I remember sitting at my family’s kitchen counter when I was a kid, my dad drilling me on capitals of the world, and thinking that Tbilisi was fun to say and hard to spell. In the 18 or so years since then, Georgia was a place I thought about rarely, but with increasing interest. It started with a photo of the Caucasus Mountains. Then I read a few articles about it’s history, which includes Iranian influence and the Soviet Union, and is, needless to say, fascinating. Then I found out Georgians eat more cheese and carbs than Wisconsinites. Then I learned they invented wine. I had to go.
My friend Brianna and I toyed with the idea of visiting in 2011, but somewhere in Myanmar realized we didn’t have nearly enough bartending savings to make it that far. (Post-college life was rough). I planned to go while living in Rome, but so many other weekend trips around Italy and the rest of Europe kept popping up. (Italy life was not so rough).
When Nathan and I met last year we discussed travel for a few days straight without talking about much else. I think at one point our entire conversation consisted of listing destinations on our wish lists. (This was actually a pretty long back and forth, as we basically listed the entire world). He mentioned Georgia early on, so I knew we had to keep talking.
A few months later living only a few hundred miles away in northern Iraq, we had no excuse not to go. The mountains were ten times prettier than I expected, the food was filling but delicious, and I learned that amber wine is not only a thing, but it’s also not as sweet or gross as it sounds. In fact, it’s probably the new rosé, and Georgia is probably the new Croatia. Or something. The point is: don’t wait years to go like I did.
We flew into Tbilisi via Istanbul (the price of and lack of non-stop flights out of Erbil is astounding), arriving around 2am. We planned to drive to Stepsantsminda early the next morning, so we booked a cheap hotel near the airport. After arguing with a few taxi drivers about prices we finally got one to take us. He laughed when he heard where we were going.
“How much did you pay for this hotel?” he asked.
“Ummm $26” I said, bracing for the scorn to come. He laughed some more, and then drove under a terrifying bridge, along a dark dirt road, and up to what looked like an abandoned building.
“This hotel…I think it is closed,” he said.
He drove us toward the center of the city, but nearing 3am nothing along the way looked opened or at all welcoming. We were laughing in the backseat, partly out of terror and partly out of being overtired. We passed an hourly hotel, which I was all for but Nathan vetoed. (My argument: we’re only sleeping three hours. His argument: it’s super seedy and gross). The driver took us to a small hotel on the outskirts of the city, where a nice middle aged woman gave us a room while the driver lingered at the door and argued for more and more money, then after taking three times what we agreed on (we were too tired to fight it), had the audacity to ask if we wanted a ride the next day. We didn’t.
A few hours later, surprisingly awake, we found a taxi for a fifth of the price to take us back to the airport to pick up our rental car. What an eventful first few hours it had been. Luckily, things went more smoothly once we got our rental. The customer service representative was so lovely and friendly, and gave us a few tips on where to stop for food and views.
About 40 minutes outside Tbilisi, we stopped in Mtskheta. Here we had our first and best, khachapuri of the trip. Or was it the best because it was the first? We’ll never really know. Khachapuri is bread and cheese put together in any number of ways, often with additions like eggs or meat, and varying based on region. Here’s a fairly exhaustive guide. The Mtskheta khachapuri was of the Imeruli variety.
There are plenty of opportunities along the way to stop at random castles and other monuments, and once we stopped to fill our water bottles in a stream and found coffee in what looked like someone’s house. Road trips are the best.
The farther north we drove, the more impressive the mountains. Dramatic peaks rose around us, first rugged and brown, then snowcapped.
One area around Gudauri, just before the Jvari pass, was especially stunning. Get out here and take photos from the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument–a stone monument depicting scenes from Russian and Georgian history, and that screams ‘soviet architecture’ from miles away–where you can look down on the Devil’s Valley and it’s bright blue lake.
