Pack your favorite walking shoes and get ready to explore Tbilisi, a European capital filled with history and good food. Here are five unforgettable ways to spend your time in this charming city.
1. Georgian Food and Drink
The soul of Georgia is in its food and drink, which has sustained a proud people through centuries of oppression. You can’t miss the khachapuri, a crusty dough-pocket for gooey cheese with an egg on top. Wander down the busy restaurant street named after King Erekle II, and you’ll see that just about every place has its own version. It’s also a popular street food and the intoxicating smell of baking bread is everywhere.
We ordered khachapuri along with juicy khinkali dumplings at Stelzen Haus, a friendly pub-like place in a former caravanserai, where weary travelers once stopped on their journeys along the Silk Road. Everything paired well with the “homemade white wine,” which was actually orange but different from the orange wines I had tried in Slovenia. Georgians claim their method of making orange wine in terracotta vessels is the world’s oldest.
Being a vegetarian in this part of the world can be challenging. I’m okay with fish and dairy products, but don’t eat meat. What a delight to find Kafe Leila, a charming restaurant with Persian decor and a full vegetarian menu from starters to dessert. The fried cheese, eggplant with grits and bean soup all paired well with a carafe of the house wine. With the friendly English-speaking servers and reasonable prices, I wanted to eat here every night!
We weren’t fortunate enough to be invited to a supra, a lavish, multi-course Georgian banquet with an elaborate toasting ritual. We had to settle for posing with the tamada, a copy of a 7th century statue of a toastmaster. To learn more about Georgian wines, visit one of the old town’s many tasting rooms. It was free to sample a couple of the artisan vintages, and we bought a bottle of the one we liked best to enjoy later at our hotel. Lastly, don’t forget to try the potent liquor known as cha-cha, in moderation of course.
2. Tbilisi Cable Car
We purchased round trip fares for two people at the lower station of the cable car near Europe Square on the left bank and were told to keep the receipt. Good thing we did, because on the way down the automated transit card did not work and we had to show the receipt to avoid paying twice.
As you rise above the old town to the top of the hill overlooking Tbilisi, admire the views across the winding Mtkvari River and ponder the strategic location at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. It is both a blessing and a curse: great for commerce but also a strategic target for invaders. No wonder the towering hilltop statue of Mother Georgia holds a wine bowl in one hand and a sword in the other.
Also at the top, the Narikala Fortress has been guarding the city since the 4th century, but if you want to visit the fort it’s better to walk up, as we couldn’t figure a way to get there from the top of the cable car without walking partially down and then back up again.
A short walk from the base of the cable car is the striking modern Peace Bridge. Although it stands out as a must-do in Tbilisi, locals told us that it’s not loved by everyone. Some see it as a snub to the traditional architecture of the old town or a monument to the power of politicians with more modern taste in architecture. It’s apparently been nicknamed the “Bridge of Arguments.” Anyway, it’s a cool place to go for a walk and take pictures.
3. Soak Up Some History in Old Town Tbilisi
The main streets of old Tbilisi are lined with restored old buildings housing restaurants, stores and other tourism-oriented enterprises. But take time to wander the side streets, where most buildings appear to have not seen a paintbrush in decades. Some of the crumbling houses are still occupied by residents who put up signs in English to ask visitors to respect their privacy and stay quiet. We heard some resentment that there’s no money to fix up the places where people actually live.
Of course, literally soaking in history involves a visit to the Turkish-style bathhouses atop the sulphur springs on the outskirts of old Tbilisi. Bathing was required in past centuries to ensure that travelers were not bringing disease into the city. After reading a few blog accounts of the present-day experience of bathing naked with strangers, we decided to admire the buildings from the outside. Yes, private rooms are available, but it’s just not my thing.
Modern-day Georgia has been shaped by conflict with the Soviet Union. The country declared independence in 1918, only to be invaded by the Russian army in 1921. To learn more about what the Georgian people endured, leave the old town and walk down the main Rustaveli Avenue to the Museum of Georgia and make your way to the Soviet Occupation exhibit on the top floor. The dimly lit displays tell the story of Georgian intellectuals and artists killed for resisting Soviet rule. Georgia declared its independence in 1991 as a pro-western democracy, but tensions are still simmering over the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
4. Browse the Dry Bridge Market
This sprawling flea market is filled with antiques, artifacts from the Soviet times and just plain old junk. It’s open from 10 am to 5 pm most days when the weather is decent. Some of the vendors operate out of broken-down communist-era cars and trucks that haven’t gone anywhere in years. My heart ached for the senior citizens spreading out blankets to sell their used goods, just trying to make ends meet. Bring cash. Of course, prices are higher for foreigners but it’s hard to bargain unless you speak some Georgian or Russian. Be respectful if taking pictures.
