Things to know before visiting Georgia – a guide for Israelis.
With the easing of travel restrictions, we are all keen to take a well deserved holiday and it’s easy for vaccinated Israelis to visit the country of Georgia.
We had an unexpected opportunity to take a holiday last month. Like most of us, after Covid, and some major life-events, my husband and I needed a break. Eilat does not tick our boxes, we’ve toured North Israel endlessly, explored the alleyways of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, so naturally our thoughts turned to a destination abroad. Because of the Israeli ban on travel there, visiting our families in South Africa was not an option.
We wanted a place that had minimal Covid-19 red tape and from the list of possibilities at that time, we narrowed it down to Georgia. Unlike tourists from other countries, vaccinated or recovered Israelis only need the Ministry of Health official certification to enter the country (download from RAMZOR APP) and one PCR test within 72 hours prior to departing Georgia. Tourists from other countries need a negative PCR test to enter, a second on the 3rd day of their visit and if necessary another 72 hours prior to departure.
A country-wide lockdown in Georgia had ensured that the number of active cases was low. If we played our cards correctly, and traveled immediately after lockdown, the risk was low. Unlike many Israelis, we were not at all interested in gambling in Batumi so we decided on Tbilisi.
I am usually very thorough when we travel abroad and leave almost nothing to chance, but time was short and so my preparation was limited but let me share what I learned and know.
Flying to Georgia
I hate packaged deals on charter or low cost flights; flight schedules are always inconvenient. Georgian Airlines offered the best deal. Their ticket price includes 23kg of checked luggage, and convenient times. Israir and Arkia also fly to Tbilisi and Batumi but you have to pay for extra luggage. Georgian Airlines suited us best and there was no significant difference in the price. The flight was pleasant and all that was missing from the 2.5 hour trip was a cup of coffee as we had missed our early morning caffeine fix.
Cheap Flights to Georgia From Israel Tel Aviv
Accommodation in Tbilisi
There are lots of small privately owned and boutique hotels in Tbilisi as well as the usual international hotel chains around the Old-Town. We are not fussy about accommodation and these days, mostly choose self-catering for four reasons 1) my husband’s food allergies need to be managed carefully 2) from a budget point of view and and 3) being cooped up in a small hotel room is stressful and the fourth reason, but probably the most important, is minimizing contact with other travelers during Covid. So, with all of this in mind, we opted for an apartment on AirBnB.
My main tip for selecting accommodation on AirBnB is ‘location, location, location’. Even if I have to pay a little more, I make sure that our accommodation is close to a supermarket, tourist sites and public transport options.
Also, I always choose a superhost. Superhosts are experienced hosts who are willing to go the extra mile for their guests, pay careful attention to cleanliness and their premises are inspected regularly.
These criteria lead me to book an apartment of the Left Bank of the Mtkvari River, which runs through Tbilisi. Most of the tourist attractions are on the Right Bank, but our apartment was just on the opposite side.
Our host Kakha (pronounced like the Hebrew word ‘kacha’) was indeed super. His apartment has a magnificent view, was spotless, recently renovated, nicely decorated and fully equipped. Don’t let the exterior of buildings in Tbilisi or the stairwells put you off – like here, more attention is paid to the interior rather than the exterior. In Georgia you have to pay to use the elevator – it’s the equivalent of 5 agorot so it’s no big deal.
Transportation in Tbilisi
Kakha fetched us from the airport (paid separately). Taxis charge around 30 Lari (30 shekels) for the trip into Tbilisi (20-25 minutes). Public transport is dirt-cheap but you need the “Metromoney” transport card like our Rav-Kav. They have ‘Marshrutkas’ – shared taxis exactly like our sherut service. The Marshrutkas travel on set routes and are also very popular for inter-city, overland travel. Amongst others, you can get to Batumi, Kazbegi, Telavi and Sighnaghi with a Marshrutka.
