Features

Tbilisi by design

10 Jun 2024 by BusinessTraveller
Tbilisi Downtown, Georgia (istock.com/Lukas-Bischoff)

Discover the rich art and design of the Georgian capital.

Georgians have an eye for beauty,” my guide, Ketevan Akhobadze, tells me on my first day in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia. With overcast skies and showers, it was difficult to imagine that this was the same Tbilisi of brightly coloured rooftops and resplendent chapels that Google had shown me.

But by the end of the week, I’d seen plenty of the famed Georgian design aesthetic I had heard so much about.

Preserving the past, building a future

One could, of course, start with the obvious architectural wonders of the city. Likened to Stonehenge, the Chronicle of Georgia monument sits atop a hill overlooking the northern district of Tbilisi on one side and the Tbilisi sea (an artificial lake reservoir) on the other. The monument features 16 stone pillars, each nearly 35 metres tall, chronicling the country’s 3,000-year-old history and the religious backbone to its social construct, the Christian faith.

Personalities from Georgian history – like Shota Rustaveli, the renowned poet, and King Davit IV Aghmashenebeli (David the Builder), known for his long and successful reign – are carved into the monument’s lintels or horizontal bars. Meanwhile, the columns or lower panels feature biblical scenes like Adam’s solitude in the Garden of Eden and The Last Supper. The sheer size and scale of the pillars, the ornate scenes carved into the columns’ facade, and their depictions of love and lore are Instagram-worthy on a bright day, but make for an equally dramatic setting on a cold, rainy one too.

There’s also a keen desire to build a distinct Georgian identity – especially following the country’s liberation from the Soviet Union in 1991 and the Rose Revolution of 2003. Tbilisi’s Ministry of Justice building features a glass exterior, designed to demonstrate reform and transparency in bureaucratic organisations.

Nearby, the wave-shaped Bridge of Peace connects Old Tbilisi to the central district. It symbolises the union between the old, historical area and the city’s aspirations as a hub for tourism and business. One aspect of this is the country’s bid to be a part of the European Union, and during the week I was there, Georgians across the city were celebrating having obtained candidate status.

As the sun sets over the Mtkvari river, the 150-metre-long glass and steel bridge lights up with nearly 50,000 LED lights. Within the same vista, you can spot the conical tube and glass structure of the Music Theatre and Exhibition Hall.

The Chronicle of Georgia (istock.com/mgstudyo)

Walk through Tbilisi’s neighbourhoods

Owing to its strategic location between Europe and Central Asia, Tbilisi was captured, destroyed and rebuilt more than a dozen times over a period of 1,500 years. This confluence of cultures brings a distinctive character to the city and its real treasure lies in its quaint neighbourhoods.

The Abanotubani district, for instance, showcases Persian-style balconies and woodwork, historic sulphur bathhouses, and Islamic architecture. The Shota Rustaveli Avenue, which houses the Parliament of Georgia along with several museums and cultural institutions, is known for its neoclassical architecture. There’s also the Bank of Georgia’s headquarters, which resemble stacked blocks – evidence of the Soviet era’s brutalist concrete architecture.

Close by, near the Dry Bridge Flea Market, you can catch a view of the lively flower market or stroll through a colourful display of artwork by local artists.

Aghmashenebeli Avenue, located within a former German neighbourhood, is a pedestrian area lined with vibrant outdoor cafes and a smattering of high-end stores and boutiques, somewhat reminiscent of Paris.

On Erekle II Street, step into the Caucasian Carpet Gallery to learn about one of Georgia’s national crafts, kilim, or carpet weaving. Characterised by embroidered animals, ornaments and names of weavers, here you will find kilims from the Kakheti region in eastern Georgia, as well as those from across Central Asia. Azerbaijani kilims, for instance, stand out for their prominent use of the deep indigo colour. The carpet industry is seeing a bit of a revival, with many boutique hotels and hostels purchasing kilims as old as 60 years to bring authentic Georgian style and flair to their establishments.

Housed in a former caravanserai (a resting place for traders along the Silk Route) that dates back to the 1650s, the Tbilisi History Museum takes you on a journey from the end of the 4th millennium BC to present-day Tbilisi. Here you will find archival photographs, artefacts, attire from different eras and scale-model replicas of communal spaces like the chaikhana (tea house) and a traditional Tbilisian house.

After learning about Tbilisian life, head out to see the remnants of these buildings. In the Lado Gudiashvili Square, for instance, you will find the Blue House, the former headquarters of the Russian Army. Painted in a bright, resplendent blue, its most prominent features are stained-glass windows, mashrabiya-style corridors, an indoor courtyard that is a mainstay of Moorish architecture and a European-esque spiral staircase.

Traditional georgian architecture in Abanotubani historical part of Tbilisi (istock.com/janiecbros)

Dine in style

Dining out in Tbilisi is an adventure. Take for example, Keto and Kote, a World’s 50 Best-listed restaurant housed in an unassuming, rickety building. There’s no signage and you have to walk through a residential alleyway before reaching the entrance, but everyone knows about it.

The name of the restaurant and its location is inspired by Georgia’s first comedy opera – a story of young lovers Keto and Kote – which premiered in 1919 (and was turned into a film in 1948). Inside, you will find the space to be bright and airy with ample sunshine (thanks to its large patio windows) and low-hanging candelabra-style chandeliers.

Also hiding in plain view is Barbarestan, a family-run restaurant that recreates Georgian recipes from a 19th-century cookbook. The interiors are moody, with velvet fringed lampshades that are evocative of the 1940s, ceiling-to-floor crockery cabinets and crystal tableware sourced from the flea market.

Ketevan tells me it’s somewhat of a fashion statement to scour for a hodgepodge of vintage relics, lending these establishments an old-world charm.

The Stamba Hotel is no secret, but no less alluring. A former printing press of the communist newspaper, the five-story building has been transformed into a complex featuring a restaurant, library and co-working space.

You may even stumble upon Tbilisi’s oldest underground bakery at the history museum, firing up some of the 50 varieties of khachapuri that can be found across Georgia. Lobiani, the Tbilisian variety, is a flatbread stuffed with mashed kidney beans. Sample it with some freshly squeezed orange juice from the Konka tramcars that were in operation during the 1900s, but now converted into street food stalls.

If you have a few days to spare, head out of the city to the Kakheti region to view the Tsinandali Estate. Once a meeting place for Georgia’s literati, the estate was the property of Georgian prince, diplomat, and poet, Alexander Chavchavadze. The estate now features a memorial house, vineyards, an underground wine cellar and a cafe.

Editor note: Thousands were protesting in the Georgian capital at the time of going to press against a ‘foreign influence’ bill that is seen as a threat to media independence and political freedom. Stay up to date with the situation before you travel.

Words: Shaistha Khan

Traditional Georgian cuisine (istock.com/vaaseenaa)
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The cover of the Business Traveller June 2024 edition
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