Tbilisi

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Tbilisi
Population: 1,480,000
Main industries: construction, real estate, financial sector, transport, communications, tourism
Mayor: Giorgi "Gigi" Ugulava
Founded circa 479 A.D.
Interesting fact: American author an Nobel prize winner John Steinbeck first visited Tblisi in 1947, and was so enchanted by the people and the culture that he returned several more times.
Interesting fact: The road that leads from the airport to the city was named in honor of U.S. President George W. Bush in 2007.
Interesting fact: Tbilisi is one of the settings of the Ali and Nino novel, a love story of an Azerbaijani khan and a Georgian princess set by its author Kurban Said against the backdrop of the breakup of the Russian empire and the Bolshevik capture of Baku.
Sister cities: Saarbrücken, Germany; Nantes, France; Ljubljana, Slovenia; Innsbruck, Austria; Atlanta, United States; Palermo, Italy; Bristol, United Kingdom; Bilbao, Spain; Yerevan, Armenia; Ankara, Turkey; Kiev, Ukraine; Astana, Kazakhstan; Vilnius, Lithuania; Bucharest, Romania; Warsaw, Poland.

TBILISI, Georgia — Visitors can sense this city's vibrancy as soon as they log on to the local public wireless network. "Tbilisi, I love you" pops up on the screen as the network name a reminder that modern marketing techniques are there to promote the ancient reputation of warmth and hospitality the Georgian capital has earned over the centuries.

Having been designated the capital nearly 1,500 years ago, despite spells of self-rule and subservience to Persia, Russia, and the Soviet Union, Tbilisi's attributes are now known far and wide. This results in people having a preconceived notion about the locals who will easily take a stranger home, give him an excellent meal and generously fill his glass with fine wine (and later in the evening, a shot of Chacha moonshine), and exchange life stories.

Given its ancient history, Tbilisi has a strong and vibrant sense of identity that makes it very organic and natural. Some legends say that when the mythical island of Atlantis crumbled into the sea, the inhabitants went in two directions and now occupy the Basque country of Europe and Georgia. Indeed, the language of the two peoples has the same origin.

Whether arriving from a sunken island or indigenous to the region, as many anthropologists believe, the Georgian people and the various ethnic subgroups they comprise Mingrelian, Svan, Laz and others are well aware of their distinctiveness which provides them with a unique sense of confidence and self-respect. It's not necessary to flatter them on this account, but beginning a conversation with any Tblisian by expressing admiration of Georgia's history and culture will surely win people's hearts.

Major Businesses

Georgian Oil and Gas Corporation (21 Kakheti Highway, +995-32-224-4040; www.gogc.ge) is the national oil and gas company founded in 1929. It deals with exploration, procurement, transportation of oil, oil products and gas in Georgia.
Kazbegi JSC (7 Martskhena Sanapiro Street, +995-32-294-2046; www.kazbegi.com) is a food producing and processing company also engaged in tourism.
Tbilvino (2 Sarajishvili Avenue, +995-32-265-1625; www.tbilvino.ge) founded in 1962 Tbilvino is one of the most famous wine factories in Georgia. The company's products have been awarded numerous medals at international wine competitions.

No matter whether it is a dilapidated street in the old town, or a newly refurbished glossy boulevard, nothing feels artificial in Tbilisi. The city doesn’t try to deceive, so even the aspects of it that might seem negative, such as Soviet-style suburbs filled with prefab housing blocks, will not leave an aftertaste. The locals are famous for their serenity probably thanks to the one and a half millennium of uninterrupted reign of the capital, and the fact that despite the continuous onslaught by foreign invaders, the citys bold cultural ego has remained undimmed.

The natural charm extends not only to Tbilisi its ancient fortress, churches, and balconies that create a picturesque setting but also to its people and the plethora of cats that move around and feel at ease everywhere in town. They are complemented by a seemingly equal number of old men, who take their chairs outside and sit on the streets observing the passersby. This is Tbilisis present, past and probably its future.

The citys name derives from the Old Georgian word Tpili, which means a warm place. Numerous sulfuric hot springs, which you can smell even in the metro, are a distinctive feature of the city. One way to feel the physical warmth of the place and its people is by going to public bath houses, where you can get the most recent rumor about whether Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili will sell Georgia to the Russians, where to buy the best dates, and an unsolicited review of the latest play at the Marjanishvili Theater.

For MT
Fady Asly,
Chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce of Georgia
Q: Why do you think an investor should consider Tbilisi?
A: Georgia is the entry gate for the Caucasus and Central Asia and therefore an investor has more than 100 million potential customers in reach; furthermore Tbilisi is turning into the financial hub for the region; the investment climate is very friendly with insignificant corruption. Running a business is very easy with very low taxes, simplified and fast procedures and most importantly a very supportive government.

