Tbilisi has been my home for the past 2 months, and I’ve enjoyed exploring it and (mostly) eating as much delicious food as possible. It’s a great city for foodies, history buffs, music connoisseurs, and winos alike — all things which made this city a fun one to call home. I’ve put together most of my favorites in this Tbilisi City Guide, hopefully, you’ll enjoy these spots as much as I did!
A *VERY* Brief History
Tbilisi is the capital city of Georgia and home to some 1.5 million people, nearly half of the country’s population. Founded in the 5th century during the Iberian Empire, the city gets its name from the hot springs still used to heat the city’s baths — ‘T’bilisi’ literally means ‘warm location’.
Tiflis is a like kind of Janus: one face towards Asia, and the other — Europe.Zakavkazski Vestnik
At various points in history, Tbilisi was attacked, conquered, and/or occupied by the Byzantines, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Mongols, Persians, and (finally) Soviets. While it has been swiftly modernizing since gaining its independence from the USSR in 1991 and the following Revolution of the Roses in 2003, the city still contains an intriguing blend of elements of these other cultures, making it a great place to wander and see what’s around the next bend.
What to See
Tbilisi is full of exciting things to do and see, so I’ve listed some of my favorites for you to check out. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so get out there and explore some new places too!
The Tbilisi Sea and the Chronicle of Georgia
Just north of the city is a huge reservoir known as the Tbilisi Sea. A local favorite in the summer, it’s a great place to come and soak your feet in the water while enjoying a classic Georgian picnic. The water’s great for swimming, so bring your suit!
Overlooking the sea is a huge monument to the history and heroes of Georgian politics and religion. The massive columns stand over 30 meters tall and make you feel positively minuscule as you wander through their midst. Designed by the Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, this monument is loved by some and hated by others but is definitely worth checking out if you have the time.
Narikala Fortress and Mother Georgia
Perhaps the most distinctive sight in Tbilisi is that of Narikala Fortress perched overlooking the streets of the Old Town. Initially constructed in the 4th century and expanded upon later, it has been damaged by armies and earthquakes over the years. Still, enough remains to explore — try taking the cable car up from across the river for the best approach!
Further along the ridge is a huge Soviet statue, Kartli Deda, or Mother Georgia. 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!
Georgian Orthodox Cathedrals
Located on the hillside just below Narikala and Mother Georgia, Bethlemi Cathedral is a must-visit purely for the view from its peaceful courtyard. There are few better places from which to watch the sunset, and it’s not uncommon to see couples curled up on the benches together looking out as the city lights up. Check behind the church for a trail which switchbacks up the hill to Mother Georgia and the other direction for a nice mini-hike.
One of the main centers in the Georgian Orthodoxy before the massive Sameba Cathedral was built between 1995 and 2004, the Sioni Cathedral remains an important bastion of the faith, and is one of the most visited religious sites in Tbilisi. The frescoes inside were painted by a Russian artist, giving the figures a distinct Slavic look when compared to other Georgian frescoes.
Nearby Sioni is Jvaris Mama, a smaller, more tranquil affair with a wooded courtyard perfect for sitting in. Step inside to see frescoes which contrast greatly in style to those in Sioni — the figures in these are distinctly Caucasian since they were painted by a Georgian artist.
At some point during your visit to Tbilisi, you’ll be sure to notice the massive TV tower crowning a hill to the southwest. A relic from Soviet times, the tower stands 274 meters tall and is still in use. There is more than just the tower atop the hill, though, as it’s the location of Mtatsminda Park and one of the best views in the city. Go just before sunset and drink some mulled wine at the fancy Funicular Restaurant as you watch the sun go down.
Tbilisi Botanical Garden
Hidden behind Narikala fortress is a verdant treasure in the form of The National Botanical Garden of Georgia. Occupying a large gorge, the garden covers about 140 hectares and is home to a large number of plant species. It’s a favorite among locals for a picnic and has some good trails leading past waterfalls, zen gardens, and more.
What to Do
Anyone planning a trip to Tbilisi would be remiss to omit these activities, so make sure you plan accordingly!
Soak in a Sulfur Bath at Gulo’s Thermal Spa
There are a number of spas for people to choose from in Tbilisi, most of which offer long soaks in the stinking, sulfurous water which gave Tbilisi its name. Many locals go with the public bath option, but most foreigners spring for a private room, costing anywhere from 30 to upwards of 100 GEL. Prices are for one hour and are for the room, so grab a few friends and split the cost! Bathers have the option to get a scrub and/or a massage — each costing 10 GEL extra. Do it. The amount of dead skin which sloughs off with each bucketful of egg-water sloshed over you is impressive, to say the least. Afterward, in the words of my masseuse, you’ll be “…squeaky clean!”
