Georgia is an incredible destination that has been rapidly rising on the global travel radar. I visited Georgia about 10 years ago and stayed with some friends who were living there at the time. I immediately fell in love with the country, including its small-town feeling, splendid scenery– and world class food!
I took a crowded Marshrutka bus from Yerevan, Armenia to Tbilisi — it was very cheap and took about five or six hours. Upon arrival, my friend took me for lunch at a traditional Georgian restaurant — I was blown away by the delicious food! The massive soup dumplings — khinkali — were full of flavor, and you had to bite them and suck out the soup before eating the rest (although the top was too firm to eat). We also had the famous khachapuri, which is basically a long bread filled with delicious rich cheese, and more cheese stuffed in the crust, coated in a heavy layer of butter, with 1-2 raw eggs on top. It wasn’t the healthiest thing I’ve ever eaten, but it was definitely one of the most delicious!
(Note– each region has its own way of making it; the Adjara style is the one with the egg on top– it’s my favorite : )
I met up with two other friends who were living in Tbilisi and they gave me a tour of the city. We hiked up to the Narikala Fortress, which dates back to the 4th Century– and contains well-preserved ruins and a restored church. We also went to the nearby Tabor Monastery of the Transfiguration. While here, I heard a Georgian choir chanting in one of the nearby rooms and I snuck up to the window to hear it better — the singing was beautiful and professional quality– and I wish I’d recorded it! Nearby is the Leghvtakhevi Waterfall and the Central Mosque.
We then ascended the hillside further and visited the Mother Georgia statue, which looks over the city with a sword and a stern glare. Behind the statue are botanical gardens, which are a scenic respite.
We then walked around the old city, which was filled with terraced houses with balconies, stopping by Sioni Cathedral and Liberty Square— a focal point of activity, featuring a golden statue of St. George lancing a dragon on top of column. Other spots of interest in the Old City include the Opera and Ballet Theater and the Dry Bridge Market, which offers a mishmash of souvenirs and trinkets for sale.
While in Tbilisi — don’t miss the thermal baths! We went to the Royal Baths, which was inside a long-running hive of dome-shaped brick bathhouses fed by local thermally-heated mineral water. I went with two friends and we got our own room (hive), where we soaked in the almost-scalding water for a while, getting out every now and then to avoid being cooked alive. (I’m not kidding — the water was seriously hot!) After some time, an old man came into our chamber with a scrub brush, sat on a stone bench, and motioned for each of us to come over (one at a time) for a scrub. He really went to town, scrubbing off the layers of dead skin– and it felt amazing afterwards.
We later went for dinner downtown at a restaurant with a great rooftop view, where we had more hearty Georgian fare, as well as Saperavi, a fantastic Georgian red wine. (Note — one style of Saperavi is a traditional method in which the grapes are fermented in large clay pots buried underground. I keep my eye out for it whenever I’m at a specialty wine store — it’s great stuff!) To finish off our dinner, we had some Chacha — the local firewater — which was pretty darn strong!
While in Tbilisi, I ended up getting a drinking horn — an animal horn used for drinking wine. Georgia is famous for having large group dinners (supras) with copious amounts of food punctuated by several toasts given by the Tamada, or toastmaster. During the meal, wine is poured liberally and everyone drinks it from horns– meaning you can’t set it down until you’ve gulped it all down!
The next day, we explored more of Tbilisi, inducing several great parks. The Presidential Palace along the river is an impressive site, and further back is the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi — a massive cathedral with beautiful icons and a large courtyard complex with chapels outside. In the evenings, we explored the city’s bar (and karaoke) scene — and finished the night off with a heavy dose of khachapuri!
After exploring Tbilisi, my friends gave me a tour of the nearby city of Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. The drive to Gori winds through a scenic gorge and several vendors were selling watermelons alongside the road. We stopped at a couple interesting ruins and chapels along the way before reaching the city.
Gori is perhaps most famous for its Stalin Museum, which explains his life and features several of his possessions — including his private train car. It really feels like you’ve stepped back in time and I highly recommend visiting — even if you just pop in for a quick walk through.
We then moved on to the ruins of the Gori Castle, which sit on a hilltop and offer great views over the city. The castle is well preserved but not fully excavated. Written records show it existed at least as early as the 13th Century but archaeologists believe the location had been fortified from centuries BC.
Nearby is a large circle of statues featuring Georgian Warrior Heroes, along with fascinating tombstones with pictographs carved on top. Gori itself had a few restaurants and cafes, and was fairly quiet when we visited. I enjoyed the streets with vines growing overhead and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere. Two other points of interest downtown are the Ethnographic Museum the Great Patriotic War Museum.
Something for Next Time: Next time I’d love to explore the wine-growing Kakheti region and try the Saperavi wine right from the source. I also hope to get to the Black Sea beaches of Batumi (a famous summertime resort location), and go hiking in the Racha-Lechkhum-Kvemo Svaneti National Park.