Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

Lying on the banks of the Kura (Mtkvari) River, amid the foothills of the Trialeti mountain range, Tbilisi is Georgia’s capital and largest city with a population of roughly 1.5 million inhabitants (more than a third of the nation’s citizens). Historically, due to its location at the crossroads of trade, culture and religion, it has long been a site of contention between imperial powers. Since its founding in the mid 5th century (by Vakhtang I of Iberia), the city has seen periods under Persian, Arab, Turkish, Mongol, and Russian influence. Each have left their indelible mark. As such, modern-day Tbilisi has its own unique and eclectic vibe – one of East meets West – evident in its food, its art, its language, and its neighborhoods.

Origin of Tbilisi’s name: According to the legend of Tbilisi’s founding, in the 5th century AD, King Vakhtang I of Iberia was falcon hunting in the once heavily wooded region of the present day capital. The King’s falcon caught a pheasant during the hunt, after which both birds fell into a nearby hot spring and died from burns. King Vakhtang became so impressed with the hot springs that he decided to cut down the forest and build a city. The name Tbilisi derives from the Old Georgian word “tbili”, meaning “warm”.

Tbilisi Metro - First opened in 1966, the Tbilisi Metro is now comprised of two lines, 23 stations in total, and spans 27.3 km (17 miles). Working hours of the metro are from 6 am until 12 am. Intervals between trains ranges from 2.5 minutes during rush hour, to 10 minutes during off-peak times. All public announcements as well as direction signs are in Georgian and English. A ride is paid using the Metromoney card available at any of the metro stations.

Map: pop-up map
Website: Wikipedia
Old Town (Old Tbilisi) - Although the city has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, Tbilisi still maintains a distinctive historical center. Here you can get lost in a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets lined with brick homes, wooden balconies, and tucked away courtyards. One can find everything from sulphur baths, to traditional little shops, to trendy cafes and bars. Its a delightful contrast of East and West, of crumbling and renovated, of styles spanning the gamut of Medieval, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Russian, and Modernist architecture. You never know what you'll discover hidden around the next corner.
Anchiskhati Basilica - The capital's oldest surviving church, it is situated on the right (west) bank of the Kura River in Old Tbilisi. Built in the 6th century by King Dachi of Iberia, the basilica was originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Much later on in 1675, it acquired the name Anchiskhati (icon of Ancha), after a cherished icon from the Ancha Monastery in Klarjeti (present-day Turkey) was moved to Tbilisi for safekeeping from the Ottoman Turks. (The icon is now on display at the Art Museum of Georgia).

Though damaged and rebuilt several times from the 15th to 17th centuries (due to ongoing invasions), and despite a more recent period when a temporary dome was added, the present-day church retains much of its original design. Anchiskhati Basilica has three naves/spans that are divided by two abutments forming horseshoe-shaped conches – an early style that speaks to the antiquity of its construction.

A few points of interest to look for when visiting Anchiskhati Basilica include; the altarpiece that dates back to 1683, the original large blocks of yellow tuff stone (later restorations made use of brick), and the neighboring brick belfry that dates back to 1675.

Metro: Liberty Square station
Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral - Situated on Sioni Street, on the right (west) bank of the Kura River in Old Tbilisi, the cathedral was the former seat of Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia (Georgia's head church) until the Holy Trinity Cathedral was consecrated in 2004. Named after Jerusalem's Mount Zion, it's origins can be traced back to the 6th and 7th centuries, though it has been leveled and reconstructed many times since its foundation. The current structure (with the dome and drum supported by the altar wall and two separately standing arrow shaped columns), is largely based on the 12th century version of the cathedral, with some restorations and changes from the 17th to 19th centuries.

The exterior of Sioni Cathedral is is designed in a modest and restrained style, while the interior of the church is lavishly decorated with frescoes and icons in gold and dark turquoise colors. Doorways are intricately decorated with patterns that resemble winding grapevines, homage to the fact that the cathedral houses the sacred cross of Saint Nino (4th century female evangelist credited with converting King Mirian III of Iberia to Christianity). According to legend, the cross is made of grapevine branches connected to one another with the saint's own hair. A copy of the cross is located behind the bronze lattice to the left of the iconostasis, while the original is stored for safe keeping.

