Is Tbilisi Worth Visiting?
As we were researching Georgia, all we found were positive reports with many sights to see and things to do. By most reports, the country is safe fro tourism again. We found Tbilisi to be a bit shabby looking in parts, but the sinking and dilapidation really adds to the charm. And there are many places that are really stepping into the modern zone. Does it feel like you are traveling? It sure does. We’re already planning a return trip. We loved it, so yes, Tbilisi is very much worth visiting.
When is the Best Time to Visit Tbilisi?
The best temperatures of the year are in May and June and then again after the heat of summer in September and October. So spring and fall are the best times to visit. You just have to decide if you would rather have flowers or foliage to look at. There is also a bit more rain in the spring than in the fall. The month of June is the rainiest all year long.
We visited Georgia in Spring, during the month of April, and it had mild temperatures. Long sleeves and long pants were comfortable during the day. At night, you also need a jacket.
What is the Current Political Situation in Tbilisi, and Georgia?
The most recent military action happened in 2008 and resulted in Russian annexation of parts of the country in what looks like, in retrospect, a Russian rehearsal for what would later occur in Crimea. Georgia still considers one of the sectors, Abkhazia, as occupied territory, though relations with Russia have somewhat normalized. Apparently satisfied with their territorial gains along the Black Sea coast, Russia went on to bigger and bullier things while still maintaining a controlling presence in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The Georgian Dumpling Khinkali
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Is There Crime In Tbilisi?
Tbilisi is the capital city and the largest urban area in Georgia so of course there is crime there. During the war with Russia and the earlier civil war with South Ossetia and Abkhazia there were terrorist attacks and bombings, including air raids by the Russian Air Force, but that was in the past and little evidence of this remains today.
The current state of affairs in Tbilisi is pretty much business as usual in a big city. The local government has been slowly updating infrastructure, there are new building projects underway, and tourism is definitely on the rise. We never felt any danger of any sort. Well, except when crossing the street on a busy boulevard with no crosswalks.
Georgian Unity Day
We did have one experience that, while it wasn’t threatening in any way, gave us cause to pause, and we ended up staying around to see what was happening. Our first guest house was across the river about a stone’s throw from the iconic Sameba Cathedral and we decided it would be a great starting point for our first day in the city. It was a crystal clear, warm April morning and the Cathedral’s golden dome was shining in the sun. Families were strolling around the park-like grounds surrounding the cathedrals enjoying the spring flowers, cherry trees, and sunshine. We took several pictures outside the building, walking around and marveling at the structure.
When we entered the cathedral there were twelve coffins, each draped with the Georgian flag and each bearing a framed picture of a young man. This was obviously a funeral or memorial service with families, officials, and military men and women in attendance. April 9th is the day of National Unity in Georgia, the day Georgia declared its independence from the USSR and the day, a year before that, when twenty protesters were killed by Soviet troops squashing a protest for independence. We thought this was something to do with the events of the past and it turns out these were newly identified remains from an aircraft shot down during the Abkhazia civil war in 1993.
Is Tbilisi Safe For Tourists?
While it’s true that Tbilisi and most of Georgia is safe for tourists, with more and more development taking place to improve the tourism industry throughout the country, the fact remains that the scars and memories of war are still very much part of the public identity. However, most visitors to the country are welcomed with open friendliness. The biggest danger from most strangers is that you’ll drink too much of their homemade wine that they will treat you to at every opportunity.
One thing we’ve noticed while traveling around eastern Europe is that some countries have come out from under the Soviet umbrella in better shape than others. Maybe it’s part of the troubled past of Georgia, always in the crossroads of conquering armies, that has delayed its development. Or perhaps it’s the need to deal with internal strife that has diverted resources from much needed public infrastructure. I can’t really be sure after only a short visit, but I did notice that even though it is coming a little later to the game, Georgia has been making some strong and determined advances towards putting Tbilisi and Georgia squarely on the tourism map. Sites in Tbilisi have been cleaned up, renovated and repaired, and are open and ready for business.
