By Sarah Kaleem Ahmed
After Georgia opened its doors to the world and granted visa on arrival for GCC citizens and residents, the country has become a home to the ever growing tourists and naturally, tourism is their biggest source of income followed by winemaking.
For all GCC Nationals and residents, Georgia offers visa on arrival. If you are residing in Saudi Arabia and have an Iqama (residence permit), then here are the mandatory documents you would need to carry with you to get the visa stamped on arrival:
- Original Passport (at least six months left for expiry)
- Original Iqama (at least 3 months left for expiry)
- Original translation of Iqama into English
- Travel insurance (AXA insurance has a travel smart plan which might suit your needs)
- Hotel bookings (you may or may not be asked for it)
- Return flight ticket
How to reach Tbilisi
From Saudi Arabia
The growing demand of people wanting to visit this country has allowed many airlines to include a flight route to Tbilisi. Some of the airlines that fly to Georgia from Saudi Arabia are FlyNas, Gulf Air, Fly Dubai, Air Arabia etc.
Cost: approx. 2000 SAR and above
If you are like me wanting to explore all the 3 countries together, then start with Azerbaijan, and then, move on to Georgia as it’s cheaper that way.
Option 1 -By bus
Cost: 12 AZN
Duration: 11 hours
Departure Location: International bus station, 6km from city centre, Avtovagzal
Option 2 – By train
Cost: 26 AZN
Duration: 12 hours
Departure location: 28 may Metro
Option 3- By Air
Cost: 300+ SAR
Duration: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Flights: Buta Airways, Azerbaijani Airlines
Tip: If you’re landing at Tbilisi airport, then exit the airport and turn right and walk until you find Bus #37 that goes to Station Square as its last stop. Pay 50 Tetri (cents) and inform the conductor about it (she won’t speak English, so be prepared). You can grab a taxi afterwards.
You are better off buying an internet and calling package at the airport itself for easy navigation as the difference between airport rates and city rates is barely 5 GEL. Besides, if you arrive in the evening, forget about getting a sim card from any of the official shops. Local shops do sell sim cards in Freedom square but you cannot trust their accuracy. My sim stopped working for a few hours, lol.
Things you need to know about Tbilisi
- It’s full of churches and cathedrals. The country follows Christianity as their religion and this is evident in the numerous churches and cathedrals spread not only within Tbilisi city, but all over the country. Some destinations are famous just for the sole purpose of the existence of an old church. That’s Mother of Georgia in the background with wine in one hand and sword in another! That signifies her friendliness and courage simultaneously. These regions have a thing for female figures and role models!
- There’s a famous church named Jvaris Mama Church and it’s funny that in Georgian language, Mama means dad and vice versa. It’s the opposite in their language!
- Mini is pretty popular in Georgian history. She travelled from Cappadocia, Turkey to Georgia in the 3rd century to bring Christianity into the country. But, she forgot her cross which is one of the most important symbols of the religion. She couldn’t go back. So, she decided to tie some grapevines together with her own hair and make a cross out of it. That’s why you see her holding an angled cross.
- If you’re walking around Tbilisi and looking for a clean place to answer nature’s call, head to Seoni’s cathedral. They, allegedly, have the best toilets ever! I didn’t try it for myself but those who did vouched for its cleanliness.
- Hitchhiking is really safe here. So, if you ever need a free ride and cannot find taxis or buses, just ask and you shall be offered.
- Georgian people, even though known for their amazing hospitality, do not smile. You see them with straight faces with no signs of politeness whatsoever at the strangers. This was so weird to me especially after coming from Azerbaijan where people were so warm and welcoming despite not sharing a common language. Our walking tour guide, Kate, explained the reason behind the “coldness”. Georgia, being an ex-Soviet Union country inherits the tough look from those times. They believe in smiling only when they mean it. No fake smiles, please 😉
- They are known for their winemaking. From souvenirs to statues, people to historical places, it’s all about wine!
- If you’re offered food, make sure to leave some food untouched to indicate that you’re done! Trying to keep a clean plate won’t help in Georgia as your hosts will interpret it as you wanting more food. Hehe.
- The ancient capital of Georgia was Mtskheta. It was then relocated to Tbilisi due to its warm weather and attractiveness.
Moving around Tbilisi
Taxi: Really convenient and cheap starting at 3 GEL for a 5 to 10 minutes drive. Download Yandex and Maxim apps to make Taxi ordering easy for you and don’t forget to have Google Translate handy for translating messages from English to Russian.
Bus: Bus stops are plentiful and bus journeys are comfortable and convenient. Remember to keep lots of change of 50 Tetri and 1 GEL to hand over to the conductor.
Metro: I found this option to be the best as Tbilisi is well connected across different places. Using the Metro allows you to book your accommodation a little away from the city centre as the metro will connect you back in a few minutes. Get yourself a metro card at the counters and reload as and when needed. Cost: 0.5- 1 GEL per trip.
