Tbilisi may be the coolest city you’ve never thought of visiting (or maybe you have, and I’m underestimating how awesome you are).
Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia (the country in the Caucasus, not the U.S. state). The city, founded in the fifth century, straddles the banks of the Mt’k’vari River and is bounded on three sides by dramatic mountains. Tbilisi lies at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and as such boasts impressive demographic diversity and an eclectic mix of architectural styles.
I flew to Tbilisi from Prague last week to speak at the first-ever TEDxTbilisi and fell head-over-heels for this charming city. When you land at Tbilisi International Airport, you’re welcomed by signs that read, “Tbilisi Loves You.” Well, the feeling is certainly mutual.
I regularly dream about Georgian food. And why wouldn’t I? Complex, nuanced herb mixtures, mouth-watering cheeses, savory meats, crispy freshwater fish, and refreshing vegetables dishes have made Georgian cuisine beloved in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
For a taste of classic Georgian cuisine in Tbilisi, try Bread House. This popular restaurant is famous for its fresh bread (puri), which is baked in traditional stone ovens. Bread House’s head chef travels around Georgia studying recipes and culinary techniques that have been passed down for generations in small villages. Make sure that, in true Georgian style, you order enough food to fill your table with a sumptuous feast. Some suggestions:
- Wine: Winemaking has its earliest roots in Georgia, and Georgian reds (see: Saperavi) are among my favorites. If you can find Pheasant’s Tears winery, which has been resurrecting traditional winemaking methods in the Georgian countryside. Their wines are complex and have the delightful quirks that can’t be found in wines made with modern technology.
- Khachapuri: A friend of mine who lives in Georgia once told me, “People come for the wine, but stay for the khachapuri.” I think he’s on to something. Each region of Georgia has its own unique version of khachapuri, but it’s in essence a kind of cheese pie. Warm, gooey, and utterly addictive.
- Aubergines with walnut sauce: Thin slices of eggplant slathered in a creamy sauce of ground walnuts, garnished with pomegranate seeds. The walnut sauce has a unique, rich flavor and you’ll soon want to put it on everything you eat.
- Khinkali: Georgian dumplings filled with minced meat and herbs. Just make sure you remember the proper technique for eating them: grab by the stem, bite a hole in the dumpling, suck out of the juice, eat, discard the stem. Georgians love to watch confused foreigners struggle with khinkali and end up covered in the savory sauce.
- Trout with pomegranate sauce: Georgia is full of rivers and so freshwater fish are in abundance. The pairing of crispy trout with the colorful, sweet-sour pomegranate sauce is a delight for the tastebuds.
If you’re in the mood for something different, Pur Pur is a French restaurant with charmingly worn, bohemian decor and a well-loved piano.
Georgian art is receiving more and more attention from the international art scene, and a number of galleries in Tbilisi display some of the country’s most interesting contemporary art. Kopala focuses on work by young, emerging artists. This bright, airy gallery features everything from neoromantic paintings to abstract, geometric cityscapes and architectural studies.
I had the rare honor of visiting Tbilisi during “Europe’s cold snap,” and the city was experiencing some very rare snowfall. Everyone I met was quick to apologize about the weather–It’s usually not like this!–but I thought the covering of snow lent the city a magical air, especially in Old Tbilisi.
Old Tbilisi has a gorgeous mix of buildings dating anywhere from the fifth to the 20th centuries, built up into the surrounding mountainsides. This quarter is especially famous for its wooden buildings with colorful, intricately-carved balconies. Find your way through steep, narrow, winding roads. You’ll pass orthodox churches, synagogues, mosques, and sulphur baths as well.
If you’re feeling adventurous, explore Old Tbilisi at night and you’ll be rewarded with views like this one:
If you’re tired from sightseeing, duck into Caliban’s Coffeehouse (conveniently located on Tbilisi’s main drag, Rustaveli) for coffee or tea and a snack. Caliban’s is a classic cafe adjoining Prospero’s Books, an English-language bookstore. It’s a popular meeting place for English-speaking expats, and the free WiFi makes it a relaxing spot to catch up on work and get that interweb fix.
Later in the evening, stop by the Literature Cafe on Tarkhnishvili. This intimate, smoky cafe is popular among Georgian intellectual and bohemian types.
Betsy’s is a cute boutique hotel perched high on the eastern side of the city–which means an incredible bird’s-eye view across the city. Helpful service, a decent restaurant serving breakfast and dinner, and probably more character than you’d find at one of the international chain hotels. The bar/lounge is a popular hangout spot for the members of the expat NGO community on Friday and Saturday nights.
Tbilisi may be off the beaten tourist path, but it is well worth a visit. Unlike many other countries I’ve visited, Georgia is a place where every expat I spoke to had no plans of ever leaving. My only regret is that I was only there for three days; I would have loved to visit the countryside, the mountains, the Black Sea coast… Then again, I’ve got to save some sights for my return trip. I definitely plan to come back.