Tbilisi Is Great Value For Tourists
All of this works together to make a visit to Tbilisi both enjoyable and affordable. There are a host of good choices for hotels or guest houses in a wide range to suit any taste or comfort level. The food scene is growing alongside the rest of the tourism industry at a good pace with some really excellent eating options for both local and international cuisine. Of course, wine is where it’s really at in Georgia, with most of the history books agreeing that Georgia is the birthplace of the modern wine making method. Tbilisi has museums, amusement parks, ballet, bike tours, even a castle ruin to explore. It’s time to make plans for your visit today!
Do You Need A Visa?
Most countries do not require a visa to enter, however the website to check is here. If you are from the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or the European Union you can stay in Georgia up to 365 days without a visa or residence card. It’s becoming one of the places that digital nomads go, avoiding Schengen Visa restrictions found in other parts of Europe.
How To Get To Tbilisi
Most visitors to Tbilisi will arrive via air, landing at the small but efficient Tbilisi Airport. Connections to the city can be made by train or bus, both very inexpensive and fairly quick (about US$0.25 for the 30 minute trip!). If you land after 23:00, though, you’ll need to take a taxi to the city center for around 25GEL (about US$10) if you’re a keen negotiator.
Transportation In Tbilisi
Transportation in Tbilisi is one part of the infrastructure that hasn’t quite caught up to the rest of the efforts in the city. There are some fabulous sites to visit that will reveal Tbilisi’s past but getting to them can sometimes be a challenge. You could drive yourself in a cheap rental car, but then you’ll have a difficult time finding parking and the streets aren’t signed as well as they could be.
There are minibuses that drive throughout the city, but we couldn’t find enough information to make them useful to anyone but a local. There is a metro system, providing connections between the various parts of the city, but it won’t get you very close to most of the main sites and this is a hard city to walk with broken or missing sidewalks, difficult street crossings, and major construction sites. The metro system is old and undergoing updates with plans to extend coverage, hopefully this may improve in the future.
How to Get Around Tbilisi With Taxis
The best way to get around Tbilisi, especially on a short stay, is to use a combination of metro and taxi. Taxis are cheap and plentiful. The drivers may be difficult to communicate with, most don’t speak a lot of English, but we were able to get around the city with very few problems.
Cabs don’t always use a meter system. It’s better to have a good idea of what the ride should cost and then negotiate as close to that cost as possible before climbing aboard. We would ask at our hotel or at a restaurant to get an idea of what it should cost to get somewhere and use that information to set our price.
Despite the initial hassle of haggling, once the price was set and we were on the road, each of our cab drivers became friendly, founts of information about Georgia and Tbilisi. I’m sure it would be a simple thing to negotiate a one-day or two-day driver at a very affordable price which would make the sights even easier to visit.
The Tbilisi Top Ten List
1. Sameba Cathedral
Standing tall and overlooking the city like a shepherd watching over his sheep, stands the gleaming, gold topped Cathedral of Sameba also known as the Church of the Holy Trinity. The plans for this massive Orthodox church were begun even before Georgia separated itself off from the Soviet Union, but construction didn’t start until 1995. Progress was slow and costly and didn’t actually finish until 2004, and now the cathedral stands as a symbol of national unity and spiritual revival. On the day we visited, the cathedral had been taken over by the military for a somber memorial.
2. Tbilisi Old Town
Old wooden houses with wrought iron balconies make up the traditional Georgian architecture. And a walk through the old town is the best way to experience it. Bring your camera as these are some photogenic buildings. The grime and grit of the past two hundred years has added a rich patina. You can’t help but feel that each of these houses has an epic tale to tell.
3. Sulfur Baths
Baths dating back to Roman times have been found in Tbilisi. However, the baths at the edge of the Old Town haven’t been around quite so long. The oldest, Bathhouse #5, is only a mere 300 years old. Inside the tiles and tubs are beautiful and everywhere you’ll find a cloud of welcoming steam. Stop in for a soak, a massage, or a Turkish style skin peel in the same bath house where Pushkin once bathed. You’ll leave relaxed and recharged.
4. Narikala Fortress
The tall stone walls and battlements aren’t really protecting anything any longer. Instead they rest overlooking the old town and the sulfur baths which they have protected since the 4th century. You can spend an hour here, scrambling around the walls and towers, discovering some amazing city view points.
