I don’t know what it was that initially fascinated me about Georgia. When I was about 17 I was thinking about places that I would like to study and I would roam the internet in search of topics that interested me in far away places. I remember coming across Georgia and learning more about the country. I was intrigued by its culture, language, geopolitical location, and history and how they were so defined and distinct.
Although I did not complete any formal education in the country, my postgraduate studies did reconnect me to this land that I had dreamed about. During this time I have travelled to Georgia on three separate occasions for longer periods, in the summer, late fall, and spring. I am fortunate to have experienced the country in multiple seasons as there is so much to discover and learn.
Because I have such a connection with Georgia, I will write about some main places, foods, and features that I love about the country.
Tbilisi – the capital city is busting at the seems with history, culture, and a lot of amazing people.
- Sights not to miss:
-Old Tbilisi: This stunning centre is filled with winding streets that are home to ancient churches, beautiful balconies, cute little shops, sulfur baths, and charming vistas of the surrounding parts of the city. If you want a great view of the city, accessible right from downtown, then head up to Narikala Fortress. The ancient fortress is accessible by a steep hike or a convenient tram that is very cheap (costs less than $1 US).
-Churches: Tbilisi is home to a lot of churches, and many of them are worth a visit. My favourite happens to be the oldest church in the city, the Anchiskhati Basilica. This church was built in the 6th century and has some really cool frescos inside. The other church that you can’t miss is the Sameba Cathedral or Holy Trinity Cathedral Church. Completed in 2004, the church is very new and is a beautiful sight that can be seen in many parts of the city. If you plan on visiting churches, please remember to dress modestly. It is respectful if women cover their hair with a scarf, wear a longer skirt or dress, and cover their shoulders. The churches here have a really special atmosphere and I was honoured to explore these and many more around the country.
-Parks: Tbilisi has a very good share of parks. Right near downtown is the new Rike Park. The park is home to the “Always” bridge… if you know a Georgian you’ll get the joke (the bridge’s actual name is the “Bridge of Peace”). The park also hosts the dancing fountains and the modern concert hall/exhibition centre. Vake Park, Turtle Lake, and Lisi Lake are some other parks in the city that are all great places to hang out with friends, read a book, and just relax. For a park in a different sense, Mtatsminda Park or TV antenna park, is more of a city fair at the top of Mount Mtatsminda. The park has carousels, waterslides, a roller coaster, and an iconic Ferris wheel that sits on the edge of the mountain.
-Walks: Other than Old Tbilisi, there are some other areas that you definitely have to check out. Rustaveli Avenue is the main avenue in the city. A mix of new and old, this street is a mix of the most important government buildings, flashy stores, and the bustling Freedom Square. On the other side of the river is Agmashenebeli Avenue, a beautiful street that looks more like it is in the middle of a German city, is another popular shopping location.
- Getting there: Flying into Tbilisi is the most common means of visiting the city. Since some airlines fly to Kutaisi and can be a cheaper option than flying directly to Tbilisi. From Kutaisi, taking a train, minibus, or bus to the capital is all pretty cheap and simple.
- Getting around: Depending where you go, there are three main transportation options. The first is taxi. Taxi is a great option to travel from A to B. They are cheap, fairly reliable (some do look like they could fall apart in any instance), and very common. When taking a taxi it is normal practice to ask the driver before you enter how much the cost will be for your trip. If you think the cost is unfair, move on to the next cab. It would be useful to learn a few Georgian or Russian phrases so that you have an easier time communicating and aren’t completely ripped off. In Georgia there is a joke that taxi drivers are always smoking with one hand, but when they see a church, they trace the sign of the cross on their body… since there are so many churches in Tbilisi, they are always doing this, hence they never really have their hands on the steering wheel.
The next option is metro/subway. Tbilisi is home to two subway lines that cover a large portion of the city. These lines run deep underground, with super long escalator rides that I found to be really awesome. A great thing about taking the subway is how incredibly cheap it is. Each ride costs 50 Tetri, about 20 cents US. The next one might be a bit different if you’re not too familiar with travelling in Eastern Europe or Central Asia. The term “Marshrutka” literally means “routed” taxi in Russian, and is a minibus that is speedy and efficient. This is the third option, and this method is by far my favourite. If you like going fast and seeing how far the drivers can bend the rules of the road, this method is for you!
Batumi – The second largest city after Tbilisi and a gem on the Black Sea coast. The atmosphere here is completely different than that of Tbilisi. More of a vacation destination, Batumi is known for its beaches and casinos.
- Sights not to miss:
-Boulevard: My absolute favourite thing to do in Batumi is go to the beach! The Batumi Boulevard is a long promenade along the Black Sea coast. It is an energetic place where people gather, exercise, drink at the beach bars, and suntan. Along the Boulevard is the beach, and although the beach is stony, the water is warm! Also, the sunsets are absolutely amazing here!
