South Caucasus’ most happening city, East-meet-West, wine country — the list of epithets for Tbilisi continues to get longer. The Georgian capital’s enigmatic sprawl that brushes aside the ashes of a forgettable past, its inimitable, effortless architectural character and ceaseless zeal to reinvent itself, is endearing.
With the current pandemic opening up newer, less-visited destinations to the world of travel, Tbilisi, which lies at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, has the opportunity to emerge as a strong contender in the world of travel. Here is a two-day guide to navigate its cobblestoned streets and alleys and speakeasies and sulfur baths.
Morning: Access the city’s contemporary, recently built day excursion favourite via the Bridge of Peace or through Avlabari from the right bank of the river Mtkvari. The vast premises of the park, which is shaped like Georgia itself, flaunt a wide array of wonders including a giant chessboard and a giant piano and other playground equipment. Later, hop onto the funicular to get to the 4th-century Persian-built Narikala fortress that offers staggering views of the picturesque Old Town.
Afternoon: The Narikala tourist trail is a kilometre-and-a-half-long walk that takes you around the citadel and puts you right into the atmospheric Old Town, Kala, for a self-guided art nouveau tour. You could also skip the trail and head straight for the Old Town from Rike Park via the Bridge of Peace. The cobblestoned Old Town is a labyrinthine traipse with crumbling old pastel houses sporting wooden balconies, and bridges with dried-out canals.
Start at Liberty Square, heading down Galaktion Street, to come upon old residential marvels and the Mtatsminda Church and a few other equally remarkable neoclassical and brickwork structures. Another option is to take the Kote Abkhazi Street, which will take you to the Sioni and Sameba cathedrals.
From Liberty Square, less than five minutes away, lies Tbilisi’s oldest speakeasy amid a clutch of cafés and diners. Proceed further to the ezo, or courtyard, of the Georgian Writers’ Union for a taste of Tbilsi’s own version of the Saakashvili Sidecar cocktail, made using local brandy, at Café Littera.
Evening: Follow in the footsteps of the 18th-century Persian king Agha Mohammad Khan, and rest your weary selves in a natural sulfur bath in the Abanotubani neighbourhood, which has over 60 of them. Then follow in the footsteps of the booze-worshipping locals and gorge yourself on some mood-lifting shkmeruli and chakapuli or other hangover-curing comfort food delights, cooked in classic Georgian style, in Meidani Square. Need a little something to wash your meal down? Try some chacha, which they serve in cute clay cups.
Morning: It is often said that Tbilisi’s bazrobas are Georgian culture—vibrant, eccentric, and constantly alchemising — on a plate. Minutes away from the Rustaveli Avenue is the Dry Bridge Market, which has for sale, lovely Dagestani jewellery pieces, vintage musical instruments, European porcelain and touristy trinkets ranging from drinking horns and Soviet fur hats to even gas masks. Carry an extra bag if you haggle well.
Afternoon: Have a lunch of acharuli khachapuri with khinkali on the side at an art café near the Dry Bridge and undertake a digestive nature walk at the Botanical Gardens, whose verdure provides a welcome respite from the modern reality of traffic and smoke. Breathe in the floral goodness of over 4,500 flora species from around the world at the once-royal pleasure grounds spread over 161 hectares.
Evening: Cap off a joyous finale with a visit to Tbilisi’s repurposed factories that are now bohemian hotels. Witness avant-garde whimsicality, in tune with the city’s overarching art nouveau aesthetic, at its very best at the Rooms Hotel and Stamba Hotel. Right across the Mtkvari is Fabrika, the former sewing factory upcycled into a thriving industrial-themed urban space sheltering cafés and music halls.