My Love Affair with Tbilisi, Georgia

The journey from Shanghai to the Caucasus isn’t a quick one (from most places for that matter). Five hours from Shanghai to Urumqi in the Far West of China, five hours layover and grabbing as much Xinjiang food as possible, and five hours flying across Central Asia to Tbilisi. When we landed at around 10pm, customs took a matter of seconds to put stamps in our passports and we were released into the Republic of Georgia.

A Trancy Jet-lagged Filled Night out at the Apocalyptic, Club Gallery

As soon as we got into a cab, our driver began belting out to a local Georgian song as we barreled down the highway towards central Tbilisi. In Georgian, the name Tbilisi literally means “warm location” likely coined after the cities numerous sulfuric hot springs (something we would experience there later on ). After washing up in our Airbnb, we hit the streets in search of nightlife and ultimately food. Much to our surprise, the streets were quite populated at that time, and we were keen to experience the “rave revolution” allegedly making its way into historically conservative Georgia. We stumbled into a private birthday party at first, and only after chugging a drink, ran out to find something a bit more public. Just up the hill we were drawn to a place emanating a mix of techno and house music; and that was where we discovered Cafe Gallery. The club had unsuspecting house-life, yellow, slightly crumbling facade, but as soon as you enter, it felt like we were transported to a Berlin club. Each floor blasted a mix of techno, trance, and house in what felt like large bedrooms and living rooms complete with beds. The club felt cool and apocalyptic in nature, like all locals and ourselves at Club Gallery would go down in hell together in a weed-smoke filled haze.

Warming up our Taste buds to Georgian cuisine at 3am

We lasted an hour or two before hunger overcame us, and we roamed the streets in search of late night food. It was there in the middle of the city, at 3 in the morning, we ordered a Georgian feast…

A little aside, Georgian food goes down as one of my favorite cuisines in the world, something that even two years later I try to replicate in my own kitchen. It is the perfect mix of healthy (lots of garlic-walnut paste) yet artery-clogging (cheese, cheese, and meat). My favorite Georgian staples include Pkhali - fried eggplant spread with a garlic-walnut paste and pomegranate seeds, Khachipuri - doughy, soft bread with unreal amounts of cheese melted inside or outside (sometimes with a raw egg cracked on top), Khinkali - huge dumplings with pork filling (not as flavorful as the one’s in China, but I can keep eating these nonetheless), and Lobio - red beans over-cooked to perfection and served with a side of cornbread. The dishes reflect Georgia’s unique culture with tiny hints of neighboring and Europe and Asia showing through in flavor and style.

Lobio

Lobio (beans)

Peasant salad

Peasant’s Salad with a walnut-garlic dressing

Khinkali

Khinkali (dumplings with pork inside)

Ojakhuri

Ojakhuri (Mushrooms with cheese)

Khachipuri

Khachipuri (bread with tons of cheese inside and out)

Pastries

Georgian Pastries

Churchkhela

Churchkela (Sweets made from grape, flour, and nuts) (bread with tons of cheese inside and out)

Losing ourselves in the diverse city-scape, Georgian Orthodox churches, and hillsides of Tbilisi (we found The Mother)

We woke up from a food coma and strolled without aim around the incredible city of Tbilisi. It is a dream of a city with such a diversity in appearance pulsing through it. In the morning we walked down David Agmashenebeli Avenue, known for its 19th century classical architecture and wide boulevard - like a toned down Champs-Élysées. We devoured local pastries and more Georgian food in no particular order. We tested out the metro, known for being particularly deep, and found the silence of the people in the carts, paired with the lack of advertising anywhere, a huge contrast to Shanghai.

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The morning melted into afternoon and our trek through the city continued. At one point, we ascended the stairs towards the magnificent, Holy Trinity Church, a relatively recently constructed Georgian Orthodox Church, but definitely catches the eyes nonetheless. We walked around the grounds and wandered in, only to see a Georgian wedding in progress. The ceremony was unique, with the wedding party circling around the floor complete with gorgeous and lulling live Georgian music echoing around the massive dome above. Later on, we hiked up towards the welcoming, yet simultaneously threatening statue known as “The Mother” or Kartlis Deda. From there, we looked back and got a gorgeous view of the changing leaves and all of Tbilisi.

