Tbilisi is straight out of a Gothic fairytale. A deep valley provides a dramatic backdrop to brightly colored turrets, cobblestone streets and a thriving art scene. Local delicacies are served in the mix of contemporary and traditional restaurants, along with a side of warm Georgian hospitality.
THE HISTORY OF TBILISI
Located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Tbilisi is the capital and largest city in Georgia. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, Tbilisi is situated in eastern Georgia across the banks of the Mtkvari River – Georgia’s section of the Kura River.
Although evidence of settlement in the area dates back to over 6,000 years, Georgians prefer the legend that King Vakhtang I Gorgasali of Iberia founded Tbilisi in the 5th century.
According to the legend, the king’s hunting falcon died in one of the regions many naturally-occurring hot sulfur springs. The king was so impressed by the discovery that he decided to build a city on this location.
In fact, Gorgasali captured the already-existing town from the Persians, after a fortress built here in 364 had fallen into the latter’s hands towards the end of the 4th century. What’s not in dispute is the fact that Tbilisi was named after its magnificent hot springs – the word “Tbili” translates to “warm location”.
At the beginning of the 6th century, King Dachi – Gorgasali’s son, moved the capital from Mtskheta to Tbilisi in accordance with his late father’s wishes. Its strategic location on an ancient Georgian trading route between Europe and Asia enabled the city to grow at a steady pace, but it also attracted invaders.
In 627 Tbilisi was sacked by Byzantine and Khazar armies. In the second half of the 6th century, it was conquered and remained mostly under Persian control. In 737, Arabs captured Tbilisi and ruled it as their emirate for four hundred years.
In 1122, King David the Builder captured Tbilisi and made it the capital of his unified Georgia. He moved his residence from Kutaisi, erecting a palace near Metekhi Church. His reign ushered in the Golden Age of Georgia.
Under the rule of David and his great-granddaughter Queen Tamar, Tbilisi became a dominant regional power with a thriving economy and a well-established social structure. It was also an important cultural and literary hub in the region. But the Golden Age was brought to an end in 1235 by the Mongols.
In 1386, Tamerlane destroyed the city. Between 1444 and 1478, Tbilisi was again destroyed, rebuilt and controlled by the Persians. By the early 16th century, Tbilisi was a territory of Iran and recovered somewhat under Iranian rule during the 17th century.
In 1762, it became capital of the semi-autonomous Eastern Georgia under King Erekle II, who sought the help of Russia against Iranian domination. In 1795, Russia withdrew its army to fight the Turks. This allowed the Persians to kill tens of thousands and burn Tbilisi to the ground.
In 1801, Russia annexed Georgia and rebuilt Tbilisi in the imperial mold, ruling it for the next century. Following the Russian Revolution, Tbilisi was the location where the independence of the Democratic Republic of Georgia was declared in 1918.
It functioned as the capital city until Soviet annexation in 1921. It then became the capital of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Tbilisi experienced massive growth during the Soviet era, industrializing and becoming one of the important political, social and cultural centers of the Soviet Union.
The city was also a center of opposition to the Soviet regime, producing several influential dissidents and artists who challenged the status quo. Massive anti-Soviet demonstrations were held here in 1956, 1978 and 1989.
Following Georgia’s independence in 1991, Tbilisi became a battleground for a short-lived civil war. The 1990s were dark years for Georgians as standards of living plummeted, unemployment rose and crime and corruption became rife.
But following the Rose Revolution of 2003, crime has almost disappeared and Tbilisi has enjoyed a flood of investment and reconstruction, as well as a booming tourism industry.
PLACES TO VISIT IN TBILISI
With its picturesque old town, eclectic architecture and superb wining and dining opportunities, Tbilisi is the vibrant heart of the Caucasus. Add to that the pull of the city’s hipster culture and its techno scene, and you are guaranteed a superb lineup of Georgia attractions when you visit Tbilisi.
Old Tbilisi is the historic district of Tbilisi. Many buildings here date from soon after the Persian sacking of 1795 and still have the Eurasian character of earlier times. This is characterized by pastel-colored wooden houses with intricately carved balconies nestled in lush courtyards.
