Although Kutaisi is Georgia's second city population-wise, the resort and port city of Batumi is in many ways the real counterweight to Tbilisi in terms of atmosphere, setting and appearance. Set on a warm semitropical coast with a backdrop of mist-wrapped hills near the Turkish border, Batumi has become the country's summer holiday capital, pulling in tourists from around Georgia and beyond.
Its history is a lot shorter than that of most Georgian cities, and it owes much of its unique charm to the elegant fin-de-si?cle architecture of its original boom time a century ago. For most travellers arriving from Turkey, Batumi will be the first Georgian city they encounter, and it makes a great introduction to the country, with its relaxed atmosphere, lots of hotel space, good restaurants and nightlife.
Only 20 km from the Georgian-Turkish border, it is also the most important port and resort on the southern portion of the Black Sea Coast. The Georgian name, Bat-om-i, comes from the first settlement's location on the left bank of the Bat River. Batumi was an important port from which the Romans set out to trade with other cities along the coast. In the fourth century the region was under the control of the Kingdom of Lazica, and in the sixth and seventh centuries it was a battlefield for the imperial aspirations of the Byzantines and Persians.
Batumi's history largely mirrors that of Ajara as a whole: a flowering during the Middle Ages followed by devastation in the major Turkish invasion of the 16th century. The subsequent battle between Turks and Georgians for possession of Batumi continued on and off until the 19th century. Under Turkish domination, the city diminished in size and importance; by the beginning of the 19th century, Batumi had been reduced to a small Asiatic village of approximately 2,000 inhabitants. As a result of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, Batumi became part of the Russian Empire and began to flourish again both as a city and a port. Between 1878 and 1886 it operated as a free port.
Batumi developed in the late 19th century as the western terminus of a railway from Baku that then carried one-fifth of the world's oil production. A pipeline and refinery built by Ludwig Nobel, brother of Swedish dynamite inventor Alfred, soon followed. Batumi gained free-port status, over 20 foreign consulates set up here, and the town developed into a fashionable resort at the southern tip of the Russian empire and a crossroads between Europe and Asia.
In 1902 the man later to be known as Stalin organised a strike after the sacking of 400 workers from the Rothschild refinery; 15 lives were lost, and Stalin was sent to Siberia for three years. A week after the Armistice of November 1918, 15,000 British troops landed in Batumi to help protect Georgia and the Caspian oilfields from Germany and Bolshevik Russia; the last troops left on 9 July 1920, leaving the way open for the Bolshevik invasion and the takeover of Georgia. The democratic prime minister Noe Zhordania and his government fled from Batumi early in 1921, and the 11th Red Army conquered Georgia.
Now it's a city of around 130,000 people, and handles a great deal of trade with Turkey, both by land and sea. Modern Batumi is a city of parks with subtropical vegetation, broad beachfront, high-rise tourist hotels, shady avenues, an old town and market section, a sprin-kling of 19th-century merchants' mansions, and a commercial port.
One of the first decisions of the post-Abashidze administration in 2004 was to make Batumi an attractive place to visit, something in which they are, happily, succeeding. Charming old buildings have been restored, renovated and floodlit, attractive new ones are joining them, and strolling around the leafy, low-rise central streets is a real pleasure.
Orientation & Information
The central, oldest and liveliest part of town sits on a broad arrowhead of land with the harbour to its east and the stony main beach running down the western shore, backed by the Batumis bulvari (Batumi Blvd) park. Two broad avenues, Chavchavadze and Rustaveli, mark the southern and northern boundaries of the central area, with K Gamsakhurdia and Baratashvili the most important cross-streets in the central grid. The bus station is east of the centre, a 1km walk along Tsereteli from Tbilisis moedani on Chavchavadze. Batumi’s train station is 5km north of town in Makhinjauri, on the road to Kobuleti.
Everyone soon finds themselves strolling along Batumis bulvari, the 1.5km park strip fronting the main beach. With its cafés, paths, trees, beach bars and large Ferris wheel (per person 0.50 GEL) at the south end, this is the life and soul of the resort. It was originally laid out in 1884 and contains some unique plants and trees. The beach itself is fine though stony – extremely busy during the summer months, but kept clean enough. You’ll find cleaner waters, and thinner crowds, a short drive south of the city, at Gonio and Kvariati.
The main central square, Evropas moedani (Europe Sq), is a broad, attractive space sporting musical fountains which are a magnet for kids on hot summer evenings. Towering over the square is a striking monument, unveiled in 2007, to Medea, ‘the person who brought Georgia closer to Europe,’ according to Batumi’s mayor at the time.
The Georgian government controversially paid over 1 million GEL for the monument, sculpted by Davit Khmaladze.
The Adjara Arts Museum (Era 8; 11am-6pm Tue-Sun) makes a happy break from many of Georgia’s more turgid and badly lit museums. The collection covers Georgian art including works by Pirosmani and Elena Akhvlediani, as well as European and Russian painting from the 19th and 20th centuries.
For those who don’t make it to Gori, the Stalin Museum (Pushkin 19; 9am-5pm Mon-Sat) is an interesting and similarly hagiographic establishment. Stalin lived here for just a few months in 1901–02 when he helped organise the bitumen workers and set up an illegal printing press. Rather too amazingly (given that he didn’t become famous until almost two decades later), his personal belongings have survived, including a moth-eaten towel and the bed he slept on.
Batumi’s last surviving mosque (Kutaisi 33), built in the 1860s, is also worth visiting. It’s finely painted in pinks, greens and blues, with beautiful Koranic calligraphy on the walls. Friendly men often gather to socialise at the entrance. The nameless old food shop (Gamsakhurdia 12) has very ordinary goods for sale, but its rich gold decoration is a unique memento of pre-revolutionary Batumi.
Batumi’s most modern and one of its most interesting museums is the Nobel Technological Museum (Leselidze 3, Tamari district; 10am-5pm). This takes you back to Batumi’s heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century, when it was in the vanguard of the international oil business, with investment from the Nobels and Rothschilds spawning technological innovations here. The museum also looks at the tea industry that grew up at the same time. It’s just inland off the road to Makhinjauri train station.
If you fancy to swim in Black Sea water one is recommended taking a marshutka to Sarpi. It is a smaller town and not as crowded. It is also a prettier area. However, if you are looking for somewhere with a more active nightlife and more resturants then you would rather stay in Batumi. Batumi has had a lot of developement in the last 5 years and has much more to do than the other cities. The 'beach' at Batumi isn't so much a 'beach' but a collection of golf ball sized stones. But the promenade is long and nice enough.