Tbilisi is a mess. It’s a city with big ideas, but little follow through. Insane construction projects are started in every sector in every corner of the city and they’re rarely finished, stringing out for years and years and possibly decades. Priorities stream mostly to private transit, to such an extent that one former president once bragged about being able to ski in Svaneti and go the beach in Batumi on the same day… via private helicopter, seemingly ignorant that most people in the country, and even most tourists, aren’t able to afford that.
this city's so rich the taxis are Mercedes
However, even taking into account the preference towards private transit, there’s no clear explanation for the condition of Tbilisi’s traffic or roads, or how it can be a confusing nightmare to get around the city. But this handy guide is a bit of a rundown for those that care to venture out of the tourist zones of Old Town and New Tiflis, or to anyone who just needs a lift from one point to another.
Give up now and hire a car
First, what to know:
The marshrutkas, buses, and metro all use the same metro card
The metro card can be purchased at any metro station for 2 lari
You can top up the metro card when you buy it, or from any vendor, or from machines located at most of the main stations
You can use coins on the bus or marshrutka, 50 tetri for the bus and 80 for the marshrutka
Bus and metro routes can be found on Google maps, but the schedule seems to be pulled from Google’s nether regions
Marshrutka and bus routes and times simply need to be guessed or divined from a crystal ball or coffee cup
The bus is of course the most obvious and easily accessible option. Unfortunately, the bus routes are only written on the bus and in Georgian. There's no route map at the stop or on the bus, but there are at least electronic boards that tell you when the next bus comes, and the final destination for that bus (in English). Good luck on figuring out what destinations are in between you and there, but for that you can use Google maps. On the bus itself, there is no voice or board telling you what stop you’re at, so if you don’t know the city, use your GPS.
buses ready for the race
When you get on the bus, you’ll have to get a ticket or validate your metro card. On newer buses, they have ticketless machines that you have to swipe your card on. There are also ticket machines if you’re a bit wary of the functionality of the ticketless ones. The ticket machines tend to be in the center of the bus, swipe your card or drop your coins (exact change only, 50 tetri) and it’ll print out a ticket.
the pretty and comfy buses... for now
There are two sets of buses: old yellow ones and new blue ones. Pray for a new blue one. The old yellow ones, though only being about 15 years old, look to be about 50 years old and are all in various states of scrap. I once saw a bus driving along without a back cover, the engine as bare as a fat man's bum at a nudist beach, and the gas cover swinging along like... you can finish that metaphor. Not much is thought about in maintenance or cleaning when it comes to the buses, and I fear for the pretty new blue fleet that will no doubt soon be falling apart as well. But they’re nice as they are now, so enjoy.
Marshrutkas, also known as “suicide shuttles”, are the yellow shuttles that are the cause of most traffic jams and auto-related deaths in the city. They generally cram about 50 people into a vehicle made for 20, and on most routes they can stop to pick up or drop off people at any point. That itself is enough to cause some wacky traffic drama, but on top of that they tend to drive in the centermost lane until someone yells the magic word, then they cross all the lanes of traffic while slamming on their brakes. Buses sometimes have this odd lane-crossing habit as well.
Realizing that that behavior is one of the primary causes of traffic jams, they at least made it illegal to stop anywhere on all the major roads, and now they can only stop at bus stops… however they still drive in the center lane and cross all the lanes of traffic to stop, as if they’re every time surprised about the upcoming bus stop.
remember to shout "gaucheret!" if you ever want off
It would be an easier fix for both buses and marshrutkas if they just made a dedicated HOV lane for them on the major roads and forced them to only use those lanes (and vice versa), then have the traffic police ticket the heck out of all HOV violators. Further they can have an easy electronic system to demerit any drivers seen breaking the rules and dock their pay (or offer a bonus for those with the least demerits if you prefer the carrot approach).
To use marshrutkas, there are a few things you need to know. First, the route is written in Georgian on the window. You can find it online at tm.ge, but finding your location on the map, then putting in your destination, and voila. However, there is no app for it, and you have to be sure you’re not using the mobile version of their webpage, which seems permanently broken.
To get on, simply stand by the road and wave at the one you want (watch that you don’t accidentally wave a taxi in). If you’re on a major road, you can only do this at a bus stop. They’ll stop and you get on and find a seat, don’t worry about paying until you get off.
To get off, you must know the magic words. If you’re on a regular route that’s not on a major road, simply shout “Gaucheret!” Then they’ll stop immediately and pull over. They like this the most when they’re driving at a high speed in the centermost lane. If you’re on a major road, shout, “Gaucherdebaze gaucheret!” and they’ll stop at the next bus stop. As there is no way of telling where you are, and you will most likely be standing with your head in the car dome and no hope of a window view, it’s best to watch yourself on GPS if you don’t know the city or its smells. If you don’t know the city, as you’re getting on, tell the driver where you’re going and he’ll probably stop there for you if he remembers.
