Summer Days in Tbilisi, Georgia
There’s so much to like about Georgia.
In the capital, it’s almost as though time stopped thirty years ago.
The restaurants serve delicious, affordable homemade fare. Bottles of locally-sourced red wine can be bought for less than five dollars. Coffee shops have live music. The kids play soccer on the streets and artists perch their easels on the footpath. There are no big shiny shopping centres, fast food outlets or commercial brands ,and everything is sold, bought and bartered at the markets.
But visiting Tbilisi isn’t just about going back in time. It’s also about experiencing a wonderful city that, chances are, nobody you know has ever been to. In fact, ten dollars (make that ten Georgian Lari) says that when you tell your friends you’re going to Georgia they will respond with something along the lines of ‘Great! America is nice this time of year’.
Exactly why Tbilisi - and Georgia as a whole - has remained a great big secret is one of life’s great questions. Despite being less than three hours away from continental Europe and the Middle East, the country has never received the volumes of tourism that one would expect.
Part of the issue could be related to the fact that the Georgia was at war just eight years ago, when Russian forces invaded large pockets of the country, claiming the north-eastern regions to be theirs. Despite this battle having been fought and won, (largely by the Georgians, who regained control of their villages) it takes decades for a country to attract tourism once again. Nonetheless, with a budget European airline recently setting up shop in Kutaisi, a city located conveniently in the centre of the country, I’m sure Georgia won’t remain a secret for long.
Upon arriving in Tbilisi, the first thing you’ll notice as a tourist is that, well, almost nobody speaks English. Despite a significant recruitment drive by the Georgian government to recruit foreign English teachers to work in the country’s secondary schools, it was always a matter of playing catch-up. The young people are competent conversationally, but if you’re expecting to have an in-depth chat with the older locals, you’re going to be out of luck.
But don’t let that deter you. Georgians, truly, are some of the most friendly and open-minded people on the planet. They will smile, laugh, and welcome you into their homes. The old-school nature of Tbilisi hasn’t been lost on its residents, who - if you let them - will take you in as one of their own. For this reason, Airbnb and homestay options are terrific choices when staying here. If you get the chance to have a traditional Georgian meal cooked for you, you’re in for a treat.
Another pleasant observation is that generally, people leave you alone. If you’ve spent time travelling through tourism-heavy cities like Paris, London, New York, Berlin or Beijing, this will come as a welcome change. There are few beggars, and shop assistants won’t force you to buy their wares. And more importantly, the chances of getting scammed, tricked and ripped off here are slim. The whole country is incredibly safe, and sensible travellers will make it through unscathed.
The food and wine in Tbilisi is simply extraordinary, and better yet, it’s cheap. But what is Georgian food exactly, you ask? Heavily influenced by their middle-eastern and european neighbours, you’ll find plenty of pastries and meat dishes. My favourites included the khachapuri adjarula, which is a pastry filled with cheese, and an egg cracked on top, but I also loved their own version of the dumpling, called a khinkali. Also, look out for the churchkela, which consists of walnuts, carefully soaked in leftover grape juice from the wine harvest. They can be found everywhere, mostly hanging from shop windows - you can’t miss them. These specialties, plus cheap and affordable locally-sourced wine, will keep most travelling foodies occupied for at least a few days.
The climate is typical sub-mediterranean, with Tbilisi’s surrounding mountains protecting the city from the harsh middle-eastern temperatures, but also paving the way for plenty of snow in winter. If you’re lucky enough to visit the capital in summer, expect something between 28-35 degrees celsius.
Of course, if you’re heading outside Tbilisi, things can change quickly. If you’re thinking of travelling to the north - say Mestia, or even further into Ushguli - make sure you bring a jacket. These towns are among the highest in Europe, and even in summer temperatures can drop into single-figures.
If you’re here for a few days, there are a few unmissable things that you just have to do.
On the first day, consider climbing the fortress in the centre of town, which, in addition to giving you some geographical bearings, will also delight you with a spectacular view over the old and new parts of the city. And if you’re exhausted by the time you reach the top, there’s even a sky-rail to take you back down again. The cost is 3 GEL, or $1 USD.
Once you’ve done that, make sure you take a wander through the old town. In my opinion, these narrow, stone-laid streets put Prague and Paris to shame! There’s just so much to look at, and plenty of opportunities to take photos. Keep your eyes peeled for the discreet underground wine bars, dotted throughout the inner suburbs. Flip a coin and pick one. You won’t be disappointed.
And if you’ve got time, wander to the eastern part of the town, where you’ll find a daily market, selling all sorts of wares, from photography gear to oil paintings, swords and books. You can spend endless hours here during the warmer months.
You won’t be disappointed with Tbilisi. The city is a cosmopolitan, lively capital that delivers an explosive cultural hit. The more popular tourist cities across mainland Europe could learn a lot from observing Tbilisi's subtle charm.
Although the war is well behind Georgia, the country admittedly is still working hard to establish its own identity. From a traveller’s perspective, it isn’t immediately clear exactly what Georgia stands for yet, but the country truly does do a lot of things well. It’s safe, clean, affordable and the people are lovely.
So, if you’re thinking of somewhere different for your next adventure, consider Georgia, and start off in its bustling capital of Tbilisi. As one of the locals described, Georgia is ‘the balcony of Europe’, which makes it something you absolutely have to see at least once.