Your ultimate North Caucasus travel guide

Your ultimate North Caucasus travel guide

The medieval necropolis of Dargavs in the foggy mountains of North Ossetia Alania in the North Caucasus of Russia

Many people know about the South Caucasus and/or have visited Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – But what about the North Caucasus ? If you’re reading this, you’re probably looking for up-to-date information to travel this little known destination.

Congrats ! You’re at the right place, my blog is mostly dedicated to independant travels in the North Caucasus mountains of Russia aka my all time favourite corner of the world.

Here is your ultimate North Caucasus 2024 travel guide, covering everything you need to know to make it your next off the beaten tracks adventure. First-hand experience and up-to-date info only !

Reading time : 15 minutes

The medieval necropolis of Dargavs in North Ossetia Alania in the North Caucasus of Russia
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Getting to know the North Caucasus

• Where is the North Caucasus ?

The North Caucasus is a region located in the southern part of Russia, bordering the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east.

The North and the South Caucasus (formed by Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) are separated by the natural barrier of the Greater Caucasus mountains.

• The North Caucasus division

The North Caucasus is divided into 9ish federal subjects, all answering to the central russian government and recognised by the International Community as part of the Russian Federation.


From West to East :

1- The Krasnodar Krai : The North Caucasus starts on the Black Sea shores, home to Russia’s most popular beach resort Sochi and largest ski resort Krasnaya Polyana, only 50 kilometers from each other. An incredibly diverse region in terms of landscapes (steppe, subtropical forests, high mountains filled with endemic flora and fauna) and people (Circassians aka the indigenious people, Armenians, Ukrainians, Greecs, Assyrians … ). Easy to travel around with lots of tourist infrastructures.

2- The republic of Adygea : Located within the Krasnodar Krai (litterally surrounded), Adygea is Russia’s smallest republic and what’s left of the historical region of Circassia (streatched from the Black sea to today Kabardino – Balkaria or so, wipped off the map in 1864 after the Russo-Circassian War). Covered of green forests and low mountains, Adygea is home to indigenous Circassians who never left but also decendants of the Circassian diaspora of ex-ottoman countries such as Turkey and Syria. Arabic and Turkish are not uncommon in the street of its capital Maikop.

3 – The Republic of Karachay – Cherkessia : Named after its two main ethnic groups the Karachay and Tcherkess people, the republic is home to one of USSR’s very first montaineering camp and one of today’s most popular ski resort in Russia : Dombay. Karachay – Cherkessia has an endemic flora and fauna protected within the UNESCO Nature Reserve of Teberda. Its many marked hiking trails are making the region a great place to go hiking in the Caucasus mountains but also an easy region to get to know the hospitable Balkars and more discret Circassian – Tcherkess peoples.

4 – The southern part of the Stavropol Krai aka “the Mineral Waters region” : The southern part of the Stavropol Krai (hence the 9ish) is the spa region of Russia with its famous resort towns of Mineralny Voda , Pyatigorsk, Kislovodsk, Yessentuki, Zheleznovodsk, Georgiyevsk and Lermontov, forming the unofficial “Caucasian Mineral Waters region”. Therapeutic muds, mineral springs and lots of green parks where the 19th century’s russian aristocracy (naming Pushkin, Tolstoi and Lermontov who was killed in a duel there) with poor health constitution loved to vacation.

5 – The Republic of Kabardino – Balkaria : Named after its two main ethnic groups the Kabard and the Balkar people, the republic is home to some of the highest mountain peaks in the whole Caucasus with the famous Bezengi wall and mount Elbrus, Dykhtau, Shkhara (half in Georgia), Koshtan-Tau etc, all taller than the Mont Blanc in the Alps. Friendly Balkars and more reserved Circasian – Kabard peoples also make the republic worth visit to discover unique Caucasian cultures.

6 – The Republic of North Osseitia – Alania : often called the favourite of Moscow, Ossetia is what’s left of the medieval Kingdom of Alania and the only caucasian republic where christian orthodoxy is the main religion. A easy accessible mountain region full of ancient villages, a world famous necropolis AKA “the Ossetian City of Dead” and a bizarre admiration for Stalin.

7 – The Republic of Ingushetia : Land of the towers and Russia’s best kept secret, Ingushetia is a small hidden republic full of Vainakh stone towers. You thought the Svan towers of Ushguli were amazing ? Wait until you explore the mountains of Ingushetia ! Separated with their decades-long enemy Ossetia by the Georgian military highway, the Ingush mountains are within the russian border zone and require a special permit to be visited, but you can get it for free by yourself.

