In the days of communism, the Soviets would supposedly go dewy-eyed at the very mention of Georgia — a country of sweeping mountains, Black Sea resorts, grand cities and fine wine. Yet, despite its ongoing popularity with Russians, Tbilisi isn’t a place that relies on nostalgia or historic ties to draw in the crowds.
Since the collapse of communism, the Georgian capital has been going through something of a reinvention, establishing itself as a thoroughly modern metropolis that makes its own rules. And nowhere is this more obvious than in its architecture. There are, of course, some thumping great examples of Soviet building work — notably many of the 1960s metro stations — but over the past decade particularly, the zany has overtaken the functional. Headline-grabbing structures have been springing up — among them the Rike Park Concert Hall and Exhibition Centre. It takes pride of place on the east bank of the Mtkvari River and resembles a giant pair of binoculars. There’s also Tbilisi Public Service Hall, a municipal building with an eccentric, petal-like layered roof. Then, there’s the wavy Peace Bridge, a steel-and-glass pedestrian crossing, erected in 2010, that glows after dark with what must be thousands of LEDs.
The changing cityscape may overtly hammer home the point that Tbilisi does what it wants, but this is a feeling that’s bubbling under the surface, too. Young creatives are reclaiming previously unloved spaces — from disused Soviet-era factories to crumbling Old Town houses — and repurposing them as bars, restaurants, cultural centres and artists’ studios. One particularly cool bar owner tells me, proudly, that even Berliners — the demigods of hipsterdom — are journeying to Tbilisi to road-test the nightlife. “In some of the clubs here, if you tell them you’ve been to [Berlin’s notorious nightclub] Berghain, they’ll let you straight in,” he says.
With no real epicentre for its growing creative scene, this sprawling city can sometimes feel a little disjointed — new openings are dotted around at random, squeezed into whatever space has become available. But that’s no bad thing. Instead, it gives you an excuse to see more of this fast-changing capital.
See & do
Narikala Fortress: Standing atop a steep hill overlooking the city, Narikala was established in the 4th century, around the time Tbilisi itself was founded. Most of the current fortifications date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Take the cable car up from Rike Park and admire the views before following the one-mile trail from the imposing 60ft-high Mother Georgia statue, down into the Old Town.
Old Town: This isn’t your classic historic centre preserved in aspic. Well-kept in some places and a little dilapidated in others, the Old Town gives the impression of being somewhere people actually live, particularly when you wander the winding backstreets. The headline attraction is the higgledy-piggledy clocktower of the Gabriadze Theatre. Designed by the puppet theatre’s eponymous founder, it houses a little angel that pops out to strike a bell on the hour.
Bath district: On the edge of the Old Town, you’ll find a clutch of bathhouses that make use of the natural mineral springs that flow under the city. These sulphur baths are said to ease conditions such as arthritis, and offer a similar experience to Turkish hammams, with soaks, massages and scrubs. You’ll recognise some of the bathhouses by their domed brick roofs, while the most distinctive, Orbeliani, has a grand blue-tiled facade.
Wine tasting: Georgia is home to the world’s oldest wine-making culture, and many producers still use the traditional method of fermenting wine with grape skins and pips in large clay pots. Georgia produces both white and red, most of which are made using native grapes. Kakheti wine country is just east of the capital, and makes for a worthwhile day trip, or you can enjoy a glass in one of the city’s wine bars. Look out for the grappa-like spirit chacha — it’s not for the faint of heart.
Modern architecture: Tbilisi’s weird and wonderful structures have become tourist attractions in their own right. Hit up two in one by crossing the Peace Bridge to get to the twin tubes of the Rike Park Concert Hall, which is surrounded by a manicured riverside garden.
Museum of Georgia: This is a country with a complex past, and this museum provides an excellent — and accessible — overview. Don’t miss the fascinating exhibition on Soviet rule.
Dry Bridge Market: At this daily flea market, Soviet-era antiques, glassware and knives are carefully laid out alongside old electronics and cassette singles from the pop acts of yesteryear — souvenirs with a story.
Fabrika: A former Soviet clothing factory that houses a clutch of independent shops. These include Flying Painter, which sells vintage dresses and modern designs, and Ceramic Studio 1300, where you can watch the artists at work before buying their wares.
17²: Tucked away in a courtyard behind the Museum of Literature, this little store is hard to find but is worth seeking out. It does a strong line in leather goods and quirky jewellery.
Meidan Bazaar: This quaint market, inside a tunnel under the central Meidani Square, is the perfect choice for window shoppers. It’s home to a selection of pretty Georgian rugs, teas, slippers and more that are easy on the eye — but not necessarily on the wallet.
