Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi took me by surprise. I thought I knew what to expect of post-Soviet cities: surely this would be another drab place, grey and dominated by crumbling concrete.
In fact, I found Tbilisi to be utterly charming. I passed through it four times during my travels through Georgia and every time I felt excited to be back. I stayed in three different areas, which gave me a different base from which to explore each time. By the end, I felt I’d covered the city pretty well.
In this guide, I’ll share some essential tips on how to make the most of your time in Georgia’s capital, and give you my list of top things to do in Tbilisi.
Catching the local vibe in Tbilisi
Do you want to get a real taste of Tbilisi and rub shoulders with the locals? Then there are two places you absolutely must go. So let me tell you about these first, before I get to all the tourist sights.
Tip #1: Have drinks at Dive
Tblisi has two bars called Dive, both under the same management. There’s DIVE x Fabrika, which is a bar and music venue in the urban hotspot of Fabrika, but I particularly recommend paying a visit to the original Dive Bar (located here).
If you want to get a lay of the land and gather some local insider tips, Dive should be your first port of call!
This casual hangout is known as a gathering spot for many English-speaking Georgians and expats alike. You can have some great conversations while enjoying some lovely local craft beer.
I ended up sharing a table with a little UN summit worth of local and expat residents — including several Georgians, an Iranian, Iraqi, American, Lebanese, Israeli, Russian and a Turk. Many expats in Tbilisi are from nearby Middle Eastern countries, for whom Georgia can be an attractive place to work or study (it’s the closest European-style country with relatively easy visa procedures). One of the bar’s friendly American managers also joined for a while, telling me stories about his work as a geopolitics correspondent for US magazines and about some of the hairy situations he’d been in as an election monitor in Armenia.
When Dive Bar closed for the night, I joined some new Georgian friends for a nightcap at Warszawa, a student bar with cheap drinks where you can also meet many travellers and locals.
Tip #2: Explore the Deserters Bazaar
Most tourists probably just stick to Tbilisi’s old town, but if you take just three metro stops north (to the Tbilisi central train station), you’ll be entering a whole different world.
Here you’ll find the sprawling open-air fresh market covering over 2000 square meters known as Dezertirebi, where residents go to buy produce, meat, and moonshine. It’s a chaotic and smelly jumble, contrasting against the more tranquil renovated old town.
The Deserters Bazaar (not to be confused with the Dry Bridge Market) got its name from the 1920s when Russian army deserters sold their weapons here. Today it will give you a wonderful window into Georgian life. I loved getting lost in all the little alleyways and taking in all the colourful scenes. Don’t miss the adjacent roofed Central Bazaar, which is highly worth a stroll as well.
My friend and I eventually ended up in a little alley lined with stalls where Georgians come for a shot and a snack after work. We decided to order some homemade Chacha here, a typical Georgian brandy, followed by some homemade wine (they also let customers pour this into their own plastic bottle to take home). The stalls are a lovely little mess of plates, bottles, pans with snacks, and mugs that may or may not ever get washed. The fridges and CRT TVs in these primitive pubs surely all date back to Soviet times.
Grabbing a drink here makes a great excuse to chat with some locals. Not many speak English, but we managed to have some basic conversations using simple words and a bit of sign language. One guy seemed especially delighted that two Dutch guys had chosen to come to his usual haunt, and shared with us jokes and some insights about life in Georgia.
Be warned: the booze here is strong! After just 30 minutes and two small drinks, we found ourselves wobbling our way out of the market.
The area around Dezertirebi [location] has plenty of local restaurants, with menus only in Georgian or at best in Russian. Taking a punt on these can be fun. To order, try naming dishes you already know, pointing at pictures of other food you’ve had, or other playful solutions. We did this at one restaurant, and the staff were visibly delighted that we’d come to their local place.
Things to do in Tbilisi
Tbilisi has a great variety of things to do. If you don’t have much time, I think you can get a good taste of the city in about 2 days, but it can certainly be worth a longer stay if you’re into the vibe. Even after spending many days in Tbilisi, I didn’t get even remotely bored — and there’s even more to do if you go on daytrips and head into the surrounding region.
Explore the old city
This may sound like a cliche, but I think a city like Tbilisi is best discovered on foot and without being too focused on a particular goal.
Try going for just a walk in the center, especially anywhere west of the river, as you’ll sure to see plenty of interesting things. Half the fun of just seeing a different street life and environment.
Your only impediment, at times, is the highly car-focused nature of the city. To cross the larger avenues or roundabouts, it’s often impractical to try to cross directly. Find one of the pedestrian tunnels that run underneath. Inside, you’ll also find a lot of interesting local life, with little shops and magazine stands lining the tunnels.
Enjoy the odd architectural jumble
Tbilisi is a bit of an eccentric city where you can find crumbling façades of traditional wooden Georgian houses standing next to Soviet-era architecture and daring contemporary designs. I immediately fell in love with this crazy architectural jumble, and the contrasting styles are sure to make your exploration doubly rewarding.
