Grand City of the Silk Road
Coming to our last destination in Georgia before leaving for Armenia having been to Batumi and Kutaisi the days before, we arrive to its fascinating capital city for a bit longer this time; almost 3 days in Tbilisi. It worked just about right in counting 2 entire days for visiting the countless sights and 3 nights, time enough for also enjoying so much great food like nowhere else, and seeing some nightlife with local beers and drinks in incredible truly Georgia style restaurants and bars. We would have been pleased with an extra day, however that was impossible due to the tight schedule.
The countless historic houses perched from the hill overlooking the Kura (Mtkvari) River bend, the views from the bridges, and the unparalleled views from the cable car itself will be your postcard perfect memory from Tbilisi. Still, there are plenty of restoration projects going on, and many more to come, the city has simply kicked-off greatly opening more and more to the thriving tourism industry which will soon come in the masses. The potential at any place in the Caucasus is been always there, only dormant until recently. Take your chance to visit Georgia before the big tourism boom; thereafter its uniqueness might be compromised on behalf of a heavily tourist-orientated mentality.
Back on a bit of history, would you ever imagine that since its foundation in the 5th century AD it has been destroyed and rebuilt at least 29 times? Incredible fact and dramatic number. But the location says it all. Next to the once thriving and lucrative Silk Road, right in between Europe and Asia, no wonder every power through the centuries wanted to take over it. The many different empires left their legacy, notably visible today in the vast architectural collection. This is the real deal, no hesitation. In this city you will get to see plenty of the impressive Ottoman architecture the city is so proud from, among other styles such as medieval, neo-classical Beaux Arts, art-nouveau, art-deco, modernist and Stalinist.
When the city (and the country itself) was annexed to the Russian Empire, it is when the major projects took place. Rail and roads connecting with other cities from the empire, and the grand and elegant avenues and mansions in the European style built. The prosperity lasted until the 1917 Russian Revolution, where on the grounds of the former Caucasus Vice royal Palace the independence was proclaimed for the three Transcaucasus nations of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Not for long though, the Red Army came in 1921 declaring the Soviet rule, until the break up of the Soviet Union from 1991 where the three states became independent nations ever since.
With the break up of the Soviet Union, the country experienced a period of crumbling economy, impoverishment, unemployment, and with this mafia, corruption and crime for over a decade. Dark scenes aside, the country and the city have managed to recover and rise to the current boom and stability in both economy and politics, becoming a very safe and desirable city.
Today is such a vibrant place and so truly beautiful that was without any doubt, the jewel of this entire trip alone. And not just about the architecture, culture and people, but the incredible food everywhere. Georgia is well famous for having a perfect mix of European with the influences of the Middle East for being right there at the crossroad linking both continents ever since antiquity. Very famous are the meats of course, grilled served with vegetables that you can find anywhere, but especially to name a very traditional restaurant where mostly locals go is Machakhela. We could not believe how being located in such a central location, the prices were so low and so great quality and quantity! A must go.
For more information about Tbilisi check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Georgia’s currency is the Lari (GEL). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Tbilisi
Considering the different districts of the city, it is easy to split them in west and east bank of the river, and as such, plan accordingly your sightseeing with a day at the west side, and the following day at the east. That’s how it worked great for us, and I can strongly recommend.
- Mtatsminda District On the west bank of the river, north from the old town. This is a “modern” area created after 1930 and developed around its main avenue, the Rustaveli. Here you will find lots of great Stalinist/Soviet architecture.
-Rustaveli Avenue Major thoroughfare in the city aligned with great and imposing architecture from the Soviet times as museums, governmental and institutions. Starts at the Rose Revolution Square at the north (metro station Rustaveli) and terminates south at Freedom Square where the old town begins.
-National Academy of Sciences Next to the main entrance to Rustaveli metro station. It has the traditional Soviet design similar to the Seven Sisters of Moscow that then spread across all the capital cities of the former Soviet Union.
-Museum of Marxism and Leninism One of the Soviet jewels in the city, although the museum is closed as the building pending to become a hotel.
-Opera and Ballet Theatre Continuing south along the avenue, founded in 1851 it is the oldest of its kind in Eastern Europe. The current building dates from 1896 in neo-Moorish style.
-Rustaveli National Theatre Just a block away from the Opera. Built in 1887 in rococo style, is the largest and one of the oldest theatres in the country.
-Marriott Hotel Next building after the Rustaveli Theatre completing the block, it was the former 1914 Grand Hotel Majestic.
-9th of April Park Halfway through the avenue with grand buildings and hotels around it.
-The National Gallery At the front of the park, an elegant classical building in blue.
-Kashveti Church Next to the National Gallery, built in 1910, a small reproduction based on the medieval cathedral of Samtavisi.
-N1 Public School Facing both the National Gallery and Kashveti Church, a very elegant palatial style construction.