Georgian meals usually involve sharing, with cuisine heavy on fresh herbs, aubergines, tomatoes, nuts and spices. Restaurants here range from no-frills cafes to fine dining, but even the priciest option won’t break the bank.
Sakhachapure No1: Unless you don’t do dairy, you can’t visit Georgia without trying khachapuri. This cheesy bread comes in various forms. At Sakhachapure No1 you can watch the bakers make it in the open kitchen.
Culinarium Khasheria: With local celebrity chef Tekuna Gachechiladze at the helm, this Old Town restaurant serves beautiful, modern Georgian dishes in chic, minimal surroundings. It’s particularly strong on brunch.
Shavi Lomi: It may be a little off the beaten track, but with its wine-cellar style dining room, inviting courtyard and vintage decor, Shavi Lomi is a destination dining spot. The menu features refined takes on classics, such as kebabs with lavash bread.
Like a local
Sweet & sour: Lemonade is a bit of a thing in Tbilisi, with cafes all vying to make the best house version. Sofia Melnikova’s Fantastic Doucan is known for its fresh, zingy rendition, while Cafe Leila serves a lovely minty take on the drink.
On the waterfront: When it gets too hot in the city come summer, locals like to retreat to the lakes on the outskirts of the metropolis. Turtle Lake has a cafe and pedal boats to hire, while Lisi Lake, in the Mtkvari River valley, is home to a variety of birds. There’s also the Tbilisi Sea, a reservoir with a beach that’s the area’s busiest swimming spot.
Mountain high: Reached by funicular, the hilltop Mtatsminda Park is a popular hangout for locals. Families come here to have a go on the kitsch funfair, while in the evenings it’s great for soaking up the twinkling lights of Tbilisi below. Meanwhile, Mzesumzira’s Cafe is a ramshackle spot serving drinks and vegetarian food overlooking the city.
Tbilisi isn’t generally expensive, but accommodation can be disproportionately pricey. Many international chains abound, but there’s also a growing number of excellent, locally owned hotels.
Fabrika: This hip hostel — opened in 2016 — is housed within Tbilisi’s coolest cultural hub. Dorms are basic but clean and modern, while private rooms have a vintage vibe. The hostel hosts various events — from talks to rooftop yoga. Private rooms from US$71 (£54), dorm beds from US$9 (£7), room only.
Iota: New to the city last summer, Iota is a minimalist’s dream inside, while the location — a few minutes’ walk into the Old Town — is ideal for sightseeing. Doubles from US$160 (£121), B&B.
Rooms Hotel: The grande dame of Tbilisi’s design-led hotels, Rooms remains one of the city’s best addresses — it’s where A-listers check in when they’re in town. The decor is eclectic, while the chic bar is popular with locals. Doubles from €195 (£172), B&B.
Tbilisi is fast gaining a reputation for its nightlife, and deservedly so, with a techno scene that’s attracting even the most discerning ravers, and new bars springing up.
Amodi: You’ll have to look carefully to find this hip bar and terrace, which opened last summer in an Old Town back street. But once you locate it you’ll be rewarded with cheap drinks, barbecued bites (weather permitting) and great views of the city. The ambitious young owners are also hoping to add a hostel and club.
Bassiani: The techno beats and anything-goes vibe at this subterranean nightclub have put Tbilisi on the international rave map. Expect the coolest DJs you’ve never heard of and an international, LGBT-friendly crowd.
Vino Underground: Raise a glass or two at this basement bar that specialises in Georgian natural wines. The staff are extremely knowledgeable, and you can order nibbles, too.
Getting there & around
Georgian Airways flies direct from Heathrow to Tbilisi three times a week, but there are also indirect services from the UK. These include Air Baltic via Riga, Pegasus and Turkish Airlines via Istanbul, and Ukraine International Airlines via Kiev.
Central Tbilisi is walkable, but for travelling further afield there’s a small metro network, with 22 stops over two lines, which intersect at the central railway station. Buses and marshrutki (minibuses) are also available, and the Tbilisi Transport Company has a route planner on its website, though you have to be very precise when entering your departure point and destination. Taxis are relatively cheap.
When to go
In winter Tbilisi’s temperature drops to lows of about -2C, while summer tends to highs in the mid-30Cs. The best time to visit is around May/June, and September, when the temperature is more bearable.
Georgia (Bradt Travel Guides). RRP: £16.99
How to do it
Lastminute.com has a four-night break in Tbilisi, including accommodation at Rooms Hotel, B&B, and indirect Turkish Airlines flights from Gatwick from £580 per person.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)