The cabbie gesticulated wildly at me as I approached. “No more bus! Eight o’clock!” as he pushed another tourist and me to get into his car. We were the only ones standing at the bus stop outside Shota Rustaveli Tbilisi International Airport, and it was so early the sun hadn’t even risen.
I’d been at the airport for hours, killing time by getting a SIM card, some local currency, and having whatever meal a bowl of soup and a beer at 4:00 a.m. can be called. Now, I was ready to go into the city and check into my apartment, but first… this guy.
“No taxi, thank you,” we kept insisting, and eventually he began to walk away. Then the laws of karma kicked in and the bus approached. “Ai!” I shouted, waving at the departing cabbie and gesturing towards the bus. “The bus! It’s a miracle!”
Spirits high, I piled my bags onto a seat and scrunched in, watching the darkened city streets roll past as we made our way into town. It’s hard to form an opinion of a place when you’ve only seen it under a cloak of darkness — when the hustle and bustle of life has ebbed and you can’t see beyond the building facades lit by street lamps. My first impression of Tbilisi would have to wait until later.
There was a huge moon over the western mountains, and it made the city seem even more mysterious and old, and the great black castle on the ridge stood out in front of the moon…John Steinbeck
I arrived at my apartment early, too early to check in, so I grabbed some space on the curb and studied some more Georgian. A stray dog walked warily by, and I managed to coax it close enough for an ear scratch. After a minute of this, we were fast friends, and my new buddy came back to check on me later all dopily excited and waggy-tailed.
My apartment was a pleasant surprise, even with my admittedly high expectations. I’d booked via AirBnB, and was excited to be a bit removed from the main part of the city and to have my own cozy little space. When Tekla, the owner’s daughter, showed me in, I immediately felt relaxed and happy with my decision. It was perfect.
SIGN UP HERE for AirBnB and get a travel credit towards your first stay.
I was due to meet my friend Nino at 11:00 and managed to let enough time slip away so as to guarantee my tardiness. Luckily she was more than gracious and didn’t mind me showing up at Freedom Square a full 30 minutes after we were supposed to meet. Thank goodness I had a phone!
We set off on a whirlwind tour of the city, stepping into a number of old stone churches and even managing to disrupt a funeral (oops!). These old churches have a style distinct to Georgia known as the cross-dome style. The frescoes and art inside are a blend of scenes from Christian stories and Georgian history, with tales of martyrdom a common thread.
After one such church, we boarded the cable car and soared over the Kura river to the Narikala Fortress (ნარიყალა), which sits atop a hill over the city. Built in the 4th century, Narikala has been destroyed, rebuilt, and expanded a great deal over the centuries. The on-site church was originally built in the 13th century, but was burnt down and only reconstructed in the last 20 years. Extensive history aside, the views of Tbilisi from Narikala and the connecting trails are stunning.
No tour of a city is complete without food, and Nino had a special place in mind. We went to Samikitno and ordered way too much khinkali (ხინკალი) and khachapuri (ხაჭაპური), as well as some tasty red wine to wash it down.
Khinkali is Georgia’s version of dumplings and is best eaten with your hands. To properly eat khinkali, grab the twisted end, bite off a small piece and drink the broth inside, then eat the remainder at your leisure. Some people don’t eat the twisted ends, as they are just dense dough, but you can if you like.
Khachapuri — a holy (or unholy, depending on the quality of your character) blend of dough and cheese — is also eaten with your hands and is a little bit of heaven come to Earth. Combined with my lunch the next day of ghomi (ღომი) and kharcho (ხარჩო), I’ve had an excellent introduction to Georgian cuisine, and I’m stoked for more food-ventures!
*PRO TIP* For a truly amazing meal, check out Salobie Bia (სალობიე ბია). That’s where I got the ghori and kharcho pictured above (it looks like someone pooed in oatmeal, but tastes MUCH better). The inside is artsy and chic, the service is great, and the food is so good you’ll be licking your plate after. Be sure to get the tarragon cream dessert for a uniquely Georgian treat!
The end of our first day was almost a dud, as the cable car up to the funicular was out of order, but we salvaged it with mulled wine and baked apple treats at a nice little cafe. Unfortunately, I managed to devastate the bathroom before realizing the toilet didn’t flush. My first instinct was, “Leave now, and never come back!”, but I did the right thing and let the poor girl at the counter know… warning her to, “PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON’T OPEN THE LID.”
After an invigorating 15+ hours of sleep, I met Nino again in town for a friend’s art exhibit, then we carried on to an old sewing factory repurposed as the hipster paradise Fabrika. Filed with swanky little restaurants, bars, and even a co-working space, Fabrika is one of the coolest hangout spots in the city and a great place to wile a night away with friends.
Our last stop for the night was Creator Bar, a mysterious-looking joint I’d spotted on our walk the previous day and immediately fallen in love with due solely to its other-worldly entrance. It turns out, a friend of Nino’s named Dmitri was playing sax at a jazz show that night, so we stopped by and enjoyed an hour of acoustic guitar, saxophone, and jazzy vocals. The band was awesome, but Dmitri’s daughter stole the show every time she got up on stage to sing with her daddy.
So, after two whirlwind days, what is my impression of Tbilisi? I love it. I love the history, the architecture, the twisted little streets. I’ve been blown away by how welcoming the people are, and Georgian food is just delicious. I love the art scene and how easy it is to stumble across local music (seriously, just find a street corner in a well-trafficked area). I love my cozy little apartment, with its cute kitchen and teeny balcony… To sum it all up, I’m so glad I took the plunge coming here and can’t wait to see what the next four months have in store. Bring on the adventure, Georgia 🙂
How about you? Have you ever been to Tbilisi? What did you think? What were some of your favorite spots? Let me know in the comments below!
P.S. HUGE thank you to Nino for being so generous with her time and showing an exhausted Nathan all over the city. My first impression of Tbilisi would’ve been so, so, so different if we hadn’t met!