After not having the exact change one-time, we downloaded the BOLT app (like Gett Taxi) which we connected to our credit card. The minimum fare is 4 lari (4 shekels). BOLT drivers are polite and friendly and we never waited more than a few minutes for a cab. On one trip, our cab driver heard our South African accents, stopped the car, turned off the meter and proceeded to play us one of his favorite songs – Shoshaloza – a South African tribal song that we had grown up with but not heard in years. He had us singing and bopping in the back seat. When the song was over, he put the meter on again and we continued on our journey.
We did not want to inconvenience Kakha in the early hours of the morning, so we used BOLT for the taxi ride back to the airport – 22 lari for that. Regular private taxis are more expensive. We discovered that morning, because of curfew (11pm-5am) we could only order a taxi at 5am.
The underground metro could be improved but why go underground and miss everything above ground.
Walking is easy in Tbilisi, mostly the terrain is flat but when you can no longer put one foot in front of another – BOLT comes to the rescue.
Changing currency – Shekel Lari exchange rate
The Shekel Lari exchange rate fluctuates daily and is approximately 1 to 1 but things are cheaper – 6 shekels for 1kg of cherries in the market instead of 30 NIS and 2 NIS for a beer. No need to buy water – tap water is really good (better than ours). Wine shops will fill a one liter bottle for you for less than 10 lari.
There are exchange bureaus all over and the rate at the airport was comparable to the rate in the city. Most advertise no commission but of course that is built in.
Lari and gel are the same thing – sometimes they use the term ‘lari’ and sometimes ‘gel’. GEL is the abbreviation for GEorgian Lari.
Covid-19 hit Georgia hard and lots of small businesses have not survived. Many shops were closed (and restaurants too) and there was very little to buy. The Galleria Mall is just like any other upmarket mall and the Central Mall at the Railway Station (not far from the Dezerter Produce Market) did not have anything to offer the tourist.
The Meidan Bazar has all the usual tourist items and prices to match.
After reading many reviews, we went with Magti – 2 NIS for the SIM and 6 NIS for unlimited data for one week. Apparently Magti have the best coverage especially in the outlying country and mountainous regions. Have your passport on hand when you buy the SIM. There are ATMs everywhere and you can use them to top-up if necessary. We used WhatsApp to phone home.
“Tbilisi Loves You” a Free Wi-Fi-network is available and helpful for tourists and in theory, it keeps you connected at no extra cost. I found the service erratic so we bought Magti on the second day. You will be exploring Rustaveli Ave (the Dizengoff of Tbilisi) and there is a large Magti there near the Houses of Parliament and opposite the National Museum. Of course, you can also buy Magti at the airport.
Supermarkets & food shopping
There are neighborhood mini-markets everywhere and if you are familiar with the SPAR chain from abroad, they have that too but, they are just makolets – don’t expect more than basic food items.
The European Carrefour supermarket chain is represented in Georgia and if you are self-catering, you can buy everything there. Closest to the main tourist areas in Tbilisi, there is a huge branch on Vekua St (a 5 minute walk from Baratshvili Street).
Another supermarket worth trying is Fresco (here we bought fresh trout for the equivalent of 15NIS/kg). On average, prices in Tbilisi are one quarter of what we usually pay.
Most supermarket items are not labelled in English so that can be tricky.
There are neighbourhood bakeries all over the place and 1 or 2 lari gets you a basic bread loaf and for a few more you can buy an assortment of khachapuri and lobiani – giant boereka-type pies filled with meat, beans, potatoes or cheese – these are great value for money if you are on a tight budget,
If you wish to buy pre-packed, Georgian spices you can try Ajika and Sveneti Salt. They are similar – Ajika being the spicier of the two and includes red pepper, garlic, coriander, blue fenugreek and dill. Ajika paste is usually served on the side – much like harissa or zhug. Khmeli suneli is another blend to try.
There are four kosher restaurants in Tbilisi; Mendy’s, Kosher Jerusalem, Le Chaim and the King David. We ate at the King David and took the opportunity to eat meat-based meals here. The food was delicious. Mendy’s (located between the Metekhi Bridge and the Bridge of Peace) was closed and according to a group of teenage, Israeli, yeshiva boys we met outside, they only open by special arrangement – perhaps because of Covid-19. I cannot say what will happen in the peak of the summer holiday season – check before you go. The King David does not accept credit cards so make sure you have cash on hand.
