10 Miles a Day: Tbilisi, Georgia

At the crossroads between Europe and Asia sits Tbilisi, the capital of the country of Georgia. The city’s name means “warm location” in Old Georgian, a moniker derived from its plentiful natural hot springs. 

Humans have lived in the area since 4000 B.C., when the region was heavily forested. Legend has it that in the 4th century B.C., Iberia’s King Vakhtang I was hunting with a falcon when it caught a pheasant. Both birds fell into a hot spring and died, and the king was so impressed by this naturally boiling water that he had the forest cleared and a city built on the spot.

We were staying in an Airbnb in Tbilisi’s old town just two blocks from the ancient hot spring saunas, and that’s where we began our 10-mile walking tour of Georgia’s capital. 

While we typically aim for around 10 miles in our daily walking tours of bigger cities, we allowed for plenty of extra time and mileage since we were exploring the 161-hectare National Botanical Garden of Georgia as part of this route. 

After checking out the thermal baths with their domed brick roof vents, we made our way to the first big stop on our itinerary: Jumah Mosque.

Also known as the Central Mosque, this Sunni Muslim place of worship opened its doors to Shia Muslims after the Communist government tore down their mosque in 1951. Until 1996 the sects worshipped with a black curtain separating them, but now they pray side by side. 

Just up the hill from Jumah Mosque is the Abanotubani bridge covered with love locks. In addition to these thousands of symbols of romance and devotion, you’ll find street buskers playing traditional music on accordions and drums or singing pop hits to portable karaoke machines. Or sometimes both. At the same time.

By crossing the bridge and climbing the stairs of the old city, you’ll arrive at the main gate of the National Botanical Garden of Georgia. Situated at the foot of the Narikala Fortress, the gardens were established in the early 1600s and feature ornamental and medicinal plants along with waterfalls and and a cafe. 

While the native trees and flowers are lovely, the best feature of the garden is its sweeping views of the city. 

A chair lift rider crosses the National Botanical Garden of Georgia at sunset

We continued through Tbilisi’s Old Town toward the Great Synagogue, following cobblestone sidewalks through neighborhoods with their markets, cafes, and many stray cats on our way to Liberty Square. 

Also called Freedom Square, this central block has seen many things in its history. A famous Communist used to be buried there until Stalin had him moved in the 1940s, and a live grenade was thrown at George W. Bush during an event on the square in 2005. Now there’s a Burberry boutique and an H&M.

Just a block or two from Freedom Square, the remains of a fortified wall dating to the 12th and 13th centuries were discovered under Pushkin Street during construction in 2012. We took a closer look as we crossed town for the famous Holy Trinity Cathedral. 

Public art in Tbilisi is plentiful and varied, particularly the sculptures: the giant hilltop Kartlis Deda statue, with its 65 feet (20 meters) of aluminum welcoming friends with wine and threatening foes with her sword; the fanciful bronze Monument to the Lamplighter, which is particularly charming at nighttime; the playful Berikaoba, a tribute to the pagan festival of Old Georgia that leaves room for you to be part of the merriment; and the landmark monument to King Vakhtang Gorgasali, overseeing the city he founded from his horseback perch next to the St. Virgin Church.

Kartlis Deda on the hilltop overlooking Tbilisi’s old town at night

We were pleasantly surprised crossing the bridge when we encountered the striking images of the Kolga Tbilisi Photo Exhibition. Featuring photographers from all over the world, the exhibit shows people in daily life, sometimes amusing and often poignant. 

The Kolga Tbilisi Photo Exhibition on the Baratashvili Bridge at night (image: Kolga Tbilisi Photo Exhibition)

More surprises lay around the corner as we entered an underground pedestrian tunnel. You’ll find these all over Asia and Europe to help people navigate the busier intersections without having to dodge cars. This one was lined with graffiti murals, most of which were exceptionally well done. 

After climbing the hillside steps through more neighborhoods that skirt the Presidential Palace, we made it to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, which is spectacularly lit at nighttime. 

Construction on this new cathedral was only completed in 2004, but it has an elegantly timeless feeling. It’s one of the largest religious buildings in the world, accommodating 10,000 worshipers in its main chapel. Of the eight other chapels in the cathedral, five are located underground. The pathway to the main entrance is lined with manicured gardens, and a freestanding bell tower sits at the corner of the plaza. 

Returning to the riverfront, we spent some time playing in the well-designed Rike Park with its huge chess board, singing fountains, and giant floral instruments. This would be a wonderful spot for a picnic if you did the Tbilisi walking tour in reverse order. 

We returned across the River Kura by way of the Bridge of Peace. Designed and constructed in Italy, the bridge is lit at night by thousands of LED lights that put on a show of colorful movement in four programs that repeat hourly. From the middle of the bridge, you can look to one side for a view of the Metekhi Church, Narikala Fortress, and the King Gorgasali monument, and on the opposite side, you see the Baratashvili Bridge and the Presidential Palace. 

We wrapped up a wonderful walkabout with a late dinner at a little cafe near Jumah Mosque, enjoying a flaky, ham-and-cheese-filled khachapuri pastry and a local Black Lion Dark from Georgian Brewing Co. It was so delicious that we had the same meal twice while we were in Tbilisi. 

Up Next: A road trip through the Caucasus Mountains from Georgia to Armenia’s Lake Sevan