An Orthodox Church on top of a mountain looking out over a city

Tbilisi

Tbilisi is a city at a crossroads. Beautifully situated by the river Mtkvari, there were Europe and Asia come together, the Georgian capital is one of a kind. It combines a European feel and flair with distinct Asian touches. It’s also a city where old meets new. With a centuries-long history and a turbulent recent past, Tbilisi is now fiercely embracing the future. There’s a certain sense of energy and invigoration in the air (never mind the air pollution), making Tbilisi an incredibly inspiring and exciting place to be. You won’t be the first to fall in love with this amazing city.

Having just returned from my first-ever trip to Georgia, I am still raving about the country and especially its capital. Tbilisi has been a real revelation. Although I had heard many great things about the city, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. What I found was a city that was much more diverse, cosmopolitan and forward-looking than I had thought. Since the years of President Saakashvili, the country, and Tbilisi in particular, has definitively left the shackles of the USSR behind and is looking westwards – Europe is the future. Radical reforms have eradicated corruption and nepotism, helping to attract foreign investment. As large-scale renovation and new-build projects took off, Tbilisi and other cities experienced a metamorphosis. Although the pace of change has slowed in recent years – many young people feel progress is not going fast enough – it’s clear that a new era has begun. 

So, there’s no better time to visit Tbilisi than now. And with direct low-cost flights between various European cities and Georgia launching in 2019 and 2020, Tbilisi will be even within closer reach. Plan at least 3-4 days to experience the city to the fullest. Here’s a taste of what to expect:

  1. Wander through the narrow streets of Old Town Tbilisi
  2. Take the cable car to Narikala Fortress
  3. Watch the sunset from Tbilisi’s cathedral
  4. Discover stunning hidden interiors
  5. Go out for a night at the opera or ballet
  6. Indulge in bread and cheese, and then repeat
  7. Experience laid-back life in Marjanishvili
  8. Hang out with the cool guys in repurposed factories        
  9. Head up to Mount Mtatsminda for views and fun
  10. Make a day trip to some of Georgia’s most beautiful places

+ Tbilisi’s best… (IMHO)
+ Good to know

an old Soviet car in front of a classical building

Wander through the narrow streets of Old Town Tbilisi

Tbilisi’s Old Town is a real charmer. A labyrinth of cobblestone streets and wooden buildings with pretty verandas and balconies, this is the most picturesque part of Tbilisi. The Old Town spans more or less from Freedom Square in the north, to the Mtkvari river (also known as the Kura river) in the east and Narikala Fortress in the south. Although large parts have been renovated in recent years (followed by swaths of tourist shops and restaurants), some areas are still a bit rundown and remain under the radar. 

Old buildings in a small street
Large parts of Old Town Tbilisi have been renovated in recent years

The pedestrianised Ioane Shavteli street is home to Tbilisi’s oldest church – the Anchiskhati Basilica – as well as some nice little bars and cafes, such as the beautiful Café Leila. It’s also here that you’ll find one of Tbilisi’s most famous landmarks: a wonky brick clock tower. You may be forgiven for thinking it’s been here for ages. Although it somehow fits nicely in its historic surroundings, it was only built quite recently by the owner of the next-door puppet theatre. It has since turned into a selfie hotspot #letstakeaselfie

a wonky brick clock tower
A clock tower straight out of a fairytale

Walk further south, past the Sioni Cathedral and the Meidan Bazar, and you’ll get to the area known as Abanotubani. This is the place that has given Tbilisi its name. Tbilisi literally means ‘warm location’ because it’s located on a site with hot springs. Abanotubani is the epicentre of this. A handful of historic sulphur bath houses still occupy this spot. If you haven’t already identified them by following the whiffs of sulphur, you can recognise them by their domed roofs. Some of them have beautiful façades, too, such as Orbeliani Baths. If you’re keen to experience them from the inside, you can opt for a treatment in a public or private bath house, with prices ranging from 30 to 150 Lari (€9-€45).

