Located exactly on the border between eastern Europe and Asia, but politically just belonging to the European continent, Georgia promises exactly what you’d expect from a country at the intersection of continents and cultures — plenty of history, ancient cities, an intriguing mix of traditions and culture, and a good dash of modern life. The capital Tbilisi, a city of just over one million inhabitants, is not only the gateway to Georgia, but also a perfect size for an incredible weekend break.
Eminently walkable, the city’s main sights can comfortably be explored on foot, with plenty of opportunities to stop for coffee along the way. There are historic sites, such as old caravanserais harking back to Tbilisi’s Silk Road connection. There is modern art, most noticeably the wonderful street art of Gosha, whose cats and quirky illustrations adorn nearly every corner of the city, and there is a proud food scene. On top of it all, once you’re there, living is cheap, and the local wine is superb. What more could you ask of a city break?
Things To Do In Tbilisi
Founded in 458 AD, Tbilisi offers the whole range of historic sites, but is most famous for its Silk Road connection and its sulfur baths built on the hot springs that soothed many a wary traveler’s bones over the centuries. The natural hilly setting along a river gorge only adds to the attraction.
Climb To Narikala Fortress
Established in the 4th century, this ancient fort’s history gives you an idea of the forces that formed Tbilisi. The name Narikala reportedly either derived from the Persian word for citadel, or from the Mongols, in whose language it means “little fortress.” The impressive fortress was later expanded by the Arabs during the 7th and 8th centuries, but was partially destroyed in 1827 by an earthquake, and renovated in 1996.
Pro Tip: You can either walk up through the botanical gardens on one side, or from the old town on the other, or take the cable car from Rike Park on the other side of the river and enjoy the views along the way. It costs roughly 30 cents.
Have A Scrub In A Sulfur Bath
Not unlike the Turkish Hammams, a trip to the sulfur baths in Tbilisi takes a bit of bravery, and you are well-served to keep in mind that these are public baths, which have the aim to get people clean rather than pampered. That said, over the years, the baths — such as the pretty Chreli-Abanao with its turquoise-tiled exterior — have been touristy-fied, to coin a new word, and now offer massages and spa treatments. Together with public rooms, for a little extra money, you can use a private room, and you are allowed to keep a bikini on. Although, be sure to use an old one that can get dirty, because the healthy spring water does stain a little.
Pro Tip: Treat yourself to one of the beautiful private rooms for one, two, or more people, and ask for a Kisi exfoliation scrub which leaves you with baby-soft skin.
Explore The Old Town
The various baths can be found in the old part of Tbilisi called Abanotubani, which is dominated by crooked, steep lanes and beautiful houses with intricate balconies. Here you can find little shops, cafes, and art galleries, such as Gallery 27 which sells local arts and crafts. Visit the Wine Museum housed in an old caravanserai below the Tbilisi National Museum to learn about the local wine and enjoy a tasting. Then meander along Erekle II Street, a pedestrian street filled with restaurants, such as Alcoholic Restaurant.
Pro Tip: Stop at Meidan Bazaar, an underground bazaar filled with local goodies, from wine to honey, art, and souvenirs.
Cross The Kura River
For a taste of modern Tbilisi, walk across the Bridge of Peace, a hugely photogenic modern bridge across the river Mtkvari, also known as the Kura River. The bridge joins old Tbilisi with Rike Park, which not only is the setting-off point of the cable car, but is also surrounded by modern architecture. From below the next bridge, Metekhi Bridge, which was overlooked by King Vakhtang Gorgasali on his noble steed, you can hop onto a small boat tour which takes you up and down the river, allowing you to see the city from different side.
Pro Tip: The boat landing site is right below the WST double-decker bus sightseeing tour stop, which is a great way to see Tbilisi outside of the on-foot radius of the old town. They have three different routes, one also taking in the funicular railway of Tbilisi.
Shop At Dry Bridge Market
A fun place to shop is at the Dry Bridge Market, a market that runs daily but is at its best on the weekends. It is essentially a flea market, where you can find everything from carpets, knick-knacks, old Soviet-era memorabilia, arts and crafts, and pretty much everything in between. It’s fun to look, cheap to buy, and worth a haggle.
Pro Tip: The stretch of market takes in two parks at either end of the bridge: 9 March Park, which is full of handicrafts, including beautiful hand-dyed silk scarves and art; and Dedaena Park, which has a book market with tomes in all languages.
Search Out The Crooked Clock Tower
Looking at the so-called Leaning Tower of Tbilisi, you’d be forgiven for thinking it is an old clock tower which started to lean due to old age. But no, this landmark of Tbilisi dates only to 2010, when puppet master Rezo Gabriadze was renovating his marionette theater, and thought about an addition that would soon become the city’s talking point. Very cute and photogenic, it certainly adds to the surroundings.
Restaurants In Tbilisi
Khinkali, Khachapuri, and Churchkhela are probably the best-known Georgian dishes you will encounter in Tbilisi. The food here is hearty, calorific, and good. And the dishes are the pride of Georgia, so much so that you find the dishes emblazoned on t-shirts, socks, as fridge magnets, and more.
The Entrée Café is a great little place for breakfast with decent coffee and a vitrine full of local and international breakfast and pastry choices you can just point to. The lavash bread with nuts is simply gorgeous.
Despite the name, Alcoholic Restaurant is quite a lovely wine bar and restaurant, serving all the traditional Georgian dishes (with pictures on the menu), complemented by local wines all at a price that makes you wish you lived there. Even in winter, the hot, spiced wine together with the provided blankets make it fun to sit outside and enjoy the quirky surroundings of this restaurant-lined lane.
Corner By Eleven
Just off Freedom Square, this modern restaurant serves Georgian fusion food, mostly traditional faire but with a lighter, European touch. And the terrace is perfect for people-watching.
Hotels In Tbilisi
Tbilisi, being a capital city, offers the entire range of accommodation from fancy luxury hotels to hostels, all well-presented and much more affordable than in other European capitals.
Tbilisi Marriott Hotel
This historic, grand place on the city’s nicest boulevard, Rustaveli Avenue, is a lovely 161-room-and-suites hotel with a great courtyard, a nice bar, and it’s found in Tbilisi’s best location — within walking distance to the old town — near Freedom Square, the opera, and various museums.
Steps away from the Tbilisi Marriott Hotel, just off Rustaveli Avenue, the Shota is a smaller and less traditional affair. Same great location, but a cleaner, more unusual and artsy design, the rooms are airy, and bright, and the hotel has a lovely little wine bar where you can sample Georgia’s own tipples.
On the other side of the river and much younger and hipper than the two hotels, Fabrika is a hostel for young and old to come and stay for cheap and enjoy the street art that adorns the outside of the building, as well as the minimalist design of its interior. And even better: Not all rooms are dorm rooms, so if you don’t want to share with anybody, you can book a private room.
Pro Tip: While Tbilisi is now one of my favourite European capitals, there is also Georgia to consider. So, try and use Tbilisi as a base, enjoy a long weekend, explore the city, but then, if you have the time, go further out into Georgia. There are mountains, the Black Sea, an incredible countryside dotted with tiny, time-stood-still villages, the ancient cave-city of Uplistisikhe, and opportunities to travel the old routes of the Silk Road.
Much can be seen and explored by day-long tours from Tbilisi, but ideally, you should rent a car and go explore the country. It is a safe country with really friendly people who are very welcoming to strangers.
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