When I was little I once had a dream about going to Tbilisi, a city I only knew vaguely from geography class to be the capital of Georgia. I remember waking up thinking sarcastically ‘yeah, like I would ever want to travel there’. And that was the last of it. I never gave Tbilisi a second thought. To be quite honest I think that is the case for most of us. I mean would you be able to pinpoint Tbilisi on a map blindly if you had to, or Georgia? Before visualizing this trip I would have failed miserably doing so.
Taking a plane to travel there was indeed stepping into the unknown. I mean, information about most basic touristic attractions and hotels can be found online but other than that I was not familiar with any Georgian artists (never even heard of one!), the complete history of the city of Tbilisi or the general public’s attitude towards tourists. In fact, the whole region of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia was a blind spot to me. Time to explore!
Old beat-up cars obviously function as viable taxi’s in Tbilisi. The front bumper is missing? No problem, this car is still as good as new! Matching the old car is, usually, an even older driver who is smoking a cigarette while waiting for customers. Do not expect these proud men from the Soviet era to speak English. Some might speak Russian. Taking a taxi in Tbilisi is an experience on its own. Most cars used as taxi’s were not designed as such so do not have a whole lot of trunk space available for large suitcases. Trying to fit your stuff in the trunk while not damaging the car even more is one thing, surviving the ride is another.. Our driver drove 140 kilometers on a road where 80 was allowed. At one point we speeded by a police car, who was obviously not too concerned about the fact that our driver was not abiding by the speeding limits. Arriving at our hotel near the parliament building from the airport took us no more than 15 minutes.
Boutique hotels filled with modern, often very tastefully designed, furniture are upcoming in Tbilisi and are slowly replacing its old Russian style hotels. These new hotels come with a slightly higher price tag but are still very affordable. Think 75 dollars a night for a two-persons hotel room including a very yummy breakfast. Since we arrived literally at two AM in the night we checked out the view of the city from our balcony and then dived straight into bed. So far for first impressions…
The city of Tbilisi
Tbilisi is a city to easily fall in love with. A mix of the very old, its many green parks and tasteful modern architecture give the city its charm. Although it is not difficult to spot the scars created by years of Soviet oppression and hardship the city is buzzing with hope. The hope for prosperity for the younger generations, for better jobs and a future as an autonomous Georgia. Finally free to choose its own path…
The main artery of the city is the Rustaveli avenue, named after Georgia’s most beloved medieval poet Shota Rustaveli. Also known as the writer of Georgia’s most famous epic poem ‘the knight in the panthers skin’. The street stretches out for one-and-a-half kilometers containing many of Tbilisi’s public and cultural buildings such as the former parliament of Georgia, the National Opera and the State Theater, the Kashveti church and many of the national museums. Here you also find a few coffee shops, restaurants and internationally known stores such as Zara. Since Rustaveli avenue is also busy with traffic, crossing the street ‘the regular’ way is impossible. Instead you have to take the ‘underground passage’, a small tunnel below the road which is packed with the tiniest shops you have ever seen selling just about anything ranging from computer accessories to churchkhela, the traditional string of Georgian nuts dipped in flour, sugar and grape juice.
Rustaveli avenue ends at Freedom square, previously known as Beria and Lenin square. The square has seen many protests in the past but today seems quiet. Crossing Freedom square you enter the old part of Tbilisi where many of the hip restaurants, bars and clubs are situated. This the best place to try some local cuisine. We would recommend to try the Khachapuri bread, a few Khinkhali and a meat grill combined with a glass of Georgian wine. Mmmm.. yummy!
Funicular & Cable cart
Tbilisi is constructed amidst woodland and on hillsides, surrounded by mountainous terrain. Walking through the city is guaranteed to make your calves burn at some point. However, for the real steep climbs up the mountain to Narikala fort or for a fun day at the amusement park at Mtatsminda park you do not have to be in excellent shape. You can just take the funicular! Taking a ride to the top in one of the cities funiculars is not just practical but also a lot of fun. Enjoy excellent views of the entire city while hovering above it.
You can hop on the cable cart to Narikala fort from Rike park, which is situated on the left bank of the Mtkvari river. The ride up will cost you approximately two lari. The hop on point for the funicular to Mtatsminda park is situated on Chonquadze street. This funicular is slightly older than the one taking off to Narikala fort and offers a steeper ride.
Must sees and do’s in Tbilisi
Historical and religious sites:
Narikala fort – high above the city you can visit the remains of this old 4th century Persian citadel;
Sioni cathedral – home of the sacred cross of St. Nino
Anchiskhati basilica – Georgia’s most ancient church
The national Opera – enjoy shows from Georgian legends
Visit the Rezo Gabriadze marionette theater – contemporary building and uniquely entertaining puppet shows
Enjoy nightlife in the old part of town (on the right side of the Mtkvari river bank)
Rike park – situated on the left bank of the Mtkvari river and home to Tbilisi’s modern architectural glass structures (bridge, public buildings)
Mtatsminda park – an amusement park created in gorgeous natural settings
Tbilisi’s botanical garden – former royal gardens which were opened to the public in 1845
Museum of Georgia – archeological treasures and findings dating back to pre-Christian days
National Gallery – paintings of Georgian artists such as Niko Piroshmanashvili and Lado Gudiashvili amongst others