The Caucasus is a region I had absolutely no clue about, except that it is where Europe and Asia converge, and where ancient man, as anthropologists and linguists posit, first walked out of Africa and into this part of the world. Georgia seemed like the logical choice when I planned this trip, along with Azerbaijan or Armenia. Time and costs narrowed it down to only Georgia and well, Doha, given the logical stopover that Qatar Airways offered. The Travel Companion (TC) bought his tickets separately a few weeks later after suddenly deciding that he wanted to come and truth be told, I was glad for his company. Georgians are hyper-social creatures; no one eats alone and a foreign woman going at everything alone would make it doubly odd—after the wary but blatant stares I kept receiving, I’d say TC helped in some ways to make me feel less like a specimen under a microscope.
We were only in Tbilisi for about a week and with this limited amount of time, day tours seemed like the most logical option. Even so, there was so much we couldn’t cover without a car. I decided on this post simply to make planning somewhat easier for idiots like me who bumbled about and probably made tons of mistakes getting around. But I’m hoping this will be a useful source of information for anyone planning a short, compact stay that wouldn’t take too much out of you.
How we got around
This was our primary mode of transport. A taxi is pretty much any guy with his own car and a lit sign that says ‘Taxi’. Completely unregulated, you simply haggle for a fare before you hop in. We’ve taken a few through Tbilisi, using fingers and body language to negotiate and the taxi drivers typically range from grumpy to grumpier. Saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ in Georgian helps a lot. The general rule I’ve learnt is that a trip around the city centre should cost no more than 5 GEL, which anything outside can be anything between 7 and 10 GEL. The airport is a completely different story though, so be prepared for inflated prices that would cost about 35-40 GEL, be it a taxi, a hotel car, or a pre-arranged driver from one of the tour companies.
Tbilisi has just 2 metro lines, tunnelled so deep into the ground that you can probably develop claustrophobia and vertigo just by riding the long, long escalators. The Avlabari and Rustaveli stations have long, long ones that take at least 2 minutes to clear them all, which can be a horrifyingly unpleasant experience. Built in the Soviet era, they retain that grim, bleak look that made me wonder if Tbilisi really left that bit of their past behind yet. 1 GEL takes you anywhere, for a single trip. 2 GEL for the reusable Metro card, which can be returned at a ticket office after showing your passport.
Bus & Marshrutka
We didn’t try this at all, finding the Georgian script and the general lack of English rather daunting. There are designated routes and stops for buses, but only designated route for Marshrutkas, which pretty much stop wherever people want to get down. But there are numbers on these little yellow things and there’s also a website explaining the routes, but there’s only Georgian on it.
Where we stayed
Just a couple metres off Avlabari metro and in the heart of the old Armenian district, the location and its breakfast are pretty much the hotel’s perks. The staff were lovely and incredibly accommodating. In their 24-hour shifts, I think we bothered them the most with questions and odd requests and all of them had no problems with what we asked for. But it was impossible to open our room window without getting a fragrant whiff of the constant cigarette smoke that swirled around the ashtray just outside. Workmen came on the third day and worked till late at night and tons of (loud) tourists who were mostly Russian came back drunk and loud late at night—clearly not the best thing we could have hoped for when we were already so much in need of uninterrupted sleep. Breakfast started at 9 am (!), so early-risers, you’re straight out of luck if you want to start out early for your day trips.
Automated/self-service laundromats were impossible to find, but the hotel did laundry for us for 5 Gel/kilo, and it was amazing how much we actually spent washing our dirty clothes.
Tours we did
At noon every day at Freedom square, there’ll be a guide who will walk you around the city for about 3 or so hours, explaining Tbilisi’s and Georgia’s history. These guides survive on tips, so give what you think they deserve.
We booked 2 tours with them—one into the Kazbegi mountains and the other into the Kakheti wine region. Both tours were very different in their own ways and the driver/guide are always accommodating to what you want to do on the way. Another driver/guide we considered was Makho (sourced from Tripadvisor), who has a Facebook page. Colour Tour’s slightly lower costs won out in the end.
Trust Paul Rimple to take you around. If anything, you’ll get an expat’s view of Georgia and Tbilisi but he has been living in Tbilisi for so long that he’s practically one of the Georgians. Paul’s interesting stories help make the hours fly past, and you get to sample all the food he shows you in the Deserter’s Bazaar.
Places we ate at
It’s difficult to find bad Georgian food really, or we’ve been incredibly lucky for most part, to get what we wanted. We normally try to stick to local cuisine as much as we can, so there’s quite a bit of Georgian food where we’re concerned. It’s easy, however, to overload on Khachapuri and Khinkali, and then feel a little sick for a while as the cheese and meat start to take root.
You can eat cheaply, if you rely on fried food, or bread with cheese from the numerous bakeries (Tone) that could be found around the city.
The smoking ban in enclosed places hasn’t reached Georgia, so cigarette smoke in restaurants can be a problem if you’re particularly sensitive to it, as I am. Some of the places listed below do have a view over the old city; others don’t.
These are the places we visited and they’re mostly around Avlabari or the old town which we could easily reach on foot.
Oat gallery & Art café 144-stairs (right below the Cable cars, but do not use the path leading up to the Fortress for it. It’s through one of the tiny backlanes called Gomi)
Saamo (Avlabari, near the Trinity church)
A place we were recommended but didn’t make it: Machakhela, Organique Josper Bar, g.Vino
Other things we did on our own
One of the best and worst decisions I could have ever made. The hammam experience was really not bad—steam from the sulphur baths helped unclog my nose and pores—though it was overpriced, with, well, rather bad service. Be prepared to face a chaotic mess at the reception as Gulo the proprietress attempts to sort out your reservation or walk-in booking with minimal English. I tried making a booking through Facebook and ended up with a heated argument between Gulo and someone called Zura when Zura didn’t manage to get my reservation down with Gulo at all. We had to wait an hour for a larger bath to be available—no apologies made—and was doubly charged until we managed to convince an English-speaking ‘bather’ that we’d already paid for our 15-minute massage and scrub, which in truth, was shoddily completed in about 5 minutes.
Visiting all the churches
See Orthodox Christianity in full swing, marvel at the richness of Christian Iconography and look at faded frescoes that are centuries-old. Walk the crumbling battlements of fortresses, step on stones that have weathered conquerers and enemies and soak in the haunting melodies of the liturgies. We walked up the Narikala Fortress (1 GEL brings you straight up there from the other side of the river) and it was a relatively easy climb and a good way to see the city in the setting sun.
I’m sort of embarrassed to say that a skin condition forced me into a private emergency clinic off the Medical University Metro stop late one night. MediClub Georgia has staff who are English-speaking, though I was tended to by residents who triaged their patients before handing them over to the main doctor on duty. Never having been in an emergency ward, I spent most of my time waiting, feeling both curiosity and dread at the somewhat dated setup, then wondering how much it was going to cost me. I got prescribed strong antibiotics in the end, something I couldn’t get on my own in a pharmacy.