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My Favorite 21 Things to do Tbilisi – Understand
Georgia is the crown jewel of the former Soviet Union; the country that broke apart first has gone the furthest away from its former uberlord. Russians and Ukrainians love Georgia and associate good food with Georgian cuisine, which is is the food to eat in most Russian cities.
A rather tiny country of just under 4 million inhabitants, Georgia has its own languages, currency and set of laws. Georgians are decidedly warmer than anyone else in the former Soviet Empire but still have the Slavic pride-based culture where tempers fly quickly.
Georgia provides incredibly good value, with restaurant meals under $5 per person and most first-world amenities at a much lower price point than in the US. The Georgian Lari trades at 2.5 to the dollar but prices are the same as or often below US nominal values.
Tbilisi is clearly at the crossroads of a strong modernization (like Riga, for example), though the traditional Georgia and the Soviet Union remain.
Tbilisi city dwellers usually speak Georgian (which has its own alphabet) as well as some decent skills in Russian (40+ words) or English (20+ words).
The city has seen a huge influx of new discount airlines bringing visitors from the Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf countries. Tbilisi has always been crowded due to its geography and population density but some places now approach Hong Kong levels.
Tbilisi isn’t as entrepreneurial as the many signs of development there suggest. Development is still driven – largely by huge corporations and the state and the strong sense of self-identity that Georgians feature.
Warning! Like in Batumi and Baku, secondhand smoke in Tbilisi is a huge problem, as smoking is allowed even in many indoor places such as cafes and restaurants. Plus smoking is very common and as there’s no dedicated non-smoking areas in such public places, it can get pretty bad. A ban on indoor public smoking is due here in the summer of 2018 but it’s not soon enough.
My Favorite 21 Things to do Tbilisi – Get Around
Tbilisi does not have Uber and there’s no real public transport besides the Metro. The Metro works but many areas of the city are not covered by a metro line.
Locals use taxis which are marked or unmarked and available everywhere. As with other countries in the region, every car is essentially a taxi and may at times take extra passengers in an ‘Uber’ or ‘UberPOOL’ type deal. This huge competition keeps prices low and you can get almost anywhere for GEL 5 in the city.
I used the Yandex Taxi app (there is an English version now) and selected ‘Comfort Car’, which gave me a decent car most of the time. I also hailed taxis from the street and found drivers useful (though never courteous).
My Favorite 21 Things to do Tbilisi – Safety
Tbilisi is generally a safe city (like most cities in the former Soviet Union). Traffic is usually very aggressive; this is the only town where I’ve seen drivers break out in a fist fight right in front of me. Cutting in line is seen as normal practice and while there’s generally lots of smiles and talk, it can be easy to infuriate someone without noticing.
I wouldn’t walk long stretches all by myself in the city at night, though I wouldn’t think it is overly dangerous.
My Favorite 21 Things to do Tbilisi – Sights
Tbilisi is blessed with a beautiful geography – a river valley that has cut into the green mountains. The small river banks give way to steep hills on both sides.
This looks pretty but also makes getting around tricky, as you find yourself going up and down hills constantly. Roads here mostly follow the river and a bridge needs to be found for most journeys.
ძველი თბილისი (Old Town)
Tbilisi Old Town is really old – untouched by the Soviet planners – so you can explore hundreds of years of slow changes. There are plenty of beautifully restored buildings but many old ones remain in place. Tbilisi has added a number of new, silver architectural dots to the ensemble, like the Bridge of Peace.
It’s a beautiful ensemble that will remind you of Prague from 20 years ago.
Tbilisi’s tourism boom shows most in the Old Town area, where you can now see drunk groups of British men hauling down the streets.
ნარიყალა (Narikala Fortress)
The Narikala Fortress overlooks Tbilisi and is easy to scale by a shiny cable car.
However, the best part of the fortress is the ruins which are not easily accessible by the cable car, so don’t get in line for it and save the fee – just walk up; it looks worse than it is.
ქართლის დედა (Mother of Georgia statue)
10 minutes later, you should be up the hill and can explore the area going up to the Mother of Georgia statue without the crowds.
