JOIN ME IN AN INTERVIEW WITH QUJI BICHIA FROM TBILISI, GEORGIA!
QUJI IS A RESTLESS AND ROAMING GEORGIAN, WHOSE LOVE FOR TRAVEL HAS TAKEN HIM TO MANY PLACES IN AND BEYOND GEORGIA. HE IS AN AVID BOOK READER AS WELL AS A BREAKDANCER AT HEART AND IS CURRENTLY PURSUING HIS PHD IN ECONOMICS FROM THE TBILISI STATE UNIVERSITY. BE SURE TO CHECK OUT HIS BREAKDANCING BLOG WHICH IS QUITE POPULAR AND IS ONE OF ITS KIND.
Which is the best month to visit Tbilisi and why?
It depends on whether you want to spend all time in Tbilisi or travel around Georgia to experience a range of different climates and sights. Summers are quite hot and humid in Tbilisi, while autumn and winter are both reasonably mild. The best time to visit would be May-June or September-October. August is way too hot in Tbilisi and most people leave to sea side resorts or mountain villages of Georgia. May is very eventful month, as well as a month of probably the most pleasant weather. There’s wine fest during the second week of May, where you can try wines from late-harvest grapes. Georgia brags with a long tradition of winemaking, which goes back for 8 000 years. A recent international research dubbed the country as a cradle of viticulture. So it’s a big event. For book lovers, Tbilisi hosts an international book fair, where local publishers and bookstores exhibit their products with special, promotional prices. Documentary film lovers will appreciate a CinéDOC-Tbilisi film festival, which brings some of the influential movies to the capital. May 26 is Independence Day and the central roads are closed for cars. There’s a fair on Rustaveli Avenue where the different ministries have stands to showcase their achievements to the public, while small producers of Georgian foods or drinks have stands to showcase their products.
In June, Tbilisi Open Air hosts music festivals in the outskirts of Tbilisi, bringing together local and international artists of rock and electronic music. Moreover, you’ll see many locals at Lisi and Turtle Lakes, appreciating their spare time with family and loved ones.
There’s a special day dedicated to Tbilisi, called Tbilisoba. Recently it is celebrated during full weekend in late October but it’s not a fixed date. There are often events during late September or early October leading up to it. A lot of people are coming out to celebrate it and participate in events. You may find people singing Georgian traditional polyphonic music or dancing traditional dances.
October is also the time of grape harvest or Rtveli as Georgians call it. It is the main event for people in Kakheti region and tourists often go to wine tasting and wine museum tours there. Sometimes there’s beer fest in October in Tbilisi but it’s not happening every year.
Which is the most convenient and favoured transport of Tbilisi?
Cars are the most favoured transport in Tbilisi but there are many ways to get around. Taxi is not an expensive option if you’re moving within center. It’s common to negotiate fairs with regular taxi drivers but taxi services like Taxify have fixed fairs calculated by distance. Generally, the cost to any place in the city may be between 3 GEL and 7 GEL ($1.1-$2.7 in current rates). There’s also a metro system with 2 lines that reaches to most places. You need to purchase a card for 2 GEL (80 cents) and load it with credit, this can be done at every metro station. One ride costs 0.5 GEL and you can use one card for multiple people. The same card and prices apply to busses and, once you paid, you can travel for free on any bus or train station for 2 hours. Google Maps shows bus numbers that go to each bus stop in the city and if you click on the number it shows you the other stops on the route. If you decide visiting Tbilisi, you should definitely check out bus number 37, which takes you to and from the airport and is far cheaper than any taxi. Trains and busses tend to get very full on busy routes, which may be inconvenient, especially during summer.
There’s also a separate minibus system called Marshrutka. Rides cost between 0.8 and 1 GEL and can be paid using exact change (pay the driver when you leave) or a Metro Card. They may be confusing for tourists because they don’t have specified stops and don’t run to a schedule. But they have specific routes just like busses and you need to know the number you need to take or read the route, while it’s passing by (it’s only in Georgian). Marshrutka stops only if someone waves or someone in the minibus asks to stop (you can say “gamichere”).
