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.
Experiences and Events
Georgians are an incredibly expressive and creative people – and they don’t need an excuse to party. Music, song, dance and poetry all play big parts in their lives – and if you’re ever invited to a Georgian family meal, you are likely see all of the above. Live rock music in Tbilisi seems to revolve mainly around the ex-pat, cover-band scene, but there is a strong tradition of folk and jazz music in the city – on October 27th for example, the Tbilisi Jazz Festival is taking place. A more general cultural event is taking place between the 6-7 October called Tbilisoba. Since 1979, this festival has celebrated all things Georgian, this year ranging from ancient Tbilisi map displays to national martial arts, an auto show and performances from local rock bands. For ten days, the city is alive with colourful carnivals and pageants, people dressing up in costume, drinking and generally having fun. If that weren’t enough, Tbilisi supports a lively theatre scene, and the Rustaveli National Theatre has staged 17 different Shakespeare plays – all in Georgian, of course. Being such a wine-obsessed nation, it's no surprise that there's a viticulture-related festival in Tbilisi. A relatively new addition to the Georgian festival scene, New Wine Festival focuses on the wine made from the latest harvests. Spring is considered the time to unseal vessels of wine and bring them out for everyone to taste. The venue of the festival is changeable, as are the companies or family wineries who bring out their products. The festival fast gained popularity with increasing numbers of participants each year. Here, you can taste more than 60 varieties of Georgian wine, some of which are not even sold in the markets.
Hitting the Hay
In the last ten years, with increasingly pro-western policies, have come plenty of western investors, and so Tbilisi is now endowed with several top-notch hotels like The Ambassadori and The Marriott, the latter charging upwards of €300 a room. It is one of the iconic buildings in the city though, so if you can stretch to it, you should. A very good mid-range boutique option is Old Tiflis Boutique Hotel. Situated in the Avlabari area near all the bath houses, this is a place which oozes style. Perfect for couples, the Old Tiflis boasts all the luxuries you'd expect for this level such as mini-bars and wide screen TVs. Some rooms have balconies with excellent views of the city. Slightly down the scale (but not too much), Fabrika Tbilisi, housed in a former Soviet sewing factory in the old historic part of the city, features unique design and architecture with its aged concrete walls enhanced with industrial elements. The property offers comfortable accommodation with well-decorated private or dormitory rooms, combining vintage and modern style. While doubles start at around €50, a dorm bed can be had for an absolute bargain €10 a night. If a hostel isn't your thing but you're on a budget, there are a few home stay options in the city. Haha House House is no joke - in fact it offers some of the best value rooms in Tbilisi, though it's not central. Opening to a patio with garden views, all units are fitted with a kitchen with an oven. A microwave and coffee machine are also available, as is a substantial breakfast. All for the bargain of around €30-50 for a double. For true penny-pinchers who refuse to sacrifice any comfort, there is astonishing value to be had at Mba Homestay. Located about 2.5km from Rustavelli Street, it offers panoramic views, huge rooms and home comforts (including a dog) for the throwaway price of €20-25 a double.
Georgia would not be Georgia without its food, and you will probably spend a great deal of time eating out as it’s so inexpensive. Traditional staples like kinkhali (meat dumplings) are ubiquitous, as are kachapuri (cheese breads). Don’t leave Tbilisi without sampling badrijani – fried aubergine with walnut and garlic paste – and chakapuli – lamb with tarragon and plums. Be warned – your food will come in mountainous portions, so don’t order too much, even if it is cheap; and never attempt to eat more than five kinkhali at one sitting. (For more info on the wondrous pleasures of Georgian food, see the link at the end of this article). A great place to sample Georgian food in typical surrounds (ie, with large, boisterous groups and loud music) is Puris Sakhli (Bread House), near the Baths. Other similarly reasonable but good quality establishments are Dzveli Sakhli (Old House) and Shemoikhede Genatsvale (Drop in, Love). All of the above sell excellent draft beers (€1) and Georgian house wines (€2-€5 a litre). If your stomach can handle it after the battering it will have taken, try Bakery Khachapuri for some of the finest Georgian Bread in Tbilisi - straight from the oven, and for just a handful of Lari. For something a bit lighter, why not try SOSA Artisinal Cafe and Bakery. An old-school vibe is accompanied by great coffee, pastries and all sorts of desserts. With a relaxing atmosphere and super-friendly staff, it makes a nice stop for a snack. If you've got a sweet tooth and crave a cake, you can't go far wrong with PonPonchiki Cafe - which specialises in doughnuts and pancakes - which it serves in all shapes and sizes. Delicious.
