Old Tbilisi – The Fairy Tale Town of Caucasus
Officially founded in the 5th century AD, Tbilisi is the largest city in Georgia and one of the oldest cities in the world (with earliest settlements dating back to ever 4,000 years BC). Surpassing 1.5 million total inhabitants, more than one hundred different ethnic groups coexist here peacefully in an area of 726 square kilometers.
Because of its strategic situation at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, the city has given a wonderful architectural and artistic heritage. Those are influenced by all the empires that have ruled here in the last 1,500 years. Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols, and Russians have left their mark of identity in every corner of a city that enchants the visitor as soon as he sets foot on it.
Old Tbilisi Brief History
According to the legend, the King Vakhtang Gorgasali of Iberia founded the city soon after his hunting falcon fell into one of the hot sulfur springs. The king was so much impressed by natural hot baths and spectacular surroundings that decided to build a new city in the area. That’s where the name Tbilisi “a warm location” came from.
The truth is that Gorgasali merely recaptured the town from the Persians, who had taken control over the already-existing here fortress at the end of the 4th century.
In 6th century Vaktang’s successor, King Dachi, in accordance with his father’s wishes, moved the royal residence from Mtskheta and declared Tbilisi the capital of Kartli.
Since then the city has passed through the hands of several empires and conquerors (Persians, Byzantines, and Arabs) up until the Golden Era, started by King David the builder, who recaptured the city in 1122 while unifying the entire Kingdom of Georgia.
David rebuilt Tbilisi and made it a prominent regional power. Under the rule of his successors, especially great-granddaughter Queen Tamar, the city kept flourishing as an important cultural and literary hub, enjoying a thriving economy and a well-established social structure.
Sadly, Golden Age was brought to an end by the Mongols who took over in 1235 and the city continued to pass between rivaling (predominantly Persian and Ottoman) empires.
In 1801, Russia annexed Georgia and ruled it for the next century. During that period the city got rebuilt in the imperial mold and was called “Tiflis”. Following the Russian Revolution, in 1918, Tbilisi was the very location where the independence of the Democratic Republic of Georgia was declared.
After a brief independence during the interwar period, the Bolshevik army invaded the country in 1921 and Tbilisi became the capital of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. The city grew massively during the Soviet era and became one of the most influential political, as well as social and cultural centers of the Soviet Union.
Tbilisi was also well known as a center of opposition to the Soviet regime. Several dissidents and artists who challenged the status quo came from Tbilisi and widespread anti-Soviet demonstrations took place here in 1956, 1978, and 1989.
Soon after Georgia’s independence in 1991, Tbilisi was drawn into the civil war. The 1990s were dark years of crime, corruption, unemployment and low life standards, but following the Rose Revolution of 2003, the situation has changed dramatically. The crime has almost disappeared, investments and reconstruction flooded the city and the tourism industry started booming.
What to See in Old Tbilisi
Although the city has been destroyed and rebuilt as many as 29 times, Tbilisi Old Town kept quite a rich architectural heritage blending together many different epochs and cultures.
A labyrinth of narrow streets, with wooden balconies looking down from brick-build homes and old iron gates leading to cozy courtyards, gives Tbilisi Old Town a truly distinguished charm. Here you will see a perfect mix of Europe and Asia with the tightly winding streets of an Asian town interwoven into European and classical Russian architecture.
When walking through the old town of Tbilisi, in the shadow of the Narikala fortress, you will see people contemplating the great restoration work that has been carried out in recent years. Parts of the city have been thoroughly renovated, while parts of it are still cracked and crumbling making the whole experience incredibly enchanting and memorable.
Mosque, synagogue and churches live a few meters from each other next to buildings with really captivating old Georgian-style balconies. They are composed of delicately carved wooden lattices, carpentry laces and capriciously profiled arches that recall the passage of Persians and Ottomans. Alongside with some major international brands, a lot of small Tsbilisi hotels and hostels have also emerged due to the widespread tourist takeoff that the city lives.
Overall Old Tbilisi is a fascinating place to wander around with plenty of sites well worth of tourist attention.
At the beginning of the visit, we suggest you start with the main artery of Tbilisi, Rustaveli Avenue. Representing the best of Old Tbilisi, Rustaveli is the beloved place for Georgians and visitors alike.
Theaters, churches, cinemas, museums, universities, a bunch of cultural and public institutions, and the imposing building of the old Parliament rose along its way. The Soviet-style parliament building, which does not house national sovereignty since 2012, has 16 massive columns representing the 16 former Soviet republics.
