Tbilisi

Tbilisi

Things to do - general

With a quarter of Georgia’s population, Tbilisi (თბილისი) is the place where Georgians gravitate for action and excitement. The city brims with history and has a dramatic setting on hillsides either side of the swift Mtkvari River. Its Old Town, at the narrowest part of the valley, is still redolent of an ancient Eurasian crossroads, with winding lanes, old balconied houses, leafy squares, handsome churches and countless busy bars and cafes, all overlooked by the 17 centuries old Nariqala Fortress.

Tbilisi is also a modern city trying to move forward in the 21st century after the strife and stagnation of the late 20th. Its streets are crowded with pedestrians, construction debris and hurtling or crawling traffic. Flagship building projects, from a new cathedral and presidential palace to revamped parks and museums, coexist with crowded old markets, confusing bus stations and shabby Soviet apartment blocks.

Tbilisi is still the beating heart of the South Caucasus and should not be missed by any visitor.

Country Georgia
CityTbilisi
Population1.1 Million
Languages spokenGeorgian, English, Russian
Phone Code32

Sights

The Old Town, where Tbilisi began, is the most fascinating area for exploring. There’s also plenty to see in the 19th century city focused on Rustavelis gamziri and in the Avlabari area on the left bank of the Mtkvari. Most churches are open daylight hours every day.

Old Town

Tbilisi grew up below the walls of the Nariqala Fortress, which stands on the Sololaki ridge above the west side of the Mtkvari. The twisting alleys of the Old Town (Qala) are still full of hidden courtyards and carved wooden balconies leaning at rakish angles. Though almost no buildings here survived the Persian sacking of 1795, many date from soon after that and still have the Eurasian character of earlier times.

Leselidze street

The main thoroughfare of the Old Town, winding down from Tavisuplebis moedani and strung with assorted shops and eateries, is Kote Abkhazi, formerly Leselidze. Towards the bottom of the street stands the large, disused Armenian Norasheni Church, dating from 1793, with the smaller Jvaris Mama Church next door on a site where a church has stood since the 5th century. The current Jvaris Mama dates from the 16th century and its interior is almost completely covered in recently restored frescoes in striking reds, golds and blues: the atmosphere is exquisitely pious and calm. A little further down Kote Abkhazi is Tbilisi’s main synagogue, a welcoming place built in 1904.

Shavteli, Erekle II & Sioni

This string of narrow, traffiefree streets paralleling the river was the heaving commercial hub of the Old Town in medieval times. At the north end of Shavteli you’ll find the quirkiest building in Tbilisi, the rakishly leaning Clock Tower. Like something out of a fairy tale, it faithfully evokes the spirit of the celebrated Tbilisi Marionette Theatre beside it.

Just south stands the lovely little Anchiskhati Basilica, Tbilisi’s oldest surviving church, built by King Gorgasali’s son Dachi in the 6th century. The name comes from the icon of Anchi Cathedral in Klarjeti (now in Turkey), brought here in the 17th century and now in Tbilisi’s Fine Arts Museum. The church is a three nave basilica that has been restored several times: the brick pillars and upper walls date from the 17th century. Further down Shavteli is a peaceful little park, Erekle II moedani, facing the walled residence of the Catholicos Patriarch (head of the Georgian church).

The street Erekle II gives access to the Peace Bridge (Mshvidobis Khidi), an elegant glass-and-steel footbridge over the Mtkvari, designed by Italian Michele De Lucchi and opened in 2010 – now unfortunately nicknamed the Always Bridge, for its undeniable resemblance to a giant sanitary towel. Erekle II continues past cafes and galleries into Sioni, where the Sioni Cathedral was originally built in the 6th and 7th centuries. It has been destroyed and rebuilt many times and what you see today is mainly 13th century, though the southern chapel was built and the cupola restored in 1657. A bronze grille to the left of the icon screen displays a replica of the sacred cross of St Nino which, according to legend, is made from vine branches bound with the saint’s own hair. The real thing is apparently kept safe inside.

The Tbilisi History Museum (Sioni 8), housed in an old caravanserai, will be worth a visit when it eventually opens after refurbishment. Just past here Sharden and Bambis rigi, two parallel streets lined with fashionable cafes and bars, branch off Sioni and emerge on the busy intersection known as Meidan.

