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Tbilisi is a melting pot of a little over one million people. It’s a collision of modern and ancient, neither Europe nor Asia – singularly “Tbilisi” where tradition is the overriding theme. Walk down a given street and you will smell the seductive aroma of fresh bread wafting out of old cellar bakeries, baked in cylindrical ovens just like it always has. Listen to the refrain of “matzoni, matzoni,” being sung by women lugging bags packed with jars of the fresh sour yogurt at eight in the morning in every neighborhood.
By publishing the stories of our local heroes, visiting them on culinary tours, or directly fundraising for them when they are in need, we attempt to honor their work and their essential role in maintaining the fabric of the city. Our purpose is twofold. Yes, we want to get travelers to some good places to eat. But we also want to make sure that some of these spots and the artisans making food there find a new audience and get the recognition and support they deserve. They are holding back the tide of globalized sameness, which is not easy work – even if it’s done unknowingly. But we believe that every meal counts and, with the help of our audience, they will add up. We are committed to their perseverance and hope that our modest efforts encourage them to keep at it. Our work is also guided by a belief in: Honest Tourism: The places where we eat and craftsmen that we feature on our culinary tours are all selected with this purpose in mind. We’d never accept a free lunch or consider a discount for our tour groups, because that would contradict our central goal, to support them. Nor do our guides receive any commissions from shopkeepers. Honest Journalism: The same principal is applied to the publishing of stories. There are no sponsored posts or even advertising on CB. The writers and photographers are paid fairly for their work on stories that we all believe in.
The cities we are drawn to all have a culinary tradition of untold richness as well as a certain tension, be it political instability, the tug between East and West, the clash between modern and ancient identities, migration, rapid gentrification, bankruptcy, or a post-colonial hangover. Our decision to get started in a city is always the result of a trip filled with many meals where we are given in intimate view of that tension, right there on the table. By getting lost in this warren of independent food purveyors struggling to preserve or adapt tradition in fast-paced urban life, we start to discover the deep complexity and true flavor of the city. At present, you’ll find our regular dispatches from Athens, Barcelona, Istanbul, Lisbon, Los Angeles, Marseille, Mexico City, Naples, Porto, Queens (NY), Shanghai, Tbilisi and Tokyo.
As travel to most of the cities where we work has resumed, Culinary Backstreets is working with a new set of safety guidelines designed for the physical well-being of our guests, guides and members of the local community that we encounter. These guidelines have been developed in line with the best practices published by governments and health officials in the countries where CB works with regard to restaurant and tour and trip operation. With these procedures in place, our guests — led by our team of professional guides, who are being trained accordingly — can explore with peace of mind. The new procedures we are instituting include:
Culinary Backstreets’ mission has always been to preserve, protect and celebrate local culinary traditions and the unsung heroes of the kitchen. Now, more than ever, we remain focused on this goal. These days, we are paying close attention to the physical, economic and psychological well-being of the local communities and the people who keep them fed. We view this as an opportunity for cities to develop a tourism model that makes sense for them and that avoids the mistakes of the past, and for companies like Culinary Backstreets to be part of that process by renewing our commitment to a more sustainable way of traveling and working. By joining our tours and trips, you are contributing to this effort, which includes:
Culinary Backstreets is offering maximum flexibility for our guests, as we realize that travel this summer and fall might involve unexpected cancellations or postponements. So that our guests can book with confidence, we are putting in place the following cancelation policies:
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Tour the Backstreets of Tbilisi With Us
Beyond Khachapuri: Neighborhood by Neighborhood, Bite by Bite
Our Backstreets Envoys, Always Searching for the Next Hidden Gem
Clément, Tbilisi Correspondent
Clément is a freelance writer from France who covers mainly the South Caucasus and Turkey. He works on travel, human rights, environment, culture and food stories. He is also a co-founder and editor at Mashallah News, an award-winning platform covering society, culture and urban issues in the Middle East.
His features were published in Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Wired, Le Monde, Mediapart, Eurasianet, Days Japan and Aftenposten.
Kristo, Tbilisi Walk Leader
Kristo, a native Georgian, studied art in Amsterdam, managed one of Amsterdam’s oldest jazz club but always yearned to live back in her hometown of Tbilisi until she couldn’t stand it anymore. As a member of the young creative class recreating the city these days, she focused on the cuisine and launched a restaurant concentrated on organic products from villages and local farmers, supporting them by organizing weekly farmers market. As the restaurant thrives, Kristo lends her passion for the city and its unique life by leading tours in the backstreets. Her hobby is wandering in old town neighborhoods and collecting forgotten flavors from around Georgia.
Maka, Tbilisi Walk Leader
A guide for Tbilisi and surrounding areas, Maka is a native Georgian, historian and Culinary Backstreets Guide. After more than a decade working in non-governmental organizations, Maka returned to her love of cooking and decided to become a professional guide focusing on Georgian cuisine and history. From the peaks of the Caucasus down to the shore of the Black Sea, Maka knows what to eat where, how to make it and the meaning behind it. Maka is also a founder of the knitted clothing brand “Mash-Mash Handmade.”
