Why Tbilisi is a city best discovered on foot

Lyndsey Steven
May 10, 2022

Lyndsey Steven checks into Tbilisi’s Stamba Hotel for a beguiling – and somewhat bonkers – mini-break

A member of Design Hotels, Stamba Hotel mixes contemporary design with local heritage, farm-to-table food, an indoor vertical farm, and a whole lot of quirks, to reflect the city’s burgeoning creative spirit.

It’s midnight and my travel buddy and I are recreating scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. With its long, seemingly endless hallways, punctuated with red Exit lights, we’re convinced we’ve captured the beauty of the cult film’s cinematography as we channel the spooky twins by holding hands and ominously muttering ‘Redrum.’ After several takes we’re confident it’s a gorgeously shot exercise in visceral thrills primed to rack up a gazillion hits on our Insta stories.

We can’t even blame jetlag for our slightly nutty behaviour since Tbilisi is a mere three-hour flight from both Dubai and Sharjah and is in the same time zone. But the inspiring backdrop of Stamba Hotel lends itself to a range of artistic opportunities.

Fusing the core of a historic publishing house – complete with the original wooden beams in the towering lobby for hanging the newspapers to dry – with inventive design, every corner of the architectural building speaks to you.

Located in the city’s Vera neighbourhood and designed by an in-house team at Adjara Group, the developer behind the project, Stamba prides itself on its high ceilings, open spaces, curated artworks from Georgian artists, and its prodigious book collection.

Encouraging both indoor and outdoor lounging with two courtyards aimed at social activities and events, trees shoot through floorboards in the living lobby, and vines coil up concrete pillars. The impressive space is also home to a photography museum, a book shop, an LP lending library, an in-house coffee and chocolate roastery, and a gift shop – in addition to the hotel’s hugely popular restaurant and bar.

You don’t have to stay at Stamba to enjoy some of its many assets, but it would be a shame not too as the well-appointed bedrooms are the stuff of dreams. Even the entry-level Aviator Rooms feature a spacious living area, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, record players, and Miele coffee machines, while the super-sized king leather beds are welcome respite after a long day of roaming around town. The bathroom also drips in character with a French 19th century-inspired wraparound shower with supersonic jets. If you’d like a free-standing bath – artfully placed at the entrance to the bathroom – opt for the Aviator Signature Room, while those wanting to make the most of the outdoors can check into the Terrace Room with its expansive balcony.

When in Tbilisi you’ll want to spend a lot of time on foot. Not just because stepping inside a taxi can sometimes feel like you’re taking your life into your own hands – you’ll appreciate this more when you witness first-hand the battered vehicles held together by sticky tape – but because it’s a city made for walking. Even if you don’t have a final destination in mind you’re guaranteed to spot something worth seeing, and, if you do, unlike The Shining’s epic maze hedge, it’s easy to navigate, with plenty of memorable landmarks.

From a ride up to Mtatsminda on the recently reconstructed Funicular for spectacular views, to a walk or cable car ride up from Rike Park up to Narikala Fortress – an ancient citadel that dates back to the fourth century – to chancing upon quirky shops and flea markets, the city is a capricious mélange of ancient heritage and new buildings. For a more strenuous hike and a breath of fresh forest air, head to Turtle Lake and pick whichever route takes your fancy.

The name Tbilisi means ‘warm place’, with the city’s location specifically chosen for the hot springs that run beneath the earth, and the sulphur baths are a great way to soak up the local scene. Many of these are located in Abanotubani district, adjacent to the river and not far from the Old Median. With its tiled mosque-like façade, Chreli-Abano is the most iconic bathhouse with private rooms starting at 70 GEL (AED 84) per hour. The thermal springs that feed the baths are said to treat a range of ailments from heart disease to arthritis and psoriasis, and kisi exfoliation scrub – administered by a rather formidable therapist – is an essential part of the experience.

The cradle of wine, Georgians have been involved with viticulture for 8,000 years, and many local winemakers still follow traditional methods. Enjoy a cosy afternoon or evening at local favourite Vino Underground in Sololaki, or at one of the branches of 8,000 Vintages. At the latter, our amiable sommelier guided us through a range of traditional and more modern whites and reds, which we enjoyed with a terrific cheese and charcuterie board. Wine tastings cost around 120 GEL p/p and they’ll even recommend – and bubble wrap – a few vintages to take home.

Wining and dining should be at the heart of your Tbilisi adventures. Look no further than Café Stamba for leisurely breakfasts with energising shots and perfectly scrambled eggs garnished with leaves and cress from the hotel’s vertical garden, Space Farms. Café Stamba is also the place to be after the sun has set with a new-fangled twist on traditional Georgian dishes that rely heavily on foraged and regional ingredients. The photogenic Stamba Mule, starring lavender, blueberry, ginger and lime deserves a special shout out.

For a wholesome lunch in a rustic setting, Keto & Kote around the corner serves vibrant salads and colourful pkhali – vegan pâtés served mezze-style as a flavourful dip – while Lolita’s, also part of the Adjara Group, and across the road from Stamba’s sister property, Rooms Hotel, is equally enticing as a lunchtime spot as it is for a late-night rendezvous. For the best kinkali (dumplings) and khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread) in town, Café Daphne is a must, while Shavi Lomi (The Black Lion) in Sololaki specialises in modern local dishes, served in a magical garden. Chocolaterie Artisan’s hot chocolate – so thick the spoon stands up – is without a doubt the most decadent hot drink you’ll ever sample, while Chocotella is where to head for exquisite gift boxes of handmade chocolate jewels that look too pretty to eat.

When it comes to treating yourself, Tbilisi – which offers great value for money – is the place to do it. All work and no play, does, after all, makes Jack a dull boy, and there’s nothing humdrum about a holiday in Tbilisi.