Formerly named after the Commander-in-Chief of the Caucasus Yevgeny Golovin, the avenue was built at the beginning of the 19th century by Russians to house big officials, princes, and distinguished soldiers. Of course, a lot has changed since then, but up to these days, it is still the most important and busiest street in the city. This is exactly where the old sides rub elbows with the most modern Mercedes passing by. This is certainly the best place to visit if you want to get the feel of Old Tbilisi and see all the cultural activities.
Freedom Square – Plaza de la Libertad
Continuing along Rustaveli Avenue, you reach the Plaza de la Libertad. It is the long-established city center and the entrance to the vibrant Tbilisi old town. Here you will see the eclectic style building of the town hall and the magnificent 40-meter tall column, crowned with a golden statue of St. George piercing the dragon.
Built in the early 19th century, Freedom Square (თავისუფლების მოედანი) has undergone several name changes in its tumultuous history. It was originally named Pashkevich-Erivanskaya Square (ერევანსკი მოედანი) after the famous General of the Russian Empire who had conquered Erivan.
The name Freedom Square it first acquired immediately after the collapse of the Russian Empire, but soon was renamed by Bolsheviks first “Beria Square”, and then “Lenin Square” during Soviet times.
After the restoration of Georgia’s independence in 1991, the square reverted to the name given to it in 1918 by the First Georgian Republic.
Steel keeping much of its original neo-classical style and enriched with modern elements, today, Freedom Square stands as an enduring symbol of Georgia’s unquenchable desire for freedom and independence.
Kote Afkhazi Street
Souvenir shops, bars, restaurants, and lifelong establishments follow one another on Kote Afkhazi Street (former Leselidze), the main artery of the old Tbilisi where some of the city’s attractions such as the great Synagogue overlooking Jerusalem or the church are located Armenian of Norashen and the orthodox of Jvaris Mama.
Here you will see an intriguing mixture of old and new. Even though massive reconstructions have taken place in recent years, outside the main streets of the old town, some buildings are still in a shabby state. Plenty of houses and buildings remaining untouched for over a century are held with steel beams playing with gravity so as not to collapse at any time.
This riverbank area represents the nightlife of the city. Bars, restaurants, and pubs where jazz sounds make it the typical tourist place with a cosmopolitan atmosphere where you can mix with the locals. If what you are looking for is to try Georgian cuisine with its Kinkalis and Kachapuris or its fried eggplants and roast pork, just go to any of the many restaurants scattered around the city. If this is not enough, you can also check out plenty of other tourist activities available in Old Tbilisi and all around Georgia.
This is where you can enjoy traditional music and famous dances. Best of all, they always do it with full strength and courage. Almost certainly, we will end up being part of some celebration and living the tradition of Georgian toasts, an example of the great hospitality of the country.
The Peace Bridge and Rike Park
A few ultra-modern architectural elements are interwoven into the old on the other side of the Kura River. Many bridges cross it but the most emblematic is perhaps the La Paz bridge. It is a steel and glass structure inaugurated in 2010 in the older parts of Tbilisi. To be exact, it is located near Rike Park.
There is a large green area with two avant-garde buildings that house exhibitions and concert halls in the shadow of the Presidential Palace, a sort of Georgian White House in the middle of a neighborhood whose houses barely stand.
In addition, the park is the most recent recreational area in Old Tbilisi and is home to numerous entertainment facilities, such as music fountains, artificial climbing walls, children’s maze, mega chessboard, as well as quiet paths and corners.
On the other side of the park is Avlabari, there is a great wine trade that used to be full of artisans that the Armenian community raised. Today, the old Armenian neighborhood is a racy place to hang around and get lost in its narrow streets, an area of beautiful mansions hanging from the cliff above the Kura River.
Metekhi Church & Abanotubani
In this neighborhood, you can find one of the oldest and most famous temples in the city. It is the church of Metekhi. This place stands on the river in the same place where according to history the city was founded by King Vakhtang Gorgasali, to which an Equestrian statue pays tribute.
From here, one can enjoy the view of Abanotubani, that very area where according to legend King Gorgasali hawk died when perching on the sulfurous waters that emanate from here.
Entering Abanotubani means you enter the most Asian area of Tbilisi Old Town. This is where the European and the Eastern mix. The springs that run through the subsoil gave rise to the name of the city and helped the outcrop of bathhouses that gave it fame.
