Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Flying in, the first thing you see is the TV mast: a huge, flashing monument which is lit up like Blackpool tower with garish neon lights, a kitsch 200m symbol of modernity, of the city's reaching for the skies, and symbolic of its eager attempts to westernize. Ten years ago, Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, it must be said, was a crumbling, dilapidated city, crying out for several face-lifts; a hang-over from Soviet neglect and more recent economic woes. It has been re-invigorated since then with several major construction schemes, and has been improved massively in some respects - regardless of the cries of traditionalists. But it is still an extraordinarily charming city, and its ramshackle, tumble-down buildings give it a character that is utterly unique, redolent of a bygone era. Just walking around any neighbourhood near the centre with its 19th century two-story wooden houses and verandas, you start to get a feel for how beautiful this city must once have looked. It's a bit like Miss Havisham's room on a large scale - you know that it's seen better days, and it's let itself go a bit, but you will probably forgive it, and then fall in love with its charms. Even with a few layers of foundation on, Tbilisi is a wonderful city, one where east meets west in a fascinating tangle of cultures and styles. It is the most stylish and captivating of the three Caucasus capitals - Baku and Yerevan, though impressive in other ways, aren't a patch on it for atmosphere and character. Set aside a few days here to look around. A week is ideal to make a base and see the best of Tbilisi and its surrounds.
Best of the Beaten Track
Georgians, it seems, like space to live in. Traditional Georgian houses are huge - about six rooms on one level, and they often seem to be on two or more. They have massive, wide balconies and verandas all around, vines creeping up and around them, and the stairwells and entrances are often works of art in themselves. Casually popping your head in, well, pretty much anywhere in the Old Town for example, you might find yourself in an art-nouveau or fin-de-siecle stairwell with winding wooden staircase and musty portraits hanging up. The Old Town grew up below the walls of the Narikala Fortress, which stands on the Sololaki ridge above the west side of the Mtkvari Gorge. Narikala is an old abandoned fortress, and is a must for photographers, as there are great views, and remnants of medieval stone carvings. The little church on top of the Fortress is also well worth a look. It's a steep walk, but there is also a cable car up to the top now for the less energetic. The cable car station is situated near the Peace Bridge at the bottom - which in itself is worth a visit for some impressive photo opportunities. From the fortress you can stroll to the huge aluminium statue to ‘Kartlis Deda’ (Mother Georgia) which stands sentinel over the city. It's a peaceful area to walk around and get a feel from up above of the city - a great way of getting your bearings.
The twisting alleys of the Old Town, known locally as Kala, are still full of hidden courtyards and carved wooden balconies leaning at rakish angles. Just strolling through this atmospheric area will be a highlight of your trip to Tbilisi. If you're lucky you'll find a shady tea shop or bar for a quiet rest to take in the shambling surrounds. There are atmospheric old churches aplenty – The Armenian Cathedral of St.George, just above the rocky river bank, and the huge Metekhi Church in Avlabari, are worth checking out. Pop into the vast Botanical Gardens (dating from 1845), with its spectacular waterfall and shambling gardens, to while away an afternoon, and round it all off with a visit to one of the sulphur bathhouses (Abanotubani), near its exit. Alexander Dumas and Pushkin both bathed here, and the latter described it as the best bath he’d ever had. Most bathhouses here date from the 17th century, and the most impressive (at least from the outside) is above-ground Orbeliani Baths, which has a blue-tiled mosaic façade. A bath and scrub-down is most invigorating after a sweaty day of sightseeing (and dirt-cheap) – but be aware that these public baths are single-sex, and it is normal here to bathe naked!
Away From the Crowds
Tbilisi is like a bathhouse itself during the summer months, as temperatures can soar to 40 degrees or more, and it’s humid with it. A good place to cool off is up in the hills above Vake, where you can swim or boat in ‘Kus Tba’ (Turtle Lake) and have a stroll in the surrounding wooded hills. Nearby, the open-air Ethnographical museum is well worth a look. Again, commanding great views of the city, this collection of nearly 70 traditional, mostly wooden houses from around Georgia gives a great insight into traditional life here, and makes a nice alternative to sightseeing in the city. If you fancy getting out of the city altogether, why not take a trip to Mtskheta – only 30km distant, this small town which stands strategically at the confluence of two rivers is the spiritual heart of Georgia, and contains more holy sites than you could shake a thurible at.
An ancient capital of Georgia and containing some of the oldest and most important churches in the country, Mtskheta is a big pilgrimage destination. The hike up to Jvari Monastery, just beyond the town, is well worth doing, again rewarding with astonishing views. (There’s a theme here..) A little bit further afield, about 70km away from Tbilisi, is Gori – known chiefly as Stalin’s home town. Not unattractive in itself and with a modest fortress to explore, the main reason to come here is to see the museum to the man of steel himself. Probably the most interesting museum in Georgia, although it’s not the most interactive experience in the world (and the labeling is mostly not in English), it’s highly atmospheric, and includes a visit to his parents’ old cottage which has been preserved, and to his bullet-proof train carriage. You even get to sit in his armchair; where he plotted the fate of all you see around you.
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