This under-the-radar Caucasus jewel just got more accessible – here’s how to make the most of every minute there.
Why go now
With an old town of elegantly dilapidated wooden balcony houses, an alternative arts scene bubbling away in stylish cafes, and inhabitants who like browsing antiquarian bookstores as much as toasting strangers with a glass, or three, of the local firewater, the capital of Georgia has, for some time now, been luring independent-minded travellers unfazed by red-eye arrivals via Istanbul or Kiev. But this rough-cut Caucasus jewel has just got more accessible – a direct Georgian Airways route from Gatwick to Tbilisi launched last month, and, on Sunday, Wizz Air follows up with flights from Luton to the Georgian gateway city of Kutaisi.
Get your bearings
The wide, fast-coursing Mtkvari river divides this city of 1.5 million people. On the right bank, Old Tbilisi is a hub for many visitors, with some of the city’s most compelling historical sights, cafes and bars aplenty, enticing side streets and standout museums nearby. On the Mtkvari’s more workaday left side are the atmospheric Bazroba central market (1) and the arty Fabrika boutique and dining hub (2). Returning to the right bank, swish Vake has some of Tbilisi’s best restaurants and, bordering it, expansive Mziuri Park (3) and Tbilisi zoo (4). The main tourist office (5), opposite City Hall on Pushkin Square, reveals all.
Take a hike
Start at the Orbeliani baths (6), in Old Tbilisi, to admire the shimmering blue-tiled facade of this 17th-century building – it looks like a madrasah somehow teleported out of Fes. When renovations finish in July, you’ll even be able to perform your ablutions here again, just as Pushkin and Dumas did in a no doubt grimier incarnation.
Leading off the baths, follow Fig Gorge along a cool green path to a waterway leading to a tranquil little waterfall (7), where the temperature is a few degrees lower than in the surrounding city – especially welcoming in Tbilisi’s sometimes scorching heat.
Turn back to Gorgasali Square (8) and the anarchic traffic honk-fest that characterises much of the rest of Tbilisi. Cross the Mtkvari river at Metekhi Bridge (9) to reach an exquisite little church of the same name (10) on a rise offering a good vantage point over the old town.
From the church, cross back to the Mtkvari’s right bank to explore the alleys off Leselidze Kucha lined with crumbling balcony houses recalling the Tbilisi of a century ago. Keep heading away from the river to climb up to the calm Betlemi neighbourhood (11), full of restored old houses and an ancient Zoroastrian site, the Ateshgah Fire Worshippers’ Temple (12), among them.
Turn back towards the river, veering left to take in new territory as you descend to the banks of the Mtkvari once more, where you again turn left in the direction of the so-called Dry Bridge (officially, the Saarbruecken Bridge) (13). Riverside bookstalls mark the way to the sprawling flea market, where Lenin busts, vintage dumbbells and dusty Frank Sinatra albums are lined up along the bridge’s pavement. It’s open 10am-5pm daily.
Lunch on the run
From the Dry Bridge market, you’re well placed for lunch at one of Tbilisi’s art cafes – galleries-cum-eating places generally off the tourist trail where you can tap into an alternative Georgian identity as you sip on a glass of freshly squeezed sea buckthorn juice.
One such, behind a closed double door painted with two wine-sipping beauties, is Cafe Linville (facebook.com/Linville.Cafe) (14) – like a vintage Georgian apartment gone wild, it has umbrellas poking from the funky floral wallpaper, kitsch portraits, and goldfish squatting in the repurposed TV set. Chicken in walnut sauce and vegetarian pkhali – a cross between a dip and a salad – are on the affordable menu.
EthnoDesign (15), at 23 Akhvlediani Kucha sells locally-made felt rugs with arresting traditional designs and delicately patterned blue tablecloths using indigenous motifs. Buying here helps keep Georgian heritage crafts alive. For examples of minankari, the revived ancient art of enamelled jewellery and other objects, try the Enamel Gallery (16), on Sioni Kucha.
The refined Cafe Littera (facebook.com/cafelittera) (17), in the courtyard garden of the Georgian Writers’ Union, does a mean Saakashvili Sidecar, a take on the classic cocktail using local brandy.
Dine with the locals
Shavi Lomi (00995 322 96 09 56) (18) is located in a lovely old Tbilisi house where the owners have kept the vintage feel. Dishes include beef and wild plum soup and chicken in blackberry sauce, but even the super-fresh salads are worth writing home about. Mains around £7.
Out to brunch
Brunch, especially on a Sunday, is a foreign concept to many Georgians (why be in a cafe when you could be nursing your hangover?), but it’s catching on. Brotmeister Cafe (facebook.com/Brotmeister.ge) (19) has Viennese-style coffee and freshly baked pastries in a comfortable setting with vintage tourism posters on the wall.
A walk in the park
A blissful escape from Tbilisi’s fume-laden streets, the city’s Botanical Gardens (20) are former royal pleasure grounds adjoining Fig Gorge. Spend an afternoon exploring the cultivated and wilder sections, as locals have picnics and stage wedding photoshoots.
Take a ride
Tbilisi’s two-line metro uses prepaid cards you can buy at the station; journeys cost around 10p each. There’s a bus network (tickets 30p) and a fleet of yellow marshrutka minibuses also buzz around town, following set routes (tickets 40p). Taxis are unregulated; you should agree the fare before you get in, but it’s usually around £3.
From the Botanical Gardens, take either metro line or bus 41 from Samgori metro stop to Station Square, where you’ll find the Bazroba (1), the buzzing central market which gives a good insight into everyday Tbilisi amongst the busy food stalls.
The National Museum (museum.ge) (21) has spellbinding pre-Christian gold jewellery and other ancient objects on display on the lower-ground floor. Upstairs, an exhibition on Soviet rule in Georgia from 1921-91 has moody lighting and a layout like a cinema set. It’s open 10am-6pm, closed Mondays.
Icing on the cake
Three hours west of the capital, Vardzia (22) is an incredible former cave city that apparently once housed 50,000 people and is worth a daytrip.
Georgian Airways (georgian-airways.com) flies direct from London Gatwick to Tbilisi International Airport (23) from £170 return. From Sunday, Wizz Air (wizzair.com) flies from Luton to Kutaisi, 150 miles north-west of Tbilisi, from £70 return.
From Tbilisi International, bus No 37 runs from the airport to the city centre every 30 minutes from 7am to 9pm; it costs 20p each way. Trains run to Tbilisi central station only at 8.45am and 6.05pm; fares are 20p each way. Taxis to the city centre cost around £7, more at night; agree upon the price beforehand.
Travel The Unknown (traveltheunknown.com) offers three days in Tbilisi including flights, four-star accommodation, transport, a city tour and excursions from £895pp.
With fantastic irony, the ultra-swank Biltmore (millenniumhotels.com) (24), which opened last year, occupies the former Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute. The location of the marble-fronted building, on the main drag of Rustaveli Avenue near the opera and ballet, is top notch. There’s a pool and spa and superb views from the added tower. Doubles from GEL670 (£215), room only.
Rooms Hotel Tbilisi (roomshotels.com) (25) does a good rendition of industrial chic, with bare wooden floorboards, iron bedsteads and vintage furniture. The breakfast spread is superb, but street-facing rooms can be noisy. Doubles from GEL410 (£130), room only.
Fabrika (fabrikatbilisi.com) (2) is a former Soviet sewing factory reimagined as a self-described “multi-functional urban space” comprising of a hostel, boutiques and cafes. There’s a young, creative buzz, although the left bank location is a little obscure. Doubles from GEL120 (£40), room only.