Made for meandering, Tbilisi’s atmospheric historic center features a labyrinth of leafy squares and narrow cobblestone alleys. These are lined with colorful shops, bohemian bars, charming cafes, art galleries, and ancient stone churches.
Nestled at the top of Old Tbilisi, Narikala is a fortress that has kept watch over Tbilisi since the 4th century. You can walk to Narikala Fortress or board a sleek, modern cable car from Rike Park.
From Narikala you can enjoy majestic hilltop views of Tbilisi. Admire the architectural diversity which features an eclectic mix of medieval, Byzantine, Neoclassical, Beaux Arts, Art Nouveau, Middle Eastern, Soviet and Modern construction.
A path continues from Narikala to Kartlis Deda. Also known as Mother Georgia, Kartlis Deda is a 20m high aluminum statue of a woman holding a cup of wine in one hand and a sword in the other.
The statue is a classic metaphor of the Georgian character: welcoming to visitors but also ready to defend against invaders. It offers one of the best views of the city with great photo opportunities.
For the journey back down from Narikala, board the cable car’s piece de resistance – a glass-bottomed car that offers amazing 360-degree views. Or have some fun coming back down via zip line. The zip line connects the fortress with the beautiful National Botanical Garden of Georgia.
The National Botanical Garden of Georgia is the perfect place for rest and relaxation in the city. Visitors can admire diversity of plants in the blossoming gardens, rest on pavilions inside the beautiful Japanese garden, and climb little bridges in search of the picturesque waterfall and hidden fountains.
Abanotubani Sulfur Baths
Bath culture is an integral part of Georgian life, seeing as hot springs gave the city its name. Therefore after a long day of sightseeing, it’s only fitting that you recover with a visit to one of the Tbilisi sulfur baths.
Located on the eastern bank of Mtkvari River, Abanotubani is the bath district of Tbilisi. The area features a collection of brick bathhouses with distinct dome-shaped roofs that for centuries have been a pilgrimage site for Georgians in need of a restorative sulfuric dip.
There are separate Tbilisi sulfur baths for men and women in communal pools, as well as private rooms with steaming bathtubs. For a fee, bathers can get a professional scrub-down and massage. It’s not exactly pampering, but for authenticity, it’s hard to beat. Swimsuits are optional as nudity is the norm.
The most famous of the Tbilisi sulfur baths is Chreli Abano, also known as Orbeliani. This is an intricately blue-tiled venue whose past guests have included Alexander Pushkin. Abano No. 5 is the oldest bathhouse which is renowned for its stunning mosaics.
The Tbilisi Funicular is one of the best examples of cable railways in the world. A ride to the top of Mount Mtatsminda – the highest point of the city, affords visitors the best city views. Grab a seat in the front carriage of the funicular for the best views on your way up.
At the top, you will find the Funicular Restaurant Complex, a cluster of 5 restaurants serving both traditional Georgian food and European cuisine.
A sweeping terrace offers many different panoramas of the city below and mountains in the distance. On a clear day, you can even see Mount Kazbegi. Also, go up the funicular after dark to enjoy the illuminated city lights.
From the complex walk past well-tended gardens and walkways to Mtatsminda Park. An urban playground, Mtatsminda Park is a landscaped amusement park with carnival rides, a roller coaster and Ferris wheel. Close by is the pretty Mama Daviti Church.
The Gabriadze Theater is an intriguing building located in the heart of Old Tbilisi. The building is named after Rezo Gabriadze, a popular Georgian puppet master. Gabriadze designed the theater building and holds his puppetry shows there as well.
A talented artist, painter, sculptor, writer and director, Gabriadze creates the puppets and then brings them to life in his performances. Entertaining to both adults and children, most performances feature English subtitles.
The most notable part of the theatre building is its magnificent clock tower. Every day at noon, the clock tower windows open and offer the crowds below a charming marionette show.
Dry Bridge Flea Market
Mshrali Khidi is where antique vendors, collectors and craftsmen set up shop for the Dry Bridge Flea Market. The most famous antique street market in the city, Mshrali Khidi is a wonderland of Soviet era memorabilia.
