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.
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.
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
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.