5. Bridge of Peace
The Bridge of Peace offers some unique views of the old town, Narikala Fortress, and the Presidential Palace. By day it’s a futuristic architectural pedestrian bridge, but by night the structure is lit up and becomes a standalone light show. It is a completely unique experience and should be visited both day and night.
6. Rope Way
OK, this may not technically be a site to visit, but it is a fun way to get up to the fortress! These cable cars are part of the city metro system so you’ll need a metro card to ride it. Luckily you can purchase these at the entrance. Again, the views from the rope way are stunning as it lifts you up over the river and the Old Town.
7. Funicular and Amusement Park
I just can’t pass up a funicular. I don’t know what it is but these gravity defying trains just call to me. This funicular will lift you up the mountain side to more stunning city views. You’ll also be able to take a break and enjoy a coffee and piece of cake or tort at the funicular cafe. While you’re up there, why not put the kids on a ride or two at Mtatsminda Park.
8. Jumah Mosque
Climbing up into Old Town, around towards the sulfur baths, and snug up below the fortress you’ll find the Jumah Mosque perched on the hillside. This beautiful structure is as much a symbol of national unity and spirituality as the Sameba cathedral across the river. Here this old mosque stands in one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, with churches, mosques, and synagogues for neighbors.
9. Georgian Food
Georgian Food is pretty spectacular. My favorite are Khinkali, meat filled dumplings can be found throughout Georgia, and a trip to Tbilisi wouldn’t be complete without sampling these doughy culinary treats. Be careful when you eat them however, as there is a right way and a wrong way. The right way: put down the knife and fork, this is finger food; pick it up by the knot at the top and take a big slurping bite out of the bottom. Be careful to catch all of the steaming, soupy broth before it runs down your fingers. Then finish off the dumpling with one last bite down to the knot. Order a plate of traditional all meat or mix and match some of the more adventurous fillings like potato and cheese.
We had so much great food, other than just Khinkali. The eggplant rolls, Kachapuri – eggy, cheesy bread, Shkmeruli – chicken in milk, Lobio – a hearty bean soup, and any kind of dolma all stand out as Georgian culinary treasures. Dolma means stuffed, and just like in Turkish food, you can stuff anything with meat and rice and I’ll love it.
10. Georgian National Ballet
If you’re lucky you can catch a performance by the world renown Georgian National Ballet at the National Opera and Ballet theater. The easiest way to check on this is to ask at your hotel front desk or stop by the Tbilisi Information Center. In fact, they can call and check on show times and availability and the the Tourist Office can even book your tickets for you. We weren’t so lucky and had to settle for the dinner show at Old Metekhi Chrdili, which was fine, but not quite the same thing.
Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theater
25 Rustaveli Ave, 0103 Tbilisi, Georgia
Tbilisi Tourist Map
Where To Stay
We stayed at three different hotels in Tbilisi, all of which were comfortable and good value. They ranged in comfort levels from a guest house, to a boutique hotel, to a four star luxury hotel. We payed for each hotel but felt they were worth mentioning as good options.
Renaissance Hotel Tbilisi
Viktor Gabiskiria Street 5, Avlabari, 0103 Tbilisi City
Boutique Hotel British House
Belinski Street 32, Vera, 0108 Tbilisi City
Mercure Tbilisi Old Town
9 Vakhtang Gorgasali St, 0105 Tbilisi City
Where To Eat
Dinner with a show at Metekhis Chrdili
29-25 Ketevan Tsamebuli Ave. (41.688725, 44.820889)
Upscale wine bistro at the Bread House
7 Vakhtang Gorgasali St, (41.688571, 44.812581)
Have khinkali at a good traditional restaurant near old town at Chashnagiri Leselidze
25 Kote Afkhazi St, (41.693252, 44.804550)
So what is the terrible truth about Tbilisi? Well, aside from a great alliterative title, the truth is Tbilisi is a city still emerging from Soviet era occupation and internal struggles marked with atrocities and hatred. For me, however, perception is truth, and my perception of Tbilisi is one of cautious optimism. My recommendation is that you put the past in the past and go to Tbilisi and see it for yourself!
More Photos Of Tbilisi
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