Watering Holes Tbilisi’s nightlife scene is still pretty nascent, and it’s centred on two areas: in and around the Old Town – especially Shardeni, Rkinis and Sionis Streets – and in a couple of streets just near Rustaveli Metro, which contain a plethora of ex-pat English and Irish-style bars, some of which are good, some of which are not. Most of the Old Town options are modern, trendy bars by night, but Book Corner Cafe is a great place for a coffee, smoothie or snack in cultural surrounds – the bookcases all around attract an arty crowd. The pick of the expat bars seems to be Hangar Bar, where you can catch all your live sports and be served a reasonable array of Tex-Mex snacks. Black Dog Bar, a short walk from the old town, is the first self-declared pet-friendly bar in town that opened only in 2016. It’s also one of the few smoke-free bars in the area. It serves craft beer, drinks, and non-Georgian food and hosts rock, reggae, and jazz evenings. Warszawa, located on Freedom Square, is another budget-friendly bar for quick drinks and is very famous among locals. Its walls are decorated with old Georgian and Polish newspapers, giving the venue a special touch. The menu both for drink and food is limited but very cheap. They serve chacha (Georgian grape spirit), vodka, beer and wine along with non-alcoholic beverages. For a fancier evening, head towards the bar at Rooms Hotel Tbilisi. They have both indoor and outdoor seating possibilities, along with a variety of food and drinks. The venue is distinguished by its design, relaxed vibe and friendly atmosphere. Across the road from the Rooms Hotel, there’s another trendy bar called Lolita. The ground floor of a pseudo-Gothic house features an open-air bar, kitchen, and outdoor seating. However, there are indoor tables available too. The bar serves cocktails, local wine, homemade lemonade, chacha, and various meals. Finally, the afore-mentioned Fabrika has quickly become a trendy and cool place to spend a Friday or Saturday evening. What makes Fabrika so popular is its minimalist yet very modern and artsy design, seen both inside and outside the venue.
Getting There & Away
Wizz Air serves Georgia's second city Kutaisi from Katowice in Poland, and brings in curious backpackers and business travellers alike. Tbilisi airport also connects with many other major European destinations, though budget carriers are absent. Overland, the only ways in (unless you're Russian) are from Turkey, Armenia or Azerbaijan. The land border with Russia is closed to all foreigners and most Georgians. Which means that practically speaking, most westerners have to fly in. There is a thrice-weekly Black Sea ferry operating from Batumi to Chornomorsk in Ukraine – it takes 36 hours, and there are presumably more comfortable ways to travel - but if you're coming by car, it means you forego the hassle of getting a Russian visa if you are driving from the west. Overland options into Georgia from the west are minimal. Some intrepid backpackers make their way from Black Sea coastal resorts in Turkey, but it's time-consuming. Trabzon and Samsun are the closest Turkish cities, from where there are regular buses to Batumi or Tbilisi. Trains aren't an option. There are, however, daily departures to Baku and Yerevan, in Azerbaijan and Armenia respectively.
The usually-reliable Lonely Planet for this region has been heavily criticized by some backpackers for inaccuracies and lack of information; but it’s still the default guide for most backpackers, if only for the fact that there is very little else written. Local newspapers Georgian Times and Georgia Journal give info on current affairs and have 'what’s on' listings. www.info-tbilisi.com appears to be the most reliable web-based guide. Polish journalist and reportage writer extraordinaire Ryszard Kapuscinski (recently in the news for not actually going to some destinations he wrote about) did definitely travel to the Caucasus and wrote about it with some style, amongst other ex-Soviet states, in Imperium.
British Georgia-phile Peter Naysmith wrote his Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry around the same time, during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which gives an exhaustive and informative if rose-tinted view of the country. For a bit of background on Georgia's most famous son, you can’t beat Simon Montefiore’s Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar. Finally, a poetic and evocative picture of Tbilisi around the turn of the millenium is painted by Wendell Steavenson in Stories I Stole. She portrays a balanced, compelling pastiche of life in Georgia as it struggles out of its post-Soviet torpor. Twenty short episodes are recounted with whimsy, humour and sadness. Honest, serious, funny, humble journalism. She manages to capture the atmosphere perfectly.
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