For the past decade, the international travel press has been describing Tbilisi as the new Berlin, the most exciting city in Europe, and an emerging capital of fashion. But with no direct flights since the start of the Covid pandemic, British tourists are missing out on this dynamic, captivating and ever-changing destination.
Thank God, that will change soon. Start-up carrier Air Iveria will launch a route from Gatwick to the Georgian capital on May 13, cutting the journey time to just over four hours and making it a realistic long weekend visit . This summer, it’s time to head east to the edge of the Caucasus in Europe and soak up everything new.
Aviation analyst Sean Moulton sees the resumption of flights to London as part of Georgia’s bid for closer links with the West, and an increase in tourist arrivals will certainly boost the economy. International engagement seems to be one of the driving forces behind Georgian creativity, with plenty of foreign artists, designers and entrepreneurs 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 imagination if not in its profile. Mercedes-Benz Tbilisi Fashion Week is one of the biggest cultural events in the city, and the next installment will be in early May 2024, probably coinciding 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 at Vogue how they felt “like a rally cry from the Georgian fashion community – against the war in Ukraine, against conservative politics, and against the constant threat of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment”. Tbilisi is giving 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 buffs should check out the riotously flamboyant Akà Prodiàshvili and the more mainstream but still elegant Stadióiori.
Berhasm is a group of fashion designers, artists and musicians from Georgia, Russia and Ukraine, who have shown at Paris and Tbilisi Fashion Weeks. It was founded in Tbilisi before the Russian invasion, but it is representative of those creative people who were in voluntary or involuntary exile in Georgia. The members of the group grew up under the shadow of Soviet rule and share that history, as well as a commitment to resisting oppression through creativity. Berhasm clothing brand, led by Georgian designer Beso Turazashvili, was born out of 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 center of the city. “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 at the forefront of 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 teamed up 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 curators are particularly interested in the role of female photographers in examining, promoting and advocating change, and organize workshops and events as well as exhibitions.
Tbilisi is a master of reinvention and in the ten years or so I’ve been visiting it has already been reimagined time and time again. Georgia’s geography, politics and economics can be a challenge, but this seems to ignite a creative fire, driving relentless experimentation. Add in the unusual combination of a proud, strong national identity but also an enthusiasm to welcome foreigners, and something magical happens. When the new flights to Tbilisi start, there is nowhere I want to be.
Where to stay
The Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel (radissonhotels.com; rooms from £132) is very well located right in the heart of Tbilisi and overlooks not only the city but the river and mountains. You will want to visit the Anne Semonin Spa if only for the views from the indoor infinity pool, and eat at least once at Umami, where the chefs offer fine theatrical food.
If you have more than a weekend, combine Tbilisi’s city sights with rest and relaxation at 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 the stunningly contemporary Radisson Collection Hotel (rooms from £120).
Where to eat
Food is an essential part of any visit to Tbilisi, and Georgian hospitality is such that you can’t help but go home fresher and happier. Republic 24 (republic.ge) offers a modern twist on traditional Georgian cuisine. Don’t miss the option pkhali, vegetable-based pâtés with peanuts and pomegranate seeds; or the kinkala, huge steamed dumplings with different materials. At the weekend the restaurant is open 24 hours (hence the name), so if the party has left you a bit too excited, you can always stop by at 4am. khachapuriGeorgia’s unforgettable melted cheese bread.
Where to drink
Tbilisi is famous for its nightlife, but Noble Savage (noble-savage.club) is super cool and open every Friday and Saturday night from 11pm. International acts are often on stage – R&B singer Macy Gray, Afro-Brazilian percussionist and DJ NenaHalena, and Berlin favorite Madmotormiquel 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: Yellow Jade (laurel-infused vodka, Quaglia Bergamotto, seaberry, lemongrass, lemon, licorice) or Sizmara ( anise and coriander). – infused white rum, Golden Falernum, watermelon, lemon, celery bitters) will set you back just over £7. The bar also has an excellent list of local wines, including from the historic Tsinandali Estate, where Georgian wine was first bottled back in the 1840s.
Be on tour
Backstreets of Tbilisi (tbilisifreewalkingtours.com; Sundays and Tuesdays at 12.00) is a free walking tour that combines the curious architecture and stories of the German Settlement, New Tbilisi, and some parts of the Old Town. Dry Bridge Dry Market is included in the itinerary, and if something catches your eye, it can be very helpful to have a local guide to hunt it down for you.
Avoid the crowds
The National Botanical Garden of Georgia (nbgg.ge) is 160 hectares in the heart of Tbilisi. You can walk in from the Old Town. There were royal gardens here in the 17th century as the site is next to the fortress, although it has been greatly expanded and now has more than 4,500 species of plants. It’s a glorious place to explore, especially in fine weather.