Last updated on June 18, 2023
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.
Best Things to Do in Tbilisi, Georgia
Admire 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.
Mow Down on Delicious Food & Wine
Real talk: The food culture in Georgia 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.
Enjoy 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.
Enjoy the Beautiful & Endlessly Explorable Landscape
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.
Absorb 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.
More Things to Do in Tbilisi
Eat All of the Delicious Georgian Foods
Indulge in the tantalizing flavors of Georgian cuisine, renowned for its unique blend of influences from the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Savor mouthwatering dishes such as khachapuri (cheese-filled bread) and khinkali (dumplings), accompanied by a glass of Georgian wine. Don’t miss the chance to experience a traditional supra (feast) and witness the hospitality that is deeply ingrained in Georgian culture. This food tour in Tbilisi is a great opportunity.
Take a Sulphur Bath
Experience the unique tradition of the Tbilisi Sulphur Baths, known for their therapeutic properties. Relax and rejuvenate in the warm, mineral-rich waters as you indulge in a traditional bathhouse experience that’s unlike those offered in any other part of the world. The bath district, known as Abanotubani, is also a delight to explore, with its distinctive domed structures and colorful facades. These historic baths are located just near the main intersection in the old part of town, on the south side of the Metekhi bridge.
Visit a Parisian-Style Cafe
Combining the elegant ambiance of Paris with the rich cultural tapestry of Tbilisi, these cafes offer a unique fusion of experiences. There are a lot of these types of vibey cafes popping up around Tbilisi—they’re cozy and quiet and a great place to relax with a book.
Want a jumpstart on the best cafes to try? Visit Entree (20 Rustaveli Ave) or Cafe Canape (Abashidze Street – Vake).
Take the Cable Car to Narikala Fortress to Say Hi to Mother Georgia
Ascend to the Narikala Fortress, perched on a hill overlooking the city, for panoramic views of Tbilisi’s breathtaking skyline. This ancient fortress, with origins dating back to the 4th century, played a significant role in the city’s defense throughout its history. Stroll along the fortress walls, visit the St. Nicholas Church located within its premises, and capture memorable photos of the cityscape. From up there you can also enjoy an evening sunset near Mother Georgia and strike up conversations with locals.
Shop the Saturday Flea Market (AKA the “Dry Bridge Market”)
This is easy to spot near the river and about 15 minutes beyond (west of) the main Metekhi intersection. Held every Saturday, rain or shine, this market is a haven for treasure hunters, art enthusiasts, and curious visitors looking to explore the city’s unique cultural offerings. It’s renowned for its vast array of antiques, vintage items, and unique artifacts. As you wander through the market, you’ll come across a fascinating assortment of old coins, Soviet memorabilia, traditional Georgian crafts, antique jewelry, paintings, and books—it also features delightful handmade jewelry, traditional textiles, intricate woodwork, pottery. All of these things, both vintage and new, make great souvenirs.
And note that bargaining is welcome at this market! As you browse the stalls, engage in friendly negotiations with the vendors to secure the best prices.
Buy Snacks at a Tbilisi Fresh Market
Head to a fresh market and you’ll find colorful produce, aromatic spices, and a bustling atmosphere. If you enjoy all the Georgian food you sample, the fresh market offers a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culinary scene and see where the flavors of Georgia begin. And if you’re staying in a place with kitchen facilities, visiting a fresh market in Tbilisi is an excellent way to gather ingredients for your own Georgian culinary creations. Explore the stalls to find high-quality seasonal produce, regional cheeses, flavorful spices, and specialty items like Georgian wine or honey. Armed with these authentic ingredients, you can recreate traditional Georgian dishes or add a touch of Georgian flair to your home cooking.
There are many fruit and vegetable markets around the city, but the main one is a great spot for a wander. Head to the Dezerter Bazaar or the Deserter’s Market, known as “Tbilisi’s Central Market,” located near the central railway station. Arrive early for a wider variety of fresh produce and a livelier atmosphere.
Tbilisi Travel Guide
Where to Stay
- Consider Fox Hostel or Cozy Hostel. Both of these are in great areas of town and have everything you might need. Fox is super clean and a bit quieter. Maria has a backpacker vibe and a tour desk so it’s super easy to arrange things with them. Even if you pick a different hotel, consider using Booking.com as I find they usually have the best deals and selection.
- Stay in a nice spot. I enjoyed staying just near Old Town—this is where the tourism is focused, there is good nightlife and it’s close to all of the major sites. With that in mind, consider Sunny House Apartment and the charming Apartment Piccolo, both of which are mid-range prices and in a good location. If you’re there on business, or if you simply want a more formal hotel, then Rooms Hotel for midrange, and Citrus Hotel for a nice place from which to visit the city. These are in a different part than Old Town, but still a lot to visit and see.
Getting to and Around Tbilisi
Fly into Tbilisi International Airport, which is well-connected to major cities worldwide. From there, you can easily access the city center by taxi or public transportation. Tbilisi’s compact size makes it convenient to explore on foot, and the efficient metro system offers a convenient way to navigate the city. Consider booking a guided city tour or exploring independently using reliable maps and travel resources to make the most of your time in Tbilisi.
Know Your History and Context
- One More Year: This book traverses the vast expanse of the collapsed Soviet Union, unveiling a treasure trove of captivating stories. You can to immerse yourself in the intricate tapestry of everyday life and culture, interwoven with the profound consequences stemming from the region’s tumultuous history.
- The Caucasus: An Introduction: Esteemed journalist Thomas de Waal meticulously unveils the intricate layers of this region’s turbulent history, providing a comprehensive and well-documented account that will enrich your understanding and appreciation.
- Georgian Folk Tales: This book offers a unique way to learn more about Georgian history. These folk tales are free here as a part of project Gutenberg, but spring for the $1.99 version for a clean reading experience.
Best Day Trips from Tbilisi
- Explore the Breathtaking David Gareja Monastery: This is situated a bit far from the city, but it’s worth the trip to immerse yourself in its spiritual ambiance and captivating beauty. It was among my favorite day trips from Tbilsi. Ensure a smooth trip by arranging transportation or hiring a guide, and don’t forget to try the delightful honey made from almond tree blossoms. This day tour on Viator is a good option since you’ll need transport, plus it includes Rainbow Mountains.
- Venture to Kazbegi for Nature’s Delights: Aday trip to Kazbegi offers a lot of gorgeous scenery, and you can visit the mesmerizing Tsminda Sameba Church perched on a hill overlooking the village. Indulge in hinkali if you’re a meat eater, it’s a traditional meat dish served at nearby cafés. A private day tour like this one is the best way to maximize your time there.
- Tour the Historic Monasteries and Churches near Mtskheta: Take an easy day trip from the city to Mtskheta, the former capital of Eastern Georgia and a significant center of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Immerse yourself in the rich religious and cultural heritage as you explore the monasteries and churches that dot this historic town.
- Venture into Armenia for a Weekend Getaway: Take advantage of the proximity to Armenia and embark on a weekend trip or tour to explore the neighboring country’s unique culture and attractions. Experience the allure of a different destination while keeping Tbilisi as your base.
Georgia Travel Guide
Planning a trip to the Republic of Georgia? This detailed Georgia Travel Guide outlines possible routes and nitty-gritty details. 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.