Original Post, March 9, 2012:
My friend came to visit me here in Kakheti last weekend, and we decided to go on a daytrip to the tourist town of Sighnaghi. We tried to go on Saturday, but had a false start on the marshrutka and got tired of waiting so we returned to my house (since then I have found this fabulous online marshrutka timetable for Kakheti (unfortunately now defunct)–would have saved us SO much time). We almost couldn’t believe it when the marshrutka came, and were giddy to be on our way off to Sighnaghi!
It’s still rather early for tourist season, so the tourist areas were not at all crowded. The main attraction of Sighnagi is the old wall. Climbing it you can see for miles, and the view is stunning! We played on the wall, admired the view, and took photos for quite a while.
We then wandered around the old city–the architecture there really is beautiful! Unfortunately, we then had a somewhat unpleasant visit to one of the old churches. It is my understanding (and has been my experience) that in Georgia, as a rule, you do not have to pay to visit a church, though there are often donation jars, and they often request that you leave a donation for the upkeep of the building, or buy the candle you will light in the church. However, the man in the church (not a priest) seemed to disagree with this, and, as we were leaving, rather unpleasantly insisted we give him two lari because we had visited the church.
We decided not to visit the Sighnaghi museum, though I have heard it is good, and instead had Mexican food at the restaurant in Sighnaghi (there aren’t very many places to get Mexican food in Georgia, but this place is highly recommended). We had a happily uneventful marshrutka ride home, and went back to our regular lives.
Sighnaghi has been the target of an intense campaign for the improvement of tourist infrastructure in the last few years. There are some very obvious and helpful successes–there are signposts pointing to the various tourist attractions and “You are Here” maps throughout town. Everything looks quite clean and well-kept, and buildings have been renovated and restored. There’s a central marshrutka station, and public restrooms. But some things still need work–the fantastic marshrutka schedule should really be better advertised. Marshrutka travel is a bit haphazard, and for a major tourist destination, perhaps something a little more formal is in order (I assume most foreign tourists are expected to go by private car or chartered tour…) Likewise, entry fees for attractions should be posted somewhere, and if entry is free no one should be demanding that visitors pay.
Despite a few hiccups, I highly recommend Sighnaghi as a tourist destination for a day–particularly if you’re interested in sampling Georgian wine (which we didn’t actually do. This time.)
Update May 3, 2016:
I’ve been back to Sighnaghi a few times now, and have a few updates to offer. I STILL haven’t been to the museum. It has been closed many times that I’ve visited. We spent the weekend there for Orthodox Easter, and stayed at Leli’s Guest House, which was a pleasant and affordable option. We ate 3 of 4 meals at the Mexican restaurant–it had closed for a while, but is back in business and serving up really delicious food. Definitely worth a stop. Our 4th meal was at the famous Pheasant’s Tears winery. The wine was very good–delicious, and not at all the usual fare. The food was good, though the increase in quality did not match the increase in price, and it seems that something bothered my friend’s stomach. The staff were all lovely–I’d definitely stop in again for some wine, but would be more conservative with my food choices.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that during the weekend days, there were huge groups of tourists rolling through town. It seemed that most did not spend the night, but rather returned to Tbilisi, leaving plenty of accommodation options, and quieter evenings.