The Georgian capital of Tbilisi is one of the most exotic European football destinations – that is, if you consider somewhere east of Turkey and south of Russia’s wild Caucasus hinterlands as ‘Europe’.
Still somewhat ramshackle, Tbilisi retains a seductively mysterious charm, while its services and infrastructure have much improved since 1991.
English is gradually supplanting Russian as the second language among the younger Western-oriented generation – a trend intensified by the country’s brief war with Russia in 2008. Despite this recent clash, the streets are as safe as the capitals of Western Europe, the police helpful if approached by foreigners. Eating and drinking prices are relatively low, but accommodation can be costly.
It is a place rarely visited by travelling fans in any numbers, as clubs from this ex-Soviet state have never reached the heights of Dinamo Tbilisi’s Cup Winners’ Cup victory of 1981.
The low quality of the poorly supported and ill-financed domestic game means that most top players seek glory outside their impoverished homeland. But this country of 4.5 million people is as football crazy as the rest of the continent – though you are much more likely to see someone wearing a Barcelona or Manchester United replica shirt than one declaring loyalty to a local club. Dinamo remain the record champions since Georgian independence, their 15 titles including wins in 2013 and 2014.
The club’s home is the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena, located in a bustling if dilapidated commercial area near the central railway station. Named after a revered Dinamo player from the Stalin era, Georgia’s national stadium hosted the UEFA Super Cup in 2015.
In the light of being awarded such a prestigious showcase – which attracted a record crowd for this seasonal curtain-raiser, rewarded with a 5-4 thriller between Barcelona and Sevilla – Georgia put in an audacious but doomed joint bid to host Euro 2020 with neighbours Azerbaijan.
Bizarrely, the original venue for the UEFA Super Cup fixture was the Mikheil Meskhi, home of Lokomotivi, another great name from the Soviet era but since fallen on hard times. You’ll find their 27,000-capacity home near Vake Park, close to the Shamrock-decorated Irelander pub (85 Abashidze Street) which serves Guinness, other imported beers and adequate pub grub.
The city’s other established club is WIT Georgia, champions in 2009, cup winners in 2010, who play at the modest Mtskheta Park. WIT were relegated in 2015 due to their poorer head-to-head record with Metalurgi Rustavi.
Joining the top flight from the other direction were Saburtalo Tbilisi, only founded in 1999. Their 2,000-capacity Bendela stadium is located beside the Central Republican Hospital on Mikheil Asatiani St west of town.
The capital has thus maintained three clubs in the top flight for 2015-16 – with Dinamo looking to wrest back the title from Dila Gori, the club from Stalin’s home town.
The Georgian currency is the lari (GEL). GEL 1 is just under €0.50, GEL 10 is €4.40.
Tbilisi Airport is 17km (11 miles) south-east of the city. Two trains a day (8.45am, 6.05pm, tickets GEL 0.50) run to Tbilisi Central Station, journey time 20min. Airport-bound trains leave at 7.55am and 5.20pm.
Bus No.37 runs to two main squares in the city more frequently, tickets the same price. You’ll need coins to pay on board, available for notes from tourist information in arrivals.
An easier alternative may be the shuttle bus (GEL 10) that calls at three main squares in the city centre.
A taxi to town should cost GEL 25-30.
For city orientation, see www.map.ge.
Public transport consists of buses and a two-line metro system with signs in English. Bus tickets are GEL 0.50, paid with coins in the machine on board. The metro runs on a chargeable Metromani card, which also can be used on buses. Marshrutka minibuses operate specific routes and also run on Metromani cards.
City Taxi (+995 2 474 474) is one of many local firms. Any journey across town shouldn’t be more than a few leri – agree a fee beforehand.
See www.info-tbilisi.com for accommodation options.
Within walking distance of the national stadium, the Hotel Istanbul is basic, clean and friendly, set on a street where Turkish businesses have proliferated. Rates are $75 for a single, $85 for a double.
Kopala is a classy boutique hotel with amazing views over the Old Town from its balconies or its rooftop restaurant. From $90 single or double. Foreign-run, hilltop and pricier Betsy’s also offers wonderful views, as well as a bar with big-screen sports and popular Friday happy hours. Singles run at $145, doubles $165.
A decent central option is the Hotel Villa, Located in a dowdy courtyard behind the city’s grand main thoroughfare. Expect to pay $95 for a single, $120 for a double.
At the upscale end, the Marriott Tbilisi and its slightly cheaper sister the Marriott Courtyard offer Western-standard services – from $245 a room.
Budget travellers have plenty of hostel options in Tbilisi. Boombully Rooms & Hostel is nicely situated on Rustaveli Avenue and has a laidback hipster atmosphere. Dorm beds go for $18, rooms $23.
Tbilisi has two main drinking zones. Akhvlediani Street, still better known by its Soviet-era name of Perovskaya, is a nightlife strip where you might find a lively Iranian club or a Pink Floyd tribute band playing in a faux Irish pub. Dotted in between are several bars that show TV football – these usually include the Dublin and Old London. Erekle II Street/Shardeni Street is more upmarket. In this spruced-up quarter of the Old Town smartly decorated bars and restaurants provide outdoor tables and usually TV screens for major games.
Two particular venues are worthy of mention. The Hangar at 20 Shavteli is an Irish-American sports bar with a good international menu. This is probably the only watering hole in the city guaranteed to show all major matches, making it popular with expat football and rugby fans as well as tourists. Scarlet Sails at 25 Leselidze is a more spartan foreign-run boozer on the main street of the Old Town, with decent bar food and a big screen.