With a delicious cuisine, fascinating history and an abundance of unmissable sites, Georgia is one of Europe's fastest-growing tourist destinations.
As we walk through arrivals at Tbilisi International Airport, the first thing that greets us is a big, friendly smile. Our guide, Davit, is a tall and welcoming figure, ready to whisk us away into the heartbeat of the capital as the clock ticks towards midnight.
“Welcome to Georgia,” he smiles, stretching out his arms. Tbilisi born and bred, he was once an underage international rugby player and proudly chats about Georgia’s sporting achievements as we drive through the glittering lights which illuminate the narrow streets of the Old Town. Rugby, football, Greco-Roman wrestling and weight-lifting are all immensely popular in this part of the world.
Davit’s warm greeting sets the tone for an intriguing weekend filled with delicious local cuisine, interesting sightseeing, hours of exploration and plenty of wine. An enigma located on the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Georgia is not your typical tourist destination. It mixes tradition and modernity in a fascinating way which you can’t help but fall in love with. Best of all, though, is its affordability for such an exotic location on the edge of the continent. With cheap food, plenty of public transport and reasonably priced drinks, a trip here is not going to break the bank.
Georgia welcomed over 8.7 million tourists last year. With a thriving nightlife, stunning views throughout the Old Town, tons of ancient historical sites and an array of skiing resorts located just a few hours away, Tbilisi is becoming one of the fastest-growing, hippest capitals in Europe. “Berlin out. Tbilisi in.” This is the catchphrase used by locals.
A post-Soviet gem which goes under the radar, Georgians are immensely proud of their heritage and their history (especially their wine). Georgia has endured a difficult past after suffering through civil war and ongoing tensions with Russia. But it has emerged from these conflicts to become a thriving tourist hotspot. The country’s transformation has been staggering. Georgia welcomed less than 100,000 tourists at the end of the 1990s. They expect over 9 million in 2020.
Tbilisi is now considered one of Europe’s safest cities and tourism is the driving force behind Georgia’s economy. They are keen to welcome all comers with open arms to see the capital’s beautiful castles, sulphur baths and local markets. Mtatsminda amusement park, Narikala Fortress, Peace Bridge, the Clock Tower and the Mother Georgia statue are all must-sees.
Curious visitors from the Netherlands, Germany and Spain, plus tourists closer to home from neighbouring Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia all arrive for a week of fun and relaxation. Walking around Tbilisi, brushing shoulders with happy faces from all corners of the world, it really does feel like the place to be.
Temperatures range from 20 to 30 degrees during the summer. Our visit comes towards the end of November when it is a little chilly (about 6 degrees) and temperatures will drop below freezing come December and January when ski season arrives. Georgia has four established resorts (Gudauri, Mestia, Goderdzi and Bakuriani) and is an affordable option for anyone looking to book a ski vacation.
Our guide, Davit, was keen to give us a flavour of what real Georgian culture is all about. During our three-day visit we weave around the enchanting narrow streets and hilly passageways of Tbilisi, enjoy a whole range of local delights at trendy restaurants and indulge in Georgia’s proud tradition of wine and bread making.
We sampled khinkali (meat dumplings) badrijani (roasted eggplant), qababi (minced meat kebabs), chakapuli (herbed lamb stew) and mtsvadi (pork skewers) at intimate restaurants which are hidden down dark alleys and passageways in older districts of the inner city. We even got the chance to become chefs for an afternoon with an array of traditional cooking masterclasses.
Popular restaurants like Shavi Lomi and Café Littera have a cool, secret, underground vibe tucked away from the main high streets of Tbilisi. They combine traditional cuisine with a modern twist, making their mouth-watering local dishes more accessible to international visitors without losing their own unique, Georgian touch.
What made our short stay in the capital complete, however, was the hospitality and good-will shown to us by the people of Tbilisi. Georgians famously treat visitors with a friendly face, open arms and a warm embrace. The saying goes that a Georgian will extend their arm for a friendly handshake and press a glass of wine into your palm.
With a warm sense of humour and fiercely independent spirit, it was our interactions with people who call Georgia their home that made our trip so enjoyable. As tourism continues to grow and help the nation’s economy bolster, Tbilisi’s challenge is trying to keep its traditions and heritage alive, while also making them accessible to the millions of visitors who arrive every year.
For us, three days was never going to be enough to experience all that this ancient, colourful, exciting capital city has to offer. Tbilisi will continue to rise and grow as a hot-spot for anyone seeking an exciting European break off the beaten track (away from the usual destinations) full of delicious food, exciting nightlife and tons of history.
It’s always a good sign if a city leaves you wanting more as you head back to the airport. With its unique cuisine, historical sites, sulphur baths and array of captivating castles and mountains nearby in the Caucasus, Tbilisi left us itching to book another trip back in the future. Berlin had better watch out.
Heading on a break to Tbilisi soon? Make sure to tag us in your photos using the hashtag #ryanairstories – you might be featured on Ryanair’s Instagram feed!