24 hours in Tbilisi, Georgia
Wake up early and take the metro to Freedom Square. Navigate the underground walkway until you come out at Pushkin Street. The road links into Baratashvili Street as you continue downhill, and you’ll arrive at the crumbling, old city wall topped with a circular gallery of balconies. Follow the stones of the wall until the smell of coffee at Konka Station, an abandoned tram car converted into a cafe, tempts you in to refuel. Their Turkish coffee is short and sweet, and costs 3 lari (1.50€).
Past the pastel blue façade and white, lace-like balcony of the Tbilisi Doll Museum, take a right onto Shavteli Street. Check out the unstable-seeming blocks of the clock tower, looking like it was designed either by a genius or a drunk. Something to think about. At the end of the square, you’ll see birds nesting in the 6th-century bell tower of the Anchiskhati Basilica. Turn left towards the river, and then right again. Arrive at the Peace Bridge, which kind of resembles a giant, glass slug in the daylight. On the other side of the river is the Presidential Palace, with its neo-classical façade and postmodern glass dome.
Go past the bridge and continue to the monument honoring poet Ietim Gurji. Stop and look around at the surreal scene of crawling ivy trails eating up the old, galleried houses. The paint flakes off the walls of the crooked buildings and bent balconies. Maybe you’ll spot a group of youths drinking homemade wine out of used coke bottles around the base of the poet’s copper-green statue.
Peeking behind the decaying houses is the conical and pointed dome of the 7th-century Sioni Church. Georgians walk by in the street and you notice many of them crossing themselves upon passing. Beggars and old ladies fill up empty water bottles at the surrounding water fountains. You’ll see some stray kittens being fed by an old lady in rags. At first she might seem a bit crazy, but stop and talk to her. Discover she’s rather nice and that she runs an unofficial rescue center for animals in one of the abandoned houses up the street.
Go up the steps to Sioni Street. Catch a whiff of fresh baked goods near the Theological Seminary. Descend into the basement there and buy some takeaway khachapuri, Georgian cheese bread. Perhaps it’s not the healthiest snack, but it tastes damn good.
As you make your way down to Abanotubani, the Bath District, take care crossing the roads. Well-lit underpasses serve parts of Tbilisi, but many times you have to use the not-so-foolproof method of “look, pray, and run,” since pedestrians don’t have right of way in Georgia. The view pans out past the brick domes with strands of sulfurous vapor that waft out of the little holes. You’ll see the 17th-century Orbeliani Baths, decorated with lapis-blue tiles, and two little minarets to the side. Enjoying the baths can be an all-day affair, so plan your schedule accordingly.
Go uphill on the little street past the carpet shop on the right. Take in the scent of flowers and herbs, and listen to the sound of running water as you open the gate at the top to the Botanical Gardens. Follow the steps up the side of the rocky hill to the Narikala Fortress. There isn’t much to see in the fortress itself, but the view is enjoyable. The golden, reflective roof of the Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral winks in the distance. The serpentine path through the gardens carries visitors around the fortress, and up to the stairs that lead to the exit.
Find yourself behind the Betlemi Church and the nearby ruins of the Zoroastrian Fire Temple. Continue down the Betlemi steps into the Sololaki neighborhood, and face your pick of lunch choices. There is Pur Pur on Lado Gudiashvili Square, a restaurant with a bohemian feel that’s made up of uneven bits of decadent furniture and paper lanterns, offering a modern take on Georgian cuisine. If you fancy something more traditional, continue to Shemoikhede Genatsvale at 25 Leselidze Street. Try the khinkali, slippery dumplings filled with spicy meat, or a delicious stew, and wash it down with good Georgian wine like a red saperavi.
You’ve come full-circle back to Freedom Square. Cross over to Rustaveli Avenue and observe the contrast between the dilapidated, yet grand, back alleys around Sololaki, and the art nouveau and neo-classical buildings of this European-style boulevard. En route, pass the Parliament, a building of Soviet proportions, and enjoy a bit of window-shopping until you notice the Kashveti Church on the other side of the road. Take the underpass and investigate the bright frescoes, painted by the Georgian avant-garde painter Lado Gudiashvili. Further down, pass by the neo-classical exterior of the National Museum of Art and the burnt orange, Moorish-style façade marking the Opera House.
Continue down to the Rustaveli metro station and take the train up to Avlabari. Look around for the golden roof of the Sameba Cathedral, and follow the dusty backstreets in this direction. The marble walkway leading up to the cathedral is punctuated with fountains, and shrubs stretch out over the views of Tbilisi. The cathedral takes on the proportions of a traditional Georgian style, but its angles are too sharp and the stone cut too smoothly. Inside, you’ll notice there are no pews in Georgian churches. Despite its archaic appearance, the building was completed in 2004.
For a relaxed, romantic dinner, go to the nearby Café Flowers. This garden-terraced restaurant smells of summer blooms; enjoy the view over the Narikala Fortress and the hanging balconies of Sololaki. If you’re here in the summer, sit down and try some shashlik, a marinated Georgian shish kebab, and a glass of tarragon lemonade.
Or, for a traditional Georgian feast, go down the hill and cross the bridge over the Mtkvari River, passing the Metekhi Church on the rocky outcrop. Go across the bridge, towards the baths. Look for an underground restaurant called Alani. You may walk past it a couple times, so try looking for the Georgian spelling “ალანი,” which is written outside in red at 1 Gorgasali Street. Order a meal of khinkali, khachapuri, walnut dressed salads, and stuffed eggplants, and indulge in carafes of Georgian wine, either a red saperavi or a white tsinandali.
The live music and singing drowns out conversation. You may be invited by one of the locals to a supra, a Georgian toasting ritual with chacha, a spirit made from grape pomace. Decide to participate — say goodbye to your liver and hello to Georgian hospitality.