Getting around Tbilisi is easy if you know what you are doing. Unfortunately, communicating this knowledge poses a significant challenge, especially to people who don’t know the language.
The first challenge the enterprising navigator faces in Tbilisi is the total lack of street signs. That’s right, streets are unlabeled, so the only real way to know what street you are on is to know what street you are on. I can recognize many of Tbilisi’s major streets and some of the minor ones – Chavchavadze, Rustaveli, Gorgasali, Leselidze – and my index is growing by the day. In theory there are stickers or signs on the buildings that tell you what street you are on, but actually finding these can be tough or impossible. Occasionally there will be signs on the major roads or highways that point out which streets go in which direction, but don’t actually rely on there being a sign at any given intersection.
For someone who lives in Tbilisi, this is not a problem. When I lived in New York City, I didn’t actually need street signs most of the time to tell me where I was, and in general if you put me anywhere in Manhattan I could probably tell you what street I was on and what direction I was facing without having to look at street signs, as long as I could see enough landmarks. However, communicating information about where something is becomes more of a creative process without street names handy.
That’s why if you ask a Georgian for directions, he is more than likely to simply tell you to get in a cab and tell the driver where you want to go. Most tourist destinations are famous enough that taxi drivers will know where they are.
Once, I asked one of the people I work for if he could tell me where to get good kebabi. I wanted a place in the neighborhood – something I could walk to – but I had been warned by TLG staff not to eat at a restaurant unless it had been recommended to me (aka approved by) a Georgian person. Instead of telling me where I could get good kebabi, the person took me and my roommate out for some good kebabi – in Mtskheta. That’s a fifteen to twenty minute *drive* north of Tbilisi… not exactly a neighborhood kebabi joint that I could hit up for lunch once in a while. Later I asked one of my students if he could tell me where to get good kebabi. My students got together in a group and took me to a restaurant that was at least reasonably close to Gldani – probably a forty minute walk from my house – but again, not what I was asking. Finally, I got impatient and just started trying random cafes and restaurants. Pretty much all of them have decent kebabi. Now I have a preferred indoor kebabi house (called “Kebabi House”) and a preferred outdoor kebabi cafe (called… I have no idea).
The moral of the story is that asking a Georgian person for directions can be very helpful, because nine times out of ten the Georgian will actually personally take you to the place where you want to go. Once I asked for directions to a metro stop and a Georgian man walked me all the way to the stop. However, if you’re looking for directions in the abstract – as in, “make a left on Abashidze street and walk until you come to Arakishvili street” – you’ve probably come to the wrong country.
I get the idea that Georgians get around by having a lot of general knowledge (like where Vake or Ortachala is), a bunch of specific knowledge about major landmarks (Goodwill Vake or Ortachala Bus Station) and then a willingness to sort of wing it by just showing up in a neighborhood and asking a local to point them in the right direction. When I give directions to a non-Georgian friend, that’s basically how I tell them to get around. For instance, I gave someone directions to the Didube bus station that consisted basically of “go to the Didube metro stop and then ask somebody where the buses are.”
The lack of street signs also means that when a friend is lost, I can’t easily help them. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had the following exchange with a friend who was wandering around Tbilisi lost and trying to find their way to meet me:
Them: “I don’t know where I am!”
Me: “What do you see?”
People also love to give me the least specific possible landmarks:
Me: “No, really, what do you see?”
Them: “Um… I see some trees…”
Me: “Anything else?”
Them: “Yeah, um, there’s a building…?”
Unfortunately Tbilisi is full of trees and buildings, so I never know quite what to do with this information.
Once, in an emergency, I got in a cab and put my cab driver on the phone with my friend’s cab driver, and let the two of them arrange a meeting place. But usually I can get people to where they need to go, especially once they start to figure out what constitutes a useful landmark.
Generally, Georgians don’t know the street names and addresses of places outside their immediate neighborhood. So far, no Georgian person I’ve encountered has been able to find my house, even given the following information:
My exact street address
The names of the street I live on and the two nearest intersecting streets
This means that whenever someone tries to get to my house the Georgian way – that is, take a cab and ask locals – they end up hopelessly lost, because cab drivers and locals have no idea where my address is or what my street names are. The other day I was on the phone with a friend whose driver kept asking for the “corpusi” – in other words, which building I lived in. I tried to explain in my broken Georgian that I don’t live in one of the giant Soviet block apartments, but in a small house, but he kept asking what number, and I told him the number and he just kept asking again. Anyway, eventually I was able to guide my friends to my house, but only by explaining the landmarks to them and having them point the driver in the right direction.