I went to Gulo’s Thermal Spa and was very happy with the experience. The basic private room cost me 40 GEL, with an additional 20 GEL for the massage and sponge bath. I recommend booking the room over the phone or in person — they weren’t very responsive over social media. And you WILL need to book in advance… these places are popular!
PRO TIP: Check out this great post by Wander Lush about navigating the Tbilisi bathhouse scene!
Do a Wine-Tasting at Vino Underground
Georgians love their wine, and they’ve been making it for thousands of years. They use a special clay pot known as a qvevri to ferment the wine, giving it a unique taste. You can try Georgian wine in just about every restaurant, and nearly every home. For a comprehensive tasting experience of some of the best wines Georgian has to offer, try doing a wine tasting at one of Tbilisi’s MANY wine cellars.
I chose Vino Underground based off of a friend’s recommendation and was not disappointed. I was served a nice platter of slices of bread and cheeses and given one white, one rose, one amber, and one red wine to sample. If you are particularly taken with one variety, you can order another glass or a bottle, and there are a number of food dishes available as well!
Thanks to Daniele over at Cycloscope for the killer recommendation!
Ride the Funicular up to Tsatsminda
You can drive up to Mtatsminda Park, but what’s the fun in that? There’s a funicular which runs from the base of Mtatsminda Mountain up to the top, letting tourists get a slightly unsettling view of the city as they’re pulled back up the mountain. It may not pair well with a fear of heights, but it’s well worth the 2-3 GEL fee.
Take the Cable Car to Narikala or Turtle Lake
Another height-based activity involves taking one of several cable cars up to either Narikala Fortress or Turtle Lake. Both are impressive, though the Turtle Lake cable car is a longer ride and saves you a lot more effort than the Narikala one does.
See Some Live Music
Music is a vital part of Georgian life, and the percentage of Georgians who are skilled singers and/or musicians is very impressive. Since Tbilisi is the best place for Georgian musicians to gain notoriety, you can find live music just about every night of the week. Creator Bar is a cozy little spot with live music every night, cool decor, and cheap craft beer — it’s my favorite place in town. For jazz music, check out Singers in Old Town. Other venues, like 9 Mountains and MacLaren’s have live music as well, so put your feelers out and find out what’s happening when you visit town!
Pro Tip: Check out the Tbilisi Hack Free Tour on your first day to knock a few of these destinations off the list AND give yourself a great feel for the city. CLICK HERE to read my review of the tour and get a cheeky preview.
Where to Eat
Tbilisi is a foodie’s paradise, and there are tons of restaurants you’ve got to visit if you go. I’ve put together five of my favorite Georgian restaurants in the city, but there are plenty more to choose from!
My favorite restaurant in the city, Salobie Bia serves up some fantastic, modern twists on Georgian traditional foods. Its interior decor is spot on and features a rotating selection of local art. Service is friendly, the menus are in English, and the food is absolutely amazing. I recommend the ghomi and kharcho (ღომი ხარჩო)!
Another great spot for a modern spin on Georgian food, Ezo stands out with its huge outdoor courtyard that makes lunch a special experience. Get a group of friends and enjoy the fresh air and shade as you stuff yourselves full of chashushuli (ჩაშუშული) and other dishes, you won’t regret it!
Racha is a dive, there’s no tip-toeing around it. Situated in a dimly lit wine cellar, staffed by dour matrons, and serving hearty traditional fare accompanied by pitchers of home-made wine, the eatery is located near Freedom Square. It’s cheap, it’s atmospheric, and it’s awesome.
When I’d just arrived in Tbilisi, my Georgian friend Nino insisted on taking me here. A chain restaurant with branches all over the city, Machakhela has more menu items than you can shake a stick at, but for your first encounter with Georgian fare, go with khinkali and khachapuri. Khinkali takes some practice to eat correctly, but if you’re struggling, helpful Georgians might be more than willing to jump in and teach you how!
Finally, Chashnagiri, an easy-to-miss spot on one of the busiest tourist streets in town. Sounds weird, right? But this place — open late — has fantastic ostri — a Georgian stew that’s just the right amount of spicy and is so tomato-y and beefy it’ll make your heart happy. Go here after a night out… you’ll be in paradise!
Where to Sleep
Visitors to Tbilisi are spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodation in the city, with anything from luxury hotels to hostels and even apartments available. Some of the most popular districts for tourists to stay are Vake, Sololaki, and Marjanishvili, while others like myself prefer to avoid the hustle and bustle by staying on the outskirts of town. Here are some great hotel and hostel options in the city, as well as my favorite little AirBnB where I managed to spend two months!
