Connecting the capital city of Tbilisi to the highest expression of the Caucasus mountains in Kazbegi, the Georgian Military Highway is the most spectacular road in all of Georgia.
It’s the only accessible land connection between Georgia and Russia, serving as an important commercial route nowadays. However, its history is much deeper, spacing through centuries, serving as a bridge not only for people and goods but also for philosophies.
The 212-kilometer (132 miles) road is the perfect scenario for a day-long road trip that encompasses different landscapes, historical and cultural interest sights, and some of the most iconic places in Georgia, such as Ananuri Fortress and Gergeti Trinity Church.
I completed this journey three times in the past two years, each time in a slightly different way. Despite this, my interest in it and the desire to return grows stronger by the day, considering that the area is home to several of my favorite spots in Georgia.
Whether you want to explore the Georgian Militar Highway by dedicating a whole day to it with your rented vehicle or are traveling Georgia on a budget with marshrutkas, you’ll definitely end up being captivated by the incredible gifts of the Caucasus.
Let’s delve deeper into the history of this iconic road, what to see along the way and the best ways to travel it!
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History of the Georgian Military Highway
It’s quite mindblowing to think that the road we know today as the Georgian Military Highway was mentioned as early as 2,000 years ago by the Geographer Strabo in his most remarkable work, “Geographica”.
Throughout history, this territory that’s often referred to as the crossroad between Europe and Asia has been contended by many populations, most of which came from the East.
It’s no surprise then to come to know that the conditions of the road were shaky, to say the least, until the late 18th century, when Georgia gained the interest of Russia and was on the brink of getting annexed into the Russian Empire.
Following almost a whole century of discontinuous work by the Russian military and lots of resources invested, in 1963 the road had been improved to an impressive quality, far above even most roads in proper Russia. This goes to show how important the Georgian Military Highway was for the empire, heavily accelerating troops and trade movement.
After having become a reliable resource, the road followed the progress of the world around it accordingly, improving to facilitate movement with the newest technologies and at the higher rates required, especially during the Soviet Union.
By that time, the Georgian Military Highway was key for Russia and its economy, but it was also crucial for some of its pleasures, such as wine and tea, of which Georgia was the undisputed top producer for the whole Soviet Union, from Kyiv to Ulaan Baatar.
As we know, when the Soviet Union came to an end, the ex-republics went through different adversities to find and regain their economies. The Caucasus was arguably the area that was hit the hardest, with countless wars between populations that aimed for independence.
Due to some of these conflicts, the Georgian Military Highway was closed on different occasions for years, severely hindering what remained of the trade between Russia, Georgia, and other ex-Soviet republics like Armenia.
Since 2013, the road has been steadily open, returning to serve as a crucial route for the economy of the South Caucasus countries of Georgia and Armenia.
Nowadays, the conditions of the road are quite good, and it’s open all year, despite the frequent landslides in the winter.
How to travel the Georgian Military Highway
There are several options to travel the Georgian Military Highway, but some of them are much better than others, leaving the freedom of choosing where and when to stop.
Let’s look at them one by one.
Self-driving with a rental car
I believe renting a car is the absolute best option to enjoy the myriad of sights the road has to offer.
I did it two out of the three times I drove the Georgian Military Highway, and not only it allowed me to discover every little corner that intrigued me, but it was also a lot of fun to drive through the panoramic passes and turns along the way.
Whether it’s during winter, summer, or in between, you will see so many astonishing gems along the way, and having a private vehicle is the only way to satiate that need for adventure.
Renting a car in Georgia is quite cheap, and so is fuel. I always manage to find a great deal through Local Rent.
Private driver and car
In many fields, Georgia always has at least one experienced, well-thought-out option tailored for travelers. In the case of hiring private drivers, that service is offered by GoTrip.
For as low as 70 euros per day, you can hire a local driver who, with his vehicle, will bring you anywhere you want in Georgia with as many stops as you desire.
In regards to the Georgian Military Highway, you can use the service to add stops to all the sights that interest you along the way, and the driver will simply wait for you with no additional fee.
It’s also easy to find drivers that speak English.
You can use GoTrip to avoid having to drive on these roads along with Georgian drivers, who aren’t renowned for their great driving skills.
Once you understand the basis of it, using public transport in Georgia isn’t complicated, and the journey from Tbilisi to Kazbegi is perhaps the simplest of them all.
There are marshrutkas (Soviet minibusses) leaving from Didube Bus Station every day and once every hour, starting at 8 am. The full ride costs 15 GEL and it takes 3/3.5 hours.
It’s straightforward, but so is the journey through the Military Highway – marshrutkas don’t make stops at any of the interest points along the road, except for a brief rest stop in Gudauri.
If your goal is to simply get to Kazbegi and enjoy everything that the region has to offer, this is a good albeit limited option.
