How to visit Ushguli, Georgia – Europe’s highest and most remote mountain village

How to visit Ushguli, Georgia – Europe’s highest and most remote mountain village

Ushguli is a community of four small villages located near the Russian border in Georgia. It’s situated at 2,100 metres (6,900 ft) in the Caucasus Mountains, making it the highest inhabited settlement in Europe. So far it’s unspoilt by tourism but I can see this changing over the next 5 years. While it’s still an underdeveloped farming community, money from tourists is flowing in. I was lucky enough to spend two nights here and explore this remote area at the end of April 2018. Below is how to reach Ushguli, how much it costs, the “hidden extras” to look out for and what to do in this mountain village.

 

How to reach Ushguli

Travel from Mestia to Ushguli

Watch out with the Taxis

Where to stay in Ushguli

Hidden extras – food and drink

What to do in Ushguli

Stray dogs

Overall

 

How to reach Ushguli

 

To reach Ushguli you have to travel via Mestia, a townlet, 1,500 metres above sea level, in northwest Georgia. To reach Mestia by public transport there are several ways:

 

Travel from Zugdidi

Zugdidi is the main transport hub in western Georgia. I stayed overnight in Zugdidi but this isn’t necessary as there isn’t anything to see here. 

 

Transport options:

Take a marshrutka for 20 lari (10 lari for Georgians).

Marshrutkas are old vans converted into a bus and are normally small and cramped. The host where I was staying in Zugdidi told me there were marshrutkas leaving every 30 minutes. This wasn’t the case when I went in late April. The marshrutka left at 7:30am and the next one left at 12:30pm. So when I arrived at 10:30am, I had to wait 2 hours for it to leave. Often they leave as soon as they’re full but in my case some Georgian girls had left their stuff inside and disappeared and didn’t return until 12:30pm so we had to wait. When travelling on public transport in Georgia, always leave extra time and be flexible.

 

Marshrutka from Zugdidi to Mestia
Marshrutka from Zugdidi to Mestia. Yes – your luggage goes on top. 

 

The marshrutka took less than 3 hours and it stopped at a restaurant on the way where the driver seemed to know the owner… But they sold beer so it was ok. 

As a solo traveller, taking a marshrutka is the cheapest way to travel from Zugdidi to Mestia. If you’re traveling from Tiblisi there is a night train to Zugdidi, from here you can catch the morning marshrutka to Mestia which is waits for the train to arrive (it leaves around 7:30am).

Otherwise, the marshrukas to Mestia aren’t located at Zugdidi bus station on Google maps. It’s located in the screen shot below.

 

Where the marshrutkas are located in Zugdidi
Where the marshrutkas are located in Zugdidi

 

Take a taxi for 120 lari – they fit four passengers so if you’re in a group of four it’s only an extra 10 lari per person and you can stop off at the sights long the way, such as the Inguri Dam.

Take a plane with Vanilla Sky for 40 lari. There are flights operating several times a week between Kutaisi and Mestia, and, Tbilisi and Mestia. I was lucky enough to catch the flight back from Mestia to Kutaisi and it is incredible. The 30 minute flight flies through the Caucasus Mountains and gives stunning views, as well as cutting travel time by 5 hours. The flights run out fast so book far in advance. 

 

Views of the Caucasus Mountains from the plane
Views of the Caucasus Mountains from the plane
Vanilla Sky plane from Mestia
Vanilla Sky plane from Mestia

 

Travel from Mestia to Ushguli

When you get off the marshruka there will be many 4×4 taxis waiting to take people up to Ushguli. As the road up to Ushguli isn’t well kept (even though they are improving this) you can’t take a car that isn’t a 4 wheel drive. Unfortunately, the taxi drivers know this and charge 200 lari (70 euros) for the drive up. The cars can fit 6 people so 200 divided by 6 is only 33 lari each which is a more reasonable price.

 

Approaching Ushguli
Approaching Ushguli

 

However, don’t get caught out like me. As the marshurka from Zugdidi to Mestia took so long I didn’t arrive in Mestia until 4:30pm and there wasn’t five other tourists heading up to Ushguli at that time. The drivers recommended I came back in the morning at 8am to join people visiting Ushguli on a day trip or else it was 200 lari just to take me.

Luckily someone else was heading to Ushguli that evening and was willing to share. I haggled the price from 200 to 180 lari but it was still 90 lari each. That’s right, 90 lari – over 30 euros in a country where the average wage in the capital city (Tbilisi) is 146 euros a month.

