Tbilisi's Best Characteristics
Tbilisi an extremely unique city in nearly every facet. The city many not have world renowned nightlife, museums, or landmarks, but there are nevertheless numerous pieces of Tbilisi's story that make it an amazing city that deserves your attention. Here’s some of the best things that we love about Tbilisi:
Tbilisi is not as old as cities such as Athens, Rome, or Mtskheta, but it is still extremely old, predating cities such as Brussels (founded 979 CE), Vienna (the city was first mentioned as a civilian settlement in 881 CE), and Venice (the largest migration to the Venetian lagoon was in the 6th Century while the first Doge of Venice--Duke of Venice--was elected in the 7th Century CE). The legend goes that Tbilisi was founded in 479 CE by Georgia’s king, Vakht’ang Gorgasali, who discovered the city's now-famous hot sulphur springs while he was hunting in the present-day Abanotubani district. Gorgasali subsequently moved his capital from Mtskheta to the newly-founded city, Tbilisi, which was named after the warm springs (the word თბილი tbili means "warm" in Georgian).
Many remnants of the city’s past can still be found in Old Tbilisi, such as Anchiskhati Church, which was built in the 6th Century CE by King Dachi, the first son of King Gorgasali, and Ateshga—a Zoroastrian temple built sometime in the 3rd-7th Centuries CE--which is located in the city's Bethlehem micro-district. Nariq'ala Fort, which sits on the end of a prominent ridge above the Mt'k'vari River, dates back to the 4th Century, however, much of the present-day fort dates to the 7th Century (making Nariq'ala around 200 years older than Prague!).
Tbilisi is located in a unique part of the world, where some of humanity's greatest cultural spheres merge together. Over the course of Tbilisi's 1,500 year history, the city has been under the Sassanian, Umayyad, Abbasid, Mongol, Safavid, Russian, and Soviet Empires, with substantial cultural and political influence from the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires.
Tbilisi has always been a multi-cultural city. In fact, for most of its history, Georgians were a minority within Tbilisi's population, with Armenians often constituting the largest ethnic group in the city. Most of the churches in Old Tbilisi, such as the Lower Bethlehem Church, were originally built by the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the overwhelming majority of the city's mayors during the 18th and 19th Centuries were Armenians. Within less than a 500-meter radius in Old Tbilisi, you can find the only Catholic cathedral in the Caucasus, Tbilisi's primary Jewish synagogue, Tbilisi's most well-known and oldest extant mosque, the chief Armenian Apostolic cathedral in Georgia (Surpgevorki), and the former head cathedral of the Georgian Orthodox Church (Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral).
Even today, Tbilisi is home to vibrant communities of Iranians and Turks, located predominately around Aghmashenebeli Avenue; Armenians, who still reside in the historically Armenian neighborhood of Avlabari; a sizable Jewish population in Old Tbilisi; and a sizable expat community which mainly resides in the neighborhoods of Saburtalo and Vake.
Tbilisi’s ancient and complex history is manifested in its architectural diversity. It’s oldest parts—Old Tbilisi and Avlabari—are reminiscent of Persian architecture, with many of the buildings in these neighborhoods being punctuated with colorful intricate woodwork and lofty pointed arches. Mtatsminda, having largely been built during Georgia’s time under the Russian Empire, is graced by large, stately neoclassical buildings similar to those of Paris, London, and Berlin. It’s main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue, is indistinguishable from the broad boulevards of Western Europe's great capital cities. The neighborhood centered around Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue was built by German immigrants to Tbilisi during the 19th Century. Accordingly, these newcomers built "Neu-Tiflis" using the same architecture found in Germany.
As you move further away from the historic heart of Tbilisi, the city's architecture takes you through the different periods of the 20th Century. Stately Stalinist edifices line Ilia Chavchavadze Avenue in the city's prestigious Vake neighborhood and line Rustaveli and Marjanishvili Squares, while neighborhoods like Gldani, Vazisubani, and Vark'etili are archetypal of Soviet urban planning. The 21st Century is now leaving its impression on the city, with structures such as the Axis Towers in Vake, the Tbilisi Public Service Hall, and Peace Bridge dotting the city with their ultra-modern presence.
A city is more than a synthesis of buildings, roads, and other manmade infrastructure. A city’s geography is just as important to its character and soul as is its inhabitants and infrastructure, and the geography of Tbilisi is equally complex as its history and people. The western expanses of Tbilisi are traversed by the Tirialeti Range—a subset of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains—with the most prominent ridge, Mtatsminda, rising nearly 280m/900ft above the heart city. The mountains in western Tbilisi create large, steep valleys in which neighborhoods such as Saburtalo and Dighomi had to nestle themselves when built. The Mtkvari River slices through this otherwise impenetrable landscape, creating steep cliffs along large parts of its banks, most notably at Metekhi Church. The eastern third of the city is dominated around the gentle slopes of Makhat'a Mountain—a fairly substantial hill located at the southern edge of the Tbilisi Sea.
The flora in Tbilisi is equally diverse. Lofty pine and deciduous trees line the city’s streets and fill in the spaces between the Soviet "Khrushovka" apartment buildings, but if you venture to the Tbilisi Botanical Gardens or the ruins of Azeula Fortress in Kojori, you'll find cacti and thistle clinging to the rocky mountainsides.
Perhaps the most fascinating geographic feature of Tbilisi is that which you cannot see--Tbilisi could be considered one of the world's only transcontinental cities. At least two of the five primary Europe-Asia boundaries in the Caucasus cut through Tbilisi. One boundary line follows the Mtkvari River, where the areas north of the Mtkvari (the left bank, which includes the neighborhoods of Gldani, Didube, and Samgori) are in Europe, while the everything south of the Mtkvari (the right bank, including neighborhoods like Saburtalo and Mtatsminda) are in Asia. The second boundary uses the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, where areas south of the mountains are in Asia, and areas north are in Europe. This means that, depending on how strict you interpret what constitutes as north and south, popular sights such as the Tbilisi TV Tower and Nariq'ala are in Asia, while the city Rustaveli Avenue and Vake Park are in Europe.