The only thing better than a mountain is a mountain! This line from our tour guide sums up Georgia, the mountain country which is a cusp of Europe and Asia. A part of former Soviet Union, Georgia became an independent state in 1991. Georgia holds the legends of its kings and kingdoms close while marching into modern times and its cities are a mix of history and modernity.
This was a 7-day trip to Georgia in November 2023 which began at Tbilisi and we covered northern and southern parts of Georgia in day trips.
Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, is bustling, full of uphill winding cobblestone streets, and filled with aromas of fresh leavened bread. Walking around and discovering the city on foot is delightful, though the climbs are tough on city hearts! Fairly clean, the streets are full of lush trees, beautiful flowers, and grapes hanging casually from on-the-street vineyards. Dogs and cats are part of the Georgian vibe and they often follow you around as company.
The word Tbilisi means warm and derives its name from the sulphur baths the city is most famous for. Our city tour began with Holy Trinity Cathedral, the highest church in Georgia which was built in 2004. It is an architectural masterpiece at 101 mts with mosaics, frescoes, gold dome, and gilded gold cross. It is a must-visit when in Tbilisi.
Next was Rike Park which has the Bridge of Peace built over the Kura river and connects the old town. Well illuminated, it looks stunning at night even as it stands out as a modern design in the midst of a historic town. It offers hot-air balloon rides to enjoy a floating view of the city. It also has a cable car service that gives you a stunning aerial view of the city. At the top you see Mother of Georgia statue. A monument representing Georgian character, the aluminium statue stands proud on the top of the Sololaki hill overlooking Tbilisi city. The mother statue wears the national dress, holds a wine bowl in her left hand to greet friends and a sword in her right hand to defend against enemies. Right next to the statue is the Tbilisi Botanical Garden which has a collection of variety of exotic plants
Across the road is the Metekhi Church. One of the oldest churches and originally built in the 6th century, it is located on a cliff overlooking the Kura river. It also holds the statue of statue of King Gorgasali riding a horse. In the Soviet era, it was used as a prison and later as a theatre.
Close to the Church is the Presidential Palace, a 1500-sq-mt complex of a stunning four-storied building which was once the residence and office of the President of Georgia. It is now renamed as the Palace for Official Ceremonies and is used only for official ceremonies and public events. It is not open to public. The summer residence of Queen Darejan, the Sachino Palace overlooks Tbilisi. Constructed in 1776, this has undergone several restorations and is considered an important part of history.
A 4th century market that makes you seem like you have time travelled to the past, Meidan Bazaar has all the charm and crafts. It is an underground bazaar that marks the beginning of Old Tbilisi. This was originally a part of the Great Silk Road. A busy market for merchants and traders in the past, it is today used to sell antiques, souvenirs, art, local food and wine. Even if you do not buy anything, it is a wonderful place to experience old-world fantasy and to walk through to admire the wares.
You can also check Mtatsminda Park that gives you a panoramic view of the city and a chance to walk around and enjoy the tall pine trees that dwarf you. Tbilisi Sea is the next attraction which in fact is a lake that acts as a reservoir for the city. You can also visit Chronicles of Georgia, the Georgian Stonehenge that depicts its history, key leaders and milestones from scriptures. Also seen here is a distinctive aspect of Georgian Orthodox Church symbol - the Saint Nino Cross. Also called the Georgian cross, it has drooping arms made of grapevine. Saint Nino brought Christianity to Georgia and legend has it that she arrived with a scroll and the grapevine cross bound with her own hair. This unique cross is now the national symbol of Georgia and seen across the country.
Back in the city, Liberty Square is a prominent public square and holds the statue of St George (after whom the country is named) made in bronze and gold.
Tbilisi Metro is a very efficient and cost-effective mode of transport within the city. The metro is underground and it is only apt that we used to it to visit the Stalin Underground Printing House Museum. The printing press is located at Avlabari district and is walkable from the Aragveli Metro Station. Almost missed from the outside, the basement of this quaint looking house had a young Stalin printing pamphlets and newspapers against the Tsar in Georgian, Russian, and Armenian. The house has several secret tunnels and a well through which this press was secretly run before it was discovered and destroyed. At the museum, you receive an A4 information sheet in English with all relevant details. But it is the admirable passion of the current caretaker who speaks only Russian but explained with much gusto and enthusiasm in his broken English all about Stalin and the press.
A walk around Rustaveli Avenue (named after Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli) and you see the Old Parliament building, Opera and Ballet Theater, School No. 1 which as the name suggests was the first school along with the National Museum and National Gallery of Art.
The Leaning Clock Tower is a clock tower attraction in Old Tbilisi built by puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze. Resembling an old tower that is about to collapse, it was actually built in 2010 reusing old pieces from abandoned buildings. Every hour, an angel figurine strikes a bell at the top of the tower to mark time. The tower is adjacent to the Theatre and adds to the artsy look of the district.
Berikaoba Sculpture is a sculpture built in 1981 of spirited dancers in a circle. It is built as a tribute to the folk dance tradition called Berikaoba when in spring, dancers danced to ensure productive spring and good fortune for all.
You can check out Dry Bridge Flea Market if vintage wares interest you. Several individual owners sell Soviet antiques, cameras, model cars, maps, jewellery, souvenirs, ceramics and furniture. There is also a market for books, woollen wear and paintings in the park alongside. While the bridge is called so because the river underneath dried up, the market is abuzz on weekends.
