What It Costs: Travel in Tbilisi
Though you’re probably more likely to visit Georgia for amazing rural churches or the beaches of Batumi, you will almost certainly spend time in the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi. Rather than rushing through on the way to other adventures, take some time to explore. The prices are right (which is to say low!), the people are friendly, and after weeks in the mountains of Georgia you will probably see Tbilisi as a bastion of coffee and pastries and everything good in the world.
At the truly barebones end you could probably get by as a tourist in Tbilisi for about 25 Lari ($14) per day, but this is going to be a pretty unhealthy diet of delicious fried foods and not much in the way of museums or pay-to-play activities during the day. If your budget allows for around 50 Lari ($28.65) per day you can absorb some culture, eat some really tasty foods, and drink a bit of that famous Georgian red wine.
A Day’s Expenses for Travel in Tbilisi:
Kachipuri Breakfast: 4 Lari ($2)
Two Metro Rides: 1 Lari ($.50)
Museum Entrance: 10 Lari ($6)
Khinkali Lunch: 6 Lari ($3.5)
Dinner at a Budget Restaurant: 11 Lari ($6)
Midrange Budget Dorm Bed: 15 Lari ($9)
Total: 47 Lari ($27)
Meals, Accommodation, and Transport
Meals. Georgian food is GOOD, whether you want to pick up a quick bite from a bakery or a full sit-down meal. We’ve really got to talk for a minute, though, about Khachipuri. This fried bread stuffed with salty cheese and topped with some combination of eggs and potatoes and butter and even more cheese is a truly magical sort of thing. It can sop up a hangover in the blink of an eye (Georgia is renown as the original home of wine, after all!), fill you up at lunch for one of the cheapest meals in town, and it packs well on long marshrutka rides on your way out of the city. I liked them so much that I could never bring myself to delay consumption long enough to take a photo of one! Another favorite in Tbilisi is the khinkali, a baseball-sized soup dumpling spiced with coriander and piled high on a big plate. One full order is enough to share between two or three, often, and you can choose from a range of fillings from meaty gravy goodness to vegetarian delights. The real travelers’ coup in Georgia, if you can pull it off, it to get yourself invited to a traditional supra feast. Piles and piles of food, flowing wine and vodka, and enough speeches to make a Toastmaster dizzy.
Accommodation. In Tbilisi there are a range of hostels from $10 or less. One that stands out as particularly noteworthy both for the dungeon-like nature of its dorm rooms and the free-flowing nature of its dinner and house wine (both included even in the price of the $6 dorm beds) is the Hostel Georgia. If the free food/drink isn’t enough of a motivator, however, a few dollars more per night can buy a perfectly comfortable bed in the center of town at a number of Tbilisi Hotels. On the other end, there are of course chain places like Marriott and Holiday Inn that are happy to take your Lari as well.
Transportation. Like in much of the former Soviet Union, the most extensive form of public transportation is a the ubiquitous minibus taxi known as marshrutka. Small, crowded, and hard to make out routes for; these are not the easiest choice for travelers. Bus are better, with signs usually in Georgian and English showing destinations or at least a general area. Finally, the Metro system in Tbilisi is quite easy to use. A Metro card requires a deposit of 2 Lari, but once you have it loaded each trip on the Metro or public busses will debit .50 Lari from your balance.
Sightseeing in Tbilisi
There are plenty of museums and art galleries in central Tbilisi, but most of them are not exactly world class so make sure the exhibits are something that falls well within your interests before committing the time and money (often around 10 Lari). Of more interest both as cultural attractions and objects of photographic interest are the many historic churches wedged into neighborhoods both old and new. After wandering through the smaller and primarily residential neighborhoods that surround the city center, a walk down Rustaveli Avenue in the early evening is a great counterpoint. With fashionable cafes and foreign brands, the contrast between here and a traditional district like Vake or Old Town is immense.
Once you’ve had your fill of the city center, get out of the bottom of the Mtkvari River Valley and into the hills that surround Tbilisi. Whether a funicular ride up to the Church of St. David at Mtatsminda or a quick walk up to the Narikala Fortress, there are a number of tourist spots/ historic monuments that also offer expansive views of Tbilisi.
ATMs and Cash
ATMs are quite prevalent in Tbilisi, though less so in the rural parts of Georgia. Cash is king for most transactions, however, so don’t plan on charging too much to a credit card while you’re traveling here. If you need USD as a backup stash or to take with you to your next country, several of the ATMs on busy Rustaveli street offer that as a withdrawal option as well. Rustaveli is also a popular drinking area in the evenings and of course, like in any major city, you should try not to wander around late at night and after a few beers with a big stack of cash on you.
Making the most of your time in Tbilisi
Georgians are remarkably friendly (even in Tbilisi!) and the city itself is endlessly fascinating to wander around. There are plenty of tourist attractions as delineated above, but to be honest equally or more interesting is to just start walking in a new direction for a few hours to see what the many different eras of development and regulation have done to the face of the city. With quite a long list of countries who can visit visa-free for 90 days out of 180, you will have plenty of time to explore. Of course, if you DO get tired of Tbilisi you can always head up to the mountains of Svaneti for a bit of amazing hiking!
Have you been to Tbilisi? Did khachipuri change your life as much as it did mine? Tell us about it in the comments section!