious demonstration of Svan cooking, especially given how the wind almost knocked the hut over on more than one occasion. Once the show was over, Lali hosted a Supra (a Georgian feast) in her home, and we drank homemade brandy, wine, and Cha Cha into the late afternoon.

Lali’s Guesthouse is a fantastic place to stay if you want to immerse yourself in the world of Svan cookery, but there are plenty more excellent restaurants in Mestia too, including my personal favourite, Cafe Laila, where the portions are huge and the wine free-flowing.

A feast of Svan cuisine prepared by Lali.

Read more: Acharuli Khachapuri: The Georgian Cheeseboat

Map of the best things to do in Mestia

Here’s a map of the best things to do in Mestia:

FAQ: The best things to do in Mestia

Here’s an FAQ on the best things to do in Mestia:

Q1. What are the must-visit historical sites in Mestia?

Visiting the Svan Towers, ancient defensive structures unique to the region, is essential. Don’t miss the Museum of History and Ethnography, which offers insights into local culture and history through its extensive collection of artefacts.

Q2. Can I hike to the Chalaadi Glacier? Is it suitable for beginners?

Yes, hiking to the Chalaadi Glacier is a popular activity in Mestia. The trek is moderately challenging but accessible for those with basic fitness levels. It offers spectacular views of the Caucasus Mountains and the glacier itself.

Q3. What winter sports are available in Mestia?

Mestia is renowned for its skiing and snowboarding opportunities, particularly at the Hatsvali Ski Resort. With slopes for all skill levels and stunning mountain views, it’s a perfect destination for winter sports enthusiasts.

Q4. How can I experience the local culture in Mestia?

Attend a Svaneti folk music and dance performance to immerse yourself in the local culture. Participating in or observing local festivals can also provide a deep dive into the traditions and social life of the Svan people.

Q5. Are there any guided tours available in Mestia?

Yes, there are numerous guided tours available, ranging from historical tours of the Svan Towers and cultural museums to adventure tours that include hiking, skiing, and mountaineering. These tours offer a comprehensive way to explore the area with expert guidance.

Q6. What is the best way to travel around Mestia and its surrounding areas?

While Mestia itself can be explored on foot, hiring a local taxi or arranging a private vehicle is recommended for visiting surrounding attractions like the Chalaadi Glacier or Ushguli village. Mountain bikes are also available for rent.

Q7. Is Mestia suitable for family visits?

Absolutely. Mestia offers activities and sights that cater to all ages, from historical explorations and gentle hikes to skiing and snowboarding. The town also has family-friendly accommodations and restaurants.

Q8. What culinary experiences should I not miss in Mestia?

Try local Georgian dishes such as khachapuri (cheese-filled bread), lobiani (bean-filled bread), and unique Svanetian salt-seasoned dishes. Many local eateries offer these traditional meals with stunning mountain views.

Q9. When is the best time to visit Mestia?

Mestia is a year-round destination, with skiing and snowboarding in the winter months (December to March) and hiking, cultural tours, and festivals during the summer (June to September). Choose your visit based on the activities you’re most interested in.

Q10. Are there any tips for first-time visitors to Mestia?

Dress in layers to adapt to the changing mountain weather, and ensure you have comfortable walking shoes. Also, learning a few basic phrases in Georgian can enhance your interaction with the local community.

There you go! The best things to do in Mestia. What would you add to the list?