Tbilisi Old Town, the Main Attraction
The Old Town in Tbilisi has become the main attraction of Georgia’s capital. Its crowded slopes lie snuggled between the steep slopes of Mtatsminda Park, the Botanical Garden and Narikala Fortress. Many tourists flock to the cobbled alleys in Betlemi to discover the beautifully restored traditional houses with their signature wooden “mushrabi” balconies and stained glass windows. We had avoided the district during our first stay in Tbilisi at the beginning of our trip, knowing that we would stay in the area before heading back home at the end.
Sololaki, the Lesser Travelled Part of Town
I had worried that our small hotel, the stylish Communal, would be in an area overrun with tourists, but I should not have worried. The serene location at the end of a small side street in Sololaki had yet to be discovered by most travellers visiting Tbilisi. An area populated with local residents and void of the larger hotels and expat communities it oozed a relaxed and laid back feel with cool cafes and restaurants. Jerome was excited about the large bathtub in our room and the view of the TV Tower in Mtatsminda Park and its constantly changing colours at night on the weekend.
A Place For Plant and Nature Lovers
After our arrival from Stepantsminda the previous day, we decided to explore the immediate area and our priority was a visit the Botanical gardens, which had been recommended by friends as a must see in Tbilisi. Lovers of nature and plants, we had already seen incredible flower meadows and landscapes on our many hikes in the Higher and Lower Caucasus, we wondered if the Botanical Garden could equally enchant us. Jerome was also keen to have a swim under the sulphur spring waterfall that lies at the centre of the grounds as the weather was still hot.
Viewpoint Over the City
The majority of visitors to the Botanical Gardens access the parkland by taking the cable car from Rike Park or they wander up the winding lanes from Betlemi to the Central Gate, just after the mosque. From our road higher up in the quarter we could walk along a path that runs along the ridge, parallel to Sololaki Street to the Mother of Georgia Statue and its viewpoint over the entire city.
Fun on the Zip Line
Shortly after we entered the Botanical Garden Jerome spotted the Zip Line. Ever since our first exhilarating ride on a zip line in Italy he was keen to “fly” again. Zipin was a bargain (30GEL per person) compared to our first ride and Jerome and I treated our selves to a flight across the Botanical Gardens. It was a completely new structure and safety seemed to be their highest priority. Please note that only children of a height over 120cm are allowed to ride the zip line though! Strapped in we began our flight on parallel wires, Jerome at first was ahead of me but I soon overtook him, which somewhat annoyed him. Over all too soon, and somewhat slower and lower than our ride in Italy, this zip line ride was nowhere near as thrilling as our gondola ride in Chiatura but it certainly was fun!
The Japanese Garden
The zip line had landed us near the Japanese Gardens and we headed there first. Sadly the Japanese Gardens were a big disappointment for us, maybe our many visits to Japan had tampered our expectations. It seemed almost like the designer had wanted to get as many Japanese features into a tiny little space. The concrete Mount Fuji looked cheap next to the bright vermillion tori gate and bridge. To Jerome’s disappointment there was no water running along the stream and the bamboo fence was plastic. We hoped the rest of the gardens would be better.
Wanders Through the Botanical Garden
Once Chris had joined us again we wandered deeper into the Botanical Gardens, up steep stairs, past shrubs and underneath the canopy of trees. The Glasshouse was closed, despite the advertised opening hours and overall the gardens felt mostly more like a well-tended park than any home to exciting varieties of exotic plants. According to a signpost, the Gardens date back to the 17th century, when three gardens were laid out for the king and later merged into the Botanical Gardens. It is supposed to contain over 3500 species and varieties of flora but maybe we visited at the wrong time of year to see it in its full beauty. Having said that some of the plants and the overall landscape did delight us, and all of the little paths were fun to stroll along.
