Scattered between Georgia and Turkey are a series of cave cities that have to be seen to be believed, ranging from monasteries to hand-carved underground super-structures.
Once you spot Vardzia on the mountainside, you won’t be able to look away. I definitely couldn’t. A huge swathe of mountain is carved out and honeycombed with caves and passageways. The bare stone stands out against the green landscape all around it.
They have an audio guide available, but you can get a tour guide for pretty cheap (and I would recommend doing so). It’s neat to learn about the history and discover what the different rooms were used for, from living quarters to a winery to the ancient church.
Vardzia was carved out of the mountainside in the 12th century, making it the youngest cave city on this list by over 2000 years. Most of the construction happened during the rule of Queen Tamar, one of Georgia’s most famous and successful rulers (look her up, she was a badass). Legend says that Vardzia got its name because Tamar was visiting the site as a child and got lost. When her family came looking for her, she called out, “Ak var, dzia. Here I am, Uncle,” and the name stuck.
Built largely as a monastic site, Vardzia cave city still has a handful of devotees who live at the site and care for the Church of the Dormition, which is covered in religious murals dating back to the 12th century. It’s an amazing place to visit and spend an afternoon climbing around through tunnels and up and down the steep staircases and ladders. Not to mention the beautiful views of the mountains around it and the vibrant landscape around the Mtkvari River which runs through the valley.
Any visit to Vardzia starts in Akhaltsikhe, where you’ll likely stay if you’re making a day trip of it. Akhaltsikhe, whose name translates to “New Castle,” is overlooked by the massive Rabati Castle, which is well worth a visit and free unless you want to visit the museum – which I highly recommend!
Uplistsikhe is a cave city in the Shida Kartli region of Georgia whose name translates roughly to God’s Castle. It sits atop a hill overlooking the Mtkvari River. Although a lot of it has been weathered smooth since its construction around 1000 BC, it has some great examples of different architectural styles throughout the ages.
Some of the intricate carving remains, especially on the ceilings. Queen Tamar’s Hall features a ceiling that has been designed to look like it was made from wooden beams. It’s something unlike any of the other cave cities I’ve seen, and it’s definitely unique for this list. At the top of Uplistsikhe, there’s a 10th century Christian church that you can enter. Since it’s an Orthodox church, make sure to be dressed appropriately, no shorts or spaghetti straps and women must cover their heads.
The structure of Uplistsikhe tells an ancient story of civilizations rising and falling, with each group of inhabitants adding to its archeological patchwork. You can see the ruins of rooms designed for making and storing wine near pits dug to hold prisoners. Plus, from the top, you get an incredible view of the Mtkvari River and surrounding region that’s worth climbing for!
Once you’ve finished exploring the caves, you enter a long staircase that leads you out of the complex through a massive tunnel carved straight through the rock. The light at the end of it is one of the most iconic sights from Uplistsikhe and an excellent photo opportunity.
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There is nothing on earth like the whimsical landscape surrounding and encompassing Göreme. When you travel to this cave city by bus, it’s entirely hidden from view until you’re upon it. And then, suddenly, the valley opens up and you’re met with an incredible view of a city where rock blends into modern building materials seamlessly. Fairy chimneys, the distinctive (and very phallic) rock structures that the region is famous for, are scattered among the caves and buildings with lights glittering in windows hand-carved millennia ago.
It’s hard to say if Göreme, and the whole surrounding region of Cappadocia, is more impressive for its natural wonder, with huge valleys full of cultivated greenery gone wild and distinctive colored rock formations, or for the human history of the region and the sheer scale of the tunnels and caves which were carved into a unique and unforgettable city.
Just a kilometer and a half out from the city center is the Göreme Open Air Museum, which is a must see. There are audio guides available or you can visit with a tour group. But there are also plenty of informational signs around, so a guide isn’t necessary. The museum features ancient Christian churches with fantastic murals preserved inside them. Shell out a couple of extra lira to visit the Dark Church; it was the most incredible of the cave churches there, and I was able to bribe the guard with a cigarette to let me take photos inside!
Most of the hotels and hostels in Göreme are cave hotels, so the rooms are carved out of rock, and they range in price from budget rooms to fancy cave suites. There’s something for every traveler to this region and hiking in the valleys around Göreme yields lots of crumbly cave structures to explore. If you get up at sunrise, you’ll see the whole valley filled with hot air balloons in a scene so surreal and magical you will never forget it!
Derinkuyu is an underground super cave city located in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. And when I say super city, I mean super city. It’s believed that the beginnings of Derinkuyu were carved out in the 7th and 8th century BC, but fringe archeologists will tell you it predates the last ice age and was used to protect humans from massive solar flares. You’ll have to see it for yourself to decide what you think!
The structure extends approximately 200 feet below ground. Tourists can only visit the first eight levels, but there’s enough there to make for a wild and potentially endless game of hide and seek. You’ll spend nearly ten minutes just descending down a narrow staircase intersected by doorways that were once covered by massive circular stone doors before it opens up into a huge pillared cavern. That’s when the real fun begins.
The sheer scale of Derinkuyu is almost unbelievable. It was designed to hold up to 20,000 people and their livestock. You can see where wine was made, where animals were kept, and where refectories stood with long carved out tables and benches. There isn’t a lot of signage here to guide you, but the tour groups tend to move through it pretty quickly. I recommend going on your own and really exploring. You can always eavesdrop on a tour group if you see something especially interesting.
Every time you think you’ve seen it all, there’s another hallway or tunnel to explore. And if it’s not blocked off or caved in, it’s fair game. You’ll feel like a real explorer as you climb around and discover Derinkuyu.