Tbilisi has a vibrant street art scene with murals, spray painted graffitis, stencils, and drawings on house walls, underground walkways, doors of shops and electric boxes. We visited Fabrika, a creative arts hub, which has its entire building covered with graffiti and murals. A walk around the block of Fabrika gives you a glimpse of various street art and work of several artists.
Tbilisi has several cafes where you eat cake, drink coffee and listen to live music with singers belting Georgian classics. You may also get a chance to listen to older gentlemen serenade the piano with an old Raj Kapoor classic song because you are Indian!
Kazbegi is a north-eastern town of Georgia and the journey from Tbilisi to Kazbegi is filled with picturesque roads, vast stretches of greenery, and expansive blue skies. Jvari in Georgian means cross and Jvari Monastery is a 6th century church shaped like a cross on a mountain peak, overlooking the Mtkvari river. Ananuri Fortress is a defensive fortress with a picturesque view. Built in the 17th century, the complex has 3 churches and the highest watch tower that offers a spectacular and strategic view from the top.
The Zhinvali water reservoir is a hydroelectric dam built on the Aragvi river on the Georgian Military Highway. It is a scenic spot to stand in and take in the view of blue-green waters and serene surroundings. The reservoir supplies water to Tbilisi. On the way to Gudauri, you also see natural mineral springs at Cross Pass. This clear mineral water is full of iron and tastes delicious, even as the taste seems different than regular water. You can carry the water from the springs but the water needs to be consumed quickly.
Panorama Gudauri is a semi-circular monument on a 600 mt cliff against Caucasus mountains and is decorated with motifs and mosaics of Georgian and Russian tales, symbols and heroes. Gergeti Trinity Church is a 14th century church that is built on a hill at the base of Gergeti glacier. It is tranquil with views of Stepantsminda town below and mountains all around. As the clouds disperse for a second, the view of the Kazbegi peak, the third highest peak in Georgia at 5,054 mts leaves you astounded.
Part of Algeti National Park, Dashbashi Canyon has a diamond-shaped walking bridge with glass panels overlooking the deep Khrami mountain gorge. The 240-mt walk at 900 feet seems like a daredevil stunt even with the pleasant winds and beautiful view. Dashbashi has adventure activities like bicycle zipline and extreme swing over the gorge.
Walking down 1.8 kms into the canyon is the next adventure. The canyon has cascading waterfalls and sitting in the looming quiet of the canyon to hear the emerald green waters gurgle away is very soothing.
Prometheus Caves & Martvilli Canyon
A must visit for nature lovers, the Prometheus caves are fascinating. Discovered in 1984, this 40-mt deep natural caves have been open to tourists since 2011. There are total 17 halls of which 6 are open to public - Argonauts, Kolkheti, Medea, Love, Prometheus and Iberia. These hold stalactite and stalagmite formations, underground lakes, stone curtains, and waterfall - all accessible via a guided tour through a walking path inside the caves. You find calcium, minerals, aquatic plants and fauna as you walk around. The Medea hall looks like an elephant while the Love Hall is popularly used for marriage ceremonies. The caves hold 21% more oxygen than the outside world. It is magical to experience the sound and light show inside the caves which tell the legends and folktales of Georgia. The tour ends with an underground boating tour on river Kumi which is a must-do experience.
Exploring Martvilli Canyon takes you incredible waterfalls that dwarf you with emerald-green waters that soothe the eye. There are several spots to visit and each of them is a delight for nature lovers.
Georgian food is delicious, layered with spices and has a distinctive taste. The must-haves include Khinkhali which are large, flavourful and juicy Georgian dumplings filled with meat or cheese and soupy-stew. Khachapuri is a signature Georgian delicacy made of leavened bread with cheese and egg. Ostri is traditional Georgian spicy beef stew that is to be relished with local bread. Shkmeruli is a classic Georgian preparation of fried chicken cooked slowly in a claypot with butter and garlic sauce. Mtsvadi is skewered pork marinated in paprika and pomegranate seasoning and cooked over an open fire. Georgia is known for its berries and fresh wild berries juice in a must try. Do also try the wine ice-cream. Georgia also offers Indian food like Chicken Tikka and Chicken Biryani. It is recommended to eat persimmons, the wild fruit in Georgia. A rich source of antioxidants, the countryside is laden with numerous persimmons trees. The fruit is used to make fresh jams and dried to make snacks and traditional sweets.
If you enjoy mountains, architectural marvels, wine, and history, Georgia is a wonderful place to explore and enjoy.
Tips to Travellers!
1. Buy local sim card in the city, not the airport. You get internet-only usage sims for a week as well. The Magti sim card was available for 10 GEL.
2. Most cafes, restaurants and hotels in Tbilisi have free WiFi
3. Currency in use is Georgian Lari (GEL) and some places take Dollars.
4. Preferably convert currency in the city. Carry USD as its exchange rates are stable.
5. Use BOLT app for taxis in Tbilisi. Easy and cost effective.
6. Carry cash to tip/buy in the country.
7. Most places in Georgia open only at 10-11 am. They are not typically morning people.
8. For Georgia, there are two associated plug types - types C and F.
9. Depending on the weather, carry shawl and sunglasses for visits.
10. Most churches expect women to cover their heads and lower body and provide scarfs at the entrance. No shorts and vests allowed for men.
11. Most public washrooms are pay-to-use.
12. Souvenirs to buy include Georgian blue and white tablecloths, minankari jewellery, wine, ceramics, jams and khinkali or kachapuri-related trinkets.
13. Tbilisi has beautiful parks, paths, and underground passages to walk around and soak in the city.