The Old Town is the obvious place to start exploring Tbilisi, though since a total revamp a decade ago, it has become extraordinarily crowded, and walking down its streets on a summer day can be challenging, with big tour groups, touts and souvenir sellers at every turn.
There’s also plenty to see in the 19th-century city focused on Rustavelis gamziri and in the Avlabari area on the left bank of the Mtkvari River. Most of the churches are open daylight hours every day.
Tbilisi grew up below the walls of the Narikala Fortress, which stands on the Sololaki ridge above the west side of the Mtkvari. The buildings along the twisting lanes of the Old Town (კალა, Kala) have been renovated at a fairly fast lick over the past decade, but behind the pretty facades and off the main streets you'll still find picturesque dilapidation aplenty, with half-overgrown courtyards surrounded by carved wooden balconies – indeed some whole houses – leaning at rakish angles. Many buildings here date from soon after the Persian sacking of 1795, and still have the Eurasian character of earlier times.
The main thoroughfare of the Old Town is Kote Abkhazis qucha, which winds down from Freedom Sq (Tavisuplebis moedani) to the busy Meidan. Heading back north from Meidan, parallel to the river, is a string of narrow, crowded but traffic-free streets that formed the heaving commercial hub of the Old Town in medieval times – Sionis qucha, Erekle II qucha and Shavtelis qucha.
St Nino & the Conversion Of Georgia
While some of the legends that have grown up around St Nino are ridiculously far-fetched, there is no doubt that Nino is the historical figure to whom the 4th-century Christian conversion of Iveria (eastern Georgia) can be attributed. She is believed to have hailed from Cappadocia in Turkey and a widespread version has it that she was the daughter of a Roman general, raised in Jerusalem under the eye of an uncle who was the Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem, and that at the age of 14 she experienced a vision of the Virgin telling her that her destiny was to convert the Iverians to Christianity. Coming to Iveria in the 320s, Nino gained a royal convert at Mtskheta when her prayers were deemed to have saved Queen Nana of Iveria from serious illness. Then King Mirian was struck blind while hunting, only for his sight to be miraculously restored after he prayed to the Christian God – leading to mass baptism in the Aragvi River for the folk of Mtskheta. Mirian made Christianity Iveria’s official religion in about 327. The vine-branch cross that the Virgin is believed to have given Nino (and which Nino later bound with her own hair) is kept at Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi. She remains Georgia’s most venerated saint, and is buried at Bodbe Convent in Kakheti.
Avlabari is the dramatically located slice of Tbilisi above the cliffs on the east bank of the Mtkvari, across the Metekhi Bridge from the Old Town. At least twice foreign invaders (the roaming Central Asian conqueror Jalaledin in 1226, and the Persians in 1522) used the bridge for forcible conversion of Georgians to Islam (those who resisted were tossed into the river). It's well worth wandering up along the streets on top of the cliff, which have some charming old Tbilisi houses built along them with stellar river views.
Tbilisi’s main artery, Rustavelis gamziri, is named after the national bard, Shota Rustaveli, and runs 1.5km north from Freedom Sq (Tavisuplebis moedani) to Rustavelis moedani. Laid out by the Russians in the 19th century, it’s strung with elegant buildings and many of Tbilisi's main sights. It’s also a fast traffic route, dangerous to cross except through one of the several pedestrian underpasses.
Mtatsminda is the hill topped by the 210m-high TV mast looming over central Tbilisi from the west. There's an amusement park up here, Mtatsminda Park, but more exciting (for adults, anyway) is the spectacular ride up on the modern funicular, as well as the views from the top. To ride the funicular you need a 2 GEL plastic card, sold at the ticket office, on which you then add credit for your rides. The card is not refundable, making this a small but annoying scam. From the top, walking trails lead across to Narikala Fortress (2.5km) and down past the national pantheon back to near the bottom of the funicular (1km).