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Stepping back in time in crumbling Old Tbilisi

With night crawling in, we walked through the old cobblestone and crumbling infrastructure of the Old City. The magnificent thing about this Old City, is that it is truly succumbing to the elements, and it didn’t seem there was a huge effort in over-renovating some parts of it. The buildings were a mix of brick and wood, and the twilight created an eery yet magical glow on this part of the city. Each building looked like something out of an old carnival, colorful and eye-catching. The restaurant we came across by chance was called Cafe Linville, situated on the second floor of an old Georgian house, the interior is a cozy, vintage-bohemian style with quirkiness and crazy corners at every turn. Randomly running into some friends we had met earlier that day at a cafe, we all once again stuffed our faces with Cafe Linville’s take on Georgian food, combined with bottles of Georgian wine (my favorite being rosé).

Tbilisi synagogue Old tbilisi night 1 Old tbilisi night 2 Cafe linville 1 Georgian wine rose

Feeling slight violation at Tbilisi’s sulfuric baths

Waking up from another groggy food and wine coma (a consistent trend from my time in Georgia), we decided to make today about checking out the sulfuric baths which give Tbilisi its name. When we arrived at the Abanotubani area of Tbilisi, there are plenty of odd looking bath facilities, one resembling an Iranian mosque and others that are brick domes and look like they are out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. After choosing the latter, we were escorted in by a corpulent Georgian woman, first shown the public baths, which were even at the early hour filled with naked men of all shapes and sizes bathing in not so cleanly conditions. For an additional fare, we decided to take the private room and were led into an elaborate room fit for thirty; with baths that were seemingly indifferent all over the place. About half an hour into relaxing in the bizarrely kitsch room, a larger than life man in a small cloth (this is always how these bath house stories go) bursted his way through the door and muttered something in Georgian which I imagined to be “Who first?” I reluctantly got onto the table completely naked, and with not an ounce of tender loving care, he went to town splattering me in soup and scrubbing me down. Around ten minutes of abuse later, I was probably less relaxed and more pain-ridden than when I came in.

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(Not) buying things at the vintage markets

The flea market on Saturdays, known as the Dry Bridge Market, is overflowing with old antiques, jewelry, and lots of nostalgic memorabilia from a Soviet-era. Despite the incredible Russian and Georgian typewriters and the gas masks, we only window shopped, but loved watching locals and tourists bargain it out for the best deals.

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Ending a stint in Tbilisi with one of my favorite restaurants on the globe

Another random restaurant encounter, but one that went down in history in my book, was during the evening of our final night in Tbilisi. After walking down David Agmashenebeli Avenue again, we spotted a cute restaurant called Barbarestan from across the street and decided to check it out. The food is a pimped up take of Georgian food, from a recipe book of 19th century duchess Barbara Jorjadze. While the influence is from two centuries ago, the food feels surprisingly modern from mouthwatering dips, to khachipuri, to roasted duck and lamb. Impressively enough, the family that runs the place also has ten children. The place was so homey and tasty, we ended up back there on our last night before flying out of Tbilisi. Completely satisfied, we wandered back to our apartment and the next morning left to explore other parts of Georgia.

Overall impressions of Tbilisi

This description doesn’t give the city justice at all. I am in love with every corner of it; the diversity of the architecture, the hospitality of the people, the old sandwiched with the new, the young and vibrant nightlife, and probably most notably, the food and wine. Tbilisi is a city where you can see all the centuries of Georgian history and culture come together in one place. On more than many occasions since I left, I have considered moving there and still think of it as one of my favorite cities on the planet. I overwhelmingly suggest it to anyone, so just check it out and see why it is the year’s most exciting city.

Places from this trip:

Accommodations:

Rooms Hotel - We didn’t stay here, but saw the interior. Super cool, bohemian hotel in the heart of Rustaveli. Other options are AirBnB to check out the local apartments!

Restaurants:

Cafe Linville

Barbarestan

Clubs:

Cafe Gallery - Awesome trancy club and the only thing that resembled anything LGBT at the moment in Tbilisi (still a relatively closed topic in Georgia)

More Tbilisi Inspiration

National Geographic article

Ryan

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