Meidan & Around

Meidan is now a rather bland, traffic-infested junction beside the Metekhi Bridge but was once the setting of Tbilisi’s bustling bazaar. Just above it is the large Armenian Cathedral of St George (Sam- ghebro), founded in 1251 (although the cur- rent structure is mainly 18th century). Its surprisingly small, smoke-blackened interior has a few interesting frescoes. King Erekle II’s famed Armenian court poet Sayat Nova was killed here during the Persian invasion of 1795 and his tomb is just outside the main door.

Samghebro leads south to Tbilisi’s celeb- rated sulphur baths, the Abanotubani. Al- exandre Dumas and Pushkin both bathed here, the latter describing it as the best bath he’d ever had. Most of the bathhouses are subterranean, with beehive domes rising at ground level. Many date back to the 17th century. Outwardly the most impressive, the aboveground Orbeliani Baths (Abano; h8am-10pm), has a Central Asian feel to its blue-tile façade. See p41 for information on using the baths.

A short distance uphill behind the baths is the red-brick mosque (Botanikuri), the only mosque in Tbilisi that survived Lavrenty Beria’s purges of the 1930s. It was built in 1895 and, unusually, Shia and Sunni Mus- lims pray together here. The interior is pret- tily frescoed and visitors are welcome to enter (after removing shoes). At the top of this street are Tbilisi’s Botanical Gardens (Botanikuri; admission 1 GEL; h9am-8pm). It’s easy to wander for an enjoyable hour or two in these extensive, waterfall-dotted gardens, which were opened in 1845 in former royal gardens.

Narikala Fortress & Around
Narikala Fortress

Dominating the Old Town skyline, Narikala dates right back o the 4th century, when it was a Persian citadel. The most direct way up to it is by he street beside the Armenian Cathedral of t George. The tower foundations and most f the present walls were built in the 8th century by the Arab emirs, whose palace was inside the fortress. Subsequently Georgians, Turks and Persians captured and patched up Narikala, but in 1827 a huge explosion of Russian munitions stored here ruined not only the fortress but also the Church of St Nicholas inside it. The church was rebuilt n the 1990s with the help of funding from police chief. There are superb views over Tbilisi from the top of the fortress.

Kartlis Deda

From outside the fortress entrance, you can follow a path west to the statue of Mother Georgia. As attractive as a 20m aluminium woman can be, this symbol of Tbilisi holds a sword in one hand and a cup of wine in the other a classic metaphor for the Georgian character, warmly welcoming guests and passionately fighting off enemies. A few muggings were reported up here a few years ago, so it’s probably wise to stay alert – but your main challenge is likely to be steering clear of canoodling couples hoping for a bit of privacy. Past Mother Georgia are the ruins of the Shahtakhti (Shah’s Throne) fortress, which housed an Arab observatory.

Avlabari

Avlabari is the dramatically located slice of Tbilisi above the cliffs on the left (east) bank of the Mtkvari, across the Metekhi Bridge from the Old Town. At least twice foreign invaders (the roaming Central Asian conqueror Jalaledin in 1226, and the Persians in 1522) used the bridge for forcible conversion of Georgians to Islam (those who resisted were tossed into the river).

Metekhi Church

The Metekhi Church, and the 1960s equestrian statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali beside it, occupy the strategic rocky outcrop above the Metekhi Bridge. This is where Vakhtang Gorgasali built his palace and the site’s original church, when he made Tbilisi his capital in the 5th century. King David the Builder had a palace and church here too – they were destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 1235. The existing church was built by King Demetre Tavdadebuli (the Self-Sacrificing) between 1278 and 1289, and has been reconstructed many times since. It is thought to be a deliberate copy of King David’s 12th- century church. The tomb of the Christian martyr St Shushanik tortured by her husband in 544 for refusing to convert to Zoroastrianism is to the left of the icon screen.

Rike Park

This attractive flowery expanse north of the Metekhi Bridge lights up with an entertaining fountains, music and laser show every evening from about 8pm to 11pm. The Peace Bridge connects the park to the west bank of the Mtkvari.

Tsminda Sameba Cathedral

The biggest symbol of Georgia’s post Soviet religious revival rises high on Elia Hill above Avlabari. Tsminda Sameba, an unmissable landmark by night and day, was consecrated in 2004 after a decade of building. A massive expression of traditional Georgian architectural forms in concrete, brick, granite and marble, it rises 84m to the top of the gold- covered cross above its central dome.

