If you only have a day or two in Georgia’s capital and are wondering what to do, the answer is simple: explore the Old City. The area is jam-packed with architectural gems, scenic viewpoints and a few random surprises. In this Old Tbilisi guide, we’ll cover the main highlights you can see in a day, but you could easily fill up several in Tbilisi if time allows.
The following guide will take you back and forth a couple of times between the east and west banks of the Mtkvari River. Taking the city’s geography into account, this is actually the most efficient way to tour the sites, and it should make more sense once you’re there.
But if you have more time in Tbilisi, visit the locations in any order you please. Near the end of the article, we’ll also cover some additional sites to see around Old Tbilisi.
Sameba Trinity Church
Let’s start the day at Sameba Trinity Church – visible from all over Tbilisi and arguably the city’s most famous landmark. The church is located in the Avlabari neighborhood and is accessible via the metro station of the same name.
Despite being visible from most of the city, Sameba can’t be seen from outside the station. You’ll have to walk around the station and then head north. After 5-10 minutes, the towering structure should finally come into view.
Many are surprised to learn that this monumental church was only completed in 2004 after nearly a decade of construction. Its architectural style clearly resembles that of the traditional Georgian Orthodox church, but on a much larger scale.
Built to celebrate 1,500 years of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the structure was designed by architect Archil Mindiashvili. And at 87 meters, it’s the tallest church in Georgia and one of the tallest Orthodox churches in the world.
But despite being an icon of the city and the country as a whole, its construction was not without controversy. Avalabari has long been Tbilisi’s prominent Armenian district, and an entire Armenian cemetery had to be dug up to make room for the project.
The vast interior features nine chapels which are dedicated to the archangels and various Christian saints, including some which are unique to Georgia.
Being such a new church, walking around inside isn’t quite as exciting as in Georgia’s many centuries-old churches. Nevertheless, whether you’re there to pray or just observe, the artwork of the various ikons is exquisite.
The streets of Avlabari that surround the church are interesting to walk around if you have the time. Sadly, the district was hit hard by an earthquake several years ago and many of the old buildings have yet to be repaired.
From here, the rest of this Old Tbilsi guide itinerary can be carried out on foot. There are two roads from Sameba toward the river. Take the northern one which goes directly to the Presidential Palace. From there you’ll make a sharp right, walking down a hill which will lead you to the river area.
Walk down the steps leading to an underpass which is full of colorful murals. This will lead you to the pedestrian portion of the Nikoloz Baratashvili Bridge. Walk all the way across and come out of the underpass at the opposite side.
The Clock Tower
Coming out the other side, you’ll encounter a bronze sculpture of several people dancing. Known as Berikaoba, the piece represents a traditional Georgian folk dance that dates back to pagan times.
Turning left around the corner, walk down a narrow side street until you reach the Clock Tower, one of the city’s quirkiest attractions.
It’s a creation of local puppet master Rezo Gabriadze, and it stands right next to his puppet theater. The tower was completed in 2011 after four years of construction.
Supposedly, at the turn of each hour, some characters pop out of the tower as part of a miniature automated performance. It’s said to feature an angel along with scenes of marriage and death.
Despite numerous walks past the tower, I never happened to be there for it, but you may want to wait around if the idea intrigues you.
The next major landmark on the itinerary is the Bridge of Peace (see below). However, you may want to briefly walk past it (south) to take a quick look at the Sioni Cathedral. While not particularly remarkable architecturally, it happens to be one of the country’s oldest, dating back to the 6th century.
Also nearby is the Great Synagogue of Tbilisi. And this area is full of restaurants and cafes (albeit mainly tourist-oriented ones), so this would be a good area to take a break for lunch or coffee.
The Bridge of Peace & Rike Park
Love it or hate it, the Bridge of Peace has become the symbol of a modernizing Tbilisi. Designed by Italian architect Michele De Lucchi (who also designed the Presidential Palace), the curvy steel and glass bridge opened in 2010.
While most people like the bridge’s design, its placement right in the heart of Tbilisi’s historical district has been controversial.
Walking across the bridge, you’ll arrive back on the east bank at a place called Rike Park. Once a resting area for camel caravans from Persia, Rike Park is another symbol of the ‘new’ Tbilisi that happens to be right in the heart of the old district.
Its meandering pathways replicate the borders of Georgia’s various districts, but this is hardly detectable to most visitors.
The park offers little shade, and there’s not much here other than a few cafes. However, local officials seem intent on growing new trees and adding more structures to the landscape, so it will be interesting to see how it turns out in several years.