მეტეხის ტაძარი (Metekhi Church)
This is a small Orthodox church that hovers over the Tbilisi skyline. The church and views are scenic but there is not much to see inside.
მთაწმინდა (Mtatsminda Park)
One of my favorite times in Tbilisi was up on the hill at Mtatsminda Park which can be reached by road (though it’s quite windy) or by funicular.
მამადავითის ეკლესია (Mamadaviti Church)
There is a lovely Orthodox church called Mamadaviti near the valley station. If you make it up to the church you will be able to get the funicular for free from the mid station.
Mtasminda Park has gotten much more lively compared to a few years ago and all the rides are now back in place. It’s well done and a great mix of a Soviet and a modern amusement park. The park gets crazy crowds on weekend days, with people escaping the valley heat for almost 3,000 feet in elevation.
ფუნიკულიორის კომპლექსი (Funicular Complex)
The Funicular Complex has great food for shockingly low prices and with a view of the valley. It’s wonderful way to spend a sunset!
You won’t be the only one trying their best to pronounce the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Svetitskhoveli in the nearby city of Mtskheta. The cathedral is allegedly where Jesus Christ’s mantle is buried. It’s a great little sight and there is no entrance fee.
Up the hill is the impressive monastery of Jvari, which looks fantastic from the valley and offers scenic views. The monastery itself is rather minimalist, though.
თბილისის ეროვნული პარკი (Tbilisi National Park)
It has been said that the best part of Tbilisi is the mountains; go no further than the National Park if you have only a few days in the city.
My Favorite 21 Things to do Tbilisi – Eat & Drink
As with other former Soviet Union towns, food and drink items are clearly average here. Competition hasn’t run its magic and separated the great from the average or the bad much. I actually found that some places in Russia (in Yekaterinburg and Moscow) now excel more at Georgian food than what you can find in Tbilisi.
There is good Georgian food in Tbilisi – no doubt – but it usually won’t make you giddy enough to want to go back the next day. It’s too salty, too greasy and not as fresh as it could be. It’s cheap as hell, though!
The vibe in this cellar dining room isn’t ideal but the owners have come up with some great spins on Georgian cuisine. I loved the vegetable barbecue plate.
კაფე გაბრიაძე (Café Gabriadze)
Café Gabriadze is part of the Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theatre complex but is a destination in its own right. It has great staff and a great location under the clock tower, as well the city’s best coffee and Georgian donuts.
Chashnagiri offers solid Georgian cuisine. The portions are huge, so order just half what you would normally.
Barbarestan is what happens when you take Georgian food upscale. It has a cozy ambience and was named after the country’s first feminist, Barbare Jorjadze. The food and wine is excellent here but expect to pay US prices for it (slightly less than NYC).
Another option for traditional Georgian cuisine is Tabla. The dining hall lacks atmosphere but the food is good. It is hard to remember anything special about it, though.
დაბლბი (Double B)
This new outlet of the Russian coffee chain is a cold oasis on a hot Tbilisi day. It’s very modern, as is the vibe. The coffee is just OK, though, and there are no pastries. What…
I missed an opportunity to go there. Try it out please!
Entrée is a local bakery chain – nothing great but it offers decent sandwiches and desserts all over town.
ლუკა პოლარე (Luca Polare)
Luca Polare is the city’s ice cream chain. It’s well-rated but won’t create special memories for a seasoned traveler.
This French-inspired bakery chain has an outlet in Tbilisi, too. It’s a sign of the limited bakery/coffee shop landscape to list this chain outlet here, though.
ახალი მზიური (Akhali Mziuri)
Hidden in a public park down a canyon is this great, bright spot. There is a lovely indoor/outdoor patio and fast WiFi. The coffee is just average, though – no surprise there.
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About the author: Torsten is a serial entrepreneur who started almost a dozen ventures on four continents. Torsten's love for travel has brought him to 130+ countries and travel with most of the world's airlines. You can reach Torsten at [email protected]
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