Your guide to Tbilisi

With a Soviet past and edgy East meets West creativity, the world is starting to notice Georgia’s fascinating capital – and with good reason

 

Words by Michelle Wranik-Hicks

 

A decade after the war with Russia, Georgia’s capital has flourished with the sort of creative edginess comparable to other former Soviet-occupied cities like Berlin or Prague. With a captivatingly higgledy-piggledy Old Town, smart concept boutiques, chic cafés and Soviet-era buildings repurposed as hipster hotels, it’s where a sense of history and modernity collide. A long weekend gives you time to dip your toe into this riverside city, and if you’re wondering if the local food will appeal, bear in mind the Georgian word shemomechamam, which translates to ‘snaccident’ and is used to reference something so tasty you ate the whole thing by accident.

 

A CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE

Explore on foot

The narrow, labyrinthine lanes of Tbilisi’s 19th-century Old Town are charmingly storybook. The historical brick-façade houses with their intricate wooden balconies are particularly enchanting, as is the whimsical, leaning clock tower attached to the theatre of renowned puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze. For museums, opera and ballet, or simply the art of people-watching, head to Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s happening thoroughfare dotted with stylish cafés.

Mama Georgia

The city is overlooked by the 4th-century Narikala Fortress, easily reached via a 10-minute aerial cable car ride, and the views over the city are magical. Note: wait for the glass-bottomed cable car for an unfettered panorama. While exploring, you won’t be able to miss the 66-foot-tall aluminium sculpture of Kartlis Deda, known as Mother Georgia, who stands guard holding a cup of wine for friends in one hand and brandishing a sword to vanquish foes in the other.

Modern marvels

Take a stroll along Tbilisi’s riverside to the Bridge of Peace, a futuristic construction made of glass and steel, which is illuminated at night in an LED spectacle. There’s more modernity in adjacent Rike Park, dotted with contemporary art installations, and at the spectacular Zurab Tsereteli Museum of Modern Art (Rustaveli Ave. 27), which showcases works by the famous Georgian sculptor and artist, and plays host to the biannual Fashion Week.

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Domes of the sulphur baths in the historic quarter

ROOM TO GROOM

Scrub-a-dub-dub

It’s no Baden-Baden, but the Abanotubani district’s distinctive domed brick bathhouses have long offered restorative balneology to famed visitors like Alexandre Dumas and Alexander Pushkin, and if you can handle the pungent smell, the sulphur waters are said to cure everything from rheumatism to insomnia. Take a dip in a gender-segregated communal area, opt for a private room, or book a sudsy exfoliating scrubdown and massage. Try Bathhouse Number 5, tiled with exquisite mosaics, or the popular Gulo’s Spa, with pine saunas and a VIP room with pool. 

Luxe spa spoils

If a decadent massage sans egg smell is more your style, the luxury Sam Raan Spa & Wellness Centre (300 Aragvelis 24) cherry-picks wellness treatments from around the globe (think Himalayan salt therapy and Thai massage). For customised facials, aroma steam rooms and Finnish saunas – not to mention a rooftop infinity pool with a city panorama – the Anne Semonin SPA (1 Rose Revolution Square) is a 1,600-square-metre pampering haven.

All the trimmings

With so many creatives in Tbilisi, it goes without saying there’s an abundance of hipster beards, and keeping them in retro-modern shipshape style is Camora (23 Shota Rustaveli Ave). A beard trim and hot shave in this trendy  fitted-out man cave – the walls are lined with historic black-and-white photography – will have gents looking and feeling like locals in no time.

 

If you’re invited to a Georgian home, it’s customary to bring a gift like sweets or an odd number of flowers

 

ART CAFES

Veg out at home

Tbilisi is flush with art cafés, quaint gallery-esque eateries with a penchant for quirky, homely interiors, and Cafe Leila (18 Ioane Shavteli St) is surely one of the loveliest, with Persian-inspired art and a cosy ambience. With scrumptious cakes, lemonades and compôtes, the cuisine is healthy and vegetarian friendly.

In the family

Cafe Linville’s (4/6 Gia Abesadze St) floral wallpaper and kooky interiors make it feel like the home of an eccentric aunt – only, instead of dusty sofas and six cats, this particular aunt serves up outstanding Georgian classics. The vintage décor and live piano music add to the cosy atmosphere.

