David Gareja monastery complex, located right on the border with Azerbaijan, is among the best places to visit in Georgia and one of the day trips from Tbilisi.
The beautiful monastery, unique cave paintings, vast spaces of the stunning landscape and the border going right through the complex make it worth all the effort to travel David Gareja.
To be honest when I saw the picture from the place I didn’t really understand why everyone was so crazy about it.
The remote location and difficulties with getting to David Gareja from Tbilisi didn’t help either.
That’s why it took me few years and several trips to Georgia until I finally went for a day trip from Tbilisi to David Gareja.
And oh boy, I really regret it took me that long! Pictures don’t do the justice to David Gareja!
Table of contents
- 1 Where is David Gareja?
- 2 David Gareja monastery history
- 3 Why you should visit David Gareja monastery complex?
- 4 When to visit David Gareja?
- 5 How to get from David Gareja from Tbilisi
- 6 What to see at David Gareja monastery
- 7 How much time do you need to visit David Gareja monastery complex?
- 8 Tips for visiting David Gareja
- 9 Is David Gareja complex safe to visit?
- 10 Solo female travel to David Gareja
- 11 David Gareja controversy
- 12 What else to see in the area
- 13 Travel resources
Where is David Gareja?
David Gareja monastery complex is located in the south-east part of Georgia, in Kakheti region, some 60kms away from the capital – Tbilisi.
Driving time should be a bit over 2 hours but the roads, especially closer to the monastery, are not in the best condition.
David Gareja monastery complex is spread on the sloped of Mount Gareja – its southern side belongs to Azerbaijan. That is why the site is constantly the subject of the border dispute.
You can expect border guards on the site that might occasionally want to check your passport. There might be some issues with visiting monasteries itself too.
Make sure to check the situation before your visit at David Gareja.
David Gareja monastery history
The monastery was founded already in the 6th century by David – one of the thirteen Assyrian monks that arrived in Georgia at that time. He inhabited one of the caves on the Gareja mountain and eventually built the first monastery – Lavra – there.
His disciples built two more monasteries in the area but real development of the complex took place in the 9th century when the saint Ilarion fetched numerous important monks to David Gareja.
Another golden age for David Gareja came in the 11th-13th centuries. In that time the monastery complex developed culturally and economically.
New monasteries, including the most famous Udabno caves, were built, the old ones were renovated and the complex was blooming like never before. The frescos, painted in various parts of the complex had a new take on the showing Bible scenes and until now are the important part of the world’s cultural heritage.
Since the 13th century David Gareja was often a target of numerous invasions and never fully got back to its previous glory.
For years it remained uninhabited and recently only a handful of monks live in the complex, taking care of the place.
Why you should visit David Gareja monastery complex?
David Gareja monastery complex is a site of very significant historical, cultural and religious importance. You can admire here a few monasteries, many of them located in the caves and decorated with old frescoes.
But David Gareja offers also spectacular views of vast areas of both Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Some people call the surrounding hills “Rainbow Mountains” and that’s not far from the truth as they do offer a variety of colors. When looking at the area from the top you might have a feeling the landscape is somehow lunar.
And even if you don’t plan to visit Azerbaijan you might unofficially step into its territory.
When to visit David Gareja?
The best time to visit David Gareja is either in late spring or early autumn, when days are still not too hot. It’s an open space, with no trees to give the shadow so every single degree makes a difference.
I’d also avoid rainy days if you want to go up to the higher parts of the mountain (and trust me, you do want to go there).
The path leading there and back is steep and I can imagine it can get very muddy with a bit of rain. I slid down a bit on my butt even without rain…
I visited the complex in July which, to be honest, is the worst time to travel to David Gareja.
It was crazy hot, I don’t even want to know how many degrees were in the sun but many. I could see how red everyone was after completing the circuit trail and well, I can only imagine I looked more or less the same.
How to get from David Gareja from Tbilisi
I took me ten or so visits in Georgia to finally go to David Gareja. Not because I didn’t want to (although it never was on the top of my Georgia bucket list) but because it was a bit challenging to get to the complex.
