Why Tbilisi is the under-the-radar cultural gem on every savvy traveller’s must see list
Welcome to Tbilisi, the elegantly ramshackle capital of the Republic of Georgia. Tbilisi is the epitome of the changing world, a city that’s fiercely proud of its past while looking forward to the future (though, in true Georgian fashion, it’s in no hurry to get there). It’s a vibrant city where millennial-old winemaking traditions exist side-by-side with contemporary street art, and traditional dance performances happen just across town from a 24/7 coworking space. It’s a nexus of happy contradictions, all beloved by some of the friendliest people in the world.
And now, Tbilisi is on the edge of tourist discovery and the developing tourist infrastructure is making it increasingly accessible. More and more airlines are connecting to the tiny republic, including a direct Gatwick-Tbilisi flight.
Here’s a small peek at the coolest things to do in Tbilisi.
Tbilisi Jumma Mosque :@muhammadkhanofficial
When it comes to major sightseeing in Tbilisi, you’re diving into thousands of years of history. Tbilisi Old Town is a labyrinth, a mish mash of beautifully restored houses and ones teetering on their last leg, latticed porches overlooking the narrow streets. While there are ‘main streets’ to Tbilisi’s Old Town, there are plenty of side alleys and hidden courtyards to keep you gawking for hours at the forgotten architecture.
Just above the Old Town is Narikala, an ancient fortress that has guarded Tbilisi since Persian times. While there isn’t much to see of the ruins themselves, riding the cable car from Rike Park is well worth the dollar for the Tbilisi views. Up on Narikala, Kartlis Deda also stands at the ready, with wine for friends in one hand and a sword in the other for her enemies. This 20-meter tall Mother of Georgia statue was originally put in place during Soviet times to celebrate Tbilisi’s 1500th anniversary and is beautifully maintained to this day.
Another beloved Tbilisi institution is the markets. Next to the Dry Bridge (even on it, during the warmer months!), locals spread out their wares – everything from chandeliers to gas masks. And if you’re the kind of traveler who’s drawn to working markets where locals do their daily shopping, Desertirebis near the train station is a mind-boggling bazaar.
Georgian food is feasting food, so make sure you come to Tbilisi with a healthy appetite. The most famous Georgian food is khachapuri, divine cheesy bread. Different regions have different takes on this beloved dish, so make sure you try them all. Imeruli khachapuri is a cheese-stuffed flatbread – Megruli is similar, but with cheese on top as well. Adjaruli khachapuri is my favorite, a bread boat filled with cheese and topped with an egg and butter. Enthusiastically mix it all up to get Georgian fondue.
It’s also absolutely necessary to try khinkali while you’re in Tbilisi. These pyramid-shaped dumplings come with a variety of stuffings (including potato and mushroom for vegetarians!), and there’s a trick to eating them. Grab them by the top nub and hold them upside down. Take a tiny bite out of the corner and sip out the broth. Then, carefully nibbling your way towards the nub – or just pop the entire thing in your mouth. Whether or not you eat the nub is up to you. Even local Georgians are divided on this one.
There are other mouth-watering traditional Georgian dishes – from badrijai nigvzit (eggplant rollups filled with a hearty walnut and garlic paste) to mtsvadi and shashlik (meat cooked over an open fire – order it with ajika sauce!), lobiani (bean stuffed flatbread) to chvishtari (cornbread filled with cheese – noticing a theme?), so there is absolutely no way you’re going to go hungry here. There are healthier options, including salads and soups, and even vegetarians will find plenty of appetizing choices. This list is barely the beginning of all the comfort foods Georgia has to offer, so just remember to pace yourself every time you sit down to eat.
An integral part of Georgian cuisine is local Georgian drinks! Georgia is actually one of the first wine-producing regions in the world. And traditional Georgian wine is made in a very particular way, stored in clay pots buried in the earth as the wine ferments. The best way to try Georgian wine is to get a mini education by a bartender or expert — it’s even easy to a do a day trip to the wine country from Tbilisi! — but at the very least make sure you try Georgia’s famous amber wines. Georgian wine is just getting started around the world in cities like New York and Washington DC, but it won’t be long before it’s internationally famous.
