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Caucasus: where to go

We often get asked by customers planning to visit Southern Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) what is the best country for tourists, where to spend most of the time and how to budget expenses. Without lenghty considerations the first place will definitely will go to Georgia as the most tourist friednly place to go in the Caucasus – it is the easiest to visit, has the most developed tourist infrastructure, some of the friendliest people and the widest variety of sights and activities. At this point, it does not yet feel overrun with tourists, but get there fast as it likely won’t be long before the secret is out! The second and the third place can be shared by Armenia and Azerbaijan with each having its own pros & cons.

It is definitely worth to visit all three Caucasus countries as they all boast a wealth of ancient historical sites (some dating back to the 4th century!), beautiful mountain scenery and endless opportunities for adventure. Still, allocate most of your time for Georgia with 3-5 days for the each of other two republics.

Armenia is the cheapest out of three. One can eat a good lunch for about $3, take a taxi anywhere in the city for less than $4 and even marshrutka ride from Yerevan to Tbilisi would be cheaper than going the other direction. Georgia comes in second, with a plethora of hostels to choose from in most major cities, cheap food and reasonably priced taxis for most day trips. Azerbaijan comes in a distant third. Prices in Baku were nearly at western European levels (thoug with recent devaluation of local Manat in 2015 things should get easier for foreign visitors). The country has few hostels and rates at smaller hotels start from 60-70 USD. Even homestays and guiding services outside of the capital are pricey compared to neighboring Georgia and Armenia.

Getting around could reasonably be a three-way tie as each country in the Caucasus has its own benefits and challenges. In both Georgia and Armenia, the unfamiliar alphabets can make getting around a challenge – you can’t read the signs to tell where a given bus or marshrutka is headed. At least the Azeri language uses mostly a Latin alphabet. On the plus side, in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, digital signs at the bus stops include the Latin alphabet translations of bus route destinations, making things a little easier. Likewise, announcements on the Tbilisi Metro are made in both English and Georgian while those on the Baku Metro are only in Azeri. The Metro in Yerevan might have been the most difficult as signs were only in Armenian and Russian and announcements only in Armenian.

When it comes to intercity transport, Azerbaijan seems slightly more organized than the others. The prevalence of buses in the country means there are schedules on which you can somewhat rely instead of the typical marshrutka that just leaves when full – although buses traveling between smaller towns tend to be decrepit Soviet-era buses.

The new bus station in Baku has clearly labeled bays for both buses and marshrutkas – it was heaven compared to the mass chaos that I found at Didube Bus Station in Tbilisi, where the only way to find the marshrutka you need is to wander around and ask. Likewise, transportation out of Yerevan is made more confusing by the fact that the bus station or parking lot from which a given marshrutka departs often changes without warning.

Georgia’s government has made it a priority to improve the country’s image as a tourist destination and you can feel the effects throughout the country. From the brand new border control stations to rebuilt roads up to mountain villages, the investment is clear. Whereas a few years ago a trip to the region of Svaneti would require an overnight train ride from Tbilisi followed by a six hour drive up perilous mountain roads, the construction of a new, paved road has cut the time down to three hours.
Tourist information is also readily available in nearly every city in Georgia – and tourist information offices in Tbilisi, Batumi, Mestia, and Mtskheta are managed by friendly English-speaking staff.

While the Azeri government made a big effort to welcome tourists to Baku for the recent Eurovision 2012 finals and 1st Olympic European Games in 2015 in Baku, from all indications they have largely ignored the rest of the country concentrating just on Baku. Armenia arguably lags behind on the tourism front, with the Visitor Information Center in the capital of Yerevan closing due to lack of funding a few years ago. To Armenia’s advantage, most of the major sites are easy day trips from Yerevan.

The big question is – what does each country have to offer in terms of sightseeing and activities? Georgia and Armenia are very similar, with many, if not most, of their major sites focusing on the ancient history of Christianity in those countries. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its religion back in the 4th century and Georgia followed just thirty years later. This means that a majority of major sites are monasteries and churches, some of which are more interesting than others. Georgia additionally boasts a couple of cave monasteries built into the sides of cliffs and Armenia recently opened the world’s longest cable car taking tourists 5.7 kilometers across the Vorotan Gorge to Tatev Monastery.

In addition to its religious sites, Georgia has a burgeoning wine industry and a long history of wine-making, as well as an up and coming resort city in Batumi on the Black Sea coast. Add in the mountain regions and hiking opportunities in Svaneti and there seems to be a little bit of something for everyone.

Azerbaijan doesn’t have nearly the religious sites that its neighbors do, although a few ruined churches are scattered throughout the country. Not far from Baku are petroglyphs, quirky mud volcanoes, a so-called fire temple and the James Bond Oil Field (featured in the opening scenes of The World is Not Enough). For some, the main draw would the mountains and hiking opportunities in the northern and northwestern parts of the country, although those closest to the Russian border have recently been limited.

Visa regime is most relaxed at Georgia with Western nationals allowed to visit visa free and stay for up to 360 days. Visas to Armenia may be obtained upon arrival at the airport and land borders and cost about $8 for a 21 day visa or $35 for 120 days. On the other end of the spectrum is Azerbaijan with tight visa regime, no visas upon arrival, with visa costs starting from 100$ and above. They introduced recently evisas to easen the process, but it still takes 2-3 weeks to get one through approved travel agency in Azerbaijan and costs around 100 USD.