Vardzia is one of the most iconic attractions in Georgia. It is located some 30 km away from the regional center of Aspindza, on the left bank of the Kura River, region Samtskhe-Javakheti.   Vardzia is not just a set of random rooms cut in rocks. It is a multi-storied complex with streets, tunnels, and stairs leading to monasteries, temples, fortresses, baths, libraries dwelling houses, and so forth.

A brief history of Vardzia

Vardzia was erected in the 12th – 13th centuries during the rule of George III and his daughter of Tamara for the purpose of the southern boundaries of Georgia protection. Legend says the duo gave the site its name: Vardzia sounds like ak var dzia, or ‘I am here, uncle’, a phrase apparently uttered by a young Tamar after she got lost in the caves.

Overall, there are over 600 premises connected by passages, which stretched along the mountain for as long as 800 meters, to the depth of 50 meters standing 8 levels tall. In case of an enemy attack, the monastery turned into a fortress for inhabitants and could host up to 20, 000 people.

In 1283, an earthquake destroyed most of the complex, shaving away half of the cliff to reveal the site’s inner workings. As a result, the monastery lost its function as a fortress. Later Vardzia suffered from Mongol invasion in the same 13th century, Iran defeat, and Turkish yoke in the 14th -17th centuries – all those events led to the city’s destruction. It was completely abandoned in the 16th century. Later in 1828 Javakheti region was liberated by Russians and life returned to Vardzia.

During the Soviet period, the monastic life in the monastery stopped and was renewed only in the late 1980s. Today about 15 novices live in the monastery. Since 1938, Vardzia has been a memorial estate.

Infrastructure around the fortress

There are a number of cafes and restaurants located in the parking at Vardzia. So you can have a great meal at Cafe Vardzia on the river.

There is also an Ethno Design shop near the ticket booth if you’re looking for souvenirs.

How to get there

There are a couple of direct vans between Tbilisi and Vardzia departing from Bus Station Didube.

Public Marshrutka (Minivans) from Didube Station:

Route Price Departure
Tbilisi ➜ Akhaltsikhe 12₾ every 40 minutes 07:40 – 19:00
Tbilisi ➜ Aspindza 14₾ 15:25 – 15:45
Tbilisi ➜ Vardzia 18₾ 10:10 – 11:00

Another option is to change marshrutka vans in Akhaltsikhe. While it’s technically possible to do a day trip to Vardzia from Tbilisi using public transport in the summer months, it’s a very tight turnaround and you might only have an hour or so to explore the caves.

On top of that, you won’t have time for any of the other attractions in the area such as Vanis Kvabebi or Rabati. For this reason, we highly recommend joining a day tour or hiring a private driver, or checking our tours in Vardzia.

Tours in Vardzia

Useful tips

  • Ticket price: Entrance to Vardzia now costs 15 GEL. Children under 6 years old visit free. Also, you have an option to pay the extra 2 GEL to get driven in a golf cart from the ticket booth to the main entrance of the caves.
  • It is forbidden: Vardzia is an active monastery, so you should refrain from talking loudly or running. Note that photography is prohibited inside the church but permitted everywhere else.
  • Visit in the morning: By afternoon, the sun dips over the valley, making the view back towards the bell tower a bit too glary. Organized tour groups tend to visit mid-morning, so try to arrive as soon as the ticket office opens if you want to avoid the crowds.
  • Note that it’s a one-way track: The only way to see the complex is by following a marked, one-way walking route. Try to see everything in order so that you don’t have to double back.
  • Bring drinking water: Especially if you’re visiting in summer. There is a spring water fountain at the entrance to the caves where you can fill up.
  • Bring snacks: There are a couple of shops and a restaurant near the entrance, but it is a good idea to bring your own snacks.
  • Decent walking shoes: You’re going to be doing a fair amount of walking on uneven terrain, so it’s good to wear walking shoes.
  • Dress code: There is no strict dress code for Vardzia, but because it is an active monastery, it’s recommended to dress modestly (covered shoulders and knees). To enter the chapel inside Vardzia, men need to be wearing long pants and women a long skirt. If you’re wearing shorts, you might be denied entry to the church. Women must also cover their hair before entering.
  • Wheelchair accessibility: Visiting Vardzia involves quite a bit of uphill walking and negotiating uneven stairs. There are pitched tunnels, steep paths, and some precarious ledges. Vardzia is not wheelchair accessible, and may not be suitable for anyone who’s generally unsteady on their feet.

Other things to see & do around Vardzia

Vanis Kvabebi: Just 3.5km from Vardzia, Vanis Kvabebi is another (much smaller) cave complex set back from the river.

Khertvisi Castle: One of Georgia’s largest (and oldest) fortresses. This castle sits at the confluence of the Paravani and Mtkvari rivers 16km north of Vardzia.

Tmogvi Fortress: Further along the river in the village of Tmogvi, these castle ruins are set in a dramatic location high above the rocky river gorge. Nothing has been restored, but you can clamber over the walls and enjoy the views.

Rabati Fortress & Akhaltsikhe: Along with the magnificent Rabati Fortress, the small city of Akhaltsikhe has a few other interesting churches and some great local restaurants.

Vardzia on a map