Perfect Weekend: 48 Hours in Tbilisi, GeorgiaBy Howard Malin
Tbilisi (hard enough to spell, let alone pronounce) doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue in the way that Tel Aviv or Tulum may, but the hot destination this year is indeed the capital of Georgia. Here’s everything you need to know for the perfect 48-hours in Tbilisi:
48 Hours in Tbilisi: The Lowdown
This fascinating country of only 4 million inhabitants, independent from USSR since 1991, is brim full of character, charm and the most incredibly delicious food (to say nothing of the local wines). The time-warped city of Tbilisi itself is utterly mesmerising, with its diverse architecture, people and religions.
Down the centuries, Georgia has been hotly contested due to its enviable position at the junction of Asia and Europe, bordering Russia to the north, and Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan to the south. The capital city of Tbilisi has been destroyed and rebuilt 27 times since the 5th century!
With Georgian Airlines now running direct flights from Gatwick, Tbilisi comes within range of the long weekend break – and what a break it is. With the bonus of the newly restored and immaculate Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace offering its brilliant service, comfort and luxury – my three-night stay was one I’m not going to forget.
It’s easy to see why John Steinbeck wrote, in his Russian Journal of 1948,“ It’s a magical place, Georgia, and it becomes dream-like the moment you leave it”. I personally can’t wait to go back when I’ve lost a little of the weight I gained on this trip.
48 Hours in Tbilisi: What to Expect
Get ready to step back in time – with higgledy-piggledy old houses balanced precariously over the vertiginous banks of the river Mtkvari which runs through the city, the charm of yesteryear and easy walkability of the Old Town with its cobbled streets, secret courtyards with wildly growing vines, the inviting aromas of impossible-to-resist pastries beckoning from the windows and doorways of bakeries and cafes that line most of the streets, the ancient sulphur baths (reduced from 60 odd to just 5), the markets with their vendors of traditional Georgian candy (churchkhela – grape juice thickened with flour, and filled with nuts), artisan foods, local products, and soviet-era memorabilia.
Tblisi is not short of great sights either – its stunning architecture, spanning everything from ancient Eastern Orthodox to spectacular modern churches, from the reconstruction of the 4th century battlements of Narikala, to the iconic modern statue of Mother Georgia, from decorative and ornate art nouveau to brutal soviet, combines with a lively cafe, bar and hipster scene around the renovated sewing factory of Fabrika to provide the all ingredients for a perfect trip.
And did I mention the food? Oh my word! Georgian cuisine is in a class of its own – indeed the world-famous chef Rene Redzepi (of Noma fame) has described Georgia as home to the last great undiscovered food cultures of Europe. Indeed – the city itself remains largely undiscovered by western travellers, but that is changing rapidly – so get in quick.
48 Hours in Tbilisi: Where to Stay
Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace
With the opening this year of the Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace (I know – but you only have to say Sheraton to the taxi driver) guests can enjoy the old-world charm of Tbilisi without sacrificing their creature comforts.
The extraordinary husband and wife team of Sonja and Keith Wright of Wright Associates in Munich have achieved the impossible. They have managed to transform, over four and a half years of painstaking restoration, a brutal and uninviting Soviet era edifice into a spectacular, welcoming and luxurious hotel. The vast lobby, with 10 storey atrium, is a work of art.
I loved everything about the hotel – the 220 bedrooms have every amenity you would expect from a luxury hotel – from individual Nespresso machines to convenient charging points and the easiest bedside touch control panels I have encountered.
The huge comfortable beds with linens to die for made it difficult to leave the room! But when I did – I found the 5 room spa offering heavenly Elemis treatments, (the massage was so good, I was considering proposing marriage to the masseuse), a huge Technogym equipped gym, an indoor pool , relaxation areas and jacuzzi. and an outdoor pool big enough to host the Olympics, with poolbar and thick padded sun-loungers.
Breakfasting at the buffet of the 9th floor Sheraton Club (also offering all day drinks and snacks) was a brilliant way to start each day – with its outdoor terrace offering unobstructed views over the river, the Old Town, and most of the important monuments.
There are enough dining and drinking options within the hotel to satisfy a small country. Overlooking the pool is Feast, an all-day dining restaurant with an eclectic mix of local and international dishes, and Craft Bar with indoor and outdoor seating.
The 10th floor panoramic restaurant Ati, puts a modern slant on traditional dishes – the food is just divine, and the service spot on. Although newly launched, this is destined to become one of the city’s top destination restaurants. My mushrooms with cheese mouse was simply stunning, as was the pork belly and poached egg. Sounds strange, but it was brilliant.
The hotel is built on a hill, 10-15 minutes easy walk from the Old Town, and the views are breath-taking. I loved that I could combine this resort-style hotel with spa, hammam, gym and huge pool with all the attractions of the city and Old Town. There are taxis everywhere you look, and for the equivalent of £2/3 they will whisk you from the centre of town to the Sheraton in three or four minutes, if the local wine has made the walk home along the river back less appealing.
John Steinbeck also wrote “If one tried to describe Georgia using one single word, the right word would definitely be ‘hospitality”. The Sheraton does hospitality in spades – with permanently smiling, courteous and helpful staff. Nothing was too much trouble for anyone, and I was made to feel welcome from the moment I arrived until I was packed off to the airport in the waiting taxi. I didn’t want to leave.