Georgian wine in clay pots: @wayfarersbrook
Perhaps lesser known but equally impressive is Georgia’s chacha, a lethal liquor traditionally distilled from, well, wine. Chacha is the kind of alcohol I only have when in the company of my Georgian friends, who claim that hangovers are not a thing.
The arts in Tbilisi
The arts is a sphere where Georgia truly mixes history and modernity. Tbilisi has a diverse performing arts scene – everything from folk dancing to pantomime to puppetry to modern ballet. Some of the theatres even subtitle their performances in English! And prices start at a fraction of the cost in other major cities.
Traditional performing arts are still very much beloved in Georgia by all generations. I’ve had locals proudly tell me about their polyphonic traditional music or confess that they learned traditional Georgian dance when they were younger. If you can’t get to a theatrical production, many restaurants offer folk performances along with dinner.
Tbilisi has several museums, ranging from folk to fine art, but if you’re looking for cutting edge art in Tbilisi you should just break out your walking shoes. Tbilisi is one of the most fascinating street art destinations I’ve ever been to, with a few prolific street artists recognizable by their distinctive styles. I love turning a random corner to see a previously undiscovered piece by Gagosh or Lamb. Public spaces have become galleries, with art both political and whimsical – but all of it is impressive.
Old Tbilisi :@tonya_divina
Whatever your after-hours style is, Tbilisi’s nightlife can offer you a range of options.
If you’re looking to party all night, Tbilisi’s club scene is said to rival that of metropolises like Berlin and London, with venues springing up in underground places. They offer not just a spot to dance, but also a counter-cultural space to juxtapose some of the culture’s more traditional aspects. One of the most famous, Bassiani, is housed underneath the Dinamo football stadium, its main dance floor occupying an unused swimming pool. Khidi is another nightclub holed up in an unassuming spot, at the foot of the Vakhushti Bagrationi Bridge.
When it comes to bars and cafes, Tbilisi has at least one of everything. There are noisy, boisterous venues like Art Café Home, Fabrika and Dive. Smaller joints like Radio Bar and Zoestan are still lively while creating a slightly more intimate atmosphere. And of course, the Old Town is liberally sprinkled with wine bars. The craft beer scene is just starting to emerge in Tbilisi (understandable, given their reputation for wine and chacha). Still, bars like Number 8 and Black Dog have begun opening up the market and it’s sure to catch on quick. The best cocktails I’ve found so far are at Rooms Hotel and Woland’s Speakeasy – just don’t forget the password.
If you prefer lemonade over beer, it’s not a problem. Tbilisi’s cafes are hidden gems, often tucked into courtyards or on second floors, many of them still reminiscent of the apartments they probably were originally. They generally stay open late, so you and your friends can sequester yourself in a corner with a pot of tea at places like Café Linville, PurPur, and Althaus.
Tbilisi like a local
Georgians have a reputation of being warm and welcoming, and everything I’ve experienced so far has lived up to that. While Georgians are very friendly, they may not be the ones to make the first move. But don’t be too shy about striking up a conversation. Most young Georgians are excellent English speakers and are very eager to chat with visitors.
It’s a very social culture, and Georgians are almost always out with their friends. And I’ve been surprised that they often say their favorite places are also the local expat haunts. It’s rare to find a city where locals are hanging out in places recommended to tourists, but it’s true of Tbilisi. So if you go dance at Dive in Fabrika or go for a drink in the Old Town, you’ll be mixing with visitors and residents alike, and you might soon find yourself with an invitation to a house party or a weekend at a ski resort!
I’ve been very lucky that just in the six weeks I’ve been here, I’ve met numerous locals and even formed strong friendships. I’ve been continually impressed by how optimistic the young generations seem – not something you always see in a post-Soviet country. But I’ve met ambitious government employees, budding artists, and socially active students. While they all are proud of Georgia’s heritage, they seem more interested in developing their country – the best promise for Georgia’s future.
Tbilisi Baths :@wayfarersbook
About the author
Amy Butler is a writer from New York City, currently bopping around without a fixed address. Her main activities include befriending bartenders and experiencing different cultures through bread. Read her blog The Wayfarer’s Book or follow her instagram.
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