The trip up the mountain takes 3 hours and while the road is very worn, I didn’t think it was particularly dangerous in dry conditions. It was late April and there was no snow on the road.

 

Watch out with the Taxis

 

I was keen to find people to travel back down to Mestia with to split the cost. If you wait around Ushguli until later in the day (around 3:30pm) that’s when the day trip people head back to Mestia and the 4x4s are waiting on the bridge. I negotiated a seat for 30 lari in one. When I got in the car I noticed the four Polish people were talking and unhappy. It turned out they had paid 180 lari for the car and then the driver charged me and another girl on top. When the polish group tried to ask the driver for some money back, he refused to speak English.

As they are improving the road from Mestia to Ushguli, hopefully more cars will be able to drive up and it’ll decrease the cost of the taxis.

 

Re-surfacing the road from Mestia to Ushguli
Re-surfacing the road from Mestia to Ushguli

 

Where to stay in Ushguli

 

Accommodation here is very much – you get what you pay for. I paid 50 lari (17 euros) a night for a double room and shared bathroom. Take cash with you as there are no cash points in Ushguli or card payments (like most of Georgia outside of Tbilisi) and you’ll need money in Ushguli for the taxi, accommodation, food and extras.

I chose Chvibiani Guesthouse & Bar because it said it had a bar. Heads up – it doesn’t have a bar.

 

Chvibiani Guesthouse
Chvibiani Guesthouse
Guesthouse room
Guesthouse room

 

The same goes WiFi. Luckily the guy working there let me tether off his phone, but this wasn’t what I expected when they advertised WiFi. This property wasn’t alone in this – everywhere advertised WiFi but when I asked they didn’t have it. I’m almost 100% sure there is no WiFi in Ushguli, just tethering from people’s mobile phones.

Good news – mobile data works in Ushguli.

While there is a Beeline to buy a SIM card in Mestia it’s only open when the guy working there feels like it. So make sure you buy a SIM card from Tbilisi or Kutaisi (SIM cards are available at both airports too).

 

Pigs on the farm
Pigs on the farm

 

Hidden extras – food and drink

 

When I went to pay for the accommodation it was more than I expected – 150 and not 100 lari. The 50 lari was for the breakfast and evening meal, which were very basic (bread, egg, cheese, no meat or beer). Because I had read so much on the Internet about the hospitality of the people in Georgia I thought they were just being kind and inviting me to eat with them. I know, I was stupid but they never mentioned how much anything was and it wasn’t written in any of the reviews.

 

Breakfast for 2 people
Guests breakfast buffet

 

In Georgia, be prepared to be charged for everything. So always ask for prices upfront. Communication can be difficult in Ushguli as many people speak no English. Russian is widely spoken so if you know any it’s very helpful. 

If you want to cook for yourself I recommend taking food up with you. There is only one very small shop (if you can call it that) which sells water, beer and candy. It’s located next to the only restaurant – Cafe Koshki, with the yellow seats outside and isn’t always open. 

 

Cafe Koshki - one of the places to buy food
Cafe Koshki – one of the places to buy food

 

This place is where the tourists gather and you might be able to find a lift back. While it advertised WiFi, it didn’t have it.

Tip – take hand soap with you. The guest house and washrooms in Ushguli didn’t have any.

 

What to do in Ushguli

 

Many people do Ushguli as a day trip from Mestia. Unless you plan on hiking, I recommend doing this. There isn’t that much to do in Ushguli – it’s a little farming village with cow manure everywhere. Do not wear good shoes on your visit.

 

Watch town dating back 800 years
Watch town dating back 800 years
I got stared down by one of the many cows
I got stared down by one of the many cows
Rugged landscape of Ushguli
Rugged landscape of Ushguli

 

The village only needs an hour to walk around, photograph and take in its timeless feel. The defensive watchtowers are the main attraction and date back to the 12th century. On the two days I was there, Ushguli’s Museum wasn’t open. 

 

Traditional brick built houses
Traditional brick built houses
Little piglet
Little piglet

 

Ushguli is in a valley so the views from the town, while spectacular, are limited. A popular activity is to take a horse ride for 50 lari and there are lots of children out with horses keen to get you on one. 

