Touring the Ancient City of Tblisi, Georgia

From its centuries-old past to its innovative present, Tblisi is a destination worthy of a several-day adventure.Read More

The ancient city of Tblisi has seen many chapters, many conquerors, and many reincarnations. (Source: iStock / tostphoto)

Once a city of emperors and kings, Tblisi, Georgia (in Eastern Europe) has a somewhat muted profile in the 21st century. And that’s rather unfortunate, given its 15 centuries of history, cosmopolitan offerings, and cultural diversity. It’s also notably cheaper to vacation in Tblisi than it is in Europe, so those who would ordinarily head to Paris or Rome might take a second and third look at this long-forgotten Silk Road capital. You won’t be disappointed.

A splash of Georgian history

While it’s almost mind-boggling to imagine, Tbilisi has been inhabited since about the fifth century CE when Iberian kings, ever lovers of nature, found the location’s forest and springs to be truly wondrous. It became clear to rulers near and far, however, that Tblisi was at the very valuable crossroads between Europe and Asia, right along the Silk Road (the lucrative trade route that wended from east to west). Not only did this make the location valuable to those with commercial interests, but it was also the start of confrontation for many opposing forces.

The predictable followed. Powerful empires sacked and controlled Tblisi over various periods — first, the Persians, then the Byzantines, then Arabs, then the Turks. Finally, a native warlord named David IV overtook the region’s oppressors and established a golden age — a time when the city once again became a capital of industry, trade, and culture.

The medieval era saw much development in the Georgian capital. (Source: Wikipedia)
The medieval era saw much development in the Georgian capital. (Source: Wikipedia)

This prosperity did not last long, however, and the 13th century saw the invasion of Mongol forces. When they left, rulers of Tamerlane, Persia, Iran, and Russia took their place in fairly rapid succession. The 19th century, mercifully, brought some prosperity to Tblisi again, when it became a regional capital redesigned in European fashion by the Czarist court.

Georgia enjoyed a brief, three-year independence in the early 20th century until Russian Bolsheviks invaded and occupied the territory. Despite some early destruction, the Russians ultimately invested a great deal in the country during the 1970s and ’80s, turning Tblisi into a lust-worthy destination for tourists from the west and the east.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia — and its capital, Tblisi — has once again been able to shore up its independence, focusing on building infrastructure and restoring its former glory.

Getting to (and around) Tblisi

While there is no flight directly from the United States to Tblisi, major international airlines will make pitstops in Western Europe before heading to Georgia. Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, Turkish Airlines, and United all fly in to Tblisi’s international airport. The airport itself is quite modern, with shops, lounges, food, and beverage options aplenty.

Once you’ve landed, you can either catch a taxi and ride into downtown ($15, about 25 minutes), grab a bus for about $1, or catch the train, which will require one transfer and take about an hour. Train tickets are less than a buck one way, though be warned: The train only runs twice a day — once in the morning and once in the evening.

You can also rent a car, but you’ll have to leave the airport. Car rentals cost around $25/day.

Where to stay in Tblisi

There are quite a few posh places to put your feet up in Tblisi, and prices for the top ones mirror what you’d find in most mid-sized American cities with a slew of top amenities, to boot ($150/night for a queen, plus access to health centers and spas, free WiFi, pools, balconies, and so on). If you’re more comfortable booking a western chain (or just have points you want to use), there are plenty to choose from: Tblisi Marriott, Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel, Holiday Inn Tbilisi, and so on.

One of Tblisi's popular hotels, The Biltmore (Source: Shutterstock / Caitlin Willow)
One of Tblisi’s popular hotels, The Biltmore (Source: Shutterstock / Caitlin Willow)

You know us, though: Pick something a bit more unusual. That’s why we’re heading to Shota Hotel when we head back — a rustic cabin-meets art gallery-meets plush, top-tier hotel. Prices are quite a bit lower than other hotels ($90/night or so), and gets you a lot more character.

Where to eat

Which brings us to food. Shota’s own Restaurant Melograno is a fun choice for a first meal — a way to blend the Italian flavors we know with the Georgian flavors we don’t. Cases in point: Charcoal-Grilled Pork Belly alongside Spaghetti Carbonara.

Love yourself some dumplings? Then head to Kakhelebi a short way north of downtown. Their menu often features the region’s signature meat dumplings (known as khinkali) but also has plenty already familiar to Westerners: Duck Confit, Lamb Shank, and Rib-eye, for instance. You really can’t go wrong with any of it.

No question; Georgian food takes many of its cues from the rich braises and stews of Russia. (Source: Shutterstock / robertzwinchell)
No question; Georgian food takes many of its cues from the rich braises and stews of Russia. (Source: Shutterstock / robertzwinchell)

For a local favorite, we recommend either Salobie Bia or Sakhli #11, both of which offer heaps of braised meats, stews, and soups that call to you on chilly evenings. As one might guess of a former Soviet country, Georgian food is cream and fry-rich, so careful not to order one of everything — there just won’t be room.

What to see and do in Tblisi

Given its position as crossroads of the East and West, Tblisi has a very unique collection of religious traditions alive and well throughout the city. Georgian Orthodox, Armenian Georgian, and Roman Catholic churches abound, all alongside a mosque and a Zoroastrian temple. It also has its share of military establishments and museums dedicated to the country’s (and city’s) centuries of history.

To start your exploration, head to Old Town where you can walk along cobblestone streets and see the marks of history first-hand. Be sure to stop at the Narikala Fortress — a battlement that has stood for more than 10 centuries (with occupier updates applied through the years). It does require a little bit of a hike uphill, but you’ll be rewarded with incredible views.

Tblisi's Old Town, lit up at night and capped by Narikala Fortress (Source: Shutterstock / Cara-Foto)
Tblisi’s Old Town, lit up at night and capped by Narikala Fortress (Source: Shutterstock / Cara-Foto)

While you’re in the area, spend some time admiring the Mother of Georgia statue (Kartlis Deda) on Sololaki Hill. It was erected fairly recently — in 1958 — but serves as a powerful symbol of the country’s resilience and hospitality.

Last but not least in Old Town, visit the Tblisi History Museum where you can walk through the ages via photographs and artifacts that document the city’s turbulent past. History absorbed, amble to the nearby Bridge of Peace where you can process your experience and consider the convergence of old and new in such a storied city.

Next, stir things up by heading to the Dry Bridge Flea Market about a 10-minute walk north along the Mtkvari River. The art here is truly magnificent, and you can find a world of tchotchkes to go with — including horns, candle holders, mugs, masks, chalices, and dozens of other handicrafts. Prices are pretty reasonable, though vendors will sometimes be willing to haggle — an interesting prospect if your Georgian is rusty. But hey, who’s stopping you?

If you’re interested in religious structures, we recommend three: Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tblisi; the 11th-century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (a burial place for kings); and the Jvari Monastery, built atop a hill with a design that leans on natural surroundings. If you want a visceral connection with history and ancient architecture, these structures will astound you.

Finally, for a more modern touch of Georgian culture, head to the Tblisi State Theatre and take in an opera or ballet. Top European talents perform here, and tickets are very affordable. Check the website for the latest performances.

For more to do in Tblisi — and for ideas about where to go outside the city — visit the tourism website for Georgia.