Tbilisi: a taste of Georgia

by Liam Campbell

It is one of Europe's least-known cities, with fine wines and a cuisine that blends Persian, Mediterranean and Russian influences. Here's how to dine out in Tbilisi, capital of the Republic of Georgia

Tbilisi is one of the most beautiful cities in Eastern Europe, yet it remains virtually undiscovered by tourists. There is a lot to offer – just pick up a good guidebook and choose your itinerary. For me, though, the highlight is setting off on foot to explore the Old Town and city centre along Rustaveli Avenue, taking in the beauty and imagining what the future holds for a city that is still full of construction sites and refurbishment projects.

The other really good reason for going to Tbilisi is the local cuisine – and the wine (a drink that is said to have been invented here). The dishes on offer are highly varied and unique. There are elements of Mediterranean, Persian and Russian cooking, but a lot of the food is simply Georgian. You will find various combinations of lamb, pork, aubergine, onion, tomato, coriander, walnuts and pomegranate prepared in grills, stews or as part of fresh salads. Like the food, Georgia is a place to savour and remember. Once you go, you will want to return.

Where to eat

One of the joys of Tbilisi is taking a long walk on a sunny day through the beautiful old streets, stopping for lunch at a pavement café for a bottle of local wine and some famed Georgian cuisine.

Dzveli Sakhli (3 Mtkvari Right Embankment). This highly recommended restaurant is by the river, about 10 minutes' walk downhill from the Opera House. The food is of excellent quality, authentic and very reasonably priced. The menu is huge, so you have the opportunity to try bits of almost anything you fancy. As is usual in Georgia, each diner is given an empty plate so everybody can share the various dishes ordered. Dzveli Sakhli also does a very inexpensive house white wine which is very light, refreshing and surprisingly potent.

Café Kala (8-10 Erekle II Street). This wonderful spot in the Old Town (which is known to locals as "Kala") is perfect for a lazy afternoon lunch with a bottle of Tsolikouri, Tsinandali, Separavi or whatever you fancy. The prices are a bit on the high side, but still reasonable. The menu features a variety of dishes, including many European ones (especially Italian). I'd stick with the Georgian specialities unless you have been really craving a spaghetti bolognese.

Shemoikhede Genatsvale (5 Marjanishvili Street, with another branch at 23 Leselidze Street). This is the place to go for khinkali, those little Georgian meat dumplings. There is an extensive menu here, but most customers seem only to order platefuls of khinkali and some beer. You pay per dumpling, and I would recommend about six per person, plus a couple of side dishes. Enjoy. To eat, pick up the khinkali by the knot at the top, then bite into the dumpling, being sure to suck in the gravy inside as you bite down. You then discard the knot and move on.

Prospero's Books Café (34 Rustaveli Ave) This is very much an expat hangout but is a great place for a latte and to stock up on maps, postcards and English-language books. The staff are friendly and there is a nice area where you can sit outside. Tucked away in a courtyard off Rustaveli Avenue, near the British Council, this is the place to get your coffee fix.

Where to stay

Tbilisi has yet to develop a good range of budget hotel options. Of the chains, the scene is dominated by the Sheraton Metechi Palace Hotel which is generally the best-priced of the chains, but is a bit too far from the centre and is showing its age. The other two are the Courtyard Tbilisi. Both are excellently located, but with the Marriott usually costing only €30 euros more a night, it is worth paying the extra for a truly plush experience in what is undoubtedly Tbilisi's finest hotel.

Aside from the chains, there are several independent hotels – most of which are small and reasonably priced. While you may spend upwards of €250 for the chains, you can expect a local hotel to charge less than €100. Unfortunately, some of these hotels are in bad shape, but I can thoroughly recommend Hotel Shardenlocated in the heart of the Old Town near Chardin Street. Rooms are clean and there are the usual mod cons such as satellite TV and an en-suite bathroom. A decent breakfast buffet is also available and there is a rooftop bar. One word of warning: make sure you bring a printout of your reservation, with pricing details, as I had some issues on both occasions when I stayed here.

Citadines and Radisson SAS hotels are set to open in 2009, while a Hilton, a Hyatt, a Kempinski and perhaps more are also on the cards. These extra rooms should hopefully bring down prices.