A throaty tenor danced across the inky night, joined moments later by a chorus of lighter voices. The empty footpath widened as I approached the Kartlis Deda statue. The disembodied voices echoed across the cool night. Lit in soft green, Mother Georgia towered above me. The nearby voices lifted in perfect harmony, swelling as the ethereal melody penetrated the darkness. They were my invisible welcoming committee to this iconic symbol of Tbilisi, but also an unexpected welcome to the kindness and hospitality that I would find across the Republic of Georgia.
During my two weeks in Tbilisi, Georgia’s charming capital city, I had come to love the quick flash of a smile and the musical lilt of the Georgian tongue as locals welcomed me into the city’s shops and restaurants. The Georgian language is unrelated to any other on earth. Dating to the fourth century B.C.E., it’s also among the world’s oldest languages. Spoken Georgian pops and rolls from the mouth, with gritty consonants softened by a liquid cadence reminiscent of Italian. It’s the ending vowels on most words that affords the language a melodic quality, which carries into the nation’s long tradition of song.
Twenty minutes passed. I sat on the ledge and listened to them sing, their peaceful melodies flowing around me like a warm hug to insulate against the chilly hint of winter in the air. The city lights flickered in the distance. Landmarks glowed on the dark horizon—church steeples poked the heavy clouds, a glitzy bridge winked in technicolor. All the while, the group pitched their voices to carry far across the mountainside.
(Press play to hear their voices piercing the night with deep, heartfelt emotions.)
During my weeks wandering Georgia, I listened in awe as this style of singing filled the country’s many churches. Over hundreds of years, each region of Georgia developed a distinct singing style to record and express its ancient traditions. Throughout war and oppression, modern Georgians maintain strong links to their aural history. So beloved to the Georgians, and so unique to the world, the country’s polyphonic singing is now inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
In time, curiosity overcame my timidity. I wanted to venture closer, but was nervous that they would see it as an intrusion. I crept down the staircase, pausing when I was within their view. It took but a moment for one woman to motion me closer. I leaned against the wall, now given an open invitation to listen. As the song faded to a close, a woman in her 20s broke from the group to sit near me. Natia was the only one able to communicate in English. She opened the conversation by passing me a beer and snacks from their communal pile. Then she plied me with questions about my reasons for visiting Tbilisi.
Likewise, I fed my curiosity. She spoke of how her friend-group gathered in the cool evenings to share company and share songs. It wasn’t a special occasion, but rather a way to revel in their friendship. Inviting me to join them was in that same spirit—an open offer devoid of expectation. Her invitation was a quintessential gesture of Georgian hospitality. She wanted me to feel welcome as a guest in her country.
In the 12th century, Georgia’s most beloved poet wrote The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. Many believe that Shota Rustaveli’s poem encapsulates the true spirit of Georgia. Rustaveli espouses the idea of friendship as a powerful bond, a cult worthy of revere. A man is judged for his friendship over all other things. In Georgia, one single word, hospitality, epitomizes any visit.
Peter Nasmyth wrote of Rustaveli’s poem:
Certainly he espoused the doctrine of perfect love or the cult of friendship, still prominent in modern Georgian culture—and indisputably linked with the convention of hospitality.
Sitting under the Mother Georgia statute seemed serendipitous for an evening of Georgian hospitality. She stands tall and proud over the city. The items in her hands represent the twin beliefs underpinning much of modern Georgia. One hand holds a sword; a reminder to enemies that Georgia stands proud, free, and independent. In her other hand she offers a bowl of wine—an entreaty for visitors to feel welcome. For all the city to see, this statue is a reminder of the Georgian axiom that “a guest is a gift from God.”
In the mid 2000s, Georgia pulled out of its tumultuous history, and opened to tourism. A new generation of travelers can experience the country’s renowned culture of hospitality. While far from a tourist hotspot, the country is growing in popularity. Its food, wine, and traditions draw interest to that corner of the world, smack between the Great and Lesser Caucasus Mountains. I had dreamed of visiting many places as a child. Georgia wasn’t on the list. It didn’t have the gloss and glamour of Paris, Rome, and Prague. It was several years into my travels that I first considered visiting Georgia. I had little exposure to the Georgian culture, which is why it bowled me over with surprise. It’s such a lovely place and people. Like all countries, Georgia has issues. But also like all countries, fascinating cultural nuances lie just under the surface.