an ornate middle eastern style facade
The ornate façade of Orbeliani bath house

Take the cable car up to Narikala Fortress

Looking over central Tbilisi is Narikala Fortress. Situated on top of a mountain, this ancient castle has defined Tbilisi’s skyline for centuries. You can walk the steep way up from the Old Town, but it’s much more fun to take the cable car. Simply cross the iconic modern Peace Bridge and on the other side of Rike Park is a cable car station. A ride costs 1 Lari (€0.30) per person, to be paid with a public transportation top-up card, which costs 2 Lari (the card can be reused, including on the metro and bus). From the cable car you’ll have breath-taking views over the city.

a cable car looking over an ancient city
The views from Narikala Fortress are nothing short of spectacular

These views only get better once you’ve reached the other side. From Narikala Fortress you can see almost all of Tbilisi and get a sense of its size as well as its dramatic setting, nestled between the mountains. Today only the outer walls of Narikala Fortress remain, but the ruins are a great place to explore. On the other side is a botanical garden, which can be visited for a small entrance fee. 

Narikala Fortress

Watch the sunset from Tbilisi’s cathedral

In Tbilisi you have the luxury of choice between not one, not two, but three mountain tops with incredible vistas. Once you’ve been to Narikala, it’s time to check out the view from the other side of the city. On top of a hill on the eastern river bank is the Holy Trinity Cathedral. Although it looks like one of the many, many other Orthodox churches in the city, what sets this church apart is its size. It is simply massive. As the sun goes down, the cathedral’s golden decorations reflect the sunlight more beautifully than at any other time of the day. With the rest of the city at your feet, there’s no better place to end a day of sightseeing.

a huge Orthodox church at sunset
Sunset at the imposing Holy Trinity Cathedral

Discover stunning hidden interiors

If Tbilisi wasn’t yet beautiful enough from the outside, wait until you’ve seen what’s going on inside. Hidden behind the countless historic façades are some spectacular interiors. You have to be in the know though, so keep reading carefully…! Thanks to fellow bloggers, I found out about Gallery 27, for instance. Known only by the name of the art gallery located on the first floor, this wooden building is hidden in a small rundown alley in central Tbilisi. The ornate veranda is beautiful, but what’s truly eye-catching is the wooden staircase with its colourful stained-glass windows. Come here at the right time of the day and you’ll be welcomed by a play of light and colours. Although the house is not (yet) in the tourist guides, it’s quickly becoming an Instagrammers magnet. It’s hence all the more surprising that the local residents still let everyone come in (for free). Just another sign of how warm and welcoming Tbilisi is.

a wooden staircase with colourful stained-glass windows
A play of light and colours at this apartment building, which also houses Gallery 27

Other interior heavens I got to admire include Kalantorov House, Writers’ House and London Hotel. The latter is an abandoned hotel on Atoneli Street 31 that has been converted into apartments. It’s in desperate need of a lick of paint, but the fact it’s crumbling makes it all the more intriguing. Kalantorov House and Writers’ House, on the other hand, are in a great condition. They are both located in the leafy Ivane Michabli street – on number 17 and 13 respectively. The area is very reminiscent of Berlin (before it became hip). Kalantorov House was built in the late 1800s by a wealthy Armenian merchant and has an impressive staircase with lots of intricate middle eastern features. Writers’ House is an early 20thcentury mansion that not only has a beautiful interior but also a lush garden. Previously the gathering place of the cultural ‘influencers’ of its time, it now houses a fabulous restaurant called Café Littera.

a richly decorated staircase in Middle Eastern style
A hidden gem: Kalantorov House has a stunning stairway

Go out for a night at the opera or ballet

Speaking of hidden interiors… One of the most mind-blowing buildings I got to see from the inside was Tbilisi’s Opera and Ballet Theatre. Located on busy Rustaveli Avenue, you wouldn’t guess that this 19th century theatre has one of the most lavish and colourful interiors in the city. Blending classical European and Middle Eastern architecture, the building is worth a visit in its own right. There are English tours of the theatre on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, costing 15 Lari (€4.50). However, if there’s a show on, do try to get tickets for an opera or ballet performance. A seat with a good view can cost less than 30 Lari (€9.00). Not only will you get to admire the building up close, but you’ll also enjoy a night out in style. Two birds with one stone!

