Tbilisi is situated in the heart of Georgia; it’s pretty, it’s old and there’s a lot of history but it’s not a tourist destination. If you go to Tbilisi you’ll encounter lots of non-Georgians but few of them will be tourists; it’s much more likely that they will be the staff of international aid agencies and other non-governmental organizations. The high number of well paid foreign nationals combined with the large number of refugees that have come from other parts of Georgia and the war-torn region of Nagorno-Karabakh in neighbouring Armenia, has the effect of making Tbilisi a city of extremes. One minute you can be considering splashing out on sushi in a hip restaurant, the next you are fighting off a family of beautiful but waif-like children.
Tbilisi is vast; it has a population of almost two million but it probably seems bigger because of its geography. It is built along the steep banks of the Mtkvari River so it tends to grow lengthways. It has three bus stations all miles from each other and you can bet that when you arrive at one your next destination is somewhere near one of the others. Thankfully Tbilisi has a dark and dank but easy to use underground system which may not sound appealing but it preferable to using the surface transport since all destinations in the bus windows are written in Georgian script which would take ages to learn. When you reach the underground station you tell the lady in the kiosk what your destination is and she will give you a token to get through the barrier; she will also indicate whether to go to the left or right platform and by counting on her fingers, tell you how many stops it is. You will be at your destination by the time you have worked out which bus you would need to take.
That said, there is plenty to see that can be achieved on foot and Tbilisi is a very pleasant city to stroll around with riverside walks, narrow streets in the old town and a few not-too-taxing hills. The old town is dominated by churches beautiful churches in the traditional Georgian and sometimes Armenian style, typified by round towers with short, conical roves. Much more our thing was Narikala Fortress which is a short climb up the hill overlooking the Old Town. It’s in ruins today but its quite interesting because you can see how the fortress evolved with differing styles of architecture; the fortress started life as a Persian citadel in the fourth century and was later used by Arab Emirs in the 8th century. Later still when the Russians came to Tbilisi in the nineteenth century they too used the fortress and an explosion in an arms store did massive damage to it. There may not be much to see now but it’s quite atmospheric and is a good place to get views of the city, especially the famous sulphur baths which I have reviewed previously.
If you look hard you can find a footpath that carries on up the hill to Tbilisi’s most famous landmark “Mother Georgia” (known as Kartlis Deda in Georgian). Mother Georgia is a twenty metre high aluminium statue of a stylised woman holding a bunch of grapes symbolizing Georgian hospitality in one hand and brandishing a sword in the other to symbolize Georgia will defending herself against enemies. Disappointingly once you get up there you can’t appreciate it very well because it occupies a small space that is quite enclosed meaning you can’t step back and really look at it. It is worth the walk though because the path is lined with “wishing trees” on which people have tied scraps of cloth or ribbon; traditionally the idea is that if you do this you will one day return to that place but these days it is used to wish for almost anything. Another reason it is worth the walk is because you can carry on back down the other side of the hill and visit the wonderful Botanic Gardens; even if you don’t go in you can admire them from above.
Another unmissable sight is the market held on Saturday and Sunday mornings at the Dry Bridge; the market is featured in “Since Otar Left” and I knew I could not miss it. In the centre of the market is the official section which has permanent purpose built stalls. Here you’ll see the most expensive if the goods for sale fabulous 1950s and 60s ceramics and glassware, older porcelain and wonderful chandeliers. I could have bought half a dozen fantastic pieces but I had to keep reminding myself that I was only a few weeks into my trip and couldn’t really carry antiques in a rucksack. As you move out to the edges of the market some stalls have new items, the mixture is bizarre plastic plates, foreign baseball caps, huge bags of toilet rolls. And finally you see an old person standing next to a small piece of cloth on which are some old spoons and a knackered torch. It really brings home to you how poor these people are and across the road international business people are sipping gin and tonics like they’ve been posted to some jetset destination.
