Our Current Location is Tbilisi, Georgia: Modern, Cheap, and Charming — a Perfect Nomad Destination
A HOT NEW DIGITAL NOMAD DESTINATION
Tblisi, Republic of Georgia.
If you’re a digital nomad, you may have heard of this city in Eastern Europe (very east — technically, we’re in Asia, but don’t tell that to the locals).
If you haven’t heard of Tbilisi yet, you will soon. It’s the Next New Thing in digital nomad circles.
And what’s not to like? Tblisi is a vibrant, modern city of 1.5 million with plenty of history and a charming Old Town.
Tbilisi is big enough to feel modern and bustling, without also feeling like it’s going to swallow you up. It’s hard to believe this up-and-coming city is barely ten years past a civil war.
Better still, the cost of living in Georgia is extraordinarily low by Western standards.
Read on for the pros and cons of this city that sits right on the border between Europe and Asia.
HOW TO GET TO TBILISI
Getting here by plane is difficult. Georgian Airways is the national airline, .but it’s small: its fleet currently stands at nine airplanes serving twenty-two destinations. And they don’t even fly to each of those destinations every day.
We flew Georgian to the Tbilisi airport via … Bologna, Italy. (We happened to be in Grimentz, Switzerland; it was the closest direct flight.)
Other airlines serve Tbilisi, but not discount airlines Ryan Air or Wizz Air. Which means flights can be a bit more expensive than other European destinations. Making matters worse, most flights to Tbilisi tend to arrive well after midnight — and depart long before the crack of dawn.
So plan on arriving at 2 a.m. in the morning. (Keep in mind the governments of Russia and Georgia don’t like each other very much, and as of this writing, Vladimir Putin has banned all flights from Russia to Georgia.)
UPDATE: Ryan Air just announced they are launching new service to Tbilisi. Starting in November 2019 you can fly between Tbilisi and Milan four times a week, and Tbilisi and Cologne twice a week. This is great news for digital nomads as flying to Tbilisi has been pretty expensive.
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU LAND
Once you arrive in Tbilisi, things immediately start looking up. Why? Because not only do you not need to apply for a visa ahead of time, if you’re from one of these countries in green, then you’re going to get a visa for a year — yes, you read that correctly, a year — in about two minutes, with no cost and no paperwork to fill out. Clearing customs and immigration was a breeze. Georgia is currently making things very easy for digital nomads. Because you get a visa for a year, there is no requirement to have an onward ticket and no questions about how much you have in the way of funds.
And don’t worry about arriving in the middle of the night. There are cash machines and open currency exchanges just outside of customs. And an almost overwhelming crush of taxis (and very eager taxi drivers).
There is no Uber or Lyft in Georgia, so we downloaded the ride-sharing service Yandex. Yandex is Russian-owned, and if you’re not crazy about dealing with a Russian-company, there is Bolt, formerly known as Taxify. Both are very cheap, and generally efficient. A fifteen or twenty minute ride will set you back about $2 USD.
If you do decide to take a cab from the airport, double-check the price before you leave, and don’t pay more than $15 USD. And if you’re hungry or need something from the store, and don’t want to wait until morning, the supermarket chain Goodwill is open 24 hours at two of its locations. (But their signage sucks and they can be hard to spot; the one in Vake is in the basement of high-rise building, and you won’t see it until you actually take the down escalator.)
Besides Yandex and Bolt, Tbilisi does have a limited metro system — but it’s old and very out of date, though the government has made updating the system a priority. Some stations do have a modern feel, but stepping into the Rustaveli station, one of the first to open back in 1966, is like stepping back in time. The lines operate from 6 AM until midnight, and you need a Metromoney card, which will cost you less than $2. Metro rides run about fifteen cents.
There are modern buses as well marshrutka, a sort of taxi-share system that follows a specific route letting you get on only at certain stops, but off anywhere you want. You’ll recognize them by their brought yellow color — and by how packed and unpleasant they are. So far, we’ve gone strictly with Yandex. Information on the bus schedules can be found here.
WHERE YOU SHOULD STAY
Business Insider says Tbilisi is the cheapest place in Europe to rent through Airbnb, with rooms costing an average of $26 USD/night. We rented a freshly remodeled one-bedroom apartment with a sweeping view for almost exactly that.
Honestly? We overpaid. (That’s the risk of a guaranteed reservation. Consider booking a hotel for a couple of days while you track down cheaper local digs once you arrive.)
The second month, we used this Facebook group just for apartments to rent in Tbilisi. You can also find recommendations on the Tbilisi Digital Nomads page (which you should check out before coming anyway) or this one for expats living in Tbilisi. Another option is to use a local agent (most handle rentals).
Naturally, there is the question of which part of town you should live in. We settled on Vake (Va-kay), an attractive tree-lined neighborhood that is the heart of the digital nomad community. Vake has plenty of restaurants, many serving more western cuisines such as sushi, pizza, and hamburgers. Alas, the quality is hit and miss: the Fire Wok noodle bar is a big hit, but the Eastern Pearl Chinese Restaurant is a hard pass.
Many nomads also live in the residential neighborhoods around Old Town, which provides access to bars and nightlife, but avoids the higher prices of the tourist core. Vera is right next to Vake, and the Saburtalo neighborhood is reputed to be quiet. Walking around Vake feels pretty much like walking around any hip urban area and Galleria Tbilisi is a modern mall that’s helped revitalize much of downtown.. But outside of those areas, parts of Tbilisi will probably fit your image of what life was like in the Soviet era — lots of concrete apartment blocks, few shops, and not much to do.
