Some cities seem to exist in two dimensions, best taken in with a camera from afar. Not Tbilisi. Its turbulent history is a veritable bullet list of invasions, destructions, occupations, and reconstructions. As a result, it tends to reveal itself in layers, both architecturally and culturally. Labyrinthine and tactile, Tbilisi invites visitors to dig into it like urban archaeologists intent on determining its composition and its narrative.
Although travelers could be well-served by checking out some of Tbilisi’s more traditional sights (e.g., cathedrals, castles, and museums), we’d like to suggest a scavenger hunt to discover the real Tbilisi.
1. World’s Friendliest Immigration Official
After arrival at an ungodly 3:30AM (for some reason, all flights from Europe arrive at this time), Dan staggered up to the immigration window in a post-flight haze and was asked the purpose of his visit.
“Travel,” his early morning brilliance reveals itself.
Unfazed, the immigration officer asks, “Your first time in Georgia?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Welcome to Georgia!” The immigration officer could barely contain his excitement (and his smile). Or, at least he faked it ‘til it felt good. Either way, the guys at Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs seem to be writing the book on how to make a foreign tourist feel welcome. It’s working. All smiles, even at 3:30AM.
We knew we were going to like this place.
2. Georgia’s Fastest Growing Government Expenditure
We’re not 100% sure, but we think it may be military spending. As our hosts drove us from the Tbilisi airport to town, we encountered an enormous military caravan of armored personal carriers and other military hardware. Heads in helmets popped out from the top of tanks and peered out into the night in curiosity. As you might imagine, we were a little off-put, particularly at 4 AM. “Figures we'd happen to visit Georgia when it's being invaded,” we thought.
“Eto normalne?” (Is it normal?) we queried our hosts. Their laughter and matter of fact reply in the negative didn’t do much to restore a feeling of security. A few minutes later, they remembered that Georgia was about to celebrate its Independence Day with a military parade.
The Independence Day procession that morning seemed to feature every last chunk of Georgia's heavily foreign-financed military hardware, including helicopters skirting rooftops and fighter jets spewing jet streams in red and white, the colors of the Georgian flag. Georgians were out in droves and in patriotic mode – children had their faces painted and waved little Georgian flags while they cheered on the troops.
3. George W. Bush Highway
A big smiling portrait of George W. Bush welcomes you to Georgia. Surreal, especially at 4 AM.
Relations between Georgia and the U.S. are very close, particularly between George W. Bush and Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili. Saakashvili decided to reward America’s financial and symbolic support by renaming the highway from the airport to the town center after his new friend.
What works better to clean your clothes than Barf?
You’ll find this ill-named Iranian laundry detergent gracing the shelves throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia. Barf actually means “snow” in Persian. Some of the newer boxes actually offer this explanation in English micro-font for silly tourists like us.
5. The Alien on the Metro
(Hint: It’s you, the tourist.)
If you visit Tbilisi and wear a backpack, you’ll endure plenty of stares and curious whispers. No need to worry, though, nothing malicious here. Georgia just doesn’t have many independent tourists at the moment.
Budget travelers that we are, we piled onto Tbilisi’s metro with our large backpacks instead of taking a taxi. As a trainload of people stared out at us like we had just been beamed down from outer space, we began to wonder about them as much as they wondered about us. Who are these people? What are their roots? Where did they come from? Who do they look like?
Deep, refined, and mildly mysterious…that’s the Georgian culture, whether you take it in on the street or you find it staring out at you from the seats of an under-lit metro train.
6. Singing Kids of Sololaki
Every city needs young ambassadors like these. We were intent on seeing sites, including the Kartlis Deda statue on the hill, but spent most of our first evening with the good-natured and gregarious kids of Sololaki after peeking into one of the courtyards there.
If we could bottle their spirit, humor and good nature and release it into the world's water supply, we would.
Tbilisi’s Sololaki (or “Sololucky” if you are a cheeky graffiti artist) has an unassailable spirit and is loaded with rickety old buildings, admirable architecture and courtyard charm. Hopefully, Tbilisi's property developers will find a way to take advantage of the beauty that is already here, rather than tear it down and build anew.
