Travelling to Tbilisi Georgia: Bougie on a Budget

I’ve never been a travel blogger.

I’m not well travelled enough to be an authority on how to do it well, or which places are best relative to other options.  (Hence the whole international teaching adventure I’ve been embarking on.)

But I thought that perhaps I’d dip my toe into the travel writing waters, seeing as how a lot of the pros are still grounded.

Before we get to what a cool & unique place the country of Georgia is, I should put a disclaimer upfront:  Hey, my level of enthusiasm for travelling generally and Georgia in particular is going to be a bit obnoxious.  I want to acknowledge right off the bat that I know how fortunate my wife and I are to be able to travel at this time.  We are very thankful to have received two doses of the vaccine (Thanks Qatar!) and to be able to avoid quarantine upon arrival back in Qatar due to science-informed vaccination probabilities.  If you don’t want to read about this or disagree with our choices that’s totally fine, consider this your trigger warning ;)

Georgia – Tbilisi not Atlanta

While the country of Georgia has been gaining momentum with budget-conscious travellers for a few years now, no one in our circle of friends and family had been to Georgia – or were even really familiar with where it was located.

Long story short: Georgia is a small country with big diversity.  

There aren’t many places in the world where you can find a mosque, Roman Catholic church, Orthodox church, and Jewish synagogue all on the same street.

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In terms of geography, I feel like someone took Canada and squished it into a country the size of New Brunswick.  On a cross-country day trip you can see endless foothills and mountains, beautiful vineyards, and sandy beaches on the Black Sea.  

The capital city of Tbilisi is home to roughly a third of the country’s population with a million people.  When my family asked me to describe it for them on social media I responded:

The best I can do is… take an old cobblestone city close to the mountains in Northern Italy.

Make the people even more proud of their wine industry (if that’s possible).

Then add a solid helping of Soviet era architecture and public transport.

A dash of Arab and Persian influences to give it even more flavour (from centuries past).

Juxtapose some old flats that have seen better days, with some shiny new European stylings.

Consider that every meal involves the best cheese and bread/pastry that you’re likely ever going to introduce your taste buds to.

Finally, take about 90% off the price of everything and picture folks that are incredibly eager to show tourists from all over the world a good time.

That still doesn’t come close to explaining how unique this place is though, and doesn’t allow for the crazy scenery within 150km in any direction.

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Total Spending on Tbilisi Trip (all amounts converted to CAD)

While Georgia has many sights and experiences worth the visit, one of the big reasons why the area has become so popular with budget-conscious travellers and digital nomads/location independent workers, is the ultra low prices.

Georgia might consider itself European, but its prices are more Southeast Asian.  Here’s what it set us back to spend 12 days in the country per-person while travelling as a 4-person group.

Direct Flight from Qatar – $730

AirBnb Per Person for 11 nights – $233

Four days of semi-luxury private tours – $275 (including two night accommodation, 12 meals, 10+ bottles of wine)

Groceries for roughly 8 meals – <$50

14 restaurant meals + adult beverages = $197

Boat tour of Tbilisi = $15

Total Spent Per Person: $920 + $730 flight

That $920 figure (for 12 days!) might seem pretty low for someone used to Western pricing, yet high to someone experienced with budget-travel in Georgia. To put it in proper context…

I find there is a real competitive streak amongst personal finance and travel writers to see who can spend the least amount of money when they go abroad.  

I don’t play that.

I’m more of a “Get 80% of frugality benefits for 20% effort” type of guy.

For example: I’m willing to travel with a couple friends and share an AirBnb flat – but that flat is going to be right where we want it.

If you wanted to live longer-term in Tbilisi, and/or were fine with less luxury, you could live quite well on $1,500 CAD per month.  Indeed, the average Geogian’s monthly salary is roughly $400 CAD, so at $1,500 you’re a bit of a show off!

So if you’re trying to extrapolate our spending to your own holiday budget in Georgia you should keep in mind that you could certainly cut costs on the following items in our budget if they didn’t have value to you.  

  • We paid a premium to go on some private tours that included unique experiences like 6+ hour hikes, making a batch of super-dumplings (called Khinkali) with local women in their kitchen, and dinner at the kitchen table of a family winery.  More details below.
  • We ate at premium restaurants a bunch of times, and didn’t make a single supper for ourselves.  A couple of nights we went all out and enjoyed gorgeous courtyard dining in what was probably a top 5-10 eatery in Tbilisi.  We were a group of four that ordered way too much food, plus dessert, and a few bottles of wine.  Our bill each night came to roughly $125 CAD.  Not per person… for the whole group.
  • Our AirBnb was in the “touristy” part of the city.  Since we were only in Georgia for a short holiday we wanted to be in the middle of the action in Old Town.  You could easily pay 30-50% of what we paid for a perfectly livable 3 bedroom flat in another neighborhood.

Where to Go and What to See in Georgia

There are few things more annoying than a person trying to be an expert in an area where they clearly are a novice.  I try to know and freely admit my own limitations, and so I’ll leave it to others to give the “here’s everything you need to do” details.

