29 March 2019.
My arrival in Tbilisi did not quite go according to plan.
After just 40-minutes in the Georgian capital, I found myself bumbling about the city streets in the pre-dawn darkness like a lost, sleep-deprived fool after jumping off my airport bus in completely the wrong spot. But somewhere along my hour long trek across town to find my hostel, between the grand boulevards, cobbled laneways and first glimmer of light that bathed the valley in soft cottony pinks, before traffic filled the streets and vendors spilled across the pavements, I was well and truly transfixed.
Put simply, Tbilisi is just a damn cool city!
Its frenzied streets are both overwhelming and wholly intoxicating, where wide gentrified boulevards give way to a maze of old town streets; brightly-coloured, haphazard and downtrodden. Ancient ruins watch proudly from the clifftops and church spires climb high above the city streets, while speedy cable cars forge a bridge between the old and new. It’s a city of fabulous hilltop views, lively markets, excellent wine and even better food, with streets that pulse with energy and age-old traditions that are still very much alive.
Though many have attempted to tap the city as the ‘new Berlin’ for its mix of legendary nightlight and alternative edge, in reality, Tbilisi is something entirely different.
The city provides a wonderful introduction to Georgian culture and it’s well worth spending a few days here to explore. These were my favourite things to do in Tbilisi.
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You’re ushered through a side door into a modest bathhouse chamber imbued with the faint lingering smell of old eggs. Timeworn mosaics adorn the walls and steam billows from a large, overflowing hot tub at the far end.
You inch deeper into the slightly-too-hot water, sinking ever so slowly as your body becomes accustomed to the scalding temperatures. Soon utter warmth seeps through you, any tension in your muscles begins to melt away and your cheeks blush a deep, ruby red. And then, a gentle knock at the door breaks you from your reverie.
It’s time for your massage.
Lying face down and nude on the hard, tiled bed, you’re being ruffled up by a buxom and similarly bare Georgian woman who is losts in her own thoughts. Naked and slightly confused foreigners are nothing new here. First, the abrasive mit scours across your skin, sloughing off the last few months of sunscreen and immovable dirt leaving your skin slightly tingly and delightfully smooth.
She manoeuvres what looks like a pillowcase expertly through the air, swirling it this way and that, lathering a wondrously large cloud of suds before your eyes. Then, the luscious plume of tiny bubbles sploshes over you and are being pushed every-which-way across your newly pink skin. And for the grand finale, it’s a bucket of warm water straight across the back and chest, and a cold one to the face, in case the entire experience was somehow lacking in vigour.
The whole thing lasts barely 15-minutes and soon enough, you’re alone once again, left to bathe in the steaming pool of water for what’s left of the hour.
A trip to a Georgian bathhouse is a quintessential thing to do in Tbilisi. It can be a little confronting but you’ll certainly feel great afterwards.
There are about a dozen traditional bathhouses squeezed into the tiny dome-roofed neighbourhood of Abanotubani on the fringes of Tbilisi’s old town. For a basic single room, prices start at 30 GEL (€10) for the hour, or you can pay significantly higher for a more lavish space that may include multiple baths, a sauna and gorgeous decorations. Otherwise, there’s always the option of going starkers in front of a bunch of strangers at one of the public baths which will set you back less than 5 GEL.
Technically you can rent everything you need at the baths, but it’s a good idea to bring a few essentials – a towel, shampoo if you like and a bottle of water.
These are a few of the most popular baths and their prices as of September 2018.
Gulo’s Bath | This was the place I visited. An efficient, no-fuss operation with single rooms from 30 GEL (€10), plus 10 GEL (€3) for the 10-minute scrub and massage.
King Erekle | Single rooms from 30 GEL (€10), plus 20 GEL (€7) for the 15-minute scrub and massage.
No 5 | Rooms start at 55 GEL with a hot pool (their cheaper rooms are only equipped with a shower which would seriously detract from the experience.) An extra 10 GEL (€3) for the scrub and 10 for the massage which lasts a combined 15 minutes.
Royal Bath | Rooms from 70 GEL (€23.50) per hour, plus an extra 10 GEL (€3) for the scrub and 10 for the massage which lasts a combined 15 minutes.