8 – The Republic of Chechnya : the unfamous Chechen republic is safe to visit in 2024, the war is over, its capital Grozny has been fully rebuilt, and I dare say with Dagestan and Ingushetia, Chechnya is home to the most hospitable people in Russia. Even though it is not a country (no, it’s not), the unique customs and conservative cultural etiquette make it feel like one. The green mountains of Chechnya are full of gorges, historical villages and the largest lake in the North Caucasus : Kezenoy – Am.

9 – The Republic of Dagestan : The “land of the mountains” on the Caspian Sea is the most heterogenous republic of Russia and home to more than 30 ethnic groups and subgroups, with Muslims, Christians, Jews, all speaking different languages. With its epic auls (fortified villages) built on top of rocky mountains, the UNESCO Silk Road city of Derbent and overwhelming hospitality, Dagestan has it all.

• Topography of the region

Nested between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the North Caucasus is defined by high mountains, snow-capped peaks, glaciers, lush forests, and fertile lowlands. The region’s picturesque landscape is shaped by its rugged terrain.

• Brief history and cultural diversity of the region

The North Caucasus has been shaped by invasions over the centuries, from the Mongols to the Ottomans, and finally the Russian conquest of the 19th century. You will come across many religious beliefs including paganism, totally different languages from one region to another but also from one village to another, historical stone towers and even religious temples (churches and mosques) with pagan symbols on them but also people’s physical features are diverse if you pay close attention.

RUssia travel insurance

It’s mandatory to have an insurance to travel in Russia and apply for a russian visa (including the e-visa)

I recommend Attollo Assistance (24/7 assistance, medical expenses up to 35 000 €, repatriation)


Planning Your North Caucasus Itinerary

• Best Time to Visit

Unless you’re into winter sports, the best time to travel the North Caucasus is spring to autumn, roughly mid-May to mid-October. No need to avoid July-August except for maybe Sochi and the sea-side resorts along the Black Sea. The North Caucasus is never crowded with tourists like Georgia.

Mont Bolshoy Thach is a castle-like rocky montains surrounded by rhododendrons flowers in the montains of the North Caucasus
Bolshoy Thach, Adygea

Note that some hiking trails high in the mountains aren’t free of snow before July. Late spring the mountains are very green, early summer is the rhododendrons blossom season and early autumn the forest is full of earthy colours.

• Must-visit places

*sigh* too many to count. Each republic has amazing places, let me try to name only a few in each :

Dagestan : Derbent, Sulaksky canyon, Chokh and Gamsutl
Chechnya : Grozny, Shali’s mosque, Kezenoy-Am lake
Ingushetia : the Vainakh stones towers
North Ossetia – Alania : the Dargavs necropolis and the Midagrabin waterfall
Kabardino – Balkaria : the Eltyubyu necropolis and the Elbrus
Karachay – Cherkessia : The Teberda Nature Reserve and the Bermamyt plateau
Adygea : Lago – Naki and Bolshoy Thach
Krasnodar Krai : Abrau – Durso and Krasnaya Polyana for the UNESCO Western Caucasus Reserve

Check out my post about the top 10 must-visit places in the North Caucasus for more details.

Outdoor adventures

The North Caucasus has nothing to envy to popular Georgia, there are tones of outdoorsy adventures to do : from hiking to horse riding and even paraglading ! Every republic/krai has stunning hiking opportunities but there are not always marked trails …

Best day hikes on marked trails are found (in my experience) in North Ossetia, around Dombay in Karachay – Cherkessia and Krasnaya Polyana in the Krasnodar Krai. If you’re more experienced and/or looking for multi day treks check out the Prielbrussye National Park, the Soviet Route 30, the Imerety lakes, Kardyvach lake, the Sofia lakes and the Adyr-su valley for example.

Practical stuffs and tips to travel in North Caucasus

• Visa

The North Caucasus is part of Russia so you will need a russian visa (if applies for your nationality). You can get a 16 days e-visa and cross the Russia-Georgia border at the Kazbegi/Verkhny Lars border crossing, and most airports in the North Caucasian republics are eligible to enter with this e-visa. Any other regular tourist/buisiness visa will do as well. More info on russian visas here.

• How to get there

  • By plane from Moscow and other russian cities (E.g. Moscow to Sochi, Grozny or Mineralnye Voda), and from abroad, especially Turkey (E.g Istanbul to Sochi or Istanbul to Grozny). You can buy tickets of russian airlines on Kupi.com with a foreign Visa/Mastercard (it’s a legit booking platform, they are based in the UAE so the payment will go through).
  • By train from other russian cities like Moscow (to Sochi, Krasnodar, Grozny, Makhachkala etc), but also from Azerbaijan (to Derbent, Makhachkala). You can book your train ticket directly on RussianTrain with a foreign Visa/Mastercard.
  • By marshrutka/bus from neighboring republics but also Moscow and other russian large cities. E.g Krasnodar to Maikop or Moscow to Makhachkala. Check on Tutu.ru for bus timetables and available routes, but you can’t book with a foreign bank card on it. Marshrutka and bus tickets alike can be bought directly at the station or to the driver on departure.
  • By marshrutka/bus from Georgia (Tbilisi or Kazbegi to Vladikavkaz) and Azerbaijan (Baku to Derbent, Makhachkala and Grozny).

