Soak in sulphur baths and sample culinary curios in the Georgian capital
Where to eat, sleep and shop in Tbilisi, Georgia
A complex crush of cultures and influences makes Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi, a popular long-weekend break crammed with historical and culinary attractions. Travellers from the UAE can take advantage of the frequent flights and short flight times (just three and a half hours) to enjoy the city sprawled beneath a 17th-century fortress, with the Mtkvari River flowing through it.
Snug between the Black and Caspian seas and on the border of Europe’s highest mountain range, Georgia sits at the ancient crossroads between Asia and Europe on the Silk Road. Several lengthy periods of conquest and invasion have lent it resilience; most recently, having emerging from the era of Soviet rule and the 2003 Rose Revolution.
Tbilisi is derived from the word tbili, meaning “warm” in Georgian – a reference to the city’s hot springs, which are located in the sulphuric baths on the east bank.
The old town has a Eurasian character with winding streets and dilapidated facades attracting tourists aplenty. Leafy squares, impressive churches of various denominations, museums and contemporary architecture give broad appeal.
Find your feet
The Narikala fortress is a prominent feature of the city’s skyline, and the easiest way to get up is by cable car – 2.50 Georgian lari (Dh4) one way – from Rike Park. If you’re fit, it’s a 25-minute walk (though steep), from restaurant-lined Meidan. From the fortress, walk to the looming statue of Mother Georgia bearing a sword and a chalice (just before sunset is the best time) and soak in the views of Tbilisi below. From here, you can take a scenic amble to the Shahtakhti fortress with remnants of a seventh-to-ninth-century observatory.
From the Peace Bridge, an avant-garde glass-and-steel footbridge, you will mingle with tourists and locals alike. Look out over the Mtkvari River for more curious, futuristic architecture such as the two metal tubes at the north end of Rike Park that form a music concert hall and exhibition centre.
A comfortable bed
In the Vera neighbourhood, once favoured by artists and intellectuals, Rooms Hotel (www.roomshotels.com/tbilisi) a four-star property, is discreetly located on a leafy street. Once a publishing house, the interior reflects this with a plush library lounge with a fireplace, and dark furnishings in rooms with high ceilings. Double rooms cost from 669 lari (Dh1,002).
While it caters to conferences and larger groups, you can’t get more central than the Courtyard by Marriott overlooking Freedom Square. The hotel has a fitness centre and is a five-minute walk from the Old Town. Doubles cost from 283 lari (Dh423).
Named after the legendary Georgian poet, boutique hotel Shota @ Rustaveli, on a peaceful side street off Rustaveli Avenue, prides itself in eco-friendly fixtures, high-quality German linen and spacious rooms. Doubles cost from 445 lari (Dh667).
Meet the locals
Abanotubani is Tbilis’s ancient sulphur bath district. Join the locals and soak away your cares – Abano No 5 is the oldest at about 300 years. There are also private rooms, which cost about 60 lari (Dh90) for a private room. At the Royal Bath, which has only private rooms, you can book a scrub or massage for 15 lari (Dh22), or pay 90 lari (Dh135) for a sauna, plus hot and cold tubs for two.
At the Dry Bridge Flea Market (Martis Park) you will find an eclectic collection of old items (daggers, coins, jewellery, paintings) sold by ex-professors and sellers who scour estates. It’s a great place to strike up a conversation and buy a small heirloom.
The sixth-century Medieval-style Sioni Orthodox Church in the Old Town is home to the cross of St Nino – sit on a ledge or bench outside where you can observe local families arriving to worship. You’re welcome to visit the outstanding murals inside between services.
Book a table
In a hidden garden with tables spread under the large trees, Tekuna Gachechiladze serves her “nouveau Georgian” plates at Cafe Littera outside the rambling Georgian Writer’s Union building. Georgian favourites such lamb with adjika (red pepper paste), get a special twist. The average price for a main is 35 lari (Dh52).
The family-run Ezo, which means “yard”, is a casual space in a backyard serving fresh organic produce and unfussy Georgian fare. The pkhali (walnut and vegetable paté) and the grilled meat platter, as well as a plate of cheese and salad, is an excellent meal to share. Mains cost 20 lari (Dh30) on average.
Under the Dry Bridge, locals gather at Zakhar Zakharich for handmade khinkali – pleated soup dumplings. Fillings include beef, cheese, potato and seasonal wild mushrooms – for about 15 lari (Dh22). It’s perfect with salty Borjomi –carbonated spring water with a dash of tarragon soda.
A visit to Tbilisi isn’t complete without a gander around the 2,000-square-metre Dezerter Bazaar (Tsinamdzgvrishvili Street) near the railway station, named after absconding soldiers who sold their arms here in the 1920s. Unless you speak Georgian, it’s best to book a tour with Culinary Backstreets, who will guide you through an encyclopedia of Georgian produce and specialities. Tours cost 209 lari (Dh313) for a full day with food and drinks.
What to avoid
Groups from Europe sometimes arrive en masse to take advantage of the cheap food and nightlife – they can be rowdy.
If you’re travelling with children, make sure to visit the amusement park (rides cost 1 to 5 lari [Dh1.50 to Dh7.50]) on the top of Mount Mtatsminda, with a breathtaking ride up in a modern funicular (2 to 3 lari, Dh3 to Dh4, 50) – you will need to buy a ticket at the office.