The common tourist to Tbilisi unfortunately often takes in only the Old Town, which as beautiful as it is, tends to lack the soul and nature of what Tbilisi is really about. The Old Town is good for Instagram photos and overpriced beers, but that’s about it. To me, the far more interesting parts of town to visit and spend time in are Sololaki, Mtatsminda, and Chugureti (neighborhoods of secondary interest are Vera and Vake, and for those sadomasochistic travelers who love Soviet architecture, Saburtalo maybe, but I’ll get to those places in due time). Luckily for most tourists, the first two are snuggled up right with the Old Town, and indeed can be included in the description, with especially Sololaki being one of the oldest neighborhoods of the city.
I want to talk about Chugureti though. It’s a blip on the tourist radar, coming and going for various reasons, but definitely has one the highest potentials for tourism in the entire city, and a part of town I both love and hate with each step I take through it.
the "New Tiflis" pedestrian district
Chugureti, along with its brother neighborhood Didube, grew up as a suburb of Tbilisi, getting a huge influx of population under Catherine the Great when she opened the Russian Empire to German migrants looking to settle in new lands and cities across the world, searching for a bit of breathing space. The Russian Empire had plenty and was glad for the expertise and hard work that Germans were known for. Georgia, then her subject, received many of these migrants, and some whole villages like Bolnisi were settled by them. These migrants definitely left a mark on the neighborhood, making it quite unlike the rest of the city, and under those Germans and the occupying Russians, Aghmashenebeli Avenue became one of the key boulevards of the city.
During the Communist regime, the neighborhood was named for the Russian Communist, Plekhanov. As a man who was often at odds with Lenin, it was a fitting name to a country that was Menshevik not long before. Some taxi drivers and older residents still call it by that bygone Communist name, but nowadays most people call it Chugureti, Marjanishvili, or Aghmashenebeli.
beautiful balconies are a fading part of Georgian tradition
According to friends that grew up there, after the fall of the USSR the place was hit by a bit of rough and tumble (really, the whole city was) and the infrastructure all but disappeared—paved roads turned to rock and dirt, roofs caved in, walls crumbled. Now, despite constant efforts by the government to revive the neighborhood, there’s a constant pull back to that chaos, people unwilling or unable to make the needed repairs to bring the place up to modern standards. Of course, for foreign Western tourists, that’s part of what gives the neighborhood its charm. Americans especially are constantly running away from what’s “new”, having been plagued by the adjective all of our lives. Because what’s crumbling is different, it becomes romantic, nevermind the people struggling to survive in those leaking roofs and uninsulated walls!
the secret streets of Chugureti
It is a pleasure to stroll around here, though, in many places you’re competing with pedestrians and cars, often in the same space. One of the main streets there, Marjanishvili, by all rights should probably be pedestrian, but is instead a street that somehow manages to fit three cars abreast, with parked cars on sidewalks, and a mad flow of pedestrians. Best to get off that street and wander the side streets, which are prone to house occasional gems, like a fruit smoothy shop, a small and delicious shawarma stand, or some steaming hot fresh bread.
I can't get enough of balconies and kamikaze loggias
The neighborhood can roughly be divided into 6 parts: Dynamo, the bazaar, Aghmashenebeli, Station’s Square, Fabrika, and New Tbilisi/New Tiflis. Other people might disagree with me and that’s fine, they can stuff it.
Before the renovations, the place was known for its Turkish restaurants, Chinese penis massage parlors, and wedding shops. Now the place is known for its Turkish restaurants, Chinese penis massage parlors, tourists, and people protesting tourists going to Chinese penis massage parlors, pretending that they weren’t going there before the tourists came. Well then guys, who was going back then?
a view on Aghmashenebeli
The remodel efforts were quite controversial. Where it was long clear that the old buildings were once upon a time beautiful and ornate, full of marvelous craftsmanship, it also became clear that skill craftsmen were apparently a thing of the past for the city and its planners. The renovations often lacked the detail that once existed, smoothing over facades that once included engravings of grapevines and pagan gods. The next complaint was that they only did the facades, but to this I give the government fair credit, as it’s not their responsibility to upgrade people’s individual apartments. The façade effort itself was generous enough, and was designed with the intention of attracting tourists, and thus attracting more business opportunities to Georgians and investors.
Looking down Aghmashenebeli Avenue
The first stretch of renovation was from Marjanishvili Square at the metro station to Dynamo Stadium. It really is a beautiful stretch of road, despite the all that above, and if the rest of the neighborhood follows suit, it can only be beneficial. As it is one of the few renovated parts of the central city, it still is a flashpoint of tensions in that both tourists and Georgians are hanging out here en masse, making many Georgians feel as if it’s not “their city” (more about that in the New Tiflis section). It’s a fair point, but then the Georgian urban Disneyland that is Marjanishvili wasn’t made for Georgians, but for tourists and their money, which then trickles to Georgians through the increased investments and business that the district provides.
Marjanishvili Square: Georgians' second favorite place to protest
Though the area around Dynamo Stadium has curiously escaped renovation, it’s definitely a place worth note. For one, every international and major national football game is played at the stadium, the massive brutalist monument to sports that can be seen from almost any vantage point in the city.