The cathedral is five aisles wide but its emphasis is on verticality, with a result like one single, many-bulwarked tower. The huge dome creates a larger, much brighter central space than you’ll find in most Georgian churches. A big new illuminated manuscript of the New Testament, on calf-leather parchment in a jewel-studded, gilded-silver cover, stands in a glass case to the right of the icon screen. There’s a whole large second church beneath the main one, down 81 steps from the west end. Designed by Archil Mindiashvili, the building was paid for mostly by anonymous donations. Some controversy surrounded its construction on the site of an old Armenian cemetery.

Presidential Palace

Not far below the cathedral, Georgia’s new presidential palace (not open to visitors) is an equally unmissable landmark, with its ultraclassical portico surmounted by a large, egg-shaped, glass dome another creation of Michele De Lucchi.

Rustaveli

Tbilisi’s main artery, Rustavelis gamziri, is named after the national bard, Shota Rustaveli, and runs 1.5km north from Tavisuplebis moedani to Rustavelis moedani. Laid out by the Russians in the 19th century, it’s strung with elegant and important buildings. It’s also a fast traffic route, dangerous to cross except by four pedestrian under- passes. Tavisuplebis moedani (Liberty Sq; Map p36), with the old city hall on its south side, was Lenin Sq in Soviet times. Georgia’s last Lenin statue, toppled in 1990, stood where the golden St George now spears his dragon.

Museum of Georgia

The impressive national museum reopened in 2011 after a five-year refurbishment. A major highlight is the Archaeological Treasury, displaying a wealth of pre-Christian gold, silver and precious-stone work from burials between the 3rd millennium BC and the 4th century AD. Most stunning are the fabulously worked gold adornments from Colchis (western Georgia) from the 8th to 3rd centuries BC. The rest of the museum has a huge collection of historical and ethnographic material, including a hall on the Soviet occupation and another full of the historic photos of Dmitry Yermakov which document Georgia and the South Caucasus a century ago.

National Gallery

Brand new in 2011, the National Gallery is entered from the park beside the Kashveti Church and is well worth an hour of your time. For most visitors the highlight is the hall full of wonderful canvases by Georgia’s best known painter Pirosmani (Niko Pirosmanashvili, 1862–1918), ranging from his celebrated animal and feast scenes to lesser-known portraits and rural-life canvases. There’s also a good selection of work by other top 20th-century Georgian artists such as Lado Gudiashvili, Elene Akhvlediani and David Kakabadze.

Fine Arts Museum

Just off Tavisuplebis moedani, this is a comprehensive if under whelmingly present- ed storehouse of Georgian art and artisanry from several centuries BC up to the 20th century. The major highlight is the Treasury section, only enterable with a guide (you can reserve an English-speaking guide in ad- vance to avoid waiting at busy times). This contains a great wealth of icons, crosses and jewellery in precious metals and stones from all over Georgia and old Georgian churches and monasteries on what is now Turkish territory. Many of Georgia’s most sacred and revered objects are here. Don’t miss the beautiful little pectoral cross of Queen Tamar, set with four emeralds, five rubies and six pearls – the only known personal relic of the great 12th-century monarch. Another interesting section covers 19th-century Persian and Azerbaijani art and crafts. The building was once a seminary: Stalin studied for the priesthood here from 1894 to 1898 until expelled for revolutionary activities.

Parliament Building

The high arched Parliament building has seen momentous events, including the deaths of 19 Georgian hunger strikers on 9 April 1989; Georgia’s independence declaration on 9 April 1991; and the Rose Revolution on 22 November 2003. It was constructed between 1938 and 1953 for Georgia’s Soviet government, became the seat of Georgia’s Parliament after independence, and has been the venue of many antigovernment protests ever since late Soviet times. With the moving of Parliament to Kutaisi, planned for 2012, the building will take on a new role (undecided at the time of writing). A small monument in front of it, and paving stones and glass panels set at irregular angles, commemorate the dead of 1989.

Kashveti Church

Almost opposite the Parliament building, the Kashveti Church stands on a spot where it is said pagan rituals used to take place. The first church here is supposed to have been built in the 6th century by Davit Gareja, one of the ascetic ‘Syrian fathers’ who returned from the Middle East to spread Christianity in Georgia. According to legend, a nun accused him of impregnating her. He replied that if this were true, she’d give birth to a baby, and if not, to a stone, which duly happened. Kashveti means ‘Stone Birth’. The existing 1910 building, de- signed by Leopold Bielfeld, is a copy of the 11th-century Samtavisi Church, 60km north- west of Tbilisi.