Within the courtyard, on the north side of the cathedral, is a freestanding three-story bell tower. Dating back to 1425, it was largely destroyed by the Persians in 1795, before being restored to its present condition in 1939. Across the street from Sioni Cathedral stands another three-story bell tower. Dating back to 1812, its one of the earliest examples of Russian Neoclassical architecture in the Caucasus.
Freedom (Liberty) Square - Situated on the southeastern end of Rustaveli Avenue is the focal point of Tbilisi's city center. Renamed “Freedom Square” shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union (in 1990), to honor of Georgia's struggle for independence, the square had already changed names multiple times prior. It was named Erivansky Square (after Cossack general under Imperial Russia), Freedom Square (in 1918 following the collapse of the Russian Empire), Beria Square and then Lenin Square (during the Soviet era).

During the Soviet period the square featured a large statue of Vladimir Lenin. It was symbolically torn down in August 1991. On November 23, 2006, the Freedom Monument was erected in its place - a white column topped with a golden statue depicting St. George (the patron saint of Georgia) slaying a dragon. It was created by Zurab Tsereteli, a Georgian-Russian painter and sculptor.

The square has seen historical, tragic and strange occurrences throughout its history. It was the site of the brazen “1907 Tiflis bank robbery” by Bolsheviks intent on funding their revolutionary activities - a heist that killed forty people and injured fifty others. It has been the venue of various mass demonstrations including those calling for independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, then the Rose Revolution in 2003 (which culminated in the ousting of President Eduard Shevardnadze, thereby ending of the Soviet era of leadership in the country). On 10 May, 2005 it was also the scene of a failed assassination attempt on United States President George W. Bush and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Luckily for both presidents, their wives and other officials, the grenade that the would-be assassin threw at the podium, failed to detonate.

A few additional monuments to look for when visiting Freedom Square in Tbilisi include...
  • Pushkin Park - photo - small area to the north of Freedom Square with a fountain and a bust dedicated to the Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin.
  • Tbilisi City Hal - photo
  • former Bank of Georgia head office - photo
  • Old Tbilisi local government office - photo
Metro: Liberty Square station
Map: Google
Website: Wikipedia
Bridge of Peace - Officially opened in May 2010, the bow-shaped pedestrian bridge crosses the Kura River, connecting Old Tbilisi with Rike Park and the new district on the opposite side. Spanning a length of 150 meters (492 ft), the bridge has a steel and glass canopy fitted with thousands of LED fixtures and sensors that enable an interactive light display. The light show begins 90 minutes before sunset, lasts until 90 minutes after sunrise, and features different lighting programs that run every hour. Additionally, further LEDs embedded in the glass railings are triggered by motion censors as pedestrians pass, and on the hour these same LEDs pulsate a message in Morse code – that of the elements of the human body found on the periodic table (a message of "life and peace between people" according to French lighting director Philippe Martinaud).

Criticized by some for a contemporary design that overshadows Old Tbilisi's historical landmarks, the Bridge of Peace nonetheless, offers an excellent vantage point for viewing the Kura River valley and surrounding regions - day and night.
Aerial Cable Car - Currently there are two aerial cable car lines in Tbilisi. The aerial cable cars accept Tbilisi Metromoney Cards (same for all Tbilisi public transport).

Tbilisi's city government has plans to build three new cable car lines (Akhmeteli-Temka, Sameba-Makhata Mount and Samgori-Vazisubani). Georgia Today

  • Rike Park to Narikala Fortress: Runs from the south end of Rike Park, high over the Mtkvari River and the Old Town, up to Narikala Fortress. Trip goes by rather fast – only a few minutes. When you get out at the hilltop station take a right-hand turn to the Kartlis Deda monument and top entrance to the National Botanical Garden of Georgia, or left to the Narikala Fortress.
    Maps: pop-up map, Google (location of bottom station)

