It was towards the tail-end of a great flight (one of the best I’ve been on after constant delays in my previous flights in Southeast Asia) when I first had a glimpse of Georgia from the window of the plane. Everything was covered with snow and for the nth time, I pondered on my seemingly spontaneous decision of coming here during the depths of the Soviet winter. Average temperatures in Georgia were supposed to hover at around 2 to 10 celsius, but in reality, it turned out to be a numbing -10 to 0 celsius.
I have heard about the legendary Georgian hospitality before, where visitors are believed to come from God. Even from the immigration part alone, it certainly did seem like it. The arrival formalities at the airport was a breeze. Ex-Soviet countries are notorious for gifting tourists with a lot of red tape but Georgia was refreshingly efficient and welcoming. Over 70 nationalities can enter visa-free and Filipinos can enter with a visa on arrival for roughly USD 30. It is the only European country that Filipinos can visit without needing a pre-arranged visa. (Note: Georgia changed its visa regime in September 2014. Visas are no longer issued on arrival and need to be secured beforehand)
city hall of tbilisi
We were met at the arrivals hall by Tengo, the owner of the guesthouse that we were staying in. Since he was charging us roughly the same price as any taxi to Tbilisi, we decided to have him take us to save the hassle of having to locate the guesthouse ourselves.
the usual winter street scene
The snowfall seemed to have cleared as soon as we arrived in the city and slowly, we could see the sun peering out from the clouds. The entry to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi was a cheeky one — we arrived via George Bush Avenue. Georgia is perhaps the only country where George W. Bush is revered. During the long drive, Tengo mentioned to us how he had different Filipino guests who stayed in his guesthouse for the past three consecutive months. I was a bit astonished by this, as most people I know back home aren’t even aware of this country! But as it turns out, the Philippines accounts for the 2nd largest source of Asian tourists in Georgia – second only to China. In 2011 alone, over 6,000 Filipinos visited Georgia. I wonder how they end up there! But during our entire trip at least, I did not encounter a single one.
But I digress.
The guesthouse was conveniently located just off Tbilisi’s main drag called Rustaveli Avenue. This is Tbilisi’s equivalent of Orchard Road, filled with wide sidewalks, brand name stores such as Hugo Boss and Chanel and top hotels like Marriott and Kempinski. Although Georgia itself is not a rich country, the city authorities have tried very hard to spruce up this street to make it at par with famous shopping streets in Europe.
the posh rustaveli avenue – tbilisi’s main drag
After dropping our bags in the guesthouse, we took advantage of the sunshine and went to Narikala Fortress, a medieval structure built on a hill overlooking Tbilisi and from which there are majestic views of the city. From here, the city reveals itself for visitors to appreciate. The skyline – with the Mtkvari river slicing the city into two – is very picturesque and is reminiscent of other great European cities such as Budapest or Prague. There is an ongoing debate about whether Georgia should be a part of Asia or Europe. Even though geographically, it may be more proper to classify it as Asia (Georgia is situated south of the Caucasus mountain range after all), culturally and historically, Georgia is more a part of Europe and this is quite plain to see in the local culture and the city’s architecture.
narikala fortress – overlooking the old town
An unmissable landmark in Tbilisi’s skyline is the Sameba or the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It is said to be the largest Orthodox Christian cathedral in the Caucasus region and is one of the most majestic as well up close. From Narikala, we crossed the river and headed east to Sameba.
the majestic sameba (holy trinity) cathedral – tbilisi’s famous landmark
It was my first time to enter an Orthodox Christian church and the interiors looked very different from the type of churches that I am accustomed to back home. There were no benches but there were images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and saints like St. George. The Georgians are a very religious lot and they come to church regularly to pray by these images. It is after all, the 2nd oldest Christian country in the world (second only to neighboring Armenia). My visit coincided with their evening prayers and with the crowds, it seemed like the subzero temperatures outside did not deter them from coming to church.
the dome of the cathedral
The next day, we more or less just wandered around Tbilisi. It’s not a big city but there are lots to see. We passed by the larger-than-life Freedom Square with a monument to St. George in the middle. Lots of international investors are placing their money in Georgia and this is evident in the construction boom that’s happening in the city. New chain hotels are building their first properties in Tbilisi and many of the quaints shops and restaurants in the old city are being closed down temporarily due to a mass restoration of heritage buildings.
freedom square... used to be called lenin square
The city also introduced me to Georgian cuisine, which is much better than I expected. There’s a wide array of restaurants to choose from in Tbilisi. I was surprised to find several Chinese and Japanese restaurants, alongside the more expected local Georgian, Azerbaijani and Persian eating places. A meal in a midrange restaurant in Tbilisi turned out to be cheaper than I thought, normally not setting us back by more than USD 10 a pop.
a picturesque city by any measure
Overall, Tbilisi exceeded my expectations. It was never in my “must visit” cities, and the main reason I went was because of an unbeatable airline promo. It’s during trips like these – when I’m given a pleasant surprise – that I get to enjoy more. A heady mix of east and west, the city offers a lot for visitors and those who come are ultimately rewarded. An added plus is that it is relatively cheap and easy enough to get around.
I have a feeling that it won’t be long before I return.
How to get there:
Not many airlines fly to Tbilisi. For those in Asia, your best bet is Qatar Airways, which flies to Tbilisi from most major Asian cities such as Manila or Singapore with convenient transfers via Doha. From Europe, it’s a lot easier as there are flights to Tbilisi from many European capitals including London, Athens and Vienna. You can read about my flight experience onboard Qatar Airways to Tbilisi here.
Where I stayed:
The main advantage of staying in a small hotel / guesthouse is that one often gets a very homely and personalized level of service. I stayed in a hotel in Tbilisi just off the main drag. Tengo (the owner) and his wife were true exemplars of the legendary Georgian hospitality. You can book hotels/guesthouses in Tbilisi and get some of the best deals here.