The roads were full of potholes and the tunnels were narrow. At times we had to stop for up to 20 minutes and wait for strings of trucks to make their way through. The scenery was pretty though, and we weren’t in a rush. My favorite people to travel with are those who can laugh through crises and can fill inevitable waiting time with interesting conversation. Both turned out to be essential qualities within the first 24-hours of this trip.
Arriving in Stepsantsminda, we decided to park and hike straight away. We wanted to make it to up to the Gergeti Trinity Church and back to our hotel before sunset. I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep or the elevation or something else, but it was one of the hardest hikes I’ve done in a long time. Also one of the more rewarding. There’s a road you can follow, which would make it much easier, but we decided to take a shortcut and climb right up the side of the mountain. I was dying by the time we reached the top, but the views were a good distraction. (I was also happy to read later that the hike usually takes three hours, and we did it in one, so my gasping for breath wasn’t so unwarranted). The 14th century church isn’t itself that interesting, but looking out over rolling green hills and across at imposing Mount Kazbegi is worth the trek.
Wandering back, we found ourselves arriving at Rooms Hotel just in time for happy hour. What a pretty happy hour it was. We sat inside on cozy couches watching the mountains change hues with the setting sun through floor-to-ceiling windows, sipping wine and beer and snacking on the second khachapuri of the trip. This time it was the Megruli kind, which is like pizza.
There’s a large balcony too, with blankets and pillows for guests. Later, in the spacious dining room with large communal wooden tables, we had a wonderful meal of vegetables cooked in a clay pot with fragrant spices. We also had Kubdari, our third foray into the world of khachapuri in 12 hours, this time filled with meat and onions.
Rooms Hotel is like your grandpa’s study meets Brooklyn coffee shop meets Alpine luxury hotel. The former Brutalist building has been restored by two Georgian architects and the entire place exudes elegance and warmth.
Coffee on the balcony with mountain views was a highlight, as was the pool. Breakfast was a huge spread of eggs, cold cuts, breads, pastries, fruit, mini khachapuri, cereal, yogurt, and more. Perfect for fueling up before a hike. I could have sat in the library area reading all day, but eventually we had to move on.
Though it was the same route we had just driven, on the way back to Tbilisi we couldn’t stop pointing out how beautiful the scenery was. If we would have been able to stop staring at it (and in my case stop filming it), maybe we wouldn’t have hit the pothole that gave us a flat tire while in the middle of a bridge on a particularly steep ledge. While Nathan changed the tire (which he actually did quite efficiently), I tried to give reassuring smiles to the many trucks that drove past and stared, and listed positive aspects of the mishap. At least it wasn’t freezing. At least it wasn’t dark. At least it was on our way back and not there. And most positive of all, at least I have the exact moment the tire popped on film, which would probably be funny to watch eventually. (It was funny about five minutes later).
A Long Weekend In Tbilisi
Our days in Tbilisi are kind of a blur. We ate, we walked, we drank, we walked, we ate some more, we drank some more, we walked some more. Here are few memorable moments and a few places you should seek out:
Browsing the Dry Bridge market–Rows and rows of vendors selling Soviet passports, army gear, cameras, and other goods line the streets around the bridge. Beautiful dishware alongside rusty appliances. Books, jewelry, keychains. Things that look valuable and things that look overpriced, but you’ll never know which is actually which. I didn’t buy anything, but it was a lot of fun to look.
Fabrika–This hostel and urban hotspot is tucked in a cute area of the city. The building used to be a soviet sewing factory, and is now a renovated gathering place for artists, musicians, and other creators. The building is industrial but the furnishings are bright and cheery. It’s a really cool place and worth hanging out to get a coffee or drink, and to check out the on-site boutiques.
Old Tbilisi–The historic center of the city is layered with colorful wooden houses that have carved balconies that look like doilies, sulphur baths, churches, and gardens. We walked around the area for a few hours and and to the Holy Trinity Cathedral church, which has nice views over the city.
