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Walking tour

Tbilisi walking tour

This walk takes you through the heart of Tbilisi’s New Town and the narrow streets of the Old Town, then across to the dramatically located left bank of the Mtkvari. Start outside Rustaveli metro station, one of the city’s main hubs and home to the grotesquely large main branch of McDonald’s. More interesting are the monument to the national bard Shota Rustaveli (1) and the pleasantly Stalinist Academy of Sciences (2; Rustaveli 52),  with its landmark tower and spire. Walk along Rustaveli to soak up the bustling, cosmopolitan atmosphere of Tbilisi’s main artery, strung with handsome and important buildings such as the Opera House (3; opposite), the Rustaveli Theatre (4; opposite ), the  (5; opposite ), the (6; opposite) and the Museum of Georgia (7).

Monument to Shota RustaveliRustaveli Avenue (Rustavelis Gamziri in Georgian or Rustaveli Prospekt in Russian) leads off to the northwest. Almost 1.5km long and lined with plane trees, it's a fine stately avenue that's spoilt by the amount of traffic roaring up and down it these days. There are pedestrian underpasses, but people also cross the road with great nonchalance, waiting on the centre line until there's a gap. On the right/north side at No 3 is the National Museum, built in 1923-29; this houses the national collections of archaeology, history and ethnography, based on the collections of the Caucasian Museum, founded in 1852. A treasury houses a superb collection of pre-Christian gold; jewellery and icons from the Christian era are in the treasury of the Art Museum. In the same building is the Georgian Arts and Georgian Parliament in TbilisiCulture Centre, which houses temporary shows; it's two flights up a staircase with a very funky three- storey chandelier in the well. Just beyond the museum is the Rustaveli Cinema, built in 1939 (by Nikolai Severov, who also designed the National Museum), with idealised statues of Soviet youth on the facade. Behind them is the National Library, housed in three imposing buildings along Gudiashvilis; the easternmost block is a fascinating neo-Romanesque creation with lovely murals on its ceiling (including an external arcade) - feel free to step inside. Below the library is the Trinity Church (1790, with more recent frescoes and a Baroque iconostasis), busy with weddings at weekends.

Immediately on the left at the start of Rustaveli is a modern trade centre, with the Griboedov Russian Theatre behind it; originally a caravanserai, there's been a theatre here since 1845. At its far end is the Freedom Square metro station at Rustaveli 6, and steps up to the Chancellery, and beyond that the Young People's Palace, built in 1807 as the Russian Viceroy's Palace, with an arcade in front added in 1865-68. Stalin installed his mother here at one time and it then served as the Pioneers' Palace, housing the Soviet youth organisation and a Museum of Children's Toys. It's still used for youth activities, and is the best place to find classes and displays of Georgian folk dance and the like.

Kashveti ChurchBeyond this is easily the most dominating building on Rustaveli, the Parliament Building. This was built as a U-shaped block in 1938 (on the site of the Alexander Nevsky Church, built in the 19th century for the Russian army); a very solid portico of tuff was built by German prisoners of war and the building opened in 1953. Immediately beyond the Parliament is the High School No 1, founded in 1802 as the first European-style high school in Transcaucasia; it educated many of the leading figures of recent Georgian history, including Kostava, Gamsakhurdia, Sigua and Kitovani. It's a good example of Russian neoclassicism, with statues of Ilia Chavchavadze and Akaki Tsereteli (1958) in front; you might want to look inside and enquire about the Museum of Education housed there, although it's unlikely to be open. A plaque commemorates those killed by the Soviet security forces on 9 March 1956.

At No 9 on the north side is the Kashveti Church of St George, built in 1904-14 on the site of a 6th-century church demolished as unsafe at the end of the 19th century. It was built by the German Leopold Bielfeld, and based on the 11th-century church of Samtavisi.

