As you enter Tbilisi from the west, the utterly captivating capital of Georgia, you will pass a statue of King David the Builder (David Aghamashenebeli) who reigned from 1089 until his death in 1125. He looks poised and gallant on his horse from his elevated perch on the motorway, beyond which the old Soviet style buildings give way to a more picturesque setting.
The statue is an important symbol of prosperity and strength as David – who incidentally gave his name to Kutsai airport (officially David Aghmashenebeli Airport) – successfully kept away unwanted visitors and heralded in the Georgian Golden Age.
It’s a great spot for him to witness the renewal of this beautiful, peaceful and inclusive city as tourism nudges in another Golden Age casting a spotlight on the Tbilisi’s gorgeous terrain. From any perspective this city is abundant with monuments, lush verdant hills, curvy river with sheer cliffs and attractive homes defined by their ornately carved wooden balconies.
The city makes for a wonderful short break. If you’re only there for 24 hours, you might like to take a half-day tour of the city. Georgian Holidays provide a half-day private tour of Tbilisi from just €29, which includes a private guide and entrance to all sights including the Holy Trinity Sameba Catherdral, the Narikala Fortress and the Sioni Cathedral.
Rooms Hotel is the hippiest joint in the city. Owned by a flamboyant casino owner you can expect artworks, unusual decor, moody lighting and some extravagant flourishes.
TIP: For an even hippier experience at budget prices check out Fabrika hostel which was fashioned out of a former sewing factory. You can share hostel-style rooms from as low as £10 per person or upgrade for a little more. But the partying here goes on well into the night so you may not get much sleep.
Must check out the Old Town (Altstadt)
The old cobbled streets of the Old Town twist and turn churning out ramshackled yet colourful buildings alongside renovated brick-built homes with their iconic balconies. These are interwoven with classical Russian and Art Nouveau architecture and the visual effect is pleasing.
Freedom Square, looking grand with it’s neo-classical buildings, is where the statue of Lenin was symbolically torn down in 1991 to mark the end of Soviet Rule. Look up to see glinting St George statue in gold at the top of a tall column that rises up from the roundabout. The city’s main street Rustaveli Avenue leads off from here. It has the Parliament, the Opera and Ballet Theatre and the National Museum along its stretch.
The deeper into the centre you get the more narrow and twisty the roads become passing the only mosque in town where both Shiite and Sunni Muslims pray in gorgeous mosaic interiors; the 6th century Sioni Cathedral (named after Mount Zion in Jerusalem and rebuilt by David the Builder in 1112) and the Great Synagogue built 1895-1903 by Georgian Jews from Akhaltsikhe.
Incidentally the gold domed Cathedral that rises out of St Ilya Hill, on the left bank (the other side of the river) is the Sameba and is the third-tallest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in the world.
There’s also a bizarre looking puppet theatre with a rather higgledy piggledy clock tower in the heart of the centre. It is part of Gabriadze puppet theatre and was built just a few years ago to look like it had come out of a story book.
On the hour, a puppet angel pops out of a door at its zenith to give the bell a tap with its hammer. Blink though and you will miss it.
Right in the heart of the city is a the Meidan Bazaar – the kind of place you stumble upon unless you are in the know. That’s because this hive of trade is in a tunnel under Gorgasali Square that connects sulphur baths to botanical gardens. This small stretch of tunnel has several little shops selling Georgian souvenirs, artwork, honey.