Serving as an intermediate option between the previous two, a shared taxi can be a great way to enjoy some of what the Georgian Military Highway has to offer.
Also leaving from Didube Bus Station, expect to generally pay between 30 to 40 GEL, depending on how many passengers are in the car. The concept is that no matter how many guests, you need to cover the cost of the whole car, which is around 120 GEL.
With a shared taxi service, you can agree with the driver to stop at a few places along the way. Usually, they only stop at Ananuri Fortress, as it’s easy and quick, but upon request, you can squeeze in a few more.
Language knowledge comes in handy here, although it’s easy to find common ground through translator apps nowadays.
How long does it take to drive the Georgian Military Highway?
The 212-kilometer road takes 3 hours to travel if you’re just getting from Tbilisi to Kazbegi with no stops, but, as I’ve been advocating for, you should set more time aside to drive it yourself.
The best way to enjoy the landscape and cultural sights the road has to offer is to dedicate a whole day to it, starting from Tbilisi in the morning and reaching Kazbegi on time to enjoy the sunset at Gergeti Trinity Church.
Things to see on the Georgian Military Highways
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mtskheta, once the capital of the Kingdom of Georgia, was founded in the 1st millennium BC, earning it a spot among the oldest towns in the Caucasus.
At only a stone’s throw away from the current capital, Mtskheta is one of the main day trips from Tbilisi, offering a great escape from the city’s atmosphere to a more mellow one, where time flows more slowly, almost.
The old town of Mtskheta is in great shape after extensive renovations, with the crowning jewel, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, dominating the view from every angle.
Wander through the narrow streets taking in the tranquility, visit the cathedral, and buy some Georgian sweets for the journey ahead.
There are many vendors of sweets and other traditional things right next to the Church, and although most times these types of shops are sort of tourist traps, I personally had the best Churchkhela I’ve ever tried right there.
Overlooking the town from the opposite side of the river is the Jvari Monastery, built in the 6th century AD.
It’s considered to be the symbol of Mtskheta and an important site for Georgian culture. A visit to it gives you the best views of the old town, encompassed by the junction of rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi.
Mtskheta isn’t along the Military Highway yet, as it’s just outside Tbilisi, but it’s on the same itinerary, so I count it.
Zhinvali Water Reservoir
This deep blue basin was created by a dam built along the Aragvi River in 1985 to feed the Zhinvali Hydroelectric Power Plant. To this day, it plays a key role in supplying Tbilisi with clean water.
This is a quick stop where you can find your own viewpoint to admire the reservoir, as there are a handful of areas on the sides of the road. Some spots are filled with street vendors trying to sell the same typical Georgian stuff, which I always avoid.
Take in the views of the forests on the slopes of the mountains surrounding the basin, reflecting in the turquoise water with different colors every few months. During the fall, the landscape in the area is special.
But let’s get moving towards the end of the basin, where the next stop awaits.
One of the most iconic sights on the Georgian Military Highway, the Ananuri Fortress is an obligated stop that also serves as an entrance to the mountains in a way. At least that’s how I always felt.
Being in such a predominant position along a historically important road, this fortress has an interesting history and has endured several battles in its time. It went from serving as the residence of the Aragvi Dynasty and being one of the strongest fortresses in Georgia to being burned down by the Russian Empire in 1812.
The site contains two Churches of different sizes and colors with elegant and detailed carvings on their walls. Besides watching the Churches, you can climb up to the main tower of the fortress, to the north. It’s a narrow and dark climb through old stairs, but a rewarding one.
The views from the top are sensational.
After Ananuri Fortress, the landscape starts to transition into the fullest expression of what is known as the eastern part of the Greater Caucasus.
From the flat bottom of the valleys, you start to ascend and get more acquainted with the road, now full of switchbacks. The mountains surrounding you become taller, and depending on the season you’ll see snow or be completely surrounded by it.
The Gudauri Recreational Area contains some of the most impressive landscapes on the Georgian Military Highway, and they can be visited all year round.
It’s also home to the Gudauri Ski Resort, one of the most renowned resorts in Georgia. In fact, the Recreational Area is the perfect place to practice some common and some extreme sports, such as paragliding.
Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument
Just a few minutes further from the Gudauri Ski Resort is the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument, built in 1983 to commemorate 200 years since the Treaty of Georgievsk was signed – a treaty that consolidated eastern Georgia as a protectorate of Russia.
Almost suspended on the Devil’s Valley where the Aragvi River flows, the monument has gained lots of popularity for both the views that it gives to the surrounding landscape, and for its impressive mosaic depicting various scenes of both Russian and Georgian traditions, converging in the center to celebrate this friendship – which has had its ups and downs since then.