And while some people take great pride in finding their own way through a country based on previous travel experience, I didn’t mind paying a small (Georgian-priced) premium for some local expertise.

It just so happened that in this case, I knew the perfect guy!  

See, I had recently talked to some folks in Georgia who specialized in bringing in expats who want to make use of Georgia’s incredible tax residency laws.  (Long story short, if you work online you can legally pay 1% tax AND your investment portfolio of stocks and bonds can grow tax free – like an unlimited TFSA.)  If you want to hear more on that, stay tuned for more news on this year’s Canadian Financial Summit.

I had initially talked with Tom in his role as co-founder of ExpatHub.

I then found out that Tom was also half of the Tom & Meg combo behind Eat This Tours.

Tom is a great guy to know in Georgia!  I could not more highly recommend him personally, or Eat This as a company.  The value they deliver is incredible.  

I’d sum it up like this.  Most people want to see the beautiful Georgian mountains when they come to town.

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Now, you can pack into a van with 8 other people and drive straight to this spot, take a picture, and drive straight home – for about $40 CAD per person (and be upsold the whole time).

Or you can talk to Tom…

And for about $150 per person, you get your own van, a personable driver/guide, hand-picked unique cultural experiences, and a night at a guesthouse with views like this.

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Your itinerary is crafted by Tom and Meg, who have travelled the world for many years before settling down in Tbilisi, and who have made a point of professionally trialing all that the country has to offer.  

So when we went to the mountains we did stuff like:

Explore some picturesque spots on the way up.

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Created our own Khinkali lunch with the help of local experts. (I took pictures of us under the sage tutelage of the Pasanauri Khinkali ladies, but it’s probably not cool to post them without permission).

Then headed into the mountains for a long moderately-challenging hike that took us to places this:

(These pictures were taken right across from one another on the same spot.)

Followed by our night’s stay in a local guesthouse where you eat typically-delicious homemade meals for both dinner and breakfast, before heading out to do a different incredible hike (other options included paragliding, kayaking, etc).

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(another view from our guesthouse)

Then on the way home you’ll stop at a local family winery where the local obsession with wine and its history is explained.

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…and then have dinner with the owners in their kitchen, where they will proceed to be offended if you do not stuff yourself with delicious dishes like salty cheese wrapped in pastry, and cooked over an open flame.

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Oh… and like 8 bottles of wine between dinner and your take-home package.

This is just an example of what Tom and Meg can put together.  A lot of the places they will take you to are a bit off the beaten path, and I don’t think very many people would find them just wandering around on their own.

If you aren’t already burned out looking at other people’s travel pictures, here’s a taste of the other little tour that we took out to wine country on the Eastern side of Georgia.  We enjoyed yet one more fabulous lunch (the produce is SO FRESH) and way too much “cha-cha” with “The Singing Winemaker”.

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Note that as a group, Georgians are some of the friendliest people that I have ever met.  In my experience, they were certainly more friendly on average than the average Canadian!  They also get progressively more friendly as you drink cha-cha together.  Cha cha can’t be truly described – it must be experienced – but to give a general idea, picture a moonshine-esque beverage distilled from grapes, that makes commercial spirits seem pretty tame by comparison.  Cha-cha might also be used to clean rust off of many surfaces or strip paint off of an old car.  We’ll never know for sure because no self-respecting Georgian would ever waste a drop.

I’m not saying that you need to pay a premium to do something like this everyday that you’re in Georgia (we took “recovery days” after each journey), but when you can enjoy such cool unique luxury at such an affordable price, I think it is an incredible value.

Oh – Tom and Meg also put together this “What you need to know when you step off the plane in Georgia” arrival guide that was super helpful. I cannot recommend them enough.

Covid and Georgia

Covid has obviously had a massive effect on the whole world and Georgia is no exception.  While the country took early measures to curtail the spread of the virus, the most visible impact was the complete destruction of the recently-bloomed tourist industry.

The incredible growth of the Georgian economy over the last 15 years has been strongly linked to tourism.  Consequently, it didn’t surprise me that not only was Georgia one of the first countries to open to PCR-tested travellers, they were also super-clear about the fact that vaccinated travellers did not even need a PCR test – AND they were eligible for Georgia’s 364-day “visa upon entry” (aka – a stamp on your passport).  Basically, the country is doing everything it can to bring people in right now.  Getting through customs took less than five minutes.

Once we were in Georgia there were familiar Covid restrictions in place such as curfews and some limitations on indoor dining at specific times, but overall it was quite manageable.  Once we were out of Tbilisi, Covid restrictions seemed to work on more of an honour code system.

Is Georgia Safe?

The number one question we got when we told our North American friends that we were going to Georgia was: Is it safe?