Rustaveli TheaterThe attractive Alexandrov Park is behind the church, and next to it, at Rustaveli 11, the State Academy of Fine Art, which houses temporary shows in a fine blue building known as the Khram Slavi (Temple of Glory), built in 1883-85 as a Museum of Military History, to commemorate Russia's conquests. In front are statues of painters Elena Akhvlediani and David Kakabdze. Beyond this, at No 15 (opposite the Ministry of Transport and Communications) is the Hotel Tbilisi, built in 1915 as the Hotel Majestic and gutted in the civil war. It reopened in 2002 as the luxurious Marriott Hotel. Behind it at Chanturia  8 is the State Literature Museum, a nice 19th-century building facing the park, which also has temporary art shows, but erratic opening times.

Beyond the hotel, at No 17, is the splendid French neoclassical facade of the famous Rustaveli Theatre, built in 1899-1901 and refurbished in 1920-21 for the new Rustaveli Theatre Company; it was refurbished again in 2002-05 and in 2006 a Hollywood-style 'walk of the stars' was begun in front. It boasts marble staircases, classical statues, and frescoes by Lado Gudiashvili, Moise Toidze and David Kakabadze in the Kimerioni (Chimera) cafe on the first floor.

Tavisuplebis moedani / Freedom square, TbilisiOn the south side of the avenue, behind Rustaveli 24 at Griboedov 8, stands the Conservatoire (music college), built in 1904; there's a museum (although you need to persuade a member of staff to show you around) with Rachmaninov's piano, autograph scores by him and Tchaikovsky and vintage photos; on the ground floor at the east end of the building are the newly refurbished Grand Hall and a lovely chamber recital hall where Horowitz played. The poet Titsian Tabidze lived from 1921 to 1937 at Griboedov 18, where his friend Boris Pasternak allegedly did many of his translations of Georgian poetry; the apartment is a museum supposedly open from 11.00 to 17.00 except on Saturdays.

If you continue from the theatre along the north side of Rustaveli, you'll come to the Paliashvili Opera House at No 25. Founded in 1851, it was burnt down in 1870, and replaced with the present Moorish building in 1880-96; it saw the start of Shalyapin's career before it too burnt down in 1973, and was rebuilt in 1977.

Opposite this, Rustaveli 42 was the first, major Soviet public building in Tbilisi, constructed in 1926-28; it's also brutalist plain concrete but with a few neoclassical details, and very modern for the period, perhaps influenced by Czech functionalism.

Anchiskhati Basilica at 5-7 Shavteli Alley, TbilisiFrom Tavisuplebis moedani (8) at the end of Rustaveli, head down Leselidze at the far left corner of the square, then along Diumas, the first left off Leselidze. Take the first short lane to the right after the Hotel Dzveli Ubani and then follow Avlevi down to the left through an area of quaint Old Town houses. Avlevi emerges on pedestrianised Shavteli; turn right here, passing the Anchiskhati Basilica (9) and Erekle II moedani (10) and into Erekle II qucha with its cafés.

Shavteli brings you to Baratashvilis, the main road from the Baratashvilis Bridge (rebuilt in 1966 as the Stalin Bridge, with a lower pedestrian level) up to Freedom Square, running along the outside of the old city walls; on its south side many houses were built into the wall in the 19th century.

Walking up to the left/south up Baratashvilis, you'll pass various bars and restaurants in the city wall, as well as a wedding registry. The road swings up to the left as Pushkin Street; on the right is Pushkin Square, where old men gather to play backgammon under the trees and a bust of Pushkin. Also here is the grave of Kamo, a Bolshevik activist who was killed by a car in 1922, in what was almost certainly a murder organised by Stalin. The Art Museum faces Pushkin Square, in a building which was built from 1827 to 1834 as a hotel, then served as a seminary until 1908, and became an art gallery in 1933. Noe Zhordania, the prime minister of independent Georgia from 1918 to 1921, studied here, as did Stalin.

