What to do in and around Tbilisi
Always looking for a place that’s a little bit different and where relatively few travellers wander, we decided on Georgia, starting with the capital Tbilisi. Georgia the country, not the US state, that is! A former state of the Soviet Union it has a decidedly Russian, east bloc-esque kind of feel about it. But in many other ways, it is very decidedly not so. This country is an enigma! On November 14, 1990, the republic was renamed the Republic of Georgia. It subsequently became independent before the dissolution of the Soviet Union on April 9, 1991. You really need to explore, observe, see and feel it. The views will not disappoint and neither will the people along with their warm hospitality. Georgians are a very proud and nationalistic people who treat foreigners with respect and courtesy.
Many people are surprised to find out that Georgia was the second country in the world (after Armenia) to adopt Christianity as the official state religion in 326 CE. Roughly 80% of Georgia’s population is Christian, with most belonging to the Georgian Orthodox Church. The country is scattered with ruins, churches and caves which are a testimony to this.
We had done a little research on the country, but we are always up to investigate, explore and be surprised. After some considerable time in India and then Nepal, we flew to the nation’s capital, Tbilisi. The city is both enchanting and endearing. Its cobblestoned old town reflects a long, complicated history, with periods under both Persian and Russian rule. Its diverse architecture encompasses Eastern Orthodox churches, ornate art nouveau buildings and Soviet Modernist structures.
Looming over it all is Narikala, a reconstructed 4th-century fortress. Kartlis Deda, an iconic statue of the ‘Mother of Georgia’ also watches over. It is indeed a town which has to be felt, as much as seen. Get lost in this remarkable city!
The number of things to see, do and feel are endless, and we spent many days doing just that. We went to markets, chatted to the locals and stopped in random cafes, where we met and chatted with lots of locals. If you make the time and effort Georgians are incredibly generous and hospitable and will always take the time to chat with you. The fortress of Narikala is indeed a highlight as it not only overlooks the nation’s capital but the Mtkavari River, which runs through the city. It’s an impressive fortress which consists of two walled sections on a steep hill, overlooking both the sulphur baths as well as the botanical gardens. The sulphur baths are also a testimony to they’s country’s once Persian rule.
Opened in 2004, no visit to Georgia would be complete without a visit to The Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi, commonly known as Sameba. It’s the main cathedral of the Georgian Orthodox Church in the country. The Bridge of Peace, right in the centre of town and crossing the Mtkavari River, is a newcomer to Tbilisi. It opened in 2010 and is a pedestrian bridge only. A steel and glass construction, and bow-shaped in design, it has been listed as one of the most unusual bridges in the world. Designed and built in Italy, it was transported to Georgia in 200 trucks. Love it or hate it, it allows spectacular views of all of Tbilisi’s surrounds and metaphorically merges the old and the new.
Tbilisi will transport you to times long gone. Immerse yourself, walk down random cobble-stoned lanes, try the food (really like nothing I have ever tried before), walk into markets and walk around the lake. Local transport is inexpensive and wandering is made easy due to the fact that Georgia is truly a very safe country.
Food, oh, the food. So many things you can experiment with and try. One of my favourites was ‘churchkhela’, a traditional Georgian candle-shaped sweet. The main ingredients are grape juice, nuts, and flour. Almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, and chocolate and sometimes raisins are threaded onto a string, dipped in thickened grape juice or fruit juices and dried in the shape of a sausage. Yum, yum! My other favourite was the eggplant and walnut roll. Sound weird, just try it! In this dish, walnuts, eggplant and khmeli suneli (a rich plum sauce) feature, and the combo will knock your socks off! Unknown outside of the country, it’s like a local version of ketchup, only much, much better!
Again, you might be surprised to find out that Georgian food is both delicious and wholesome. It is also vibrant, ingenious, gourmet and truly one of a kind. Georgians love meat and wine, fresh vegetables and nuts, cheeses and condiments, spices and herbs. And bread … in all of its varieties … with meat or without … and with lots of cheese. It’s carbohydrate heaven in this country! It’s also all about tomatoes, eggplants, walnuts, lamb, tarragon, basil and coriander. There is something for all palates!
Turtle Lake (Kus Tba in Georgian), named for the once many turtles which are supposed to have inhabited it, is located on the outskirts of Tbilisi and makes for a serene day trip. It lies above Vake Park and is yet another spot with superb views of the city. You can either catch a local bus there or walk. We walked. You can then either walk up for about another 30 minutes or take a taxi.
