Georgia was included on the must-see countries in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel list for 2018. But it was the feedback of two acquaintances that spurred me to visit the country.
Given that Tbilisi is the capital and has the largest airport it would be my inevitable first stop. So here’s my what to do in Tbilisi guide. Firstly, let’s get familiar with the city’s layout.
Tbilisi is a long, narrow city spreading itself on the banks of the Mtkvari River. The area around the city is essentially mountainous so Tbilisi is built in this river valley. Therefore, expect to climb a few hills during your stay. Tbilisi is divided into different areas with Central Tbilisi encompassing Vere, Mtatsminda, Sololaki, Old Town, Avlabari and Svanetisubani.
Most visitors will stay in and visit the Central Tbilisi area as it contains the main sights. Central Tbilisi runs from Rose Revolution Square at the northern end of Rustaveli Avenue along the Mtkvari River down to the Old Town.
Rustaveli Avenue: Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare and a fine, beautiful one it is. A number of significant buildings are located on Rustaveli Avenue. If you have a keen interest in arts and culture Rustaveli Avenue is the perfect location for you.
Starting at Rose Revolution Square head south and the first significant building you will meet is the Moorish-style Opera and Ballet Theatre. About 200 metres along is the National Gallery of Georgia with the Kashveti Church of St. George immediately to its right.
The 9th April Park is at the back of these buildings and is named after the date in 1989 when the Soviet authorities sent in troops to crush anti-Soviet demonstrators.
Further along the road, on the opposite side, one will find the Parliament of Georgia building but skip back again for the Georgian National Museum.
Rustaveli Avenue is dotted with street stalls selling food and souvenirs but designer clothes and products with exorbitant prices can be found in Galleria Tbilisi Shopping Centre. The Griboedov and Liberty Theatres are also found in this shopping centre.
At the end of Rustaveli Avenue you will find Freedom Square (also called Liberty Square), a cobbled-surfaced traffic roundabout with a monument of St. George slaying a dragon at its centre.
Tbilisi Old Town: South of Freedom Square is Tbilisi Old Town where the architecture changes from Rustaveli’s Imperial Russian to traditional Georgian with the streets becoming significantly narrower. The buildings in the Old Town have two or three stories and facades of either red brick or pastel-coloured with balconies.
The main street in the Old Town is Kote Afkhazi Street and it is here you will find tour companies offering day trips to other parts of Georgia. Kote Afkhazi Street and particularly its side streets are great places for wining and dining. At the southern end of Kote Afkhazi Street you’ll find Meidan, in old times a bazaar but now an area of hotels, restaurants and shops.
On Sololaki Hill above Meidan is Narikala Fortress which is best accessed by cable car across the river in Rike Park. I would strongly suggest visiting Narikala Fortress on your first day to get a stunning overview of the city below.
On top of Sololaki Hill one will find the Kartlis Deda (Mother of Georgia) monument as well. Passengers must possess a Metromoney card to purchase a ticket for the Cable Car. It’s possible to buy a Metromoney ticket at the Cable Car kiosk.
Walking down from Narikala Fortress is a steep incline for those with dodgy footing but it’s a pleasure to meander along the Old Town backstreets. Cross over the Metekhi Bridge and to your right your will see Metekhi Church on an Avlabari hill looking down on the Old Town.
Walk through Rike Park to the most famous (and unusual) bridge in Tbilisi, the Peace Bridge. Commissioned by former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and opened in 2010, the Peace Bridge is a glass and steel structure with LED lights which illuminate to stunning effect at night-time.
Also in Rike Park one will find more outlandish architecture in the form of Tbilisi Concert Hall. Built in the shape of two steel and glass tubed funnels, the structure looks as if it’s ready to spill liquid out onto the park.
Cross over the Peace Bridge and turn right onto Erekle II Street. Continue to Anchiskhati Basilica and onwards to the quirky Leaning Clock Tower. Surprisingly, this building is one of the newest in the area and is part of the Gabriadze Puppet Theatre next door. Part-artwork and part a homage to Tbilisi’s architectural heritage, an angel appears at the top of the tower on the hour to strike a bell.
The other main sights in Old Town are the many thermal sulphur bathhouses dotted around. Distinctive by their low, red-brick domed roofs the baths avail of the natural hot springs that Tbilisi is situated on.
Beyond Central Tbilisi: I generally don’t visit Irish pubs when abroad but I did make a special journey to the Billy Burke Pub on Merab Kostava Street. Billy, who was a few years ahead of me in school, was a regular visitor to Georgia but sadly passed from this world too early in life.
Where to stay in Tbilisi: If the above list sounds like an ideal what-to-do-in-Tbilisi list then the best areas to stay to see those sights are Rustaveli Avenue and its adjoining streets. Bear in mind that Rustaveli Avenue is a very busy street with multiple traffic lanes so ask for a hotel room not facing the main street. I stayed in an apartment on a side street at the north end of Rustaveli Avenue.
The Old Town is excellent for proximity to sights but I’ve heard that night-time in the Old Town is not conducive to a good night’s sleep.
A good alternative for the Old Town is Avlabari and can recommend the very friendly Hotel Vita, an excellent budget option which offers a taxi service to the airport at any time of the day or night.
What to buy in Tbilisi: Wine, wine and more wine! The Georgians have been making and drinking wine for 8,000 years. Its smooth, non-acrid taste was lip-smackingly good and should be on everyone’s what to do in Tbilisi list. Handmade accessories such as jewellery, bags and hats are also a good option. Unusual gifts to bring home are traditional knives and wine drinking horns although check with customs in your own country as to whether you can import the former item.
Getting to Tbilisi: Tbilisi is the epicentre of the Caucasus region and is easily reached from neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan by bus and train. I flew from Dublin via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines. The flight time from Istanbul to Tbilisi is approximately two hours. At the time of my visit the only land border crossing between Georgia and Russia was north of Stepantsminda on the Georgian Military Highway.
Getting around Tbilisi: Central Tbilisi and the Old Town are easily walkable but the main transport connections are spread all over the city. Taxis are excellent value in Tbilisi and are the most convenient way to get from A to B. I highly recommend downloading the Taxify App for taxi trips.
The airport is located 15-20 kilometres southwest of the city and is served by Bus 37.
Tbilisi has a two-line Metro system which comes recommended. Tickets can be purchased from the desks at stations by topping up a Metromoney card. You can purchase a Metromoney card at any Metro station or at the Cable Car kiosk at Rike Park or at Narikala Fortress. Further information on the Metromoney card can be found here.
Is Tbilisi safe: I encountered no problems in Tbilisi in terms of personal safety although I was bothered by a few characters around the Marshrutka and Metro stations at Didube. Some of the side streets have inadequate lighting and broken footpaths so the hazard here is a slip or a fall.
Other Tbilisi travel tips: I recommend Magti on Rustaveli Avenue for a SIM card. Bring your passport as proof of ID. Tbilisi is particularly beautiful at night, reminding me of Paris, to be honest. Tbilisi is a great city for busking so have some coins at the ready for the excellent street performers. And they’ll be more than happy to give you advice on what to do in Tbilisi.