Commuting in Tbilisi may be a very different experience depending on what time of the day you are moving around. Try to avoid rush hours.
What are the top 3 must visit places in Tbilisi?
One cannot visit Tbilisi and not check out rich sights of Old Tbilisi, which is full of old religious and secular architecture. The district houses a bulk of the tourist attractions in Tbilisi, including churches, synagogues, mosques, museums, sulphur bathhouses, peculiar wooden houses with open, carved balconies and the superb panoramic views of the Old city. It chiefly represents a 19th-century urban fabric with largely eclectic architecture.
It is easy to go from here to Mtatsminda, which is the mountain topped by the 210m-high TV mast that overlooks central Tbilisi (known as Eiffel tower of Tbilisi). The mast is visible from any place in central Tbilisi. Located 800-metres above the city, Mtatsminda Park is a famous landscaped park that has been a popular fun spot for generations. In the days of the Soviet Union, Mtatsminda Park was the third most visited public park in the USSR. There’s an amusement park, as well as outdoor cafes and beautiful gardens. The park can be reached by busses or by the funicular railway.
You can also visit National Botanical Garden, a really green and vast garden on a mountain. The park is located near the Mother of Georgia and the Sulphur Bath area. Mother of Georgia is a statue erected on the top of Sololaki hill in 1958, the year Tbilisi celebrated its 1500th anniversary. This 20m-tall aluminium symbol of Tbilisi holds a sword in one hand and a cup of wine in the other – a classic metaphor for the Georgian character, warmly welcoming guests and passionately fighting off enemies. That has been the history of Georgia for many centuries. You can take a walk next to the statue and check out Narikala fortress or see the view of the botanical garden from there but to get from here to the botanical garden you need to go around. The botanical garden itself is more of a forest, less affected by human touch. You can find a waterfall there. Yes, right next to the center of Tbilisi is a forest and a waterfall!
Tbilisi is full of old and new churches (starting from VI century till just couple of years ago) but Holy Trinity Cathedral is the most grandiose of them all. It is the main cathedral of the Georgian Orthodox Church and synthesizes traditional styles dominating the Georgian church architecture at various stages in history and has some Byzantine undertones. It is erected on the Elia Hill and can be seen from far away too. It also is a church with the biggest garden in Georgia.
Which is the most celebrated holiday of the year in Tbilisi?
Georgians love their holidays. That’s why we have many holidays with 2 dates, by new and old ‘Julian’ calendar. The most celebrated holiday is New Year. It is around 2 weeks of celebrations in Georgia, starting from January 1 (December 31 night), Georgians celebrate it with the Christmas tree and Chichilaki. Chichilaki is a traditional decoration, carved from dried wood, processed until it gets fluffy and curly shavings. It has wood chips at the top, where people attach fruits. Traditionally they are burned on the day before the Georgian Orthodox Epiphany, on January 19, hoping that together with its smoke all troubles will be gone. The New Year’s table is covered in all kinds of national meals and sweets. More sweets at the table means a sweeter year. On second day after the New Year (both, new and old), we have Bedoba – “a day of fate”. According to the old tradition, what happens on this day, happens throughout the whole next year, so cheerful mood is advised. People visit each other bringing their fate to the host with their foot, bringing gifts and necessarily some sweets. There’s a celebration table with meals, wine and toasts almost every day starting from January 1 till January 14, when the old New Year is celebrated.
On January 7, Georgians celebrate Orthodox Christmas. On this day many people will go on ‘Alilo’, a parade in the streets, dressed in special clothes and costumes. Some people carry Georgian flags and others might be dressed as people from the Christmas story. Children like taking part in the Alilo as they’re often given sweets for singing carols. Most of the New Year celebrations happen in families but there are public event too. So there’s something for everyone.
Which is the most happening area in Tbilisi and why?