Orbeliani | The luxury pick of the bunch, the delicate arch of Orbeliani’s exterior is decorated in a stunning mosaic of cerulean and turquoise and is often, understandably, mistaken as a mosque. This professional and perhaps slightly more pretentious operation offers a wide range of beautifully decorated rooms, with singles starting at 40 GEL (€13.50) per hour and soaring all the way up to 500 GEL (€170) for their exclusive VIP rooms. Massages are an extra 20 GEL (€6.70) per person for the 15-minute experience.
When Tbilisi’s frenetic streets, oppressive summer heat and, at times, overwhelming chaos all prove a little too much, you’ll be glad to know there are a number of leafy green spaces to find a much-needed respite.
It is in these cool quite corners of the city where locals fill out park benches and swap stories in the shade, young couples embrace away from prying eyes and busy folk with errands to run seek the refreshing calm between the trees rather than stick to the busy main roads.
Vake Park has a number of rambling pathways for an afternoon stroll, while Turtle Lake on the hill above provides a shaded walkway and the opportunity for a refreshing swim. A number of buses travel here directly from Liberty Square and to reach the lake, you’ll find cable cablecar station near the park entrance.
Nestled beneath Narikala Fortress, Tbilisi’s sprawling Botanical Gardens are also a lovely shady place to wander and boast kilometres walking trails and a waterfall. Entry is 2 GEL (€0.70).
I’ll preface this by saying that Tbilisi has a lot of fantastic restaurants. Like, a lot.
Whether you’re after the Georgian staples, your western favourites or a modern twist on the classics, you’ll find them all in this town. These were some of my favourites.
Salobie Bia | Of all the wonderful meals I ate, it was the dessert at Salobie Bia that stole the show and had me gushing to just about everyone I met that that was the dish they had to eat before leaving the city. Down a leafy side street in the heart of the old town, through a non-descript door and into a simple white room set below street level, sits wonderfully unassuming Salobie Bia brightened up with a curious selection of ornaments from all over.
The dessert itself, a vibrant purple ball of sour cherry sorbet set upon on a luscious blanket of white chocolate mousse speckled with mint sugar, is without a doubt, one of the best I’ve ever eaten and costs just a few Euros. Now, whether this is a menu mainstay or not I’m really not sure, but even so, the rest of the food here is also great, serving up large portions of traditional Georgian fare at very reasonable prices. The menu is handwritten on a piece of recycled cardboard using the traditional Georgian names which, if you’re new to the country, will probably need translating.
Duqani | This underground restaurant that feels a little like stepping into a wine cellar is a great spot to try my favourite Georgian appetizer, eggplant and walnuts. Portions are big and the homemade lemonade is also great.
Shavi Lomi | Set in a leafy outdoor terrace, prices here are a little higher but the dishes combine some interesting flavours. If you’re staying at Fabrika, it’s just a few minutes walk away.
Perched atop the lush green hilltop behind Tbilisi’s old town, the muddy brown walls of the Narikala Fortress are instantly visible from just about anywhere in the city.
Dating back to the 4th century but with many additions made much later on, clambering across these ancient walls not only offers up fantastic views over the valley but also gives a brief glimpse into the ancient city’s place along the embattled Silk Road.
To get there, it’s possible to walk up a steep zigzag of stairs, but much more fun is to take the super speedy cable car up from Rike Park which zips across the rooftops of the old town.
Long queues are the norm during peak season so it’s best to arrive when it opens at midday or later in the evening. The ride costs just 2 GEL (€0.70) and you’ll need to use your white Tbilisi Metro Card for the trip (more on that below).
Markets are one of my favourite places to really get under the skin of a city and Tbilisi was no different.
The Dry Bridge Market at the far end of Saarbrüecken Bridge is a treasure trove of Soviet memorabilia, traditional crockery, retro cameras, records and just a whole lot of random bric-a-brac. This market sat along the walking route between my hostel and the old town and just about every day I’d find myself getting lost between blankets speckled with antique jewels and old-school gadgets, or veering off down a side passage of babushka dolls and rows of furry army berets.