-Botanical Garden: One of the largest botanical gardens in the former Soviet Union, the Batumi Botanic Garden does not disappoint. Flora from around the world are showcased throughout the garden and the garden offers some breathtaking views of the coastline.
-Architecture: Visit Europe Square or the Piazza to marvel at the mix of new and old architecture in the city. If you want a better view of the city, take a trip on the Argo cable car (about 15 Lari or just under $7 US) and get a glimpse of this Black Sea gem.
- Getting there: There are three options for getting to Batumi from Tbilisi. The first is via marshrutka or bus – the trip is about 6 hours (depending on the skill of the driver of course) and costs about 20 Lari (just over $8 US). The second is via rail. The trains run between Tbilisi and take abouve 8.5 hours and costs just a bit more than a marshrutka for the second class fair (about $10-15 US). The third is via plane. Unless you’re coming from Eastern Europe already, this probably won’t be the best method of travel.
- Getting around: Batumi is centred around the beach and a lot of the city can be accessed by foot or bicycle. There are bicycle paths along the water and throughuot the city that make biking a great method for exploring the city. If you intend to visit the botanical gardens, located just outside the city (and highly recommended!) it’s easiest to take a taxi.
Other places worth a visit: Mtskheta (an ancient and former capital is home to the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (11th century) and Jvari Monastery (6th century)), Gori (the birthplace of Stalin and home to the Stalin museum), Sighnaghi (known as the “city of love” it a city in the heart of Georgia’s wine country), Svaneti (incredible region in the Caucasus mountains home to the Svan people), Gudauri (a skier and snowboarder’s paradise in the Caucasus mountains), and Uplistsikhe (an ancient cave town).
Food and drink
If you visit Georgia you have to try the local cuisine. You will NOT be disappointed. Each dish that I tried was incredibly tasty and fresh.
Dishes: The following are some of my favourite dishes. Definitely give them a try if you visit!
Badrijani nigvizit: Mmm… my mouth waters just thinking about this. This is fried eggplant made into rolls with a delicious walnut paste filling. My favourite are topped with pomegranate seeds.
Lobio: Literally “beans” in Georgian, this is a tasty bean stew that is extremely filling.
Khachapuri: One of Georgia’s most famous dishes is Khachapuri. This cheesy bread is so yummy and can be baked in a number of different ways based on where it originated: Imereti, Adjaruli, Mingrelian, Gurian, Ossetian, etc.
Lobiani: Similar to khachapuri, lobiani is a cheesy bread featuring yummy beans mixed in. The taste is somewhat similar to a bean quesadilla.
Khinkali: Make sure you get a lesson on how to eat khinkali properly! I’ve been taught to bite a small hole in the dough, suck out the juice, then eat the dumpling, but discarding the top. Then once you’re full you count up the tops that you have on your plate and compare them with others at your table.
Mtsvadi: This is basically just a meat kabob/skewer. But the flavours are intense and make your mouth water.
Churchkhela: Now for dessert! You will see this treat hanging from shops in the downtown centre. Churchkhela is stringed nuts dipped in a fruit paste that create a delicious fruity treat.
Restaurants: My favourite restaurant has to be Salobie on your way towards Mtskheta. It’s without a doubt the best place to eat lobio. Pasanauri is a great place to get khinkali and as for other restaurants, I find just walking around and seeing where many Georgians are eating is a good sign.
Georgians take their wine seriously, and so they should! Although Georgian wine is not incredibly widespread throughout North America or the EU (however, it is popping up more and more). My favourite wine is definitely the one that you can buy in old pop bottles on the side of a dirt road in a small village.
The following photos are crappy ones I took with my cellphone camera, but you get the idea.
The Georgian people are incredibly friendly, kind, and generous. The people that I met in Georgia are some of the most down-to-earth and grateful people I have ever met. The hospitality that I was always shown was unparalleled. To Georgians, guests are “gifts of God” and they definitely treated me as such.
Feasts and festivities – Georgian feasts (“supra”) are unparalleled. Georgians have something known as a tamada, or toastmaster, who introduces each toast throughout the event. Participating in a Georgian supra was probably one of the coolest memories I have. Imagine long tables exploding with an assortment of food and drink, smiling and laughing faces all around, a loud and merry tamada entertaining the guests and creating a vibrant mood, and so much wine that France and Italy would be jealous.
Language – The Georgian language is so cool! I am lucky that I did learn a lot of the language on my travels there and found it personally quite easy to pick up. The way it sounds and the alphabet are so beautiful. It also makes things a lot cheaper. I noticed that when I would go someplace and buy a small snack, if I ordered in English or Russian it was a certain price, but if I ordered in Georgian the price was lower. Not sure if this was just a fluke or what the case was, but it happened a lot! Note: I have heard from others that it is very difficult, so I think it must have just struck a chord with me.
Georgia is a country filled with amazing people, an interesting culture, an incredible history, and a stunning landscape. It’s a place that will remain in my heart and I am looking forward to the day when I get to visit again.