-Former Parliament of Georgia The next building continuing south, impossible to miss for its Soviet large scale architecture. The current Parliament moved to the city Kutaisi.
-Palace of Youth Side by side with the former Parliament, in what was the 1868 Palace of the former Tsar’s governor in the Caucasus (Vorontsov’s Palace) designed in Renaissance style. It was here when on March 26 of 1918 Georgia’s independence was declared, and two days later both Armenia and Azerbaijan were born as new independent states.
-National Museum Across the road from the Palace of Youth.
-National Parliamentary Library Behind the National Museum, spread across 3 beautiful buildings in the same street next to each other.
-Administration of the Government of Georgia Not along the avenue itself, but visible across the park after the Palace of Youth. A very traditional Soviet brutalist construction.
-Freedom Square The terminus south point of Rustaveli Avenue, it’s one of the most beautiful and impressive squares in the city surrounded by grand architecture everywhere. The metro station of the same name serves the area.
-Freedom Monument In the centre, the equestrian statue of Saint George unveiled in 2006.
-Museum of Art Located at the northeast of the square after the small park, already along Pushkin Street. The building was the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary where in 1894 Joseph Dzhugashvili Stalin studied.
-City Hall Aligning the entire south front of the square. It’s another of the great examples of neo-Moorish architecture that was so trendy at the end of the 19th century.
-National Bank of Georgia Southwest from the square, in Leonidze Street. Nice art-nouveau structure.
- Kala District The old historic town, along the west bank of the river and east from the Freedom Square is a maze of small streets carefully restored to their former glory with great structure from many eras, although many of them have been reconstructed. It becomes very hilly towards the south, with the area surrounding the Narikala Fortress being the most famous landmark with the many Ottoman style houses. The best is to access it from Freedom Square along Leselidze Street, and get lost along.
-Rezo Gabriadze Theater At the northernmost edge of the district, next to the Baratashvili Bridge. Very well designed implementing new elements to the old structure, such as the crooked tower.
-Anchiskhati Basilica of Saint Mary Across from the theatre, it is the oldest structure surviving in the city, dating from the 6th century, built by the King Dachi of Iberia.
-Sourb Nshan Armenian Church Pretty much in the centre at the heart of the district. Built in the early 18th century, was recently restored.
-Erekle Street Along the east side of the district heading towards the south, it is one of the most charming and important, full of restaurants and bars.
-Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition Located along Sioni Street (continuation south of Erekle Steet), with an entire side facing the embankment of the Kura (Mtkvari) River. Tracing its origins to the 6th century as a church, destroyed and rebuilt over time, the present look dates mostly from the 13th century with restoration done in the 17th and 19th. Was the main Georgian Orthodox Cathedral and the seat of the Patriarch of Georgia until the Holy Trinity Cathedral was consecrated in 2004.
-Theological Academy At the other side of Sion Street facing the Cathedral. The bell tower sits at one of the corners.
-Norashen Armenian Church and Jvaris Mama Church Both at the opposite side of the Theology Academy.
-Georgian Synagogue Just few meters south from the previous churches.
-Vakhtang Gorgasali Square At the south of the district, where Sion and Leselidze Streets meet, and the Metekhi Bridge to Metekhi Cliff in the district of Avlabari at the east bank of the river.
-Sulfur Baths Farther south after the bend from the fortress hill where the small gorge starts, you find the area famous for these baths. There are more than one, and are great to experience if you have the time. The architecture is really pretty inside and outside with the traditional brick cupolas.
-Cutlets Bath The next ones, this time easy to spot, the very traditional Arabic architecture of the main facade by the gorge.
-Narikala Fortress Perched at the highest peak within the city, at the top of the old historic town. Mostly the walls are what is left from the old structure, which dates back to the 4th century. At one of the courtyards you will find Saint Nicholas Church, rebuilt in 1997 in the place of the original 13th century church that was destroyed in a fire. The views of the city and beyond from the top are breathtaking and so the views from across the river overlooking the fortress and old town below. You can reach the top either by cable car from Metekhi (2.5 GEL per way), or walking from the old town either from the back of Vakhtang Gorgasali Square or behind the Cutlets Bath continuing through the path and hill. I would recommend going up via cable car, and walk down.
Chugureti District On the east bank of the river, although there is not much there to see other than one of the 2 historic thoroughfares in Tbilisi, the beautiful avenue is a must.
-David Agmashenebeli Avenue One of the main avenues well known for its 19th century classical architecture, especially towards the south as it becomes fully pedestrian. It terminates at the Chugureti Bridge, overlooking the old town area, and it is served by the metro station Marjanishvili located at the half way.
-Apollo Cinema In eclectic style, one of the largest old cinemas in town surrounding by other nice buildings in architecture.
-Palace of the Railwaymen One of the finest neoclassical structures in Tbilisi.
-Nodar Dumbadze Theatre Continuing south along the avenue, you reach this fine art-deco structure.