Q: What problems do investors have to contend with?
A: After the change of government I sincerely find it very difficult to mention any serious negative aspects for investors; under the previous government rule of law was a problem but courts are now becoming independent; furthermore business people are not subject to harassment as they were previously.

Q: Which sectors are the most promising for investors?
A: Tourism, agriculture and financial services are the most promising sectors for investment; real estate is currently understated and has huge potential for development.

Q: What do you think the new government will do to attract investors?
A: The new government is in active talks with investors from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Russia and USA; the government is committed to facilitate investor's operations by maintaining the same friendly legislation and focusing on the protection of property rights. I genuinely believe that investors who commit to Georgia now are making a very wise decision.

Ivan Nechepurenko

The man in the street bears no prejudice. There is a certain sense of pride, especially among the older generation, that for nearly 200 years (except for a brief period at the time of the Russian Revolution) the country was a part of the Russian Empire and subsequently Soviet Union. Despite all political difficulties, this relationship still manifests itself in terms of personal and cultural connections. Meanwhile, younger generations turn to the West for inspiration for their lifestyle and taste. In that sense they are no different from Moscows hipsters.

Strolling from the posh Vake district through the formerly aristocratic Vera neighborhood, take a glance into the usually open elegant entrance halls of lavish, but frequently dilapidated buildings of old Tiflis. That is the former name of Tbilisi, when it was the capital of Tiflis province and then the short lived Transcaucasian Federation proof of its role as the center of Caucasus geopolitical life.

In the Old Town the architecture is at once diverse and cohesive symbolic of the native spirit itself. Perhaps this sense of unity is what makes Georgians so passionate about everything they do. Yet public opinion can easily diverge, as seen in how many people now zealously promote the current drive to become a prosperous part of the West. On the other hand, these passions can suddenly turn in the opposite direction, as was demonstrated by the recent parliamentary election.

The new government still has to prove itself. The Saakashvili cabinet was relatively open. It was easier to meet public officials in their offices or even in restaurants than in Russia. For a time one could even walk into the state chancellery building and arrange a meeting with a deputy minister.

Tbilisis economy is heavily reliant on foreign investment, which makes officials treat potential investors with great care. It is unlikely that the new ministers will be able to roll back many of the reforms introduced by Saakashvili that led to improvements the populace already takes for granted like honest police and efficient government services. Though some may debate the degree of success, the World Bank boosted Georgias Doing Business ranking from 100th in 2006 to 9th in 2013 due those very reforms.

But such change is a symbol of the Georgian paradox. In the countryside outside of Tbilisi, the landscape changes every half hour, from rocky crags to fertile green fields, but the people and cuisine are always enjoyable. It is through such a combination of flexibility and consistency that the Georgians have managed to build their new state in such a complex geopolitical environment. When the essence of that magic balance sinks in after a short time in Tbilisi, then the visitor will know that he has really arrived.

What to see if you have two hours

In order to get the sense of the layout and beauty of Tbilisis natural surroundings its good to start with a climb up to Mtatsminda Mountain. Looking down you can see central Tbilisi with its main thoroughfare Rustaveli cutting through the heart of town. You can also grasp the spiritual side of Georgia by walking into the St. Davids Mamadaviti Church that is surrounded by a necropolis, where some of the most prominent figures of Georgias cultural history are buried. Underneath the church you can see the grave of Alexander Griboyedov, a famous Russian poet, and his Georgian wife Nino Chavchavadze, and get a sense of how Tbilisi was an object of inspiration and affection for Mikhail Lermontov, Leo Tolstoy, Ilia Chavchavadze and the Romanov family.

Walking down to the city you can stroll along Rustaveli to see Tbilisis main landmarks: the Moorish opera, Rustaveli Theatre and the Parliament building. If you come in late summer or early fall, take full advantage of numerous fruit stands that offer delicious dates, grapes and peaches. Instead of stopping for lunch on Rustaveli it might be a better idea to walk to Freedom square, turning left onto Leselidze Street, which has more of a genuine feeling of the town. The street will lead you toward Meidani square, overlooking the serene Metekhi church and statue of King Vakhtang I “Gorgasali.” From there you can climb up to the Narikala fortress or ramble around the maze of the Old Town, the most venerable and unique part of Tbilisi.