It’s located literally in the middle of nowhere and there is no public transport reaching the place.
The tours run only in the season and I’m hardly ever in Georgia at that time.
But finally, after visiting Azerbaijan in July 2018, I had a few extra days in Tbilisi before catching my flight back home and I used one of them to go for a day trip from Tbilisi to David Gareja.
I used “Gareji Line” for my trip from Tbilisi to David Gareja.
They run their shuttle service every day from April 1st to October 31st, departing from Pushkin Park next to Liberty Square at 11am.
There is no need to book the seat in advance – they take everyone and send as many minibuses as needed (when I went for the trip there were three of them, similar to marshrutkas that are very popular in the region).
Try to be there some 15 minutes in advance. You need to pay in cash to the “Gareji Line” representative, the price is 30 lari per person for the round trip.
You should be back in Tbilisi around 7-8pm, depending on the traffic.
You will spend around 3 hours at David Gareja complex, the bus will also stop at the gas station so you can buy some extra water.
On the way back there is a longer stop for dinner at Udabno settlement.
It’s not a tour per se so don’t expect a guide and live commentary. This is just a regular shuttle service that will take to from Tbilisi to David Gareja and back.
The driver most likely doesn’t speak English but before the departure, you will receive a leaflet with all the information about the site, itinerary for the day and the map of the area. To be honest that’s enough of the info you need and later on you might google for more information if you are interested.
Don’t expect a fancy bus. It’s really a typical minibus for Georgian standards so most likely there won’t be the air-condition, which in summer can be a bit annoying.
The other downside of using Gareji Line – you will arrive at the site at the hottest time of the day, between 1 and 2 pm, when the sun is at its peak.
Hiking up in the sun to the top of Gareja Mountain isn’t the most pleasant experience, but worth the effort. The complex might be also a bit busy with other tourists.
At the time of my visit, there were a few minibusses and private cars and there were people around but still not that many and I didn’t feel overwhelmed with the crowds.
You can learn more about Gareji Line at their Facebook page.
If you travel to Georgia by car you can easily drive from Tbilisi to David Gareja.
It’s around 2 hours journey but keep in mind that Georgian drivers are crazy and the road is in a very poor condition at times (including gravel road).
The advantage of driving to David Gareja is that you can be there fairly early in the morning or late in the evening and so you can avoid all the tour buses and the heat in the summer months.
If you would like to visit more sites in one day than David Gareja only but you don’t have the car I highly recommend joining the tour.
You can combine a visit to David Gareja complex with sightseeing in Sighnagi – a beautiful town in Kakheti region. You can also add some wine tasting to your day, after all that’s what Kakheti region is famous for!
Here are some of the recommended tours (click on each link for more details):
- Tbilisi: Rainbow Mountain Day-Tour with Lunch & Wine Tasting
- Kakheti: David Gareja Monastery and Sighnaghi Private Tour
- Tbilisi: David Gareja Monastery Full-Day Tour
- David Gareji Monastery and Signagi Wine Tasting Private Tour
What to see at David Gareja monastery
Once you get to David Gareja complex you have a few things you can’t miss.
The first place you will enter is Lavra monastery – the oldest part of the complex where a few remaining monks still live. There are a few cave chambers and a monastery you can visit as well as hang out in the courtyard.
From there it’s a steep hike up to the top of the hill.
You don’t need to go all the way up (although I highly recommend it, even if it’s not easy), there are also a few accessible caves in the lower parts, including the one with David’s Tears spring. You can climb up only a bit to enjoy beautiful views over Georgian vast lands.
If you decide to go all the way up (around 200 meters in the elevation change, starting from the parking lot) you will be greeted with breathtaking views: Georgia on one side, Azerbaijan on the other and you will be standing exactly on the border between these two countries. That’s one of the kind feeling really.
No pictures can show you how spectacular the view from the top of Gareja Mountain is, how much space is around, how stunning the landscape is. In that very moment, I was so impressed the view took my breath away, and not only because of the hike.
