Tblisi, Georgia, a city of contrasts

Tblisi viewed from Mtatsminda Park

We arrived in Tblisi on a short Azerbaijan Airlines flight from Baku. The Tblisi International Airport is not big and we quickly collected our luggage and summoned a Bolt car. We ended up using Bolt several times in Tblisi, always with very reasonable prices and typically short wait times. We knew prior to our arrival in Tblisi that massive protests had been going on in the city over objections to a proposed anti-free-journalism law. I messaged our hotel from the Baku airport to verify that the street our hotel was on (the same avenue on which the Georgian Parliament sits) was still open. Thankfully, the hotel confirmed that it was so I could reassure our Bolt driver who at first told me the road was closed.

The entrance to Alma Boutique Hotel is not impressive. From the graffiti outside, to renovation tarp and pile of old books and furniture sitting next to the somewhat alarming elevator things are a bit grim. But, once the elevator opened on the 3rd floor, we found ourselves in a fully renovated, clean and fresh-smelling one-floor hotel. The nice lady at the desk spoke good English and quickly settled us into a spacious bedroom with high ceilings and a balcony overlooking Rustaveli Avenue and the Opera and Ballet Theater of Tblisi across the avenue. The contrast between crumbling elegance and modern updates came to typify Tblisi in our minds. Tblisi is a far cry from Baku’s petroleum-fueled opulence, but it’s fascinating and beautiful in its own way. Six nights in the city including two day trips to see more of Georgia flew by. I’ll cover day trips separately and stick to Tblisi itself in this post.

Tblisi is a mixed bag: crumbling old buildings, street dogs, graffiti… elegance and flowers.

Founded in the 5th century, Tblisi, the capital of Georgia and its largest city with a population of over 1 million people, sits on the Kura River. Although I’ll use “Kura,” our first day-trip guide preferred its Georgian name, Mt’k’vari, and blamed the Russians for changing the name. The Kura flows from Turkey through Georgia to Azerbaijan so our guide’s attitude and focus on Russia may have reflected the anti-Russian sentiment evident to us in a sizeable portion of the Tblisi population. We saw this sentiment expressed in the nightly mass protests against a new “transparency” law similar to one used by Putin to stifle journalists in Russia and in a clear preference for English over Russian of many Georgians we encountered, particularly the younger generation. Random conversations with locals who heard our American-accented English reinforced the impression and we found people to be friendly, welcoming and helpful. Still, it’s a complicated situation, especially with substantial numbers of both Ukranian war refugees and Russians opposed to the war now residing in Georgia, and I won’t pretend to make any broad judgments based on our travels as tourists.

Protests viewed from our hotel balcony. Fortunately, things settled down at a reasonable hour and the hotel’s double-glazed windows did a great job. We slept well every night.

From a tourism perspective, there’s a variety of things to explore in Tblisi. Just walking along Rustaveli Avenue toward Liberty Square from our hotel took us past many top sights and museums: the Opera and Ballet Theater of Tblisi, Parliament, the National Galerie, the Georgia Museum of Fine Arts, the Georgian National Museum. We wandered the length of the avenue in both directions, admiring both the intentional sights as well as taking in daytime evidence of the massive nighttime protests: scattered clusters of protesters with the Georgian or European Union flags tied around their shoulders, lots of political graffiti, and police, water cannon trucks, and the occasional ominous-looking black- or camo-clad “security” people. Favorite refreshment stops included a old-style Georgian restaurant, a cool wine bar and restaurant in an art gallery setting, a stylish café in an Old Town theater, a small Thai restaurant, and (of course) a craft beer bar. [See “Practical info” below for details.]

The Clock Tower in Old Tblisi next door to Gabriadze Cafe with one of the ubiquitous street dogs of Tblisi (Yellow tags in the dogs’ ears indicate they’ve been spayed or neutered and vaccinated. Dogs are everywhere in Tblisi and treated well by the locals. We always saw them approach for treats or petting with tails wagging, confident people meant good things.)

Gazing across Rustaveli Avenue from our balcony, we could see the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tblisi perched on a hill and lit at night. After the sights of Rustaveli Avenue, we hopped a cheap Bolt ride to the cathedral. Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tblisi exceeded expectations. Descending multiple levels, the cathedral is deceptively larger on the inside than it appears from the outside. We browsed the artwork and relics on the soaring main level, then descended to the spacious lower levels to admire reception and conference areas and yet more artwork there. I purchased a pretty Georgian cross pendant and chain for a amazingly low price from a lady downstairs before heading outside to admire the cathedral grounds.

Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tblisi

A small chapel sits to one side of the cathedral. Roses bloomed in hedge-rimmed grassy areas surrounding the wide paved spaces around the cathedral while birds sand in the aftermath of a passing rain. Wide steps lead past a bell tower and fountains to connect an arched entrance to the grounds and the cathedral. Wandering downhill from the cathedral back towards the Kura, we walked past quaint old buildings and the sharply-contrasting colonnaded and glass-domed State Palace of Ceremonies (the former residence of the President of Georgia) which overlooks the city.