  • Vake Park (Chavchavadze Street) to Turtle Lake: Runs from the northeastern side of Vake Park (Chavchavadze Street) before ending at Turtle Lake above. The trip is a six-minute journey that gives you a bird's-eye view over Vake Park. Nice alternative to reach the lake, as opposed to taking a taxi or car.
    Maps: pop-up map, Google (location of lower station)
Narikala Fortress - video - Lording over the capital of Tbilisi, the fortress dates back to the 4th century when it served as a citadel for the Sasanian Empire (Neo-Persian Empire). The Persians called their fortress Shuris-Tsihe (the Enviable Fortress). Next, the fortress was used and expanded by the Arabs from the 8th century until the mid 11th century. The Arabs established an emirate centered in Tbilisi, thus the fortress was an important outpost for Muslim rule in the Caucasus (they even built a palace for the emir within the fortress walls). Next, in 1068 the Seljuk Turks took their brief turn ruling the fortress. Then, Georgian King David IV (David the Builder) besieged the fortress and took his turn as ruler in 1122. This “Golden Age” of Georgian rule barely lasted a century before the fortress was captured by the Khwarezmian Empire in 1226, then the Mongols in 1236. And thereafter a rotating door of conquest continued between Georgian, Mongol and Turk rule until Tbilisi fell under Iranian rule in the early 16th century. Most of the existing fortifications date to this period of Iranian rule - from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Narikala Fortress consists of two walled sections. On the lower section stands St. Nicholas Church. Dating back to the “Golden Age” in the 12th century, the church lay in ruin before being resurrected in 1996.

Another point of interest is the Narikala Tourist Path. This is a 1.5 km (0.9 mile) trail that runs from the top of the ridge near Kartlis Deda (Mother of Georgia statue), around the fortress, and down into the Old Town near the entrance of the Botanical Garden. It offers beautiful panoramic views and is particularly breathtaking at night with the city lights shining below.
Kartlis Deda (Mother of Kartli) Monument - Also called the Mother of Georgia statue, the 20 meter (66 foot) tall aluminum figure of a woman in national dress stands majestically atop Sololaki hill. Erected in 1958 in order to celebrate Tbilisi's 1500th anniversary, the monument symbolizes Georgian national character: in her left hand she holds a bowl of wine to greet those who come as friends, and in her right hand is a sword for those who come as enemies. *Not to be mistaken with another prominent female statue - that of the Victory Monument in Vake Park (at times she is also referred to as the Mother of Georgia statue).
National Botanical Garden of Georgia - Situated in the Tsavkisis-Tskali Gorge on the southern end of the Old Town (below Narikala Fortress), is Tbilisi's lovely 98 hectare (242 acre) botanical garden. Beginning in the 17th century as a private royal garden (earning it the moniker "fortress gardens" or "Seidabad gardens"), the site was pillaged during the Persian invasion of 1795, revived in the early 19th century, and finally designated an official garden – the Tiflis Botanical Garden – in 1845. Currently it is home to a collection of over 4,500 species of flora from the Caucasus and other regions of the world, and is a leading research, cultural-educational and nature conservation institution in the country.

The National Botanical Garden of Georgia is a tranquil area for a stroll throughout the year. There are winding alleys and pathways, a variety of flowering gardens, water-lily pools, exotic plants, waterfalls and enchanting little bridges that create an idyllic atmosphere.

While there's an entrance to the the National Botanical at the end of Botanikuri Street (after the sulfur baths in the Old Town), perhaps a better alternative (particularly on a hot summer day) is to enter from the top. Take a trip up the cable car to Narikala fortress and take the stairs to the right behind the cable car to the upper garden entrance. Then you can stroll downhill instead. And for adrenaline junkies, you can also take a zipline from the fortress to the middle of the garden as well.

Metro: Liberty Square station
Website: National Botanical Garden of Georgia
Vake Park - Situated in the Vake district of Tbilisi, spanning an area of nearly 2 km² (0.75 miles²), is one of the capital's favorite recreation areas. Opened in 1946, Vake Park is a prime example of a Socialist Classical park - complete with a grand classical entry, a World War II Memorial, and a large staircase with cascading fountains (reminiscent of the Yerevan Cascade). During Soviet times the park was called Victory Park, and fittingly, overlooking the WWII memorial and staircase stands a 28 meter (92 ft) Victory Monument.