After the first wow moment you should explore the area a bit.
You can either walk along the path on top of the hill or you can take one leading to the other, Azerbaijani, side. Again, it’s a bit demanding and there will be some steep moments but if I did it, so can you!
On the other side you can find numerous caves decorated with beautiful frescoes – probably the most important, valuable and unique part of the David Gareja complex. Most likely you will also find there Azeri border officers who might or might not ask you for documents and tell you to go back to Georgia.
These are usually young guys who are just unlucky to serve their duty in such a boring and harsh place and seeing them with long guns might make you feel a bit uncomfortable. During my visit they were hiding in the shadow in one of the caves.
I nodded to them, said “good day” in Russian, they answered but didn’t stop me or bothered me and I could continue exploring the site.
But since the situation in the complex and especially at the border changes you might not be so lucky.
Anyway, there are many caves to choose from and you should try to peek inside as many of them as possible. Some are in a better shape than others, some have more valuable or beautiful frescoes than others.
Visiting many caves can give you a perfect image of how grand and important the place was at the time of its prosperity and why it is considered one of the main Georgia attractions.
Once you are done with the caves you have to get up to the top of the hill again where you will find Chapel of Resurrection.
During my visit, two Georgian office guards were resting there in the shadow so I just nodded “good day” to them in their language (one of the three words I know in Georgian!) and continued my way down to the parking lot, with a small accident along the way.
How much time do you need to visit David Gareja monastery complex?
I spent almost 3 hours on the site and that was enough to see all the David Gareja attractions.
Before going up to the top of the Gareja Mountain I asked some tourists who were finishing the circuit how long it took them and they said around 2 hours. I thought that’s a lot but actually it took me more or less the same.
I can’t say I’m in a perfect shape to hike, quite the contrary actually. But I made it to the top without too many problems, even in the burning sun.
But you need to decide yourself if you can make it to the top or not: the path is a bit steep at times and a bit slippery so be prepared for that.
If you use Gareji Line the time they give you at the site is just enough to see everything, without too much hurry.
Tips for visiting David Gareja
- Have plenty of water with you. It’s the open space with no shadow, you will hike up a bit, it might be insanely hot – you might need lots of water with you.
I had one big bottle and that wasn’t enough, it lasted me only till I got to the Chapel of Resurrection and even until then I was saving a bit.
Fortunately, once I got down I could buy some more water in the local shop next to the parking lot – it’s run by monks and besides water, you can buy religious stuff there.
The water was reasonably priced (1 or 2 lari) but I would have paid any amount of money for it really. I drank the whole bottle at once and returned for one more.
So even if you think you have enough water buy some more before hiking up, either in Tbilisi, at the gas station on the way or at the shop in David Gareja. You will definitely need it, especially in the summertime.
- Have comfortable shoes.
That’s the stupid mistake I made, partly because I didn’t plan to visit David Gareja when I left Poland for this trip and I had only sandals with me (because summertime in the Caucasus is hot and I didn’t plan to go to the mountains).
So let me tell you – sandals are not the best shoes for David Gareja. They are actually the worst (ok, flip flops or high heels would be even worse).
Not only your feet might slide a bit in the heat, but you might also slide down when going back from the top of the hill – which is exactly what happened to me.
I ended up with a bruise on my toe, a small hole in my pants on the butt and the lost dignity, which was still a small price to pay for the stupidity of wearing sandals in David Gareja.
Another reason why sandals or any other open shoes are the stupid idea is the fact that area is inhabited by snakes and lizards.
I learned about it only from the leaflet I got when boarding the bus and it made me a bit paranoid when walking around, especially that I could see the holes in the ground that clearly indicated what lives inside.
Fortunately, none of the animals wanted to have a close interaction with me but knowing they are around and I’m wearing sandals was enough to make me feel paranoid for most of the time.
- Even if you have decent shoes – watch out for snakes and lizards, you don’t want to have any encounter with them (and the feeling is probably mutual)
- Dress modestly. You are visiting the site of the very big religious importance so be respectful. Even if it’s hot have you knees and shoulders covered.