Tbilisi and chill

Is it a café, is it a club, is it a gallery? No one seems to know. But one thing’s certain: Art-Cafe Home (Betlemi 13), set in a three-storey house in Tbilisi’s historic district, is perennially popular. Along with a gallery downstairs, the venue has worn-in sofas, clever cocktails and a rooftop with glorious views of the city; managing to blend going out with staying in, in rather genius fashion. 

 

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Cheese-stuffed khachapuri flatbread

DINE ABOUT TOWN

Baked bread

Few can resist the carb laden allure of Georgia’s famous melted cheese-stuffed flatbread, khachapuri, baked in the oven and traditionally topped with runny egg. Plump khinkali dumplings are another moreish must-try, filled with minced meat and spices. It may be soul food, but Georgian cuisine is far from stodgy, with hip restaurants paying homage to the nation’s culinary lineage, like Shavi Lomi by celebrity chef Meriko Gubeladze, and Barbarestan (D. Aghmashenebeli Ave 132), which recreates recipes from the cookbook of Barbare Jorjadze, a 19th-century princess and the nation’s first feminist.

Supra duper

The amount of food served at a supra – a traditional festive Georgian banquet – may seem nonsensical. Oven-hot bread, comforting soups and stews such as chakapuli (Stalin’s favourite), along with homemade lemonades are just a sampling, with plates piled high and glasses filled before you’ve had a chance to empty them. Don’t resist or you risk offending your Georgian hosts, who take their food (and their toasts) very seriously. 

Hide and seek homestyle cooking

You may need local intel to track down Keto & Kote (3 Mikheil Zandukeli Dead End), one of Tbilisi’s most authentic and in-demand restaurants, set in a charming restored courtyard house in the Old Town. The chef hails from the western Samegrelo region, known for its cheese, so elarji (cornmeal with sulguni cheese) is a must try.

 

Follow the local etiquette when eating khinkali (soupy dumplings) – take a small bite to suck out the broth, and leave the top knot on the side of your plate

 

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Dry Bridge Flea Market

LOCAL BUYS

Soviet relics

During the bleak years of Soviet rule, cash-strapped Tbilisi residents would sell their worldly possessions on blankets and sheets at the Dry Bridge Flea Market, open daily near Dedaena Park. Today, it’s a bonanza for anyone interested in Soviet memorabilia, though come armed with patience and wear your haggling hat. A faded Lenin portrait, vintage military medals and antique radios are just some of the treasures you can find.

Be bookish

There’s a charming sense of yesteryear at Books Cafe (37 Mikheili Tsinamdzghvrishvili St), which has  floral wallpaper, an antiquated charm and shelves of vintage books to thumb through. For rare tomes, Tbilisi’s Museum of Books (5 Lado Gudiashvili St) is the largest in the entire Caucasus. 

Made in Georgia

The fashion world has fixed its monocle on Tbilisi ever since Georgian-born designer Demna Gvasalia, of Balenciaga and Vetements fame, arrived on the scene. For emerging designers, head to fashion collective Matériel, or try Chaos, an industrial-style concept store with indoor skate ramp and homegrown brands. 

 

Make like a fashion editor and snap up a chokha – a traditional Georgian wool coat with ornamental cartridge holders on the chest

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The Biltmore Hotel Tbilisi

WHERE TO STAY
River Side Hotel Tbilisi

A stay here puts you at the heart of the historical and architectural centre of Tbilisi – with the hotel positioned directly in front of Mshrali Bridge and next to a park in which Georgian masters show their paintings. Rooms are richly decorated, and feature either a balcony or terrace, allowing guests to soak up the view of Mtkvari River.

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Shota Rustaveli Boutique Hotel

This designer bolthole has 38 rooms and suites with a chic aesthetic – timber-clad floors, exposed beams and eye-catching art. It’s just an amble to Rustaveli Avenue, though in a quiet side street, with the on-site Melograno restaurant serving both Georgian and Italian cuisine.

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The Biltmore Hotel Tbilisi 

The irony of a luxurious hotel set in the former Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute might make you chortle, but the five-star trimmings – think grandiose interiors, a pool and a decadent spa – certainly won’t. It has a premier location on Rustaveli Avenue.

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