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Mtskheta: Easy day trip from Tbilisi
Mtskheta is Georgia's ancient capital, a little village about 15 miles to the north of Tbilisi. It is home to a number of very important Georgian religious sites and functions to this day as a kind of spiritual heart of Georgia. It was in Mtskheta that Georgia adopted Christianity in the 4th century. Today the town receives a steady stream of domestic and foreign religious tourists and hosts various official Georgian Orthodox Church ceremonies. To be clear, Mtskheta is no garden variety tour bus pit stop; its historical sites form a UNESCO World Heritage site.
There are several places in Mtskheta that should be included on a day trip from Tbilisi. One, Jvari Church, is actually located far above the town on a hill, above the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers. (For the view from Jvari Church over Mtskheta, see above). On Sundays, the 6th-Century church fills up with throngs of worshipers and tourists and feels quite intimate.
A second site of great interest is Antioki Church, located along the riverbank in Mtskheta. The church, rather incredibly, dates to the 4th century. It is a diminutive chapel, simple and beautiful, surrounded by a flowers and lawn. The church's caretaking nuns can often be seen on the grounds, tidying things up. The interior walls are decorated with bright new murals.
The star attraction in Mtskheta is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, an enormous church originally built in the 4th century and rebuilt in the 11th century. The throne of the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church sits in the center of the church. Georgian kings are buried here, though the cathedral's most incredible claim extends to Jesus Christ, whose robe, ostensibly brought to Mtskheta from Jerusalem following his crucifixion, is said to be buried underneath the cathedral.
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral interior.
Mtskheta can be a very inexpensive day trip from Tbilisi. Admission to all of the above sites is free. A guide is not required at any stop along the way, though multilingual guides materialize to offer their services for a fee at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.
Transportation to Mtskheta is also inexpensive. A marshrutka (group minibus) from Tbilisi's Didube bus station (adjacent to the Didube Metro station) to Mtskheta costs one lari (60 cents). A taxi from Tbilisi to Jvari Church and then on to Mtskheta (with the taxi driver waiting at Jvari Church for a half hour or so) should cost no more than 30 lari ($18). A taxi doing a full Tbilisi-Jvari-Mtskheta-Tbilisi loop should run no more than 50 lari ($30). You may be able to arrange less expensive taxi fares if you're traveling with a local. Here's a general Tbilisi taxi tip: Always bargain down to your desired price before entering the taxi. If a driver is unwilling to drive you for your requested fare, wait it out. Another taxi driver will come along soon enough.
Be sure to check out other Far Europe and Beyond series articles.