Updated: Mar 14, 2020
Sololaki is one of the more interesting districts in Tbilisi, and perhaps my favorite one (probably because of the sheer number of bars that host interesting and original live music here). The area is bordered by Freedom Square, Leonidze, and Asatiani, on the sides, and on the bottom by Dadiani Street. The top slowly dissolves away into nothing as you go up hill and eventually you find yourself in fields, a cemetary, and a bizarre children's theme park (Mtatsminda). Fun note about that cemetary and field: once there was a metal festival there until a priest shut it down for being too close to the Orthodox burial ground.
11 Kikodze, building from 1914 by the Brother's Milov
Sololaki was the first district to grow past the original city walls, which would have been at Dadiani Street. Freedom Square itself is a relatively new invention, as before this was a river/canal with a bridge over it, and the river came from up Leonidze Street and then it followed Pushkin around the city walls to the river—you know, kind of like a moat… Past that bridge there was a small square called Firewood Square, where many of the residents would come up outside of the city gates and buy their firewood.
One of my favorite apartment buildings in Sololaki
The area was known in the old days for its beautiful greenery and gardens, and to water the gardens they needed to dig some canals, earning its name in Arabic, Sululakh, or “canal district”. The canals have long been buried over with the main one finally filled in in the 19th century when the Russians rebuilt much of the city after the Qajar destruction. After the Qajars destroyed everything, Sololaki became the preferred neighborhood for the rich folks of the city, and it was here that they tried to build the “Caucasian Paris”, complete with apartment blocks topped by mansard roofs and full of art nouveau flourishes (during this time, Aghmashenebeli Street in Chugureti underwent a similar renaissance).
Example Sololaki's typical art nouveau flair
Where the St. George pillar is on Freedom Square, there was the opera house where Alexander Dumas used to hang out a lot, and where the city hall is now was once the firehouse. It’s an ironic thing too as the opera house met its end by a vicious fire, and too bad there wasn’t a fire crew around, oh wait… All that was left of the opera house were two big lion statues, which are now found in front of the city hall. The city hall was upgraded from its status as fire house and they added the clock tower at that time.
Tbilisi's Freedom Square with the city grain silo on the hill in the background
After being known as Firewood Square and when it actually become a city square during the Russian rule, it was called Erevan Square, after the well-earned nickname of Ivan Paskevich, the general who had pommeled the Persians for much of modern-day Armenia and resided in Tbilisi. Later it became known as Freedom Square under the First Republic, then Beria Square, then Lenin Square where they placed a big statue of the Eternal Comrade, and finally Freedom Square, where they took down the statue and put up a column with Zurab Tsereteli's St. George Statue on a pillar, probably his only work that was gladly accepted by the giftee.
Freedom Square itself was later the site of a pretty historic heist. It was in this busy square that the bank heist that Stalin had masterminded took place. Led by his right hand man, Kamo, Stalin’s men lobbed some grenades at and commandeered a money-laden stage couch that was transferring newly printed and arrived money from the post office to the State Bank, resulting in 40 casualties and leaving 50 people injured. The Bolsheviks would later erect a statue to Kamo and post it in the adjacent Pushkin Square, but Stalin was a jealous mofo and had it removed as he tried to keep historians focused on only himself as the hero of the Revolution. "Masterminded" is also a generous word when the heist basically just involved lobbing bricks of dynamite and spraying down a crowd of people with automatic weapons. I suppose the real finesse involved smuggling the money out of Georgia and into Europe, where it was used to finance the machinations of the Bolsheviks once they were able to launder it (no easy task, considering all the major banks knew the serials of the banknotes... mastermind indeed!).
You can learn more about Freedom Square (and Rustaveli) on my audiotour on VoiceMap. Check it out here.