The top end of the Metekhi Bridge, is a tourist hub and the “I love Tbilisi” sign in the square, confirms it. There are lots of restaurants and eateries here. For less than 25 lari/person you can eat and drink to your heart’s content. On Jan Shardeni St, just off the main square, hip cafes and trendy bars with live music, cater to tourists and locals alike.
Saarbrucken Square on the left bank of the Dry Bridge is another popular place for al-fresco dining and a cool vibe.
We explored the side streets as well and came across all manner of eateries.
You must try the various types of khachapuri, khinkali, lobio, kharcho, phkali and of course the sweets; churchkhela and tklapi.
Touring the country and places to visit
Tour buses, private taxis and guides are all eager to get your business and most of them are centered around the square or just off Kote Afkhazi St. From the equivalent of 40 shekels you can get a group day tour to Kakheti and the surrounding areas. Tours to Kazbegi, Borjomi, Khevsureti and every other place – all appropriately priced – can be arranged here. Private tours cost more but there are definite advantages to these – guides are more flexible and this is a big deal. We were the only English speakers on a busload of Russian speakers so we really missed out on explanations and details – remember, you get what you pay for.
Our host Kakha offers private overland tours that range in price from around 170 lari – 600 lari for a group of up to 4 people. Send me an email and I’ll be happy to pass his contact details on to you.
The tourist sites we liked best in Tbilisi were the Narikala Fortress, the Botanical Gardens, Rike Park (with all its attractions) Fabrika and the Soviet Automuseum. Of course, the Jewish Museum was interesting too. We really enjoyed wandering the streets and taking in the architecture; classical European, brutalist Soviet structures built to last forever, ultra modern glass and metal, practical block construction (that we are familiar with in Israel), crumbling relics and restored and renovated buildings. The Kakheti wine region and the Sighnaghi City Walls were also memorable.
If you have small children, I recommend a visit to the Soviet automuseum – a little off the beaten track (taxi was about 15 lari with BOLT) but well worth it. The amusement park on Mtatsmanda Hill is a bit dated but your kids will enjoy it. The views are incredible.
Statues and monuments, modern art , sculptures and other quirky pieces are everywhere – even the garbage cans in one of the parks were crafted and stylized wrought iron. Georgians seem content and are proud of their homeland and what they have. Their streets are clean, grassy areas are well tended and every cobbled stone is in place.
The Metekhi church and neighborhood, the clock tower, the flea market on the Dry Bridge, the Royal Baths, the graffiti in the Baratshvili underpass are not to be missed either. There are churches on every corner.
Is Tbilisi safe?
Tbilisi is safe, we never felt threatened in any way. I wouldn’t suggest walking around with your cellphone in your back pocket but unlike other European capitals, we didn’t feel like pickpocketing was an issue.
Getting your PCR Covid-19 test
If your hotel cannot offer you a covid test (around 120NIS – 150NIS), covid tests are advertised at the exchange bureaus. Kakha was a champion in this regard, he took us to his clinic (Medi Prime) and we paid 85 lari each for the test. The clinic emailed us the results by the end of the day.
While Israel comes out of the Delta wave of Covid-19 and mask wearing is no longer mandatory, it is still compulsory to wear a mask in Georgia. Most of our sightseeing was outdoors so like everyone else our masks were under our noses, on our chins and wrapped around our wrists most of the time. I believe there is a small fine if you are caught without one.
Is Georgia worth visiting?
Is Georgia a beautiful country? Yes.
Is Georgia safe? Yes.
Does Georgia have a comfortable climate? Yes
Are Georgians welcoming? Yes.
Is English widely spoken? Yes, and Russian too.
Is Georgia easy during Covid-19? Yes
Is Georgian wine good? Yes.
Is Georgian food interesting and tasty? Yes
Is Georgia good value for money? Yes.
Is Georgia recommended for Israelis? Yes
Seven days visiting Georgia was not something we had previously planned on but it was a most enjoyable experience and trip. We are only sorry we did not spend more time there exploring more of the countryside and the Caucasus. We will go back for that someday.