Rustaveli Avenue is the liveliest place in Tbilisi together with Freedom Square at the end of it. A lot of festivals happen here. You’ll find Wine Factory N1 here, an old factory space renovated to fit different restaurants and bars connected in a nice garden. There’s also Shardeni Street that is considered the fanciest area of Tbilisi and it’s close to Freedom Square. There are many restaurants and clubs around. You will see more tourists than locals here at times.
You might wanna check out Fabrika too. It’s a multifunctional and multicultural place on Ninoshvili Street. It’s a hostel with creative space and bars in the yard, hosting all kinds of events on a regular basis.
Where can one find amazing street food in Tbilisi?
Street food in Tbilisi is mostly dominated by variations of khachapuri (Georgian cheese pizza) and shaurma (doner kebab). I would recommend Sakhachapure №1 for eating khachapuri. There are actually many kinds of khachapuri. They come in different shapes and contents but regular one is the best starting point. If you’re interested in shaurma, best shaurma is served at Freiburg and at Gldani’s Shaurma chain.
You can also find churchkhela in the streets at some places. It’s a string of walnuts or hazelnuts covered in grape juice that is thickened with flour. It comes in many thicknesses and colors and all of them are very tasty snack!
Where to head for affordable shopping?
Lilo mall offers cheaper prices and has big variety of products including cloths, housewares, construction materials and whatnot but the language may be a problem for a tourist. Knowing Russian will help in this situation. Lilo mall is outside the city but public transport is going there if you don’t have a car. There’s also a flea market at Dry Bridge, where one can find all kinds of souvenirs. For cheap food you can visit Deserters’ Market. Yes, you heard that right. It’s called Deserters’ Market because apparently in the 1920s army deserters sold their weapons and army clothes here. It’s an open air market with low standards for hygiene. For better maintained market you can check out Carrefour.
Which is the most loved local food in Tbilisi, both sweet and savory?
Almost everyone going to restaurants in Tbilisi always orders khinkali as a necessary part of the table. It is a meat dumpling. The meat is uncooked when it’s wrapped up in the dough. The dumplings are boiled, producing broth inside. If you can suck it out on the first bite without spilling one drop on a plate, it means you’re a good kisser! The etiquette for eating khinkali requires using both hands. The dough has twisted knob, called kuchi (stomach), which is usually not eaten. It’s mostly used to count how many a person ate. One of the best places to taste them is a restaurant chain Pasanauri. There are variations of khinkali with potato purée, mushroom or cheese but they’re not quite the same experience.
If you are a cheese-lover you will definitely fall for gebjalia. It’s made from Sulguni (local cheese). Sulguni is cut and melted in boiling milk, then flattened and mixed with peppermint and green chili pepper (also, sometimes garlic). It’s rolled like a roulette and cut into rolls, later dipped in a mix of sour cream, curd and boiled milk. Not many restaurants offer a good quality gebjalia but I can recommend restaurant Dadiani for every west Georgian meal, including gebjalia (it’s a pricey restaurant though).
Which side of the road does Tbilisi drive on? Is it cycle friendly?
Right side of the road is where we roam. You may still see right-wheeled cars on the road because they used to be cheaper to get. The roads are definitely not cycle friendly. There are few streets with cycle lanes but they aren’t very busy because you can’t cover much ground with these lanes and the car roads are too dangerous for cycling. We are making progress on becoming cycle-friendly but it’s a slow process…
Would you recommend any popular local apps to tourists for transport, food and hidden gems?
I recommend getting an app for taxi (like Taxify) right away. Taxis that you can stop by waving hand are usually more expensive and worse service. You can get “Tbilisi Public Transport” app that will be your personal public transport planner, available in English and covering all the public transport modes in Tbilisi. But Google maps is convenient enough with all the public transport information embedded in it.
Wolt is a great app if you want a food delivery service with variety of international, as well as local cuisines. We have “Tbilisi Loves You” free Wi-Fi in Tbilisi central areas, which could be useful in tough times, but usually it has a poor performance. Almost all hotels, restaurants and cafes have free Wi-Fi with good performance though.