The mosaic itself is worth the stop, but if that isn’t exciting enough for you, then the imposing mountains surrounding it should do the trick.
This spot can’t be topped. Literally, it’s the highest point of the Georgian Military Highway at 2395 meters asl.
The essence isn’t different from the previous spot, as it’s only a handful more minutes of driving to reach the highest point of the road from the Friendship Monument, but it’s still worth a spot.
You can now admire the Kazbegi side of the valley heading straight towards some of the most iconic mountains of the Caucasus.
A few minutes down the road there are some travertine mineral springs, not uncommon in the area. The most known and unique and the ones in the Truso Valley, at Abano Lake, part of the best day trips from Kazbegi.
Sno Stone Heads
After bouncing your eyes left and right during the whole descent from Jvari Pass, you reach the bottom of the valley that leads to Kazbegi (Stepantsminda).
In order to visit one of the most peculiar sights in the area, you have to take a little detour into Sno Valley.
If you’ve been to Georgia before, you’ve most likely seen and drank Sno water, sold all over the country. Well, it comes from here! You’ve made it in life now.
Possibly due to the love I have for Kazbegi, Sno is my favorite water in Georgia, which boasts some incredibly fresh ones.
Right before reaching the actual village of Sno, on the right side of the road, there are these big boulders shaped like heads, representative of various outstanding Georgian figures.
These are the result of the work of one man, Merab Piranishvili, an art teacher native of Sno who sculpted these figures over the years, starting in 1984.
The small town sitting below Gergeti Trinity Church and Mount Kazbek is usually the destination that most tourists stop at, ready to enjoy a few days among the most unique peaks of eastern Georgia, hiking to Churches or alpine lakes in the vicinities.
Also known as Stepantsminda, Kazbegi is the perfect hub along the Georgian Military Highway. From here, everything that the area has to offer is quickly accessible, at least with your own vehicle.
If you want to learn more about how to move around in Kazbegi and visit the many day trip destinations it offers, you can read my guide.
Known since ancient times as the Caucasian Gate, the Dariali Gorge is the crossing point of the Caucasus, a land that has seen so many fierce and powerful people come through.
The gorge offers incredible views, especially coupled with Dariali Monastery, a recent complex that even has a cheese-producing section and a wine cellar.
Perhaps the reason for which the Dariali Gorge is most known is the border crossing with Russia. Here, traffic reigns supreme – the border is known for taking a long time to be crossed due to extensive controls by the guards.
The consequences of this can be seen throughout the Georgian Military Highway, with kilometers-long lines of trucks parked on the side of the road, waiting for the border to clear up.
I saw lines as long as 10 kilometers even around Ananuri Fortress, although most of the blockage is situated on the bottom of the valley after the Jvari Pass.
Anyways, well done! You’ve completed the journey to the end of the Georgian Military Highway. It’s a special one, make sure to cherish it.
Is the Georgian Military Highway Safe?
One of the recurring themes that I hear about Georgia is that the drivers are crazy and that every time you get on the road it’s a hazard. I can’t say I disagree.
However, I don’t think you should be discouraged by this, because the amount of drivers that fit the colored descriptions I hear is very limited. Plus, most of the ones I saw were in cities, which is where I would advise you to refrain from driving unless you’re very confident.
The condition of the road is pretty good, thoroughly asphalted and wide.
Get on the road safely, and you’ll experience the Georgian Military Highway in the best way possible.
In winter landslides are not uncommon, so definitely keep an eye out for that.
If you don’t feel confident in completing this journey but still want to experience it in the best way possible, with all the stops that you want, remember to check out GoTrip to hire a private driver and plan your own itinerary.
When is the best time to travel the Georgian Military Highway?
The road is open all year round, and each season has its perks that make it an appropriate time to visit.
During the winter, the Georgian Military Highway and the landscape around it resemble the best Christmas fairy tale scenario, with snow covering the ground and the slopes almost everywhere.
Gudauri Ski Resort opens, and with it, both locals and tourists swarm the slopes of the highest point of the road, enjoying skiing and other winter sports.
The road faces occasional but not uncommon landslides in the winter, especially between Gudauri and Kazbegi, but they’re usually dealt with within hours.
The verdant fields and mountains that come alive during spring and summer are a joy to see. The contrast with the remnants of snow truly makes the scenes along the road special.
The spring is less crowded than the summer, but the climate is also tougher. It’s on you to choose what suits your needs.
Autumn, at least up to mid-October, is the perfect season to visit the Military Highway. Trees all over the area catch the famous vibrant orange and red colors of the foliage, the big crowds are gone, and the temperatures are still good, especially if you want to partake in some hiking adventures.
Traveling the Georgian Military Highway will be a fantastic part of your trip to Georgia, forming lasting memories of some of the most spectacular places on earth.