The building here that grabs most visitors’ attention is the twin tube-shaped structure at the edge of the park beneath the Presidential Palace. Commissioned by former prime minister Saakashvili as a performing arts center, it’s gone unused for years.
The park contains a cablecar station which takes visitors straight up to the Narikala Fortress. But we’ll be ignoring it for this Old Tbilisi guide, instead opting to head there on foot.
However, if you really hate walking uphill, you can head straight to the fortress and then visit the following locations in reverse.
King Vakhtang Statue
Heading south down Rike Park, you’ll arrive at a roundabout, next to which is a statue of the city’s founder, King Vahtang. Prior to the founding of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital was nearby Mtskheta. But why did it move?
As the story goes, King Vakhtang (446-502 AD) was out here on a hunting expedition one day. His sparrowhawk had wounded a deer, but astonishingly, the animal managed to heal itself by taking a dip in the natural spring water.
The king, convinced of the water’s curative properties, decided to establish a new capital here so that he could be as close to the magical springs as possible (Tbilisi comes from the word tbili, meaning warm). The new city, however, wasn’t formally established until the reign of his son, Dachi.
The statue of the city’s founder is appropriately placed overlooking the hot springs on the other side of the river. It stands just outside the Metekhi St. Virgin Church, which is also worth a quick visit.
This is the last location on the east bank of the river in this Old Tbilisi guide. Next, head back to the west side via the Metekhi Bridge. Make a left, heading southeast toward Tbilisi’s iconic sulfur baths.
The Sulfur Baths
While, as mentioned above, the sulfur baths are as old as Tbilisi itself, they currently take on a style reminiscent of Georgia’s Islamic neighbors. Over the centuries, both the Ottomans and Persians briefly held Tbilisi at various times, which explains why the baths look like a traditional hammam.
Even if you don’t plan on bathing, the area, known as the Abanotubani district, is well worth a walkthrough. In addition to the hammam-style domed baths, stop to admire the beautiful blue tiles of the Chreli Abano bathhouse, one of Tbilisi’s most photographed buildings.
My Bathhouse Experience
During your time in Old Tbilisi, you can try out either a public or a private bath. While I’ve experienced public baths any number of times in places like Japan, I opted for a private one this time. And what better place to try it than at the Chreli Abano Bathhouse, the Abanotubani district’s most famous building?
I made an appointment online the night before, booking one of the basic single rooms for an hour which cost me 50 GEL (roughly $15 USD). Massage is also an option for an extra 20 GEL, but I didn’t go for it.
The staff at the bathhouse spoke fluent English and led me to the room. There is a small bathroom and a changing area, and then the main tiled room with a shower and the bath itself. The first thing I noticed was the humidity, as there was almost no ventilation.
As recommended by the staff, I repeatedly got out of the bath to take cold showers before getting back in again.
While the bath was relaxing and the sulfur water felt great on my skin, the humidity and lack of airflow got to be too much, and I couldn’t last the entire time in the water. Also surprising was the lack of any type of hair drier, meaning I had to go back out in the cold with wet hair.
So is the taking a dip in the sulfur baths a must-do experience in Old Tbilisi? If it’s a really cold winter day, or you have some aches and pains you’re hoping to soothe, go for it. But you’re not missing out on a whole lot if you opt not to, and it’s best avoided in the summer months anyway.
Behind the bath area, follow the trail which leads to the Leghvtakhevi Waterfall. The 22 m-high waterfall flows right into the Tsavkisistskali River which in turn provides the sulfurous water for all the bathhouses.
When finished admiring the waterfall, backtrack slightly and find the spiral staircase. While it seemingly leads to nowhere, the climb will take you straight up to some quaint little backstreets. And from here, follow the signs and head uphill to the Tbilisi Botanical Gardens.
Tbilisi Botanical Gardens
The Tbilisi Botanical Gardens only cost 3 GEL to enter – a reasonable price to visit an oasis of calm amidst such a hectic city.
Originally started as a pleasure garden centuries ago, the space has functioned as a botanical garden and arboretum since at least the early 19th century. It now takes up a space of over 128 hectares and contains over 4,500 species of plants.
Like many botanic gardens, this one is divided up into various zones. You can also see displays representing various countries, such as the Japanese-style garden, which is rather amusing to look at with the traditional Georgian architecture in the background.
This would be a good place to rest your legs for awhile, and there are plenty of benches on which to do so. Or, you could even zipline across the valley if you’re so inclined.
All in all, this is arguably Tbilisi’s best park (the Batumi Botanical Gardens, however, are on another level).
The Mother of Georgia
Walking over the bridge above the waterfall (not the same as the one by the sulfur baths) and continuing uphill, you’ll reach the top of Sololaki Hill. And it’s here that you’ll encounter the twenty-meter high aluminum Mother of Georgia statue.