The hours melted away. As a group, we sipped beers and chatted. As a group, they continued breaking into song when the urge bubbled to the surface. It was never out-of-place for someone to pause the conversation and join harmonies. Each time, they finished a song with voices in perfect unison. Several songs were toe-tapping and lively. More often, their voices evoked a deep and heartfelt feeling of loss and longing. They seemed to echo the pain of a thousand centuries.
The sounds of that evening provided a soundtrack for my memories of traveling Georgia. They offered me a simple gift free of expectations. Taken in as a friend, they made me feel welcome. As their friend, I experienced a part of Georgia I hadn’t known awaited me. They welcomed me into their lives, into their circle of friendship, for an evening of cheerful camaraderie and song. Perhaps they sang of politics. Perhaps they sang of love. There’s even a chance they sang of friendship—I like to imagine that tenuous thread connecting me to them in that moment.
Maybe it was the wine. Or perhaps it was the latticed balconies? The unfettered hospitality played a part. And the idyllic scenery was persuasive. For the life of me, I can’t pin down precisely what made Tbilisi, Georgia so charming.
Since I left the country in late October, I took on the mantle of fangirl for the Republic of Georgia after uncovering a bevy of memorable things to do, experiences to embrace, and sceneries to spark wonder. I gush about it to any willing ear. I returned home late last year to holiday dinners and nights spent playing cards with friends. Between these engagements, I edited photos from my fall travels. Each night, with a swipe of the keyboard, a new image flashed on the screen. Like a slide projector warming up, memories flickered into my consciousness. Each cropped and straightened photo rekindled my crush on this beautiful little city in the far east of Europe.
Like any good crushee, I immediately wanted to know my crush’s backstory and history. Before I left for Georgia and Turkey, I showed my dad my route. His eyebrows shot to the sky and he released a single, skeptical “hmm.” Now into my eighth year of travel, my parents have long accepted my decision. They don’t always love the places I visit solo, but they trust my judgement. From his face, however, I could tell my dad was wavering. In the absence of context, it’s hard to imagine what Georgia’s like, what sort of things could possibly entertain a traveler. On the edge of the Caucasus Mountains, the country is neighbored by cultures as varied as its topography. Once a stop on the Silk Road, the city became a confluence of the civilizations over the millennia. This peculiar positioning means Georgia is considered a part of Europe or Asia, depending on who you ask. And you would be forgiven for wondering if it’s a part of the Middle East. But the actual vibe: It’s European.
Today’s Georgia is Eastern Orthodox—to the tune of 84%. Monasteries and churches stand proud on mountain peaks around the country. This religious history is important to modern Georgia. That said, despite the overwhelming presence of Christianity, other cultures and religions also found perch in Georgia over the centuries. My wanders through Tbilisi uncovered mosques, synagogues, and even a Zoroastrian temple.
And while a country’s ancient history plays a part in any trip, so too does recent history. Georgia was a part of the former Soviet Union. The country also dealt with political and social unrest throughout the 90s and early aughts. I’ll confess to forgetting the bulk of my World History course in 9th grade. Before I landed, I took to the internets and online readings to flesh out my understanding. I read up on not only the Soviet Union, but the also country’s complex present-day relationship with Russia. Important to understand is the history of the two Russian occupied areas of Georgia that are depicted on the map—South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
For countries with recently attained peace, understanding a foundational history is paramount. It shapes the experience with compassion and empathy. It invites the visitor deeper into the psyche of the culture and people. Only by understanding the past could I so enjoy what makes traveling the Republic of Georgia unique. It’s the resilience of the Georgian that spirit shapes my favorite aspects of traveling there, that shaped the best things to do and see. My memories float to the surface, begging to be shared. Like the delicate smile of a new courtship, the city flirts with visitors. Tbilisi won me over with subtle charms and gentle nudges. Let’s look at the aspects of Tbilisi, Georgia that stand out most prominently in my memories.