- Bring some snacks.
You can’t buy any food at the complex so you might want to get some snacks before arriving at David Gareja. You can do it in Tbilisi before the trip or at the gas station on the way.
If you take Gareji Line you will have a lunch break in nearby Udabno but only on the way back.
- Have some sunscreen, especially in the summer months.
Sun is really strong in here and you don’t want to get burnt (which might happen easily). You might also want to have a hat or scarf to protect your head from the sun.
- Have a passport with you. After all, you are literally walking on the border of the two countries.
- Have your camera ready and the batteries fully charged – you will take lots of pictures in David Gareja and surroundings, the place is spectacular and offers the views out of this world.
Is David Gareja complex safe to visit?
Despite the border guards with long guns being present on site, I found David Gareja complex to be a safe place to visit. Even if there are tensions on the site they will not harm tourists.
Your only concern should be snakes and lizards but you shouldn’t be too worried about them, just keep in mind they live there and be careful where you are stepping.
Solo female travel to David Gareja
I went solo to David Gareja, although very quickly I met two fellow Polish travelers and we spent the rest of the day together.
But I did go on my own for the hike around, mostly because I like hiking solo, that way I don’t feel I’m slowing someone down and I don’t feel the pressure to go faster, I just stick to my own pace.
When hiking I had some thoughts that it might not be the smartest idea to go around alone. After all it was steep, slippery and the feeling of vast space was overwhelming.
But then I figured that even if something happens there are other tourists around so there are always people to ask for help.
Fortunately, besides my unfortunate slide down, everything was fine.
You don’t need to worry about meeting dangerous people around. It’s a holy site, other people are fellow travelers and pilgrims, monks and border guards.
David Gareja controversy
The complex of David Gareja monastery brings a lot of controversy and borders dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan.
While the main part with Lavra monastery is located on the territory of Georgia, Udabno caves can be accessed only from Azerbaijan.
The conflict between the two countries has been going on since 1991, since the independence of both Georgia and Azerbaijan. That’s also why you will see border guards on the site.
Georgia has offered to exchange other parts of its land to gain the full control over David Gareja complex but since the area is militarily important to Azerbaijan the conflict is still unsettled.
In 2019 there was lots of tension at the monastery complex. You can read more about it here.
Right now, because of the conflict increased there is no guarantee you will be able to enter the Azerbaijani part of the complex and visit caves, including Udabno monastery.
I found the most current updates at the Facebook page of Gareji Line so be sure to check them before your trip, even if you don’t use the company.
What else to see in the area
David Gareja monastery complex isn’t the only interesting place in the area. If you can you should spend at least one night there, before continuing to other parts of the Kakheti region and Georgia.
Only 14kms away from the complex you will find a small village Udabno that is literally located in the middle of nowhere.
If using the Gareji Line you will have a longer break here anyway.
If you decide to stay here overnight you can just enjoy the vast Georgian steppe, horseback riding, beautiful night sky and barely any internet. This is one of the best places to relax in Georgia.
If you decide to stay overnight in Udabno you can use Gareji Line as the transportation option. Just ask for the open ticket and let them know in advance when you want to return so they will keep the seat for you.
Here are some recommended places to stay in Udabno:
- Oasis Club Cottages (9.2/10 on Booking)
- Home in Udabno (9.5/10 on Booking)
- guesthouse gareji (9.3/10 on Booking)
- Udabno Hostel (9.6/10 on Booking)
A bit further from David Gareja you can visit the charming town of Signagi (which itself makes a nice day trip from Tbilisi). I dare to say this is the prettiest town in Georgia.
You can admire here colorful houses with decorated balconies, climb the city walls to admire stunning views of Alazani Valley (with Caucasus mountains in the distance) or visit the Bodbe Monastery with the relics of St. Nino.
But most of all you can see how the wine is produced and try some of amazing Georgian wines from the Kakheti region!
There are plenty of very good accommodation options in Signagi. Click here to find the best place to stay there!
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