The Sulfur Waterfall
Eventually after a long wander to the back of the gardens, we reached the stream that would eventually turn into a waterfall and Jerome started to get excited about the upcoming swim. First we stood on the Queen Tamar Bridge that runs across the waterfall and took a peek down to the pool underneath. We had expected a strong smell of sulphide but could only make out a very faint note of foul eggs, unlike during our hike in the Truso Valley. Below there were a few kids splashing in the pool at the bottom of the fall, while the adults lazed on the flat, rocky shore.
A Swim Under the Waterfall
We found a quiet spot further away from the main pool, next to the stream and changed into bathing gear. It was good to cool off with a brief dip underneath the waterfall, but we had swum in clearer and cleaner water in other parts of the country however it was still welcome on a hot summer’s day. While we relaxed, Jerome was eager to dam the stream and divert its course. He succeeded surprisingly well using just leaves and rocks to create a pool, although I suspect many other kids had done so in the past.
The Rest of the Gardens
Afterwards we strolled through the rest of the Botanical Gardens, there was nothing else outstanding, except maybe the shell of a rusting greenhouse near a lily pond. We left through the central entrance guiding us down into the bustling Betlemi quarter.
Old Sulphur Bathhouses
Descending the steep street we briefly glanced into the last mosque of Tbilisi, with its intricate wall paintings and impressive chandeliers. At the bottom of the hill we turned right into Abano Street and found the area where all the public bathhouses can be found. Straight ahead was the most famous and striking bathhouse, the Chreli Abano, with its two minarets and intricate tiled façade it resembles a mosque. The other bathhouses lie underground but are easily distinguishable by the brick domes popping out from the ground like bowler hats. We were told that the permeating stink of sulphur announce the bathhouses from far away but again, we did not detect any strong foul smells.
On the Slopes of Betlemi
We decided that we would return to take a bath at one of the old bathhouses another day and wandered back in the general direction of our hotel, thinking that we would stop at a restaurant for an early dinner. Not really with any specific eatery in mind we walked up the steep slopes of the Betlemi Quarter. The recent beautification had done wonders to most of the buildings many of them having been turned into hotels and guesthouses. Despite the extensive restoration it is still possible to get a feel for how life must have been in this densely populated area in Tbilisi and every now and then shabby wooden houses will transport you into another bygone era. Our wanders took us up through the quarter until we stepped onto an old terrace near a tiny chapel with views across the city, then steps led down to the lower levels.
Modernizing Tiblisi’s Townscape
Around Lado Gudashivali Square we suddenly encountered an entire street clad with scaffolding and giant tarpaulins. An eerie feeling and mood surrounded us, it was almost like walking through a war torn site or the film set of a ghost movie. In some of the houses we spotted builders and each of the building had a computer-generated image of the finished renovations. In a way I preferred the charm of the unchanged abodes, the modernized version seemed to have lost their soul along the way. It was weird to walk this area but I am sure in just some months they will have transformed the shells of the houses into new residences.
Dinner at Restaurant Linville
Linville, our choice of restaurant for dinner that evening turned out to be one of the charming houses in Tbilisi that had yet avoided the renovation boom and just walking up the crooked steps into the restaurant felt like stepping into a doll’s house. Each room was different, the walls covered in chintzy wallpaper, plush sofas and chairs and the faded photos and paintings gave us the impression of being transported back a few decades. The food was the standard Georgian fare and admittedly we had enjoyed better before. However, the overall setting was exceptional and an experience in itself.
Our Conclusion on the Old Town and the Botanical Garden
We had enjoyed our wanders through the old town of Tbilisi, especially through the quieter, lesser-explored streets in Sololaki. The Botanical Garden did not “wow” us but Jerome and I enjoyed our fun ride on the zip line and the picnic near the spring and waterfall. Betlemi certainly deserves its recognition as one of the most beautiful parts of Tbilisi and we returned to soak at Gulo’s Abano on our last day in Georgia, more in a following post. The next day we would meet up again with our friends and visit their family winery, an unusual and inspiring experience that would give us an insight into wine production something different to almost all tourists and travellers experiences.
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