The Georgian capital of Tbilisi is currently experiencing a boon in tourism, catering to Russian and European tourists drawn to the city’s colorful pastiche of dilapidated, yet captivating architecture peeling away toward inevitable modernization. A waft of international capital and cosmopolitan luxury perfumes the air everywhere today, but at the moment, the city still retains a distinct character proudly expressive of its own history of place, time, and people. If there’s anywhere in the world to go today – before it changes – it’s Tbilisi.
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WHERE TO STAY
The Stamba Hotel is indicative of the transformation descending upon Tbilisi’s most historic quarters. Situated in the main thoroughfare of Kostava Street in the Vera district of Tbilisi, the Adjara Group utilized the three R’s – retain, restore, and repurpose – to give new purpose to this former Soviet-era publishing house. The design here is as lofty as the hotel’s five-story atrium, with nostalgic nods to the “roaring ’20s and glamorous ’30s” offset by contemporary details like handmade ceramic tiles by London-based studio Pataki.
“Oh, you’re a design writer? Then you should go to The Rooms Hotel Tbilisi!” – advice offered numerous times by locals when conversation steered toward what brought us to Georgia. Praised for its vibrant nightlife, retro design-centric ambiance, and the local young and beautiful set that descends upon the hotel every evening, The Rooms has been the place to eat, drink, and most definitely be merry for years now (laying claim as the first design hotel in the city), and it still wears its 1930s New York x Georgian industrial past well.
If you’re looking for a getaway outside the hustle and bustle of Tbilisi, the Radisson Collection Hotel, Tsinandali Estate Georgia – a former estate and winery turned luxe getaway in the Georgian wine region of Kakheti – should fit the bill rather luxuriously. Spanish designers Christina Gabas and Damian Figueras were not averse to using modern swaths of colors and texture to complement the synthesis of historic structure to its contemporary additions. The hotel’s 141 rooms and suites are surprisingly intimate in relation to the grand scale of the hotel’s walkways, rooftop pool and spa, concert venue, verdant park grounds, and other public spaces, each guest room decorated with seasonal cues of the region’s viticulture-focused landscape. It may take 1.5 hours to get here from Tbilisi, but the drive to and from offers a glimpse of the country’s exceptional and varied landscape.
WHERE TO VISIT
Architecturally speaking, Tbilisi may top my list for its surprising diversity of styles and states. Walking here is fairly easy, though sections can be arduously steep (taxis are everywhere for those not seeking to return with firmer glutes and calves), with the heart of the city offering countless moments of serendipitous pleasures for the architecturally minded. Derelict doorways in the city’s heart are as likely to reveal the ornamental flourishes of Tbilisi’s bourgeoisie Art Nouveau past as they might expose a small cadres of cats suspiciously eyeing your intrusion. The seemingly abandoned building? Past the gates and around the corner, a world class restaurant with a romantic courtyard garden welcomes the hungry.
Remnants of Soviet era, post-constructivist construction also remain brutally evident with their characteristic concrete edifices; many have been reclaimed and reborn to serve in public and governmental capacities today. Weathered cobblestone streets and steep stairways in the historical section of Dzveli Tbilisi wind past bric-brac wooden residences defiantly ignorant to both gravity and age, many painted with a delightful impunity, festooned with family laundry blowing in the wind like flags. The local government has made efforts to protect these distinct residential dwellings, but concerns remain as development has become rampant.
If wandering without plans or guidance seems daunting, hiring a guide is not a bad investment for either extended, but especially, shorter visits. We hired art historian Nikita Ivanov to lead us out from the capital for a day trip to a hermitage nestled into a mountainside at the border of Azerbaijan. His wealth of knowledge about Georgia’s past – buildings and culture – colored our entire drive out and back with details we’d otherwise have overlooked or been completely ignorant about (e.g. the numerous Soviet-style murals hidden on sides of buildings on the outskirts of the city center). I can’t recommend his services enough.
WHERE TO SHOP
To be honest, shopping rated low on our list of things to do during our first visit to Georgia. This is not to say we didn’t visit numerous shops, but those that caught our attention were dedicated to the region’s renowned wines, aromatic spice blends, and handcrafted items. The Dezerter Bazaar is not to be missed by anyone with an inkling of interest in the region’s foods (a visit that added a great deal of depth to this documentary about farmers serving the market), while Khurjini offers anyone who can get past the talkative cat out front an assemblage of local homemade spirits, spices, Georgian sweets, teas, and other treats presented with an artistic flair.
But if shopping is an imperative, there is one recommended destination for modern design fostered by the local scene: Fabrika. Housed with a former Soviet-era sewing factory, Fabrika was reborn to operate as a multi-functional space for art, design, food, music, and retail endeavors. The list of occupants (referred to as “residents”) represents Tbilisi’s contemporary urban culture of creatives doing creative things. A few below:
When I informed friends I was planning to embark on a trip to Tbilisi, Georgia, most often I was greeted with recommendations about the Peach State. Other times, incredulous expressions accompanied with a “why there?” was the response. Such is the blind spot most Americans harbor about the distant nation cradled within the Caucasus, situated at the gateway between Europe and Asia. A shame, as Tbilisi proved itself an achingly beautiful urban capital yet to be fully enveloped by the sense of “like everywhere else”. Nowhere else have I been prone to unwittingly impersonate a young Keanu with my endless successions of “whoa!”, so taken by a most excellent adventure.