Mt. Mtatsminda

Mtatsminda is the hill topped by the 210m- high TV mast looming over central Tbilisi from the west. Mtatsminda Park spreads over more than 1 sq km at the top of the hill, with plenty of funfair attractions. To use the attractions you must buy a card (1 GEL) at the entrance and put credit on it. The best views are from the huge Ferris wheel (per person 5.50 GEL), as trees obscure the panoramas elsewhere. Buses 90 and 124 go up to the park from Leonidze off Tavisuplebis moedani.

Vake

Considered Tbilisi’s most prestigious neighbourhood, Vake is an amalgam of apartment blocks, houses, restaurants, cafes, shops, parks and busy traffic. You can get to Vake’s main avenue, Chavchavadzis gamziri, by bus 61 from Tavisuplebis moedani and north on Rustaveli, or bus 59 north on Davit Aghmashenebeli on the east side of the Mtkvari.

Tbilisi State University

The elegant, neoclassical main building of Tbilisi State University, Georgia’s biggest educational institution, stands near the start of Chavchavadzis gamziri. It was built in 1906 as a school for the nobility.

Open-Air Museum of Ethnography

About 3km uphill from attractive Vake Park is the Open-Air Museum of Ethnography. This collection of nearly 70 traditional, mostly wooden houses from around Georgia is spread over a wooded hillside with good views, and makes for an enjoyable visit. The most interesting exhibits are in the lower section (near the entrance), where the buildings are kitted out with fine traditional furnishings, rugs and utensils. Tours are available in English, French and German. You can walk up to the museum from Vake Park, which is about 2km past the university, or take bus 61 to the petrol station 200m past the large Iranian embassy, then walk or take a taxi 2km up the road between the concrete pillars opposite.

Activities

Bathhouses

Any time of year is good for a traditional bath and massage experience at Tbilisi’s famed sulphur baths. The Orbeliani Baths (per hr communal pools 5 GEL, private cabins 30-60 GEL; h8am-10pm) have inexpensive male or female communal pools; an invigorating massage is 15/25 GEL in public / private areas. The Royal Bath (private rooms 50-100 GEL; h8am-11pm) has fancier private rooms only.

Rafting - Adventure Club

Georgia’s many rivers can provide exciting rides for rafters of all levels. Jomardi is the longest established and most reputed operator, with English-speaking guides available. A half-day trip to the Mtiuletis Aragvi or Pshavis Aragvi north of Tbilisi, suitable for any level, costs 45 GEL per person, plus 20 GEL to 30 GEL for transport (depending on group size). The season runs from late April to October (best until July). Trips go most often at weekends. Jomardi can also provide challenges for experienced rafters on the Mtkvari River near Borjomi and Vardzia (April and May), and the Rioni River in western Georgia (June to November).

Jomardi also rents sleeping bags (per day 8 GEL), sleeping mats (5 GEL), three-person tents (15 GEL), mountain bikes (40 GEL), skiing gear (skis, boots and poles 35 GEL) and mountaineering equipment.

Bungee Jumping

This group of experienced alpinists provides jumps for 70 GEL from noon every Sunday at Maglivi Bridge between Vake and Saburtalo. Search ‘bungee jumping Tbilisi’ on Facebook.

Paragliding

We are highly experienced paraglider who takes inexperienced flyers on tandem flights in the Tbilisi Sea and Rustavi areas close to Tbilisi, from March to October, for 60 GEL (minimum two take-off attempts), or from Gudauri ski resort in winter for 120 GEL, transport included. He can also provide logistical support for groups of experienced pilots who want to fly in other areas including Gudauri (best August to mid-October) and Svaneti (best August and September).

Scenic Flights, Ballonning

We offer sightseeing (and charter) flights in three-passenger Cessnas for €250 per hour from Natakhtari airfield, about 25km north of Tbilisi. A 12-passenger AN-2 biplane is €850 per hour. It also does hot-air balloon flights for up to three passengers for €475 per hour.

Festivals & Events
Art-Gene Festival

This hugely popular Georgian folk festival tours the country and culminates with several days of music (including trademark ethnojam sessions), cooking, arts and crafts at Tbilisi’s Open-Air Ethnographic Museum in July.

Tbilisoba

Tbilisi comes out to party for this festival of new wine and the city’s founding, lasting a week in late October. There are MTSVADI (meat kebabs) and wine stalls everywhere, feasting rafts on the river, dance and martial arts in the streets, cheese and fruit festivals, concerts and more.

Tbilisi International Film Festival

Showcases recent Georgian and international movies, in the last quarter of the year (dates vary).

