Tbilisi – Europe’s ‘most exciting city’ – is finally back on the map

The rooftop restaurant Republic 24 puts a modern twist on traditional Georgian cuisine

For the better part of a decade, the international travel press has described Tbilisi as the new Berlin, Europe’s most exciting city and an emerging fashion capital. But with no direct flights since the start of the Covid pandemic, British tourists have been missing out on the charms of this dynamic, enticing and ever-changing destination.

Fortunately, that will change soon. Start-up airline Air Iveria is launching a route from Gatwick to the Georgian capital on May 13, cutting travel time to just over four hours and making it realistic to visit over a long weekend. This summer it’s time to head east to the Caucasian edge of Europe and experience everything that’s new.

Aviation analyst Sean Moulton sees the resumption of flights to London as part of Georgia’s push for closer ties with the West, and the increasing number of tourists will certainly boost the economy. International involvement seems to be one of the driving forces behind Georgian creativity, and many foreign artists, designers and entrepreneurs flock to Tbilisi in search of inspiration, adding their own energy and ideas to the mix.

Tbilisi’s fashion scene rivals London and Paris in its imagination, if not at the height of its profile. The Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi is one of the city’s biggest cultural events, and the next edition will take place in early May 2024, likely to coincide with the Zero Compromise natural wine festival.

Georgian designers have a well-deserved reputation for bold political statements: last year’s collections at MBFW Tbilisi were described by Fashion as a sentiment “as a rallying cry of the Georgian fashion community – against the war in Ukraine, against conservative politics and against the constant threat of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment.” Tbilisi gives Ukrainian designers a platform alongside their Georgian counterparts, and outside of fashion week you can buy from both nationalities at Ne.Klassika, a new concept store focused on sustainable clothing. Fashion lovers should also familiarize themselves with the exuberantly flamboyant Akà Prodiàshvili, and the more mainstream but still elegant Situationist.

Models show what they do during the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi in May 2023Models show what they do during the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi in May 2023

Models show their stuff during the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi in May 2023 – Victor Boyko/Getty

Berhasm, which has exhibited at Paris Fashion Week and in Tbilisi, is a collective of fashion designers, artists and musicians from Georgia, Russia and Ukraine. Its founding in Tbilisi predates the Russian invasion, but is representative of the creatives who have found themselves in voluntary or involuntary exile in Georgia. The group’s members grew up in the shadow of Soviet rule and share that history, as well as a commitment to standing up against oppression through creativity. The clothing brand Berhasm, led by Georgian designer Beso Turazashvili, emerged from the Eastern European club scene, and their collections, campaigns and events always speak loudly about social causes.

Art dealer David Finestein moved from New York to Tbilisi in 2021 and established his gallery Dissolution in a basement space in the city center. “Opening an accessible space allowed me to worry less about the financial aspects of the gallery and focus more on showing artists I could identify with,” he explains. Finestein defends the work of emerging artists from Georgia and abroad and creates a platform for cross-border projects such as the Azerbaijani and Georgian photographers who work together in the union F37.

International cooperation is also the message at the Tbilisi Photography & Multimedia Museum. TPMM recently joined forces with American ‘punk poet’ Patti Smith’s Soundwalk Collective for a two-month multi-sensory exhibition on the growing impacts of climate change. TPMM’s curators are particularly interested in the role of women photographers in researching, promoting and advocating for change, and organize workshops and events in addition to exhibitions.

Tbilisi is the master of reinvention and in the last ten years I have visited and it has reinvented itself several times. Georgia’s geography, politics and economy can be challenging, but this seems to ignite a creative fire that fuels relentless experimentation. Add to that the unusual combination of a proud, strong national identity, but also an enthusiasm for welcoming foreigners, and something magical happens. Once the new flights to Tbilisi start, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

The dramatically situated Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel overlooks the river and mountainsThe dramatically situated Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel overlooks the river and mountains

The dramatically situated Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel overlooks the river and mountains

Where to stay

The dramatically situated Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel (radissonhotels.com; rooms from £132) is in the heart of Tbilisi, overlooking not only the city but also the river and mountains. You’ll want to visit the Anne Semonin Spa just for the views from the indoor infinity pool, and dine at least once at Umami, where the chefs offer theatrically delicious food.

If you have more than a weekend, combine the sights of Tbilisi with rest and relaxation at the Tsinandali Estate (tsinandaliestate.ge) in Kakheti. This is the country’s premier wine region and Tsinandali has its own vineyard and winery, a palace and a fantastic, contemporary Radisson Collection Hotel (rooms from £120).

Where to eat

Food is a crucial part of any visit to Tbilisi, and Georgian hospitality is such that you can’t avoid going home fatter and happier. Republic 24 (republic.ge) puts a modern twist on traditional Georgian cuisine. Don’t miss the selection of pkhali, vegetable pates with ground walnuts and pomegranate seeds; or the khinkali, giant steamed dumplings with different fillings. On weekends the restaurant is open 24 hours a day (hence the name), so if the partying has worked up an appetite, you can always drop by at 4am KhachapuriGeorgia’s unforgettable melted cheese bread.

Take a walking tour to explore the Old TownTake a walking tour to explore the Old Town

Join a walking tour to explore the Old Town – GNTA

Where to drink

Tbilisi is known for its nightlife, but Noble Savage (noble-savage.club) is particularly cool and open every Friday and Saturday evening from 11pm. There are often international acts on stage – R&B singer Macy Gray, Afro-Brazilian percussionist and DJ NenaHalena and Berlin club favorite Madmotormiquel all performed in 2023 – but you’ll also hear the latest homegrown sounds.

For a quieter (or earlier) evening, the nearby Republic Bar (republic.ge) has an imaginative cocktail menu: a Yellow Jade (bay leaf-infused vodka, Quaglia Bergamotto, seaberry, lemongrass, lemon, licorice) or Sizmara (anise and coriander-infused white rum, Golden Falernum, watermelon, lemon, celery bitters) costs just over £7. The bar also has an excellent list of local wines, including those from the historic Tsinandali Estate Winery, the first place to produce Georgian wine in the 1840s bottled.

Join a tour

Backstreets of Tbilisi (tbilisifreewalkingtours.com; Sundays and Tuesdays at noon) is a free walking tour that combines the quirky architecture and stories of the German Settlement, New Tiflis and some parts of the Old Town. The itinerary includes the Dry Bridge Flea Market, and if something there catches your eye, it can be very helpful to have a local guide on hand to bargain for you.

Avoid the crowds

The 160-hectare National Botanical Garden of Georgia (nbgg.ge) is located right in the center of Tbilisi. You can walk in from the old town. There were royal gardens here in the 17th century as the location is close to the fortress, although it has been greatly expanded and now has more than 4,500 plant species. It’s a beautiful place to explore, especially when the weather is nice.

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