Tamar, Tbilisi Walk Leader
Tamar is a journalist, essayist, food blogger, culinary researcher, lecturer with a husband and two sons. She has millions of things and diverse spheres of interests to handle, but since she can’t get enough, she joined our wonderful team to guide people throughout the city. When not acquiring new hobbies and not taking care of her family, Tamar works for INDIGO – 120-page magazine on culture, arts, people, new ideas, travels and such, which she founded with her colleagues and friends. Once a week, she has a course of Creative Writing at the local University GIPA with second year students in the audio-visual department. She often writes about food and new restaurants for INDIGO and also runs different food-related projects with my friends. Currently, she is involved in a project of translating author Zadie Smith into Georgian.
CB’s work was started in 2009 by Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer as a humble food blog called Istanbul Eats. The following year we published a book of our reviews, now in its fifth edition. That year we also launched our first culinary walk in Istanbul, a route we are still using today. In 2012, we realized that what we built in Istanbul was needed in other cities we knew and loved. We started CB that year with Athens, Barcelona, Mexico City and Shanghai as pioneering members of our network. In 2013, we added Rio and also launched our iPhone application in Istanbul. In 2015, Tokyo and Tbilisi came into the fold. That year we published mini-guides to Barcelona and Athens and also launched an iPhone application in those cities. Our Eatinerary service, which provides travelers with tailor-made culinary travel itineraries, was also launched in 2015. In 2016, Lisbon – the latest city to kindle our curiosity – joined the CB network. In 2017 we added Naples and Queens, NY – two places with very compelling stories to tell – to our roster and also published full-size eating guides to Athens and Barcelona. In 2018, Porto joined the list of cities we cover.
Visual Dispatches from the Frontlines of Local Eating
Where is Tbilisi?
Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia, which borders the Black Sea with Russia to its north and Turkey to its southwest; its southern border is shared with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Since it was established in the 5th century, Tbilisi has seen waves of invasions by the Arabs, Turks, Persians, Russians and eventually, the Soviets, leaving intriguing traces of its complex and varied historical influences in its mesmerizing architecture, incredible gastronomic culture and its 8,000-year-old wine heritage.
What are the best things to do in Tbilisi?
With its layered history, incredible dining options and wine bars serving up some the world’s best natural wines, the best mantra to explore and soak in Tbilisi is “walk, eat, drink.”
Plot your walking routes around the city’s cobbled old town making sure to include the dome roofed sulphur baths of Abanotubani – which literally translates to the “bath district” – and whose geothermal waters gave Tbilisi its name (“Tbili” means warm in Georgian). Climb the steep paths up to the Narikala fortress and take in the statuesque Mother of Georgia monument overlooking the city. From there, skip your way down countless stairs, making sure to stop by the Betlemi Church courtyard for a final bird’s eye view of the city skyline before meandering slowly through the streets of Sololaki, admiring the crumbling yet majestic facades of the city’s historic neo-baroque buildings. When possible, make sure to step through covered archways of these magnificent buildings to admire the ornate wooden balconies overlooking hidden courtyards that locals call “ezo” or “Italian yards,” primarily for their legacy of neighborhood gossips, romance, rivalries and intrigues that have made it into countless songs and screen plots.
After a re-energizing meal at one of the many restaurants we’ve carefully curated, plan a trip to one of the state museums and art galleries on the city’s main Rustaveli Avenue for a sense of Georgia’s fascinating and tumultuous history, and its influence on its arts and crafts through the ages. Browse through the pavement market on Dry Bridge for mid-century Soviet memorabilia and cross over the Mtkvari River to explore the former German settlement of Marjanishvili while peeking into the vibrant hipster-packed social spaces of Fabrika and the aptly named Leftbank, where drum and bass beats start throbbing after sunset. Bacchanalians especially shouldn’t forget to drop by one of the natural wine bars we’ve listed, to get acquainted with the best wines of Georgia and seek addresses of the coolest winemakers to visit across the country.
When is the best time of year to visit Tbilisi?
As a popular viral tourism campaign touts, “Spend 4 seasons in Georgia.” The country offers plenty to visitors across the seasons, but if seeking to linger in Tbilisi, late-May to mid-June and the early autumn months from late-August till October are perhaps the two best windows to explore the city before and after the peak tourist summer season of June and July.
What is the weather like in Tbilisi?
Tbilisi has a continental climate marked by cold winters where temperatures hover only a few degrees above freezing and hot summers when temperatures can occasionally cross 90 F. Spring sees milder temperatures, but with plenty of gray rainy days. Autumn is perhaps the best season for those seeking sunny warm days and slightly chilly nights.
Is Tbilisi expensive?
Prices in Tbilisi remain generally cheaper than the Western Europe. With rising inflation, however, the city is not as cheap as it once was and, of late, is even more expensive than bigger cities like Istanbul. One can still get a very comfortable room fitting 3-star hotel standards for $60, while decent hostel beds start at $10. On average, expect to pay about $3 for a flat white or cappuccino and about the same for beer at a bar. While it’s still possible to have a good filling meal with multiple items at a local Georgian tavern for less than $10 a head, expect to pay twice to thrice more at well-reviewed upper-scale restaurants where prices for main menu items start at $7-8.
