As I mentioned in my last post, Georgia is one of the hottest destinations for travel in 2018.
The capital city, Tbilisi, has preserved its historical city center (sometimes through beautiful renovations, sometimes through embracing its crumbling past) while also introducing modern elements. Within a five-block radius you can find futuristic works of contemporary architecture and thousand-year-old churches, existing harmoniously in the same neighborhood.
What’s more, Tbilisi is fantastic for solo female travelers. It is totally safe to walk all around Tbilisi by yourself, day or night, and locals love helping foreign travelers by giving directions, answering questions and offering recommendations for their favorite attractions, restaurants and wines! Tbilisi is also a very affordable city, so it’s a great place to splurge on a private hotel room after sharing dorms in other, more expensive, locales.
I spent about ten days as a solo female traveler in Tbilisi recently, and created this Tbilisi City Guide to share some of my very favorite spots in this fascinating city.
Things to Do in Tbilisi
I’m not necessarily the best person to ask about the dome-roofed sulfur baths, seeing as I was inadvertently tricked into going to the public sulfur showers. These were no Caracalla Therme! Yes, instead of relaxing in an intricately-tiled Ottoman bathtub filled with magical mineral waters I stood naked in a room with fifteen other women, each of us under our own rustic faucet as smelly water rained down from above.
Unlike other spas I’d visited, like the Roman-Irish baths in Baden-Baden or the hammams of Istanbul, Tbilisi’s sulfur baths don’t really accommodate solo travelers. Instead, they’re designed for groups who want to rent a private bath for an hour or two, chatting and relaxing in the waters together. My hostel didn’t think I wanted to splurge on a private bath (even though I’ve heard they can cost as little as ten or fifteen dollars) so instead they sent me to the showers… and I didn’t realize where I was until I was standing naked with my new local friends. The showers are definitely packed with local women going about their regular personal hygiene routine, including soaping, shampooing and even shaving, so while you can get a quick massage from one of the attendant it certainly isn’t an actual spa.
Peace Bridge & Riverfront Architecture
The Kura River runs through Tbilisi’s Old Town, and local government has done everything within its power to turn the riverfront into one of the city’s top destinations. The most iconic attraction along the river is the Bridge of Peace, a futuristic construction designed by an Italian architect and opened in 2010. The east side of the bridge is located in Rike Park, a picturesque park filled with flowers, trees and the occasional work of contemporary art. From here, you can hop on an aerial tramway and ride up to Narikala Fortress, where you’ll have amazing views of the city below.
There are some other interesting building around this area, including an eye-catching tubular music hall (check it out in the top photo – locals told me that it is currently unused, what a pity!) and, a bit further down the river, the Public Service Hall with its petal-like roof and sunny glass walls. If you do make it over to the Public Service Hall, walk another block or two to visit the Dry Bridge Bazaar, a flea market with an enchanting selection of antiques, handicrafts and junk. The bazaar is at its peak on the weekend, so try to visit around noon on Saturday or Sunday.
Georgian National Museum
Confession time! I only visited the Georgian National Museum because the summer temperature in Tbilisi was approaching forty degrees Celsius and I wanted to escape the heat in a shady, temperature-controlled environment.
However, I did find it to be an enjoyable experience and would recommend it to other Tbilisi tourists. Most of the exhibits here focus on the history of the region, and you’ll be able to wander through room after room (after room… after room…) full of artifacts from across Georgia. The fourth floor is also home to the Soviet Occupation Exhibit Hall, a modern, atmospheric exploration of life in occupied Georgia from 1921 to 1991. Tickets cost 7 GEL (less than $3 USD) and the museum is closed on Monday.
Creative Commons photo courtesy Sarah on Flickr.
The Markets of Tbilisi
Tbilisi has several different markets that are worth visiting. The first market that I visited was called The Deserter’s Bazaar. This sprawling market is just a few blocks away from the central train station, and is open daily from about 7:00 am to 5:00 pm, though vendors will start packing up early if they’ve made enough sales for the day. The market got its name back in the 1920s, when men deserting from the military came here to sell their now-unneeded guns. Today, it’s packed with vendors selling everything from watermelons and eggplants to cheap clothing imported from China. For a true taste of Georgia, purchase some homemade wine from one of the vendors and take it back to the rooftop patio of Envoy Hostel.
As I mentioned above, Tbilisi also has a weekend flea market called the Dry Bridge Bazaar. This one is just a few blocks past the Public Service Hall, on the same side of the river. Although there was a time when the market was packed with real antiques, those days ended long before I was even born. Nowadays, the Dry Bridge Bazaar mostly sells families’ used and second-hand items, along with a few handicrafts, some stolen goods and the occasional bottle of backyard chacha (a strong Georgian spirit). Buyer beware!
Cosmic Communist Constructions
One of my favorite books is called CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed. It is a beautiful Taschen coffee table book written and photographed by Frederic Chaubin. Many of the book’s most unforgettable buildings are actually located in Tbilisi, and it’s easy to see these bizarre buildings as you journey around town.
Rectangles stacked upon rectangles make up the former Ministry of Transportation building (now the headquarters of Bank of Georgia), which was recently recognized as a national monument. The façade of the crumbling former Museum of Archaeology is still visible from the street below, and the old Wedding Palace (once visited by Margaret Thatcher) was recently converted back to an event hall after serving as an oligarch’s private residence for years. If you’re already intrigued, consider contacting Brutal Tours – this new tour company focuses on Brutalist and Soviet architecture and can organize a custom itinerary based around your interests.