The more I talk to international teachers who have lived all over the world, the more I’ve come to realize just how skewed our perceptions of safety actually are.  I’m not sure if the media is to blame, or if it’s just basic human “other-ing’ instincts, but I’ve found that us North Americans tend to worry about safety everywhere except our backyards.  Then the statistics reveal that actually, we should instead be thinking a little harder about how to make our own cities a little safer…

I felt incredibly safe in Georgia, but the more relevant data point for many people is the fact that my wife and the other two women we were travelling with felt very safe as well.  All three routinely strolled around Tbilisi on their own.

Now, that said, none of us were out walking at 2AM near bars or nightclubs (Covid curfews meant that no one was) so I can’t speak firsthand to that world.

All I know for sure is that when I read up on Georgia before finalizing our flights, I had a hard time finding a single personal review or overall crime statistic that said anything other than Georgia is a very safe country, and Tbilisi is a very safe city. 

In fact, if you’re interested in things like police reform, the story of policing in Georgia over the last 20 years is a really interesting read.  The emphasis on transparency and rooting out corruption has earned the institution quite high praise.

The Worst Parts of Visiting Georgia

I’m always suspicious when I read reviews of places and there is absolutely nothing negative at all. 

Maybe I’m just a cynic.

In any case, here are some very small nits that I could pick about Georgia if I wasn’t so busy enjoying unlimited wine, salty cheese, and incredible views.

1) There is a lot of graffiti.  I personally adjusted to it quickly, but if you’re coming from a place where graffiti equates to crime, then you might find it a bit disconcerting.

2) Some folks live in crumbling Soviet buildings and there is visible poverty in certain places.  In no way did we ever feel threatened by this, but if you’re looking for Swiss Cantons in the Alps, you won’t find it here.

3) There are a lot of stray cats and dogs (but the city has taken care of them all and marked them with little yellow ear tags).  They were all super friendly and fun – but it might freak some people out a bit, and you do run across the droppings of course.

4) Georgian men drive like they are qualifying for F1.  Bizzare norms.  They are much better drivers than I am – so overall it might be quite safe – but it still seems a bit much to me.  This is actually the only time we felt slightly unsafe during our trip.

5) There is an “odd”… er… “unique” political situation in regards to two regions of the country that have sort of declared independence with the help of Russia in the aftermath of the war in 2008. Or Russia occupied the countries and “declared independence” on their behalf – depending who you ask.  Everyone who I talked to in Georgia explained to me that the whole thing was a bit overblown and was no physical threat to anyone (especially tourists). All the reading that I did before going to Georgia confirmed this view.

Moving to Georgia?

If you read this far, you likely picked up on the fact that we’re pretty big fans of Georgia.  Twelve days were just enough to get a taste of the country.

But there is a big difference between coming to a country and sampling all the best parts for a week or two, vs settling down to live in the country for a few months of “slow travel” or perhaps even more permanently.  

Before leaving we had talked to some people who raved about the mountain views and the friendly people in Georgia, and we can confirm that those ravings were justified!

One area that really pleasantly caught me by surprise was the quality of infrastructure in the country.  Don’t get me wrong, Tbilisi has its share of crumbling flats, and from what we heard, the medical care wasn’t what you’d find in a country like Canada or Australia.  Overall though, the roads and internet coverage were absolutely excellent – especially compared to rural Canada.  We couldn’t believe how few pot holes there were (which is key for the sheep and cows that use them, as well as the vehicles) and how great the cell reception was – even in the middle of the forest. 

It’s also worth mentioning that it cost us like $15 for a sim card with 40GB of data capability!  (There were lower GBs available but we figured why mess around with $10 for a 10GB one.)

It’s possible the prices were extra-low at this time due to Covid, but it is truly wild how low-cost  a middle-class fancy lifestyle can be in Georgia.  That’s true in Tbilisi, but it’s even more true if you get into some of the smaller towns/cities that are within 150km of the capital.  I think those small cities might be a personal sweet spot as far as value goes.  For $1,000 per month you can find some incredible places in smaller centres like Signagi and Mtskheta.

I honestly think that as long as the political situation stays stable, the country is going to boom Post-covid.  If you’re looking for a cheap mountain/ski vacation, some great seasonal hiking, and a really interesting mix of history and diversity, then Georgia is certainly worth your consideration.

If you’re trying to choose between Europe and Asia, why not choose both in one country? You can read my Canadian expat eBook for more advice on relocating to a new country.

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GYM
2 days ago

Wow beautiful! :) Looks very tranquil and serene.

Ken T
5 days ago

Your trip sounded fantastic. I have only one question and that is…How was the language barrier?

FIRECracker
5 days ago

Great write-up, Kyle! Georgia was already on our list before I read about your experience and now after seeing those mountains and hearing about the low costs, we can’t afford not to go! “Europe with SE Asia costs” -> Count me in! The pictures also reminded me of Zakopane, Poland. It’s like Banff with Chiang Mai prices.

Brent
5 days ago

Fantastic article! I’ve been intrigued by Georgia for years – thanks for sharing your experience! So many amazing, off the beaten path destinations in the world to explore!