Few cities are as gleefully chaotic as Tbilisi, the capital of the Black
Sea nation of Georgia. A onetime Silk Road capital, this sprawling city of 1.1
million is as eclectic as it is dynamic. The Old Town — also called Kala — with
its traditional pastel houses and wooden balconies, flows seamlessly into the
Art Nouveau neighborhood of Sololaki, where every ezo (courtyard) seems to reveal a new speakeasy bar or
tucked-away café. You can spend the day hitting the museums and theaters housed
in the impressive neoclassical architecture along Rustaveli Avenue, or spend
your nights dancing until dawn at powerhouse nightclubs like Bassiani, located underneath a historic
soccer stadium. While the city is small enough to be covered in a weekend, its
architectural eclecticism, thriving restaurant and bar scene, and wealth of
cultural offerings make it worth a much longer stay.
In the past few years, Tbilisi has been undergoing something of a bohemian renaissance. Several of its midcentury disused factories have been repurposed into hotels, bars, galleries, and vintage concept stores that act as cultural hubs for trendy young Tbiliseli. The first — and most famous — of these was the Rooms Hotel, intentionally reminsicent of the ornate Art Nouveau grand hotels of Europe and is as famous for its high-end cocktail bar and European-fusion food, as it is for its upscale accommodation. Later, the slightly more modern (but no less whimsical) Stamba Hotel, which is located in a former printing house, opened next door (there are also plenty of international-branded hotels here, including the Sheraton, Radisson, and Marriott). A five-minute walk away, the labyrinthine Wine Factory N1, is quickly establishing itself as the new must-go complex in Tbilisi. Located in a 19 th century winery that was closed to the public for most of the past century, Wine Factory N1 offers outdoor cocktail bars and some of the city’s most innovative Georgian food. (If you can, get a tour of the cellars, which boast wine collections that, according to local legend, once belonged to Stalin and Napoleon. )
Across the river, the slightly younger-skewing Fabrika complex — as the name suggests, located in an old sewing factory — boasts a hostel, a slightly more upmarket boutique hotel, several bars, and the Impact Hub co-working space. Grab a cold local beer (bohemian restaurant Shavi Lomi has just debuted what it calls “Georgian’s first craft beer”) or glass of delicious red Saperavi wine and people-watch into the wee small hours — or at least until you head to the all-night raves at Bassiani nightclub nearby.
Few places showcase Tbilisi’s history as a cultural crossroads as neatly as the sprawling flea market at the Dry Bridge, an overpass located a few streets behind Rustaveli Avenue. The daily market (weekends tend to have more vendors) sells everything from 19th century European porcelain to modern Dagestani jewelry to Georgian enameling, antique musical instruments to wolf pelts, to works by contemporary artists. Come prepared with a few phrases of Georgian, and receive a history lesson from the usually-friendly vendors about anything from Soviet-era medallions to Khevsur embroidery. Haggling is expected, even welcomed, but prices are generally fair.
Ubiquitous in cities like New York and London, speakeasy culture has also made inroads in Tbilisi. Some of the city’s best bars and restaurants are either wholly hidden or at least sparsely marked. Check out Sofia Melnikova’s Fantastic Douqan, in the rear courtyard of the city’s literature museum (but only accessible by following several narrow alleyways into what looks like an abandoned parking lot, then daring to step through an unprepossessing garden door). Or head to Woland’s Speakeasy — named for a character in iconic Russian novel The Master and Margarita, and located underneath a kitschy American-style bar in Sololaki — which sells cocktails named after characters in Russian novels. Or visit the subtly-signposted but still discreet Cafe Le Toit, Pur Pur and Linville — three Victorian-chic cafés in Sololaki located on the upper floors of their respective Art Nouveau mansions.