Border crossings

There are only 1 legal border crossing between Russia and Georgia : Verkhny Lars/Kazbegi (Abkhaza and South Ossetia are illegal from Georgia’s point of view) and 3 between Russia and Azerbaijan allowed for foreigners : Yarag Kazmalyar – Samur AKA the main one, Shirvanovka – Novo Filya prefered by locals, and Tagirkent Kazmalyar – Yamala where the trains cross. More info about the Georgia one here, and Azerbaijan’s here.

Trucks waiting at the mountains pass of the Kazbegi and Verkhny Lars border crossing between Russia and Georgia in the Caucasus
Kazbegi/Verkhny Lars border crossing

There is no international ferries/boat to the North Caucasus. No ferries to Sochi nor anywhere on the russian part of the Black Sea coast and none either on the Caspian Sea coast.

How to travel around

You can easily take a marshrutka or a bus between the main cities across the North Caucasus. There are marshrutkas going around each republic or shared taxis but if you go really deep in the mountains sometimes there are only one per day, none on friday and week-ends. It really depends how off the beaten track you go …

Hitchhiking works great (except in North Ossetia in my experience). You can also find taxis willing to take you anywhere for a price. E.g you can totally find a driver from Grozny to Itum – Kale or Vladikavkaz to Dargavs.

There are trains between the big cities in the Krasnodar Krai : Krasnodar, Novorossiysk, Sochi, Krasnaya Polyana etc. Book in advance in the summer.

An old Lada car on the mountain road in Chechnya, North Caucasus

• Where to sleep

Hotels and hostels can be found anywhere in the big cities and towns across the North Caucasus. Check on Zenhotels, none will show on Booking.com due to western sanctions on Russia. You can book and fully pay a reservation with your foreign Visa/Mastercard.

In more rural mountain areas where they see little tourist (naming Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia) there are some homestays, and if you can’t find any, ask the locals, they will surely find you a bed and food for a night or more. If you’re a female tourist, ask the local babushkas, they will most likely take you under their wings right away.

• Where & what to eat

In cities everything is available from fancy restaurants to local cafés, same in the touristy mountain resorts. in small towns you can find more traditional and authentic cafés, nothing fancy but always good and cheap but also sometimes cafés with compartment closed by curtains in more conservative eastern parts of the North Caucasus (which may be great for female travellers where the clientele is more masculine).

Skewered and grilled cubes of meat called shashlik being grilled on barbecue in the North Caucasus, Russia

In rural areas you may have to rely on locals to feed you or bring your own food if camping/hiking in the mountains.

What to eat ? Each republic has its own traditional cuisine : lots of meat, dumplings, pies and cheese (if you’re vegan, you may famish). Here are some : Circassian Haliva, Avar Khinkal, Ossetian pie, Chechen Zhizhij – Galnash, Ingush Chapilg, Karachay-Balkar Khychins, shashliks and so much more.

• Foreign currencies exchange

Just like anywhere else in Russia, your foreign Visa/Mastercard won’t works in the North Caucasus. You must bring cash with you : euros or US dollars are best. You can get russian roubles in Tbilissi if coming from Georgia for example.

In Russia, change in a legal exchange currency office, at the bank or at the local market with some random men.

A russian man changing money in the street in Derbent, Dagestan in the North Caucasus

Easy to spot, they usually have a pile of cash in their hands and a little cross shoulder bag. It’s black market (better rate) but that’s litterally their job. Note : there is very little counterfeit money in Russia and personally, I’ve never been ripped off.

• Cultural etiquette

The North Caucasus republics (aside from the Krasnodar and Stavroprol Krai) are not your usual travel destination. Chechnya and Ingushetia are the most convervation republics among those.

Make sure to dress appropriately = cover yourselves : no worries ladies, no need to wear a scarf unless you enter a mosque or church – guys avoid shorts; especially shorts above the knees are a big no, cover your tattoes as well.

Smoking is not well seen, especially for a women. Avoid public display of affection with your partner, even if you’re married.

It is consider rude to decline an invitation or insist on paying if you’ve been invited (absolutely out of the question if you’re a female tourist invited by a bunch of men). Be flexible on your schedule and really do not decline a genuine gesture of hospitality.