Sioni Cathedral in TbilisiJust beyond this you'll reach Tavisuplebis Moedani or Freedom Square, laid out by the Russians between the 1820s and 1870s. Originally Yerevan Square, it was then Lenin Square until 1990; the statue of Lenin in its centre has now been replaced by a grassy roundabout. A fountain was added for the Tbilisoba Festival in 2001, on the site of the city's first opera house, built in 1846 (the south wall was unearthed 30 years ago when the Rustaveli Avenue/Pushkin Street underpass was built, a useful - indeed essential - shortcut. A very tall column, the Monument of Freedom and Victory, with an expensive-looking bronze of St George and the Dragon the sculptor Akaki Tsereteli atop it, now has pride of place in the centre of the square. The square is dominated by the City Hall, built in 1880 by the German architect Peter Stern, with a third storey and clock tower added in 1910-12; this is an attractive building with stripes of sandy green and white and mauresque stucco. The eastern side of the ground floor, at the junction with Dadianis qucha, now serves as home to a well- equipped tourist information office with plenty of free booklets, maps and helpful English-speaking staff. The west side of the square was gutted in the civil war, but new buildings such as the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel have now filled the gap. Just above the square at Leonidze 5, uphill from the main entrance of the National Bank of Georgia, the Museum of Money (admission free) is modern and expensively furnished, with lots of marble, and all captions are in Georgian, English and Russian. It exhibits Georgian coins dating as far back as the 6th century вс (from Vani), a stater issued by Alexander the Great in the 4th century вс, Roman denarii, Parthian coins, then 11th-century Bagratid coins from Georgia, irregularly shaped coins issued by Tamar, more from 13th- to 18th-century Georgia, 16th-century Venetian gold ducats, and Austrian and Polish thalers, then roubles issued by the Transcaucasian Federation and the USSR, coupons issued in 1993-94, and finally a colourful display of modern notes, from Europe, Iraq (Saddam), Iran (Khomeini), Israel, the central Asian 'stans', Asia, the Antipodes, the US and (very nice) Madagascar.

Gorgasali Square in TbilisiIrakli II kucha is a pedestrianised street with lots of tables and chairs on the street, and trendy art galleries and bars. It should bring you to Irakli II Square, the historic centre of old Tbilisi, once the site of open-air courts and punishment with a cast-iron fountain from France. Turning right at the top of Sionis qucha brings you down to the Peace Bridge, a new, arresting if somewhat over-sized, pedestrian bridge, opened in 2010, which stretches across the Mtkvari: River to Rike Park. The bridge is supposed to symbolise Georgia's transition from the past to a better future but due to its unfortunate resemblance to a giant sanitary towel is already being referred to by some wags as 'Always Ultra'.

On the north side of Irakli II Square a balconied building is the palace of Giorgi XII (which housed the Museum of Drama, Music and Cinema but is now semi-permanently closed); underground and adjacent to this by the embankment are the remains of the 17th-century baths of King Rustum and Vakhtang VI's press (1709). To the east is the former governor's palace (built in 1802 and now a police building); to the west of the square is an attractive park and an old people's home and chapel. To the north of this is the narrow Shavtelis kucha, with, at No 7, the Anchiskhati church, the oldest and one of the most loved in Tbilisi, with the best choir, singing on Saturdays (16.00-19.00) and Sundays (09.00-12.00). Dating from the early 6th century, it's a basilica with two pairs of bare brick columns and stone walls flanking its narrow three-bay aisles. It has been rebuilt several times, most notably in 1675; the present frescoes (with wording in Old Church Slavonic script) probably date from the 18th century. Its name means 'the icon from Ancha', after a wonderful 6th-century icon in a golden frame (now in the National Museum), which was moved here in the 17th century from Ancha, in Turkish-occupied territory. The gate-tower, with a residence above the gate, was built in 1675 and is most unusual with its Islamic-influenced brickwork.

The Armenian Cathedral of St George in Tbilisi.Continue along Sionis qucha, past the Sioni Cathedral (11) and the Tbilisi History Museum (12), and then duck into Bambis rigi or Shardenis qucha, both lined with smart cafés. Either of these narrow pedestrian streets brings you out on Gorgasalis moedani (13), with Narikala Fortress rising on the hill above.

