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Botanical gardens

BOTANICAL GARDENS (daily from 10.00-19.00 except Mon; admission €3 for foreigners, although it's quite easy to get in for the local rate of GEL 1)

These gardens are one of Tbilisi's least-known treasures, a beautiful place to wander for an afternoon, with both cultivated beds and greenhouses and wilder quieter areas higher up the slopes. The main entry is at the top of Botanikuri, above Gorgasali Square, and it can also be reached by paths from the second hairpin of the Kojori highway, at the junction to the Sololaki Ridge, or near the Kartlis Deda statue; if you enter this way guards will send you down to the main gate to pay.

The gardens were established as a royal pleasure ground in 1636 on the right bank of the Tsavkistiskhevi (Fig Ravine), with a natural waterfall, and became a municipal garden in 1801, growing vines, vegetables and fruit. In 1845 it was taken over and expanded by the Russian Viceroy Mikhail Vorontsov (who also founded the lovely gardens in Yalta), using the steep valley, and a Muslim cemetery, and in the 1890s it became an academic body, publishing its proceedings and a seed exchange list from 1895, and the Bulletin of the Tbilisi Botanic Garden from 1905; from 1897 it was organised into bio-regional sections (such as pine grove, saline soils and Turkestan). In the Soviet period it expanded onto the right bank of the stream and became more practical in outlook, as well as opening sections in Kutaisi and Zugdidi. Taken over by the city in 2000, it was desperately short of money and in a terrible state until being rescued by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. There are still virtually no labels on plants and no signs or maps.

In its 128 hilly hectares (of which 85ha are cultivated) there are 4,900 species, including 2,300 species and forms of trees and shrubs, and over 900 species of tropical and subtropical plants in greenhouses. Local people see the gardens mainly as a venue for picnics and wedding photos; an EcoCentre, funded by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, is being set up here, as a key part of an environmental education programme.

There's a fine specimen of Pinus pithyusa (Pitsunda pine) inside the entrance, from where a gravel path leads up the valley to bridges below the waterfall; the main building and greenhouses are across the valley to the left, with a winding asphalt road continuing up the valley, not very interesting at first with fields and scrubby shrubs, as well as some succulents and thorny shrubs, and some hidden gardens stumbled across at random. Near the head of the valley you'll enter conifers (with bamboo) and then untended scrub of birch or alder, ending at a locked gate. Here you're above the roof of the Sololaki Conference Centre, and not far from Tbilisi Horizont (Horizon), a gated community that's visible all the way from the airport road. The gardens' saviour Bidzina Ivanishvili (who became a prime minster in 2012 and is most likely to become a next president of Georgia after Mikhail Saakshvili in October 2013) appears to be winning a lawsuit against it, and it may be demolished. It's possible to loop back to the left, below the cliffs, or to the right down a cypress alley (on a gravel path).