Locally known as Kartlis Deda, it was erected in 1958 on the 1500th anniversary of Tbilisi’s founding. (The statue’s current incarnation, however, was placed here in 1997).
If you’ve been to Yerevan, you’ll notice its similarities to the Mother of Armenia statue. But this one, designed by architect Elguja Amashukeli, is several years older.
The bowl in her left hand symbolizes hospitality, while the sword in the right represents Georgia’s constant struggles with numerous enemies.
The statue is rather difficult to take in from the hill, as it’s meant to be viewed from the city center. But while you’re at the top, don’t miss the fantastic views of the Tbilisi skyline. In fact, this is probably the best viewpoint in the entire city.
Keep walking along the hill and you’ll encounter the top of the cablecar station where those coming all the way from Rike Park arrive. Then keep heading forward and slightly downhill to reach the impressive Narikala Fortress.
Georgia is full of ancient fortresses. As you explore the country, you’ll notice that just about every town and village seems to have one. But in this case, it’s pretty cool to see one right in the heart of a bustling capital city.
The fortress dates back to the 4th century AD, even predating King Vakhtang’s reign! In fact, it wasn’t the Georgians, but the Persian Sassanian Empire who first built it.
Destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century, the oldest existing sections that survive were built a few hundred years ago.
As you descend further downhill (be careful – it can get slippery), you’ll reach the Church of St. Nicholas, a 12th-century church that was rebuilt in 1996. And from there it’s a short walk back to the ground level.
That brings us to the end of this Old Tbilisi guide, but that’s certainly not all there is to do in the area.
More Around Old Tbilisi
Back up at the Mother of Georgia statue, you can try coming down the hill from the other side via a staircase right in front of the statue. You’ll arrive at the Bethlehem Church, which offers more great views of the city. And a short walk downhill and to the east is the Ateshgah Temple, a rare Zoroastrian fire temple that dates back to the 5th century.
It was constructed during the Sassanian Empire’s takeover of the region, and is perhaps the only structure to have survived from this period mostly intact. It’s situated right between a couple of houses, and to get inside you’re supposed to knock on the door.
Sadly, despite knocking for awhile, nobody ever came to let me in. Anyway, you may still want to give it a shot if you’re interested in Persian culture and history.
While none are quite as good as the Georgian National Museum on Rustaveli Avenue, the Old Tbilisi area has a few museums you may want to visit. Just nearby Sioni Cathedral is the Tbilisi History Museum, which contains all sorts of architectural models of buildings around town.
Nearby the sulfur baths is the Tbilisi Antique Archaeological Museum which displays some ancient artifacts found right in the area. And over on Shavla Dadiani St is the small but interesting Georgian Folk Art Museum.
The definition of ‘Old Tbilisi’ is quite open to interpretation. But you could perhaps throw the entire Marjanishvili neighborhood into the mix as well.
Originally the spot of a German settlement, be sure to visit Davit Aghmashenebeli Ave at some point during your visit to see some nice classical architecture. This is also a pretty tourist-friendly area with plenty of restaurants and English-speaking staff.
Despite Georgia being such a small country, Tbilisi is a bigger city than most would expect, and visitors have a number of neighborhoods to choose from within the city center.
Many tourists choose to stay in the Old Tbilisi area, and for good reason. As mentioned in the Old Tbilisi guide above, the area (which consists of a few different neighborhoods like Avlabari and Sololaki) is home to many prominent landmarks. And it’s also a quick walk to Liberty Square.
Many visitors also base themselves near Liberty Square and along Rustaveli Avenue. This area would also give you access to some of Tbilisi’s most notable architecture, such as the Parliament Building, along with numerous museums. Furthermore, the bus to David Gareja departs from Pushkin Square, just next to Liberty Square.
Further north, on the eastern side of the river, Marjanishvili is another popular area. From here you can easily walk to Agmashenebeli Avenue, known for its architecture and restaurants. Also nearby is Fabrika, a unique multipurpose space which features a hostel, art spaces, bars and restaurants.
An increasing number of visitors are also basing themselves in the city longer term. In that case, you should also consider the Vera and Saburtalo neighborhoods. If you’re craving more greenery, the Dighomi district is also worth considering for longer stays, especially somewhere nearby the forest-like Dighomi Park.
Many Tbilisi residents and expats alike recommend the Vake district. While it may have some trendy cafes and Vake Park, it’s the one neighborhood in central Tbilisi with no metro access. Furthermore, the neighborhood is very hilly and with bad traffic problems.