I love exploring cities on my own. Arriving in a new place, getting a map or guidebook, picking a direction to wander, and just… meandering through the city is one of my favorite things to do. But as fun as it can be to explore a destination by yourself, sometimes having an insider’s perspective can improve your experience of a place. That’s why, when I heard about Tbilisi Hack Free Tours, I was interested in the prospect of doing a walking tour of the city.
I was able to go yesterday and had a blast! Here is my Tbilisi Hack Free Tour review, along with some cool pictures from the route 😉
We met at noon in front of the Burberry shop in Freedom Square. Finding the group was easy, and we only had to wait a few extra minutes for some stragglers to show up. Once all were present, our fearless leader, Anya, filled us in on her three simple rules…:
- Maintain eye contact with approaching drivers and act confident when crossing the street.
- Avoid eye contact with stray dogs (as they’ll follow the group all over town if given food or belly rubs)
- Avoid eye contact with beggars by churches (as they can be extremely pushy, and often don’t need the money)
…and we set off towards our first destination: a Catholic church. While Georgia isn’t known for its Catholicism, that church set a good baseline for first-time visitors to Georgia with which to compare Georgian Orthodox churches. After a short talk in the Cathedral, we visited two Orthodox churches, Jvaris Mama (ჯვარის მამა) and The Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition (სიონის ღვთისმშობლის მიძინების ტაძარი).
Jvaris Mama, below, is a smaller affair with beautiful paintings inside and a number of icons as well. The artist there was Georgian, so the paintings inside show the saints as having distinctly Georgian characteristics, while the Sioni Cathedral, pictured above, had many of its frescoes painted by a Russian painter, leading to a distinctly Slavic appearance for its saints.
We made our way through the streets of the Old Town under the watchful eye of Mother Georgia looking down from her perch over the city. Similar to other Soviet statues in Armenia, Ukraine, etc., Mother Georgia is unique in that she holds a goblet of wine in addition to her sword. To the enemy: Georgia is ready. To friends and weary travelers: Georgia welcomes you. Or, if you combine the meanings: Drink or die!
Take your pick.
We paused for a minute on the street in front of an odd little statue. I knew the significance of it thanks to my friend Nino, so was able to tell the group about the Georgian tamada (თამადა), or toastmaster. A tamada is responsible for choosing the subject of toasts at a supra (სუფრა), or Georgian feast, and leads the toasting for the duration of the night. This statue is shown with the traditional qantsi (ყანწი), or horn, used to drink wine.
Near the tamada was a nondescript stairwell leading below street level. Anya led us inside, and we’d barely started our descent before the tantalizing aroma of freshly-baked bread wafted up from the bottom of the stairs. A bakery.
The oldest bakery in the city, this one gave us a great chance to watch shotis puri (შოთის პური) being made firsthand. This style of bread is unique, as is the oven it is baked in. A large, circular clay oven called a tone (თონე) is used, and the bread is placed on the wall of the oven to cook. This gives the bread a unique taste, and it’s best eaten warm and steaming — freshly pulled from the oven wall.
We headed across the Peace Bridge (the story behind which must wait for a later post) and boarded the cable car to visit Mother Georgia and my favorite part of the city: Narikala Fortress.
I hadn’t been able to climb to the top of the fortress on my first visit, so I took the chance to scamper onto the old fortifications and soak in the jaw-dropping view of the city. The fortress is in a heavy state of disrepair and was most recently ravaged by a 19th-century earthquake. There’s a pleasant, although slightly disconcerting, lack of safety bars and signs, so I was extra careful as I picked my vantage points.
We made our way down from the fortress to the last stop of our tour: the sulfurous waterfall which fuels Tbilisi’s famous sulfur baths.
The name ‘Tbilisi’ comes from the Georgian meaning ‘warm location’, which is pretty on the nose for a place with thermal activity. As the legend goes, King Vakhtang I Gorgasali of Georgia was out hunting and wounded a pheasant, which fell into one of the springs. When he retrieved the bird, it had been cooked. He was pretty tickled at the notion of a river that cooks food and decided to found a city there.
We snapped a group picture, then went to a nearby square to say our goodbyes and wrap up the tour. After the group dispersed, Anya led some of us to a nearby restaurant to sample some Georgian wines, showing us some cool little spots along the way.
So, now time for a verdict. How was the tour?
TL;DR: Awesome! I absolutely recommend joining a Tbilisi Hack Free Tour when you arrive in Tbilisi.
Very quickly, a clarification. Tbilisi Hack Free Tour IS technically free. There is no cost to join. It is, however, expected that you tip your guide at the end of the tour if you enjoyed the experience. I love that business model, as you pay what you can, or what you wish. I thought this was handled very well, in that it was no pressure to tip or even mention of doing so. All that happened was that, as the tour ended, each of us quietly slipped Anya some money as thanks.
As far as Anya’s performance as a guide, she was stellar! She knew a lot about the locations we visited and shared cool historical facts and stories pertaining to them, as well as personal tales of her time in the city. She was funny, patient, and I thought she did an excellent job guiding the group — she never made us feel rushed but kept things moving along so that the tour didn’t consume our entire day. Thanks for a great time, Anya!
Have you ever done a walking tour of Tbilisi (or another city)? What was your experience? Tell me about it in the comments below!