In a way that reminds visitors of Berlin and Belgrade, Tbilisi is home to contradictory buildings that linger from the city’s different occupiers, eras, and ideologies—medieval, Art Nouveau, and Stalinist, among others. The city, along with the stunning Georgian nature, skiing, and wine regions that pair well with a visit to the capital, is fast becoming a hot destination, with tourists drawn in by its complex, rich history and culture, its exploding techno scene, a low cost of travel, and the country’s amber wine—the result of arguably the oldest wine-making tradition in the world but still relatively novel to outsiders more familiar with the European style of wine production. A day spent wandering the capital's streets is well-rewarded, especially into the city’s bohemian areas, which have impatient, ambitious energy and hip spots to rival Berlin as the capital of cool.
Tbilisi at once looks larger and feels smaller than it is, but you can meander further afield than you’ve realized easily—once you’re off the busy wide main roads, the city has a way of sweeping you down its narrow lanes and backstreets. While you ultimately might need to grab the metro to get back to your hotel at the end of a day spent wandering the winding city, the streets themselves are easily walkable—and if you get tired, a khachapuri is usually never far away.
Read on for four of the coolest neighborhoods you have to check out during your time in Tbilisi.
Abanotubani (Old Town)
If you smell some sulfur in the air, you know you’re in the right neighborhood. Georgia’s historic center is built into a (rather steep) hillside, resulting in a multi-layered community that can boast both beautiful Persian-influenced carved wooden balconies and some excellent sulfur baths. These are a big deal here because they’re tied, in a way, to the city’s founding: Legend has it that King Vakhtang went hunting here, and his bird of prey—a falcon or hawk, depending on who’s doing the telling—caught a pheasant. There was a struggle, and both birds fell into the hot spring and died from their injuries. King Vakhtang was intrigued and decided to build a city around the springs. Today, the centrality of the springs to the city is evidenced in place names: “Abanotubani” means “bath district,” and “Tbilisi” loosely means “warm place.”
There are several baths clustered at the base of the Old Town, but having a soak and getting a kisa—an extensive scrub down from a bath worker—at Chreli Abano is heaven (if a smelly one, thanks to the sulphuric waters) after a day of walking around the city. You can book a private room for yourself or friends, soak naked or in a swimsuit, and also order booze and snacks to your room. Communal rooms are available, or private rooms start at about $17 an hour for one to two people, with prices increasing along with the number of people and added amenities (some rooms have saunas, for example). Kisas are an extra $3 or so.
The Old Town gets a little tourist-trappy in some areas (just as many Old Towns do), but don’t worry about crime: The city’s extremely safe. Because it’s Tbilisi’s most touristy neighborhood, it makes a good base if you’re planning to do lots of tours during your stay here: It’s a meeting spot for many group excursions. If you want to get a lay of the land, GetYourGuide offers a ton of tours both in the city and day trips out of it: the Half-Day Highlights Tour is an excellent primer for the city, with stops that include Freedom Square and the Holy Trinity Cathedral.
It’s also walkable to key spots, like the Georgia-shaped, very modern, very controversial Rike Park, with views of statement architecture (much of it Italian, much of it having to do with a former leader’s ego) and has public engagement aplenty, with a giant chessboard and oversized grand piano. It’s also worth checking out the controversial Peace Bridge, which links the park to the Old Town and lights up an hour and a half before sunset each night with 6,040 LEDs in the pattern of the Georgian flag. Whether you opt for a tour or not, definitely take the glass-floored funicular from the park up to Narikala Fortress, which has been at the top of Mount Mtasminda since the fourth century.
Avlabara is Tbilisi’s historically Armenian neighborhood, located along the left bank of the Mtkvari River, and it’s an excellent place to spend an afternoon if you want to connect some dots between events in Georgia’s complex history. Metekhi Church, which dates back to sometime between the fifth and 13th centuries, was built to look like an extension of the cliff it perches on, gazing out over to the Old Town. Legend has it that it’s the church of King Vakhtang, who founded the city—if it’s true, he couldn’t have foreseen its later uses as a Russian prison, an execution site by the Soviet Union, and a storage space for the National Museum’s art collection. The stunning Georgian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral is also in the neighborhood, and it’s worth popping in for a more modern take on Orthodox architecture (it’s also one of the world’s largest religious buildings by total area with around 32,300 square feet).
If you want to see some gorgeous Tbilisian architecture, head to Vera’s leafy, green streets: A formerly residential neighborhood, its 19th-century facades will keep your phone’s camera app perpetually pulled up. It’s bohemian and quaint, with characterful cafes and shops, as well as the opportunity to catch some shade in Vera Park.
Rooms Hotel, with vintage, bohemian styling, has been a go-to place to stay in this district since 2014, but Stamba Hotel, connected to Rooms by a shared courtyard, is making waves and was recently named one of Time’s World’s Greatest Places. The same visionary-entrepreneur also owns the two, and his latest hotspot is a real standout, especially if you want a free-flowing, artistic atmosphere for sleep, work, and play. Opened in 2018, the hotel employs staff from local art and design schools, and rooms are sumptuously industrial-chic, paying homage to the building’s Soviet-era publishing house past but incorporating decadent modern luxuries: deep pile rugs, McIntosh hi-fi stereos, freestanding brass showers and tubs, and superpowered espresso machines. Off the lobby and astounding record library, there’s hip cafeteria-style restaurant that offers a sophisticated cocktail bar with an incredibly sparkly chandelier, an in-house chocolaterie, and international menus.
It opens out into a courtyard, where it serves as a hub for the community outside the hotel: Guests eat breakfast, locals meet up with friends, and freelancers type away at laptops. Keep an eye out for the glowing violet lights of the hotel’s vertical farm behind the courtyard, hang out at 2019’s new rooftop pool, and look for the upcoming opening of the Tbilisi Photo and Multimedia Museum.
After stopping in at the Dry Bridge Market on the Old Town side of the Mtkvari, cross the bridge to walk up Agmashenebeli Avenue, the main street of the Mtkvari's left bank. It's also Tbilisi's first pedestrianized road, which makes for a bit of the respite from the traffic. (And yes, you did read "German" right above: Georgia and Germany have a close history of partnership.) The charming street is lined with the recently renovated romantic European facades of cafes, bars, restaurants, and lounges that spill colorfully out into the stone-block pavement. Don't expect to get down the street at a brisk pace if you're trying to go somewhere: It's a street for strolling, lingering, and getting a few great pics for Instagram.
At night—or on a particularly nice day—your second stop should be Fabrika, a hip hostel and then some that was once a Soviet sewing factory. Now, it's an industrial-cool hangout as much for guests as it is for other tourists and locals. It's got more "cool" than your standard backpacker hostel, too; in the massive courtyard, you'll find several bars and concept stores selling local fashion and art.
Once a German settlement, the neighborhood also has Arab and Turkish pockets, which makes for some great halal food options. There's also the authentic, hectic Dezerter Bazaar in the square by the railway station—so named for the deserters during the Georgian War of the '20s who would sell off their gear here.
For a night to remember, head to the basement of nearby Dinamo Arena, the stadium for Tbilisi's national football team. There, you'll find Bassiani, the Berghain of Tbilisi, its swimming pool dancefloor a hotspot for the city's exploding techno and rave scene.