Abkhazia is a region bordering the black sea coast in the North West of Georgia and South of Russia. Once a part of Soviet Georgia this controversial region has seen its fair share of conflict. Georgians will tell you it’s part of Georgia occupied by Russia and Abkhazians will tell you they are an independent nation.
The purpose of this article is not to comment on the current political situation or to give an opinion on the Abkhaz conflict. Instead, it aims to give information and tips to travellers wishing to visit and find out about the area for themselves. If you want to read more about the history and current situation I recommend reading:
Abkhazia profile - BBC
Abkhazia - Encyclopaedia Britannica
History: Georgian-Abkhaz conflict - Conciliation Resources
Basic Facts About Abkhazia
Language: Russian is the main language used although they also have their own language (Abkhaz). There is very little English spoken.
Currency: Russian Rouble (there is also a Abkhaz currency but it is only used as a collectors item).
Drinking water: We were advised by our hosts not to drink the tap water and used our Steripen to sterilise the water and had no issues.
Wifi: There is WiFi available at many guesthouses and cafes although it is not very fast. We had problems making online payments and using certain websites due to web-restrictions.
ATMs: There are several ATMs in Sukhum but they can be temperamental. You will also need roubles to get from the border to Sukhum so it’s worth exchanging some roubles in advance.
How to get a visa for Abkhazia
You can apply for an Abkhazian visa online here.
The website says to allow seven working days, the confirmation email says five and we had ours within four. You will need to download the application form and email it along with a copy of your passport to the address shown on the website.
Once you receive clearance they will email you the document (only in Russian) which you need to print and take with you to the border. Once you cross the border you have three working days to get to Sukhum and collect your visa from the administration office (Sakharova street 33).
At the office they will ask for your passport and a payment of 350R which can be paid by credit card. We used a credit card without issues but if you want to pay using cash you will need to go to a nearby bank to make the payment and return with the receipt.
You will be issued with a visa for one month from the day you get the visa. It is on a piece of paper which they don’t stick in your passport. The process took about 15 minutes and the staff were friendly and spoke English.
How to get to Abkhazia
We entered Abkhazia from Georgia. If you enter visa Russia you cannot then cross into Georgia as they see it as illegally entering Georgia. You are also banned from travelling to Georgia in the future.
To get to the border from Georgia you need to make your way to Zugdidi. The easiest way is by night train from Tbilisi. For full information about the train and tickets read this article. From the Zugdidi train station take a taxi to Inguri which costs 10 GEL. This is where the Georgian border point is.
Crossing the Border from Georgia to Abkhazia
Because we arrived by night train we were at the border before it officially opened and had to wait an extra hour to even begin our border process. Basically the border process is a lot of waiting, bring a good book. There are three different check points and we waited over an hour at each.
The first is the Georgian authorities who take your passport and wait for clearance from the office in Tbilisi. We weren’t asked any questions at this point. You won’t be stamped out of Georgia and officially it is not viewed as leaving the country. There is a small tea and snack shop next to the border.
From there you will need to walk about 15 minutes across the bridge to the Abkhazian authorities. This is where you present your clearance form and do some more waiting. The final checkpoint is the Russian authorities and everyone seems to have a different experience here.
We crossed the border with two other travellers and all took varying times to get across. The first guy wasn’t asked any questions. We needed to wait for a English speaking guard to be found and Max was taken for questioning, with particular interest in our jobs and our trip to Iran. I wasn’t asked anything and the other guy was kept longer at the second checkpoint.
All in all, it’s a long process but none of the staff were unfriendly and we didn’t have any problems.
Things to do in Abkhazia
Because of how difficult it is to get into Abkhazia we didn’t expect it to be nearly as touristy as it was. Sure, 99.9% of the tourists are Russian but there are definitely some tourist attractions as well as some interesting abandoned buildings and natural sights.
Getting from the Border to Sukhum
Sukhum is the capital of Abkhazia and a great place to start your trip or base yourself while you explore the area. We had read there were direct minivans from the border but we never found this option and there was nothing on the way back either so instead the journey is split into two parts.
