The first thing you’ll notice flying into Tbilisi is its breathtaking setting. Nestled deep in the valley of the Mtkvari River, you’ll discover a city that’s come a long way since its troubled departure from the Soviet Union and 2003’s Rose Revolution. Its colourful buildings straddle a wealth of diverse architectural styles and provide the perfect backdrop to an expanding arts scene and the emergence of an exciting new food and nightlife culture.
For all its recent progress, Tbilisi’s visible culture is still rooted in tradition. In many places, particularly in the Old Town and around metro stations, traders crowd the pavements selling fresh food and produce among other things. Buying from them is a great way to supplement the relative expense of Tbilisi’s many nouveau Georgian restaurants, which fuse the country’s traditional ingredients and dishes with generally Western influences.
For history, the Museum of Georgia is a must. Really a combination of much smaller museums, it offers a comprehensive rundown of Georgia’s past from the ancient to the Medieval to the Soviet era. Its Archaeological Treasury exhibits a huge bounty of pre-Christian treasures that shouldn’t be missed. On the same street you’ll find the Georgian National Gallery – home to some of the country’s greatest artworks – and the Rustaveli Theatre. This Rococo-style building is the largest theatre in the country and occasionally hosts performances with English translations, so it’s worth checking at the box office.
People and Traditions
Within the country, the term ‘Georgian’ is often used to denote specific ethno-linguistic roots rather than someone simply born and raised in Georgia. For that reason you might meet citizens from many minority ethno-linguistic groups that won’t necessarily identify as Georgian, yet still share a sense of common identity and values.
Smoking is generally not considered a bad habit in Georgia. Most adults smoke and it is widely considered to be a trait of true Georgian-ness. Insisting on a non-smoking area, in a restaurant for example, will often be futile. Central heating and hot water supplies are also quite rare in the country. This is something you might want to check when booking a hotel – particularly if it’s inexpensive.
Summers generally reach highs of about 30ºC, though average around the mid-20s during the daytime. However, Tbilisi’s surrounding mountains do trap a lot of humidity so it can feel significantly warmer than it is. The mountains also block cold air arriving from Russia, which tends to stop winter temperatures from dropping as low as neighbouring areas. That said, if visiting between December and March, zero-degree (ºC) temperatures are not uncommon.
Mount Mtatsminda is also known as the Holy Mountain and can be easily reached by Tbilisi’s new funicular railway. Here you’ll find the Mtatsminda Pantheon of Writers and Public Figures, part of St. David’s Church and the resting place for many of Georgia’s national heroes. That isn’t all though. The mountain is also home to Mtatsminda Park – a popular theme park where you might catch a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it view of the city from atop its giant ferris wheel, rollercoasters and other rides both exhilarating and family-friendly.
The Narikala Fortress has stood atop Tbilisi’s mountainous skyline since the 4th century, though it has been constantly rebuilt and expanded throughout history. It lies between the city’s botanical gardens and sulphur baths, meaning you could easily spend a day here, even if only to stroll around and admire the views. The fortress can be reached by cable car for those who don’t fancy the uphill hike.
Another Old Town site to see is the Gabriadze Puppet Theatre and its disordly clock tower. The construction itself is relatively new – designed by the famous puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze himself – but doesn’t look at all out of place among the area’s historic buildings, despite its eccentricities.