The Ultimate Guide to Mtskheta – Georgia’s Ancient Former Capital

Mtskheta is the spiritual heart of Georgia and one of its oldest towns. It was here in 337 AD that Christianity was declared the official religion of Georgia after the conversion of the royal family. Today, it’s the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Travelers love coming to Mtskheta to marvel at the many magnificent examples of medieval religious architecture.

History

Mtskheta was the capital of the Georgian Kingdom of Iberia from the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD. At the time, it was not just a religious hub but also an important economic and political center. The city was heavily fortified, as it is located at the junction of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers.

Eventually, King Dachi of Iberia moved the capital south to the more easily defensible Tbilisi around the 6th century AD. Since then, the importance of Mtskheta has slowly declined while that of Tbilisi has grown.

Visiting Mtskheta from Tbilisi

Distance: Mtskheta is 20 km (12 mi) north of Tbilisi.

By Car: It takes about 35 minutes by car from Tbilisi.

By Taxi: A private taxi will cost around 25 GEL one way ($8.10). Reserve one using the Bolt App to ensure you get a fair price.

By Marshrutka The most affordable way to get to Mtskheta from Tbilisi is to go like a local and take a marshrutka (minibus). Catch one at the Didube Bus Station. It’ll cost you 1 GEL ($0.32) and will drop you in the center of town. To return, wave down a marshrutka at the same drop off spot. They come every ~10 – 15 minutes.

Getting Around: Most of the attractions here can be reached on foot. You can also rent bicycles in the center of town. Taxis are cheap and available but not as easy to hail down as in Tbilisi.

Amount of Time to Visit: As the city is rather small, only a couple of hours is required to thoroughly visit. It can be slotted in as an easy half-day trip.

Things to do in Mtskheta

Jvari Monastery

Entrance Fee: Free

Hours: 8am – 7pm

Important Note: As this is a religious site, knees and shoulders need to be covered.

Jvari Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The church itself is rather small, but what makes it a must-see are the spectacular views of Mtskheta from the hilltop.

The word “jvari” means “cross” in Georgian. It was at this site that Saint Nino erected her famous wooden cross to mark the arrival of Christianity to Georgia in the 4th century.

The cross was allegedly able to perform miracles. Because of this, many pilgrims began to visit the site. The current Jvari Monastery structure was built between 590 and 605 to accommodate the pilgrims.

Jvari Monastery

Because of the way the roads twist around the hill, you probably won’t be able to walk here from town. Taxis are available to take you on the 20 minute ride. It’ll cost around 20 GEL ($6.48) round trip including wait time. Alternatively, you can grab the hourly shuttle that leaves from the Tourist Center near Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. They depart from 11am and cost 5 GEL ($1.62).

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Entrance Fee: Free

Hours: 8am – 10pm; No entry 5 – 8pm Saturday or 8am – 1pm Sunday

Important Note: As this is a religious site, shoulders and knees must be covered. Wraps are provided though.

The first building you will probably notice after being dropped in the center of town is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the second largest church in the country after the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It’s an important religious site to the Georgian Orthodox Church because of what is buried here.

Visit Mtskheta Georgia
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral situated in the heart of Mtskheta

The current Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was completed between 1010 and 1029. However, the site dates back to the early 4th century. The building’s importance is two-fold. The church was previously used for coronations and burials of Georgian monarchs. Additionally, it is thought that the Robe of Christ is buried here.

As the story goes, a Jew named Elias brought the robe back to Mtskheta in the 1st century AD after witnessing Christ’s Crucifixion. When his sister, Sidonia, came to greet him, she was overcome with religious ecstasy and died clutching the robe.

Samtavro Monastery

Entrance Fee: Free

Hours: 10am – 7pm

Important Note: As this is a religious site, shoulders and knees must be covered. Additionally, women must cover their hair. Wraps are provided.

The Samtavro Monastery is located only a 7 minute walk from the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. It is smaller and also less crowded. This place holds religious importance to the Georgian Orthodox Church because it is believed that Saint Nino lived and prayed here.

The nuns who live next to the church care for the grounds. You will see them peacefully tending to the gardens and running the monastery’s small museum and gift shop.

Bebris Tsikhe Fortress

About a 15 minute walk from the Samtavro Monastery, you will find Bebris Tsikhe, an early medieval fortress. There are some breathtaking views atop the hill but the fortress itself is largely damaged.

If you’re running short on time, you could probably skip the fortress as it is a bit out of town and the Jvari Monastery has better views.

Shio-Mghvime Monastery

Entrance Fee: Free

Hours: 10am – 7pm

12 km (7.5 mi) west of Mtskheta is the picturesque Shio-Mghvime Monastery. It was founded in the 6th century by the Assyrian monk Shio, who came to Georgia to preach about Christianity. He spent the last 20 years of his life in a nearby cave after having a dream. A simple church was built over his grave.

The monastery quickly became the largest monastic community by the end of the 6th century. At its peak, it housed over 2000 monks and was an epicenter of cultural and religious activity. Unfortunately, the monastery was raided by foreign invaders. Although it was rebuilt in the 19th century, it never regained its former glory.

The Shio-Mghvime Monastery lies on the road past Samtavro Monastery. You can catch a taxi from there.

Mtskhetoba Festival

Catch Mtskhetoba every October 14. It’s a large festival that pays homage to Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and the Robe of Christ. Over 10,000 people attend including the president. There are religious services, live music, traditional dancing, and local foods and crafts.


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