You’ll have to pay as you get off. Either give cash to the driver or swipe your metro card on the grey reader next to the door. The cost is typically 80 tetri, though some routes in the suburbs are 50.
The metro is definitely the easiest way to get around, but you have to have a metro card to use it. They only cost 2 lari though and you can buy one at any metro station at the window labeled “metro” or something like that. Curiously there are guys who stand around the metro selling their metro cards, but I’ve never asked them what the deal with that is. I think if you don’t want to buy a card you can buy a swipe from them, but you can always turn your card in and get a refund when you’re done using it, so I’m not sure what these guys are about. Plus 2 lari isn’t even a dollar… there's probably something illegal going on there, but then the cops are always nearby checking their Facebook, so it mustn't be that big of a deal.
down, down, down, to the burning ring of fire
To enter, just swipe the card and go through the turnstiles. Then down some super steep escalators. Like every other transit, there doesn’t seem to be enough metro cars, and they seem to run very randomly. I’ve seen it during rush hour with 6 minutes in-between, at 11 at night with 2 minutes in-between, and so on, never the same on any two days, not really seeming to relate to demand as its always crowded no matter what. This is all possibly explained once you get on and see how insane the metro drivers drive, like they’re operating a rollercoaster... or a marshrutka in the centermost lane.
The metro goes just about everywhere you need to go in Tbilisi, except for one exception, the “cool neighborhood” known as Vake. Vake was the place for the Party elite, where the peasant rabble couldn’t get to easily because there was no metro (there's also a university there, so I guess they didn't want people attending so much either). There did used to be a tramway there, but a former leader thought it was a great idea to rip out all the trams in the city and sell it for scrap. So now they’re left to buses and marshrutkas and piles of traffic.
Taxis are ridiculously cheap in Tbilisi, and people fight tooth and nail over the difference of a lari or two. Seriously, I’ve seen some Americans completely flip the shit out over a lari, which is about 30 cents. Of course, when you’re working as a teacher on local wages, that makes sense, but when you’re a tourist, man, just eat the cost.
Taxis by and large don’t run on meters, you have to negotiate the rate upfront. Typically if you’re going somewhere in the neighborhood, it will be about 3 lari, to an adjacent neighborhood, 4 lari, and so on. Though when they smell foreigner, the rates can be multiplied as many as 5 times. Just be aware of the sweet deal you should be getting, but don’t be offended to pay a little more. Remember, in a city of 1.5 million and 1 million guys are taxi drivers, with 4 out of every 5 cars a taxi, you know that they can’t be making much money.
negotiate first, ask questions later
Probably the safest and easiest way to get a taxi, with the best price for foreigners is to use the Taxify app. Just download it to your smartphone and it will let you pay in either cash or with card. It will find your location on GPS and then all you have to do is type in your destination. A car, usually a Toyota Prius, comes within 10 minutes and brings you to your place without complaint or haggle. It’s quite relaxing and since I’ve moved back to Tbilisi, found it to be a really brilliant, stress-free innovation.
They recently made some new regulations regarding taxis and their cars, which means supposedly past are the days where any car with a missing bumper, smoking hood, and dragging tailpipe would swing over and pick you up. Now they’ve got little green lights that say “TAXI” in their front window, and drive relatively safer cars. Progress as promised.
There are two cable cars or gondolas in Tbilisi (and possibly a third but I’ve only seen it on a map). One connects Ryke Park to Narikala, sailing its passengers over the Old Town up to the castle on a hill, and the other connecting Vake Park to Turtle Lake and the Ethnographic Museum.
a drones-eye-view of the Old Town
The gondolas are possibly the best functioning transit system in Tbilisi. Though there are typically long lines (by which I mean a disordered mob of people), they go pretty fast and the rides are pretty epic. The Ryke Park-Narikala cable car is pretty new and modern, while the Vake Park one looks like it’s had some years on it (though it just re-opened this year after a 10-year hiatus).
The cable cars cost the same as a metro ticket and you need a metro card to get on. Luckily, they also sell the metro cards at the stations. If you don’t have a card, or if you think you don’t have enough money on it, you can just squeeze past the crowd to the booth and buy one/top yours off.
Finally, the last bit of transit mayhem you can find in Tbilisi. This is the best route up to Mtatsminda Park (read more about the park here). You can either take a bus from Freedom Square, or walk up half the hill to the base of the funicular. Where the bus does have its own thrill – great views, constant fear of death – the funicular is all fancy, modern, and pretty dependable. Expect long lines, and you’ll have to buy the Mtatsminda Card for 2 lari, and another 3 lari to ride, in order to use it. Again, squeeze past the line and get to the booth.
only half the thrill of the bus