If sleeping in a chic converted printing house, eating delightful cuisine, trying anti-corporate wines, visiting bars/galleries/vintage concept stores housed in repurposed factories and discovering hidden, or at least sparsely marked, speakeasies interests you, then you should consider visiting Tbilisi, Georgia!
Located between Western Asia and Eastern Europe, there is some debate as to which continent Georgia belongs. Although the Caucasus Mountains are sometimes considered to be the easternmost border of Europe, and, culturally, many Georgians identify as European, the country is technically located on the Asian continent. If you want to be diplomatic and precise, you can say that Georgia is located in the Caucasus region of Eurasia.
Tbilisi is the capital of and the largest city in Georgia. It is also one of the oldest and safest cities in the world. In the past few years, Tbilisi has undergone something of a bohemian renaissance and is now an eclectic, dynamic and intriguing destination to visit. Thus far, it's been spared from mass tourism as well.
Here are a few of my top recommendations for Tbilisi, if you visit for a weekend:
I highly recommend staying in the modern and whimsical Stamba Hotel, which is located in a former Soviet publishing house, with quirky elements of the building still preserved, such as the Communist-era print-drying beams in the atrium. It is frequented by trendy locals, oligarchs, influencers, models and hippies alike. According to CNN, "Stamba isn't just the best hotel in Georgia—it's one of the best urban hotels in the northern hemisphere."
Each of Tbilisi’s neighborhoods has a completely different history and feel. Free walking tours are available, if you want to take advantage of a local guide's knowledge. Otherwise, for more flexibility, you can follow the self-guided tour I have mapped out below.
Tbilisi is a relatively small city. It shouldn't take you more than a few hours to see many of the highlights, by foot. If you do want to use taxis at any point though, Bolt is operational in Tbilisi and is a good, cheap option.
Start off your walking tour in the labyrinth that is the Old Town (known as the Kala district), characterized by its cozy pedestrian streets and pastel-colored houses, with traditional carved wooden balconies.
Walk up Betlemi Street, famous and visit the vintage, stained-glass Kaleidoscope House. This architectural jewel was unfortunately closed due to its poor condition (you will notice that large parts of the Old Town are in a shocking state of disrepair), but maybe you'll have more luck when you visit.
Walk up the hill to Narikala Fortress, which can be seen from every part of Tbilisi (if you don't fancy the steep schlep, you can also take the cable car up from Rike Park). The fortress was established in the 4th century, around the period when the city itself was founded. From here, you will have great views of the Mtkvari River and the rest of the city.
To cool yourself off, after hiking up to the fortress, visit the Leghvtakhevi Waterfall, located within the Botanical Gardens.
Whilst still in Old Town, wander around the ancient district of Abanotubani.
Abanotubani literally translates to 'bath district', which explains why this area is known for its traditional public bathhouses (they use the sulphurous waters of hot springs that run underneath the city). One of the most famous is the Orbeliani Bath (pictured below).
Be sure to also visit the fairy-tale-like leaning clock tower, located in front of the Gabriadze Puppet Theater. If you get there at the top of any hour, you'll see an angel pop out of a door on the top balcony to strike the bell.
Walk along the Peace Bridge. Made of glass and curvy steel, this 150-meter pedestrian modern structure connects the Old Town and the New Town. At night, 5,300 white LED lights rhythmically travel across the bridge translating messages of life and peace in Morse code.
If you cross the bridge to the left bank of the river, you'll find yourself in Rike Park. The park is full of flowers and fountains. Fun fact: The park is built in the shape of Georgia, which you can see from an aerial view (which is now possible, from a nearby tethered hot air balloon).
At the height of summer, Tbilisi is a heat trap. Simply traversing the city can be a life-sapping slog. The most expensive thing I did in Tbilisi, but also the most refreshing, was hiring a sunbed at the Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel pool. It was worth every Georgian Lari (all 125 of them) to get some relief from the high temperature.
EAT ALLLLLLL THE CHEESE
A Nineteenth-Century Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, once wrote that “Every Georgian dish is a poem”. That's pretty high, but deserved, praise! In my opinion, Georgian food is one of the most underappreciated cuisines.
Georgia’s food reflects its geographic position between Europe and Asia, combining ingredients from East and West. My two favorite dishes include khachapuri (Georgia's cousin to pizza) and khinkhali (boiled dumplings, the size of tennis balls).
Below are a few restaurants that I recommend:
Located in an old house, down a narrow street, in the gold quarter of Tbilisi, you'll find Shavi Lomi (which means black lion). This restaurant has no signage and is even difficult for even local taxi drivers to find. But once you locate the entrance, you'll enter a quaint garden with a huge mural of a lion. It's the ideal setting for hipsters, cool kids, artsy types and tourists. They offer a unique menu, using the freshest of ingredients, creating traditional Georgian cuisine with a twist.
Lolita, located across the street from Rooms Hotel Tbilisi, is in a 19th-century building that was once a residency to some of Georgia's most prominent cultural and artistic figures. Its informal, vibey, indoor-outdoor courtyard design is unique and the open kitchen makes you feel like you're in Manhattan.
Enjoy views of Abanotubani while eating delicious food, at a reasonable price at Terrace Botanica.
If you tire of Georgian cuisine, fill up on pasta at Republic Rooftop, at almost any time of day or night (its open until 4am). In addition to good food, there was also live music when I was there.
Despite Georgia's reputation as the birthplace of winemaking, I struggled to find any that I actually enjoyed (not for lack of trying). Georgia uses the qvevri method whereby clay pots filled with grape juice are buried and the liquid is left to slowly ferment, over five-six months. This process produces unique wines that Georgians are tremendously proud of, but the flavor profile isn't attractive to everyone (including me).
No wonder they were giving it away for free on the streets!
If you want to try to enjoy the wines (or other adult beverages), here are few places to do so:
Balcony 12 on Shavteli Street is a romantic and cozy place to sit, enjoy a beverage and listen to the nice lady play the piano.
The Fabrika complex is a former sewing factory that has been transformed into a hub for artist studios, co-working space, cafes, bars and a hostel. It's a vibrant place full of young hipsters, creativity and good vibes.
Despite its small size, Georgia's capital has a lot to offer and is worth a visit before everyone else discovers this secret spot. While the city is small enough to be covered in a weekend, its architectural eclecticism, thriving restaurant and bar scene and wealth of cultural offerings make it worth a longer stay.