Georgia, travel writers tend to agree, is due one of those tourist booms that countries seem to have every once in a while. Istanbul to its west and Baku to the east have both been celebrated – rightly, we should add – in the past decade, but now could be the time for Georgia's capital Tbilisi to step into
It doesn't have a coast or ski slopes to draw holidaymakers with the obvious traps, but it is undergoing a cultural makeover that is likely to welcome curious travellers in increasing numbers. Stylish new restaurants, hotels and galleries, plus attractions such as a stunning cable car, are emerging as major draws to the city that has roots going back centuries. The people, architecture and style of Tbilisi reflect the many historic influences of the East-meets-West location, but the high fortress and mountainside mentality give it a unique perspective.
You can’t miss this imposing ancient structure that looks down on the city. Its history can be traced back to the 4th century, but most of the walls were built four hundred years later. The hilltop building sits above a botanical garden and is rightly featured on most of the city's postcards. You can walk up to explore and see the old town’s rooftops. The Hotel Citadel Narikala just below offers similar views from the comfort of a bedroom.
Museums and galleries
There is a strong sense of heritage and tradition on a city break in Tbilisi, and most visitors find themselves straying towards the Museum of Georgia to check out an impressive collection. In here you’ll find archaeological pieces dating back millions of years, plus more recent Soviet era displays. Check out the National Gallery and the Centre of Contemporary Art as well.
Tackle the hills in style
A city built into a hill is always going to be tiring on the legs. But Tbilisi has two excellent answers to the problem: a cable car and a funicular. The cable car combines travel with breath-taking views, and a little thrill of adventure while soaring high above the city. A more antique alternative is the city's funicular. This cable railway has two tram-like carriages that transport you to the top of Mount Mtatsminda, where you’ll find a park and great views of the city. The funicular station is also home to some excellent restaurants.
Pick up a bargain
No trip to Tbilisi is complete without picking up a souvenir at the Dry Bridge Market. Just a short walk from the major thoroughfare Rustaveli Avenue and on the banks of the Mtkvari river, this is the place to discover a bargain.
You’ll find all manner of goods here, from Soviet Union memorabilia to books, paintings, jewellery and even touristy tat like key rings and mugs. It’s busiest on Saturdays, when people are milling about and chatting to the traders at this open-air market.
Nowhere is Georgia's East-meets-West culture more evident than in its kitchens, where Russian flavours clash with Middle Eastern styles head on, with delicious results. Khachapuri is like a Georgian pizza, with doughy bread, cheese and an egg on top.
Another dish that you won’t be able to miss is khinkhali. These large dumplings are boiled and the meat cooks inside the dough, trapping all the juices inside. It’s often served as a standalone meal with five dumplings and flavoured with ground black pepper. Make sure you’re hungry before tackling this meaty dish.
Where to stay
Mercure Tbilisi Old Town
While the blocky structure itself is nothing special to look at, the Mercure is located in the heart of the old town and has views of the neighbourhood from its rooftop terrace. It’s located close to Narikala Fortress and Meidan Square, making it well situated for tourists.
Rooms Hotel Tbilisi
This cool hotel is situated in a former Soviet publishing house. There’s a strong emphasis on bold design at this boutique property in the Vera district, where musicians and artists like to hangout, looking to find their muse.
If you are looking to save cash, then Tbilisi has dozens of budget accommodation options. Shared rooms in a dorm or private suites are low cost at this Meidan Square hostel. It also has a rooftop terrace and is in a convenient location for exploring the city.
Flydubai flies to Tbilisi from Dubai in about three and a half hours. There are no direct flights from Abu Dhabi, but Turkish Airlines operate a service with a change in Istanbul. Qatar Airways flies to Tbilisi from Doha in approximately five hours with one stop in Baku, but no aircraft change.
The Tbilisi Metro will take you to most tourist attractions in the city, and it has some information in English to keep you on the right track. To make travel easier, you can by a Metromoney charge card, which can be used to check in and out at the ticket barriers. Bright yellow buses have frequent stops across the city, and Tbilisi also has minibuses called marshruktas, which travel on set routes. These minibuses can be paid for using Metromoney cards in some cases, but beware that most of the destination information is in Georgian. Taxis are available but the majority are unmetered, so we recommended you agree a price before starting the journey.
On a longer stay you should escape the city and take in the sights and smells of Tbilisi National Park. Infrastructure is not as developed as in other countries, but you can find marked hiking and cycling routes as well as a chance to see wild deer, bears, foxes and lynx that call the southern slopes of the Caucasus mountain range home.
Tbilisi is a city that’s proud of its culture. Visit during the Art Gene Festival from July 10-17 and you will see why. This celebration of music, fashion, food, arts, crafts and heritage is regarded as one of the most popular independent art festivals in the region. Held at the Tbilisi Open Air Museum of Ethnography, it is a fun insight into the folk life of Georgia.