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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Coolest City You've Never Heard Of

This story originally appeared here.

Georgia, the former Soviet Socialist Republic, is coming into its own. More than a quarter-century after gaining independence from Russia, the country is waving the tourism flag. While some of its outermost reaches may not be quite ready for prime time, there’s no doubt that capital city Tbilisi is set for its star turn. A city of about 1.5 million, Tbilisi has a long and winding history, dating back to the 4th century. The layers of history are everywhere including in the architecture, the traditions, the food and the wine. Here are the key things every visitor must do in this fascinating city:

Explore the Old Town
The best way to start a tour of Tbilisi is by roaming Old Town Tbilisi, a mish-mash of architecture and cultures. Its Art Nouveau buildings and neoclassical facades may remind some of a shabby-chic version of the backstreets of Paris. Meandering the cobblestone streets and narrow alleys will lead visitors to hidden courtyards and houses of worship for several religions. With its numerous cafes, this is a good place to sip coffee or enjoy a glass wine (read on!).

Wine about Your Visit

Georgia claims to have the oldest wine culture in the world, dating back 8,000 years. Wines are traditionally made in huge earthenware pots called qvevri. This unique wine-making system is part of UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. So, it is incumbent upon every visitor to partake of the grape by sampling at a restaurant of visiting a wine shop.
Take a Bath
At the edge of Old Town is the Abanotubani district, known for its underground sulphur baths. These baths, built in the 17th century, are topped by brick domes and heated from hot springs below. The blue-tiled Orbeliani Bath is one of a handful that still offer traditional hammam-style treatments.
Study Georgian
Not the language (good luck with that), but the history. The Georgian National Museum covers the entire 40-million year backstory of the country. Don’t miss the Treasury, filled with ancient gold artifacts and jewelry, and the Museum of Soviet Occupation, encompassing an entire floor of the building.
Visit Mother Georgia
The impressive statue of Kartlis Deda, aka Mother Georgia, watches over Tbilisi from a high vantage point. If you don’t feel like climbing up to her, take the aerial tramway to the top of Sololaki Hill. There, you will note that Ma Ga welcomes friends with a bowl of wine, while fending off enemies with her sword.

Climb a Fortress
As long as you are on top of the hill, you might as well head over to the Narikala Fortress. Walking along its ancient walls provides an apt overview of the city and its history. This behemoth dates back to the Tbilisi’s founding. In the fortress’s lower court is the restored St. Nicolas Church.

Go to Church
Even for the non-religious, Tbilisi orthodox churches are sights to behold. The biggest is Holy Trinity (or Sameba), the main Cathedral of the Georgian Orthodox religion. The oldest is the Anchiskhati Basilica, dating back to the sixth century. Note the ancient frescoes within.

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