It’s impossible to miss the tube-shaped contemporary Rike concert hall or the mushroom-roofed House of Justice. But don’t also miss the brutalist Soviet Jenga stack that is the Bank of Georgia (formerly the Ministry of Transportation), the strange 1980s creation that is the Wedding Palace, not to mention all the traditional 19th-century wooden houses with Italian-style courtyards.
Grab some food in Erekle street
Erekle II Street is one of the old town’s liveliest, lined with all manner of bars and restaurants. With its cozy patios, traditional balconies, and cast iron street lights, it struck me as having a faintly New Orleansy vibe (but that was probably just my imagination).
It’s a delightful place to try some of the local flavors or have a Georgian wine. In summer, you’ll find lots of outdoor seating and water mist spray to keep you cool.
Try some Chacha at Chacha Time
Chacha is a Georgian pomace brandy, not entirely dissimilar to Grappa in Italy or Pisco in Peru. You’ll find this on the menu practically anywhere, sometimes at dizzying home-brew strengths, though I had an especially lovely time sampling this drink at a specialized bar called Chacha Time.
My friend and I stepped inside for just a little nightcap on our way home, but the staff insisted on us ordering a 5-glass sampler menu instead. No matter, as the bar’s owner Vlad is super knowledgeable and can tell you loads of interesting Chacha facts. The sampler menu didn’t hit us as hard as I’d feared, and we finished the night with another chacha cocktail chaser.
Stroll the Dry Bridge Flea Market
This wonderful flea market can keep you entertained for hours. From valuable antiques to decades-old tat and Soviet-era relics, you’ll all find it here. Great for picking up a good souvenir. Open during daytime every day of the week.
Take the Cable Car to Narikala Fortress
Opened in 2012, this cable car connects Rike Park to the 4th century Narikala Fortress where you can enjoy the nicest views of the city. A one-way journey costs only 1 GEL and lasts a few minutes. Rather than take the cable car back down, it’s nice to walk it past the fortress walls and back to Tbilisi’s old town.
Take the cable car to Mtsaminda Park
Tbilisi has no shortage of cable cars! While Narikala Fortress is the first one to check out, another cable car goes to an opposite hilltop that is home to an old theme park and a Soviet-era TV tower. The restaurant here lets you enjoy some great Georgian cuisine while enjoying panoramic views of the city.
Dip into hip Tbilisi at Fabrika
Amid the decaying facades and broken sideways in many of Tbilisi’s districts, you’ll also find signs of urban renewal and an emerging entrepreneurial scene.
At Fabrika, an old Soviet-era sewing factory has been transformed into a multifunctional space with urban cafes and bars, art studios, a coworking office, hostel, and an Impact Hub community. Among the trendy establishments and walls covered in colorful street art, it’s the place to be seen for young and fashionable Georgians (and a scattering of expats).
Take the metro (no, really)
Normally I wouldn’t exactly list ‘taking the metro’ as a notable sight, but in Tbilisi I much enjoyed using the old metro system.
Its vintage escalators have an operator booth at one end, and the tunnel shafts are super deep. It can be a long way down, so I noticed some locals sitting down on the escalator steps while having a break or reading their newspaper. Some of the metro stations have beautiful mosaics, like the University Metro underground station pictured above.
Peek into Tbilisi’s Italian Courtyards
It were actually Persian caravanserais which brought this traditional house structure to Georgia, but they are still called Italian for their typical style. As you explore Tbilisi you will no doubt pass a few of them, typified by their wooden balconies and walls covered in grapevines.
Gorge on Georgia’s amazing food
Whether you are a herbivore or a carnivore, Georgia will be a real foodie destination. I tend to like my veggies, which in Georgia are beautifully fresh and exploding with flavor, as the ingredients are not mass produced. Be sure to try the typical Georgian eggplant rolls with walnut and pomegranate.
My friend is more of a meat and carbs guy and was not disappointed either, digging into all the katchapuris (bread with melted local cheese) and grilled pork skewers.
You can eat very well for about 6 or 7 euro a person. Though for our first meal, we accidentally ended up going to a fancier restaurant called Sakhli #11 on Galaktioni Street, where we spent about 20 Euros a person on our meals — but the food and wine were phenomenal, and worth it if you’re not on a strict budget.
Take a daytrip to Mtshketa
Mtshketa is a town not far from Tbilisi that is historically important to Georgia and has earned UNESCO World Heritage status. It’s here that Georgia adopted Christianity in 334 AD and it’s still the seat of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The town is small and walkable, though it takes a short hike to get to a hilltop monastery which is slightly out of town. You may wish to visit Mtshketa with a guide to get some proper historical context, which will make it easier to appreciate this small riverside town.
Many tourist boat trips go up the river and to Mtshketa, and you’re extremely likely to be offered a deal on such a tour if you walk anywhere near the bridges in the old town. This seems like a nice way to get to Mtshketa. (I went there by taxi and this may have been a little less scenic.)
See the Tbilisi Peace Bridge
This modern pedestrian bridge in the center of Tbilisi is, apparently, the butt of some jokes. Due to its bow-like shape, some locals have taken to calling it the “Always Ultra” bridge, believing it to resemble a ladies’ maxi-pad. You know what? I think it’s a rather elegant and beautiful bridge, and a nice spot from which to enjoy the Mtkvari River. The bridge is another example of Tbilisi’s daring, and sometimes controversial, architecture.
