Tucked away beneath the Caucasus mountains, Tbilisi, Georgia (თბილისი) is a gritty capital city undergoing a rapid transformation. Straddled between the mighty empires of Europe and Asia, the city has had a turbulent history since being founded in the 5th century. But the tough Georgians have survived and today the sprawling city is home to over 1.5 million people. Today the crumbling old town is being restored street by street and slick modern developments are appearing along the river banks.
Tbilisi’s old town, with it’s crumbling streets and buildings teetering on collapse, is an absolute gem. Stately homes in ruins for decades lean dangerously over narrow streets and hidden courtyards alive with greenery can be found all over the old town.
In it’s heyday, traders from all over Europe and the Middle East settled here to do business. Their cultural influences can be seen in the eclectic array of homes and places of worship. At the edge of the old town, next to the ornate Jewish synagogue, little domes can be seen poking out from the ground. These are the ancient sulphur baths built by Ottomans, which continue to welcome visitors looking to relax for a couple of hours.
The old town is undergoing rapid change, with beautiful homes sadly being demolished or poorly restored, so I recommend that you get there quickly. It’s only a matter of time before the traditional characteristics of this neighbourhood are lost forever!
Narikala Fortress & Kartvlis Deda
There are sweeping views of Tbilisi from the Narikala Fortress, which was originally a Persian citadel when it was built in the 4th century. Much of the fort, which had been extended and rebuilt by Turks and Georgians, was destroyed in an explosion in 1827. It’s not the most exciting fort/castle you’ll see, but the views over the city are worth it.
A new cable car rises up to the fortress from the opposite side of the river, and drops you off beside the impressive statue of Kartvlis Deda, The Mother of Georgia. Erected in 1958, in her left hand are grapes for friends, in the other – a sword for her enemies. Are you a friend, or an enemy?
Saturday Dry Bridge Market
One of the most genuine flea markets you’ll come across in Europe. This fantastic market is a goldmine for bargain hunters and antique collectors – everything from historical memorabilia, antique chandeliers, artwork and bizarre Soviet electronics are on display.
Many of the sellers are elderly, on small pensions and sadly selling their heirlooms simply to get by in their old age. Prize finds include tribal swords and daggers, unique to Georgia and forged over 100 years ago. If you don’t speak Georgian or Russian, bring along a notepad or phone, as haggling is a must. Get some food into your stomach before you go. You’ll need it as a lot of sellers insist you also try their homemade Cha-cha. You cannot decline the offer – even at 9:30AM!
What to Buy? – Kantsi (traditional drinking goat horns), Swords/Daggers (maybe check with your airline first), Soviet Military memorabilia, antique metalware
Day Trip To Mtskheta
Mtskheta (მცხეთა) is small town on the edge of Tbilisi, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was the original capital of Georgia in the 3rd century. Today the Svetitskhoveli (The Life Giving Pillar) Cathedral is the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church. It’s a fascinating church and is home to numerous relics including (apparently) Jesus’s robe.
The town centre is immaculate and it’s accessibility makes it a great destination for an escape from the city. Mtskheta is well known for it’s wine and there are a handful of restaurants offering some of the finest food and wine in Georgia at remarkably cheap prices.
Get there: Regular marshrutka from Didube Metro Station. Go into the chaotic bus yard and pay 1GEL at the ticket office. You’ll be pointed in the vague direction of the correct marshurka (just ask people where it is). Journey takes 25 minutes but look out for the Mtskheta (მცხეთა) road sign as the bus continues north.
Stay:We decided to stayed one night in Mtskheta at the Tamarindi guesthouse, which was the most pleasant stay we had in Georgia. They ply you with tea and cake on arrival! And to top it off, breakfast is on their stunning terrace overlooking the cathedral. (55GEL for double room)
Eat: The Georgian Yard is in a pretty refurbished farmhouse near the cathedral. It’s popular with locals and visitors and has an open BBQ. They serve local wines and as always in Georgia, delicious food. Example price – 7GEL for BBQ calf kebab / 1.70GEL for lemonade.