Creative Commons photos courtesy Oleksandr Burlaka on Flickr.
Freedom Square, with its towering gold monument of George slaying the dragon, is impossible to miss. It marks the border between the more contemporary Rustaveli Avenue and the traditional historic Old Town. Some of the city’s grandest buildings surround the plaza, and they are now filled with luxury boutiques and international corporations. Freedom Square is also a transportation hub: dozens of buses loop around its roundabout, and it offers the closest underground metro station to the tourist attractions of the Old Town. If you need to meet a friend or Airbnb host in Tbilisi, the base of the monument is one of the easiest places to connect.
Day Trips Near Tbilisi
It might sound crazy, but many of the best things about Tbilisi aren’t in Tbilisi. The city is just such a fantastic base for day trips that it would be remiss not to mention them. I’ve got a whole blog post about the best day trips from Tbilisi, but I’ll give you a quick summary here.
Mtskheta is just minutes from Tbilisi and is home to two of the country’s most spectacular churches. A little bit further afield is Gori, where Joseph Stalin spent his early years, and Uplistsikhe, a centuries-old city carved into stone caves. Head north from Tbilisi to the Ananuri Fortress Complex, and then drive onward to Kazbegi, a mountainous region known for amazing one-day and multi-day hikes. Solo travelers can do most of these day trips independently via public transportation, though Kazbegi is far enough away to require private transportation (either your own car or an organized tour).
Where to Eat in Tbilisi
Georgian food is designed to be shared, so connect with other travelers and head to some of Tbilisi’s best restaurants to share a family-style meal of Georgian favorites. If you’re solo, try pairing two dishes, like salad and dumplings or grilled vegetables and cheese bread (khachapuri, shown above)… and report back if you actually manage to finish both dishes!
With a menu focused around fresh, seasonal vegetables, Café Leila dishes up typical Georgian dishes with a lighter (and less-meaty) touch. Some fish dishes are available, but it’s really the soups, salads and vegetable dishes that make Café Leila so popular. The house wine is dirt-cheap, but stick to the red. Trust me.
I met some great people at my hostel (see below) and they were so impressed by their dinner at Sakhli #11 that they went back a second time to share this restaurant with me. Definitely on the pricier side of traditional Georgian restaurants, this place takes it time preparing high-quality, slightly-creative versions of Georgian favorites. They’re also known for their selection of organic wines.
Although the service leaves something (make that everything…) to be desired, Pasanauri is a good choice for cheap khinkhali (dumplings stuffed with meat, cheese or vegetables) and khachapuri. Plus, it’s open twenty-four hours a day, meaning you can get your dumpling fix at breakfast, lunch, dinner or late-night.
Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to eat at Poliphonia, but I noticed Yotam Ottolenghi, the author of the amazing Plenty cookbook, was raving about his meals here on Instagram. The restaurant has a constantly changing, ultra-curated menu based on the best products available seasonally and prepared using techniques found in rural villages.
Art Café Home
Tbilisi has a crazy nightlife scene. It’s home to Bassiani, one of the world’s hottest nightclubs, and Jan Shardeni (sounds like “Chardonnay”!) Street is packed with wall-to-wall bars and clubs. In my opinion, the best big nights out start at Art Café Home, a sprawling, multi-story lounge with a gorgeous rooftop patio and creative, affordable cocktail menu.
Where to Stay in Tbilisi
I spent more than seven nights staying at Envoy Hostel, a stunning hillside hostel located just a few (steep!) steps behind Meidan Square and a stone’s throw from the Sulphur Baths and Narikala Fortress.
The stand-out feature at Envoy is its rooftop patio with sweeping views of the historic city center; it’s the ideal place to meet other travelers, share some cold beers (or local wine) and plan your evening excursions. I mean, check out that view! Envoy Hostel also offers amazing excursions around Georgia, including day trips to the best sights outside of Tbilisi, multi-day trips around the country and sightseeing transfers between Tbilisi and Yerevan. Highly recommended!
If Envoy Hostel is full, consider booking a room at Fabrika Tbilisi, a huge new hostel built inside a former clothing factory (hence the name). The lower level of Fabrika Tbilisi serves as something of a community center, with restaurants, bars, boutiques and mixed-use spaces that are open to the public. Upstairs, there are dorm rooms, private rooms and private apartments available for travelers. Fabrika is located on the opposite side of the river from the historic center, a few blocks away from the Marjanishvili metro station.
And, if hostels aren’t your thing, I’d recommend choosing a small independent hotel located in the Old Town. These Tbilisi hotels put you in the heart of the ancient architecture, close to shops and restaurants. No 12 Boutique Hotel is an excellent option for mid-range travelers seeking modern comforts (and a breakfast cooked to order!) in a beautifully-restored historic building. Avoid the larger chain hotels situated along Rustaveli Avenue – unless you’re in Tbilisi on business, you’ll be far away from everything you want to see.
Looking for a totally bizarre overnight trip from Tbilisi? Check out my post about Chiatura, a mysterious mountain town with a network of semi-operational Soviet cable cars!
Continuing in the Caucasus? Read more about travel in Armenia.
Have you ever been to Tbilisi? What did you like best about the capital city of Georgia? Let me know in the comments!