Tbilisi is easily my most favorite city in Caucasus. It is an ancient city, nestled in a valley along the banks of the majestic, but impossible-to-pronounce, Mtkvari River. The city, although surrounded by towering mountains, manages to maintain a temperate climate that keeps it relatively warm, even in February, when the mountains roads are blocked by snow. It is perhaps because of its temperate climate that Tbilisi has long attracted the envy of the numerous empires that have passed through its wall. From Persians, to Turks, to Russians, and even the brief Georgian Empire, numerous cultures have left their mark and turned Tbilisi into a melting pot of culture and learning, something even 70 years of monolithic Soviet rule couldn’t stamp out.
During the Soviet era, Georgia was one of the USSR’s hottest travel destinations (both in temperature and popularity), and Tbilisi was its center. Sadly, the civil wars, poverty, and other internal strife that tore apart the country not only ruined Tbilisi’s travel business, but left many of its most precious sights in ruins. Since the Rose Revolution just a few years ago, however, Georgia has seemed to be on its way to peace and prosperity, leaving behind corrupt post-Soviet politics and reinvesting in tourism. What that means for the traveler is that you will find a city that has just started to realize its tourism potential, a city full of magnificent sights and wonderful people who will make it their duty to ensure you leave Tbilisi loving it as much as I did.
Your first impressions of Tbilisi may depend on what the weather is like. If the sun is shining (as it usually is), the city’s red roofs will glimmer and the stone bridges over the Mtkvari will sparkle, but if it is grey and cloudy, then some of the city’s more depressing aspects may appear. There is no other way of saying it, Tbilisi has a decrepit feel to it. A stroll through the Old Town will reveal buildings with crumpling foundations and holes in the roofs, buildings that are barely shadows of their former glory, but to me, it is that slight decrepit nature that gives the city such a distinct charm. The greatest joy of Tbilisi is just wandering around the cobblestone streets of the Old City, admiring the tangled network of buildings and stairs. The buildings may look as if they would fall over with the slightest breeze, but the people still live in them, and they seem to be in no rush to renovate.
The old city is no doubt where you will spend much of your time while in Tbilisi, for it is the most interesting section and houses the best sights. The center of the Old City is bathhouse district, a string of bathhouses built over sulphur springs where you can get a bath for $2 (see separate entry). Moving beyond that, you will find a series of streets just waiting to be explored, streets that house numerous churches and fantastic architectural pieces. Or you can stop by the synagogue, in front of which you will always find three or four old Jewish ladies commenting on the goings on of the day. The synagogue is a testament to Tbilisi’s multicultural past, when over 9,000 Jews lived in the city. The numbers today are closer to 3,000, but the community is still vibrant and the caretakers of the synagogue will be happy to show you the building and their adjoining matzah factory, which was pumping out loads of wafers for Passover during my visit.
From the Old City, you can take the short hike up to the omnipresent Narikale, the old fortress that keeps watch over Tbilisi. While nothing but the walls remain, the fortress still affords the best views of the city and the surrounding mountains, especially on a sunny day.
From the fortress, you can continue on to the statue of Mother Georgia, a large silver statue of a woman holding a wine cup in one hand (to represent Georgian hospitality) and a sword in the other (to represent Georgia’s fighting spirit), a perfect reminder that Georgians, while some of the most hospitable on Earth, are not ones to be crossed.
Marching back down the hill, you can swing by the one mosque in Tbilisi, a nondescript brick building that, from the outside, looks less than impressive, but on the inside, is painted in wonderful light blues and greens. The gruff-looking men hanging around the entrance may look intimidating, but with just a quick hello, you will find them incredibly excited to greet tourists. The clientele is mostly Azeris, an oft-forgotten minority in Georgia, so they appreciate the attention.
Outside the Old City, Tbilisi still houses numerous museums that will delight, my favorite being the Money Museum, which houses a collection of old and new coinage and bills from Alexander, to the Persians, to Soviet days. Tbilisi also is home to an opera house and a couple of art museums showcasing Georgian artists.
For shoppers, Tbilisi will not disappoint. Despite a number of higher-end boutiques, Tbilisi has numerous stores featuring local crafts, but the shopping highlight is no doubt the weekend market that appears on the city’s bridges. Here you will find everything from antiques, to records, to crafts and artwork, and maybe even a few Soviet relics.
Once night falls, Tbilisi showcases perhaps the best nightlife in the Caucasus. With a large ex-pat community, Tbilisi has no shortage of lovely bars and cafés, but the highlight is the cuisine. Numerous Georgian restaurants are available to introduce you to the delicious local cuisine, but if you want to do it right, make friends with a Georgian, and without a doubt, you will be soon invited to a supra, the traditional Georgian feast at which the wine flows, the toasts are long, and the company is spectacular (see separate entry). Georgians will find any reason to celebrate, and no doubt having a foreign visitor will be excuse enough to throw an elaborate dinner where you will be the guest of honor.
So that is Tbilisi, city once plagued by daytime robberies and kidnappings, which has put its recent dark past behind it and is eager to welcome willing visitors with open arms. Enjoy it.