Modern mosque in the mountains of Ingushetia, North Caucasus

Communication with locals

Russian is the lingua franca and the second language (not mother tongue) of many North Caucasians. The only place where it’s rather easy to find english speakers is Grozny in Chechnya in my experience. Couchsurfing is a great place to meet english speakers but there are not tones of them in the North Caucasus.

To make a broad generality (to take with a pinch of salt – only my months of solo travelling the North Caucasus experience here ) : The most russified caucasians and slavic russians in the Krasnodar Krai for example are simply shy to speak and prefer that you speak your broken russian, so your best shot is with the young adults.

A street sign of Putin Avenue in Grozny, Chechnya, North Caucasus

The muslim republics are not touristy enough, why would they speak english? But again, some people do speak it, you just need to find them or simply learn some russian, it will take you a long way !

• Mobile phone coverage

The 3 most popular phone companies in Russia MTS, Megafon and Beeline work just fine in big cities and towns in the North Caucasus. In small villages I found Beeline works best (and in the region in general) but while hiking in the mountains don’t expect much phone signal. E.g I had barely any signal only a kilometer away from the cable car stations near Krasnaya Polyana with Megafon.

I’d recommend to ask locals where you are which one works better in their area if you plan to stay around for a while, but overall I recommend Beeline.

Is it safe to visit the North Caucasus in 2024 ?

Yes, it’s safe to travel the North Caucasus now : it’s 2024, not the 1990’s anymore. If it was not, the central russian government would simply not let tourists cross the borders, land into the international airports of the region nor board trains and bus to it.

Some republics have more police/military presence than others, there are also checkpoints on the main roads between them.

Lower body of an armed russian soldier at a military post in the mountains of Ingushetia in the North Caucasus

If you are not comfortable with men in uniforms carrying AK47 and checkpoints, the eastern parts of the North Caucasus (Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia mostly) isn’t for you. Better travel to the Krasnodar Krai and Adygea perhaps. But know that all this police presence is to ensure that the region is secure, and it is, I’ve never ever had any troubles solo travelling, hitchhiking, and hiking in the mountains for months.

No special permit is needed to visit the North Caucasus republics unless you travel in the border zone areas. E.g. you can visit Grozny freely but cannot visit the mountains of Ingushetia without a permit, soldiers will simply not let you through the checkpoint.

Female tourist : (I’m a 30 years old white western woman) unlike in Georgia, I’ve never ever been catcalled or physically harrassed in the North Caucasus (nor anywhere else in Russia for that matter). Thanks to religion and strong local customs, men respect women; A foreign tourist is no exception.

My experience : in muslim majority republics young men are flirty (expect in Dagestan where I fit rather well and Adygea, Circassians are in my opinion very reserved people), but then again, always respectful, never touchy or pushy. In the Krasnodar Krai, I’m invisible next to tall and very little dressed russian female tourists in resort towns. Basically nobody really notices me unless I start speaking my bad russian.

The Checkpoint on the road in the North Caucasus
Checkpoint on the road between Kabardino-Balkaria & North Ossetia – Alania

Packing Essentials for Your North Caucasus Adventure

Beside the usual regular travel packing essentials passport + visa if needed, here are some must-pack for a trip to the North Caucasus

Appropriate clothing (understand “modest”) especially if you are travelling the muslim majority republics ; regular clothes will do in the Krasnodar Krai and Stavropol Krai. Guys no shorts especially not above the knees, ladies you can wear your regular jeans (I did, everywhere even in Chechnya), and bring a scarf to visit the mosques and churches. In short cover yourselves out of respect for the locals, just like you would in any muslim part of the world.

Raincoat and warm clothing especially if hiking in the mountains even for day hikes in the middle of summer, the weather changes quickly.

Sunscreen : The sun is strong in the mountains.

Hiking shoes : if hiking in the mountains of course. I’ve seen people wearing sneakers sliding down in front of me just a few meters away from the cable car stations. Proper shoes with grip are mandatory.

Adapter for charging devices : Russia uses European-style outlets so bring an adapter if necessary.

• Plenty of cash (euros or US dollars is best to exchange) : Visa and Mastercard do not operate in Russia anymore so make sure to have enough cash with you for the duration of your trip. There will be no way to get any while in Russia; Western Union doesn’t work either.

A young man packing his suitcase to travel to the North Caucasus

Travel the North Caucasus deeper

If you don’t know yet, most of this travel blog is dedicated to travelling the North Caucasus. I’ve written plenty on each republic/krai in the region; here are the blog posts related to each republic/kai to help you plan your next adventure !

To end this post, here is a video clip by a famous Balkar-Kabard singer Islam Itlyashev about friendships between the North Caucasian (+Abkhazian) peoples. A bunch of dudes proudly dancing Lezginka on a road in front of cars = the North Caucasus in a nutshell !

The green mountains of the North Caucasus
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