Tbilisi – a travel guide
Georgia is one of my favourite countries. I have visited 3 times, I love the kindness and generosity of the people, the beautiful landscape and old cities, the wonderful wine and delicious cuisine. Tbilisi is a fantastic city, a lovely mix of ancient and modern separated by the Mtkvari river.
The old town with its maze of cobbled streets and traditional houses with beautiful balconies, overlooked by the ruins of the old fortress and the impressive statue of Mother Georgia.
The new town with its modern architecture, the skyline dominated by the golden domed Holy Trinity Cathedral, the beautiful Rike Park and the Presidential Palace.
A Brief History of Tbilisi
Tbilisi first became the capital of Georgia in 458. Legend has it that King Vakhtang Gorgasali was hunting in the area with his falcon, which had caught a pleasant. It dropped the wounded bird which landed on a hot spring. The bird quickly recovered. The king was so impressed that he decided to move the capital from Mtskheta to Tbilisi, whose name means ‘a warm place’. A huge statue of the king astride his horse sits next to Metekhi Cathedral. The thermal baths are still a feature of the old town.
The history of Tbilisi since then has been very turbulent. It has been captured and ransacked many times and even burnt to the ground. The Persians, Byzantines and Arabs all ruled Tbilisi before, in 1122 David the Builder retook the city and the Golden Age began. Under David and his successor Queen Tamara the city grew and flourished.
It wasn’t to last as in the 13th century the Mongols invaded. There were further invasion by the Timurids, Persians and Turks before Georgia was annexed by Russia in the 19th century. An independent Georgia existed between 1918 – 1921 before the red army invaded and incorporated Georgia into the Soviet union. Total independence came in 1991. In 2003 demonstrators stormed parliament carrying red roses. The rose revolution swept Eduard Shevardnadze from power.
The Tbilisi of today is a beautiful, vibrant city. With a population of 1,082,245 it is home to over a quarter of Georgia’s citizens. There are many universities, many banks have bases here and of course the growth in tourism continues as more people discover the charms os this lovely city.
Things to See and Do in Tbilisi
The Bridge of Peace
The bridge was opened to connect the new to the old, the past to the present. It was designed by Italian architect Michele de Lucci and brought to Tbilisi on 200 trucks.
It opened on May 6th 2010. The glass and steel structure is 156 metres long.
50,000 light bulbs give the the Peace Bridge a fantastic effect at night.
- The old fortress of Narikala dominates the skyline of the old town. Built in the 4th century it stands as a memorial to Tbilisi’s tumultuous history and to its resilience. Most of the walls date from the 8th century when it was a Persian citadel and the palace of the emirates was within its walls.
- It is free to enter and also contains the Church of St. Nicholas which was renovated between 1996 – 1997.
The frescoes on its walls depict scenes from the bible and the history of Georgia.
On my 3rd visit visit there I was lucky to experience some wonderful singing, very beautiful and very atmosphere.
There are 2 ways to reach the fortress, either by taking the cable car from Rike Park
or by hiking up up one of the paths from the old town.
I’d recommend taking the cable car up for the experience and then walking back down through the old town.
The views from the top are spectacular.
Next to fortress is a beautiful botanical garden, a welcome relief from the summer heat or relax after a hike uphill.
At the top there are also food and drink and souvenir stalls.
Walk past these and you arrive at another of Tbilisi’s famous landmarks.
More commonly known as ‘the Mother of Georgia’, this 20 metre aluminium statue was erected on Soloki Hill in 1958 to celebrate the 1500 anniversary of the city. She wears traditional clothes and in her right hand carries a sword for those who come as enemies and in her left hand a bowl of wine to welcome those who come as friends. It symbolizes the many battles Georgia has had to endure but also their warm and hospitable nature to guests.
Toasting is a very important part of Georgian celebrations. At major celebrations such as Easter, weddings, new year or big get-togethers a toast master or tamada is always appointed. There are many toasts to family, friends and those no longer with us. There are also more general toasts to Georgia, to peace, to friendship, health, happiness and good futures. At my friend’s New Year’s Eve celebration a toast was also made to me in my absence, a great honour.
For informal catch ups people may take turns to propose toasts. I have been involved in much toast making during my visits to Georgia.
