Photo Essay: 10 Reasons To Love Tbilisi, Georgia
With bounteous food, rivers of wine, sophisticated museums, historic architecture, cutting-edge restaurants, and Soviet chic, Tbilisi, Georgia, has most everything you could ask for in a destination.
Growing more popular and “discoverable” with every travel season, Georgia’s capital city is ripe for the picking. Here are 10 reasons to discover Tbilisi before everyone else does.
1) Cafés and Khachapuri
Wandering Tbilisi’s indefatigable Old Town, along sidewalks impeded by the occasional misplaced street tree, and haunted by relaxed cats picking their way delicately over the curbs, you’ll pass little shops, old churches, and balconied apartments.
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A few local people hurry off to work or school, queuing for the bus or striding purposefully down the streets, but others lean in doorways smoking and drinking Turkish coffee, a holdover from the Ottoman Empire.
One of the greatest pleasures of a walk around the Old Town is the presence on every corner of a place to relax and refresh – a café offering the aforementioned strong coffee, along with slices of khachapuri, the cheesy, salty, pizza-like snack bread that Georgians love.
Take a walk, then take a rest, take a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and bite into a steamy, gooey, delicious piece of Georgian comfort food.
2) Old Sulfur Baths
The gently steaming stone pods of Tbilisi’s sulfur baths, abanos, pop up from the pavement in the Old Town. The city’s earliest sulfur baths were probably built during Arab rule in the 7th or 8th centuries, when it was discovered that hot springs are just under the surface here. In the 13th century there may have been up to 68 baths in Tbilisi; now there are five.
You can can hire a private room day or night at most of the baths, soaking to your heart’s content and ordering up a brisk scrub or a massage. The most beautiful, and oldest, bathhouse is Bathhouse No. 5, its interior clad in tiles and mosaics. You’ll recognize it by the holdover hammer and sickle on the sign outside. True to its socialist sympathies, it features a public bath divided into men’s and women’s sections, as well as the more deluxe private rooms.
Most of the baths in use today were built in the 17th century. The temperatures of the different baths are between 46 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and are considered very therapeutic.
3) Modern Bridge of Peace
The sinuous bow-shaped Bridge of Peace over Tbilisi’s Mtkvari River connects the Old Town with the new. Completed in 2010, the pedestrian bridge is made up of thousands of interlocking steel tubes covered in transparent glazing, and lit by a constellation of LED lights that put on a show every evening from sunset to sunrise. The views of the Old Town are wonderful from here, especially at night, when even the river below is lit up.
On the modern side of the bridge is the new Rike Park, a gathering place for local adults and children with lush landscaping, fountains, a climbing wall, a huge chessboard, and the starting point of a cable car system that carries riders up to 4th century Narikala Fortress, where the views are really spectacular.
4) Art Nouveau
Just west of Tbilisi’s central Old Town is the art nouveau Sololaki District, built in the 19th and early 20th centuries by Georgian and European architects.
The imaginative and decorative art nouveau style took root in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and resulted in beautifully decorated facades adorned with sculpture, iron work, and stylized motifs drawn from nature.
Once the city’s most prestigious neighborhoods for wealthy bourgeois families, the district had been allowed to fall into disrepair once Georgia was annexed by the Soviet Union, suffering further damages from earthquakes and economic turmoil.
In recent years, many of Sololaki’s art nouveau facades have been renovated, and the growing number of hip cafés and restaurants (such as Vino Underground and Azarpesha, below) have transformed it into the city’s most up-and-coming restaurant district, making it a joy to explore on foot.
5) Dry Bridge Market
Browsing the big open-air Dry Bridge flea market can make for a gratifying morning outing. Vendors sit in the shade next to blankets and tablecloths covered with wares that run the gamut from ethnic jewelry, Soviet bric-a-brac, tchotchkes, carpets, and tableware, to car parts and greasy tools. You can find original paintings and handicrafts in a small park nearby.
6) La Maison Bleue
La Maison Bleue is a small studio established in 1994 by five women, graduates of Tbilisi State Academy of Art – Keti Kavtaradze, Nino Kvavilashvili, Irma Khoperia, Nino Khoperia and Eka Khuntsaria. Here craftspeople work with textiles; you can observe their batik dying technique, and take the opportunity to shop for the stunning finished products.