Walk: The best thing about Tbilisi is that it is so much fun to walk along the streets wandering and appreciating the cleanliness of the roads, the overenthusiastic tour guides selling you their day packages to interesting locations outside the city, the rustic Soviet houses, the magnificent buildings all lit up, the statues standing tall, the blue layers of the beautiful sky with its rich blanket of clouds, the cute dogs staring at you in awe, and the pleasant weather (except during July and August) simply makes this city so wonderful.
What to Eat while in Tbilisi
The Caucasus region comprising of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia are well known for two famous foods: bread and cheese.
And although Georgia has so many different types of food to offer, here are my favourites that are worth a try:
- Suluguni cheese: This cheese is especially found only in Georgia and is a little yellowish in colour. It is widely used as pizza toppings, pie fillings and sold as blocks in the supermarket.
- Churchkhela: These are walnuts dipped in fruit juice. They taste fine enough. You’d see them everywhere but the best place to buy is from the old ladies selling it on the street because they make it fresh every day. Cost: 2-3 GEL
- Khachapuri: These are like fatayer (pies) with a variety of fillings, the sunny side up egg being the signature khachapuri you’ll find everywhere. You’ll also find different types of cheese khachapuri ranging from simple cheese baked pies, to breads stuffed with cheese several times like an Indian paratha. Some of those are stuffed with beef and pork, the options are limitless. Cost: 2-8 GEL
- Khinkali: Khinkali are basically dumplings with a variety of fillings depending on the area you are ordering them. The traditional cheese ones are slimy and soft with melted cheese and butter oozing out while you eat them. The trick is to eat it in one go with your hand and discard the top part off.
- Luca Polare Ice cream: I simply loved, loved, loved the ice cream here. It is extremely cheap at only 3 GEL per scoop and has one of the richest ice cream that I have ever tried! Their juices are fresh and filling too priced at about 10 GEL for a large one and you’re better off buying from them than buying from sellers on the street who overcharge you.
Quick things to do in Tbilisi
- Take a walking tour with Tbilisi Free Hack Tours:
I wouldn’t have known this city so well if it wasn’t for this tour group. The tour happens on foot and you get to explore the city by walking, stopping to listen to the guide explain the place and then continuing the walk again.
The entire city tour takes about 3-4 hours and happens daily no matter what the weather.
And most of all, the tour is for free! You only pay tips at the end if you like the tour guide’s services and it is entirely up to you how much you wish to give. If you compare this with the other bus or private car tours, the difference is huge! I remember checking with the city’s hop on hop off bus and they were charging around 50 GEL per person for an automatic audio guide for the same places that we saw on foot!
Here’s their Facebook page and email address should you want to contact them for booking your free walking tour in Tbilisi:
- Narikala fortress and the Cable Car: One of the must-see places in Tbilisi, the fortress was built by Persians in the 4th century before the city came to exist. It is a small fortress and people trek all the way up to get great views of the city. Be careful though as there’s nothing to keep you from falling off.
The entrance is on the lower side of the fortress. There are botanical gardens on the other side of the entrance. A Cable car ride is another thing you can combine when you visit Narikala fortress.
- Time for a Royal bath:
King Erekle bath stands out amongst the 10+ bath houses placed all close to each other in the vicinity. Private rooms are definitely expensive and a group of 4 in a common room would cost 30-40 GEL plus 20 GEL if you wish to indulge in extra scrubbing and massage.
If you want a painful yet cleansing bath experience, go to Queens bath instead. They really scrub the dirt out of you!
The most expensive of all is the Persian bath which in itself is a building worthy of Instagram. All of the bathhouses are located in Orebeliani street and if you ask anyone about them, they’ll be able to guide you to the location. Or, just key in Bath street number 27 into Google maps and it should lead you to the right place.
The key is to visit each one, choose what fits you and bargain hard to get the best price. Don’t forget to schedule your appointment a couple of hours in advance as they can get jam-packed really quickly!
- Dine at Shandiz Iranian restaurant: Located on Marjanishvili Street near the Metro station, the Iranian food here was really delicious. Portions were good for one and prices ranged between 15-25 GEL per person.
- Buy souvenirs: You’ll find them everywhere. However, buy them in the underground shops of Freedom square and you’ll get a good price. Other places include shops on the Bath street where the lady named Daki, gave us a fair enough price and spoke English too.
Cost: Magnets between 1-7 GEL, Globes between 10-25 GEL depending on size, Horn for 25-50 GEL
- Cross the famous Bridge of Peace and take an optional boat ride:
The bridge is beautiful and is instaworthy! It connects the Old town with a nearby Rike park along the Mtvkari river. However, I personally won’t recommend wasting your time and money on the boat ride as the river water isn’t that clean and you are better off watching the city from the cable car above.
So, that’s all about Tbilisi!
The hottest months are July and August and are not really recommended if you want to escape the heat. April to June is the best time and September is good too! If you wish to spend Winters here, you know when to go 😉 Winters happen at the same time as the rest of the world.
Already been to Tbilisi? Let me know what else you liked there 😉