 

Horse ride for 50 lari
Horse ride for 50 lari
One of the villages forming Ushguli
One of the villages forming Ushguli

 

The main activity is hiking. The most popular hike is to the Shkhara glacier. While the glacier isn’t that striking, the walk there is incredible. I went in late April and there was still a lot of snow on the ground and the remains of avalanches. Unless you’re geared up with the right clothing and boots, I wouldn’t recommend doing this hike before late April due to the snow. 

 

Hike along the valley to the Shkhara glacier
Hike along the valley to the Shkhara glacier
Lots of water from the melting snow to climb over
Lots of water from the melting snow to climb over

 

It’s a straightforward hike and should take 5 hours to reach the glacier and return. I took 6 hours because of the avalanches and I got mild sunstroke due to the high altitude and sun reflecting off the snow. You gain about 500 metres of elevation during the walk (putting you at 2,600 metres). I didn’t have any problems with the altitude. I had a small nose bleed when I blew my nose but no shortness of breath or dizziness. But I would recommend wearing a hat.

 

Shkhara glacier, still covered in snow at the end of April
Shkhara glacier, still covered in snow at the end of April
Wear a hat 😂
Wear a hat 😂

 

Stray dogs

 

There are a lot of really big dogs in Ushguli, which, for the most part leave you alone but you can see them roaming in a pack and barking at night. So if you’re afraid of dogs then you might want to reconsider your visit. Due to the sunstroke I vomited, and the stray dog hassling me ate it!

 

Lots of massive dogs
Lots of massive dogs

 

Overall

 

Visiting Ushguli is a unique experience and there aren’t many places left like this in Europe. It’s the closest you’ll find to people living a traditional farming life where they are still using an ox and plough, living off the land, harvesting potatoes and raising horses. If you’re into hiking and rural life then this place is a dream come true. 

It was more expensive than I expected it to be. There are no shops so you have to rely on the one cafe to buy water which wasn’t always open. There’s no WiFi so you have to rely on mobile data. The 4×4 taxis are the only option to go up and down from Ushguli so you have to rely on them. And unless you find another 5 people to share a taxi with they’re very expensive for a solo traveller. 

I hope this post has prepared you for your visit to the highest and most remote village in Europe. Let me know if you go or want any more advice in the comments below. 

 

4 Replies to “How to visit Ushguli, Georgia – Europe’s highest and most remote mountain village”

  1. Hey, I think you’ve tried to compile a comprehensive overview over traveling to Ushguli, and there is a lot of good information in this article.
    However, I resent this notion of “Georgian hospitality is not what I expected” – when, really, you were overcharged at a touristy place. This is of course not okay and very annoying, but should not reflect on the concept of hospitality. You were not a guest there but a tourist – and tourists who don’t know prices or don’t speak the language get overcharged everywhere. Has happened to me for sure.

    1. So the point I was trying to make was that I had read a lot about Georgian hospitality in my research before going– in blog posts, travel articles, about friendly Georgians giving out free glasses of chacha to foreigner etc. This gave me a preconceived idea of how it was going to be. Which was why I wasn’t more on it and I didn’t ask the price straight up. In other countries I have been offered glasses of wine, pie, morning pancake etc in guesthouses for free before.

      I did also say I was silly to think food was included with staying there. I understand I was their guest but I still think they should have told me how much the food was beforehand. Writing down a number on a piece of paper is the same in every language and as it is a “touristy place”, you’d expect them to be able to do this. They were able to do it at the end when they gave me the bill 😉

      If tourists keep accepting that we’ll be over charged, then nothing will change. We need to fight against it, which is why I try to warn people in my blog. Just because we are tourists doesn’t mean we’re fair game!

  2. Hi Fran!

    Hahahaha, thank you for writing a very honest blogpost! All I have read so far about Svaneti have indeed been about the spellbinding scenery and warm hospitality, so it’s kinda weirdly reassuring that there are other accounts out there that are not just 100% gushing (we’re booked and can’t change our plans anyway). We’re also heading over to Mestia by plane in late-Apr. Any ideas which treks (besides the one to Shkhara glacier) will be feasible in the region then?

    1. Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you booked the plane. I don’t mean this post to put people off but to give tips on how to avoid any mistakes I made. Unfortunately I didn’t get to do much hiking around Mestia, I took the time there to rest, eat and drink (I was avoiding the sun as I had slightly burnt my head). But many people were hiking from Mestia, there will still be some snow in late April. I also really enjoyed Kazbegi, a mountain town near Tbilisi. I hope you have time to visit there too.

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