Stepantsminda, a high mountain town in the Caucasus Mountains near the Russian border, has fantastic views of Mt Kazbek. While the region is known for its mountain views and hiking and skiing opportunities it has a more developed feel than the Svaneti region. It also felt more touristy, probably because it is more reachable from Tbilisi, 3 hours versus 8 hours driving time.
Gergeti Trinity Church
Perched on a hilltop with outstanding views overlooking Stepantsminda, the Gergeti Trinity Church is often touted as one of Georgia’s top sights. While the 14th century structure is beautiful, surrounded by high snowy peaks, it’s most notable for the setting. Note that the views overlooking Stepantsminda are best in the afternoon. At this time of day the view of the church with the mountains above Stepantsminda in the background is also well lit.
Lonely Planet (LP), talks about the view of the Gergeti Trinity Church with Mt Kazbek in the background but the photo they show has the mountains above Stepantsminda in the background, not Mt Kazbek. Nowhere did I see where Mt Kazbek lines up well behind the church.
From the church grounds if you go a bit below the church, near the cross, the Kazbek peak is small and to the side. This view is best lit in the morning. Photo courtesy of Commons.Wikimedia.org.
From Stepantsminda, like from the terrace of the Rooms Hotels Kazbegi, it’s a very distant view of the church.
There are great views of Mt Kazbek from the church but in the afternoon it’s into the sun and the peak is often cloaked in clouds at this time of day. If you want to see Mt Kazbek from the church a morning visit would be best.
Also note that no photos are allowed inside the chapel. It is, however, still worth peeking inside to see the icons and the beehive dome ceiling.
During our visit in early July of 2022 they had the paved road to the church closed near the bottom and were detouring traffic onto a very rough track. It’s best if you have a 4×4 or at least a vehicle with high clearance if you want to drive to the church. About half way up, the rough track met the paved road again. They did have a fleet of 4×4 taxis that were shuttling tourists to the church and back. Hiking to the church is also a popular option.
Rooms Hotels Kazbegi
Rooms Hotels Kazbegi is an upscale establishment with fabulous views of Mt Kazbek and the Gergeti Trinity Church perched on a hilltop before it, although the latter is at a considerable distance and tiny. Still, if you want to watch the morning light over Mt Kazbek the hotel’s mountain view room is the best room in town.
The hotel blends upscale amenities and services with a hip, quasi-soviet shabby-chic décor – Soviet posters, beautiful reclaimed wood floors and rustic furniture. There is a large lounge area on the main floor with an even larger terrace overlooking valley and Mt Kazbek. Pool and spa services are on the lower level.
We had a king room with mountain views. The room, although comfortable, is on the small size. It does boast a balcony with incredible views and a comfy chair to enjoy them from with two additional patio chairs on the balcony. The bed has soft sheets and was quite comfortable. The bathroom is also on the small side but adequate, and does have counter space. Amenities include a water kettle, mini-bar, hairdryer a good Wi-Fi connection but no safe. Free parking is available on the property.
The terrace facing Mt Kazbek is a fabulous place for lunch with views of the famed peak – weather permitting. While often clear in the morning the clouds start to cloak the peak nearing lunch time, some days earlier than others. We watch the clouds float by the peak, sometimes leaving a hole big enough for a pretty good view.
The menu is a mix of Georgian and international specialties. We both had the falafel sandwich served with a green salad. Good quality ingredients and nicely done. While this was the most expensive place we had eaten in Georgia thus far, prices were still way below what they would be in the US. Lunch with one beer and one water cost under $25USD.
The dinner menu is the same as the lunch menu. The open dining room does have Mt Kazbek views although the mountain is not well lit in the afternoon and evening as the sun sets behind it. The dining room, a large open space, has a mix of large tables for groups or families and smaller tables for 2 to 4. I had reserved in advance and we had a nice table closest to the window. Unfortunately, it was also closest to the door making it a little cold every time someone came or went from the patio.
The menu has mix of Georgina and international dishes. We started with the pikhali, four vegetable patés – leek, spinach, beet and eggplant – made with pureed walnut paste and served with a crispy corn bread. It had lovely flavors and was one of my favorite dishes of the trip. For mains we ordered the fried pullet and the BBQ pork. The pullet was a very little chicken with a green plum sauce. Unlike anything we have ever tried before, we loved the tart green flavor of the plums (We would see this sauce again on other menus). The barbeque pork was a little overdone, however, most of the pieces had enough fat that they were not too dry and we loved the fruity chili sauce it was served with. For dessert the apple crumble was one of the best I’ve ever had with tart green apples combined with cherries, a crisp crumble topping and vanilla ice cream. Service was friendly and efficient.
They have an excellent breakfast buffet with a wide selection of breads, pastry and dessert, cheeses and cold cuts as well as smoked salmon, salad, olives and raw vegetables, cut fruit, dried fruit and nuts and preserves. Hot items include bacon, sausage, mini khachapuri (cheese filled bread), cooked vegetables and lentil soup. There is also an egg station as well as filtered coffee, tea, hot milk and juice. Items are of good quality and they keep the serving dishes full.
Drive to Stepantsminda
The drive from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda, about 2 and a half to 3 hours, is on a good, paved two lane road. Speed limits are typical Georgia low and when trucks are allowed to cross the border there is a lot of truck traffic. On the morning we went up there were tons of trucks stopped by the side of the road, sometimes reducing the two lane road down to 1 or 1 and a half lanes. About an hour from Stepantsminda some of the trucks started to move again and there was heavy truck traffic but not so bad you couldn’t pass the slower vehicles.
It’s a stunning drive into the rugged Caucasus mountains, much starker than the mountains in Svaneti. While generally still green there is less vegetation and more jagged rock. This area also sees a lot more tourism and is more developed.
July 5-6, 2022