Indulge in bread and cheese, and then repeat

There’s another reason why Georgia is the perfect travel destination: it has a brilliant cuisine. If you like bread and cheese, that is. Because Georgian food for a large part revolves around these two ingredients. Georgia’s most famous dish is khachapuri, a cheesy bread. Khachapuri comes in various shapes and forms but my favourite version is acharuli khachapuri. It’s an oval shaped bread filled with melted cheese, butter and a runny egg. I’d simply like to call it cheese boat (because that’s what it looks like). My friend and I loved kachapuri so much that we basically had this for lunch and dinner. Each day, every day. You can get delicious khachapuri or lobiani (bread filled with beans) in any local bakery for just a few Lari. It’s normally also served in restaurants, alongside other traditional Georgian dishes – more on that here soon!

an oval shaped bread with a butter and cheese filling topped with a runny egg
cheese boat galore: acharuli khachapuri is a delicious indulgence

Tbilisi is full of brilliant restaurants in every price range. If you’re looking for something special, make sure to check out restaurants such as Café Stamba (best acharuli khachapuri), Keto & Kote (beautiful setting with amazing views), Café Littera (nouveau Georgian cuisine in a beautiful mansion with garden), Shavi Lomi (Georgian fusion), Ezo (young restaurant that also organises food tours) or Chveni (try their Georgian croquettes!).

a chandelier in a restaurant
The beautiful decor of restaurant Keto & Kote

Experience laid-back life in Marjanishvili

In recent years, a beautiful neighbourhood on the east side of the river has been given a new lease of life. Across Dry Bridge (which is the location of a daily flee market, by the way), the area around metro station Marjanishvili seems to have found its second youth. It’s Davit Aghmashenebli avenue where it’s at. While the northern end of this road is a busy avenue lined with grand classical buildings, the southern end has recently been renovated, pedestrianised and is now filled with cafes and bars. Apart from the annoying bouncers, it’s a lovely place for a stroll and a drink, at any time of the day. Away from most of the tourists of the Old Town, Marjanishvili is also a great place to stay for a couple of nights. 

a pedestrian street with bars and terraces
Goodbye traffic, hello bars and cafes: Davit Aghmashenebli street has completely transformed in recent years

Hang out with the cool guys in repurposed factories

Not far from Marjanishvili is one of Tbilisi’s most well-known hipster hangouts: Fabrika. This industrial complex was once a Soviet sewing factory but is now an übercool gathering ground for young creatives. There’s a hostel, cafes and bars as well as exhibition and co-working spaces. It’s a wonderful place for urban discoverers, not least because of the colourful and outspoken street art on some of the buildings.

On the other side of town, in the up and coming area of Vera, is an equally cool example of a repurposed industrial building. Stamba Hotel is located on the premises of a former printing company. Behind the hotel façade lies a wonderful world of massive concrete beams, exposed brickwork and bright atriums. The building has been done up with a lot of attention to detail and the interior design blends in perfectly with the industrial surroundings. It’s worth checking out this place and having a drink or dinner at the hotel bar and restaurant, Café Stamba (which serves excellent Georgian and international food).

Around the corner, Rooms Hotel is attracting a similar crowd. It’s the work of the same Georgian business man, but has an altogether different look and feel. Although the hotel is located in another part of the same industrial complex, the contemporary interior is a tad plusher. The beautiful lobby area is a great place for cocktails. Next time I’m in town (and after I’ve had a pay rise…) I will be staying here!

