Dagestan travel itinerary : where to go & what to see

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Dagestan travel itinerary ideas

Last updated : 19/12/2022

Ever heard of Dagestan ? I’m sure you did : It’s near the infamous Chechnya, on the east side of the North Caucasus, the MMA fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov comes from there and Alexandre Dumas traveled the region in the 19th century!

Welcome to the most heterogeneous corner of the Russian Federation, home to 30+ ethnic groups and even more languages. Off the beaten track travels to the land of mountains (“Dâg” = mountain, “Stan” = country) in this corner of Russia, that is Caucasian above all.

Whether you only have a few days to get an idea of what ​​Dagestan has to offer, or several weeks to visit this mountainous region, here are some itinerary ideas :

Dagestan has stunning auls, fortified villages hanging on the top of the mountains, but also very welcoming people like you rarely meet.

If you need one tip while travelling there is that one : take your time. Prefer to share a plate of Khinkal with locals rather than trying to see as much as possible in little time. “Dagestanis” have an incredible sense of hospitality.

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Basics to know

  • Visa : Dagestan is part of the Russian Federation, you need a russian visa.
  • Language(s) : Russian is the common language. But you have the choice between +40 other languages.
  • Depending on the district (rayon – район) where you are, the locals can speak a very different language from one village to another. Do not hesitate to ask for their “nationality” to realize the enormous diversity in the Republic.
  • The north is predominantly Avar, it is the largest ethnic group in Dagestan, followed by the Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins etc. Some other minorities like the Rutuls have their own district (район), the Rutulsky Rayon (Рутульский район). Pay attention and listen to this melting pot of languages. It’s fascinating!
  • When to visit : Prefer spring and early summer. In winter the roads can be blocked by snow. Summer can be very hot and dry, & mountains more yellow than green.
  • How to get to Dagestan : By plane or train (the link might not work in your country without a VPN & you can’t pay with a foreign card right now due to the 2022 sanctions) from Moscow, and by marshrutka (mini collective bus) from Grozny or Baku.
  • Is it safe ? Western governments and ethnic Russians will tell you no. But I say yes. The chances of you bumping into a crazy Islamist with an explosives belt are much slimmer than 15 years ago.
  • There is no such thing as zero risk, just like in Europe. If you are uncomfortable seeing guns and men in uniforms, Makhachkala is not the place for you.
  • There are wolves, jackals and other bears in the Caucasus mountains.
  • Solo female traveler : Dagestan is predominantly Muslim, some people are quite conservative. Play the religious card: Don’t let anyone do what would be inappropriate with a local woman or the husband card.
  • You might hear the joke “you are going to be kidnapped miss!” and babushkas will probably offer you to meet their unmarried sons!
  • My personal opinion: I felt a thousand times safer and respected by men in Dagestan than in Georgia, for example.

For more detailed general informations on the republic of Dagestan, read this post.

North Caucasus Dagestan

On the map at the top of this page you will find all of the following places pinned. There are of course many other gorgeous auls, where I have not been yet, or that I do not know yet. Yes, Dagestan is quite big.

I have also mentionned the name in cyrillic. I highly advice you to use Yandex map instead of Google map while in Dagestan or anywhere in Russia for that matter.

Short itinerary

If you only have a few days to spend in Dagestan and /or are on your way to Chechnya/other republics in the North Caucasus, here is a list of the must-see places to get a feel for what Dagestan has to offer.

  • Makhachkala (Махачкала), the capital. It’s also the biggest city in the Republic, there isn’t many exciting things to do there in my opinion.

    There’s a big market where you can get yourself a Рapakha (Caucasian woolen hat), change money (illegally) at the best rate and eat a Tchudu (sort of meat or cheese pie)

    Also worth a look is the Great Mosque of Makhachkala, one of the largest in Russia.
  • Derbent (Дербент) one of the oldest cities in the world! A least that’s what they say. Warning : sensitive topic out here and a great debate between locals and historians. 5000 years VS 2000 years.

    It’s home to the ancient citadel and fortress Naryn – Kala (Нарын кала), a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Alexandre Dumas has his name written at the entrance!), and there’s a panoramic view from the top of the citadel.

    Also in Derbent you will find ancient churches, mosques, synagogue etc.

    There is a huge melting pot in the city : a small Jewish community, Armenians living alongside Azeris in a street named after the Azeri President Aliev and many other minorities, all living in harmony.
  • Kubachi (Кубачи), the village where the inhabitants have silver fingers.

    Each Dagestani village was in the past specialized in a particular craft. Some made exclusively shoes, others like Kubachi made weapons (like the famous Kindjal, Caucasian dagger) and jewelry in silver and precious metals.