We’ll go down Dadiani Street. It’s fairly innocuous nowadays, but it used to be the center of expat life back in the 2000s and early 2010s. There was a tiny basement bar there called Salve, named after all the “salve” (“welcome” in Latin) signs that are known to adorn the district. The bar was known for its friendly status among alternatives and was devoid of the “kai bitchi” type that had once haunted the city’s streets, looking for easy lays and meaty shawarmas and who wouldn’t think twice about stabbing you over a girl. And so Salve was, in those days, pretty much the only place a Bohemian-type could go and hang out, and then people would move nearby and have house parties and the nights were never ending. The city was almost dead in those days: there was a general malaise and depression just after the war, and life seemed to have ground to a halt.
Not on Dadiani, but somewhere in Sololaki
Now both the malaise and the bar are gone, but the famous restaurant that people went to before getting drunk at Salve, Racha, is under renovations, so that will be nice when it opens up again. At the end of that street is a very beautiful Georgian style house on the corner, and then there’s the big German Schule, which many tourist guides like to call the “Caucasian Harry Potter House” for no clear reason except for its Gothic architecture.
Next up is Tabidze Street. Nearly 10 years ago the city planners had an excellent idea. They would close Tabidze to car traffic and make it pedestrian only, turning it into a cobblestone road envisioning higher-end bars, cafes, and clubs lining the street. It was a brilliant idea and it worked, making a most beautiful avenue of entertainment right off of Freedom Square. But then Georgians’ undying love for the automobile got the best of them and they inexplicably reopened the street to traffic, turning it from a once quiet, lazy afternoon walk to an aerobic feat of dodging cars. It’s basically an oblong parking lot now, gutting much of the business of the more popular bars like the once venerable live music venue Divan. There are a few hangers-on here, but for the most part the city had once put this street on a development pedestal and hacked it down with their great iron, car-shaped bludgeon.
The superior carless end of Tabidze, opposite from Freedom Square
This street is getting a relative amount of fame of late, as it seems bar after bar are opening their doors to the broken asphalt and concrete lined lane. I guess it’s filling in the space that Tabidze once held, but a lot of these bars cater to a more varied clientele and not just the city’s uber-rich. The metal bar, Creator, can be found here, as well as a few more relaxed hangouts. Before Creator and everything else though was a dive called Arsad, which means "nowhere" in Georgian, and it was hell trying to explain where exactly I was going or where someone should meet me if they hadn't known of the bar before.
"Where are you going tonight?" "Nowhere." "Well, let's go out."
"I am, I'm going to Nowhere."
"Dude, if you don't want to hang out, just tell me."
The premium attraction on Machabeli Street though is the Writer’s Union building, a grand example of “modernist” architecture, modern for the early 20th century, that is. Tbilisi modernism was a direct heir to art nouveau, so the former union halls have a lot of flowery flair. The Writer’s Union was originally built as the house of David Sarajishvili, a business mogul and head of the famous cognac (gruzinac, or brandy from Georgia, not from France) company that still reigns supreme on the shelves of local alco-stores today. When he passed, the building had already gained local fame as a monument of sorts, and when his wife decided to sell it in 1918, it caused an uproar. She must have smelled something on the wind though, as a few years later the Bolsheviks seized it and nationalized it, turning it into what it’s known as today: the Writer’s Union.
The Writer's Union house, on the corner of Machabeli and Asatiani
A few notable Soviet writers lived there for a time, namely Maxim Gorky, while Vladimir Mayakovsky was known to stay there as well, perhaps while on visits to his hometown of Baghdati in the Georgian countryside. From the spacious courtyard (which now houses a fancy pants restaurant) you can see the sky, and perhaps make out a cloud worthy of the restaurant.
There are a couple of famous landmarks on Leonidze Street as well. Coming up from Freedom Square on the right, you’ll see a big bank building. The Tbilisi Mutual Credit Society was built in 1913 and the building now serves as the ground for the National Bank of Georgia. Not an overly interesting bank itself, except in the knowledge that it was the first banking building in Tbilisi. It was later nationalized and made into the Central Bank of Georgia, a purpose it still serves today.
Detail of the National Bank and its money titans holding up Georgia's economy