an industrial style bar
Café Stamba is based in a former printing house

Head up to Mount Mtatsminda for views and fun

Just in case you didn’t yet see enough amazing panoramas, here’s another one. Mount Mtatsminda is probably right up there when it comes to incredible vistas of Tbilisi. This ‘Holy Mountain’ is topped by a Soviet TV tower, which is lit up at night and can be seen from far and wide. There is also a (somewhat outdated) amusement park, which is great for kids. Just as fun – including for adults – is the ride up to the mountain with the small funicular train. This recently reopened funicular takes you from Vilnius Square all the way to the top of Mount Mtatsminda. From there you’ll have spectacular views over Tbilisi and its surroundings. There are several restaurants and bars, so this is another perfect place to sit down, chill out and watch the sun setting over the city. 

panoramic view of a historic city at sunset
In the list of great panoramic vistas, Mount Mtatsminda is high up there

Make a day trip to some of Georgia’s most beautiful places

Georgia has a wealth of incredible sights and scenery, ranging from mountaintop monasteries, thermal resorts and ancient castles. As a result of gradually improving road and rail connections, many of these places can now be visited as part of a day trip from Tbilisi. Which is why Tbilisi forms a great base to explore some of the rest of the country. 

One of the most popular day trips from Tbilisi is a visit to Mtskheta. At only a 30-minute (taxi) drive from the centre of Tbilisi, this historic town can easily be visited in a morning of afternoon. Mtskheta is one of Georgia’s oldest cities and was previously its capital. It is still the religious epicentre of the country today. The 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is said to be the burial site of Christ’s robe (although it’s not the only place to claim this). Just outside the town, on top of a mountain, lies the 6th century Jvari Monastery. Legend has it that this used to be the site of a cross that worked miracles. It remains an important pilgrimage destination to this day.  

an orthodox monastery on a mountaintop with dramatic cliffs in the backdrop
Gergeti Trinity Church is spectacularly located on top of a mountain

Further up north, almost bordering Russia, is mesmerising Kazbegi. Famous for its dramatic natural scenery, I can highly recommend a visit to this incredibly beautiful area. A new road leading up to this mountainous region means you can now reach it within a 3-4-hour drive from Tbilisi. The Georgians are reckless drivers, so if you’re not keen on getting behind the steering wheel yourself you can join a day tour to Kazbegi from Tbilisi. Highlight of the trip is a visit to the magnificent Gergeti Trinity Monastery. A day is arguably not enough to fully enjoy the beauty of this place, and if you decide to stay the night there are plenty of hotel options in the nearby village of Stepantsminda, including a branch of the fancy Rooms Hotel.

Other places that are worth a trip from Tbilisi include Ananunri Castle, the ancient monasteries of Davit Gareja and the vineyards and romantic villages of the Kakheti region. For more inspiration, information and practical details, check out my other blog post about the best day trips from Tbilisi.

old rundown wooden buildings

Tbilisi’s best… (IMHO):

Good to know:

Getting to/from: the easiest and quickest way from/to Tbilisi airport is by taxi. However, don’t be fooled by taxi drivers showing you fake papers that state the regular fare is 80 Lari or more. You should not pay more than 25-30 Lari (€7.50-€9.00) one way. To spare yourself the hassle of having to negotiate with (unofficial) taxi drivers, make sure you download the taxi app Bolt prior to your trip (Uber is not yet available in Georgia). There’s free WiFi at the airport and Bolt rides are much cheaper and can be paid by card or cash.

Getting around: There are 2 metro lines that run fast and frequently and can get you quickly from one part of the city to another. A ride costs as little as 0.50 Lari (€0.15), to be uploaded onto a reusable public transport card. Despite the traffic, Tbilisi is quite a walkable city. Just make sure you don’t get stuck on the pavement along the river bank between the water and the busy 4-lane road like I did – there are no pedestrian crossings for about 5 kilometres! It may look like a nice walk, but isn’t.

Water: Tap water meets WTO standards and is therefore perfectly safe to drink. No need to buy plastic bottles!

Language: in Tbilisi, most younger people speak English. Amongst the older generation Russian is the main second language, especially outside the capital.

Best time to travel: in May-June and September-October temperatures are pleasant and rainfall is limited

Other: there are many stray dogs in Georgian cities, but they’re looked after by NGOs. Almost all of them are tagged and vaccinated and are generally friendly with people.

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