Probably not high up your travel list, Georgia is a country few know much about. Yet, it’s a beautiful, unexplored country, and with it’s old cobble-stoned streets, soviet-era markets, and plentiful (and affordable) bars, restaurants, hotels and apartments, the capital Tbilisi is one of the most underrated cities in the world. Here are 10 things to do in Tbilisi.
1 – GET LOST IN THE OLD TOWN
In the centre of the city, on the banks of the Kura river and at the base of Mount Mtatsminda, lies Tbilisi’s historic Old Town. I love the oldest districts of nearly every city in the world, and Tbilisi’s is genuinely one of my favourites. Although most of the city was destroyed in the Persian invasion in the late 18th century, you’ll still find plenty of beautiful old buildings, many made out of wood, with colourful balconies lining the narrow streets. It’s a lovely area to just wonder around. Take a stroll from Liberty Square up to Narikala Fortress to see the best of the Old Town, stopping off at “Hogwarts School“, past Puris Moedani and up Gomi then Betlemi Street, before the leg-burning climb up to Narakala fortress.
2 – SEE THE CITY FROM NARIKALA FORTRESS
Prominently overlooking the old town, Narikala Fortress (‘Narikala’ literally means “little fortress” in Mongol) was built in the 4th century by the Persians, and although now it isn’t much more than a few barely-standing walls, it’s only a short (but steep) walk from the old town and offers fantastic views of Tbilisi, especially at sunset. From here you have the option to walk down the other side of the hill from the Old Town to the Botanical Gardens too.
3 – SAMEBA CATHEDRAL
A short walk from the old town lies one of the world’s largest churches (by total area) and, even in the eyes of a staunch atheists such as myself, a genuinely impressive structure. Built over nine years and completed in 2004, Sameba Cathedral is (in my limited experience of churches) pretty unique in it’s design – and, a Tbilisi native was telling me, is loved and hated in equal measure by locals. Whichever side of the fence you are on, it’s shear size and scale, particularly peering up at the roof from within, is pretty staggering. It’s also in the nice old district of Avlabari which is worth a stroll around en-route.
4 – PEACE BRIDGE
Another divisive structure is one of the most prominent in the city, stretching 150 metres across the Kura river. The Peace Bridge certainly cannot be missed, especially at night, when 1208 LEDs light the thing up like a space ship. One of it’s less favourable nick names is the “Always Ultra” bridge, named after it’s appearance as a maxi-pad. It certainly stands out, a futuristic white structure wedged between two old districts of Tbilisi, but personally, I think it pulls it off; it’s modern without being gaudy. I kinda love it.
5 – LIBERTY SQUARE
The cultural centre of Old Town, Liberty Square is where you’ll find about as much of a “hubbub” as there is in Tbilisi. It’s the focal point of the old town and is a good starting point for any walk around the old town. The centre of the square is home to a statue of Saint George, the patron Saint of Georgia (as well as many other countries around the world, including England). If you’re looking for a place to stay and can’t decide on an area, there are plenty of hostels, hotels and Airbnb apartments around here and it’s a good place to base yourself.
6 – DRY BRIDGE FLEA MARKET
I love a bit of a rummage, and the flea market that appears just across the river from the old town every day is a goodun. Full of Soviet-era bits n bobs, random ancient electronics, cutlery, and even some art, this is where you’ll see a very genuine and real side of Georgia; people selling what they have to make ends meet. If you’re into soviet history and/or (like myself) enjoy picking up thousand of trinkets to adorn every available flat surface in your home, you came to the right place.
7 – EAT WAY TOO MUCH KHACHAPURI
You can’t go to Georgia without eating Khachapuri, and Tbilisi is where you’ll find some of the best Khachapuri in the country. Essentially a flattened loaf of fresh, doughy bread, with a hollowed out hole, filled with cottage cheese and topped off with egg and butter (before being baked in a brick oven). Rules of engagement are to gradually pick off the edges of the warm bread, dipping it in the melted cheese and egg in the centre, until it’s all gone. It’s hearty, carby, and about as filling as it gets. A good place to have your first Khachapuri experience is at Sakhachapure #1. It’s just up the road from Liberty Square, has an English menu and serves beer and wine in a nice, open, clean space just off the main road. The Ponchi is pretty good here too.
8 – TASTE GEORGIAN WINE AT 8000 VINTAGES
A little known fact is that wine was being drunk in the Georgia long before it touched the lips of any Europeans. Georgian wine has been in production for at least 8000 – yes, 8000 – years, and while it hasn’t made it big on the international stage, some 15 million bottles are exported every year, mostly to Russia and other ex-Soviet countries. I’m far from a wine-expert, but I love Georgian wine and one of my favourite places to “wine away” a couple of hours is at 8000 vintages, which has hundreds of locally produced bottles and is home to a very knowledgeable and friendly expert who will happily sit down and offer a very reasonably-priced tasting. The meat + cheese platters are ruddy lovely (and a bargain) too.
9 – TAKE A TRIP TO KAZBEGI
Three hours by minibus or two-ish hours by taxi from Tbilisi, Kazbegi is a small village that is actually called Stepantsminda. A Soviet-leaning lord (called Kazbegi) named the place after himself in the early 19th Century and it was only in 2006 when the town renamed itself (in my time in Georgia I never heard anyone refer to it with it’s correct name though!). Surrounded by snow-capped mountains and at the base of the 5033m Mount Kazbek (notably a dormant volcano), the village makes up for in scenery what it lacks in size and infrastructure. Don’t expect too many 5-star hotels or fast Wifi here; it’s all about the trekking – and there are plenty of hikes to keep you entertained. The most common trek takes you up to the beautiful Gergeti Trinity Church, overlooking the town, and if you’re feeling strong, crack on up the mountain all the way to the Gergeti Glacier. The views are absolutely stunning and it’s perfectly doable solo.
10 – AND IF YOU HAVE TIME… NIGHT TRAIN TO YEREVAN
It was only because of a bad weather forecast (which ruined my hiking plans) that I ended up spending a couple of days in Armenia, and it quickly became one of my new favourite countries. Relatively unexplored, barely any tourists, and probably at the bottom of the list for most travelers, it isn’t a place many would make a point of journeying to. But it’s thoroughly worth the trip. There is a comfortable and convenient night train that travels between Tbilisi and Yerevan, and the city, with the incredible Mount Ararat right next door, is bristling with culture. If at all possible, spend at least a couple of days here, learn about the astonishingly brutal history of this country, and if you can, see some of the surrounding countryside – it’s genuinely incredible. Read my post on 10 things to do in Yerevan if you do make the journey.
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