Seven unusual ways to explore Tbilisi this summer

Discover the hidden gems of the Georgian capital, a city with a fascinating history and many architectural treasures to explore.

Published 12 Mar 2022, 10:00 GMT
Sulphur baths and historic buildings in Abanotubani district, Tbilisi.

Sulphur baths and historic buildings in Abanotubani district, Tbilisi. 

Photograph by AWL Images

Away from the established tourist trail, visitors to Tbilisi can discover the Georgian capital’s charms via alternative paths etched by Silk Road traders, merchants and architectural renegades. A city that begs to be explored on foot, it’s the perfect setting for a treasure hunt that will unearth the most elaborate doorways, grandest balconies and prettiest painted entryways. Leafy cafes and restaurants nestled in typical Tbilisi courtyards come alive during the Mediterranean-like summer months, while exquisite old mansion houses host boutique-on-a-budget hotels that ooze art nouveau charm.

1. Revel in eccentric Tbilisi architecture

Tbilisi has worn many hats over the centuries: Arab emirate, Persian vassal, Russian governorate. The city’s vernacular — low masonry buildings with fluted balconies, passages and internal courtyards — reflects this synthesis of cultures, as well as Tbilisians’ open-minded approach to their architecture. Charming, tumbledown houses can be found on the winding alleys behind the old city wall.

When it was an outpost on the Silk Road, trade winds carried both European and Eastern influences into Tbilisi, giving the city its meidani market, caravanserais and, later, Persian-style bathhouses. The result is a motley yet somehow harmonious tapestry of art nouveau and neo-Moorish influences, woven with threads from all four corners of the world.

2. Discover medieval monuments

Tbilisi’s anchor point since the fifth century, the Kala, or castle district, is dominated by Narikala Fortress, one of the few structures that survived Seljuk, Ottoman and Mongol incursions. Follow the path around the stone sentry before diving into the National Botanical Garden to look back on the watchtowers that cling to the hillside.

Vertiginous stone stairs, bankrolled by the city’s craft guilds, lead to the sixth-century Anchiskhati Basilica, Tbilisi’s oldest surviving church, and Ateshgah, the fifth-century Zoroastrian fire temple that once marked the Persian Empire’s northern frontier. Today it’s sequestered inside a private residence — a resolute tap on the door is required to enter.

An example of an ornate stairway in Tbilisi. 

Photograph by Hap Tag

3. Explore the entryways of historic merchant houses

Distinguished 19th-century mansions built by Tbilisi’s wealthy merchants can be found in the Sololaki and Chugureti districts. In a fabulous show of one-upmanship, each entryway is more elaborate than the last; all coiled iron staircases, ceramic floor tiles and Florentine-style frescoes. On Davit Agmashenebeli Avenue in Neu-Tiflis — a German colony that was absorbed into the city in the 1820s — the former home of merchant Erasti Chavchanidze is adorned with friezes from the Georgian epic poem The Knight in the Panther's Skin.

Many thresholds are stamped with the Latin platitude ‘salve’, proffering well-wishes to guests. These houses are considered part of Tbilisi’s collective heritage, so while some discretion is advised, visitors are welcome to venture into common areas. Often, a friendly neighbour will hold the door for you or whisper the passcode in your ear.

4. Walk the art nouveau trail

Old Tbilisi is home to a plethora of florid balconies and lavish doorways. Art nouveau elements appeared in the city as early as the beginning of the 20th century, and were augmented with local flourishes, including wooden balconies. A trip down Davit Agmashenebeli Avenue reveals a cast of characterful portals.

Notable examples of art nouveau in Tbilisi include the Writers’ House of Georgia — commissioned by brandy baron Davit Sarajishvili in 1903 and designed by German architect Carl Zaar — on Ivane Machabeli Street; the former Mutual Credit Society building on Giorgi Leonidze Street; and the former Apollo Theatre on Davit Agmashenebeli Avenue. A further wander through Neu-Tiflis reveals fabulous corner buildings with sumptuous curves and a cast of characterful art nouveau doors.

An example of stained-glass windows in Tbilisi. 

Photograph by Tbilisi City Hall

5. Admire grand balconies and stained-glass windows

During Soviet times, the ‘crime of ornamentation’ — punishable by sledgehammer — spelled the end for many of Tbilisi’s finest homes. Those that survived still flaunt the ornate balconies, coloured windows and shushabandi (balconies or hallways enclosed in glass) that Tbilisi was once famous for.

For example, there’s the ‘Blue House’ on Ietim-Gurji Street, a layer cake of open galleries and frilly blue balustrades, and the ‘Lace House’ on Rustaveli Avenue, which was built in 1897 for economist Vasil Gabashvili and has a turquoise baroque facade. Number 3 Betlemi Street, meanwhile, features one of the last surviving examples of stained glass in the city. Here, on summer evenings, the setting sun dances on the windows of ‘Kaleidoscope House’, painting the entry with brilliant patterns of light. On its upper level, Gallery 27 sells local handicrafts, including cloisonné enamel jewellery and block-printed lurji supra, or ‘blue tablecloths’.

6. Bask in Tbilisi courtyard culture

Old Tbilisi is like a Potemkin village — it is full of false facades. Behind shipshape stone front walls lurk a jumble of gardens, water wells, covered walkways and spiral staircases. Shared between neighbours, these inner yards are likely a vestige of Silk Road days, when every traders’ inn had an open space for banter and bartering. Often referred to as ‘Italian courtyards’, they reflect Tbilisi’s communal way of life and Mediterranean-like climate.

Houses that were confiscated and carved up under communism are now nesting grounds for cafes, restaurants and speakeasy-style bars. Iasamani and Chaduna both serve contemporary Georgian cuisine from delightfully dilapidated dining rooms in Sololaki, whereas Ezo, Sofia Melnikova’s Fantastic Douqan and Ninia’s Garden accommodate diners in pretty courtyards strung with grapevines and laundry lines.

The leaning Clock Tower in Tbilisi was built by renowned puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze. 

Photograph by Alamy

7. Enjoy restored walking streets and squares

Although much of Tbilisi’s historic architecture lingers in a state of graceful decay, a number of Cultural Heritage Monuments have been restored to their former splendour. These include buildings along Davit Agmashenebeli Avenue, historic Atoneli Street near the Dry Bridge Market, and houses on Lado Gudiashvili Square, adjacent to the old Jewish quarter.

With their facades renovated and repainted, their entryways and balconies rebuilt, these streets have been given a new lease of life as vibrant dining and art precincts. Affordable boutique hotels, street markets and contemporary art spaces such as The Why Not Gallery have taken root, in the ultimate example of heritage-meets-new-wave that makes Tbilisi so intriguing.

For more information, follow @travel.tbilisi

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