It's never been easier to fly direct to Georgia, so now's the time to discover its charming capital, Tbilisi. Prepare for a long weekend of great food, exceptional wine, and rejuvenating thermal baths...
Perched on the banks of the Mtkvari River against a striking mountainous backdrop, Tbilisi is one of the world’s oldest settlements: archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation dating back to 4,000 BC.
It is also completely picturesque, with a beguiling mix of natural beauty and the dishevelled charm of its crumbly Old Town and Art Nouveau buildings.
Tbilisi’s colourful history as an ancient Silk Road hub has played a role in creating a city that is ethnically diverse and architecturally eclectic. A walk from the Persian-style sulphur baths into the Old Town reveals Georgian and Armenian churches, mosques and synagogues, as well as the ruins of the world's northernmost Zoroastrian fire temple.
Another real highlight is the Leaning Tower of Tbilisi: a big, statement timepiece like Prague's Astronomical Clock - but much kookier, without the grandeur and seriously slanted on its side. Despite this quirky clock, you're guaranteed to lose track of time in the Old Town - there are eye-catching sights around every corner.
Tbilisi is not the place to go if you’re watching your waistline, because every meal is the very definition of a supra (feast).
Take the local cheese bread, for example. Called khachapuri, it is slathered in butter and filled with the local sulguni cheese and an egg yolk. The result is as gooey and delicious as it sounds.
Spicy meat dumplings called khinkhali are popular in Tbilisi, too, while salads dressed with walnuts and bean stews seasoned with coriander will have vegetarians salivating.
Meat lovers should opt for a simple shashlik: tender marinated meat cooked on a kebab skewer. For pudding, try churchkhela: sweet, pressed grape skins rolled into a long sausage and filled with walnuts.
The thermal waters bubbling below Tbilisi have played a vital role in the city’s history. Legend has it that King Vakhtang Gorgasal chose the site for the city after his hunting falcon returned with a pheasant that had been poached in its waters.
When the city was an important trading post on the Silk Route, visiting merchants had to bathe in the waters before entering the city walls. Even the city’s name derives from the old Georgian word for 'warm', tbili.
Today, most of the thermal baths are found in the Abanotubani district. The baths follow the Persian tradition of allowing the hot, sulphurous water to bubble up naturally. Most of the baths are utilitarian, built during Soviet times, but some look like they are straight out of 1001 Arabian Nights. Whichever bath you choose, the ritual is the same: a 15-minute soak in a hot bath, followed by a scrub, massage and ice-cold rinse. Invigorating stuff.
Wine is central to Georgia’s national identity – and for good reason: Georgians have been producing excellent wine for over 8,000 years.
While little of it reaches the West, it was the wine of choice for discerning Politburo big wigs in Soviet Russia. Joseph Stalin, a Georgia boy himself, was a big fan of Khvanchkara, a sweet red wine from the Racha mountain region. The prices are just as sweet. A bottle of very good wine costs as little as £3.
The G.Vino Wine Bar in the centre of the old town offers regular tastings from small, independent wineries, while the Numisi wine cellar on the outskirts of the city provides an insight into how Georgians have made wine since time immemorial - in huge clay pots, holding up to 5,000 litres.
This 'underground' is not a subway, but rather a vast cave city – located an hour west of Tbilisi. Dating back to the second century BC, Uplistsikhe is a vast complex of pathways and steps that wind their way between ancient stone buildings that include houses, a theatre, a court, and a pagan church that was once used for sacrifices.
Uplistsikhe is remarkably big, so make sure you're properly kitted out for your excursion. Yep, that means packing some heavy duty walking boots. In fact, you're best off hiring a guide to help you traverse the cave and make the most of your trip.
If you're keen to keep exploring Georgia's hidden depths, there are other underground cities in the country worth exploring. There's Davit Gareja, is carved into the rock of Mount Gareja, and just two hours away from Tbilisi by car. If you've time, a six hour drive from the capital will take you to Vardzia, a monastery which was once home to over 2,000 monks.
After eating, drinking and going deep underground, you might think you've exhausted Tbilisi's city break potential. Far from it. The Georgian capital's many hidden gems include markets and museums just waiting to be discovered.
Dezerter Bazaar, one of Tbilisi's biggest and most vibrant markets, is a great place to start. Stall after stall sells fresh fruit, veg and other foodie delights. If nothing else, have a wander to get a feel for what its like to live amongst the locals. Dry Bridge flea market sells the opposite: antiques, hidden treasures and eclectic tidbits, every day from 10am to 5pm, weather permitting. It's well worth a visit, but don't be afraid to haggle - you won't be the first visitor to wander through these lively streets.
Where to begin with museums? There are well over 15 within the city. Start with the classics: The Georgian National Museum, the Georgia Museum of Art and the Tbilisi History Museum will help paint a picture of the city and the country's fascinating past.
If you want to dig deeper, head to the Tbilisi Open Air Museum of Ethnography, home to countless artefacts important to Georgian folk culture. For arty types, MOMA and the Silk Museum are two design-and-textile focused attractions worth visiting. Last but not least, explore the niche worlds of puppets and Soviet cars at the Tbilisi Puppet Museum and Tbilisi AutoMuseum, respectively.
Whether you're interested in all-night clubbing or a classy glass of red at a bar a long day of exploring, Tbilisi really comes into its own as the sky turns dark.
Music lovers will find plenty of house, electro and techno clubs best suited for dancing the night away. For a low key summer evening, enjoy a post-adventure tipple in the beer garden of local favourite Bauhaus, where you can soak up the best of local booze and food.
In winter, go for a few shots of stomach-warming chacha, Georgia’s national brandy (wine-based, of course). You can try it local-style in bars all over Tbilisi, but the Chacha Room comes highly recommended – as do the Chacha Corner and Chacha Time shops.
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