Juice at Organique Josper Bar–We had lemon and carrot and a side of chacha, Georgian brandy (not for the faint of heart). The food looked great too.
“Detox, detox, detox, vacation” – Nathan when we first ordered these lemon and carrot juices, and one very strong serving of chacha (a brandy) in Georgia. This morning after what feels like a gazillion hours of travel, I could really use the detox, detox, detox. Or some sort of magical jet lag cure…
Khachapuri–We tried the Adjaruli variety at Sakhachapuri #1, along with two others (potatoes and more cheese) that we definitely did not need. We found another small shop I will never be able to tell you the name of, where we had Lobiani, or bean-filled khachapuri. Are you starting to see the need for all the walking?
Vino Underground–In their own words:
Vino Underground was founded by eight wine growers that share a common philosophy in how they grow their vines and how they raised their wines. In Georgian you don’t say you “make” wine you say you “raise” it actually, like raising a child until it can walk independently. We believe that wine with strong varietal character, and expression of terroir can be made, when there is as little intervention as possible, it is more about the quality of the grapes, and how you farm than what you do in the cellar. When you listen to the vines and help them have a robust immune system, through natural struggle, and by keeping a rich balance of flora and fauna in the vineyard, you end up with grapes that are naturally balanced and have lively yeast populations. This means when the grapes are crushed you don’t need to add any yeast or enzymes to help with primary or malolactic fermentation. Likewise, the addition of anything to “correct” the wine in the cellar is seen as unnecessary, and rather than enhancing often “standardizes” the wines making them less unique with less character.
The bar serves about 100 wines, most of them made the traditional way–in ceramic qvevris buried in the ground. We did both the white and red tasting, where we learned a ton about Georgian wine, found a couple we liked (and one we really didn’t) and had a few things that surprised us. The bright, minerally Rkatsiteli from Dasabami seemed like the perfect summer white, while the more robust Saperavi was the kind of red I normally like. I had never had amber wine before, but imagine a tannin-infused rosé and you get the idea. Skins, seeds, and stems are included in the fermentation process, giving it color that makes it look like a dessert wine, though it’s not sweet at all. I loved it and can’t wait to seek it out in the US.
Barbarestan–This restaurant is one of the more traditional Georgian restaurants in Tbilisi. We had a wonderful meal of breads and dipping sauces, stuffed zucchini in a walnut sauce, and duck with pear and pomegranate. The space is small and cozy and there were some traditional singers in the corner. If you’re looking for an authentic meal in Tbilisi, this is it.
Lolita & Cafe Manu–These indoor/outdoor bars across from our hotel were buzzing with young, stylish Georgians drinking until late in the evening. Open for coffee in the mornings too.
Khinkali at Sofia Melnikova’s Fantastic Douqan–Khinkali are Georgian soup-filled dumplings with mixes of meat, vegetables, herbs, and cheese. There’s a science to eating them, and we attempted to perfect it while sitting in a picturesque courtyard.
Rooms Hotel–We loved the Rooms Hotel in Kazbegi so much that we stayed at their other location in Tbilisi too. While they’re similar, this one has more of a young, hip feel. The bar draws a crowd of locals and has a nice speciality drink list and a DJ. The breakfast is similar to the spread in Kazbegi, but served in a slightly fancier dining room. The rooms are quirky–ours had red and black wallpaper and a bathtub right in the middle (which was a lifesaver after too much Georgian wine).
At both locations, the staff was incredibly friendly and accommodating. Where Kazbegi had views, the Tbilisi location had accessibility. The hotel is within steps of bars, restaurants, and shopping, and walkable to the old city. At the same time, it feels tucked away in a neighborhood, giving you the best of both worlds.
All in all, Georgia was worth the years of percolating in the back of my mind until I finally made the trip. I only wish we had more time! Batumi and other areas along the Black Sea look amazing, there are wineries to explore, so many more mountains, and at least five more types of khachapuri. Maybe in another six years…