Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia, is a city of contrasts of old world charm and contemporary beauty. It does a good job in blending together the historic cobblestone streets and ancient churches of Old Town with New Town’s modern architecture and bustling streets.
Discovering Old Town Tbilisi
We started our exploration of Old Town at the top of the city’s most historic hill at the fortress where, while admiring the views over the city. The Persians originally constructed the fortress in the 4th century. The Arabs greatly expanded it in the 8th century who built a palace inside. It was subsequently captured by Georgians (who built a church inside the walls) and Turks and then recaptured by the Persians. It ended up in the hands of the Russians who accidently blew the fortress and its church to smithereens on the early 19th century when its munitions cache exploded. The walls and church were rebuilt in the 1990s. As it is perched on a hill, it offers wonderful views of the city and the Kura River.
St. Nicholas Church
Built in the 6th century within the Fortress, it is believed to be the oldest church in Tbilisi. A 1827 blast destroyed it but it was reconstructed some three decades ago. Today it again operates as a place of worship.
Mother Georgia Statue
The 66 foot tall metal sculpture serves as the symbol of the city. The statue is of a woman holding a wine glass in one hand and a sword in the other. The wine represents hospitality while the sword is issuing the warning “Don‘t mess with Georgia”
National Botanical Garden
The a huge expanse of greenery contains a wide variety of plants species. It was converted from the palace’s previous royal gardens in 1845.
Several lovely 17th century buildings, are located in this original section of Old Town which runs through and from the Mtkvari (also known as Kura) River Gorge. It was used as a leatherworking district before emerging as one of the city’s busiest restaurant and bar scenes, especially along the pedestrian-only Shavteli, Erekle II and Sioni Streets.
One of the city’s oldest, most popular baths of natural sulfur-rich spring water is also in the Leghutakhevi neigborhood. It is also one of its most lovely with its blue tile exterior walls and setting on the lip of the gorge.
The 5th century church overlooks the river. It is where King Vakhang Gorgasali, who is commemorated with an equestrian statue on the grounds, established Tbilisi as the capital of Georgia and build his first castle and an accompanying church. Inside, some of its frescoes and religious paintings date back to the 12th century.
The Cathedral was originally built in the 6th century and, after several destructions and reconstructions, again in in the 13th. The small but lovely cathedral served as the city’s primary one until the much more dramatic Tsminda Sameba Cathedral (see below) was consecrated in 2004.
Jvaris Mama Church
The interior of the 16th-century church is covered with lovely frescoes.
Bridge of Peace
The Peach Bridge links the historic Old Town on the left bank of the river with the right bank of the river. It one of a cluster of modern, post-independence structures along with a mushroom-shaped structures that is serving as a city administrative and compliance center and two above-ground tunnel-like structures that were intended to have been part of a cultural center, but have not yet completed in 2023. The pretty steel pedestrian bridge is covered with a glass canopy.
Between Old Town and the New City
Tsminda Sameba Cathedral
The cathedral was seen as marking the Georgian Orthodox church’s break with the Russian Church. It is a beautiful and dramatic Georgian-style structure, topped with a gold dome, and perched 280 feet above the top of one of the city’s many high hills. While it is visible from across the city, the cathedral is most impressive when viewed from just inside the cathedral complex’s entry gate. Like the interior, the exterior is relatively unadorned. Its beauty is in its proportions and its sweeping verticality, which, while best appreciated from the outside. The beauty is also apparent from beneath its dome, where the light from the dome illuminates the austere, sparsely decorated interior.
The Georgian-style palace is just below the top of the hill on which the cathedral is located, is marked by its large-scale portico and glass dome. Today it is used primarily for ceremonial purposes.
This city icon in the center of a residential neighborhood makes the Leaning Tower of Pizza look like a model of stability. It is held up by metal braces. Different sections of the tower lean in different directions with a roman-like column appearing close to falling off. Despite this, the clock, at least when we visited, showed the proper time. The condition of the tower, unfortunately, is not unlike a number of other buildings in the area and around the city—previously beautiful structures, some of which also require metal braces to remain standing.
