Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi street art randomly found while walking across the city

First of all: we loved this city.

The capitol city of Georgia is a paradoxical mix of old and new, familiar and foreign.  Since this was our first visit to a post-Soviet country, we didn’t really know what to expect before we arrived. It was absolutely a memorable trip, full of new and interesting experiences.

We tend to travel fairly blind, without doing a lot of research before-hand, and Tbilisi was a joy to explore with the group of friends we came with.

Right from our first steps out of the airport, we felt welcomed and comfortable. Customs and local staff are friendly and helpful. Cell companies offer free sim cards & $5 4G plans.

We loved the feel of Central Tbilisi, where shopping districts, café-lined streets, and modern art parks are neighbored by very roughly-finished high-rise construction.  There is wealth here, but also austerity.

And we also enjoyed the countryside, which we traveled through on a day trip to Armenia (a trip in more than one way).

Food

Pickled veggies & bread – SO GOOD

We arrived to our apartment in Tbilisi hungry. None of us having any idea of where we were, where to go, or what we wanted to eat, we did some quick googling-while-walking (thank you, cheap and easy data plan!) which led us to a restaurant in our neighborhood. We stumbled in, a starving, travel-worn, somewhat-smelly, too-sober group of eight with no reservation.

Our only desire was for edible food – any kind. And beer, of course, or wine. As our group tumbled in through the doors to the restaurant like a Three Stooges octet, we were greeted by white-jacketed waiters, a coat check, and table settings with severally-sized spoons. We almost backed out, but the staff there were so lovely and so welcoming – and our starvation so immediate – that we had no choice but to sit and puzzle over the menu.

We ended up trying everything.

Our server took great care of us, and she and the kitchen staff ordered and walked us through an extremely satisfying meal of stuffed breads, soups, wine, cheeses, meatballs, dumplings, and sauces that I never learned the names of. All delicious, and all very familiar while also undeniably foreign. We loved it, and that was an amazing entrance to the culinary experiences of Georgia. The manager took such good care of us that as we were leaving, she apologized for not having one specific Georgian dish on the menu, and recommended a nearby place to try that tomorrow.

80% of my calorie intake while in Tbilisi came from meats, cheeses, and wine, and it was glorious.  I am absolutely a glutton while on vacation, and I never say no to something new that looks good.  After all, when am I going to be back here again?  Diets are for home.

We like to walk when we visit new cities, and one of the reasons is that we get to check out the hundreds of cafes and restaurants as we walk by (and stop in).  Our daily plans were minimal, amounting essentially to walk across town eating, drinking coffee, and sampling local beers & wines until we get to X landmark.

Meat skewers, asian-style dumplings, khinkali (meat-stuffed breads), sausages, soups, and kababs are delicious and easy to find.  Many restaurants serve their own home-made wine in pitchers in addition to bottled stuff, which was fun to try, honestly not too bad, and very cheap.

Our apartment

As our driver pulled up to our apartment building, we hesitated at the blank concrete, exposed rebar, and dangling wires that decorated the entryway.  The apartment was on the top floor of a 13-storey apartment building, and although the photos of the apartment looked nice, the exterior of the building was everything you might expect a half-completed post-soviet apartment block to look like.

We’ve seen this before in other places: South/East Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, southern Europe – the practice where private interior spaces of buildings are decorated and well-maintained, but the exterior public faces of buildings are completely neglected. Some cultures put a very low value on the outside appearance of their homes.

Having no option but to head in, we found an elevator whose exposed metal frame and cold-war aesthetic sparked discussion on whether to walk up 13 floors with our suitcases. We accepted the test of faith.  The closet-sized elevator allowed us to get upstairs in three separate trips.

Also, something new for us: a banged up metal box in the elevator requiring payment for the ride – just less than the equivalent of 4 U.S. cents, each way.

We held our breaths as the hamster cage of an elevator ushered us clanging and jerking to the top of the building. We tried not to imagine the growing volume of space between our bodies and the ground below.

It took time, but I grew to love this elevator.

Thankfully, the interior of the apartment was in stark contrast to the public front of the building (the 13th floor foyer and hallways were also unadorned concrete, with exposed wiring, dangling lights, and immediate need of a good sweep).  Clean, modern, and decorated with a clear sense of design (and a somewhat-foreign color palette), our hill-topping penthouse apartment rental offered a gorgeous view of the surrounding city.  It was dark when we got to the apartment, so the city lights were out in full effect.

Daytime view of northern Tbilisi from our Airbnb

After dropping off our bags, we went out for the dinner I mentioned above.  Some of us thought to take the stairs down to the street because the elevator wouldn’t carry us all at once (and to save the 3.7 cents).  

Remember the unfinished nature of the building?  Yeah.  Turned out that the stairwell was unlighted, of rough cement, with no handrails, and littered with debris.  Large openings at each landing offered windy, glass-less views that seemed more than marginally unsafe in the moonlight.  We took shifts using the elevator.

The city

The city at night from the Tbilisi Tower

Tbilisi is easy to get around, with a developed transit system.  Subways and buses are easy to use, and Google Maps transit tools make you feel like a native. 

It is also fairly walkable, and exploring Tbilisi by foot was rewarding.  We spent days exploring cafes, restaurants, street art, and oddities almost everywhere we went.  My phone says we walked about 30 km in the week we stayed in Tbilisi – not bad.

Tbilisi is an old city and both large and small architectural artifacts of its past are easy to find.  Probably the most famous landmark is Narikala Fortress, which sits high up in central Tbilisi overlooking the Kura River which winds through town.  Frankly, I wish access was more restricted, as little care is taken to preserve the old stonework, but it was fun to climb up the walls to enjoy the view.

A view from the top of Narikala Fortress

Another common destination is the Dry Bridge Market, which is a flea market filled with art, toys, jewelry, and lots of miscellanea.  Lots of really cool stuff here.  Here is my souvenir from the trip:

An expired Soviet passport I bought at the Dry Bridge Market

Overall, we really enjoyed our week in Tbilisi, and I would go again. English-speakers are sometimes hard to find, but we were able to get everything we wanted with patience and smiles. Lovely people.