Enjoy the Sulphur Baths
I had to skip these baths as it was already pushing 40°C outside during my visit, but locals tell me the city’s famed sulphur baths make for a great stop especially in the colder months of the year.
The Abanotubani district is home to a number of bathhouses where you can go for a soak or a scrub in water sourced from nearby sulphur springs, with temperatures of around 40°-50°C. I was told that Bathhouse No. 5 is the most beautiful and traditional, with beautiful mosaic ceilings.
(Pictured: Jumah Mosque, located among the sulfur baths.)
Grab a craft beer at Black Dog Bar
Are you a beer lover? And are you also a dog lover? Then you may want to pay a visit to Black Dog Bar!
At this bar, you can sample some of the local craft beers — and the place is pet-friendly, too, so there’s a fun and relaxed vibe. Speciality beer is still a recent phenomenon in Georgia, but a couple of good brews can be had. The atmosphere at the Black Dog Bar is also very amiable, and it seems to be a popular spot for locals and expats alike.
Check out the Holy Trinity Cathedral
You may have already spotted the Holy Trinity Cathedral from a distance if you’ve gone up any of the cable cars. Seen up-close, its 4-layered design makes it look almost like a Russian Doll of churches.
It’s the main cathedral of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and although it is not historical (it was completed in 2004), it does make for an interesting site to explore. From the cathedral gardens, you’ll get a different vantage point onto the Tbilisi old town. The Holy Trinity Cathedral is worth a look if you’re exploring east of the river.
Try some Churchkhela
As you stroll through town you’re likely to see shops and market sellers offering this typical Georgian treat, hanging in bunches from strings and looking almost like candles. Churchkhela is basically a string of walnuts covered in thickened grape juice, though there are variations using other types of nuts. It’s a lovely snack even in the midst of summer, as it’s sweet but doesn’t melt.
Stroll the Botanical gardens
I nearly missed this park as it’s totally secluded from the city! The best way to get there is downhill from the cable car to Narikala Fortress. The valley you see on the other side of this hill is entirely dedicated to the botanical gardens, which claims to be Europe’s oldest and contains several waterfalls. You can walk in a big circle from Narikala Fortress, through the botanical gardens, and back up to the Kartlis Deda monument. The gardens are not marked very well, so it might be easiest to use your phone’s map to navigate there.
Where to stay in Tbilisi
I stayed in hostels or guesthouses in three different neighbourhoods in Tbilisi and explored many more while visiting the sights.
The center of Tbilisi is quite compact, and cheap taxis or the metro let you hop around pretty quickly, so you don’t have to fuss too much about where to stay. I do recommend these areas, each of which I much enjoyed:
The old town
This includes Abanotubani and the neighborhood around the Sioni Cathedral. This ares is the most touristy, but it’s also quaint and pleasant — and close to many cafes and restaurants. It’s the most obvious choice for area to stay, though if you’re looking for a different perspective there are some other options.
(See map pin.)
Looking for a nice place to stay here? Then try SkadaVeli, a lovely B&B on the second floor of an old 19th century building. You’ll be a few minutes’ walk from Erekle Street and some of the city’s main sights.
This neighborhood just north of the old town feels a bit more like proper Tbilisi. It has a large avenue, parks, a lot of city life, and it’s close to the daily flea market. It’s still just a 10-minute walk to the old town.
(See map pin.)
The hostel I stayed at here is no longer listed, but it wasn’t very good anyway. Instead, I would point you to the Marco Polo hostel, which is the top-rated one in this area (with a 9.8 rating based on 300+ reviews, believe it or not!). It has privates and dorms. You’ll still be within walking distance of the old town, but you’ll also be strategically located to explore the other awesome neighbourhoods of Tbilisi.
West of Mtatsminda
I tried to get a more accurate name for this but couldn’t find it — but the area at the base of the Tbilisi Funicular that leads to Mtatsminda park is full of windy streets with crumbling old houses and many Italian-style courtyards. If you like the beautiful and slightly melancholic vibe, then you’ll want to take a look at this quiet local neighbourhood. It’s very rustic, but if you like that partly decayed vibe (while still being a really friendly neighborhood), then you’ll get it a lot here.
(See map pin.)
I stayed in a private room at Memories Hostel, which had a great homely feel. The guy who runs it is also one of the nicest guys ever and he can give you a lot of great tips. If you’re not keen on a hostel, search around for guesthouses in this area – there are a lot of cute ones.
This area is a bit further removed from the center (by about two metro stops), but it’s where a lot of local life happens outside the old town. The area is home to Fabrika, a rejuvenated space with lots of bars and studios, and it’s a good area to stay for nomads or backpackers.
(See map pin.)
If you want to be right at the heart of the action, be sure to stay at Fabrika Hostel & Suites. This modern and trendy hostel is close to a whole complex of bars, cafes, and restaurants. You can catch a gig at DIVE and be in bed a minute later! There are also a lot of cute guesthouses in this area. I stayed in one run by a family and it had one of those typical Italian style courtyards, which are common in this neighborhood.