Tbilisi’s “New Town” is centred on Rustaveli Gamziri, home to some quite glitzy international stores. This is also where you’ll find imposing buildings such as the Opera House and the Governors Place. This section of town really reflects the Soviet influence with some elegant nineteenth century buildings alongside other stark modern ones such as the Parliament Building built in the Stalinist style. It is here that you’ll see the most evidence of the turmoil in the city and the country’s recent history; all over Tbilisi but especially in this part of the city you can see buildings badly damaged in the fierce fighting that followed Georgian independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Strolling down this wide tree lined street, looking in the windows of shops I couldn’t afford myself it is hard to imagine that people starved to death on these streets in the 1990s. It was only in 2003 with the “Rose Revolution” that fortunes began to improve in Tbilisi. Even today the city’s reputation is still blighted by crime and poverty and residents of Tbilisi feel quite resentful of the thousands of refugees living in the city, whom they blame for these problems.
This turmoil has a marked effect on the tourist industry. There is lots of high end hotel accommodation (Marriott, Sheraton, etc) but very little at the budget end though this appears to be changing a little. When the refugees flooded in from the disputed Abkahzia region that borders Russia they were accommodated in some of the larger state run hotels and so that accommodation no longer exists for tourists. Backpackers can find homestay accommodation on offer at bus and train stations and there are a few mid-range hotels. Luckily Tbilisi is never likely to be so busy that it’s a struggle to find something.
Again eating out and drinking are also geared towards the higher end of the market with the most notable international eateries being clustered on Akhvlediani; here you can eat sushi, drink cocktails and rub shoulders with the sort of individuals you’d probably work hard to avoid at home.
Much more fun is to head for Rikhe, a little cluster of restaurants on the left bank of the river. The restaurants here are more typically Georgian and my favourite was Megrelia where diners eat in separate sheds which – apparently is a very Georgian thing to do. (Please see my review of Georgia in general for more information on Georgian cuisine).
Like many former Soviet cities Tbilisi has a broad selection of museums but they suffer because the exhibits are usually badly presented and labeled only in Russian and the home language. However, should any museum be of particular interest to you, you might wish to consider engaging a private tour guide either from an agency or through an informal agreement with someone who approaches you on the street, usually a student looking to supplement their income. If someone in Tbilisi wants to rob you of your money they’ll mug you; engaging the services of a guide who approaches you on the street is safe and an option worth considering so long as you agree in advance what you want to see and what you will be paying for. For example, if you engage the guide for a whole day you may wish to stand them lunch too and if the arrangement is to book the guide for several days to see somewhere else in the country you should really foot the bill for their accommodation.
What I loved about Tbilisi was the little things the way a mother and daughter threw themselves down so dramatically at the feet of the priest when he appeared round a corner, the lamb that was tethered in the patio of a caf we were in and managed to escape, pursued by the caf owner and his son, the cheerful soldiers on the underground greedily eyeing up a massive birthday cake a lady was carrying in an open box.
It will be some time yet before Tbilisi becomes a real tourist destination; however for travelers with an open mind it can be an interesting and rewarding place to visit. Ignore the reports of crime but take the same care you would in any other capital city. The best way to avoid attention from beggars or muggers is to wear black most Georgians dress almost exclusively in black and to plan your route in advance so you do not have to keep referring to your guidebook. As soon as you pull out a guidebook you will become the focus of everyone’s attention and it can become quite hard work. We made the mistake of giving money and a handful of sweets to one young child, only to have his entire family emerge from some trees to ask for more; we were not threatened but it did make us feel slightly uncomfortable and the requests were quite persistent and vocal.
Tbilisi was exactly as I thought and, yet wasn’t. It was how I thought I would have liked it to have been although I had been expecting it to have moved on more since the Soviet era. When I first went to Prague I wished I had gone earlier because I felt it was much like any other central European capital. I do feel that I chose the right time to visit Tbilisi; too soon and I would have encountered more power cuts and intermittent water supplies as well as more hositilty to foreigners, too late and Tbilisi might have lost something of its own character.
Tbilisi does have an international airport but few airlines fly there from the UK; it is more common to fly with Aeroflot from Moscow (an adventure in itself if the stories are true).
We reached Tbilisi by bus from Batumi on Georgia’s Black Sea coast having crossed into the country from Turkey.
Tbilisi is linked to Yerevan (Armenia) and Baku (Azerbaijan) by rail.
www.caucusustravel.co.ge is an excellent site for tourist information in Tbilisi and Georgia more generally
EU citizens do not require a passport for entry to Georgia; people of other nationalities should go to the website of the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and check the requirements as they do change from time to time.