Rooms Hotel is probably the flashiest place to stay in town and also prohibitively expensive. Still, if you’ve got the cash and are looking for a special way to spend your time in the city, this is it! It’s in a good part of the city with lots of restaurants, places to go out, and access to the metro.
The Terrace Boutique Hotel
A stylish little place near Mtatsminda, The Terrace Boutique Hotel has a killer view of the city from its terrace and is removed from the craziness of the main streets. It’s a more personal affair than Rooms, while still giving the comfort and luxury you’d expect when you splurge like this for the night.
Fabrika Hostel is one of the most innovative hostel concepts I’ve ever seen. It’s literally an old sewing factory that’s been repurposed as a hostel, creative space, and haven for entrepreneurs. In addition to the hostel, there are restaurants, bars, a co-working space, a board game cafe, and more all on site. How awesome is that?!
|Envoy Hostel is another great option, with fantastic views over the city from the rooftop terrace and free breakfast. Bed prices are a bit more expensive than other options in the city, but there’s a reason this place gets a 9.4 ‘Superb’ ranking on Hostelworld… these folks know how to hostel!
Finally, there’s AirBnB. I love AirBnB — it’s my preferred method of accommodation when I travel, especially for longer trips. Tbilisi has some great options for AirBnB, and you can almost definitely find something to fit your preference! I chose a cozy little mother-in-law apartment on the outskirts of the city and loved it. It was quiet at night, my host family was great, and it was easy to hop on a bus and get to the city center. My apartment was called The Nightengale’s Nest, you can check it out here!
If you haven’t joined AirBnB yet, do so at THIS LINK! You’ll get a bonus to use towards your first trip, and I get a bonus as well. Talk about a good deal!
Great Day Trips Outside the City
Georgia is a small country, and Tbilisi makes a great base from which to explore it. Here are some short day or weekend trips you can do from Tbilisi before venturing further afield.
Gori and Uplistsikhe
The birthplace of Josef Stalin, Gori has an ignominious history, one it cheekily embraces with a Stalin museum and other attractions. Of more interest, though, is the cave city of Uplistsikhe just outside the city limits. Established in the bronze age and inhabited until the 13th century, the complex is carved out of solid stone, with churches, throne rooms, apothecaries, and more still being unearthed.
Mtskheta and Jvaris Monastery
The former capital of Kartli and just up the highway from Tbilisi, Mtskheta is an easy day trip from the city. A UNESCO Heritage Site, Mtskheta has a wonderfully restored Old Town, as well as an iconic monastery perched on a mountain across the river. Allow a full day to fully explore everything, and don’t forget to try the lobio when you’re there! Mtskheta is one of the best places for those healthy bean stew — the restaurant Salobie between Tbilisi and Mtskheta is perhaps the most famous spot.
Kazbegi and Gergeti Trinity Church
One of the most recognizable scenes in the country is that of Gergeti Trinity Church against the stunning backdrop of the snow-covered mountains near Kazbegi. A great intro to Georgia’s mountain regions and conveniently situated along the Georgian Military Highway, Stepantsminda and Kazbegi are easily accessed from Didube Bus Station in Tbilisi and is one of the most popular day trips in the country. For hikers with a few days to spare, there are a number of excellent trails in the surrounding countryside.
The Georgian City of Love, Sighnaghi is right in the middle of Kakheti, Georgia’s wine country. Possible as a day trip but better done over a weekend, the city is beautifully situated on a hilltop, with cobble-stoned streets and a city wall going through the heart of town. Don’t miss out on the wine here, as it’s some of the best in the country. If you don’t mind spending a pretty penny, check out Pheasant’s Tears Winery for great food and an excellent wine tasting.
Perhaps the easiest day trip from Tbilisi is making the journey out to Davit Gareja, a cave monastery right on the border with Azerbaijan. Established in the 6th century, the complex contains a number of monasteries carved into rocks and cliff faces. Don’t miss the trail that goes up and over the mountain, as most of the monasteries are on the back of it, facing the open plains of Azerbaijan. You even get to cross the border at a few points!
Tbilisi is a fascinating place — one you can’t experience fully in a short visit. Find a cozy place to stay and linger, sample different foods and try all the wine, go to a bar and watch some live music…
Go slowly. After all, the expression, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do,’ holds true here. This is Georgia, a place where the flow of time has slowed to a trickle, hampered by wine and conversation. Sit back, enjoy the pace, and relax… you’ve earned it!
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