Slepping

There is a good range of places to stay in and around the areas of most interest to visitors, the Old Town and Rustavelis gamziri. These include a glut of backpacker hostels, of which those listed here are only a selection. Nearly all hostels offer good- value accommodation, with sturdy bunks in small or medium-size dorms, the odd private room, and shared kitchens, bath- rooms and common areas. Hostel staff are usually young and welcoming, and many will go that extra mile to help you enjoy your time here to the full. Hostels, home- stays and guesthouses in the following listings do not serve breakfast, unless stated otherwise.

Most midrange and top-end establishments accept credit cards. Although some places quote prices in euros or US dollars, you will normally be charged in lari, at current exchange rates.

Drinking

You are never far from places to go for a drink in Tbilisi. Most visitors will want to head to the pedestrianised Old Town streets Erekle II, Sharden and Bambis rigi, where al fresco cafes and bars offer great opportunities for people-watching. A more raucous evening can be had in the bars around Akhvlediani (formerly Perovskaya). Meanwhile, Tbilisi’s clutch of hip, semi-underground venues such as Salve and Buda Bar are a must for those who want to sample a new generation of Georgian hospitality, usually till way past bedtime.

Perovskaya & Around

Although the street running north from Vardebis Revolutsis moedani has been called Akhvlediani for almost 20 years, everyone still calls it Perovskaya. With a few exceptions, the bars here and on neighboring Qiacheli and Vashlovani are cheaper and seedier than in the Old Town, offering a near-identical mix of wooden interiors, cheap food and rock-cover bands.

Night Clubs

Tbilisi has an increasing number of places to spend a night on the tiles, though many are expensive, only open at weekends (typically 11pm to 6am Thursday to Saturday nights), and play only minimal techno and house.

Culture and history info

Evidence of settlement in the area stretches back to the 4th century BC, but Georgians like the legend that King Vakhtang Gorgasali of Kartli founded Tbilisi in the 5th century. The story runs that when the king was hunting, a wounded deer fell into a hot sulphur spring and was miraculously healed. In fact Gorgasali won the town back from the Persians, and moved his capital here from Mtskheta in the late 5th century. But there’s no doubt that it was Tbilisi’s magnificent hot springs that gave the city its name (the Georgian tbili means warm).

In 645 Arabs captured Tbilisi and kept it as an emirate for four centuries, but in 1122 King David the Builder (Davit Aghmashenebeli) took the city and made it capital of a united Georgia, building a palace near the Metekhi Church. David invited Armenian artisans and traders to settle in the city, and Armenians remained highly influential here until the 20th century. Under David and his great granddaughter Queen Tamar, Georgia enjoyed its medieval golden age and Tbilisi developed into a multiethnic city of 80,000 people, known for its production of weapons, jewellery, leather and silk clothing. The golden age was ended with a vengeance by the Mongols in 1235, followed in turn by the Black Death, then conqueror Timur (Tamer lane), who destroyed the city in 1386, and the Persians, who captured it in the 1540s.

Tbilisi recovered somewhat under the Persians during the 17th and 18th centuries, and in 1762 it became capital of an independent eastern Georgia under King Erekle II. Erekle’s protector Russia, however, with drew its troops to fight the Turks, allowing Agha Mohamed Khan to inflict Persia’s most devastating assault in 1795. His army killed tens of thousands and burnt Tbilisi to the ground; few buildings today predate 1795 in any substantial form. Russia annexed Georgia in 1800 and recreated Tbilisi in the imperial mould, laying out wide streets and squares. By 1899, Tbilisi had 172,000 people, one third of them Armenian and a quarter each Georgian and Russian.

The Soviet era saw huge growth and relative prosperity: the city’s population passed one million in the 1970s as Georgians flooded in from the countryside. Tbilisi became a centre of opposition to the late Soviet regime, culminating in 19 deaths when troops dispersed hunger strikers at the Parliament building on 9 April 1989. Parliament declared Georgian independence two years later. Rebellion against President Zviad Gamsakhurdia erupted in fierce fighting on Tbilisi’s streets in December 1991, destroying several central landmark buildings.

The 1990s were dark years in Tbilisi – literally, with frequent power cuts blacking out the city – as living standards sank and corruption and crime became rife. In the Rose Revolution of 2003, protesting crowds filled central Tbilisi and finally poured into parliament to drive out President Eduard Shevardnadze. Since then, crime has almost disappeared and Tbilisi has enjoyed a flood of investment and refurbishment, although prosperity is still barely trickling down to the less advantaged sectors of the population.

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