Playful Bronze Sculptures
The sculptures are located around the city. But many are down the street from the clock tower, with replicas of dissolute men carrying with soccer balls, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, old friends on a bench and a model of several men and women in a joyous line dance.
City Hall Photographic Competition Finalist Display
You never know what you may discover when walking around. During our visit we discovered finalist photos of an international photo contest displayed on a bridge over the river. While visibility of the images was less than ideal, many of the photos dealt with the Ukraine War, climate change, and the deplorable condition of Europe’s Roma people.
Rustaveli Street Area
This newer, more upscale stretch of the central city is home to a number of the city’s five-star hotels, cultural institutions and the Parliament building. Among the many notable structures are:
During the USSR days, the square was named Lenin Square. It is the home of the old city hall building. In the square’s center where a statue of Lenin used to stand, a tall column symbolically topped by a gold-plated St. George slaying the dragon.
Former Parliament Building
Originally constructed as the home of Georgia’s Soviet Government, today the building serves as a monument to the city’s independence and democracy. It is the site at which the country declared its independence from the USSR on April 9, 1991, the site of the November 22, 2003 Rose Revolution (the date when Eduard Shevardnadze, the last Soviet President of Georgia, peacefully transferred power after disputed elections) and the most common site for antigovernmental protests ever since.
Everywhere you look you can discover including the Old City Hall, the Georgian National Museum, the National Gallery, the Fine Arts Museum, the Opera and Ballet Theater and the former Russia Communications House which was generally thought to be the KGB headquarters.
Tom ordered a roasted pig with crispy skin and pig au jus with fried rice marinated beetroot and pomegranate for dinner at this contemporary Georgian restaurant. While it was good, Joyce ended up better with her marinated, roasted then fried chicken with pomegranate sauce (although the chicken liver mousse that came with it was less interesting). We shared a bottle of 2018 Qvevri-fermented and aged Memziri Kakhuri white wine with a glass of 2018 Qvevri-fermented (oak barrel-aged) Gemziri Saparavi red with Toms’ pig. We added a very tasty almond cake with egg cream, caramel, walnut and cheese dessert.
Our dinner at the upscale traditional restaurant began with ricotta rolled in solguni cheese with a creamy sauce (too rich for me but Joyce enjoyed it sans cream), grilled chicken breast and grits (a very un-American preparation) with bahz (walnut, garlic and spice sauce) which I particularly enjoyed and lamb kebab which we both liked. We also enjoyed yet another Qvevri Saperavi, this a 2018 Solomnishvili Mama #22.
We split a delicious grilled sea bream with equally good steamed vegetables and a tasty but dry baked pork rib with red plum sauce and fried polenta. Our wine was another qvevri-fermented and aged amber: a 2019 Utskinari Kisi and Mtsvane-based Mrchobli.
Keto & Kote
Our nice dinner started with dolma wrapped in grape leaves that was served with a tasty matsoni (strained yoghurt with spices, lemon and garlic) sauce. While small, Tom enjoyed them, especially with the sauce. Joyce, who shuns most sauces was less impressed. However, we both enjoyed the baked dorado with spinach and roasted potato and a walnut tart dessert. Our wine was a pleasant, but less than memorable 2020 Vazisuban Estate 3 Qvevri orange wine made from kisi, chichi and mtsvane grape.
Our lunch at this casual traditional Georgian restaurant had far too many dishes than we could possibly eat. We regrettably held off on the khinkali (huge meat-filled soup dumplings) since one plate looked big enough to serve a table of four. We narrowed it down to megrelian khachapuri (Georgian flat bread stuffed with cheese) and baked trout stuffed with sulguni cheese and walnuts with pomegranate sauce. Both were very good although we got through less than half the bread. With a wine list consisting of red and white, we chose a basic white wine with some minerality, but sufficient for lunch.
Our lunch on the very touristy Erekle II Street. we all but ignored our initial, rude server in favor of two others who came by to help. The result was a pleasant and tasty meal of decent (but far from our favorite) mixed meat khinkali (soup dumplings) with lamb kebob and fried quail and a bottle of 2000 Mukuzani Saperavi. After lunch we relaxed with an enjoyable apple hookah with a glass of Kisi/Mtvane white wine for Joyce and a Chacha for Tom.