As Covid-19 slowly releases its grip on the world, travel is making a comeback. I for one have been waiting eagerly to put the pandemic behind me and venture back out into the world. So, having received my vaccine and saved a bit of money, I finally booked my first trip. This time I headed to Tbilisi in the beautiful country of Georgia.
Tbilisi is by far the biggest city in Georgia, housing roughly a third of the entire country’s population. It is a multicultural hub steeped in history and culture. Soviet modernist buildings stand by art nouveau structures while old, cobblestone streets pass by bustling highways and a 4th century fortress looms overhead. Although Tbilisi has a very deep and ornate metro system, I believe the best way to take in all the city has to offer is to simply walk around.
If you’re looking for a good walk, Old Tbilisi is the place to be. Old Tbilisi, or Dzveli Tbilisi, actually encompasses a large portion of the city, so set aside a few days to take it all in. On the east side of the Mtkvari River, you have the Presidential Palace and the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi, a massive Orthodox church atop a hill. There is also the beautiful Rike Park and the funky-looking Rike Concert Hall.
Connecting the east to the west, are several stunning bridges. Notable among them are the Dry Bridge, which features a flea market during the day and gorgeous sunsets at night, and the Bridge of Peace, a contemporary pedestrian bridge that lights up at night. The latter is perfect for romantic evening walks. Oftentimes, local musicians will perform at the center of the bridge. Lights and music provide great ambience.
West of the river, there is a plethora of historical and cultural sites. Named after a famous Georgian poet, Shota Rustaveli Avenue is a bustling city street with numerous shops, theaters, and restaurants. It also passes directly into Liberty Square, a monumental plaza with a gilded statue of St. George. Farther south, you’ll find historical structures like the Sioni Cathedral and the Royal Baths, whose warm, sulfur waters gave Tbilisi its name (Tbilisi means “warm place”). Nearby you will also find the Narikala Fortress. Now ruined, the fortress still offers a panoramic view of the city. There you can join the Mother of Georgia, a 20m aluminum statue, as she watches over the city with a sword in hand. When you’re done, you can take the aerial tramway back down to Rike Park.
While in the area, you should also check out the Botanical Gardens. Don’t plan on seeing it entirety because the gardens are massive. However, feel free to get lost and spend a while in nature. Perhaps go for a stroll in the Japanese Gardens, or take a selfie in front of one of the lively waterfalls. Everyone needs a break from the hustle and bustle of the city.
In terms of delicious food, don’t worry. Tbilisi has you covered. Georgian food is incredibly unique and flavorful. Three of the most notable Georgian dishes are khachapuri, churchkhela, and khinkali. You’ll find them everywhere, and they’re all delicious, so don’t obsess over where to find the best one. Khachapuri is a cheesy bread. Although it comes in several types, the most iconic has to be the Adjarian khachapuri, which is essentially a bread canoe with cheese and an egg. Churchkhela looks a bit like a lumpy candle, but it’s actually a string of nuts (usually walnuts or hazelnuts) dipped in a mixture of grape juice and flour. They taste better than they look. Trust me. Finally, khinkali are soup dumplings. They come filled with meat, potatoes, mushrooms, and more, but just remember not to eat the tops. Apparently, they’re only used to hold the dumpling as you suck out the yummy broth and gobble down the filling.
For restaurants, you have a ton of options. But if you want a place with authentic Georgian cuisine and guaranteed quality, go to Salobie Bia. Although a bit hard to find, the restaurant offers a pleasant atmosphere in the basement of the Rustaveli Theater. Eccentric paintings line the walls, and intoxicating scents fill the air. All the classic Georgian dishes are there for your choosing. I chose a spicy rabbit soup and shkmeruli, a chicken dish soaked in a bold milk and garlic sauce. Portions are generous, so come hungry.
Tbilisi is also home to numerous trendy cafes. Fabrika, a cool hostel in a former sewing factory, is home to several of these, as well as other venues and bars. Word has it that Fabrika is the place to be for the younger generations. You could also go to the Stamba Hotel. The chic 5-star hotel has a library for a lobby, a photo museum, a classy bar, and a warm café with equally delicious coffee, chocolates, and sweets.
As far as shortcomings, I will say this: some cities I’ve visited, such as Florence, Venice, Vienna, Paris, or Madrid, have stunning architecture and picturesque views no matter where you go. Tbilisi has some incredible sights, but it is also a little rough around the edges in places. Some homes are on a slant with sketchy staircases and graffiti here and there. For some this gives the buildings character, but the average tourist may not be so keen.
All in all, the positives absolutely outweigh the negatives. Besides, there is more in Georgia than just Tbilisi. There are fabulous daytrips you can take to Kazbegi or Khaketi, which will leave you with wonderful memories. More on those in my next posts.