Holy Trinity Cathedral Tbilisi
The skyline on the left bank of the river is dominated by this majestic cathedral. Also called Sameba, this cathedral is the spiritual centre of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Built between 1995 – 2004, it was unveiledin 2004 on 23rd Nov,one of the 2 the dates Georgian’s celebrate St Georges day.
The main golden dome glistens in the sun and shines over the whole of Tbilisi.
From the foundations to the highest point is 101 metres high, making it one of the biggest Orthodox churches in the world. The foundations are also carved into the hillside, so the back part of the church remains underground. Soil from sacred places in Georgia as well as other holy artefacts were placed into these foundations.
Inside there is space for 10,000 people and the huge surrounding square can hold a further 15,000. During my 2nd visit to Georgia, I was fortunate to visit the cathedral during a time of celebration.
The Clock Tower Tbilisi
This fairytale, quirky clock tower was created in 2010 by Rezo Gabriadze. On the hour an angel pops out carrying a small hammer and rings a bell. He also individually designed the hundreds of tiles adorning it. Next to it lies a small marionette theatre which holds performances twice a day.
Near to the clock is a line of statues of famous Georgian figures and in the garden a very jovial sculpture.
Also on the left bank perched on a cliff of the same name sits this church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. A church and castle were built here by King Vakhtang Gorgasali who first founded Tbisili as the capital of Georgia and who resided in the castle here. A statue of him assisted his horse was erected next to the church in 1967.
It has played a part in all the struggles and battles for Tbilisi and was damaged and rebuilt many times. The castle was demolished in 1819 and a prison built. In the facade of the church are names and dates of prisoners who were interred here from 1819 – 1933. Metekhi church was used as a military base and even a theatre before finally being consecrated as a church again in 1988. The small church at the bottom of the cliff is dedicated to the patron saint of Tbilisi, Abo who was tortured on these rocks.
From its walls are picturesque views of the old town.
Take a Balloon Ride
A recent edition to Rike Park and next to the cable car station is a static hot air balloon. The balloon operates day and night, but does not run in windy weather.
The balloon reaches a height of 150 metres giving great vista and panoramic views of Tbilisi.
Take a Ride on Tbilisi Funicular Railway
On top of Mtatsminda mountain is one of highest landmark of Tbilisi, the t.v. tower. It is possible to take a funicular railway 501 metres up the mountain. Here at a height of 727 metres, the air is fresh, a lovely breeze blows and there is a lovely pine wood. The views are stunning, it was a little overcast on my visit but nevertheless spectacular.
The funicular began in 1905 but people were so wary and afraid they had to be paid to sit in the first carriages. It really took off in Soviet times when an amusement park with a big wheel was built on top, it is still there.
There is a restaurant, cafes and lovely walks and as always a bit of Georgian art and quirkiness.
There was a wonderful orchestral performance taking place when I was there, which made my visit even more special.
Wander around the Old Town of Tbilisi
One of my favourite activities in Tbilisi is just to wander around the maze of streets of the old town. I always find something different.
Old houses with beautiful balconies.decoratives squares, lovely churches, synagogues, old bath houses, street art, even a waterfall and of course lots of bars and restaurants but we’ll get to the food and drink later.
It is fabulous soaking up all the sights and the smells and the colours and quirkiness. It is a very photogenic city.
Cross the river by one of the beautiful bridges and walk around Rike park.
There is so much to see in Tbilisi.
Go to see a Local Georgian Folk Dance Show
Traditional dance has survived in Georgia and reflects its history. With the amazing agility and also elegance of its dancers, the colourful costumes and the swordplay, it is quite a spectacle. I was extremely lucky this visit and there was an evening celebrating Georgian culture. Held on an outdoor stage there was even an introduction by the president of Georgia. I was mesmerised by the dancing and longed to join in.
It is even possible to take part in a folk dance lesson. I wish I’d found out about this earlier. It’s at the top of my list for my next visit.
Have a Sulphur Bath
I told the story of the king and his falcon and how Tbilisi became the capital. The thermal springs into which the injured bird fell into and promptly recovered still exist. There are about a dozen bathhouses left in Tbilisi. The thermal waters which feed them are said to have many health benefits. There are both public and private bath houses.
Visit the Chonicles of Georgia
This is the Chronicle of Georgia, gigantic pillars, the top half telling the history of Georgia and the bottom half the life of Jesus. You can see the huge size from the photo below, when you should be able to make out my tiny figure with the huge columns towering above.
