Tbilisi, Georgia: A Scavenger Hunt

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.

Sioni Cathedral and Narikala - Tbilisi, Georgia
View of Sioni Cathedral and Narikala, Tbilisi.

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

Father Carrying Son - Tbilisi, Georgia
Father and son at Georgia’s Independence Day parade celebrations.

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.

4. BARF

What works better to clean your clothes than Barf?

Barf Detergent Powder - Yerevan, Armenia
BARF. The laundry detergent of choice.

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.

Kids of Sololaki - Tbilisi, Georgia
Kids of Sololaki, Tbilisi. Great singers.

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.

Woman Begging at the Church Steps - Tbilisi, Georgia
Begging at the church steps, Tbilisi.

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)

Boys Watching their Laundry - Tbilisi, Georgia
Life in Tbilisi’s Italian courtyards.

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”

Battered Street Walls - Tbilisi, Georgia
Tbilisi street scene and Saakashvili poster.

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.

10. Gotcha

Men at the Main Market - Tbilisi, Georgia
Meeting Gotcha at the Tbilisi market.

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.

Georgian Sign of Stalin - Tbilisi, Georgia
One of Georgia’s Lost Sons

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.

Aerial View of Old Town - Tbilisi, Georgia
View over Tbilisi at dusk. Just beautiful.

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.

Photo Essay: Discovering Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi Travel Tips: Transport, Accommodation and Activities

  • How to Get There: We flew Air Baltic (Berlin-Riga-Tbilisi) as it was the cheapest, although not most direct, option. Other major European airlines like Austrian Airways and Lufthansa service Tbilisi. It’s also possible to fly to Istanbul and connect by bus.
  • Where to Stay: Home stay: Rusiko Mchedlishvili (+995 (8) 93 328 911, rusiko_mched [at] yahoo.com). Centrally located near Rustaveli metro, this comfortable home-stay is like having your own apartment. $25/person, including breakfast. Rusiko is a very good cook and sometimes shares her efforts in the kitchen with guests. Warning: you may become addicted to her khachapuri in the mornings.
  • Hotel Charm is in the heart of old town at 11 Chakhrukhadze Street (+995 32 985333, 986348). The owner, Nino, is an energetic and friendly host. Most rooms are in the $40-$60 range, but we were lucky to get a basement room for $30. Comfortable, and the free internet is a nice bonus.
  • Where to Eat: See our post on Georgian Food.

Tbilisi Photo Slideshow

Enjoy this?

Then sign up for more travel wisdom & inspiration from 7+ years of traveling the world.

Comments

  1. says

    Hey Audrey & Dan,

    You are doing a fantastic job with your webpage and I enjoy visiting it on regular basis as I know there is always more to read and see :)

    When reading through all your tips on Tbilisi, I couldn’t agree with you more – it’s a city where you have to explore and dig through some layers to see the real city. I remember so vividly how I was just wondering around, peeking into different courtyards. They were so fascinating! I wish I could have taken those sulfur baths; I heard about them while in Tbilisi and even passed by one that is situated in a truly beautiful building. I wish I could recall the name now; perhaps you went there yourself.

    Like you, I was also fascinated by the Georgian script and took numerous pictures while in the country. I even learned how to write a few things in Georgian, but unfortunately I have forgotten already. It’s great fun to learn at least some bits of this fascinating language.

    Keep having a fantastic journey and I can’t wait to read and see more!
    Head aega,
    Ande

  2. says

    Tere Ande!
    I’m glad you’re enjoying the website so much, especially given what an avid and experienced traveler you are! We could have spent days just losing ourselves in the courtyards and their inhabitants. So much of Tbilisian life takes place in these courtyards.

    Was the sulfur bath building you remember this one?
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/picture/1092340694/

    I think this is the women’s baths. We went to one around the corner that was recommended by a friend. You should definitely try out the baths next time you visit Tbilisi!