The Gorgeous Patchwork Architecture
The patchwork architecture in Old Tbilisi is reason enough to visit this pretty capital city. Intricate balconies sigh from tired buildings. Cobbled streets ramble through historic neighborhoods. Sweet, shady trees along Rustaveli Avenue belong as much in Paris as in this tiny Eastern European city. Each day I leapt from bed, energized by the idea of wandering adrift on the streets of Tbilisi, camera in hand.
Quiet courtyards and ephemeral smiles form the bedrock of my memories. Centuries of Persian, German, and Russian architectural influence is visible. But it’s not just the historic aspects that fascinates. Tbilisi’s more recent stability has it screaming into a disorienting modernity. Controversial space-age architecture takes up residence alongside the historic buildings. A gamut of architectural possibilities sit in the shadow of the 4th century Narikala Fortress. Time passes, that’s what the fortress seems to say. Tbilisi has a complicated history that has continued into the present. The aesthetic of the city bears testament.
And yet, the gorgeous laced balconies point to a concerning lack of infrastructure. It’s a similar problem facing places like Havana, Cuba. Decades of little money spent on redevelopment left gorgeous historic buildings in disrepair. There’s conflict in recognizing it needs to change while still loving the beauty it creates. But perhaps there’s a middle ground. Something between shimmering glass bridges and the city’s enchanting old-world charm. Either way, the city has an eclectic mix of styles that keeps things interesting.
Mowing Down on Delicious Food & Wine
Real talk: The food culture is wonderful. There’s a reason I started with an overview of Georgian history. History plays a pivotal role in Georgia’s current designation as an upcoming food destination. Cultures brushing against each other over the centuries resulted in a range of delicious dishes. In addition to meat in large supply, the country offers Mediterranean fares like salads, bean soups, cheese, and Georgian pizza. Let’s just say that as a vegetarian, I didn’t starve.
Then there’s the wine. It’s divine. Georgia’s clay vessel wine-making process, Qvevri, made UNESCO’s list for the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. During my stay in Tbilisi, I took part in the city’s beautiful café culture, which is reminiscent of so much of Europe. Sprinkled throughout the boutiques and sidewalk cafés are dozens of wine shops and tasting rooms. Wine is the icebreaker with new Georgian friends. Each time I befriended a local, they shared their favorite variety. Even more often, they boasted of their tasty homemade wines. The country has hundreds of indigenous varieties of grapes. Locals maintained their winemaking traditions throughout disparate governments and in the face of deep economic hardships. Georgians love nothing more than to spend a night (or many) sipping wine with friends. Evening shadows grow deep as friends toast to all manner of health, life, happiness, and family.
The Country’s Deeply Entrenched Culture of Hospitality
Kartlis Deda watches over Tbilisi from Sololaki Hill. Her looming aluminum figure is a touch point visible from nearly anywhere in the city. Better known as Mother Georgia, her figure so perfectly typifies the spirit and welcome I encountered in the country. For Georgians, this statue represents the dual priorities of hospitality and freedom. Erected in the 50s, Mother Georgia carries a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in the other. The wine is for friends, the sword for enemies.
In practice, hospitality infuses every aspect of traveling Georgia. As I left, it was the feeling of complete welcome that stuck with me. Conversations with new friends swim to the forefront of my memories. Welcoming visitors is entrenched in the culture. After I posted a photo of Tbilisi on my Instagram, a local woman found the photo and welcomed me to her city. Teo and I clicked immediately. She’s a Georgian woman with a serious case of wanderlust. Now that’s something that I understand. When I admitted to her that I hadn’t yet sampled Georgian wine (I prefer drinking with friends), in quick order we arranged to meet. Across many hours—and many glasses of wine—we swapped travel stories. She shared what it’s like to live, work, and travel as a Georgian. Though I often meet kind travel friends in each new city, there is a palpable quality of joy to Georgian hospitality. If you visit Georgia as a friend, like their statue bids, you leave warm with wine and hospitality.
The Landscape is Beautiful & Endlessly Explorable
Tbilisi is a pocket-sized city. Even more, Georgia is small too. Combined, it’s all endlessly explorable. Situated smack between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains, there’s a varied landscape packed into this small country. Lowland lakeside towns on the Black Sea vie for attention alongside snow-capped ski slopes. I didn’t bring clothes suitable for visiting the mountains in near-winter. Instead, I spent my trip based from the capital, exploring on day-trips from Tbilisi.