From the border to Gal takes around 20 minutes and costs 50R. At the carpark here you need to get out and swap minivans. We had to wait an hour until the next one left. The journey to Sukhum takes around 1.5 hours and costs 200R.
Where to stay in Sukhum
We booked a place in advance and ended up extending our stay. The room was clean and comfortable, location was walking distance to the town centre and the host was friendly and her daughters spoke good English (a rarity in Abkhazia). Check it out here.
Things to do in Sukhum
Sukhum is a weird mix between abandoned town and Russian tourism destination and is all kinds of cute and quirky. You can chill on beach, climb through abandoned buildings, visit museums and eat great Turkish food all in the same day! And you should!
The Main Square and Council of the Ministries Building
The former Council of the Ministries building which was destroyed during the Georgian-Abkhaz war in 1992. Bullets, shells and fire left the building gutted and it now stands empty in the middle of the main square. It is open and completely free to wander around in.
The National Museum
This is a really nice little museum but everything was in Russian and the staff speak no English. We spent half an hour having a look at the exhibits but left with no further understanding of the 1992-93 war or the history of the area.
Waterfront and Beaches
There are plenty of places to swim in Sukhum and if you walk a bit away from the main stretch in either direction you’ll find some quieter spots. All along the waterfront are abandoned piers and houses which were once holiday homes of the Soviet elite. Near the centre of town there are plenty of nice cafes and restaurants to sit and people watch.
Where to eat in Sukhum
Taverna Hait – great food and beer. Staff spoke a little bit of English, good WiFi.
Narta – An extremely popular place for local food on the waterfront. Staff speak no English and are not very friendly, food is good and affordable though.
Can’t remember the name, have a look at the map - Really delicious Turkish style grilled shish kebabs, lamacun and pide. Easy to point to what you want, staff are very friendly and you can sit outside in a little garden by the waterfront.
How to get to Novy Afon
From the Sukhum Bazaar take bus number 1 which will take you to the bus station. From here there are buses leaving to Novy Afon every 30 minutes. The journey takes around half an hour and costs 70R. There are also marshrutky (minivans) which cost 100R but don’t run on a fixed schedule.
Things to do in Novy Afon
Novy Afon Monastery
The main attraction in Novy Afon is the monastery perched on the hill overlooking the ocean. The views of glistening golden onion domes on a bright blue background are really incredible. The monastery is a short uphill walk from the town, entrance is free. If you walk a little further up the hill past the monastery there is a bend in the road with good views (where this picture was taken).
The Abandoned Railway Station
This old railway station is a really beautiful old building and although the train tracks are still in use the actual station is just a rundown shell overlooking the river. To get there walk along the tourist gauntlet, including a man with a lion cub posing for photos (!) and continue past the waterfall. Just past the railway station are a series of caves which are free to visit.
We chose not to visit these after reading another traveller’s account of how crowded they are during the summer months. But it is the longest cave in the world and includes a metro ride to get into it so the experience looks interesting. You can read everything you need to know about it here.
Other places to visit in Abkhazia
This is a mountain lake 2.5h drive from Sukhum. The lake area looks really beautiful and on one side is the former holiday house of Stalin which you can enter. There is no public transport to the lake so the only option is to take a tour (in Russian). These can be arranged at one of the many tour operators lining the waterfront of Sukhum.
Gagra is a small beachfront town further along the coast from Sukhum. It is supposed to be nice and the beaches are a little quieter than Sukhum. There are regular marshrutkas that travel here from the bus station in Sukhum.
Crossing the border back in Georgia took about half an hour all together and was much less hassle than entering. Buses leave from Sukhumi to Gal every hour from 7am and are usually met by another minivan straight to the border.
At the border they will take your visa and let you back through. There is no second checkpoint and you need to walk back over the bridge to Georgia. The Georgian border guard took one very brief look at our passports and let us go, no questions asked. There was a marshrutka waiting to take us back to Zugdidi for 2GEL.