New Old Tbilisi
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
Tbilisi has over 1,500 years of human inhabitation, and during that time, dozens of kingdoms, empires, and cultures left their mark on Tbilisi. For centuries, after Tbilisi was conquered, it was destroyed and built according to the new power’s style. In fact, the city has been rebuilt over a dozen times. Despite that, the city’s historic center still retains the cultural and architectural heritage of its four primary builders.
In recent history, Old Tbilisi was left behind, forgotten, and practically abandoned. The oldest corner of the city turned into a slum, with people living in what were literally crumbling buildings. In 2010, Aghmashenebeli Avenue between Tamar Mepe Avenue and Marjanishvili Square was completely renovated. The charming buildings, wide tree-lined sidewalks, and numerous pocket-parks quickly became a lively pedestrian thoroughfare with cafes and shops catering to locals and tourists alike.
In an effort to further conserve the city’s unique heritage, a detailed plan was conceived in 2015, and the following year the fund “ახალი ტფილისი” Akhali T’p’ilisi (New Tiflis) was born. This project envisions the renovation and rehabilitation of numerous neighborhoods in historic Tbilisi along with creating key corridors between the neighborhoods and nearby parks, such as Vake and Vera Parks.
Renovating the historic center of Tbilisi has proven to be a difficult task. The first major project carried under Akhali T’p’ilisi was the renovation of Aghmashenebeli Avenue from Marjanishvili Square to Saarbruken Square in 2016. This portion of the already popular thoroughfare was turned into a gigantic pedestrian-only patio, filled with posh hookah lounges, cafes serving a mishmash of khach’ap’uri, hamburgers and fries, and an array of Georgian wine, and tacky souvenir shops. Once again, Aghmashenebeli Avenue became the center of this city’s growing social scene.
This project has not been without controversy, particularly regarding the renovation of the Old Town (also known as კალა k’ala). This is the oldest neighborhood of Tbilisi, with its city walls dating to medieval times. The renovations of Lado Gudiashvili Square and surrounding streets along with the area around Orbeliani Square and the city’s famed Dry Bridge Market have divided Tbiliseli (the term for residents of Tbilisi). Many believe that the city should focus on preserving the existing buildings to keep their original architectural heritage. In many instances, entire streets were demolished and rebuilt. Other buildings were reconstructed according to what they presently looked like rather than attempting to undo centuries of renovations to restore the buildings to their original form. Oftentimes, intricate brickwork was plastered over to match a later renovation rather than restore the original form, furthering the sentiment among many architectural historians that the project is aimed at making the neighborhood look pleasant to tourists, rather than restore it to its authentic past.
Additionally, many Tbiliseli condemn the construction of modern buildings in this neighborhood, asserting that modern architecture clashes with the historical heritage of the neighborhood.
There are many, however, who believe that the renovations are necessary to rid the city of what was once a poor, disintegrating neighborhood and turn it into a thriving destination. According to these individuals, the renovation of historic Tbilisi is certainly a necessary step to prevent the historic heart of the city from literally crumbling away, but the rapid conversion of the historic center into a tourist zone is turning into an omnipresent concern.
Whether you are interested in the well-manicured renovated facades of Aghmashenebeli Avenue and Atoneli Street or the rustic, meandering allies of Bethlehem Rise (Gomi Street is a good starting point in this neighborhood), historic Tbilisi is sure to impress you.
Where to Explore
Aghmashenebeli Avenue is the hallmark of the Akhali T’p’ilisi project. Some of the city’s most well-known restaurants and lounges are located here, as are most of the city’s theaters. Be sure to relax in Jansugh Kakhidze Garden, which has numerous fountains and plentiful natural shade.
Kote Marjanishvili Street runs from the M’t’k’vari river to Giorgi Chitaia Street and is bisected by Marjanishvili Square. The east half of this street is full of lively bakeries, markets, and shops and is the perfect way to experience daily life in this neighborhood.
London Park is located between Ivane Javakhishvili and Arnold Chikobava Streets. This quaint square is surrounded by original 18th Century German-inspired buildings, which are endemic to this neighborhood.
Lado Asatiani Street runs from the back of the city’s elegant Sololaki Neighborhood to the heart of K’ala. This street has a good mix of Parisian-style buildings and renovated 18th Century flats.
Bethlehem Rise sits directly under Narikala Fortress on the steep rise of the Sololaki Ridge. Half of this neighborhood consists of newly-renovated colorful balconies with terracotta roofs, while the other half sits untouched for what looks like centuries. This neighborhood is a warren of narrow alleys and amazing views of Kartlis Deda “Mother Georgia,” Narikala, and Riq’e (Rike) Park. This neighborhood is known for its steep staircase street which connects it to K’ala.
09 April Park lies between the Dry Bridge Market and Rustaveli Avenue. This park is a popular spot for Georgians to relax and doesn’t have nearly the tourist crowd that the adjacent Dedaena (Mother Language) Park has.
Besik Street is a good way to explore Mtatsminda without venturing far from the heart of Tbilisi. This steep road runs from Rustaveli Avenue to the lower state of the Tbilisi Funicular and is lined with charming buildings typical of Mtatsminda.