48 Hours in Tbilisi: What to See and Do
Tbilisi Old Town – this is the number one must-see for all visitors. Just to wander on foot and get lost in the myriad cobbled streets, maybe stopping for coffee and local pastries along the way. Look out for vines and grapes growing up the walls of the beautiful courtyards that punctuate the old city, and note the intricate and ornate balconies and stairways. Take in the adjoining Abanotubani area with its centuries old sulphur baths – you can’t miss them – both the smell and the distinctive domed roofs of the bathhouses give them away.
Rustavelli Avenue – this street leading on from Freedom Square and the Old Town, serves to contrast old Tbilisi with the newer developed areas from the beginning of the twentieth century – look out for the Georgian National Museum, the Opera and Ballet Theatre, and the Parliament of Georgia – all great examples of early 20th century architecture.
Metekhi Cathedral – dating from 13th century, located on the top of the cliff overlooking the town, next to the famous statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali on his horse, and which apparently marks the spot where Tbilisi’s patron saint was martyred in 8th century.
Holy Trinity Church – this incredible structure dominates the skyline of Tbilisi – once the tallest Georgian Orthodox church in the world (now relegated to 3rd place) . Originally conceived in 1989, while Georgia was still shackled to USSR, this mighty, 101 metre high gold-domed structure, was only completed in 2004, as a “symbol of the Georgian national and spiritual revival.”
Mtsaminda Park and the funicular railway. The funicular railroad, originally built in 1905 (and thankfully since modernised!) takes you to the top of the mountain overlooking Tbilisi, saving your breath for the (literally) breath-talking views over the city from its elevated position, and leaving you enough energy to enjoy the wonderful old fairground, with vintage ferris wheel, water park and cafes, within the park itself. Originally built in 1938 and called Stalin Park, the sumptuous Funicular Restaurant at the summit was built to impress visiting dignitaries of the benefits of communism. The park itself was the most popular tourist attraction in USSR!
Narikala Fortress – take a cable car from the old town to the 4th Century (and partly restored) Narikala Fortress. The views from here are extraordinary, making the ride more than worthwhile, and you can walk to famous statue of The Mother Georgia. This 66 ft high aluminium colossus presides over the city, with a cup of wine for her friends in one hand and a sword to slay her enemies in the other.
Peace Bridge – you can now cross from the Old Town to Rike Park via the newly constructed Peace Bridge, the curved wonder of steel and glasss that spans the river. It is even more alluring at night – illuminated by thousands of twinkling lights.
Dry Bridge Flea Market – flea markets are so interesting, and I’m assured that this one is great fun. For 70 years (until its independence in 1991) Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, and locals in this market offer , amongst other things, a range of soviet-era memorabilia. Make sure to bargain to get the best deal!
Fabrika – built as a sewing and knitting factory in the 70’s, this area is now home to a thriving community of cafes, bars, restaurants, co-working spaces and fashion shops. With many of its walls covered in graffiti and a throbbing club scene – this area is bursting with energy.
Sulphur Baths – the ancient sulphur baths in Abanotubani, which adjoins the Old Town, have been cleansing the locals for centuries. The thermal waters are said to have healing properties. Don’t leave the city without indulging yourself – either swallow your pride and shower naked with the locals , or book a private room and massage for only a few Gels more. Bliss.
48 Hours in Tbilisi: What to Eat and Drink
Suspend your diet for your few days here because resistance is futile. The Georgian cuisine is just too delicious and I’m afraid this trip must go down as the most carbohydrate-heavy of recent years. I was helpless and gave in every time.
The main event here is khachapuri – the national dish of Georgia. It is so much a part of the culture here, that there are even socks to match. There are many versions of khachapuri (in the same way that there are many types of pizza) but possibly the most famous, and most delicious for me, was the khachapuri adjarian, a canoe-shaped baked bread (indeed similar to a pizza) filled with molten cheese, an egg yolk and a pat of butter. Simply break off some of the crispy outer crust and dip it in the bubbling mixture. Heaven.
The other staple is khinkali – these are the traditional Georgian dumplings – usually filled with meat and spices, or simply potato. Be careful when biting in to these, as they are filled with hot juices!
Despite the carb-heavy and heart-stopping khachapuri, Georgian cuisine offers a wide and wonderful array of vegetarian and vegan dishes – which is probably rooted in the Georgian Orthodox Church which dictates abstaining from any meat or dairy produce for approximately 150 days each year (spread throughout each week). But boy do they make up for it on the feasting days.
Georgia is one of the oldest wine producers in the world. Many vintners still use the kvevri, a clay pot, filled with grape juice, which is simply buried in the ground to ferment. Winemaking here dates back to 6000 BC, and the country is justly proud of the 8000 vintages it has produced. Wherever you walk in the Old Town, wine merchants beckon with free tastings. I loved many of the reds, but some of the so-called white wine wines are actually amber and they are definitely an acquired taste.
48 Hours in Tbilisi: How To Get There
Georgian Airlines fly direct to Tbilisi overnight from Gatwick. The best ways to get around in the city are taxi, bus and Metro.
About Time was a guest of Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace (and loved every minute). Room rates from £145 for a deluxe king or deluxe twin, room only. Booking here.