What to see if you have two days

Betsy Haskell,
Hotelier
Q: How has the hospitality industry in Tbilisi been evolving?
A: The hotel industry in Tbilisi is booming, and actually has been for some years. A recent study showed that most of the big hotels have a greater than 90 percent occupancy rate, and second tier hotels are equally busy. There is a need for more hotels in Tbilisi, as well as in the more popular tourist sites. Guests are not just tourists, though. Many business travelers are coming as well.

Q: How difficult it was to set up a hotel in Tbilisi?
A: It was, and so far as I know, is now quite easy to set up a hotel in Tbilisi, though the costs today are higher since simple bed and breakfast hotel types are not so popular. Hostels are also being opened in Tbilisi, and are very popular with the many back-packers who are traveling through the country.

Q: What are the cross-cultural nuances in starting a business in Tbilisi?
A: The big advantage for me when I started my hotel in 1994 was that it wasn't necessary to have a local partner, nor is it required today in Georgia. Therefore, one didn't have to deal with ideas and misinformation about how to do business.
I suspect that has changed in the past few years as the regulatory process of starting, and operating a business has been made much more transparent and easier to navigate and the tax authorities have a very different attitude toward business people than in the past.
In the early days, after the fall of the Soviet Union, anyone doing business here was considered a mafiosi, and the authorities reacted accordingly. Now we find that the authorities are anxious to help businesses succeed as they realize the benefits to the economy, and local employment, of having successfully operating businesses.

Ivan Nechepurenko

Take a cab and drive to the outskirts of Tbilisi to Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia. The trip takes only half an hour and will not cost more than 30 lari ($18). Mtskheta has been recently renovated and looks like a mid-sized Prussian town. The difference is that there is the Svetitskhoveli (the Life Giving Pillar) cathedral in the middle one of the most sacred places in Georgia surrounded by mighty mountains. The cathedral houses graves of the ancient Georgian kings and also the Holy Robe said to have been worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion.

Then you can also have lunch at Cafe Guga (6 Mamulashvili; on the left from the cathedrals gates), which offers outstanding Georgian cuisine at low prices. You can complete your evening by observing Georgias ancient capital from the top of the nearest hill, dominated by the sixth century Jvari monastery (ask your driver to take you there on the way home for an extra 15 lari)

In Tbilisi itself, if you have time to see museums, visit Simon Janashias Museum of Georgia (3 Rustaveli; adult price 1.5 lari), where you can find the countrys main archeological artifacts, dating from the fifth century B.C., looking as exquisite as the Trojan Gold. The building has been recently renovated and offers a new treat the Museum of Soviet Occupation, which is an example of how Saakashvilis government promoted nation building. The second most important museum in Tbilisi is Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts (1 L. Gudiashvili; 3 lari), which houses the best examples of Georgian artwork, including icons encapsulated into richly ornate frames.

As they did in the rest of the Soviet Empire, the Bolsheviks had closed most churches in Georgia and taken the best artifacts to the main museum in the republics capital. Some of the items on display at the Amiranashvili are considered world-class masterpieces. The National Gallery of Georgia (11 Rustaveli; 5 lari) houses works of Georgias most famous painter Niko Pirosmani, whose primitivist work inspired Pablo Picasso, among others.

If you want to take a side trip to Azerbaijan, take a cab and go to Davit Gareja monastery (90 kilometers outside Tbilisi). This rock-carved monastery complex is an object of a border dispute between Tbilisi and Baku. When you go on the other side of the hill you get a Welcome to Azerbaijan message on your phone and can consider yourself being in Georgias oil-rich neighbor. Crossing the border between these countries is legal.

Another site to see is the Shatili fortress, a complex of fortified dwellings, located 180 kilometers, or about 4 hours by car, to the North-East of Tbilisi, near the Chechen border.

No visit would be complete without a wine tour in nearby Kakhetia. There are many tours that you can arrange in its capital Telavi (70 kilometers from Tbilisi). You can visit both small wineries in Napareuli and larger ones, such as Schuchmans. Alternatively, you can also venture out to Racha (250 kilometers northwest of Tbilisi), to see where Georgias most exclusive Usakhelauri wine is made.

What to do with the family

A popular weekend destination for families, the Turtle Lake (end of Kus Tba Street) offers both swimming and views of the mountains and the city below. The lake is located in the hilly outskirts of Tbilisi. Its an hours walk from Vake, or you can take a taxi for 10 lari. For something more cultural, you can pop into Tbilisis Open Air Museum of Ethnography nearby.

Nightlife

If your idea of how to start a night out is by doing something traditional, the world-famous Gabriadze Puppet Theater (Ioane Shavteli Street; +995-32-298-6594) would be the best choice. See The Stalingrad which depicts World War II in a moving and metaphorical way. After seeing a play, you can visit the theaters artistic cafe.