5. Enjoy Georgian Ballet or Opera
My number-one tip for Tbilisi is to attend a performance at the Opera and Ballet State Theater on Rustaveli Avenue. You can buy tickets online, but the schedule is only posted about a month in advance and you might do just as well by visiting the box office to see what’s on offer during your visit. (As in most European countries, it is closed during the summer.)
We saw a Sunday afternoon performance of a ballet based on a popular children’s cartoon that seemed like a Georgian version of the Nutcracker. The young kids seemed to enjoy it and it was fun to see the little ballerinas twirling in the splendid halls of the theater during intermission. Randomly, everyone joined in singing the Beatles’ “All you Need is Love” with the entire cast after the curtain calls.
The family of the great choreographer George Balanchine came from Georgia, so there is a strong ballet tradition. There was a real “wow” factor when the dancers performed part of the pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, so it would have been nice to see a more serious ballet. We wish we had also been able to attend an opera in this magnificent building with its Moorish architectural influences. Two of the best seats in the house in a private box were the equivalent of about $50 USD: a great value for a memorable culture experience.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Getting To Tbilisi: The limited choices for flying into Tbilisi from Slovenia got our trip off to a bad start. Connecting with long layovers through either Warsaw or Istanbul, all the flights landed in the wee hours of the morning. We arrived exhausted at zero dark thirty and had to pay for an extra night in our hotel so we could avoid wandering the streets (on a Sunday morning when nothing was open) until the regular afternoon check-in time. Catching up on our lost night of sleep allowed us to begin our late afternoon sightseeing in a much better frame of mind, and the hotel staff seemed to think that arrivals between 3 and 5 am were normal, along with the extra-night charge. Flights leaving Tbilisi also required an obscenely early wakeup call.
When to Go: I visited Tbilisi for a tour guides’ conference in January, so sightseeing involved being bundled up against the winter chill. One of the guides pointed out that, in the days before air conditioning, the charming balconies on the old buildings were a necessity for beating Tbilisi’s extreme heat in the summer. That’s when much of the action moves to the cooler resort cities like Batumi on the Black Sea.
Getting Around Tbilisi: Most of Tbilisi’s central attractions are accessible on foot. But the old town is only a small part of a sprawling city of more than a million people. Except for a few pedestrians-only streets, the traffic is crazy. Crossing the busiest roads can be a life-risking adventure. Use the underground passages or take the extra time to get to a crosswalk. We didn’t have any reason to take a taxi or bus, although you’ll have to buy a bus card to take the cable car. We booked a private car and guide for a day trip to the Stalin Museum in Gori and the fascinating “flying coffins” of Chiatura.
Where to Stay in Tbilisi: There’s a wide choice of hotels in Tbilisi. Unless expensive and impersonal is your thing, I’d avoid the Biltmore where I spent some time to make a presentation to a tour guides’ convention. A much more budget-friendly choice is just around the corner at the quiet Art Hotel, where the rooftop restaurant offers a lovely sunrise view with the included breakfast. In the evenings, it’s a piano bar where you can try some cha-cha. AirBNB is also an option for not much more than the cost of a hostel in some cases. Click here to get a discount on your first AirBNB booking.
Currency: It’s easy to change your cash euros or dollars into Georgian lari because there’s an exchange on almost every block. We made an extra effort to choose well-lighted exchanges in stores or other public places, rather than venturing into dimly lit alleyways or sketchy-looking storefronts. Our hotel and a few restaurants took credit cards, but most preferred cash. Keep in mind that if you pay with foreign currency, your change will likely be in lari.
Stranger Danger: Criminals find easy targets among visitors enthralled with the charm of Tbilisi. Inside an Orthodox church, a woman pulled me aside and pointed out the man who was just about to relieve me of my purse. There are street cops everywhere, but they mostly succeed in chasing suspected pickpockets from one street corner to another.
Language: English is widely spoken in the touristy center, which is a good thing considering the complexity of the Georgian language and alphabet. Hire a local guide to enhance your appreciation for the history, food and culture of Tbilisi.
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