Another day, we took the Tblisi Funicular to Mtatsminda Park, a hilltop amusement park overlooking the city. The funicular is 10GEL, but entry to the pretty park is free and the views over Tblisi are great. [See lead photo.] In addition to rides and games, the park offers pretty green spaces, play areas and food and drink booths and casual restaurants with outdoor seating. From Mtatsminda Park, we caught our longest Bolt ride along winding mountain roads down to one of the oldest parts of the city, Abanotubani.

Abanotubani with its ancient domes covering underground baths reminded us of Baku’s old town and bears witness to the Islamic influences in Tblisi and its place along the Silk Road. Flowing from a waterfall at one end, a creek sparkles below picturesque tan brick buildings and a beautiful bathhouse facade of blue, green, white and tan tiles and minarets reminiscent of Uzbekistan. We opted not to book time in a bath, but plenty appeared available. Cafés and hotels boast painted wooden balconies overlooking the creek in its little valley. We enjoyed a delicious lunch on one of those balconies at Restaurant Usakhelouri overlooking the bath domes and creek. We watched as two bridal parties arrived below in vintage cars to take photos in the scenic spot.


Sated and with leftovers packed up to go, we left Abanotubani to cross the Kura River to Metekhi Virgin Mary Assumption Church. The church and a large equestrian statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, the founder of Tblisi, perch on a cliff above the Kura River. Small tour boats ran back and forth along the cliff and under the bridge as we admired the view. We joined a small gathering inside the church to watch the baptism of an adorable but less-than-enthused infant in his father’s arms.

Metekhi Virgin Mary Assumption Church and the statue of
King Vakhtang Gorgasali above the Kura River

Across a wide circle known as Europe Square on the same side of the Kura as the church, the Mother of Georgia Tramway (cable car carries) people up to yet another mountain-side destination, the Mother of Georgia statue. On a sunny Saturday, a long line of people waited to take the ride.

Europe Square with the Peace Bridge, tramway, and Rike Park beyond

Beyond the tramway, Rike Park sits along the river next to the Peace Bridge with its glass and metal curves. Rike Park is also home to the Rike Music Theater and Exhibition Center. The Center’s intriguing architecture of more swooping metal and glass is in the shape of two tubes with bulbous bases and open ends which form a large V. These openings reminded me of the gaping mouths of giant space worms. My apologies if that’s not the impression the architect(s) hoped for.

The domed State Palace of Ceremonies above the tubes of
the Rike Music Theater and Exhibition Center viewed from across the river

We enjoyed other walks around Tblisi among the sometimes charming and sometimes dilapidated buildings that were often both. Winding streets and those ornate painted wooden balconies lured us around the next corner. Imposing modern buildings like the huge city hall and the Rikes Park buildings are a startling contrast. All in all, we found Tblisi to be a fascinating city with pleasantly cheap prices. Alternating days in the city with day trips into the surrounding country turned out to be perfect and we both felt our six nights in Tblisi was just right.

Practical info:

Alma Boutique Hotel was a great base for us. We paid a GEL 1,313.76 (currently $468.36) for six nights, including tax, but no breakfast. Coffee and a coffee pot and a small refrigerator were provided in our room and there are several coffee/pastry shops nearby where breakfast fare cost a pittance. We breakfasted at a small table and chairs we moved between our balcony and the large bedroom as weather dictated.

Bolt was definitely the way to get around in Tblisi. Even if taxis were waiting (which they always were across the street from our hotel), we would use the Bolt app and so not have to worry about cash or pricing surprises. (I did read that it was best to keep the app open until the end of the ride to protect against the remote chance of an attempt at overcharging.) Often, the Bolt car was among the taxis or was a minute or less away. We had zero problems and encountered only clean cars and good drivers.

Favorite restaurants included:
Restaurant Margalita [1 Mitropan Laghidze St, Tbilisi 0108] serves classic Georgian fare just around the corner from our hotel in a space brimming with random vintage pieces and tables sporting mismatched tablecloths. We dined there twice and they gave us a discount when we presented a business card from Alma Boutique Hotel.

Salobie Bia [Rustaveli Theater, 17 Shota Rustaveli Ave, Tbilisi 0108] offers “simple Georgian food” and Georgian wines in a cool art gallery setting next to a theater.

Gabriadze Cafe [13 Ioane Shavteli St, Tbilisi 0105] in an old theater is pretty special with an artsy interior and a wall of windows facing the 6th century Anchiskhati Basilica. The cafe also offers outdoor seating next door to the iconic Clock Tower in old town.

Restaurant Usakhelouri [17/19 Abano St. in the Abanotubani district of Tblisi] provided good lunch food and a great view from a balcony overlooking the old baths. The interior is sleek and casually elegant.

Charm Thai [13 Arsena St, Tbilisi, Georgia] was twice a tasty break from Georgian food. Small, but good food and friendly service which can get a bit slow as we discovered when we returned on a crowded evening.

We tasted Georgian craft beer in tiny, graffiti-covered Process Craft Beer Bar [19 Merab Kostava St, Tbilisi 0108]. There are other craft beer locations in Old Tblisi (further south), but with Georgia such a wine-making country, we opted to focus on wine rather than beer. See my post on our day on the wine route for more on Georgian wine.

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