Of course it doesn’t help that speaking a foreign language over the phone is a thousand times harder than doing it in person, because you can’t read expressions or make gestures.
So here’s some advice on getting around Tbilisi:
1. Use a map! I highly recommend the openstreetmap of Tbilisi. It works just like Google maps, and has streets and major destinations labeled. It’s also searchable so you can put in things like a street name or a restaurant name and you’ll get a list of results to check. Before I go anywhere unfamiliar, I locate it on the map and memorize my route and some important landmarks along the way.
2. Learn the Metro. There aren’t many Metro stops, and so memorizing all of them is a good idea. This way when someone tells you something like “It’s near Isani Metro” you’ll know about where and about how far away it is that you’re going. The Metro has two lines that meet at Tbilisi Central (Metro station Vagzlis Moedani) and 22 stations, 21 of which are currently in use. Get yourself a Metro card – they work via RFID chip, which means you can leave one in your wallet and just tap it against the turnstile’s sensor to gain access.
3. Learn the city’s layout and major districts. It’s good to know, generally, where neighborhoods are, which ones are close and which ones are far, which side of the river they are on, etc. For instance, it’s useful to know that Saburtalo is north of Vake, and they’re both on the left side of the Mtkvare. Saburtalo has its own Metro line but for Vake you have to walk from either Saburtalo or Rustaveli, or take a bus or taxi. Gldani, where I live, is in the far north, on the right bank of the river. Goodwill is in Didi Dighomi, just across the river from where I live. Varketili is all the way at the other end of the city, further east than any other part of town.
4. Learn the main streets. Tbilisi is a medium-sized city, but most places of interest are pretty centrally located. I recommend walking up and down Tbilisi’s main streets at least once to get a feel for them, where they are located, what they look like, and what sort of stuff they have. I have walked the full length of Rustaveli Avenue many times. Chavchavadze is a good one to walk, and of course it gets you to the beautiful Vake Park. You can easily walk from the Rustaveli to the Marjanishvili Metro station, then north a few blocks to Tbilisi Central, where there is a big shopping mall and a giant bazaar and you can buy basically anything.
5. Explore a lot and don’t be afraid to get lost. There are cabs all over and if you get totally, desperately lost, you can always hail a cab and just ask to go to the nearest Metro. Tbilisi also has really good landmarks – the river, and the TV tower, for instance – so once you know the city’s layout it becomes very difficult to actually get lost. Tbilisi is worth exploring because you really never know what you might find, and a lot of hidden gems exist that just aren’t widely known about. Native Georgians tend to ignore a lot of the stuff in Tbilisi, so while a native Georgian might be able to show you his favorite restaurant or his favorite place to buy a particular product, most Georgians won’t be able to figure out what Westerners want well enough to offer recommendations or advice on where they should go or what they should see. It’s worth noting that basically every block in the city has a pharmacy, a bakery, a grocery store, a fruit and vegetable stand, and probably another grocery store, so Georgians don’t generally have to go far to get things, which makes them sometimes look at us funny when we want to go to restaurants or stores in random parts of the city that they’ve never been to.
6. Don’t take too many cabs. They’re expensive and they rob you of the experience of exploring and learning your environment. I generally take cabs only when I’m entertaining guests, and almost never more than once in a week. If you’re here for a day or two, a cab is a fine way to get from here to there without having to worry about Metros and marshutkas and unlabeled streets. However, if you’re here for a year, you’re really going to want to learn how to get around the city by yourself.
If you do this consistently and attentively, it will be about one month before you know your way around Tbilisi better than the average native. It’s well worth it – as I said, Tbilisi is a very rewarding city to explore.
A painting of Tbilisi (Tiflis) in 1868. Note the Metekti church on the right, and Narikala fortress on the mountain to the left. That means this was likely painted from somewhere in Ortachala. Both of these landmarks are still around today and can be visited – and they both offer great views of the city themselves.