Here is a list of things that people who are about to travel or move to Tbilisi often ask:
Q: Is it safe to drink the water?
A: Sort of…? It’s really your call. Some people do and some don’t. The Tbilisi water source itself is pure, it’s just that the pipes are older, and often have mineral or bacterial buildup (but it isn’t nearly as bad as in St. Petersburg, where you will almost surely become violently ill from drinking any water not thoroughly boiled). It’s totally fine to shower and brush your teeth with, although the mineral content might make your hair more brittle than usual.
Q: How easy is it to travel around the country or the region from Tbilisi?
A: Fairly easy. Depending on where you’re going, international air travel can be a pain (only a few flights a day depart Tbilisi, and most arriving flights get in at inconvenient times, often between 1 and 4am). For regional travel, small carriers like Pegasus often have cheap direct flights. For longer flights, expect layovers in Baku, Istanbul, Munich, or Doha (London if you’re lucky). It is cheap and fairly easy to take a marshutka (minibus) or an overnight train for travel to Baku or Yerevan. It is very cheap and very easy to get around Georgia via marshutka (there are several marshutka hubs around Tbilisi, like Didube and Station Square), and there are overnight trains to other cities like Batumi or Zugdidi. For daytrips to more isolated locations (Davit Gareja monastery), you can also split a taxi with a group of friends.
Q: Where is the nightlife?
A: Errr…best to keep those expectations low. As of now, Tbilisi is not the sort of city that has go-to bars and clubs. A place that is packed out with a great crowd one night can be dead the next. Some places are more reliable than others, but you generally have to just stay in the loop before deciding to go out. Part of this may just be the Georgian drinking culture–in my experience, most Georgians view going out and getting drunk as going to a dinner party at a restaurant/friend’s house as opposed to going clubbing or dancing. So the demand for clubs as I know them seems fairly low, and the establishments come and go quickly. See my reviews page for information on bars, cafes, and clubs I visited in 2012-2013.
Q: Is it easy to get around without knowing any Georgian? How useful is Russian?
A: Easy enough. Under Saakashvili, many services (the metro, street signs, medical clinics, banks, shops, restaurants) in Georgia switched from bilingual Georgian-Russian to bilingual Georgian-English. Most signage, particularly downtown, either has an English translation or enough pictures to get the meaning across. The only real issue is that while the electronic signs at bus stops have English transliterations of the bus route (ex. 6 = Baratashvili St), the signs actually on the bus with more detailed descriptions of the route are only in Georgian. Russian is widely spoken by the over-40 generations, so it can be helpful with shopkeepers and cab drivers. It is particularly common in the bazrobas (outdoor markets), because even Georgians admit that Russian has a much more sane base-10 counting system as opposed to Georgian’s base-20 (in Russian, thirty-five translates to thirty-five, while in Georgian, thirty-five translates to twenty-and-fifteen). I would recommend at least learning the cyrillic alphabet to read some food/product labels and signs.
Q: How easy is it to get medicine/medications?
A: Fairly easy–but expect generics. If you bring in an empty packet of whatever medicine you’re looking for/state the main ingredient, the pharmacists will usually find a generic. It’s also very easy to get a variety of medicines over-the-counter here that require a prescription in the US (certain antibiotics, birth control, painkillers, etc.)
Q: Are locals welcoming towards foreigners?
A: Absolutely. Georgia has a legendary reputation for hospitality that stands to this day, and many Georgians take significant pride in being good hosts to foreign “guests.” It is not uncommon for total strangers to take an interest in your life/how you got to Georgia. The Saakashvili regime (2003-2012) was extremely pro-West and pro-America, and as a result of their policies, most people under 30 speak at least basic English and are happy to practice with foreigners. Minorities, however, might have a more difficult time–my Chinese-American friend was subjected to constant staring and pointing, along with periodic shouts of “China!”/”Japan!”/”Bruce Lee!”, laughing, kung fu noises, and people speaking “Chinese” at him.
Q: What can I expect of living in an average Tbilisi apartment?
A: Apartments vary wildly, but at this point almost everyone has at bare minimum an electric/gas tank to heat water and some kind of space heater. Wifi is easy enough to install if your landlord doesn’t have it set up already. Just about every apartment has its own washer, but dryers are extremely rare, so you will probably have laundry lines on your balcony/courtyard. Unless you have central heat, the winters can be difficult (many buildings are poorly insulated and people usually rely on weak space heaters and radiators).
Q: Do I need to be worried about all the stray animals running around?
A: Not really. In Tbilisi the dogs are very accustomed to people, and will totally ignore anyone who is not feeding them/jogging (because who here does THAT? I’d bark too). Note that this is different from in the countryside, where a loose dog may very well be guarding livestock and should not be bothered (for this reason it is also best not to approach livestock). Cats everywhere are generally skittish and tend to take off if you get too close. If you have your own cat or dog, I would suggest keeping it safely inside the house unless you have it on a leash or in a cage, as it could easily contract a disease/parasite from a stray (or even someone else’s pet, as Georgians aren’t too big on vaccinations and deworming yet).
Q: How common is petty theft (mugging, pickpocketing, break-ins)?
A: Not very. I personally have never experienced a mugging or been pickpocketed, but some of my expat friends have. Basic precautions should be enough (money belts and things like that in Tbilisi are definitely overkill). The only real concern is for people who are obviously foreign, as you are an immediate target for the handful of gypsy children who stake out along the major tourist routes of Rustaveli Ave and Leselidze Street–but they are easily avoided by simply powerwalking (not worth the effort for them) and by not making eye contact.
Q: Is it safe to live/walk around alone as a single foreign woman?
A: Yes (with the usual precautions). Georgia is very much a patriarchal society with “traditional” gender norms (this article examining gender issues on AMC’s “Mad Men” rings eerily true), but I have never felt any more in danger here than I would feel walking around most American cities at night. You may or may not experience periodic sexual harassment, the likelihood of which increases the further into the countryside you travel, and the more obviously foreign you appear (particularly if you are a blonde/redhead). Staring, rude gestures, and catcalls/kissy noises are common, with unsolicited marriage proposals, photographing, stalking, and groping being on the more extreme (but not unheard of) end of the spectrum. That said, I found Turkish and Azerbaijani men to be far sketchier–and I have also never felt unsafe walking home to my Tbilisi apartment by myself in the middle of the night.
Q: How reliable is public transportation?
A: Very. Taking a bus or the metro around Tbilisi will set you back less than .50 USD, and (at least downtown) most routes run every ten minutes or so. A marshutka (minibus) is a slightly more expensive, but usually runs faster and more regularly to distant suburbs. There are periodic strikes–during my year here there was one marshutka driver strike and one bus driver strike, both lasting only a few days each.