It has brick domes ventilate the steam of the massage and bath rooms that have been open since the 17th century. The area is a meeting place for the youngest while tourists tour it curiously.
Cable Car Attraction, Narikala Fortress & Mother Georgia
Another way to enjoy the ancient city is from the cable car located in the Rike park, which takes us to the Narikala fortress. This castle of the Persian origin has been used between the fourth and seventeenth centuries to defend the commercial routes. The name has most likely been derived from the Persian version of the ‘citadel’. The cable car is passing through a thriving commercial center in the heart of the Silk Road.
From here, you can reach the statue of Mother Georgia (“Deda Kartlisa”), the symbol of the country, a 20-meter-high sculpture that is visible from almost anywhere in the city. The statue was built in metal in 1958. It depicts a woman dressed in the typical Georgian costume and holds in one hand a bowl of wine, as a symbol of friendship and welcome, and holds the sword with another hand to fight against her enemies.
By using the cable car, you can get a glimpse of the entire Old Town. The impressive view of the mixture of the old and the new urban fabric with the gigantic blocks of flats of Soviet heritage, the neighborhoods of low houses, skyscrapers under construction, and in the distance the foothills of the Greater Caucasus.
Cathedral of the Great Trinity
It also highlights the 85 meters high of the colossal figure of the Cathedral of the Great Trinity. The third-largest orthodox temple in the world built to commemorate the 1500 years of the Georgian patriarchate.
Built on a former Armenian cemetery, its construction began in 1995 as a symbol of the Georgian national and spiritual revival and was financed mainly by anonymous donations and business characters, consecrated 9 years later.
This cathedral has the capacity for 15,000 people. It consists of 9 chapels. Then, it has a total area of 5,000 square meters and an interior area of 2,000 square meters.
Café Gabriadze and the basilica of Anchiskhati.
A good way to end the day is to have some tasty ice cream or a fresh beer in one of the quiet and cozy bars of Shavteli Street. This is where you can hang out or stop along the way on a warm summer afternoon contemplating the corner with more charms of Tbilisi. Also, there is a pink Café Gabriadze next to the old basilica of Anchiskhati. It is located between a 6th century temple with wonderful frescoes and the curious and picturesque leaning clock tower of the Gabriadze Theater. This place offers famous puppet shows. Every 60 minutes (1 hour) an automaton goes from its bell tower. Then, it rings a bell with a hammer.
Getting to the center is easy since it is a stop for all means of transport. Both the crazy marshrutkas and the buses have a good and quick option to move around. Thus, you can avoid the chaotic traffic of its streets.
The Old Town Old Town has three Metro stations with a fancy underground architecture of Soviet appearance. You can access those by using long escalators guarded by subway personnel, usually women.
Old Tbilisi strives to preserve its history and reinvents itself as a capital where the east meets the west. It has multi-ethnic and multi-religious lives, which welcomes tourists from all over the world with an open and hospitable character. This is a good place where Mediterranean joy is breathed and with a level of security comparable to the cities of the west
Furthermore, it is also affordable for the European average, which you will undoubtedly find in this metropolis of the Caucasus a whole discovery.
In depth of Old Tbilisi, you will see Puppet shows, thermal baths, a large botanical garden with Himalayan plants and a lively historic center.
Undoubtedly, Tbilisi is a large city. This is because the city has more than 1.5 million inhabitants and receives a lot of tourists.
I leave here some places where you can see prices, photos, and situation. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask me and if I know the happy answer to help you.
- Rooms Hotel Tbilisi, is probably the most desired Old Tbilisi hotel where younger foreign tourists stay. This old Soviet printing house converted into a great hotel with a vintage air, is certainly a success.
- Fabrika Tbilisi – A popular hipster place is located in a former Soviet textile factory in the historic center of Tbilisi and features a unique design and architecture, with aged concrete walls and industrial elements.
- Timber Boutique Hotel is a pleasurable boutique place, a bit far from the center but here too you will certainly enjoy a charming and quiet atmosphere.
- Another notable place of choice – Hotel Garnet Tbilisi, is located in the Sololaki district near the center.
- Do not forget to visit the Mtatsminda Funicular Restaurant and savor their exceptional food and absolutely stunning views on Old Tbilisi.
I tried not to make this post too long and there are still many other tourism objects I didn’t mention here, but you can always follow this link to see some other Georgian attractions. I guarantee they are all awesome!