The first time I remember hearing about Georgia was 7 years ago when my General Manager announced that he would be moving there to open a new hotel on the Black Sea. The second time I heard about Georgia was a few years ago when my close friend told me all about her amazing adventures following the UAE’s announcement of visa-free travel. At that time, the destination didn’t spark my attention as I was distracted with imagining myself on a white sandy beach shaded by palm trees and drinking a fruity beverage from a coconut.
This year, to celebrate my birthday, I really wanted to visit a new destination which was not on my usual list, which was a short distance from the UAE, and preferably a destination where I didn’t need a visa. A quick search on “places to visit in March” filled my screen with destinations like Bali, Cuba, Dubai, Las Vegas, and Georgia. Of course excitement filled the air at the thought of Bali and Cuba, but with Georgia being just 3 hours away, visa free, and my best friend was available to join me – I felt I hit the jackpot!
I’ll spare you all of the details of the booking process because I’m sure there are a million different options – so let’s fast forward straight to what makes this destination one of my absolute favourites.
Mysterious alphabet, medieval fortresses, heart of the Silk Road
Georgia is currently one of the most exciting places in the world, not only for UAE based travellers, but visitors from around the globe. The country’s extraordinary history with being in the heart of the Silk Road means it has welcomed influences from around the world such as the Persians, Russians, Ottomans, Eastern Asians, and everyone else you can possibly imagine. This significant yet strategic location means that Georgia sits in the centre of the world scale, tilted both towards Asia (geographically) and Europe (culturally). It is well known for its abundant viticulture, ancient citadels, beautiful nature, friendly residents and a unique yet mystifying alphabet.
Did you know: Tbilisi was named after the 19th century sulfur bathhouses which generate heat. The word “tbili” means warm.
During this trip, we visited the capital city, Tbilisi which is characterised by colourful rooftops, winding cobblestone streets, steaming bathhouses, Art Nouveau buildings, and beautiful churches rising above the horizon. Georgia’s other popular cities include: Mtskheta, well known for its delicious wines, Batumi, known as the Pearl of the Black Sea, and Kazbegi, a popular ski town. Here is a list of places and experiences we enjoyed which I highly recommend for anyone visiting Tbilisi.
Things to Do
Old Tbilisi (Altstadt)
While strolling through the winding cobble stoned streets of old town, take note of the unique houses constructed with intricately decorated balconies dating back to the 19th century. A playground for culture lovers, this part of the Tbilisi is my favourite. Here you will see the old blending in with the new, experience a contrast of scents and sounds, witness dynamic graffiti telling captivating stories, and experience the bohemian street culture.
Old Tbilisi is filled with hipster hangouts, flea markets, vibrant food spots, and eclectic architecture such as the famous Gabriadze Theatre – a quirky marionette theatre resembling something out of a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang movie. You simply can’t miss the angel which comes out every hour to ring the bell with a tiny hammer 🙂
As you continue wandering through, take note of the 6th century Anchiskhati Basilica, Tbilisi’s oldest church which has a lovely courtyard for those looking to enjoy some peaceful moments.
One of the best ways to enjoy this historic fortress is by taking a cable car ride up the mountain. At the top, a jaw dropping panorama awaits visitors offering a bird’s eye view of the charming city. Narikala’s most significant feature is that it is home to the Mother of Georgia (Kartlis Deda), a 20 metre high steel sculpture holding a cup of wine in one hand, and a sword in the other.
St. Nicholas Church is located on the other side of the fortress and houses beautiful frescoes depicting scenes from the Bible as well as Georgia’s history.
Get an energy booster by enjoying fresh juice before heading back down into the city. While a cable car ride back is possible, I do recommend you walk back down to the city through the cobble stone streets of Meidan where you can enjoy a glimpse of medieval life seen through antique shops and quirky cafes. This historic complex is also home to the Botanical Garden which boasts 161 hectares of vegetation and a secret waterfall. Also, make sure you take a moment to admire the Narikala Fortress at night, when the citadel is lit up with a thousand surrounding lights.
One of the most delightful parts of the city is Abantouni where the famous sulfur baths are located. The city has a long history with bathhouses as the waters have been used for therapeutic purposes for centuries. There are several options for those who wish to experience the baths, however the most popular ones are Gulo’s Spa and the striking Ottoman inspired Orebliani House.
For those who wish to explore the area without taking a bath, follow the winding pathway leading through picturesque buildings and love lock bridges, until you find the secret waterfall.