Hung everywhere with splashes of color that can be displayed or worn, La Maison Bleue is more like an art gallery than a shop; here you can bask in the warmth of the textiles and of their creators.
In Tbilisi’s Georgian National Museum, you can see replicas of five 1.8-million-year-old Homo erectus georgicus skulls that shook up the world’s paleoanthropologists. Unearthed at Dmanisi, a medieval Georgian town where Silk Road caravans used to pass, the skulls belong to the earliest hominids found outside of Africa.
In the Middle Ages, townspeople dug cellars and storage pits through layers of these strange bones, but it wasn’t until excavations in the 21st century that the bones were identified.
Surprisingly, one of the skulls belonged to a toothless old person who must have needed help to stay alive, evidence that early humans looked out for each other.
The five skulls have made the Dmanisi site crucial to the study of human evolution, as their discoverer, David Lordkipanidze, General Director of the museum, and his team, believe that, in spite of their varying sizes and shapes, the skulls all belong to the H. erectus species.
The Museum of Georgia also features the Museum of Soviet Occupation.
8) Museum of Soviet Occupation
Opened in 2006, on the anniversary of Georgia’s declaration of independence from the Russian Empire in 1918, the Museum of Soviet Occupation is located on the third floor of the Georgian National Museum.
The permanent exhibit of photos, videos and archive documents was created to commemorate the almost 900,000 Georgians who were killed or deported during the Soviet years of 1921 to 1991. The fascinating exhibit teaches young Georgians, and reminds older people, of the country’s history as a Soviet Socialist Republic.
9) Wine and Food
Any article about Georgia wouldn’t be complete without mentioning its fabulous food and wine. Be prepared for the local people to press you to eat and drink more of it. And for plenty of toasts, something they are masterful at.
In Tbilisi, you can dip down into the cool cellar wine bar Vino Underground for a tasting of rare natural wines from across Georgia. Sample both reds and whites from different terroirs and regions, paired with light snacks, cheeses and breads. The Vino Underground was established to introduce the new wave of all-natural Georgian wines to the neophyte as well as to the aficionado.
Salobie is a big and casual restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, where the food is served quickly on wooden picnic tables. Local people come here for their signature spicy beans (lobio) and huge plates of khinkali, fresh meat dumplings. This is Georgian street food at its best.
Restaurants where you can experience a prodigious Georgian Feast are plentiful in Tbilisi. For example, Azarpesha is a chic wine restaurant with a classy brick interior decorated with old photos and the huge clay wine vessels called qvevri. The mouth-watering dishes pile up on the table, and keep coming out of the kitchen.
The small, exclusive Barbarestan restaurant is set in an old-fashioned Georgian apartment, furnished with antiques and “Grandma’s old furniture.” The cuisine is a fresh, local, modern take on the 19th century recipes of Duchess Barbara Jorjadze. The extensive wine cellar is from the 19th century as well.
All over Tbilisi, you’ll have the chance to sample some of the most delicious fresh-baked bread in the world.
10) And Song
So much song! You’ve got to hear it to appreciate its rich, ringing harmonies. Georgian vocal music developed independently of Western European rules of harmony, its scales based on fifths rather than octaves, and its intervals not tuned to each other, as Bach dictated in the 18th century. This gives its choral music a fierce and intense sound that sends chills up your spine.
Kind of like the way Tbilisi does.
Travel to Tbilisi, Georgia with MIR
You can sample the food, wine, song, culture, and scenery of Georgia on MIR’s A Taste of Georgia: Wine, Cuisine & Culture.
Or, travel and tour around Georgia and the other South Caucasus countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan, on one of our 3-country small group tours:
You can also opt to travel on your dates and at your pace on one of MIR’s private independent trips or on a private journey of Georgia, customized to your desired dates and style.
Chat with one of our destination specialists by email or by phone at 1-800-424-7289 to start planning your travels now.
Top photo: Flags honoring St. George in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo credit: Michel Behar
PUBLISHED: May 26, 2017