These two sets of itchy feet walked! You can also swim, take a boat ride, find something to eat or drink, and just plain old relax. Being the exploratory souls that we are, we also walked back into town, enabling us to see and experience many places that we would not have had we have used transport. I will keep repeating that if you are an intrepid traveller, Georgia is a super safe place to wander and get lost!
Liberty, or Freedom, Square lies in the heart of Tbilisi and its name represents the true spirit of the Georgian people. For centuries Georgia was surrounded by multiple enemies and at the same time, but somehow they always managed to survive. Like the veritable phoenix rising from the ashes, in the centre of the square rises a 40-metre high monument of freedom and victory. At the top is a golden statue of St. George slaying the dragon. You look around and can only be reminded of Georgia’s ongoing resilience in the face of adversity.
“And remember … not all those who wander are lost!”
Whilst there are a number of smaller art and other museums scattered around the capital, the Georgian National Museum is awesome if you want to get a feel for the country, its people and its history. I highly recommend this to get you into the Georgian groove!
Want to experience Tbilisi like a local?
Check out the Dezerter Bazaar. Located near the Central Railway Station, it’s a huge sprawling space, where you will literally be able to find everything from fruit and vegetables to batteries for your watch. Just get in and go for it. And remember … not all those who wander are lost!
Day Trip to Mtskheta
If you are going to do one day trip outside of Tbilisi, make it Mtskheta. One of the oldest cities in Georgia, it is located approximately 20 kilometres away from the capital and is very easily accessible by public transport. It is also the location where Christianity was proclaimed as the kingdom’s official religion and continues to function as the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church. If you are interested in history and antiquity what you will find here is a ticket straight back to the 5th century BC!
There are several things to see in and around the small town but the centrally located Svetitskhoveli Cathedral should not be missed. It is impressive in its grandeur and is also one of the biggest in the country. It dates back to the 10th century and was awarded a UNESCO World Heritage listing because of its glorious architecture. Svetitskhoveli was the religious centre for all Christians for many centuries. There is a legend that a seamless robe of Jesus Christ is buried within the temple, further proving its importance to Christianity.
We also took the time to walk up to the fortress (or castle) of Bebris Tsikhe. It lies just a couple of kilometres from Mtskheta’s Old Town. It provides a remarkably scenic view of the surrounding area. Archaeologists believe that the first site was founded in the 1st century BC. The present castle, however, was built in the 9th century. It takes up an area of 1500 metres and although many parts are damaged, it’s still a wonderful ancient site to explore. Be prepared to have your breath taken away! You are most likely also going to be the only one up there!
Although we did not visit the 6th-century Jvari Monastery, it proudly and impressively sits on a rocky mountain top and looms over the town of Mtskheta. It is listed as a World Heritage Site of UNESCO, along with other historic structures of Mtskheta. The sites in and around Mtskheta are historically and culturally significant in the development of medieval architecture throughout the Caucasus. (Situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus or Caucasia is an area mainly occupied by Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia.)
This is just some of what we saw in and around Tbilisi. There is so much to see and do. Georgia is the adventurous traveller’s dream come true! There are few countries that are as intriguing, as unique and as truly mesmerising as this one!
Dedication: We would like to dedicate this blog to Nana. We stayed in her apartment as Airbnb guests, and we left as friends. She embodied the kindness and hospitality of the Georgian people. Thanks a million Nana. Click here to see her space.
FACTS ‘N’ OTHER USEFUL STUFF
Capital City: Tbilisi
Country Population: 3.7 Million
Language: Georgian (The language is written in its own writing system, the Georgian script)
Currency: Georgian Lari (GEL)
Security: This country is super-safe!
Accommodation: Georgia has everything from budget and family fun hostels and hotels, to Airbnb and more top-end hotels. We found the accommodation to be exceptionally clean and comfortable and the hosts friendly and helpful.
Our choice was a combination of family-run places and Airbnb. We rarely book ahead, and in Georgia, we stayed in a mix of family-run pensiones and Airbnb (Get your FREE gift from us when you sign up). Also, check out bookings.com for more options.
NOTE: If you are not already a member of Airbnb click above to create an account. In this way, you can save on your first stay, anywhere in the world. Why Airbnb? The cost is less than a hotel room and you can choose to stay in your own apartment or share with the host. You also often have a laundry and the golden egg … there’s usually a kitchen so you can cook to your heart’s delight!
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Photo Credits: © Alex Benavides (Photography) & Ombretta Zanetti (Content)