Like Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia’s capital city is often reduced to the cliché of East meets West. But in fact, Tbilisi is more of melting pot. More than 100 distinct ethnic groups –including Armenians, Russians, Jews, and Greeks — live peaceably in the midst of the majority Georgian population. Synagogues sit next to Orthodox Cathedrals, and chocolate-dipped waffles are sold alongside churchkhela: Georgia’s iconic, candle-shaped candy. And rising above the old town is, perhaps, the best symbol of the city’s long, culture-mixing history: the Narikala Fortress.
The Narikala Fortress dates back to the 4th century. Originally a Persian citadel, the Narikala Fortress was adapted to a variety of purposes over the centuries, as various powers took control of Tbilisi.
Justin and I decided to visit the Narikala Fortress one steamy August afternoon. You can hike up from Old Town, but, we figured, why get overheated, when you can glide up on the air tram?
The tram takes you over the Kura River and the traditionally designed, brightly colored buildings in Old Town. Pro Tip: The tram functions much like a ski lift (it doesn’t stop) so you’ll want to pay attention when you enter and exit the tram.
A one-way journey costs just 2.5 GEL. (Check comments on TripAdvisor if you want to ensure you have the most up-to-date pricing.) You will need to load your tram ride onto a plastic Metro card, which you can purchase for 2 GEL, if you don’t already have one, at the tram kiosk when you buy your ride. If you don’t need the card again, you can return it after your ride and get a refund.
But, while you’re cruising up the hillside, take note of the walking path up to and down from the Narikala Fortress in case you want to walk down (as we did)…
…and be sure to take advantage (a.k.a. get your camera ready) of the glass-covered, uniquely-shaped Bridge of Peace, a footbridge designed by Italian architect Michele De Lucchi.
Once you’ve reached the top of the hill (and safely exited the tram), it’s time to pause and take in the many views. On the one side, we spotted the Holy Trinity Cathedral and Liberty Square.
On the other, we looked down on the city’s botanical gardens — complete with zipline over the treetop!
Take a few steps along the top of the ridge and you can’t help but meet the larger-than-life woman overlooking the city.
Known, locally, as “the Mother,” the twenty-metre-tall Kartlis Deda was placed on the top of Sololaki hill in 1958, in honor of the city’s 1500th anniversary.
Designed by Georgian sculptor Elguja Amashukeli the aluminum figure is said to represent the spirit of Georgia: with her left hand greets friendly visitors with a bowl of wine, with her right, she brandishes a sword against the nation’s enemies.
Next, it was time for the main event: the fortress! That is, if we could figure out how to get inside.
After a bit of wandering around, we found the gate leading into the Narikala Fortress. From there on in, it was like running around a giant playground. There were scarily steep stairs to climb…
crags to clamber up…
lookout points to peek through…
walls to walk…
…and bells to ring??? (Maybe better not.)
After hiking up to various points inside the Narikala Fortress, we ended up getting sweaty anyway. But the adventure was totally worth it. With its age-old ruins, modern sculptures, and invigorating hikes and scenic aerial tram ride, the fortress is the perfect day trip for both the young…and the young at heart.
When you visit Georgia, you will be offered van tours to wine country, to Armenia, and to the sea. But, the best day trip in Tbilisi’s own backyard–up to the Narikala Fortress.