A popular spot for a variety of events and gatherings, the expansive tree-filled Vake Park is home to several cafes and restaurants, hiking and biking trails (bike rentals available), a children's playground, basketball courts, and more. Entry is free, and it makes for a pleasurable afternoon on its own, or combined with nearby Turtle Lake and the Open Air Museum of Ethnography.
Turtle Lake - A popular recreation area above Vake Park that includes nearby hiking trails, swimming, boating, and a myriad of cafes and restaurants. The small lake can be reached either by a roadway (taxi or car), or by taking the Turtle Lake aerial cable car (found on the northeastern - bottom - side of Vake Park). The venue hosts various summertime concerts and festivals, and is also a short stroll (less than an hour) west to the Tbilisi Open Air Museum of Ethnography (a large exhibition of Georgia’s folk architecture).
Tbilisi Open Air Museum of Ethnography - An open-air folk architecture museum on the western side of the capital (a little west of Turtle Lake). Spread across a 52 hectare (128.5 acre) hillside overlooking Vake Park to the north, the museum consists of roughly 70 buildings representing all the main territorial regions of Georgia. While most structures are wooden houses (of one type of construction or another), visitors will also find other forms of vernacular architecture including watch towers, granaries, wineries and water mills. Each building has its own relevant display of handicraft (clothing, ceramics, tools and items from daily life), as well as attendants who can explain things in English.

In addition to the ethnographic exhibits, the museum also hosts a folk festival each summer and features a restaurant with traditional Georgian cuisine. Another option for food and drink is to stroll east along the road towards Turtle Lake (less than an hour walk), where you can find various cafes and and restaurants as well as summertime boating and swimming.
Art Museum of Georgia - Also known as the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Arts, the AMG falls under the umbrella of the Georgian National Museum. Just north of Pushkin Park, the museum holds one of the largest collections of Georgian art, as well as Russian, European and Oriental exhibits. Most notably, its Georgian exhibit illustrates the development of national art from ancient times until present. Also of note is its Oriental collection, with many fine examples of Persian fine art. And in addition to its permanent collection, the Art Museum of Georgia also holds temporary exhibitions from local and international artists.
Georgian Museum of Fine Arts - Not far north of the Art Museum of Georgia, situated in front of the Georgian Parliament building, stands Tbilisi's most revered museum of contemporary art. A private collection (of telecom mogul Gia Jokhtaberidze), the museum was officially opened to the public in 2018. The Georgian Museum of Fine Arts, over three floors, houses works created by many of the nation's most respected contemporary artists. To learn more about the museum's permanent collection, as well as upcoming exhibitions and events.

Website: Georgian Museum of Fine Arts
Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi (Sameba) - Rising from Elia Hill in the historic Avlabari neighborhood, stands the main cathedral of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Commonly known as Sameba (Trinity), it was consecrated in 2004 after a decade of building. It is one of the largest religious structures in the world by total area, and reaches to an astounding 87 m (285 ft) in height – from the ground to the top of the gold-covered cross that stands above its gold-covered central dome.

Sameba was designed in a post-Soviet revival style by by architect Archil Mindiashvili. It incorporates a synthesis of traditional styles that have dominated Georgian and Byzantine church architecture at various stages in history. Most notably is its cruciform (cross-shaped) floor plan, with a dome resting on the junction (eight columns) of the four arms.

The stunning structure (who's gold dome is visible from almost all points in Tbilisi), is part of a massive complex that includes a monastery, a clerical seminary, beautiful gardens, and nine chapels (including five that are underground).

Metro: Avlabari station
Funicular - a 501 m (1/3 mile) long funicular railway that runs up and down Mount Mtatsminda. Dating back to 1905, the historic line consists of three stops in total – the lower station at Chonquadze Street, the middle station at Mtatsminda Pantheon, and the upper station at Mtatsminda Park. To ride the funicular you need purchase a non-refundable plastic card (sold at the ticket office), on which you can add fare for the trip (up and/or down), plus credit for amusement rides at Mtatsminda Park. *The funicular card is NOT the same as the Tbilisi Metromoney Card (that is used for public transport and the aerial cable cars).

