Destination - Tbilisi
Written by Nestan Charkviani
Opinions might differ as to why, over many centuries, people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and religions chose Tbilisi as their home. What is certain, however, is that their joint contribution to architecture, cuisine, and lifestyle has made the city unique.
Tbilisi was founded in the 5th century by Georgian King Vakhtang Gorgasali. Since then it has been one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the region. Over 50 different ethnic groups reside in this city of 1.5 million people. The ancient Narikala fortress, set on top of the mountain in the city centre, is the best place to experience Tbilisi’s multiculturalism. Eastern- and Western-style buildings are scattered on both banks of the Mtkvari River, while truffle-shaped tops of sulphur bathhouses, jutting menorah, towering church steeples, and ornate minarets above a beautiful mosque all emphasise the relaxed ambience of Tbilisi – the city, marked over centuries by a high degree of tolerance, that has always encouraged the development of cultures.
Abanotubani and the adjacent Kalaubani districts – spread out at the foot of the mountain – are probably the most laid-back areas in Tbilisi. Both are dotted with cafés, restaurants, and a buzzing network of bars and nightclubs. Georgian cuisine and wine have been rated highly amongst the nations of the former Soviet Union, and usually the best restaurants in major cities of other countries were always Georgian. American writer John Steinbeck noted in his iconic Russian Journal that during travels around the USSR with legendary photographer Robert Capa in 1948, Georgia was the only place where they had a remarkably delicious dinner.
Away from the bustle of the main road, narrow side streets in Kalaubani offer a great range of food. To name a few, Café Literaturuli in Bambis Rigi serves unforgettable cakes; suave restaurant 12 Rue Chardin has a selection of excellent Western dishes; and Kala restaurant in King Erekle II street is a perfect place to have a leisurely traditional Georgian dinner of chicken in walnut sauce and steaming cheese pie khachapuri, accompanied by live jazz.
There is an anecdotal saying that every Georgian is somehow linked to the arts and must be good at either singing, dancing, or painting. The abundance of art-related spots in Tbilisi partly supports that stereotype.
Besides the Museum of Fine Arts and National Gallery, which have large collections of masterpieces on permanent display, the city is teeming with private art galleries. One of the oldest is the Chardin Gallery located in the Marriott hotel at 13 Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare. Along with works by leading artists, such as Giorgi Mirzashvili, Elene Akhvlediani, and Sergo Kobuladze, it offers exquisite jewellery, cloisonné enamel, and gold and silver art pieces by Zaza Lodia, Nino Burkadze, and other acclaimed masters.
Across from the Marriott hotel, at 7 Zubalashvili Street, fans of contemporary art will appreciate the Vernissage gallery exhibitions, which display works by Zurab Nizharadze, Levan Kharanauli, and other Georgian artists.
A little farther down Rustaveli Avenue, history lovers can visit The Simon Janashia museum with its unique collection of natural and human history artefacts and jewellery from the pre-Christian period. For several years now the building has also been housing the Museum of Soviet Occupation.
Tbilisi’s sunny and moderate climate is great for walks. Outdoor shopping in the area around the city’s overland bridge is an excellent way to make these promenades more exciting. The Dry Bridge is a sprawling flea market where charming miscellanea, from the finest quality antiques to Soviet era collectibles, can be purchased for reasonable prices. Bargain seekers can also hone their haggling skills by visiting the Central Railway Station neighbourhood with its famous Bazroba – a partly covered market where practically everything is sold – from food to electronic appliances. Western high street fashion stores are available in the Karvasla shopping mall in Dadiani Street, on the other side of the railway station.
However, more costly shopping is in upmarket Vake district. Samoseli Pirveli in Chavchavadze Avenue is worth mentioning as one of the most interesting shops. A designer project to revive costumes and shoes worn by Georgian aristocracy centuries earlier, the shop also offers replicas of silver accessories that used to adorn traditional outfits.
Different people find Tbilisi’s inner magnetism manifested in diverse things. Yet it is certain that as the product of multiple cultures, this city with its relaxed atmosphere, history, and natural beauty will leave hardly anyone untouched by its charms.
Famous sulphur bathhouses are located in Abanotubani, Tbilisi’s oldest area. As in earlier centuries it is still possible to enjoy the thermal springs with a high mineral content that is said to have a healing effect on numerous skin and bone diseases. Along with relaxing bathing opportunities in naturally hot water, Tbilisi sulphur bathhouses offer therapeutic massage services by a mekise, a professional masseur. It is believed that these hot springs, which abundantly gush out of the earth, have contributed to Tbilisi’s name, which is derived from the Georgian word tbili meaning ‘warm’.
An amusement park at 800m above sea level located at the top of Mount Mtatsminda (Holy Mountain) in central Tbilisi claims to have Europe’s highest rollercoaster. The park, which offers lots of other attractions including a ride on a gigantic panoramic ferris wheel, is open daily and can be reached by buses ‹ 126 and 90, or by taxi (around US$8). Spread over a territory of more than 100 hectares, with unique plants and wonderful panoramic views of the city, this is the largest and most remarkable park in Tbilisi.