Caucasus travel guide
2 minute summary
toasts in Georgia, carved stone khachkars
in Armenia, and karabakh
horses in Azerbaijan; if you're looking to untangle the cultural characteristics of the Caucasus then start in the south, the Transcaucasus, a region that's as varied in terms of ethnicity as it is biodiversity. Persian leopards, brown bears and grey wolves are all known to prowl the densely forested slopes of the Lesser Caucasus; however, as our Caucasus travel guide explains, there's a larger predator in the north that often casts a far greater shadow over this region. South Ossetia offers an initial inkling as to the relationship with Russia and if you've got plans to explore the region as a whole, including the republics of North Ossetia, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, then tread lightly as wounds are raw and tourism a relatively new concept. Europe meets Asia or Islam meets Christianity; whatever you're expecting from the Caucasus, discard your preconceptions and approach with an open mind and healthy instinct for adventure.
The Caucasus is…
the dividing line where languages, religions and continents collide.
The Caucasus isn’t...
to be taken lightly especially when traveling north of the border.
Caucasus map & highlights
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME
The Caucasus region stretches between the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east and was recently recreated after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Former Soviet states that make up the Caucasus include Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan which sit to the south and southwest of the Russian republics of Chechnya, North Ossetia and Dagestan. The disputed region of South Ossetia is linked to North Ossetia by the Roki Tunnel, which runs through the Greater Caucasus, and although the EU, NATO and most of the nations of the UN don't recognise South Ossetia as an independent state, Russia does, and so does Nicaragua – go Ortega!
As the entirety of Armenia is in the South Caucasus the capital, Yerevan, offers an excellent first glimpse at life on the Europe-Asia border with Etchmiadzin Cathedral, Geghard Monastery and Lake Sevan all within an hour’s drive. The spa town of Dilijan is an ideal stopover before heading into Georgia with nearby monasteries and Dilijan National Park both providing distant views over the Middle Caucasus.
Extending travels from Armenia or Georgia into Azerbaijan allows you to explore the Caucasus Mountains to their most easterly point on the Absheron Peninsula, with mud volcanoes, saline lakes and the Caspian Sea all to be found after tours of Old Baku. Azerbaijan’s capital is a real delight for cultural travelers and the UNESCO Stone Age engravings at Gobustan National Park are around an hour’s drive away.
Chechnya has slowly begun to get back on its feet and remains a Russian republic under the control of Moscow. Visits to Grozny, the capital, will take you off the Georgian Military Highway and into an area that the UN deemed the most destroyed city on earth in 2003. Two hours south of Grozny you’ll get to the largest lake in the Caucasus, Lake Kezenoyam, before heading over the border and into Dagestan.
Entering Georgia via the darkly forested mountains of Armenia is extremely atmospheric with Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, offering a unique mix of architectural styles alongside sites such as Siony Cathedral, Anchiskhati Basilica and the dominating form of Narikala Fortress. The Georgian Military Highway takes you high into the Caucasus en route to Mtskheta, Kazbegi and Gori, the birthplace of good ol’ ‘Uncle Joe’.
The incredible range of biodiversity, endangered species and archaeological sites in Alaniya National Park alone make a trip to North Ossetia a thrill for cultured travelers with the Central Caucasus forming the backbone to trips into Russia’s wild frontier. Nalchik and Vladikavkaz invite further insight into the workings of southwest Russia with the Tsey Glacier and eerie medieval tombs of Dargavs providing a few more.
Separated from Russia by the Greater Caucasus and linked to North Ossetia by the Roki Tunnel, South Ossetia is part of Georgia and still a slightly contentious subject with Muscovites. But forget the Kremlin and concentrate on the wide open spaces, where Christian shrines and monasteries accompany remote villages and the battle-scarred city of Tskhinvali offers respite en-route to Ertso Lake in the Kudar Valley.