DUBAI: If you are on the lookout for a city vacation that won’t break the bank, but also won’t force you to compromise on quality, then the Georgian capital of Tbilisi — an urban sprawl nestled in a series of mountains following the route of the Kura River — is well worth a visit.
Its architecture reflects the country’s varied past and its geographical location where East (nearly) meets West. The influence of the latter is as clearly apparent as that of the Russian Empire and the Soviet era with its imposing apartment blocks.
Tbilisi is not a huge city, but you can easily fill a week walking the streets, visiting the various tourist attractions and absorbing its busy, vibrant atmosphere.
The airport is a short drive from the city center, but beware; there are people, mostly men, wearing black tabard’s emblazoned with the words “Airport taxi.” Make sure you agree a price before starting your ride, otherwise you might find you’re paying up to three times the actual fare.
Despite the airport taxis, though, Tbilisi is highly affordable. Georgia has embraced the European Union but not the Euro and as such remains a place where your wallet will be less strained than in many European countries.
You can stay in one of the many 4-star hotels in the heart of the old city for as little as $300 for four nights — although you can certainly spend more if you want to — and you can eat a hearty meal with beverages for as little as $20.
The concierge at most hotels will help you come up with an itinerary, but be sure to include the Zedazeni Monastery. Located at the top of the Zedazeni mountain, it is one of the country’s oldest and boasts a vast metal cross as well as panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
It’s also worth investing in bus tour of the city. Tickets are valid for 24 hours, and the tour takes in all major tourist attractions.
A walk around the old town is a must — the narrow streets are lined with historic buildings, first floor balconies overlooking the tree-filled streets; it’s like a scene from an old French market town. Overlooking this idyll is the Mother of Georgia statue. It’s a short-but-steep walk to this monument, and the reward is spectacular views across the city.
Outside of the old town, the roads are busier and traffic is heavy. It’s not the most pedestrian-friendly place — sidewalks often come to an abrupt end, leaving you with the choice of a quick dash into the road or a sharp U-turn to find a better route.
Another great location for spectacular views is Mtatsminda Park, which can be reached via the Tbilisi Funicular ropeway railway connecting Chonkadze street with the summit, 727 meters above sea level.
It gets hot in Georgia in the summer and the city’s galleries and museums offer a welcome escape. The National Gallery, on Rustaveli Avenue, is small, but provides an interesting insight into Georgian history. A short distance away is the Georgian Museum of Fine Art, which — apart from its three floors of artworks — also boasts a tremendous café.
If markets are your thing, set aside some time for the flea market next to the Dry Bridge. It has a wide selection of arts and crafts and is a nice place for a stroll, even if you have no intention of buying anything. Who knows? You might just find that bronze bust of Stalin to add the finishing touch to your guest room.
Tbilisi is also a good starting point for day trips around the rest of Georgia. The country’s third city, Kutaisi, is around three hours away by car, up in the mountains, surrounded by impressive scenery. It’s a far slower-paced city than the capital, with a broad selection of restaurants and cafés in which to while away the time.
Georgia is a beautiful country, and a popular destination because it is also remarkably cheap. Remember though, people are paid relative to that level of cost — so be sure to tip generously when eating out. You’ll be able to afford it, and it will make your waiter’s day.