Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.
Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, turned out to be everything I did not expect. Instead of a drab post-Soviet outpost, I found a dynamic and friendly city steeped in history with 5-star hotels, Byzantine churches, striking modern architecture, a throbbing nightlife and deliciously addictive food and wines.
Of course, I should have guessed Tbilisi would have a few surprises up its sleeve because Georgia – and not many people realise this – is in Europe. Yes, Europe. Right on the border with Asia, from which it is separated by the Ural Mountains.
Dominated down the centuries, by the Romans to the Mongols to the Russians from whom it got its independence in 1991, on the short drive from the airport I began to realize that it had as many layers as an Italian lasagna. And charm by the bucketful, I thought, as I caught glimpses of cobblestone streets, a futuristic bridge flashing LED lights, overflowing restaurants, and the ruins of an ancient fortress.
The next morning with a bright blue sky I had breakfast by the pool in the 5-star Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace, Georgia’s iconic grand hotel that had just reopened after a major facelift. Heading down to the Abanotubani sulphur bath area under the ancient Narikala Fortress I had spotted the night before, I admired terraces of postcard-pretty houses, painted pastel colors with carved ornamental wooden balconies.
Among the many ancient bathhouses the Orbeliani sticks out for its lovely blue tiled façade. The thing to do is take a private room (there are also communal baths) and pay a little extra for a kisa scrub and massage. The tiled room had a large pool with hot water from the underground sulphuric springs that for centuries have cured skin conditions and even insomnia, a smaller cold pool and a bathroom.
Hot turned out to be an understatement. The water was scalding, and it was a relief when the scrub lady came in and, with a bar of soap, worked up a thick layer of suds before rinsing me off in the cold pool. I then got a quick but extremely thorough body massage that left me feeling rejuvenated, if slightly dazed.
There is everything to love about Georgian food as I discovered at lunch in the heritage Chela Restaurant, famous in Soviet days for hosting the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Fidel Castro. On top of Mtsaminda Hill, which can also be reached via the old funicular railway, the view over the city is sensational.
Georgia has two famous signature dishes and they are one more delicious than the other: the boat-shaped Khatchapuri pies with melted cheese, butter, and egg yolk, and the massive meat-stuffed Khinkhali dumplings that ooze rich broth.
For the best selfies head to the quaint leaning clock tower in the Old Town, a fairly recent addition to the city’s urban architecture. Families traveling with children should not miss the marionette show at the next-door theatre, brainchild of the famous puppeteer, writer, and movie director Rezo Gabriadze, who also designed the tower.
Not far away, Shardeni Street is a hub of Tbilisi’s nightlife, which is as vibrant as the best in Europe. The area has something for all tastes, ages, and budgets, and is great any time of day for relaxing at one of the sidewalk cafés to enjoy a cup of Georgian tea or a glass of its famous wine. Georgia’s excellent wines are some of the oldest in the world and are made and stored in huge egg-shaped qvevri earthenware vessels
Another hot spot is Fabrika, a reconverted sewing factory with street art, design stores, and the city’s largest hostel with 400 beds in dormitories, rooms, and suites. Cocktail hour in the courtyard is worth checking out, as the hostel bar is always packed and is a great place to mingle with the chatty and friendly locals and fellow globetrotters.
Lovers of classical music will enjoy the opera and ballet performances in the Opera House on the elegant Freedom Square. For nature buffs, the parklands that belonged to Georgia’s royal family are now the National Botanical Gardens, and not far away stands the huge Mother of Georgia statue, holding a welcoming bowl of wine in one hand and a menacing sword in the other.
Those who can’t resist a flea market should head for the daily Dry Bridge Market. You name it you’ll find it, from genuine antiques to bric-a-brac among the profusion of goods laid out on the ground and on stalls. It’s almost impossible not to come away with some interesting piece of memorabilia, and it’s going to make you feel immeasurably proud of your haggling skills.
And if you need something special to bring the folks back home, consider Churchkhela, a colourful, candle-shaped traditional candy mixture of nuts threaded onto string and dipped into thickened grape juice that can be found at street stalls. And of course some bottles of Georgian wine from the many wine stores in town, or picked up in handy boxes, duty free, at the airport.
Gallery: Getaway: Big Sur house built by artist Emile Norman available for $2 million (SF Gate)