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Recently, TPG Contributor Nicholas du Pont visited the city of Tbilisi, capital of Georgia (the country, not the state) where he was pleasantly surprised by the food, wine and gracious hospitality. Here, he shares his top-five things to experience in Tbilisi, should you decide to make your own trek to the heart of the Caucus Mountains. (Images by the author unless otherwise specified.)
The political and cultural capital of Georgia, a small country set between Eastern Europe and Western Asia, Tbilisi (pronounced “T’buh-leesi”) more than merits a visit (or even a mileage run). Founded in the 5th century, the city offers some fascinating attractions, amazing gastronomic opportunities, gorgeous scenery and beautiful wines. After a recent trip here, these are my recommendations for what not to miss in Tbilisi.
After arriving in Georgia, one of the first things the very friendly locals will point out to you is that their country is the home of wine. The world’s oldest evidence of grapes being left to ferment and turn into wine dates back to 6,000 BC — and was found in Georgia.
Long ago, there were apparently 525 grape varietals endemic to Georgia, but the Soviet leadership in Moscow developed a taste for two in particular (red Saperavi and white Rkatseteli) and ordered the rest of the vines cleared to make way for them. Since 1991, though, the Georgian wine industry has experienced a renaissance, and local winemakers have since been trying to revive some of these older varietals along with ancient methods of wine production.
You can learn this and more at Vino Underground. Just a few minutes’ walk from the city’s Freedom Square (more on that in a minute), turn off busy Tabaridze Street into an unassuming doorway and descend a staircase into a wine cave/dining room bedecked with six tables, a fantastic chef and a delightful sommelier named Donovan.
The perfect place to start your Tbilisi trip, get a little history on the city and the country and sample Georgia’s own amber and black wines, this restaurant has an eight-wine tasting paired with small plates of local specialties that is extremely reasonably priced — roughly 60 lari or $25 per person.
2. Absolutely Delicious Food
Georgia has quickly been garnering a reputation amongst foodies worldwide as a must-see culinary destination, and deservedly so. From the ubiquitous Churchkhela that can be found hanging on every street corner to the delicious khinkali and heavenly khachapuri, Georgian cuisine has deservedly earned its reputation as something that is not to be missed out on.
Set on the south side of the city, Maspindzelo! (whose name means “Eat!” in Georgian) is a great place to jump into Georgian cuisine — especially khinkali, soup dumplings that are filled with meat, cheese or vegetables, and are eaten in a very specific manner. Take a small bite of the body of the dumpling, noisily suck out the delicious broth inside, then savour the rest of the dumpling up to the topknot, which you should toss down on the plate, uneaten. The khinkali at Maspindzelo! are tasty, inexpensive and can be ordered in mixed quantities — unlike many other places in town, where minimum orders of each type are mandatory.
Maspindzelo! also serves a gorgeous khachapuri, Georgian speciality bread baked with a cheese filling and sometimes served with an egg or a pat of fresh butter swimming in the middle. Cholesterol levels be damned, this is good stuff!
At Maspindzelo! and many other restaurants across the city, seek out typical Georgian dishes like pomegranate chicken served with walnut sauce; garden-fresh tomato and cucumber salads served with crushed walnuts and local olive oil; tarragon-infused spicy beef soup served with fresh herbs; and pan-fried chicken with hazelnut sauce. Menu items like these contribute to the country’s growing reputation as a culinary destination.
It helps that Georgia has a number of climate zones within its borders, allowing the country to grow a dizzying array of local produce year-round.
3. Freedom Square
Freedom Square (which was called Lenin Square back when the Soviets ran things) lies at the intersection of six major streets and is a good jumping off point to just about anywhere else in Tbilisi. There’s a small, unassuming tourist office right in the middle, staffed by young, friendly locals who are more than happy to give you some direction. I stopped in here to learn a bit about the city, and Nina, the young lady staffing the booth that day, not only made sure I was equipped with the right map and guides, but also gave me a quick language lesson and some restaurant recommendations.
Although it may look quite old, the Liberty monument in the middle of the square, a statue of St. George slaying the dragon, only dates back to 2006. A year before that, Freedom Square was the site of an unsuccessful assassination attempt on former president George W. Bush, while he and Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili were addressing a crowd of 100,000+ on the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII.
4. Mother of Georgia
The Mother of Georgia statue (or Kartvlis Deda) stands up on Sololaki Hill, overlooking much of the city. Erected in 1958 to mark the 1,500th anniversary of Tbilisi, this more than 60-foot-tall statue of a woman holding a bowl of wine in her left hand to welcome those who come in peace and a sword in her right hand to deter those who come as enemies.
Leaving from Europe Square, the gondola ride up to the Mother takes visitors over the Mtkvari River and provides some fantastic views of Tbilisi.
Once atop the hill, Mother shares her perch with the St. Nicolai Church and the National Botanical Garden of Georgia, both of which warrant a visit. The hike down from Sololaki Hill takes visitors through Old Tbilisi (see below) to the Sulfur Spring Baths, leaving you two minutes from Maspindzelo! — and its khinkali and khachapuri.
5. Old Tbilisi
The whimsical Café Gabriadze, set next to the funky Rezo Gabriadze Theatre, is a great place to start your trip through the old town— and they serve some of the best coffee in the city. Once you’re caffeinated and/or oriented, take yourself for a quiet wander.
In Prague or Rome, your photos of local landmarks will also feature the hordes of tourists surrounding them, but in Old Tbilisi, it’s just you, the locals and the fabulous architecture. Almost every building in the city’s charming, historic town center features a porch and/or a balcony, and the range of architectural styles (from Ottoman to ultra-modern) give it a unique feeling of being fluid in time.
Draped across many of the buildings in Old Tbilisi are tangled grapevines, a fitting decorative touch in the capital of the country that claims to have invented wine. Cheers!
Traveling to Tbilisi
Arrive: The capital’s main airport, Tbilisi International (TBS) is about 11 miles southeast of the center city. These alliances offer flights on the following airlines:
Star Alliance — Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, Aegean Airlines and LOT
SkyTeam — Connect through Moscow (SVO) on Aeroflot
Oneworld — Connect through Moscow (DME) on S7 or on Qatar from Doha (DOH)
Stay: Marriott and Club Carlson members are in luck here. The former can choose from the Courtyard by Marriott Tbilisi on Freedom Square ($160 or 15,000 points per night), the Tbilisi Marriott ($200 or 20,000 points per night), and the latter can opt for the Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel Tbilisi ($180 or 50,000 Gold Points per night.)
Spend: Credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express and the Citi ThankYou Premier Card don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use on vacation in Tbilisi. For more cards without these fees, be sure to see, Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees. With great transfer partners like United and Hyatt, 2x points on travel & dining and a 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for those looking to get into the points and miles game.
With great transfer partners like United and Hyatt, 2x points on travel & dining and a 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for those looking to get into the points and miles game.