Provided Georgia finds some political stability, this will become one of Tbilisi’s premier places to be for atmosphere. We were contemplating buying a place there with a help of a Georgian friend. If we had extra cash (and weren’t traveling around the world), it would make a great investment.
7. A Beggar
Tbilisi’s streets bear a surprising load of begging…even more than Cambodia’s. We were taken aback by this when we first arrived.
Elderly beggars line the steps of churches, underpasses and busy street corners. Georgia’s transition from the Soviet era and its recovery from civil war have both left many worse off, especially amongst its elderly population. The pension from the state is only around $30 per month, not nearly enough to cover winter heating bills.
Beggars seem only outnumbered by pensioner women selling nuts, sour plums and sunflower seeds. How much supply of nuts, seeds, and little green plums can one city absorb?
8. Italskaya dvur (Italian courtyard)
Tbilisi is a city intended for wandering. Get lost and go places where you’re not sure you’re supposed to be. Explore. Peek into courtyards and have conversations with the people living there. Tbilisians are friendly and if you show a little curiosity, they will be more than happy to show-and -tell about their homes, neighborhoods, and their lives.
The “Italian” courtyard we wandered into off of David Agmashenebeli Avenue contains 22 families and offers some of the best preserved wooden balconies in town, but there are others. Go and find them!
9. The “Women Against Saakashvili”
The current Saakashvili government is somewhat controversial. Many people that we spoke to who support it, seem to follow with “it’s the best option we have right now.” Georgians are definitely not afraid to voice their opinion, be it positive or negative. We came across a group of older, pension-age women who feel left behind after the collapse of the Soviet system. They’ll frown, point their thumbs downward, hoot and holler “Saakashvili plocha” (bad, in Russian).
Find them in a doorway full of vegetable vendors in the general area of the Italian courtyard.
For obvious reasons, he shouldn’t be difficult to find. Once you find him at the main market (near the train station), consider running the other way unless you are interested in a drinking contest. Dan barely escaped. Audrey and a group of cheese vendors finally pried him from Gotcha’s friendly but vise-like grip.
11. Sulfur Baths
In all guide books, these are easy to find and well worth a visit. You may smell like eggs (sulfur) afterwards, but you’ll be so relaxed you won’t care.
12. A City Map
At the moment, a majority of tourist information in Georgia comes in two varieties – non-existent or totally inaccurate.
The good thing is that people on the street are very friendly. You will find no shortage of help to find your way. Sometimes people don’t actually know what you are looking for, but they’ll find a way to help you whether you need it or not.
Note to Tbilisi’s Tourism Bureau: Open an office in central Tbilisi and distribute simple maps of the city for free!!
13. Your Favorite Sign in Georgian Script
Artistic and old-worldly, Georgian script is some of the most beautiful in the world, resembling a blend of Thai and Tamil with a few bent Greek symbols thrown in for good measure. Even the most mundane signs take on a certain elegance in Georgian. Find your favorite sign and take plenty of photos.
14. Best Sunset View
It’s not from a castle, cathedral or tourist spot. It’s from a peacefully empty soft piece of ground on a hill above the sulfur baths. We’re afraid to say too much for fear of ruining the place for our friend who took us there. If you do find it you will not be disappointed; it's an ideal place to take in and appreciate Tbilisi. Finish the evening with a drink at Rasta Café on the river next to Sioni Cathedral.
15. A Free Meal
As we waited to catch an evening train to Baku from Tbilisi, we ordered a light lunch in a restaurant near the train station. In an unexpected but fittingly Georgian goodbye, we learned that some men at a corner table paid for our lunch and a bottle of lemonade for the road when we tried to pay our bill. Our departure from Georgia was as welcoming as our arrival.
A hearty note of thanks to our friend Aleko Elisashvili for his contagious gigari (passion) for old Tiflis, his impromptu walking tours, and his seemingly endless knowledge of even the smallest of Tbilisi’s details. Our visit to Tbilisi would not have been the same without him.