-Kote Marjanishvili Drama Theatre Although not in the avenue, but near it just a block into Kote Marjanishvili Street from the intersection. It’s the second in importance after the Rustaveli. Founded in 1928 housed in a fine art-nouveau building.
-TBC Bank Same location as with the previous theatre, it’s right across the street.
-Marjanishvili Square Halfway this avenue, the houses around all symmetrical are designed in the traditional Soviet style.
-Pedestrian section The southern end of the avenue is now pedestrian friendly, and where you will find plenty of cafes, restaurants and bars. One of the thriving nightlife areas.
-Saarbrücken Square The southern end of the avenue. If you cross the bridge over the river here you get into the Mtatsminda District, at the 9th of April Park.
- Avlabari District Farther south after the Chugureti District is the last of the important areas within the historic Tbilisi. Avlavari metro station serves the area.
-Holy Trinity Cathedral Completed in 2004 in traditional Georgian style, was built upon the idea of having a new cathedral commemorating the 1500 years since the city’s foundation. It stands as the third tallest Orthodox cathedral in the world.
-Presidential Palace Towards the west from the cathedral, newly built yet impressive where money was not a problem for such project.
-Rike Park This entire area is the newest addition to the city along the riverside, combining landscaped green areas with sculptures, cafes, restaurants, pavilions, a stunning Cultural Centre and the new iconic structure in Tbilisi, the bow-shaped Bridge of Peace where at night turn into a light show. The lower station of the cable car to Narikala Fortress is also here.
-Metekhi Cliff One of the oldest settlements in the city, an idyllic location where once stood King Vakhtang I Gorgasalia palace in the 12th century. At night it is illuminated from the river creating a great view altogether.
-Metekhi Church of Assumption One of the oldest structures in the city, form 1284, sitting above the cliff next to the equestrian statue of King Vakhtang I Gorgasalia.
-Wedding Palace Farther south on the boundaries of the district and by the metro station Aragveli. Another of the Soviet architecture jewels. Built in 1984 as a wedding venue, it has the influence of a medieval Georgian church as design.
- Bank of Georgia Headquarters Mentioning here alone as it sits outside of the tourist areas, north of the city, however one of the architectural masterpieces of the former Soviet Union, completed in 1975. For the best views of it, I would recommend you the opposite side of the river, where the nearest metro station would be Gotsiridze.
The international airport is some 18 kilometres southeast from the city centre. Constantly growing in passengers and flights, has great connections already through Europe, Middle east and Asia; although in many cases you might need to have a stop-over at a hub somewhere else before reaching Tbilisi. From the airport there are buses (37 and 137) linking all the way to the city via major transport hubs as is Samgori where you can change for the metro, Freedom Square, Republic Square Tamar Bridge and the central train station. Without any doubt, this is the most convenient and cheap way costing only 0.50 GEL per way, taking approximately 50 minutes. Trains could be your second option however these are just twice daily, therefore not very convenient. The cost is the same, but the travel time is reduced to 30 minutes.
Coming overland is straightforward by buses, mini buses and trains. The capital lies at the major rail and road intersection of the country, so the choices are good enough. That might be of your interest are having direct connections to Batumi, Gori, Kutaisi, Chiatura within Georgia, and international direct connections towards Baku in Azerbaijan, and Yerevan in Armenia. It is also possible to travel to Turkey by bus.
Within the city, there is a great network of public transport. Tbilisi benefited greatly from the Soviet Union engineering in this matters, and a metro system was built, large roads and avenues laid through the city, and the now gone trams and trolleybuses which were replaced by buses. In order to use the metro and buses, you need to first buy a magnetic card (Metromani), this costs 2 GEL at the counter of any station, and then load with any money you wish. A trip in the metro and buses costs 0.50 GEL. Whichever the money you have left in your metro card is refundable, together with the 2 GEL.
Considering it is the capital and largest city in the country, and one of the most visited, the choice of hotels of any kind is quite large and good, but not a great as in the case of the coastal resort of Batumi. Here in Tbilisi the costs are also higher than the rest of the country but still, there are good deals to grab as long as you are not aiming for the big names and instead staying at a local chain or more family run business which are lots everywhere and are as great as a 4 or even 5* large hotel. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Hotel Villa Residence at the south of the city at number 36 Kakheti Highway. Literally across the metro station Samgori hence always a very easy and quick commute anywhere in the city. The fact that we ended up a bit away from the old town was the costs as mentioned before. Our dates were anywhere the Easter bank holidays, therefore it was already one of the peak seasons over there hence the value for money elsewhere was impossible to meet if we still wanted to have great service and facilities as this hotel has. The staff was superb across every department, and the room beautiful, very large compared to the usual standards, comfortable and quiet at night, very important for a great rest. The breakfast had a large choice in both local and the usual Western products, well more than enough to have a great start of the day. Definitely recommended to anyone.