This Underrated European City Is Perfect For Foodies Who Want To Avoid Crowds

Three decades after Georgia became an independent nation, the country's cuisine is increasingly catching up with the usual European suspects like French and Italian in terms of the continent's best. Unlike those two popular culinary destinations, sampling delicious local delicacies in Georgia is considerably less demanding on the travel fund. As such, the small country wedged between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea is a popular alternative destination for switched-on travelers who want to taste authentic Georgian cooking right from the source. Beyond the more heavily-touristed capital of Tbilisi, picturesque Sighnaghi is an underrated city for foodies to stop for a few bites and a decent drop of wine.

Just shy of a two-hour drive from Tbilisi, Sighnaghi is perched on a hill in Kakheti, one of Georgia's top wine-producing regions. Viticulture has been incredibly important to the Georgian people for many millennia, and one of the most significant events in Kakheti is the grape harvest, which usually occurs between late August and mid-November. During that time, the locals celebrate with Rtveli, a rural harvest festival that lasts several days. It's a great time to experience the festivities, with hearty feasts accompanied by wine and song.

At the heart of the region, Sighnaghi is a small welcoming town that goes by the nickname "City of Love" from the tradition of people coming here to get married. After a few days walking its cobbled street and enjoying its food, you'll fall head over heels too.

Food is the main attraction in Sighnaghi

The fortified old town of Sighnaghi is easily navigable by foot, and it's a pleasure strolling along its sloping streets and seeing where you end up. There are a few historic sights to check out, like the 18th-century fortress gate and old town walls that offer a spectacular view of the Caucasus Mountains on the horizon. It's also worth taking a look at the two lovely Georgian Orthodox churches. The Sighnagi National Museum has exhibitions on art, culture, and natural history. The real star attraction, however, is the food and drink.

A great place to stay, cook, and eat is Lali Coucasian Guest House. Located in the center of the town, the hosts offer pleasant rooms and cooking classes, showing their guests how to make Georgian favorites like Khinkali, the delicious soup dumplings that are ubiquitous across the country. For a meal with a view, head to The Terrace Signagi, a romantic spot where you can wine and dine while gazing out across the plain towards the mountains in the distance. The menu includes grilled meat, fish, local cheeses, and another Georgian staple, Adjarian Khachapuri — a boat-shaped bread filled with molten cheese, butter, and egg. Another good place for wine, cheeses, and flame-grilled protein is Mtevani, a smart modern restaurant that also makes its own Churchkhela. At first glance, these sweet treats look like rustic sausages but are actually strings of walnuts covered with dried concentrated grape juice.

Georgian wine is the perfect accompaniment to a meal

Wine is a huge part of Georgian culture and you're never far away from a good glass, especially in a wine region like Kakheti. Winemaking in the country goes back as far as 6000 B.C. and it is home to around 8,000 vintages, 500 grape varieties, and 100,000 official family-run wineries. Many natural wine producers still use the traditional method of fermenting grapes with their skins, stalks, and pips in clay urns called qvevri, which are buried in the ground until the process is complete. The time-honored method is recognized by UNESCO as part of the country's intangible heritage.

With such a range of wines to choose from, it is commonplace to wash down a good meal with a glass (or three) and there are several excellent places in Sighnaghi to sample the varieties. Most sellers allow you to have a taste before buying, which is a cost-effective way of finding your favorite. 

Cradle of Wine Marani offers an interesting option for a full wine-tasting session, where your host will regale you with the history of Georgian winemaking while you enjoy the samples. Two more popular places in town are Okro's Wine Restaurant and Cellar and the famous Pheasant's Tears Winery, which also offers a menu of sweet treats to help soak up the alcohol. You'll come away from Sighnaghi with great memories of Georgian food and wine, so enjoy it before the word gets out.