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

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

For the best part of a decade, the international travel press has been describing 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, beguiling, and perpetually-changing destination.

Thankfully, that will soon change. Start-up carrier Air Iveria will launch a route from Gatwick to the Georgian capital on May 13, cutting the travel time to a little over four hours and making it realistic to visit for a long weekend. This summer, it’s time to head east to Europe’s Caucasian fringe and soak up everything that’s new.

Aviation analyst Sean Moulton sees the resumption of flights to London as part of Georgia’s bid for closer ties with the West, and increasing tourist arrivals will certainly boost the economy. International engagement seems to be one of the driving forces behind Georgian creativity, and plenty of foreign artists, designers, and entrepreneurs are flocking 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 the height of its profile. The Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi is one of the city’s biggest cultural events, and the next instalment will be in early May 2024, probably coinciding with the Zero Compromise festival of natural wine.

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

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

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

Art dealer David Finestein relocated from New York to Tbilisi in 2021 and set up his gallery, Dissolution, in a basement space in the city centre. “By opening an accessible space, I was able to worry less about the financial aspects of the gallery, and focus more on showing artists I could relate to,” he explains. Finestein is championing the works of emerging artists from Georgia and abroad, creating a platform for cross-border projects such as the Azerbaijani and Georgian photographers working together in the F37 union.

International collaboration is the name of the game at Tbilisi Photography & Multimedia Museum, too. TPMM recently joined forces with American “punk poet laureate” Patti Smith’s Soundwalk Collective for a two-month multi-sensory exhibition about the growing effects of climate change. TPMM’s curators are particularly interested in the role of female photographers in examining, promoting, and advocating for change, and they organise workshops and events in addition to exhibitions.

Tbilisi is the master of reinvention and in the decade or so I’ve been visiting it’s already reimagined itself several times. Georgia’s geography, politics, and economics can be a challenge, but this seems to light a creative fire, driving relentless experimentation. Add in 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 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 right in the heart of Tbilisi and overlooks not only the city but the river and mountains. You’ll want to visit the Anne Semonin Spa if only for the views from the indoor infinity pool, and dine at least once at Umami, where the chefs offer theatrical fine dining.

If you’ve got longer than a weekend, combine the city sights of Tbilisi with rest and relaxation on the Tsinandali Estate (tsinandaliestate.ge) in Kakheti. This is the country’s main wine region, and Tsinandali has its own vineyard and winery, a palace, and a fabulous, contemporary Radisson Collection Hotel (rooms from £120).

Where to eat

Food is a critical 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 spin on traditional Georgian cuisine. Don’t miss the selection of pkhali, vegetable-based pâtés with ground walnuts and pomegranate seeds; or the khinkali, giant steamed dumplings with a variety of stuffings. At weekends the restaurant is open 24 hours (hence the name), so if partying has made you peckish, you can always stop by for a 4am khachapuri, Georgia’s unforgettable melted cheese bread.

Join a walking tour to explore the Old Town
Join a walking tour to explore the Old Town – GNTA

Where to drink

Tbilisi is renowned for its nightlife, but Noble Savage (noble-savage.club) is especially cool and open every Friday and Saturday night from 11pm. International acts often take to the stage – R&B singer Macy Gray, Afro-Brazilian percussionist and DJ NenaHalena, and Berlin club favourite Madmotormiquel all performed in 2023 – but you’ll also hear the latest homegrown sounds.

For a quieter (or earlier) night, the nearby Republic Bar (republic.ge) has an imaginative cocktail menu: a Yellow Jade (laurel-infused vodka, Quaglia Bergamotto, seaberry, lemongrass, lemon, liquorice) or Sizmara (anise and coriander-infused white rum, Golden Falernum, watermelon, lemon, celery bitter) will set you back just over £7. The bar also has an excellent list of local wines, including from the historic Tsinandali Estate Winery, the first place where Georgian wine was bottled back in the 1840s.

Join a tour

Backstreets of Tbilisi (tbilisifreewalkingtours.com; Sunday and Tuesday at 12.00) is a free walking tour which mixes the quirky architecture and stories of 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, having a local guide on hand to haggle on your behalf can be very helpful.

Avoid the crowds

The 160-hectare National Botanical Garden of Georgia (nbgg.ge) is right in the centre of Tbilisi. You can wander in from the Old Town. There were royal gardens here in the 17th century as the site is close to the fortress, though it has greatly expanded and now has more than 4,500 species of plants. It’s a glorious place to explore, especially in fine weather.