Desertir Market is another great place to explore. Set in an enormous warehouse and spilling out into the pavements, it’s a wonderfully chaotic flurry of activity with vendors packing and unpacking trucks, piled-high trolleys being pushed precariously across the uneven ground, colourful rows of churchkhela swinging in the shade and ladies carefully arranging piles of fruit, spices and nuts.
Whether you’ve come to buy, or just to watch, the surrounding streets are also an absolute gold mine of helpful services – think glasses and shoe repairs and a warren-like network of underground second-hand clothing stores that fan out towards the train station.
As a city of hills where crumbling ruins, showy theme park rides and brightly-coloured old buildings cling desperately to the slopes of the city, Tbilisi offers up a number of fabulous vantage points from which to experience its views, by day or night.
While the garish colours and slightly creepy figurines of Mtatsminda Park meant it was never quite going to be a winner in my books, the Funicular Complex restaurant overlooking the city offers up some of the best views around, and despite its location, prices are actually very reasonable.
Take the funicular up (you’ll need to buy a separate transport card for this – different to the Metro Card) and the restaurant is right at the upper station. Snag a table on the outdoor terrace for a sunset drink or evening meal with a front row seat as the lights come out and the city is washed in deep orange tones. To return, either head back to the funicular or there’s bus 90 which runs to Liberty Square.
For fabulous views looking out over the fortress and old town, clamber up to the hilltop Tabor Monastery of Transfiguration which stands opposite. I tried to take a shortcut through the back streets and despite being directed onwards encouragingly by groups of friendly locals watching from their balconies, the path quickly became a little more sketchy than I was expecting, especially if walking solo.
The view from the platform about half way up is still great, but no doubt the views from the monastery itself would be even better. Either persist with the sketchy path up, follow the proper road or take a taxi.
Wedged between the Mtkvari River, the spritzed up shopping boulevard of Rustaveli Avenue and the lush botanical gardens lies the delightful tangle of ramshackle streets that make up Tbilisi’s old town.
Brightly-coloured houses built haphazardly one on top of the other fronted by delicate lattice-work balconies rise high above uneven cobbled laneways. Hidden corridors open up to leafy walkways bursting with trendy restaurants and sultry wine bars. Tiny street stalls dot the pavements sporting freshly squeezed pomegranate juice sure to give a hefty kick of vitamin C, alongside a first taste of churchkhela and a strong whiff of Svaneti salt.
Away from the busy centre, things are a little more subdued. Few tourists wander up here and it feels like a charming corner of suburbia where mother’s walk their kids back from school and tiny bowls of dog food line the roadside left out by locals to lovingly feed the city’s strays.
If you’re anything like me, you may have arrived in this slightly hectic, sprawling city not knowing all that much about, well, Georgia.
Particularly if you’re short on time, but even if you’re not, a walking tour is an excellent way to get an affordable whistle-stop look at the city, some interesting background on the country and a few new ideas for where to spend more time in the city.
This walking tour was by far the longest I’d been on, a little too long in fact, but it covers off a number of highlights from the old town and the Narikala Fortress. Free walking tours leave twice a day from near Liberty Square at 12 p.m. with a second session in the evening. Tips are expected.
For something a bit more unique, there are also a number of street art tours and alternative tours that take in the more quirky aspects of the city.
Tbilisi isn’t just a great city. It also makes an excellent jumping-off point for a number of fantastic day trips around the area.
As always, if you’ve got the time, many of these places definitely deserve more than just a day, but if you’re moving quickly, these are a few day trip options for you.
Davit Gareja | This cave monastery in the desert is one of Tbilisi’s most popular day trips and showcases some unique landscapes you likely won’t find elsewhere in Georgia. Check out this guide on how to plan your Davit Gareja day trip.
Signagi + Kakheti | Enchanting Signagi is a sight to behold. It’s also one of the best places to taste the region’s wine. As one of the world’s oldest wine regions, it’s also an excellent place to learn the history of viticulture and, of course, indulge in a few samples. Either while away the time in Signagi or set off to explore the wider Kakheti region as well. See this guide on all the best things to do in Signagi.
Mtshketa | At just 30-minutes from Tbilisi, UNESCO-listed Mtshketa is another popular day trip option. Highlights include the hilltop monastery and dazzling views.
