Sightseeing in “the city that loves you”: Tbilisi attractions (Georgia)

Sightseeing in “the city that loves you”: Tbilisi attractions (Georgia)

For such a small country, surrounded by powerhouses like Russia and Turkey, it blows my mind how Georgia has maintained a truly distinct cultural identity for over 9,000 years. I had no idea this civilization was so ancient but many of the most important aspects of today’s society go back multiple millennia. Archeologist found traces of wine production from 8000 BC. They have their own language group, completely unrelated to Indo-European or Semantic languages, and use a distinct alphabet (one of only 14 in the world). Georgia’s religious roots go date to the 4th century, when it became the second nation to adopt Christianity! You can still see a strong Orthodox influence today through the countless churches, women with headscarves at the ready on Sundays and taxi drivers/bus passengers who frantically make the sign of the cross three times every time we drive through an intersection. Sometimes I wondered how such a religious people could drink so much but they don’t seem to find God and wine mutually exclusive. The Georgian cross is wrapped in grape leaves, for heaven’s sake.

Metakhi church, Tbilisi

Metakhi church, Tbilisi

Geographically and culturally, Georgia is at a crossroads between Central Asia, Russia, Europe and the Middle East (I didn’t even know how to categorize it for my blog… I decided to follow one of my other guidebooks and chose Asia) but despite being a stop of the Silk Road, it doesn’t seem to reflect these other cultures too obviously. Even in the capital city, the overwhelming majority of restaurants serve Georgian cuisine, which is different from what neighboring countries eat. You can find a few pizzerias, fast-food kabob places, Arabic hookah lounges and McDonalds near metro stops but most people are chowing down on khacapuri (the omnipresent favorite snack of Georgians: cheese pie) and hachapuri (cheese and egg in a boat-shaped bread). The handicrafts remind me a bit of Albania (probably the Soviet influence), with knitted socks and dusty silver jewelry, but with quite a few more drinking horns and shag-rug hats. However, I’ve only found one mosque and barely any Asian influence, except for a half-dozen assorted tourists (which seems very low, compared to what I’ve seen in other countries). Walking around Tbilisi, a European influence can be seen in its cobblestone streets and cafes but the city combines old and new in a novel fashion. So how do you see this all for yourself?

 

Old City Tbilisi, Georgia

Old City Tbilisi, Georgia

Walking tour of Tbilisi: Exploring the Old City
Gela and I started at Metakhi church, which was the perfect place to look out over the river and the Old City’s colorful houses climbing the hill. I made a half-hearted attempt to peak inside but it was Sunday and bustling with women with their heads covered, knawing on loaves of bread. From there, we boarded the aerial cable car for panoramic views of city beneath us… the old European-esque houses cuddled up hillside and with glass buildings in swooping shapes in the more modern part below. From above, we walked along the ridge to the base of the “Mother Georgia” statue, who watches over the city holding a bowl of wine (of course!) for friends in one hand and a sword in the other. We backtracked 1.5 km or so along the ridge, climbing the Nikala Fortress for views of the city in front of us and the Botanic Garden behind. We slipped down lumpy steps to descend back down in the Old Town and walked through the notable Shardeni (atmospheric but overpriced street of cafes) and Shaveteli (site of an amazingly quirky clock tower outside the puppet theatre) streets.

Art at the Dry Bridge Bazaar, Tbilisi, Georgia

Art at the Dry Bridge Bazaar, Tbilisi, Georgia

After watching kids do roller blade tricks at the skate park and couples canoodle by water fountains in another shaded park, we arrived at Dry Bridge Bazaar. This daily gathering of locals selling knick-knacks is a flea market on steroids… swords, silverware, trinkets, electronics laid out on blankets sprawled over several blocks! A bit farther down, the random collection of objects evolved into paintings and art. The art varied widely but in general, the paintings had a cartoon-y, colorful, cheerfulness that I really appreciate. We ended our walking tour by circling back by Parliament (which they redecorated to obscure Soviet symbols) and ending in Liberty Square, a central focus point of the Old City. Overall, Tbilisi is a great place to wander… the city is scattered with statues, beautiful buildings and public gardens. Most main streets in the city have over-renovated buildings to be almost too pristine but some of my favorites were the tired backstreets that housed sagging structures with peeling paint.

Hayder and I at the top of Mtatsminda Mountain

Hayder and I at the top of Mtatsminda Mountain

Other Tbilisi Attractions: Mtatsminda Mountain
My second couch surfing host, Hayder, took me up another Funicular to his favorite place in town: the Mtatsminda mountain amusement park. Hayder was quite the character: he’s currently studying dentistry in Georgia but he’s spent most of his life hopping around Arabic countries. He’s half-Lebanonese, half- Iraqi and the son of a Christian mother and Muslim father who lives life according to his own rules, which causes his family to warn him “the dog’s tail will never be straight” (an Arabic saying that doesn’t have a clear meaning to me). He loves to travel, especially in dangerous places, and constantly reminded me how lucky I was to be American, “Your passport can get you anywhere… they’ll even let you into heaven with that thing”. He was detained in India for a couple weeks after studying English there so we had fun complaining about Indian bureaucracy as we took selfies and wandered around the park. The area on top of Mtatsminda was surprisingly large- it had a rollercoaster, flume ride, haunted house, ferris wheel, the country’s television tower and more- and freakishly unoccupied. Well, it did contain an admirable number of tourists whose nationalities we raced to identify (“Big nose! They’re Armenians!”, “They’re saying “ne”…all Russians ever say is no”, “Blonde… they’re probably from Poland”). We settled at a Funicular café for dinner, where you could hang out at the counter and watch the traditional Georgian process of baking bread. Mtatsminda was definitely a fun place to come for people-watching, cheesy park rides and unbeatable views of the city.

Tbilisi at night, viewed from the Mountain

Tbilisi at night, viewed from the Mountain

If YOU want to be a tourist in Tbilisi: The city is very walkable and all of this can be done in a few hours. All of these attractions are free except for the cable car rides. The aerial cable car costs 1 lari to ride plus 2 lari to purchase a metro car (which works for other forms of city transport too… each person needs their own card). The Funicular up Mtatsminda mountain requires a different card that costs 2 laris plus 2 laris for a round-trip ride (you can share this card with a friend). The Dry Bridge Bazaar happens every day of the week but tends to be biggest on the weekends.

Song of the Moment: The Beatles- Back in the USSR (inspired by Dr. Young… “Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out, they leave the West behind. And Moscow girls make me sing and shout that Georgia’s on my mind”)

Be Sociable, Share!