It is sometimes called the Stonehenge of Georgia, although building only started in 1985. It was never completely finished.
It is not only the size that is impressive but also the intricate decoration and fantastic views. From one side you get a glimpse of a different perspective of Tbilisi. Not the beautiful old town or quirky modern buildings but a throwback to Soviet times with their depressing tower blocks.
On the other side are views to the Tbilisi sea, a reservoir and beach and popular swimming spot.
It is a little visited spot but worth a visit. I walked down through the forest to the beach for a beer by the water.
Food and Drink
Georgian cuisine is delicious and one of my favourites, I look forward to every meal. Food and wine play a big part in Georgian culture. Here are some of the famous, must try dishes.
Khinkali are little dumplings filled with mince pork, beef, herbs and spices and twisted into a knot on top. How to eat them is also part of the Georgian tradition. Hold on to the knot, take a bite out the side and suck out all the juice. Then enjoy the tasty filling inside. Put the knot back on your plate, this signifies how many you have eaten. Georgians can eat a lot of Khinkhali.
Here’s a recipe if you want to try yourself
This cheese filled bread is the national dish of Georgia. There are over 50 regional variations. I tried as many as possible. The most famous is probably Khachapuri Imeruli, from the Black Sea coast, it is in the shape of a boat and topped with butter and an egg. Other versions are round, some are also topped with cheese too.
Maybe this is the best way, try 3 different ones.
It also possible to spend an evening with a local family learning to make Khinkhali and Khachapuri, as well as trying home made wine and cha cha.
Also popular are dishes cooked in clay pots. This is a layered stew made with lamb on the bottom, then aubergine and spices and potato on top and often tarnished with pomegranate.
I also had chicken livers in a clay pot and Lobia which is beans cooked in a clay pot. All mouthwatering. Another favourite of mine was Shkmeruli, chicken in garlic sauce. I could write a whole post on Georgian food.
The first time I stayed at my Georgian friend Sophie’s house, this was the breakfast she made for us.
Many tasty treats are made with wine in Georgia. This is made with the local red wine, Saperavi. I have one almost every day when I’m in Georgia, I love it so much.
A traditional Georgian snack made from grape juice and walnuts and threaded on strings. It is also delectable.
There are so many to choose from but here are a couple of my favourites
Restaurant Usakhelouri just opposite the thermal baths. Lovely verandah and views, fantastic food, it’s also where one of the above Khinkhali photos was taken.
Restaurant Sopika in the old town with a lovely verandah with wonderful views. It is where I came with my Georgian friend, Sophie for a celebration.
The Georgians invented wine and for that I will be eternally grateful to them.
They also still make some of the best wines in the world. Many still make wine the traditional way. They press the grapes and then pour everything, juice, skins, stalks and pips into a huge amphora which is called a Qvevri. This is then buried for 5-6 months where it ferments.
I had a red wine at the tiny winery the other day which was the best I have ever tasted. Saperavi is my favourite red wine. The amber wines are also delicious.
Now for mass production large wineries use modern methods with barrels and tanks.
They also now make excellent sparkling wines. French wine makers have recently combined forces with Georgians with amazing results. I met one at a wine festival I attended on my recent visit. He is originally from champagne. They produce 9 sparkling wines, they were so good, many following the traditional French method and fermented twice.
I spend a lot of time wine tasting in Georgia. These 2 pictures were taken 4 years apart, nothing changes, not even the dress, well maybe the hair.
Everyone in Georgia makes wine and some of the best I have tasted has been made by friends or other locals I have met.
Wine tasting in Georgia should be on everyone’s itinerary. It is possible to book your own tasting, often including lunch and drive there yourself.
There are also many excellent and inexpensive wine tasting day tours from Tbilisi, which include 7 wine tastings.
Cheers or gaumajos as they say in Georgia.
The local Georgian spirit is also made from wine. cha cha is made from wine pomace. It is often known as ‘wine vodka’. Locals make their own cha cha and wineries also now also produce very good versions. Unlike some other local firewaters, this one is really quite good. The commercial cha cha is normally around 40 – 50°, the local versions can be much stronger.
Tbilisi comes alive at night, bars, nightclubs and live music to cater for every taste.
In the centre of the old town, the Drunken Owl has live music and a great view.
The Jazz Club 1984
There is a very big jazz scene in Tbilisi and the Jazz Club 1984 is a wonderful venue.