Located in the touristic epicentre under Meidan Street, this underground shop is a delight for history lovers. Designed to replicate an olden day bazaar, Meidan is a great place to purchase Georgian souvenirs, all locally produced. From spices and specialty jams, to costumes and custom made socks, showpiece weapons, handcrafted jewelry, and of course wine – you can find anything and everything here!
Bridge of Peace
Made of curved steel and glass, this impressive 150 metre long bridge connects Old Tbilisi with the new district, hovering over the Kura (Mtkvari) River which flows through Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. It is an excellent place to admire views of the Narikala Fortress and leads visitors to the Rike Park which is filled with quirky statues. One of the best times to enjoy this spot is at night, when a 1,000 LED lights illuminate the bridge.
Museum of Georgia
Feeding my never ending love for history, one of the first things I do in any new destination is to visit the national museum. Located on Rustavelli Avenue in Tbilisi, the Museum of Georgia is highly recommended for first time visitors. Protecting Georgia’s history and heritage, this lovely foundation offers a variety of permanent and temporary exhibits where visitors can explore artifacts from the Bronze Age all the way to modern times. Most impressive is the Archaeology Treasury which showcases priceless relics dating back to 3 BC.
The museum beautifully showcases just how much history the country has seen, and how its strategic location played a part in historical occurrences throughout the centuries. The natural history section introduces visitors to Georgia’s wildlife, and I must say the taxidermy was spot on, as all the animals looked like they would come to life any minute! A rather grim, but real life exhibit showcases the country’s turbulent past during the Communist regime – this sent chills down my back.
Holy Trinity Cathedral (Sameba Cathedral)
Located in the Avlabari district of Tbilisi, this impressive cathedral was built to celebrate the 2,000th year of Jesus’ birth and 1,500th year since establishing the Georgian Orthodox Church in the country. Sameba, as it is called locally, is Georgia’s largest cathedral and sits majestically on Elia Hill, visible from every corner of Tbilisi. The complex, which features a bell tower, monastery, Patriarch’s residence, theological cathedral, and landscaped gardens, is wonderful place to get a sense of what a Christian Orthodox church looks like, attend Sunday mass, and enjoy peaceful moments while admiring breathtaking vistas.
A great way to spend the afternoon is at the top of Mount Mtatsminda (meaning holy mountain), which rises 800 metres above sea level and is Tbilisi’s tallest peak. Not only does it offer spectacular views of the city, but it also has a beautiful park perfect for spending a leisure afternoon. The Mtatsminda Park was opened in the 1930’s by the Soviets and has carnival themed rides, water slides, and a giant Ferris wheel located next to Tbilisi TV Tower. A 15 minute taxi ride will take you there, however I strongly recommend the more picturesque, yet steep route with the funicular. The historic Funicular Restaurant Complex which opened in 1905, offers a range of refreshments to suit every preference and has been serving the best khachapuri for over 100 years. Go on, try one, you won’t regret it 🙂
Freedom Square & Rustaveli Avenue
Freedom Square has seen history unfold through tumultuous protests, assassinations, bank robberies, and was renamed several times depending on who controlled the country. It got its current name in 1918 when the Russian empire collapsed and the Democratic Republic of Georgia was founded. Today it is a popular focal point for anyone who visits the city, as it connects the end of Old Tbilisi with Sololaki District which is filled with hidden backyards, long balconies, and gilded stairways once belonging to wealthy traders. A towering golden statue of St. George slaying a dragon sits at the centre of the square, which also connects 6 main streets including Rustaveli Avenue.
Named after Georgia’s famous medieval poet, Shota Rustaveli, this is one of Tbilisi’s most charming streets, laced with shaded greenery, historical buildings, and is perfect for walking. The 1.5 km long avenue is interspersed with museums, government establishments, funky cafes, and shopping centres as well as the stunningTbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre and Museum of Georgia. Tbilisi is filled with local designer shops, handmade craft shops, and vintage markets offering authentic items, however for shopaholics looking to splash and splurge, the recently opened Galleria Mall on Rustaveli Avenue is the biggest and most popular shopping centre offering international designer and commercial restaurant brands.
One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well – Virginia Wolfe
Now that we have covered all the things to see and do, let’s move on to all the things you need to eat and drink when visiting Tbilisi!