The historic main street of the old town is Shavteli, parallel to the river; US$1.3 million has been allocated to beautify the pleasantly shabby area through which it runs. To reach it, take some steps down beside a patch of grass on the west side of Gorgasali moedani (Square), to the short pedestrianised Sharden Street, which curves past an art gallery in a former shoe factory to the traffic-calmed Sionis kucha. Almost immediately on your right, at No 8 is the caravanserai or Carvasla, built in 1650 as a trading centre for visiting merchants, rebuilt in 1912 with an Art Nouveau facade, and now housing the Museum of the History of Tbilisi. The interior seems like classic 1980s architecture, in fact very similar to the Metechi Palace Hotel, with a high atrium and three galleries overlooking a cafe by a fountain, which was once a drinking pool for pack animals. If you happen to pass its rear, on the Mtkvari embankment, you'll see two sculpted griffons, with three of their four wings missing.

Opposite is an Orthodox seminary, and immediately west of the caravanserai is the Sioni cathedral, seat of the Catholicos of Georgia, who lives in the villa immediately to the west. The original Church of the Assumption was built between AD575 and 639, but little of that is left; the present church is a typical domed Georgian church built in the 13th century of tuff stone from Bolnisi, and nothing special architecturally. However, it is the centre of religious life in the city, partly due to the presence of St Nino's cross, which she made by binding two vine branches together with her own hair (hence the drooping arms of the Georgian cross); a replica is displayed to the left of the iconostasis, but it's hard to see much as even this is in an ornate early 14th-century reliquary. The frescoes and iconostasis (1850 -60) are by the Russian Grigori Gagarin. Across the road is the handsome bell tower or kolokolnaya, the first example of Russian neoclassicism in Georgia but now in very poor repair; it was built in 1812 at the wish of the Russian viceroy prince Paul Tsitsiani, who had died in 1806 and been buried in the cathedral. This is also where the playwright Griboedov married Alexander Chavchavadze's daughter Nina. To the north of the cathedral (towards the river) is the original bell tower, built in the 13th century and 1425, and restored in 1939.

The famous Sulphur Baths in the Abanotubani district (bath district), Tbilisi, Georgia.Take the small street (Samghebro) in front of the lovely Armenian Cathedral of St George (14) down to the Abanotubani (15), Tbilisi’s traditional sulphur baths. The Armenian Church of St George was founded by the Armenian prince Umek in 1251, although what you see now is largely 18th century and fairly standard in form, apart from the choir gallery. Continuing eastwards on Samgebro, the first turning to the right leads up to the Narikala Citadel you'll emerge on Botanikuri, which leads steeply up the hill to the right through the old Azeri quarter to (as you might expect) the Botanical Gardens, passing the Sunni mosque, the only one left in the city (with Sunni and Shia now worshipping together), at No 32. Built in 1895, it's red brick with a relatively discreet minaret, opposite a memorial to the Turkish artist Ibrahim Isfahanli (1897-1967).

Immediately across Botanikuri, beyond the carpet shop, is Abanos kucha (Bannaya ulitsa in Russian), named after the bathhouses found here. At the end of the road just to the right you'll see the most striking bathhouse, the late 17th- century Orbeliani (or Chreli) baths, with a facade of bright-blue tiles and two short minarets, recalling the design of a mosque. The other old bathhouses are underground, their presence betrayed only by rows of brick domes. The oldest surviving is the Irakli, on the corner of Abanos and Akhundov; opposite this is the early 17th-century Simbatov baths, while the 18th-century Bebutov baths are on Akhundov. In 1817 Sir Robert Ker Porter, court painter to Alexander I, was able to bribe his Metekhi Church in Tbilisiway into the women's baths and was shocked to find that 'they seemed to have as little modest covering on their minds as on their bodies'. The area immediately around the bathhouses and mosque has long been at the centre of the city's Azeri quarter: the small park in front of the bathhouses bears the name and bronze bust of Heydar Aliyev, the former president of Azerbaijan.

Head back to Gorgasalis moedani and across the Metekhi Bridge and up the hill to finish your walk at the emblematic Metekhi Church (16). There were two bridges across the Mtkvari here, and a mosque, until the 1930s, when Beria replaced them with the present Metekhi Bridge; but when the river is low the foundations are still visible to the west. Gorgasali Square was the site of the city's bazaar, and it is still surrounded by Silversmiths' Street, Blacksmiths' Street and so on, marking where various trades were once concentrated. To the east and south of the Gorgasali Square are various sights that would take all day to see if you were to do it properly.