Locals bring their treasures here to display and sell. They flog everything from military medals and portraits of Stalin to dusty Pink Floyd albums. People come here to buy old coins, books, paintings, postcards, vintage phones, and retro cameras, among others.
The market is open daily, but weekends are best for their wider selection. Tourists are sure to find something memorable here to take home. For a wider range of souvenirs, be sure to visit our Georgian souvenir shop.
Tsminda Sameba Cathedral
Tsminda Sameba Cathedral is also known as the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi. The most beautiful and atmospheric church in the city, Sameba is the main cathedral of the Georgian Orthodox Church. It was built between 1995 and 2004.
In the interior, rays of afternoon light illuminate artistic treasures, frescoes, and icons, while slow-burning incense creates a fragrant ambiance. If you’re lucky, you may find worshippers performing the ethereal polyphonic chants of sacred Georgian music.
Georgian National Museum
The Georgian National Museum unifies the leading museums of Georgia. The museum runs four principal museums in Tbilisi with exhibitions that illuminate both the ancient and modern history of Georgia.
The Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia offers an amazing display of principal archaeological artifacts of the country. The Museum of the Soviet Occupation tells the story of the 70-year incursion by Russia in compelling detail.
At the Open Air Museum of Ethnography, visitors can see examples of folk architecture and craftwork from various regions of the country. The Art Museum of Georgia showcases over 140,000 items of Georgian, Oriental, Russian and other European art.
One of the best classical Georgian architectural monuments in Tbilisi, Kashveti Church is a stellar example of Georgian, Italian and German collaboration. The church is famous for its miraculous image of St. David and exquisitely painted altar with stone latticework.
Kashveti Church stands on the site of a previous church that dates back to the 6th century. The present-day church building was constructed in 1910 and based on the design of the 11th century Samtavisi Church. Other notable churches in Tbilisi include Anchiskhati Basilica and Betania Monastery.
Tbilisi National Park
Located 20km north of the city center, Tbilisi National Park offers a fantastic retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. Locals and tourists alike come here to enjoy the beautiful Georgian nature and various outdoor activities.
Vegetation in the Tbilisi National Park is diverse and the fauna is quite rich. The park is mainly covered by grass and wood plants with shrub and trees of oak, beech and hornbeam. Common mammals found here include the Red fox, Grey wolf, weasel, and lynx. There is also a diversity of bird species.
The all-season park offers a variety of activities. Escape the summer heat by camping or having a picnic. See the autumn colors in Sabaduri Forest, reminiscent of a beautiful painting. In winter, the forest is transformed into a magical snowy world. Visitors can come in spring to admire the colorful blossoms.
THINGS TO DO IN TBILISI
A mix of nature, sports and adventure offerings make Tbilisi the ideal location for a city retreat. From hiking in a spectacular forest to paragliding over the Caucasus, an array of tourist activities guarantee a great vacation in this thriving city.
Extreme sports lovers can enjoy zip lining over the National Botanical Garden from Narikala Fortress. The line is suspended 30 meters above the garden and runs 270 meters to the final platform. In addition to the adrenaline rush, you can enjoy great views of Tbilisi.
Go biking in Tbilisi National Park and enjoy the gorgeous nature. The bike trail winds through the spectacular Sabaduri Forest from which you can see the whole of Tbilisi. There are 3 cycling routes for different experience levels – simple, medium and difficult.
Hiking in Tbilisi National Park is a great way to escape the bustling city. Lovers of the outdoors can choose from three hiking trails: the Big Viewpoint, Mamkoda Medium Loop and Mamkoda Difficult Loop. All trails offer beautiful landscape views.
Tbilisi has several bowling clubs where you can lace up and have some fun. Climb up the leaderboard as you compete against your friends on professional bowling lanes. Bowling instructors are on hand to provide training to beginners.
Have fun with friends in a game of paintball. This competitive team shooting sport lets you hit opponents with paintballs to eliminate them. Games are played indoor or outdoor with natural or artificial terrain providing tactical cover.
