With chaotic yet charming cobblestone streets, dome-shaped bathhouses steaming with sulfuric waters, and crumbling Soviet factories repurposed as hipster hotels, Tbilisi is a study in contrasts. Capital of Georgia and the heart of the Caucasus, the city teems with riches: cathedrals that rise in the hills like layer cakes; hidden cafes bursting with bric-a-brac, and a bohemian art scene that is slowly peeling away the Soviet grit from this survivalist town to reveal a vibrant creative core. Conquered and reconquered for centuries, Tbilisi now wears its battle scars with pride. From its medieval fortress walls to its buzzing new luxury boutiques, this East-meets-West city offers something for everyone.
Start your time in Tbilisi with a perspective shift. Board one of the sleek, modern cable cars straight up to the 4th-century Narikala Fortress, which looms over the city and is guarded by Kartlis Deda, a 66-foot-tall aluminum woman with a cup of wine for friends in one hand and a sword for her enemies in the other. Also known as Mother Georgia, Kartlis has one of the best views in town, so join her after the smooth 10-minute ride through the sky for the ultimate photo op of Tbilisi’s many layers. From the fortress, you can gaze down upon the 19th-century Old Town, the much more ancient river walls of the Mtkvari River and the gleaming new installations in Rike Park. Before boarding your return cable car, wait patiently for the aerial tramway’s pièce de résistance — a glass-bottomed car, which takes 360-degree views to the next level as it whisks you back down to ground (2.5 lari, or about $1).
Descend from the 4th century straight into the 21st at Rike Park, a feat of modern urban planning that is shaped like the map of Georgia and has picnic areas, a climbing maze, a giant grand piano and a choreographed musical fountain. The park’s most recognizable feature is the twin metal exhibition halls designed by the Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas, two glass and steel tubes that are conjoined at the back and serve as a concert hall and an exhibition space. Rike Park is connected to Old Tbilisi by the bow-shaped Bridge of Peace: another Italian-designed marvel featuring curved steel, a glass canopy top and, at night, a light show of 1,000 twinkling LEDs.
A short walk from Rike Park sits the Abanotubani district, a collection of brick bathhouses with distinctive dome-shaped roofs that for centuries have been a pilgrimage site for Georgians in need of a restorative sulfuric dip. The baths offer gender-segregated communal pools as well as private rooms with steaming bathtubs; for a handful of extra lari, bathers can also get a professional scrub-down and massage. The most tourist-friendly of the bathhouses is the intricately tiled Chreli Abano (as known as Orbeliani) Baths (private bathing rooms from 40 lari an hour; massages start at 50 lari); locals also praise Gulo’s Spa for its squeaky-clean rooms (private bathing rooms from 30 lari an hour; a massage or scrubis an additional 10 lari).
The linchpin of Georgian culture is the supra, or festive meal. The Georgian kitchen is heavily seasonal and features a dizzying intermarriage of Eastern and Western flavors, anchored by thick khinkali soup dumplings, plump with rich broth; cheesy flatbreads scorched in clay ovens; and a harmony of sweet and sour flavors culled from the freshest fruits and herbs. For a taste of true Georgian tradition, descend the curving iron staircase to the dining room at Barbarestan, a family-owned gem housed in an old brick meat cellar with aging hooks still visible in the ceiling. It’s hard to go wrong with anything from the restaurant’s menu, which is based on the 19th-century cookbook from the feminist princess-poet Barbare Jorjadze, but highlights include the ghandzili salad of pickled wild garlic; the duck filet with stewed quince and homemade bread from Georgian red wheat. (Dinner for two, with wine, 250 lari.)
Perhaps because of the decadence of its dinners, Georgians start their days late, and Tbilisi has no real breakfast culture to speak of. If you defy the masses to rise before noon, however, don’t despair: At Retro, a paradise for bread-lovers that opens at 9 a.m., you can dig into acharuli khachapuri, a veritable canoe of oven-baked bread that is as big as your head and swimming with hot cheese, butter and floating egg yolks. (Khachapuri, from 7.50 lari.)
