Georgians say that when God divided Earth’s land among its peoples, the Georgians showed up late, drunk. They’d been toasting and praising him, they claimed. God so liked this excuse that he gave them his own land: the most fertile of all.
Here’s a brief insider’s guide to this cultural crossroads in the Caucasus.
> Where to Eat:
Like many of Tbilisi’s best restaurants, Sofia Melnikova’s Fantastic Duqani is virtually unmarked (enter on Stambis Chikhi). Tucked away in a courtyard of pomegranate trees just behind the city’s literature museum, the Duqani specializes in meat khinkali (dumplings).
The upscale Pur Pur serves European-Georgian fusion fare on the top floor of a dilapidated art nouveau mansion on Gudiashvili Square.
In high-altitude Svaneti, a province in northwest Georgia, you’ll find that restaurants are rare; most guesthouses offer their guests three meals served family style—which might include dishes like ajapsandali (ratatouille) and tashmijab (potato and cheese porridge), almost impossible to find except in homes.
> Where to Drink:
Georgian wine—principally grown in the Kakheti region, just east of Tbilisi—has won praise throughout Eastern Europe. Although a visit to one of Kakheti’s wineries is the best way to experience Georgian viticulture, Tbilisi wineshop Vinoteca, on 33 Leselidze Street (also known as Kote Abkhazi Street), boasts knowledgeable, English-speaking staff who provide free tastings.
> Where to Stay:
Lodgings in Svaneti tend mostly toward family-run guesthouses. Just outside Mestia, Irma Khergiani’s Guesthouse (+995-598-977238) extends one of the warmest welcomes. Most of the furniture is hand-carved by the family’s patriarch. In Ushguli, Chajashi Guesthouse (+995-599-293463) reveals panoramic views of Svaneti’s stone towers.
> Where to Experience Art:
The Georgian tradition of religious icon-making stands among the most celebrated in the Orthodox world.
In Svaneti, many icons remain in private homes, but visitors head to the Mestia Ethnographic Museum or the tenth-century Church of St. Quiricus in the village of Kala for their displays of medieval icons.
In Tbilisi, shops on Leselidze Street sell contemporary examples.
> What to Read:
Few novels capture the breathless sweep of the Caucasus as powerfully as Ali & Nino (1937), by Kurban Said. The story follows its star-crossed protagonists from Tbilisi to Baku, Azerbaijan, in the waning days of the Russian Empire.
> Travel Trivia:
- Tbilisi derives from the Georgian word for “warm,” referring to the city’s natural hot springs.
- Georgians traditionally aged wine by burying sealed qvevri—distinctive clay jars—underground for five to six months.
- All toasts are done with wine; beer is reserved for toasting one’s enemies.
This piece was reported by Tara Isabella Burton to accompany a feature entitled “A Toast to Georgia” that she wrote for Traveler magazine’s June/July 2014 issue.