At the Crossroads of Europe & Asia

First Impressions of Tbilisi, Georgia (Sakartvelo)

Exploring Tbilisi: Where Ancient History, Modern Vibrance, and Culinary Adventures Merge in the Heart of Georgia

Three of MIR’s team members, Suzanne Rommelfanger, Corinne Edwards, and Greg Mazzola, recently embarked on their first journey exploring the country of Georgia. Read on to explore their favorable impressions and insightful recommendations.

Sharing a border with Türkiye, Azerbaijan, and Armenia to the south, and Russia to the north, this country in the South Caucasus located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia has a definitive eclectic yet European vibe, and exceeded expectations.

Tbilisi on Foot: Absorbing the Fusion of Ancient Architecture and Modern Flair

“Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, was more charming than I anticipated,” observed Edwards. The cobblestone streets, picturesque alleyways lined with brick and vine, sprinkled with modern touches throughout, inspired hours of leisurely strolls up and down the scenic hill town, she noted.

“Navigating the streets of any first-time destination is a great part of the journey, and it’s a pleasure to explore central Tbilisi on foot,” Mazzola said. Despite occasional uneven sidewalks, the city is pedestrian friendly and a pleasure to wander. Meander the streets of historic Old Town, with traces of the ancient and modern Silk Road, take a leisurely stroll along the Kura River, and amble down wide boulevards where craft markets and street performers offer local Georgian entertainment flanked by Tbilisi’s stately parliament building, museums, and ornate hotels. Subterranean pedestrian passageways allow one to cross busy streets safely, and several are lively with underground shops or bazaars selling Tbilisi antiques and local Georgian produce. 

Tbilisi’s architecture also captured the interest and imagination of all three travelers – with Armenian, European, Soviet, and Muslim influences present among structures that range from elegantly restored to ultra-modern to leaning ramshackle – but all add to the diverse charm. 

“I was amazed at how old and new architecture design styles tucked next to each other,” Rommelfanger shared. Tbilisi’s historic buildings, at times spray painted with modern graffiti, tell a story of past and present of artwork and political commentary. Numerous religious buildings (churches, cathedrals, synagogues, monasteries, and basilicas) dot the urban landscape. 

Ornate wrought iron doors, upon opening, offer surprise and delight with colorful Tbilisi building entrances leading to active courtyards with hanging laundry, children playing, or small gardens, and creaky grand staircases.

In addition to the impressive wrought iron artistry found in inner Tbilisi, handcrafted wooden balconies and stained glass windows offer a seemingly endless parade of impressive craftwork.

The blend of past and present combined is none more apparent than the cold concrete exterior of an old Soviet printing factory that gives away nothing of one of Georgia’s most hip and trendy interior spaces, which includes bars, restaurants, a chocolatier, coworking space, vertical farm and hotel. As you’re taking all the vibes of Tbilisi in, you can easily stop along the way to rest and people watch, as nearly every Tbilisi block offers a cafe, wine bar, or both! 

Tbilisi: An Up-And-Coming Foodie Destination

Regarding Tbilisi cafes and wine bars, all three were impressed with the variety and quality of Georgian options.

“My first plate of khinkali (Georgian dumplings) had me hooked,” noted Edwards. “Regardless of being ignorant of the correct eating technique, I had different types of Georgian khinkali almost every day. By my third round, I was taught how to properly eat a khinkali grab onto the dumpling from its topknot, then bite a small hole in the side to slurp out the broth before sinking your teeth into the filling.”

“Who knew that walnut gravy (Bazhe) would be one of the most memorable things I’d try in Georgia?”, exclaimed Rommelfanger. Unlike a peanut sauce, Georgian walnut sauce was lighter, less salty, but just as rich. It enhanced the dish of roasted cauliflower and all extra sauce was mopped up with freshly torn pieces of fresh Georgian bread. Georgian cuisine is heavily dominated by vegetables, and dishes sampled throughout Tbilisi were vibrantly colorful.

“For anyone who travels to explore new food, Georgia, and in particular Tbilisi, won’t disappoint,” Mazzola added. Even familiar ingredients take on new life with a Georgian twist and often sourced fresh from within its borders. Nigvziani badrijani, a signature Georgian dish combines thin sliced charred or fried eggplant, rolled with a filling of walnut, garlic, and herb paste (fenugreek and marigold are staples). Topped with additional walnut paste and bright crimson pomegranate seed provides a pop of color to the eye and pizzazz on the palate – uniquely Georgian. Other Georgian highlights are savory cheeses, roasted vegetables, and fresh breads—don’t miss an opportunity to taste Georgian khachapuri, a decadent bread boat with cheese and crowned with an egg. Georgian meals can be a spectacular event, known locally as a Georgian supra, with multiple dishes allowing one to sample several flavors at one sitting.

A Toast to Tradition: The Unique Flavors and Practices of Georgian Wine

And no trip to Georgia is complete without imbibing in its legendary wines. Considered the birthplace of wine with a winemaking tradition spanning more than 8,000 years, of course a glass of Georgian natural wine had to be enjoyed each evening in honor. Even if you don’t have time for a journey to Georgia’s wine regions, there are endless options throughout Tbilisi, so the biggest dilemma was choosing which to try. Staying true to the region and only trying local wines didn’t narrow down the selection, as most are local!

“I loved relaxing after a day of work at a Tbilisi restaurant with outdoor seating”, recalled Edwards. “Enjoying the restaurant staff’s Georgian wine recommendation while people-watching and taking in the downtown culture is something I could definitely get used to.”

Georgian grape varietals, such as Saperavi, Rkatsiteli, Mukuzani and Aleksandrouli–all easier to taste than pronounce–produced as “natural wines” in Georgian clay qvevri, traditional egg-shaped fermenting vessels, provide a uniquely Georgian experience in wine, culture, art, and history. Be sure to sample Georgia’s amber wines, noted Mazzola, which exhibit a golden amber hue and interesting complexity of stone fruit and nutty flavors. Even with the abundant Georgian wine options to explore, save time to delve into the world of spirits with Georgia’s signature brandy, called chacha. So, whether you’re a casual wine enthusiast or an experienced oenophile, Georgia promises an enticing journey of discovery for the palate.

Tbilisi’s Thermal & Sulfur Baths – Do Like the Locals Do

And after all that wonderful Georgian food, wine and spirits, it’s time to do like the locals do and visit the sulfur baths. Tbilisi means “warm place”, and the city was founded because of its natural hot springs. Legend has it that King Vakhatan was in awe of the healing powers of the waters and decided to build a city upon them. There is an entire district of Tbilisi dedicated to the sulfur thermal baths, the bathhouse district, in the old city, and locals would tell you that no visit to Georgia is complete without a visit! 

Suzanne accepted the challenge and had this to say about her experience. “I opted for the private bath with a massage, which was super indulgent. I enjoyed a blissful hour in a large tiled room that was large enough for a rain shower, bench, and full length deep bath. I was instructed to soak for 20 minutes, then I was soaped up, scrubbed with a loofah mitt, rinsed and massaged. I then had another 20 minutes to relax and let the hot waters heal my newly exfoliated skin. What a way to feel revived after jetlag!

Georgia Is Not To Be Missed

We can confidently say Georgia, with its rich heritage, warm hospitality, beauty, and impressive culinary offerings, is a South Caucasus gem, and a destination that should be at the top of any traveler’s list. 

Chat with one of our destination specialists today!

PUBLISHED: February 2, 2024

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