For longer-term visitors searching for exercise equipment, this is also the area to hit, as the street immediately across the street has a row of about 20 sports supply stores. Then for the children there’s Mukhtaidi Park, across another street, full of mulberry trees and children’s rides, and the Silk Museum, once the premiere silk factory of the Russian Empire, now an aging museum exhibiting silk related treasures from across the world (situated there because of the silkworm-popular mulberry trees in the park across the tree).
Next to Dynamo is the city’s largest bazaar, selling cheap Turkish/Chinese textiles, electronics, tobacco, English books, E. coli sandwiches, chimney sweeps, fresh cuts of pork loin, pomegranates, cell phones, and whatever else your imagination can sum up. No matter your desires, there’s seriously a bazaar around here that can cater to them.
a random stretch of bazaar
It’s truly a treat to see this area, and a glimpse into the Georgian reality. Much of the place is dedicated to fruits and vegetables, where people will literally haggled over pennies (if you’re a foreigner, don’t be a prick and do this, as the people haggling over pennies often only have pennies, 9 times out of 10, the friendly folk of the bazaar will offer you a fair price… which you can lower but for what reason?).
This is also a good spot to stock up on souvenirs, as you can get a better deal here than in the shops along Rustaveli or in the Old Town.
Beyond the bazaar, forming another side of Chugureti is the train station, Station’s Square, which is also the main transfer station for the city-wide rollercoaster, called the “Metro”, where the drivers will take you on a thrill ride perhaps scarier than anything you’ll witness on the road.
This place is also cursed with many names that you might have to list to a taxi driver: Vokzali, Vagzlis Moedani, Sadgoris Moedani, and Station’s Square are all pretty familiar names for people, and some people inexplicably don’t know one name or the other, so be ready for that list. All of the trains leave off to the rest of the country from here, as well as marshrutkas, and on the backside of the station, infinitely more comfortable buses. However, Georgians seem to be at war with comfort, so marshrutkas reign supreme as the transit of choice. Be warned, though marshrutkas are often the only way to get to a countryside destination, they are designed to carry only twenty people but often carry 30 to 40, plus bags, vomiting children, and very large ladies who will inevitably squeeze in next to you.
There was once a kind of half-assed effort to make the station presentable, and they were sort of able to make a modern style mall inside, but it's since been filled up by discount electronics stores, and there's only one café, which is on the top floor at the train station proper. The outside still looks like something from a dystopian film, with the metal roofs of an underground second hand bazaar peaking out through an inexplicable open space.
New Tiflis was the next expanse of the renovated Aghmashenebeli, completed under the new government to much of the same protestations the first section met. However, the government took the prize up a notch and made the stretch pedestrian only, making for what would have been a terrific place for a romantic stroll.
empty cafes abound in New Tiflis
But the restaurants have done their best to destroy the romantic ambience. Not one second into your stroll, you’re harassed by one restaurant host or the next, shouting, “Good evening!” or “Dobro pojalovat!” It’s an endless barrage of hostile touts, eager for your attention and lari, none at rest until you either punch them to the floor or enter under their roof. Each time I walk here I’m stricken with such a pain – what a beautiful place, but such damned annoying people! And so now I avoid the district like the plague. It’s now basically only for tourists, as though I’ve walked through there with my Georgian wife, none of the waiters address us in the language of the country, and always seem put off and/or confused when we reply in Georgian.
'twould be a beautiful place to stroll
It’s created a toxic climate, really, because I think this is what the protestors are really upset about. They come here and they feel that they’re somewhere else, not in Georgia. And fair enough, because I, a non-Georgian, feel the same. If only the hosts would back off, let us browse the menus, let us stroll, let us enjoy the atmosphere. But no, as I mentioned, Georgians seem to be enemies of comfort, and here they continue to excel…
I count 4 guys ready to beg me to come into their bar...
Second to that, I have found a café there without a tout, so I do sit there from time to time, enjoying the architecture, but not the atmosphere. For not only are the hosts at constant combat for your attention, but so are the stereo systems. One stereo blasts out house at 10000 decibals, the next blasts out some soft, smooth jazz at 10005 decibals, the next more house at a different bpm at 10007 decibals, so that not only are your ears bleeding, so is your sanity.
Probably the most important project in the city of late and has been completely transforming Tbilisi’s approach to nightlife. An old Soviet Singer sewing factory, it was recently renovated into a hostel and bar complex. It’s probably the most expensive (and hippest) hostel in town, and it’s got a score of bars, cafes, and dancehalls ringing around the square. It’s the far more preferable place for locals to come to as well, much over New Tiflis, as there are no touts and the whole place is about fun and relaxation.
there's always a scene at Fabrika
Fabrika has spurred investment throughout the neighborhood as well, as other restaurants and bars seem to be springing up in rotation around it, making it by far the most up-and-coming neighborhood of Tbilisi. Where many bars and places do seem to be a bit of one night wonders, there are some that make a lasting impression (more on that next week).
I’ve many young college students who go there to hang out in the courtyard, just taking in the vibrant atmosphere, not even bothering with the bars. But the bars almost always have something going on, from dance parties, to live music, and for those of you who’ve been to Budapest, this place is probably most reminiscent of the ruin bars of that city.
My Facetious guide to Chugureti continues next week with my favorite restaurants, museums, bars, and clubs. Stay tuned.