Tag Along in Tbilisi

By Kristy Alpert

Not long ago, a trip to the ancient city of Tbilisi began with explaining to friends and family it was in “the country, not the state” of Georgia. Today, friends and families flock together to this Eurasian destination to explore the city’s diverse landscape and vibrant culture.

Wedged between Eastern Europe and Western Asia, the city changed hands countless times throughout the centuries as foreign powers vied to lay claim to this strategic gem set along the banks of the mighty Kura River. Kurds, Persians, Russians, Jews, Armenians and Europeans all made their marks on the city, but only in the past decade have the citizens of Tbilisi begun to swirl those influences together to create a truly dynamic atmosphere.

Today Tbilisi stands on its own two feet again, no longer recovering from the crippling 80 years of Soviet rule followed by a shaky road to independence that spanned 25 years. The Soviet buildings may remain, but they have been repurposed and reclaimed into chic hotels, trendy nightclubs and urban artist lofts. The super-stylish Rooms Hotels’ Stamba Hotel recently opened inside what was once a publishing house, where Brutalist architecture contrasts with the colorful history that rests inside through the creative use of stark corridors and welcoming, oversized warehouse windows. A member of Design Hotels, the Stamba features interiors designed by local architecture studio Adjara Arch Group.

The Stamba Hotel sits in the heart of the quiet and historic Vera district, best known for the hidden gardens and green spaces inside and between many of the residential units and upscale bars. The Stamba attracts the city’s top creative minds with its ample outdoor spaces and open co-working space along with a dramatically cool drinking den called the Pink Bar. The hotel also offers a bean-to-bar chocolaterie and roastery and an Art Deco café for guests and locals alike.

Each of the 42 guestrooms (soon to be 150) boasts industrial features and exposed brickwork with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that give a nod to the space’s literary past. Guests can choose from the 560-square-foot Aviator Room, the 850-square-foot Aviator King, or the opulent Aviator Suite with a separate living room and show-stopping gilded brass freestanding bathtub. The suites and casino are designed as an homage to the golden age of aviation and include bomber jacket leather headboards and metallic touches throughout.

Tbilisi Old Town with Narikala Fortress, Georgia © Xantana | Dreamstime.com

Tbilisi Old Town with Narikala Fortress, Georgia © Xantana | Dreamstime.com

Nostalgic printing paraphernalia can be found throughout the entire hotel as it winds around a central courtyard that acts as an actual “living” room with lush foliage filling the five-story space beneath a glass-bottomed rooftop pool. The hotel is attached to another venture by the parent company, the Rooms Hotel Tbilisi, the gathering point for locals with its nouveau American restaurant The Kitchen. The restaurant, great for families, offers oversized, communal tables where diners swap stories and even share dishes made from seasonal ingredients.

Georgians have become infatuated with American-style cuisine, with restaurants like PIPES Burger Joint and Buffalo Bill packed with locals chowing down on oversized burgers and dipping fries in metal ramekins of ketchup. But despite the buzz around non-local cuisine, Georgia’s own culinary traditions still thrive in this capital city, where outstanding dishes like khachapuri and khinkali await around every corner. Khachapuri is a cheese- filled bread traditionally topped with a raw egg yolk. The dish is best served hot, with the goal to swirl your fork fiercely from the yolk out to blend the bubbling mess into a central pool of cheese, yolk and dough for dipping the remaining bread. Khinkali are Georgian soup dumplings, often filled with meat and spices. Authentic khinkali have no fewer than 20 pleats, but regardless of the fold count, the traditional way to devour these delicious dumplings is with your hands, grabbing the topknot between your fingers, biting a small hole into the base and sucking the dumpling dry of broth before taking the first real bite.

You’ll find great versions of both dishes at the city’s highest restaurant, Chela, at the top of the funicular. A scenic ride to the top takes friends and families inside this lunchtime venue to feast on local dishes like lobiani with red beans; Georgian tomato and cucumber salad; Abkhazian-style sausage with a pomegranate and berry sauce; and a decadent version of fried sulguni, a local cheese.

After lunch, head back down the funicular to wander the Old Town and walk off the heavy meal with a short hike to Leghvtakhevi Waterfall. The waterfall is the only one in the entire world located within a walled city, and the paved walkway up to the viewpoint makes it easily accessible for younger and older guests. The Old Town of Tbilisi shows the remnants of the city’s fifth-century roots, with cobblestoned pathways and 17th-century buildings still standing intact. It’s here the city earned its name (Tbilisi means “warm”), as it houses a number of hot springs and historic bathhouses within Abanotubani. The Orbeliani baths have been in use for centuries; a plaque hangs from one of the suites commemorating poet Alexander Pushkin’s experience in the bath during 1829 when he described the experience as “luxurious.”

Georgia’s claim to fame as the birthplace of wine is evident throughout the city of Tbilisi with colorful churchkhela — a traditional Georgian sweet made from strung-together hazelnuts dipped in a sweetened, thickened grape juice and aged for 15 to 17 days — treats hanging from just about every storefront but also in the numerous wine tasting rooms and wine bars throughout the city. Georgia’s winemaking traditions are some of the oldest in the world, with many winemakers still using buried qvevri (giant clay vessels) to make delicious versions of Saperavi, Mtsvane and Rkatsiteli. Vino Underground, one of the top wine stores in the city, sells a massive array of bio wines made within the country. The storefront offers wine tasting on request and offers light bites and wine flights during the evening.

For a deeper look into the culinary traditions of the country, friends and families can book a class at Culinary Studio Caramel. Classes can be customized to specific dishes or adjusted to welcome younger chefs into the kitchen for the first time. Near the studio, the Dry Bridge offers the chance to explore an outdoor art gallery of local artists and vendors selling their creations and a few antique items as well. Some trinkets date back to Soviet times, while many booths stock paintings and handmade textiles.

Family-friendly dining in Tbilisi is simple, as most restaurants serve dishes family-style. Restaurant Barbarestan serves traditional Georgian recipes taken from a 19th-century recipe book from writer Barbare Eristavi-Jorjadze. Favorite menu items include traditional eggplant served with a walnut sauce, khabizgina (Ossetian pie with potato and Georgian cheese) and kubdari (a meat-filled pie).

Tbilisi hosts a number of festivals each year. The annual jazz festival in July attracts world-class acts like Trombone Shorty, Erykah Badu and Wyclef Jean to perform within the open-air squares of the city. Something is always going on in Tbilisi, and the city’s ancient modernity and creative energy make it such an exciting destination to explore.