    Happy travels!
    Audrey

  3. Julie says

    It’s wonderful to hear that you had a great experience in Georgia. My son who is 16 spent the summer there with a friend of ours and her family.
    He was treated like royalty while there. The entire village came to visit him almost everyday. They wanted to hear english and learn about the USA. He can’t wait to return. I as a parent letting my son travel half way around the world alone would send him back in a heart beat. Safer there than spending the summer in some places in the US.
    The people there are welcoming and could teach us a few things about hospitality. Be safe on your continued journey.

  4. says

    Julie, what a fantastic opportunity for your son! We have been learning a lot about hospitality, family and many more things on this journey and hope we can incorporate the best of what we’ve learned into our lives. Each time we talk about Georgia, we get nostalgic thinking about the people and what we experienced there. It’s truly a special place.

    Although I’m sure it’s difficult as a parent to see your son leave for a summer, exposing him to different countries and people at an early age can really be life-changing. Thanks for our wishes for our safe journey ahead. We have found that many places we visit that may seem dangerous what you see on TV are actually much safer than many cities in the US. Where we are now – Myanmar – is one of those places.

  5. Lika says

    Hallo;)
    im a georgian girl living in Austria. I just saw these nice pictres of my beautiful Tbilisi and i was really happy. im studing here in Austria and haven’t been there in Georgia for 2 years and i terribly miss it. I know all these nice places. i just want to thank you all for such a good comments and fotos about Georgia.
    I wish u all of you good luck.

    Best Regards

    lika chuguashvili

  6. says

    Lika, I am glad that you enjoyed our writing and photos about Tbilisi – coming from a real Tbilisian, that means a lot! Even after being on the road almost 18 months, Tbilisi is still one of our favorite cities and Georgia one of our favorite countries. We’ve been recommending Georgia to other travelers we meet. We wish we could have some gooey kadjapuri right now! I imagine how you must miss you country. Best luck to you in Austria!

  7. says

    Rusca, thanks so much for posting this link to the BBC story, especially as we knew the person in the photo! Aleko truly helped us discover Tbilisi – its history, culture and people – and his love for the city was infectious.

    Tbilisi is still one of our favorite cities and we loved getting lost in its windy old streets, gazing at its balconies, popping our heads into courtyards and being welcomed by locals. It’s tragic to think of the old buildings being torn down for modern, glass office or apartment buildings. I understand the economics, but we truly hope that people succeed in preserving old Tbilisi.

  8. PCV Telavi says

    If you ever make it back you should know you can get nice free maps of Tbilisi in English from the Marriott Hotel on Rustaveli Ave. Just walk in and ask at the front desk!
    I recently lived as an American in Georgia (Telavi) for more than 2 years so I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts from Georgia. Glad to see you were able to experience quite a bit beyond what so many tourists on short visits do. Your adventures in Kakheti with Shota and Misha and being “rock stars” in the bazaar cracked me up. Sounds like an average day for me during my time there!
    You also might appreciate a recent article about tourism in Georgia written by a good friend of mine: http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav072409.shtml

  9. says

    @Tbilisi Hotels: Glad you enjoyed this article and photos. Part of Tbilisi’s charm is that it is not all developed in the same way – there are still areas (like Sololaki) that are great to wander around because they are different from other cities in Europe.

    @PCV Telavi: Thanks for the tip about free maps being available in Tbilisi these days! We still get a good laugh about our experiences in Georgia – from climbing to the caves Misha and Shota in Kakheti to hiking across Svaneti with Avgan to being given a feast at the Zugdidi market. There was something new and unplanned – in a good way – every single day. I can imagine it was a fantastic place to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

    Thanks for the link to the article about Georgia’s efforts to promote tourism and develop a stronger tourism infrastructure. There is so much Georgia can offer independent tourists, but sometimes the costs of hotels can be a bit prohibitive. I hope the strategy keeps independent (and budget tourists) in mind instead of building the infrastructure mainly for tour groups.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current day month ye@r *