Tbilisi is an ancient city that, much like the country it is the capital of, hasn’t had an easy history. According to legend, the city was founded in the 5th century by a king who discovered a multitude of hot springs here. Since then Tbilisi has been the center of life in a country we now know as Georgia. From 1922 to the 1990s Tbilisi (and Georgia) was occupied by the Soviet Union, bringing with it a bloody history of repression and huge human costs.
Today, Tbilisi is a thriving city and a wonderful place to visit. It effortlessly combines ancient architecture with Soviet, for a feel that can only be found here. Its people are known for their welcoming spirit, their incredible cooking and local wine. Only a small portion of tourists here are from the west (majority are from Russia). This makes it a fascinating place to visit and explore for a Westerner such as myself.
Day 1 – Tbilisi
Start your morning with a walk to Pushkin Square and watch the city wake up. If you are staying, as I was in the old city, walk over Bartashville bridge where bronze statues are looking out at water together with you. Be careful crossing the roads here, drivers are aggressive but underpasses are available virtually everywhere. If you need an exchange place in Tbilisi, you can find several on the corner of Bartashville Street and Pushkin square. The second place on the corner (the one that has two windows as opposed to one) has better rates.
Walk over to Pushkin square over to Galklion Tibidze street, where several good coffee shops are available and start your day with a cup of java. This picturesque street is closed to most traffic. From here, take long winding streets up to Narakala fortress, passing by a beautiful old church. Then walk up to the sky tram landing area. Try to get here before 11 and you’ll be richly rewarded by being the only tourist in the area. You can take the sky tram down as soon as the line opens, everyone else will be on their way up and you’ll get to enjoy the entire car and the view in solitude.
The Skytram will drop you off in a bridge park, where you can walk around and enjoy the art on display. Walk along the river to Sion Cathedral and towards the friendship bridge, a modern steel structure connecting two parts of Tbilisi (old and new).
Its almost time for lunch now, so walk over to Jan Shardeni street, the main restaurant street in Tbilisi. This restored, closed street is peppered with great restaurants including the oldest restaurant in all of Georgia. Enjoy a great Georgian lunch here and don’t forget to try a local wine. After a leisurely lunch walk a few feet over to the bazar at Barjan bridge where you can buy souvenirs and take a stroll past the bathhouses to a waterfall (see picture above). If you feel like experiencing the old Tbilisi baths this is a great time to do so.
Otherwise finish your day off at the National Georgian museum a few blocks away. Here you can ask for a private tour guide for about $20 (this also includes the price of the admission). Of particular interest to me was the exhibit of the soviet occupation, but there is also a great Antiquities exhibit and a Georgian contemporary artist exhibit as well. Across the street from the museum is a beautiful park, perfect to stroll in as the sun sets.
Day 2 – Telavi
Now that you are well acquainted with Tbilisi I suggest taking a day trip to the Khaketi region, famous for its wine. The easiest way to get here involves taking the metro to Isami station. Pay close attention to the metro here – this was one of the Stalin’s pet projects and the metro here is not just efficient but also grand, with huge ceilings that were meant to demonstrate the extent of Soviet power and achievement of its people. When you get off at Isami, you will find a line of private taxis ready to take you to the Khaketi region. Cost is 40 lari for a private car or 10 lari per person if you share with 4 others. Since I didn’t feel like waiting I took a car, and my driver stopped at several stops including the Gombori Pass.
The ruins here were also on our way and are part of an old castle and an old seat of an ancient Georgian King (this is the Ujarma Architectural complex). Eventually, you will reach the beautiful old town of Telavi, the capital of Khaketi region. You can see everything in the region in one day if you are willing to rush through it, but I strongly suggest staying for the night. Your hotel can help you arrange similar accommodations in Telavi the night before. You can spend the rest of your day wandering around Telavi with an old King’s Castle, beautiful ancient churches and tiny streets that flawlessly combine Soviet architecture with a distinctly Georgian feel.
Your guest house in Telavi can arrange for a drive to pick you up the next morning.
Day 3 – Khaketi
As you easily can arrange a private driver for your day in the Telavi region, you should be able to formulate a day that will best fit your interests. For me, I wanted to do a mix of wineries and nature so my Telavi guest house arranged the following itinerary:
- Garden Tsinandali (a large beautiful garden adjacent to an old mansion)
- Shumi Wine Company
- Kremi Monastery
- Nekresi Monastery
- Kindsmarauli Wine Company
- Khareba Wine Company
She also arranged a lunch in a private home where I was treated to both local food and music for about 20 lari. My driver for the day cost me about 80 lari, and he dropped me off at a marshrutka (a minivan) that took me back to Tbilisi.
Khaketi region is the birthplace of wine, it was first invented here 6,000 years bc and then spread around the world. So trying a wine around here is practically a right of passage and a tradition I would definitely recommend.
Day 4 – David Gareja
Today, make your way to David Gareja Monastery. To get here, walk to Pushkin square (right next to liberty square) and take the marshrutka. There is only one per day – at 11 am, so be sure to get there early to reserve your spot. There is a helpful young woman who is responsible for organizing the marshrutka, and she speaks English. Look for her next to the tourist information center. Make sure you have breakfast before you go and bring your own big water bottle – supplies at David Gareja are expensive and hard to come by.
Make sure you wear comfortable shoes here and be prepared for a lot of climbing. The views here are extraordinary. On the way back the marshrutka stops by in a restaurant so you can get something to eat. Make sure to bring snacks with you. You will have a chance to purchase some supplies as the Marshrutka will stop at a gas station. The trip here is about 3 hours each way, and the views are extraordinary.
Day 5 – Kazbegi
It would be a shame to come so close to one of the greatest mountain ranges on earth (the Caucasus Mountains) and not actually go for a real hike. On Day 5, make your way to Kazbegi, a small town at the foot of a mountain. Here you can hike up to (you might have guessed this by now) a small church at the top of a mountain. To get here make your way to Didube metro and hop onto a Marshrutka (a small commuter van). The Marshrutka to Kazbegi stops in additional picturesque spots. One of the absolute coolest things about the trip to Stepanstminda is the tunnels you will take through the mountains.
The tunnels were originally constructed when Germans occupied Georgia during WW2. These tunnels were used for transportation of German supply goods through the mountains. Driving through a bit of history is always interesting if (in this case) a bit disturbing experience. Once you get to the city you can either walk up or take a car. I chose to hike up of course, and it took about 1.5 hours with stops. At the top of the mountain sits a beautiful church and some crazy views.
Day 6 – Mtskheta
On your last day in Tbilisi, make your way over to Mtshketa, the ancient capital and a Unesco heritage site. Only half an hour from Tbilisi you’ll need to take didube metro to a marshrutka. From here, take the Marshrutka to Mshketa (cost 1 lari). You will see many sites to see in this beautifully restored old town. This is also a great place to do some shopping. In Mtskheta you will find tons of vendors hawking their wares on the old narrow streets.
In this area, you can also see the meeting of the two rivers: Mtkvari and Aragvi. To get to the best viewing spot, you’ll need to take a short cab ride to the top of a mountain and the old monastery. Don’t walk to this spot – you would need to cross the highway. Enjoy your time in this old city and make your way home for your flight back.
I hope you find this itinerary useful, please feel free to share links and leave comments. I love hearing from you!