    Exceptional pieces are still made today, a unique craftmanship passed down through generations for centuries. You can bring back some unique souvenir of Dagestan (if you have the budget).
  • Chokh (Чох), a great example of an aul (Аул – fortified village). Picturesque with breathtaking panoramic views!
  • Gunib (Гуниб), another aul next to Chokh. A natural fortress, the village is located on a plateau. It was an important spot during the Caucasian War in the 19th century, where the last battle of Imam Shamil against the Russian imperial army took place.
  • Sulaksky Canyon (Сулакский каньон), everyone will tell you about it. One of the natural pride of Dagestan. And really, it is awesome.

    This canyon is the deepest in Europe, because yes we are geographically in Europe. If you’re hungry, I advise you to go to the nearby Glavriba, it is a trout farm, the only one in Dagestan. The owners are a bunch of 3 friends. If you only have to meet 3 people in Dagestan, this is them. Caucasian hospitality at its best !

And if you really only have a couple of days in the area and no time to make any detour through the mountains, then stop to Derbent and the Sulaksky Canyon, those are the places you really don’t want to miss and are “easily accessible”.

North Caucasus Dagestan

Two weeks

For travelers with have more time, there is even more to see than the places mentioned above.

  • Kaspiysk (Каспийск), a small Soviet seaside town just south of Makhachkala. I was pleasantly surprised the day I got lost there while looking for the FSB office to get my border zone permit. There is a nice market, a pretty seaside promenade, Soviet statues and shabby buildings that make it look like you’re on a Soviet holiday.
  • Gamsutl’ (Гамсутль – pronounced “Gamsutel”), an abandoned aul among others except that it seems to be the most touristy one. Probably because it’s relatively easy to get there, and looks beautifully clinging to the mountain.

    Gamsutl is only accessible on foot, the path is marked on Maps.me. There is another village nearby which seems partly abandoned and caves in the area of Chokh. All to explore on foot.
  • Karadakh Gorge (Карадахская теснина), a narrow tunnel about 400 long and 150 meters deep. Only accessible in summer, since the rest of the year there may be water or snow. Find out by asking locals.
  • Tobo waterfall in Khunzakh (Хунзахский водопад Тобот). The site is stunning and impressive. If you only have to see one waterfall in Dagestan, this is it.
  • The sand dunes / desert of Sarykum (Барнан Сарыкум), between Khassaviurt and Makhachkala.

Sea, mountains, waterfalls, gorges, canyon, desert and friendly locals. You now have it all for a good overview of Dagestan and the North Caucasus.

North Caucasus Dagestan

A whole month or more

Do you want to visit Dagestan deeper, hike in the mountains of the Greater Caucasus, learn more about its inhabitants and their culture? Dagestan is so diverse that you can spend weeks there without getting bored ! Have a look at the map on top of this page, I have noted many more places to visit .

The sites marked in red on the map are not all easily accessible.
Villages located between the Samur river and the borders with Azerbaijan & Georgia may require a border zone permit.

  • The village of Kusur (Кусур) is said to be the most inaccessible village in Dagestan and perhaps even in Europe! The only way to get there is on foot or horseback. Authenticity guaranteed.

    I personally haven’t been there yet, but it’s on my list ! I still got some information from locals near Akhty (Ахты) though. They adviced me to go in summer time, when more inhabitants live there.

    Kusur unfortunately empties of its inhabitants over the years because of the lack of infrastructure: no roads, no small food stores. Life is simple, yet difficult, especially for families with children. A border zone permit is required after Mishlesh (Мишлеш)
  • Kurush (Куруш) the highest village in Europe is a little easier to access and no permit needed. At an altitude of 2,560 meters, the village is built in the middle of the Greater Caucasus with jawdropping views! Prefer spring when the mountains are green, you won’t regret it.
North caucasus Dagestan

There are a lot of auls, inhabited or abandoned villages. Those mentioned above are “the most popular”, for Dagestan’s tourism. Meaning that, unless you go there in July during the locals’ holidays, the chances of meeting another tourist, even a Russian one, are quite small.

Dagestanis without distinction of ethnic groups are hospitable people and very welcoming towards foreigners. Even towards ethnic Russians, who however think quite the opposite. They know the bad and crazy reputation of their region outside its borders and will want to show you the best of Dagestan and themselves.

I stopped counting how many times people were extremely generous to me : invitations for lunch and sleep at their family homes, food offered by my drivers (yes I was hitchhiking), refusal of my money in small roadside cafes. Always hand on the heart. Dagestan is for me one of the most welcoming region in Russia, maybe even number #1 !

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Let me know on the comments if this guide has been helpful and please feel free to suggest others great places to visit in Dagestan !

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