Tbilisi’s Old Town is a jumble of narrow winding streets, crooked churches and tilting pastel villas with intricately latticed balconies. The fairest of them all might be the home housing Gallery 27, an attic souvenir shop and textile gallery selling handmade Georgian crafts. Climb the creaking staircase lined with jewel-toned stained glass, and take your time browsing, but make it the Rezo Gabriadze Puppet Theater by noon; at the stroke of 12, the windows of the theater’s clock tower burst open and offer the crowds below a charming mini-marionette show (the show repeats at 7 p.m.).
There is perhaps no better place to experience the modern, creative pride that marks post-Soviet Tbilisi than its art cafes. Each of these bistros is distinct, but all feature vintage design, quality food and a delightful blurring of gallery and gathering place. One of the prettiest, Cafe Leila, sits a stone’s throw from the Gabriadze Theater. Its menu offers fresh vegetarian spins on Georgian classics, served in a colorful room of stucco walls and Persian-inspired paintings (lunch for two, 100 lari).
The Tbilisi TV Tower, a Soviet-era eyesore hovering over the city on Mount Mtasminda, hides something much more appealing: Mtasminda Park, a landscaped amusement park and urban playground that is accessible by a funicular that goes straight up the mountain. For the best views, grab a seat in the funicular’s front carriage for the 1,640-foot vertical ride to the park, where four restaurants and a variety of carnival rides await you (3 lari a ride).
Georgia is one of the oldest viticultural regions on earth, and Tbilisi is littered with cavernous tasting rooms — some better than others — for swishing and swirling the nation’s sulfite-free, clay-pot-aged wine. Culinary Backstreets offers gastronomic tours ($95 for 7 hours, includes all food and drink) of Tbilisi that include a full wine tasting as well as a crash course on chacha, the local moonshine. For those shorter on time, a visit to Vino Underground (tasting from 25 lari) or 8000 Vintages will quench your palate.
Zura Natroshvili was planning to build a swimming pool for his son on the terrace of his eighth-floor duplex apartment when he had a better idea: Why not bury four dozen ceramic urns full of grapes in the pool instead, turn the contents into world-class wine, and then convert his apartment’s first floor into a restaurant? The result was Bina N37, where guests reach their dinner after buzzing the intercom of Mr. Natroshvili’s apartment building and then taking a seat in his former living room. The menu, which includes kharcho (veal-and-walnut stew) and herb-flecked khachapuri, is elevated yet traditional — much like the space itself. (Dinner for two, 150 lari, with wine).
Underground rave houses like Bassiani, Mitkvarze and Vitamin Cubes, which all open late and throb till daylight, are helping Tbilisi earn a global reputation as a hard-core party capital. But there are tamer ways to take in Tbilisi’s vibrant night life — at Fabrika, a hostel and multi-function urban space built in a former sewing factory, there’s eclectic urban design, multiple bars and music halls, a gallery space and even a board game cafe. Follow the hipsters toward the graffiti-plastered walls of the factory’s inner courtyard and take your pick.
If you go to the restaurant Zakhar Zakharich in the morning, you’ll most likely find empty tables, or a handful of drunken post-rave partyers slurping khashi — Georgia’s tripe-and-garlic soup that serves as a hangover remedy. Don’t let this stop you. It’s a crime to leave Tbilisi without tasting khinkhali, the Georgian soup dumpling, and Zakhar Zakharich is known for making the best. Hand-rolled and stuffed with a variety of fillings (the lamb is the tastiest), these fist-size morsels make an ideal breakfast.
Just across the street from Zakhar Zakharich lies Dry Bridge, where collectors, antique vendors and craftsmen set up shop for the Dry Bridge Flea Market, a scavenger’s wonderland of Perestroika plunder. Soviet-era war medals, intricate porcelain tableware, traditional Caucasus rugs and silver jewelry — it can all be found here, hidden in plain sight amid the piles of salvaged clutter.
There’s a reason that Rooms Hotel (doubles from $200) has been on so many lists of must-visits for the past year. This Instagram-ready, industrial chic property, housed inside a former printing press, gets all the details — from décor to dining to dazzling art — exactly right.
At Vinotel (doubles from $130), an intimate 13-room property modeled on a traditional Georgian home, an on-site wine cellar means the Saperavi grapes are always within reach, and a picturesque Old Town location puts Tbilisi’s top sights within stumbling distance.
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