CO-WORKING? COFFEE SHOP? WHICH ONE?
Some digital nomads love working at home. And some need to. (Hello, English language instructors!) We generally choose co-working (when we’re not doing co-living) and here in Tbilisi, we quickly settled on Terminal, which has two locations in town. The larger location in Vake has great WiFi, assigned desks with ergonomic chairs, tons of space, a coffee shop on-site, a nice outdoor area, a small kitchen with a microwave, is open 24/7, and is really well run.
A month at Terminal costs $145 USD, which is pretty typical for the co-working places we’ve used, even in cheaper countries. Although most other co-working places provide coffee, something Terminal should consider doing. (Hub Hoi an in Vietnam gives members a free beverage every day, which was a nice perk.)
There is also Impact Hub, but nothing we’ve heard about this place has impressed.
While we don’t like working in coffee shops ourselves, I checked in with a friend living near us in Vake. and he recommended three spots he rotates between: Chocolaterie Artisan & Specialty Coffee, Hurma, and the Althaus Tea Room. All have good food and coffee at decent prices, reliable WiFi, clean bathrooms, and don’t mind folks working away on their laptops. Just what you need for the digital nomad lifestyle!
As long as we’re discussing coffee shops, I’ll mention that Tbilisi has two food delivery services — Glovo and Wolt (not to be confused with Bolt). Both offer a lot of choices and many digital nomads use them frequently.)
WHY ELSE SHOULD YOU COME TO TBILISI?
We’ve already mentioned how affordable Tbilisi is (the current exchange rate is $1 equals three Georgian lari), but there is quite a bit more to recommend this historic city located at the crossroads of the Silk Road. Here are a few highlights:
You’ll definitely want to check out the public sulfur baths in the Abanotubani neighborhood. Prices start as low as a couple of bucks, or you can get a private room and massage for as much as $150 USD.
The labyrinth-like Old Town, which oozes charm. While wandering the streets, be sure to get some of the Georgian candy known as “churchkhela,” which looks likes colorful candles, but is actually walnuts threaded onto a string and then dipped in thickened fruit juice.
There’s a funicular up to Mtatsminda Park, an amusement park on a bluff almost eight hundred meters above Tbilisi that gives you a great view of the city. You also should spend an afternoon wandering around the ancient Narikala fortress dating back to the city’s founding in the 5th century A.D. And this is still a religious country, so there are plenty of churches to visit. But Tbilisi’s also seen a boom in casinos, if that’s more your thing.
Like any good European city, Tbilisi has plenty of parks and public space. Check out the Tbilisi Botanical Gardens, or Rike Park along the banks of the Kura River, which you can cross via the pedestrian-only Bridge of Peace. There’s also Vake Park, Turtle Lake, and Vera Park.
Want to get a bit more insight to what Georgians think about their lives? Check out some Georgian stand-up. Seeing what another culture finds funny is a great way to learn about them.
Georgia is also renowned for it’s natural beauty. Kazbegi National Park is a day-trip, and well worth checking out for its towering mountains that are part of the Caucasus range dividing Europe from Asia. The Black Sea is a six hour drive to the west, and Armenia with its own mountains, lakes, and monasteries, is just to the south. (Russia is less than 200 km to the north, but given the tensions up there, you should probably give it a miss.)
If you like wine, then Georgia is the place for it. Wine production actually began here as far back as the Neolithic era, and Georgia is especially known for its white wines. There are several wine festivals each year and wine tours are plentiful.
Still looking for reasons to come? How about the fantastic Tbilisi climate? Lows rarely drop below 4C/40F or go higher than 32C/9oF, and there aren’t a ton of rainy days. We’re currently here in August, and after the heat and humidity of Hoi An, Vietnam, even 90 feels perfectly fine.
A WORD ABOUT GEORGIANS
While English is pretty widely spoken, it isn’t spoken by everyone. And the Georgian’s are kind of…let’s call it reserved. I’m a friendly guy, I speak some Russian (which many folks also speak), but I haven’t been overwhelmed by Georgian friendliness, even when I make the effort first. (And don’t even get me started on customer service. Let’s just say: people ain’t working for tips here.) I only mention this so that you don’t start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you. Nope. It’s just the Georgian way.
You also need to be careful crossing streets. Georgian can be aggressive drivers.
One final note for LGBT folks. As mentioned above, Georgia is still a religious country. Which means in many ways its a conservative country. As of 2014, 83.4% of Georgians identify as Eastern Orthodox Christian, and 10.7% as Muslim, As a result, Georgia is not an LGBT-friendly country. In fact, when the LGBT community here in Tbilisi tried to have a Pride parade earlier this year, it had to be called off due to bomb threats. (And the only Pride parade ever ended up in violence back in 2014.)
What does that mean for you as a digital nomad? Realistically, probably not much.
As long as you don’t engage in any public displays of affection or linger around outside Success, Tbilisi’s one gay bar, after midnight, you should be fine. This is yet another country that seems to have slightly different rules for Westerners: local customs and mores are less likely apply to you (because you’re already a lost cause? We’re already objects of mystification to many of the local folk?) Whatever the reason, you don’t have much to worry about.
The story is very different for local LGBT folks who are expected get married and have kids. One digital nomad friend has tried dating a few locals, but the concept of dating is bizarre to them. For them, being gay is still all about who you have sex with, not who you fall in love with. There are brave LGBT folks here in Tbilisi trying to change things. Tbilisi Pride is the local LGBT rights group and despite all of the adversity they’ve faced, they’re persisting.
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