Have you ever dreamed of flying just like a bird? If so, then paragliding is just the activity for you. Soar like an eagle as you soak up incredible aerial views of Tbilisi. Tandem takeoffs are available for inexperienced paragliders.
Tbilisi has a vibrant shopping scene with world-class malls, vintage bazaars and local fashion designer shops with both luxury and budget brands. Shop around and you are certain to find the perfect Georgia keepsake to take home.
THE BEST TIME TO VISIT TBILISI
Tbilisi weather is characterized by a humid subtropical climate with significant amounts of rainfall year-round. The best time to visit Tbilisi is from May to June and September to October. At these times of the year, the city is pleasantly warm.
Spring in Tbilisi (March, April, May)
Spring is characterized by warm sunny days. Tbilisi weather is unpredictable, changing many times a day. The season is mild with a moderate temperature and a lot of rainfall. May is the wettest month of the year.
Summer in Tbilisi (June, July, August)
Tbilisi experiences warm summers. July and August are popular months to visit, although prices are at their highest and daytime temperatures can be extremely hot. July is the hottest month with an average temperature of 24 degrees Celsius.
Autumn in Tbilisi (September, October, November)
Autumn brings a sudden drop in temperature. In the latter months, the surrounding mountains trap clouds resulting in prolonged rainy weather. This is a nice time to explore the city as summer crowds have thinned and the weather is still T-shirt friendly.
Winter in Tbilisi (December, January, February)
Tbilisi weather is unpredictable and can switch from bright warm days to wet and even snowy ones. January is the driest and coldest month with an average temperature of 2 degrees Celsius. This is the low season for Georgia tourism when crowds have all but left and prices drop.
WHERE TO STAY IN TBILISI
A flurry of new Tbilisi hotels has put the city on the tourist map, with high-end offerings such as The Stamba and Rooms Hotel Tbilisi. There are also stylish vacation rentals alongside charming Western-style hostels with clean basic rooms.
WHERE TO EAT IN TBILISI
The city is awash with fantastic Tbilisi restaurants that offer superb Georgian cuisine served with traditional Georgian hospitality. For a true taste of Georgian culinary traditions enter the dining room of Barbarestan. This is just one of the amazing Tbilisi restaurants you must visit while in Georgia.
Tbilisi is also littered with tasting rooms where you can sample Georgian wine. Georgia is one of the oldest viticulture regions on earth, with a winemaking history that dates back 8,000 years. The ancient Georgian winemaking process has even been included on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Tbilisi’s vibrant nightlife is on display at underground rave houses that open late and pulsate till dawn. Techno clubs such as Bassiani and Khidi have earned Tbilisi a global reputation for being a hard-core party capital. If you prefer a more chilled out night on the town, head over to Fabrika.
HOW TO GET TO TBILISI
Located 18km southeast of the city center, Shota Rustaveli Tbilisi International Airport is the only international airport in Tbilisi. It is the busiest airport in Georgia and a hub for the National carrier Georgian Airways and a Georgian-Chinese start-up Myway Airlines.
From Tbilisi airport, various airlines serve routes to major European and Asian hubs. These include London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Brussels, Paris, Vienna, Dubai and Doha.
Natakhtari Airfield is another airport located 33km north of Tbilisi in the town of Natakhtari. It serves the capital with domestic flights on routes to Batumi, Mestia, and Ambrolauri.
Conquered and reconquered for centuries, Tbilisi today wears its battle scars with pride. Foodies, party lovers and art aficionados will find no end of riches in this East-meets-West city. From its medieval fortress to sleek new luxury hotels, the Georgian capital truly has something for everyone.
Accommodation in Tbilisi hotels fill up fast, so be sure to book in advance with our travel agency. If you prefer to drive around Tbilisi, we have a modern fleet of rental cars available for hire. We also offer tours to Tbilisi that include private transfers to and from Tbilisi airport.
You can also create your own custom vacation package that includes the specific places you want to visit and things you want to do in Tbilisi. Tired of the same old city breaks? Order your custom tour today and make Tbilisi your next amazing city break destination!