Gori | Though the town itself is rather unremarkable, this small city is gaining popularity as a day trip destination because of one particularly infamous resident – Joseph Stalin. If you’re into your history, this might be one for you.
Uplistsikhe | Often paired with the trip to Gori, this cave monastery complex is an interesting stop.
Kazbegi | Ideally visited for a little longer than a day trip, Kazbegi offers up spectacular scenery and a taste of Georgia’s mountains for those short on time. Don’t miss the iconic Gergeti Trinity Church and enjoy a few hours to drink in the views.
Though it’s possible to visit most of these places with public transport, there are also a number of affordable tours that combine a few of them into one day. Check Tbilisi day tour options here.
Fabrika | Hands down the city’s funkiest hostel, massive Fabrika boasts an enormous lounge and co-working area, a host of cafes, restaurants and bars, easy access to the metro, clean spacious rooms with proper mattresses, individual lockers and all the creature comforts that make a good hostel great. They also host a weekly movie night on their rooftop and offer a series of alternative walking tours. Perhaps the only downside I found was that the guest kitchen is not all that well equipped (read: no stove), but you can make it work.
At night the sprawling courtyard is the hangout spot for young locals who’ve just clocked out and tourists looking to mingle, but inside, it stays rather quiet for those hoping for some peace.
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While I’m usually one of those people that feels the best way to get to know a city is by walking absolutely everywhere, the 40-minute walk from my hostel to Tbilisi’s old town in the sweltering summer heat meant I was quickly looking for alternative ways to get around.
The city’s transport system may seem a little chaotic at first, but luckily, it’s actually pretty straight forward once you get the hang of it.
Metro + City Bus |
Set deep below the city, Tbilisi’s single-line metro is fantastic and easy to navigate with a service appearing like clockwork (literally, there’s a countdown at each station) every 5 minutes or so. For Liberty Square, and major transport hubs like Didube or Samgori Bus Stations or the Central Train Station, the metro is the way to go.
The city’s extensive network of bright yellow buses is a little more confusing but, somewhat surprisingly, all services seem to be listed on Google Maps. If you’re going somewhere away from the metro line and wondering if a bus will get you there, just look up directions using the Public Transport feature and it will show you the location of the exact stop, what number bus you can take and at what times.
To ride the metro, you’ll need to pick up a white metro card for 2 GEL (€0.70) from the ticket desks at any metro or cable car station. Once you’ve got the card, you can either top it up at the ticket counters or use one of the automatic machines in the stations. Each ride is just 0.5 GEL (€0.20) making it an amazingly fast and economical way to get across the city.
This card can also be used on all municipal transport, including the cable cars for Narikala Fortress and Turtle Lake and all city buses though these can also be paid in cash at the coin machine on board.
To And From The Airport | Despite what some of the taxi drivers might try to tell you, buses run from Tbilisi Airport to the city centre at all hours of the day and night, and though there might be some wait time involved, they do cater to the ridiculously early morning flights that are the norm for arriving and leaving the city.
When you leave the arrivals hall walk a short way to your right where there’ll be a bus stand. Bus #37 goes past Liberty Square and along Rustaveli Avenue up to Station Square. Annoyingly, there’s no timetable online but services should come every half hour or so, or at least every hour at any time of night. The trip takes about 40-minutes to the centre and costs just 0.5 GEL.
The faster option is to take a taxi. Drivers notoriously overcharge tourists, especially sleep-deprived ones who stumble bleary-eyed out of the terminal in the dead of night. The usual price to the city centre is around 25 GEL (€8.50) so be sure to agree on a price before jumping in the car (I met people who were charged over 80!). The return trip is usually cheaper and can be arranged over the phone by any hotel or guesthouse in town.
Travel Outside Tbilisi | Tbilisi has a number of bus stations which often sit alongside one chaotic market or another. If you’re travelling a lot around this part of Georgia, you’ll probably be popping in and out of quite a few of them. Didube serves Kazbegi, Akhaltsikhe or Borjomi for Vardzia, Kutaisi and Batumi, while Navtluhgi Bazaar near Samgori serves Signagi.
It’s also possible to travel by train, with the most popular tourist trip being the night train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi followed by marshrutka to Mestia. International trains also run to Armenia and Azerbaijan.