Metro: Liberty Square station
Maps: pop-up map, Google (location of lower station)
Mtatsminda Pantheon - High on the slopes of Mount Mtatsminda (between the city below and Mtatsminda Park above), sits Tbilisi's most famous cemetery. Resting place of prominent Georgian artists, writers, scholars and politicians, the Pantheon can be visited en route to Mtatsminda Park (either via a walking path or a stop along the funicular railway).

Part of the grounds surrounding St. David's Church (Mamadaviti), Mtatsminda Pantheon was officially established in 1929 to honor the centenary of Russian writer Alexander Griboyedov's passing. Since then many cherished Georgians have been buried or reburied here. As such, the Pantheon has earned a warm place in the hearts of locals and is administered by the Tbilisi Government for its cultural importance.

Map: Google map
Mtatsminda Park - Overlooking the Georgian capital atop Mount Mtatsminda, the 100 hectare (247 acre) theme park offers affordable fun and entertainment for all ages. The park includes a children's entertainment center, water slides, amusement rides (including a roller coaster), and a giant Ferris wheel. Apart from the rides, Mtatsminda Park is home to various tasty kiosks and restaurants, side-shows, regular events, and best of all, spectacular views of Tbilisi. The park is accessible via the funicular railway, an invoragting hike, or by roadway (taxi or car).

Map: Google map
Website: Wikipedia
Kashveti Church - An early 20th century church (constructed between 1904 and 1910), that sits in central Tbilisi across from the Parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue. The Georgian Orthodox Church is based on the design of the 11th century Samtavisi Cathedral (found in eastern Georgia). The name "Kashveti" is derived from the Georgian words “kva” (stone) and “shva” (to give birth). Legend has it that a girl accused a prominent 6th century monk of getting her pregnant. The monk no doubt denied it and prophesied that his innocence would be proven once she gave birth to a stone. Lo and behold, she eventually gave birth to a stone, and the very place where she gave birth was thereafter known as "Kashveti".

One reason to visit Kashveti Church is to admire the splendid frescoes that were painted in 1947 by renowned 20th century Georgian artist Lado Gudiashvili.

Metro: Liberty Square station
Map: Google map
Website: Kvashveti Church of Saint George
Metekhi Church - Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Metekhi Virgin Mary Assumption Church sits perched on a cliff of the left bank (east side) of the Kura River - opposite side from the Old Town. Destroyed and rebuilt numerous times throughout history, historical records as well as the church's architectural style (that predates most 11th-12th century architecture), indicate that original construction might date as early as the 5th to 6th centuries. The church's cross-dome style was originally built with large stone blocks, although certain sections include brick from 18th century reconstruction. From a period of earlier reconstruction, traditional Georgian rock carvings characteristic of the Georgian Golden Age (11th-12th centuries), decorate the exterior of the church.

Returned to worship in 1988, Metekhi Church has served various other roles throughout its tempestuous history. This includes a walled military outpost for both Persians and Ottomans, a storehouse for gunpowder, an Imperial Russian military barrack, a Russian prison, and during the Soviet-era, a camp for the infamous NKVD police. Finally, when the Bolsheviks threatened to demolish Metekhi Church, protests by local citizenry saved the historic structure, and it was converted first into an art depository for the National Museum of Art, then into a youth theater.

Metro: Avlabari station
Map: Google map
Website: Wikipedia
Statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali - Sitting on his steed on the Metekhi Church grounds, proudly overlooking Metekhi Bridge and Old Town across the Kura River, stands the statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali. King of Iberia from the second half of the 5th century AD until the early part of the 6th century, Vakhtang I Gorgasali is the founding father of Tbilisi, canonized by the Georgian Orthodox Church for bringing Christianity to the Georgian people, and purported to be the founder of the very Metekhi Church where his statue stands. *The Kingdom of Iberia (natively known as the Kingdom of Kartli), was a Georgian kingdom from Classical Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages.

Metro: Avlabari station
Map: Google map
Website: Wikipedia (Vakhtang I of Iberia)