Located at the bottom of freedom square Warszawa is a very popular venue. Live music, craft beers, cocktails and my favourite draught cider.
Where to Stay
This time I stayed at the Sina Hotel. This was a lovely hotel, in an old house with beautiful balconies which give lovely views over the old town. In a perfect spot, quiet but a couple of minutes from the main attractions. Spacious rooms, a little bar and excellent prices. What made my stay so special was Bella and her hospitable staff. Always she made me tea with fresh mint, I was also given the local cha cha for breakfast, apparently it’s good for me.
Another place I’ve stayed is KMM, just over the bridge. Fantastic views, from the balcony here I took my favourite photo of Tbilisi through my red wine glass. Great price, including a very good breakfast. Another view from my balcony.
Day Trips from Tbilisi
It is possible to get between places using the local Marshrutka, the shared minibuses. However if you are short on time and want to see more, there are some excellent day trips which are very good value for money. The tour guides in Georgia are excellent.
Walking Tour with Cable Car and Wine Tasting
If you are short on time or just want to get orientated with the city and learn a little history, this 4 hour tour would be a good option. It covers the major sights and also includes the cable car to the fortress and a wine tasting session.
Rainbow Mountain & David Gareja Monastery
This is a half-day trip which in Georgian terms means it lasts 6 hours. This was a lovely and very interesting tour.
I’d only heard about the Rainbow Mountains on this trip. Beautiful scenery on the drive and visits to the Salt Lake, Rainbow Mountains and a monastery complex carved out of the rock face. On top of the mountain is the border with Azerbaijan. It’s also known for the tortoises that live here.
One of my favourite parts of Georgia with its marvellous mountain peaks. I had the perfect day here. This is a full day tour and last 12 hours. You will see so many wonderful sights on this trip culminating in the wonderful Gergeti Trinity Monastery perched on top of the mountain.
You will also see the Friendship Monument, Ananuri fortress and a beautiful reservoir. If you only had time for one tour this is the one I would recommend. It only costs a little over £30.
If you have more time you could spend a couple of nights there and do the hike to the monastery.
Mtskheta, Jvari, Gori and Uplistsikhe
Another all day lasting 10 hours. Mtskheta is the old capital of Georgia and is well worth a visit, I have been twice. The monastery of Jvari is perched high on a mountain overlooking the city and the confluence of the rivers, the views are spectacular.
Uplistsikhe is one of Georgia’s old cave towns. Gori is the birthplace of Stalin and you have a chance to explore the town or visit the museum which includes Stalin’s personal train. I didn’t like the museum, I felt uncomfortable and disrespectful to those who lost their lives, but many find it interesting.
Borjomi Central Park and Vardzia
Borjomi is a spa resort known for its mineral waters said to have healing qualities and be good for digestion. In the middle of the lovely park is a fountain where you can try the mineral water. Here is also a Soviet era cable car with lovely views from the top of the surrounding forest.
Vardzia is another of my favourite places. A huge cave complex, originally it was used as a fortress but later developed and also used as a monastery. 600 of the 3,000 rooms still remain and it is a great place to explore.
If you are not also visiting Armenia, then there is a day trip you can take from Tbilisi. I have also travelled extensively in Armenia. On this trip you’ll get to see amazing monasteries, canyons and countryside.
Also included is a chance to sample a homemade Armenian lunch and Armenian food is delicious, using lots of fresh ingredients.
If you have more time in Georgia and want to venture further, please consider Svaneti. This is my favourite part of Georgia, snow capped mountain ranges, the mountains and clouds reflected in crystal lakes, glaciers and stone towns where you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back in time.
My Svaneti guide should tell you everything you need to know, how to get there, where to stay, what to see, history and what local delicacies to try.
On the Black Sea coast Batumi is Georgia’s seaside spot. A lovely spot especially in summer with it’s cooling season breeze. Also here is the famous Ali and Nino, representing Georgia’s version of Romeo and Juliet. The figures move together, kiss and embrace before moving apart again. There are art deco buildings and a beautiful botanical gardens.
Visit Georgia, a local company have been organising tours in Georgia for over 25 years. They have 40 different options including trekking tours and food and drink tours. There are also guaranteed departure tours in many languages.
So hopefully you’ll now understand why I love Georgia so much and why Tbilisi is such a lovely city. Enjoy your time in Georgia. Maybe I’ll see you there.
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