Hearty, tasty, good food
I want to make it very clear that I am in love with Georgian cuisine. It is currently the most underrated cuisine in the world – and that has to change! The country’s ideal location connecting Europe with Asia means its cuisine has been influenced by the East and West for generations which is why you will notice similarities from dishes you have tasted around the world. Here are some traditional dishes which you simply cannot leave the country, without trying:
Khachapuri: this cheese-stuffed bread has become synonymous with Georgia. Although it comes in several shapes, sizes, and fillings, the most famous type is the Adjarian Khachapuri which comes topped with an egg.
Khinkali: these swiveled dumplings can be stuffed with meat, vegetables, or my favourite, cheese and are usually boiled. The correct way to eat these parcels of deliciousness is by holding on to the tip and taking small bites from the side while enjoying their delicious broth. Be warned, when ordering khinkali in a restaurant, the minimum portion is between 5 – 7 pieces.
Lobio: this hearty bean dish is made with Georgia’s popular combination of spices including coriander, walnuts, garlic, onion, and is served with traditional Georgian corn bread. It reminded me of a homemade Serbian pasulj (baked bean casserole) – perfect for those chilly days.
Mushrooms in Sulguni cheese: as the name suggests, this simple yet delightful dish comes with mushrooms smothered in Sulguni cheese and baked to melted perfection.
Badrijani Nigvzit: if you love eggplant (and can pronounce the name), you can’t go wrong with this dish! It is fried, stuffed with garlic and walnut paste, and sprinkled with refreshing pomegranate seeds. Considered an appetizer, this tasty dish can definitely pass off as a main meal during the warmer summer months.
Churchkhela: A famous Georgian snack which you will find all over Tbilisi is called “churchkhela” or “Georgian snickers”. It is made by dipping a string of nuts in concentrated fruit juice, and is a firm favourite with both locals and visitors.
Tbilisi is filled with incredible eateries, from traditional restaurants to trendy cafes. Below is a list of places where my friend and I enjoyed some of the above specialties, all found on Google Maps:
- Rezo Gabriadze Theatre Cafe
- Leila Cafe
- Culinarium Khasheria
- Lolita Cafe
- Vino Underground
The birthplace of wine
It is believed that Georgia is the birthplace of wine, dating back to as long as 8,000 years ago. Its bountiful landscape cultivates approximately 40 types of grape varieties, used for wine production. The most famous variety is Saperavi (meaning colour) which comes from the Kaheti region and produces a brilliant dry red wine. Tbilisi is filled with wine cellars and shops offering sensational tipples. If you wish to purchase wines before heading back home, I strongly recommend you do this from any of the shops in the city, or at the “Georgian Wines” shop in the airport’s duty free, although slightly pricey.
Tbilisi is located just 3.5 hours from Dubai with flyDubai making it the perfect long weekend getaway.
If you are a UAE resident, GREAT news – you get visa on arrival. No pre-registration required, just make sure to carry the following documents in case immigration asks at the counter:
- Return flight ticket
- Hotel booking
- Travel insurance (I used RSA)
- Cash (I took $300 to be on the safe side)
- Passport with resident visa (both valid for 6 months)
If you are uncertain whether you need a visa, visit this handy website – it will automatically let you know whether you need one or not.
Tbilisi is not a big city, so most of the sights (depending on the weather) are reachable on foot. You can also take the public buses or taxis, however I would recommend organising your taxi bookings through the app Bolt which is cheap and precise (it’s basically Uber). You could also rent a car, however please check the driving license requirements and formalities.
Options are available for every type of traveller, whether you are looking for luxury or an affordable place to crash. Like most countries, hostels are available if you are on a super low budget. We stayed at the Hotel Laerton, which was lovely however situated slightly further from the city centre which meant we relied on transportation. A really great recommendation I received for the next time, is the Rooms Hotel which is located in the super hip neighbourhood and minutes away from the centre. This chain of hotels is also located in Kazbegi, if you are looking to enjoy a day trip in the mountains.
Georgian Lari is the official currency however Euro and American Dollar are widely used, and are very similar in exchange rate. You can pay with a credit card almost everywhere, however keep some cash on hand to be safe.
Georgia is honestly one of my favourite destinations and I am already planning a return trip after summer to the ultra chic resort city of Batumi. Until then, stay tuned for my next post which will introduce you to Mtskheta, Georgia’s spiritual treasure.
* GEL 1 = AED 1.32 (at the time of publishing this post according to xe.com)
Disclaimer: All views are my own and all photographs are © My Pink Diary, unless otherwise stated. Where my photos could not measure, and in order to give readers a stronger visual experience, I have used images from other platforms in some elements of this post mainly the food. All borrowed images have been duly credited (hover over the image for more details).