To get a more progressive sense of Tbilisi go to Cafe Gallery (48 Rustaveli Street; +995-32-292-0053). At night the cafe turns into a first-rate nightclub with a DJ. It welcomes many of Tbilisis posh and well-heeled young people.

Where to eat

Purpur (1 A Tbileli Street; +995-32-247-7776) is a cozy restaurant that looks like an old communal apartment. The place is popular with locals and expats. The menu is a mixture of Georgian and European cuisine and the average check will run 50 lari per person without alcohol.

Pasanauri (37/46 Griboyedov Street; +995-32-298-8715) is arguably the best Georgian restaurant in town. The owners are usually present, which makes the place feel very homey. Its convenient location near Rustaveli and in front of Cafe Gallery makes it a good place to start a long evening. An average check is 35 lari without alcohol.

Chardin 12 (12 Chardin Street; +995-32-293-1556) is one of the upscale restaurants of Tbilisi. Meet local celebrities and politicians and enjoy charming live Georgian bands in one of the most western-looking streets of the town. The typical bill comes to 60 lari without alcohol.

Black Lion (23 Amagleba) is as sophisticated and charming as Purpur, but about half the price. It is located off Amagleba street in a less touristy part of the old town continue up Asatiani, turn right at the fork, pass a Populi on your left, then right side of the street look for a painting of a black lion on a wall. The bill will set you back 25 lari without alcohol.

Luca Polare (34 Leselidze) is a cafe offering the best ice cream in town (5 lari for a full cone). It is always full of people and conveniently located in a very restaurant-dense part of the city.

Where to stay

Tbilisi offers a wide range of hotels. The most upscale and famous of which is Tbilisi Marriott Hotel on 13 Rustaveli Avenue, in front of the parliament (+995-32-277-9200, www.marriott.com). The hotel was the hot spot for meetings of the diplomatic community and international conflict settlers until competition arrived. It opened in 1915 under the name Majestic. In 1916 the hotels design was awarded with a golden medal at the international exhibition in Paris. In 2002 the hotel was refurbished and launched as Tbilisi Marriott Hotel, offering 127 luxurious rooms. Prices start at $195 per night.

Located on the Rose Revolution Square, the new Radisson Blu hotel stand as a symbol of Georgias recent transformation (+995-32-402-200; www.radissonblu.com). The building was formerly occupied by refugees from Georgias breakaway regions. Now it is a shining high-tech hotel in one of Tbilisis prime locations. Prices start at $200.

For a less corporate atmosphere try Betsys hotel (32-34 Makashvili Street; +995-32-293-1404) on the lower slopes of Mtatsminda mountain. You can get the sense of the layout and the natural beauty of Tbilisis setting. Prices start at $140 per night.

Hotel Armazi Palace (8 Armazi; +995-32-277-2143) is a cheaper option. Situated near the Presidents residence, its prices range from $55 to $110 per night, offering panoramic views of the old town.

Conversation Starters

Tbilisians look for things that they have in common with their visitors. So if you are connected to Russia the best way would be to start by discussing cultural (and only thereafter, political) links between Georgia and Russia. Otherwise, you can show interest in the Georgian culture with a mention of glorious Georgian cinema and such filmmakers as Otar Ioseliani. Watching one of his films is a good introduction to Georgian culture.

Books on the Caucasus in English, Russian and Georgian can be found at Prosperos Books & Caliban House (34 Rustaveli; www.prosperosbookshop.com).

Tbilisi has a weekly English newspaper Georgia Daily (www.georgiatoday.ge).

How to get there

The only way to travel to Tbilisi from Moscow is by plane. S7 and Georgian Airways have daily flights. The 1,900 kilometer flight takes around 2.5 hours at an average cost of 15,000 ($500) rubles for a round trip ticket. Ukraine International Airlines offers a much cheaper option (8,000 rubles, or $270), but you will have to stop in Kiev.

Tbilisi airport was recently renovated to accommodate more duty free shops and provide a modern westernized gateway to visitors. Once at the airport, the best way to get to the city center is by hiring a cab. Airport taxi service has recently been formalized by the government. A trip to the central Rustaveli avenue should not cost more than 30 lari ($18), but it is better to agree the price with the driver in advance.

Daily trains connect Tbilisi with Yerevan and Baku. Apart from that, domestic trains run between Tbilisi and Batumi, Gori, Kutaisi, Poti, and Zugdidi among others. The only possible way to get to Tbilisi by rail from Moscow is via Baku, which will take more than 3 days.