Is Tbilisi safe?
Tbilisi remains a safe city with a low crime rate, although caution should always be exercised, especially when walking alone in the trails above the city or drinking with strangers. Petty theft can often be a nuisance in the city’s crowded tourist areas but apart from that, pickpocketing is extremely rare in the city’s downtown areas.
What is the best food in Tbilisi?
Tbilisi is full of trendy restaurants, cafes and local bakeries called “satskhobi” that sell the ubiquitous cheesy breads called kachapuri and lobiani (bread with mashed bean stuffing), local hot dogs that’s essentially a sausage baked into phyllo dough, and tons of breads and pies with different stuffing ranging from potato to tarragon, mushroom and meat. These are the city’s cheapest food joints and some have become institutions. At sit-down restaurants, try classic staples like mtsvadi, khinkali, pkhali. The many delicious stews of Georgian cuisine – Megrelian kharcho, chakhokhbili, ostri, chakapuli – can be had either in cheap taverns or in one of the many upscale Georgian fusion restaurants we’ve reviewed over the years.
Where is the best place to stay in Tbilisi?
Sololaki is one of the best areas to stay for those who like to walk and stay close to the historic old town, and within easy reach are restaurants and cafes that pockmark the neighborhood. The neighboring districts of Matatsminda and Vera have some wonderful offerings as well for boutique stays and provide a bit of more seclusion from the touristic hubs, while being closer to some of the city’s more upscale joints. The former German settlement of Marjanishvili, on the left bank, is famous for its Turkish “hazir yemek” or cafeteria-style restaurants. It is more flat and easier to navigate for those wishing to be close to the city center and yet within walking distance or a metro ride from the old town.
What is the COVID-19 situation in Tbilisi?
Georgia’s vaccination rate stands at about 44% but the rate of daily positive test results has dropped to below 1%. Masks are no longer required, except on long-distance transportation like trains. PCR tests are only required for unvaccinated travelers. Visit https://stopcov.ge/en for the latest COVID related updates.
Can Americans travel to Tbilisi?
Americans, and citizens of 90 other countries, can stay visa free for up to a year and cross into the country either by land or air. PCR test requirements apply to anyone who is unvaccinated.
Can I fly directly to Tbilisi?
Apart from a handful of Eastern European cities, most international flights to Tbilisi will require a stopover at one of the regional transit hubs either in Istanbul or Dubai/Sharjah.
What is the best restaurant in Tbilisi?
Tbilisi has numerous and diverse dining options for lunch and dinner, from dingy greasy spoons like Dukani Racha (with finger-licking food slightly injurious to the midline), and a fine selection of places that care a bit more about nutrition and delicacy – Salobie Bia, Shavi Lomi, Khasheria, Ezo, Terracotta, Alubali are some consistent favorites we can vouch for. However, options for breakfast remain limited to a handful of cafes that open no earlier than 8am. French café chain Entrée might be worth noting for early risers for croissants, coffee and more, but for those seeking a bit of a personalized touch seek out Kikliko in Vake, which is named after the Georgian version of the classic French toast. Ukrainian owned Lui café also in Vake stays open 24/7 and usually has a shift change just in time for breakfast.
Are there beaches in Tbilisi?
Tbilisi is an inland city, about 320km away from the nearest Black Sea beach. But if you’re craving some beach time, check out the large reservoir called Tbilisi Sea in the eastern suburbs of town. Here, a mini Riviera vibe pops up as soon as the sun gets baking. Lounge chairs, bikinis and hairy bellies abound in this suburban summer escape.
Is Tbilisi suitable for children?
Apart from a few of the city’s main avenues – Rustaveli, Chacchavadze, Aghmashenebei – strollers can be tricky. But helpful locals abound to help with the unavoidable pedestrian underpasses or broken sidewalks that abound even in these downtown hubs. Child carriers are essential if you want to walk unhindered with baby. There are many parks like 9 April, Dedaena, Rike and plenty of smaller neighborhood green spaces for kids to play and parents to catch their breath. Georgians love children and especially babies, and are quick to accommodate any special needs they or their parents might have.
Is the Tbilisi CB tour suitable for me?
Our “Old Town and Beyond: A Tbilisi Silk Road Feast” tour takes you through Tbilisi’s multicultural and layered history. We explore the delicious roots of a cuisine that developed over centuries of Georgia being a juncture on the Silk Road. From stops at old Azeri tea houses, visits to cellars run by Orthodox Christian monks, a tasting spree of Georgian condiments and spices at specialty shops to a belt-popping Georgian supra in a traditional ezo with plenty of traditional natural clay aged wines, this walk provides a thorough taste of the epicurean and bacchanalian delights the country has to offer. Georgian cuisine can be tough on the gluten intolerant and vegans, but kinder on vegetarians. If you have special needs, consider arranging a private tour with us.