History and nature collide outside the city. I hired my Airbnb host, Bacho, to show me around. He took to the task with ease and helped me pick which sites I’d like best. One day, we hiked around the David Gareja monastery to the painted caves. The monastery is a few hours outside of the city and our car hummed along lonely, winding roads, through a muted, lunar-like landscape. The monastery is beautiful. One of my favorite moments occurred as we crested the mountain behind David Gareja. Bristling in the cold air, I jerked to a stop as we faced Azerbaijan—a huge flatland plain spanned below, awash in dull greens and browns far into the horizon. As I took in the look of this new land, two eagles soared into the sky, emerging from the mountainside, their massive wingspan casting shadows on the land below. They glided on the breeze, free of the borders holding me to my perch. It was a beautiful moment. Over the following hour, we climbed among the caves carved into the rock mountain.
Other days we visited 4th-century churches—many still in use. These ancient buildings watch in silence as this beautiful nation shifts and changes. The country is making quick strides toward peace and development. In tandem, it also grips the pieces of its unique history and preserves them for future generations.
Absorbing Centuries of Music & Dance
Never before have I experienced a culture so taken with song. Rich harmonies drifted from family compounds. Sometimes for mere moments I caught a deep melody floating on the breeze. And they sing not for a coin, but instead for a love of the music. Polyphonic singing is another UNESCO recognized piece of intangible heritage, and is stunning to hear.
I visited Georgia during Tbilisoba, their annual cultural festival. I was taken with the country’s incredible history of song and dance. The festival allowed me to watch, mesmerized, a sampling of regional dances. The men leapt impossibly high, the women twirled and swayed. Each dance told stories of courtship, stories from history, and stories of joy. I was lucky to watch one long performance next to a local woman. She passed me chunks of churchkhela—a local sweet—and translated the introduction for each dance. Her kindness afforded me my sole opportunity for questions during Tbilisoba. With her explanations, I better understood how each region used the arts to preserve its history and maintain a legacy for future generations.
There’s no way to encapsulate why I am so taken with the Republic of Georgia. The sum total of Georgia won me over. Georgians have formed a deep resilience over the years. Even more, their complex history hasn’t curdled their love of life.
In addition to the many things I loved about the aesthetics, food, and culture, it goes beyond that. The same government and police presence that brought stability to Georgia in the wake of the Rose Revolution has kept the city safe today. The president overhauled the police force in 2005. This ushered in an era of safety for Georgians, according to my Airbnb host. As a new arrival, poor street lighting and rundown sidewalks gave the city an eerie feel. At first, I was uncertain about the assertions of safety. Familiarity with the pace of the city, however, assuaged my concerns. Women teetered home at all hours of the night on skyscraper heels. New friends echoed my host’s sentiments about safety. While caution goes far in any place, the city is at peace. As a solo traveler, I felt comfortable in my skin as I wandered. The relative safety of the city added a welcomed layer to the travel experience since I was weary from recent travels through Turkey.
And my gushing aside, there are a couple of downsides. Every place has them. I’d be remiss to overlook it. The Georgians have a high rate of smoking. As a non-smoker, the clouds wafting into my face during dinner was tough. I picked restaurants based on the availability of a corner where I could wedge myself away from the currents of smoke. I found the smoking even worse, however, in Istanbul. As with all things, it’s relative. The city’s air quality is declining, but again, didn’t even come close to huffing through the streets of Kathmandu.
When you aggregate the kindness, food, and history from my weeks in Georgia, it won me over. I am a lifelong fan. And it’s this same feeling that friends and A Little Adrift readers expressed when I announced my travel plans. Everyone gushed about the Georgian-ness of it all. Never able to quite pin down what they love about it, readers and friends echoed one sentiment: Just go.
I’d have to agree. Sometimes a city just sticks with you. It wins you over with a spirit and subtlety unmatched by previous experiences. For Tbilisi, I found the city as charming as the people who live there. Two weeks is too little time to claim I understand the culture, city, or people, but it’s long enough to admit I’ll be back to try.
Heading to The Republic of Georgia? Check out my Georgia Travel Guide: I aggregated my experiences in Georgia, plus all the tips from A Little Adrift readers. This is a free, comprehensive guide of history, sights, things to do, responsible tourism, and recommended readings.