Kutaisi - one of the oldest cities in Europe, nowadays the second biggest city in Georgia, also the capital of the Imereti region and the de facto capital of the whole Western Georgia!
As impressive as all this sounds, Kutaisi is not really a big city. And it is definitely not one of those places that hit you with beauty and charm the moment you step out from the airport (the 25 min trip from the airport to the centre can be actually quite upsetting to the inexperienced traveller from Western Europe). But sometimes the first impression can be deceiving. After calling Kutaisi my second home for 2 years, I suddenly realized that without fully noticing it myself, I have kind of fell in love with the place.
Kutaisi city view
As the local saying goes, there are 3 different Georgia's. First, there is Tbilisi - the capital and economic centre of the whole Caucasus region with its growingly international and cosmopolitan flavour. Second, there is Batumi - the seaside resort with numerous substantial real estate developments along the lengthy coastline. And third, there is the real Georgia. And, well, as it is, the capital of the "real Georgia" - with all its virtues and challenges - is undoubtedly Kutaisi.
To be honest, it has never been a straight forward affair between Kutaisi and me, and it certainly took me a while to catch the subtle virtues of this slow-moving city. After the regular but short stays in 2017, I moved in more permanently in March 2018, while starting the next chapter of my life as a tea farmer in Georgia. After a few weeks, I slowly started to grow frustrated. There wasn't one overarching reason, but rather a number of slightly irritating nuances, things I had been used to, but which were suddenly missing.
As a tourist, you take the places for what they are, just observing and experiencing the local flavour and differences. As a more or less permanent resident, I suddenly had higher demands. I wanted a proper supermarket, maybe a shopping mall and a sushi place. I was irritated when the local workshops couldn't properly fix my car and suggested to go to Tbilisi instead. I was upset when purchasing the required tools and materials for our tea farm could take hours of browsing around the several sizeable bazaars.
In the end, I never fully settled during the first season, and to be honest, there are still days when I am longing for more metropolitan Tbilisi or glittery and touristic Batumi. But its also the fact, that by now, I would probably not exchange Kutaisi for neither of them. By many accounts I find Kutaisi the best place to live in Georgia. It is increasingly well connected with direct flights to many European cities and Kutaisi's price level (both for tourists and residents) is very attractive. It is big enough, to provide the services and infrastructure you really need, yet its more cozy and authentic compared with Tbilisi or Batumi. So, despite the missing supermarkets that I found somewhat irritating in the beginning, all the comforts of modern civilization are actually here. Starting from the abundance of ATMs, fast 4G internet, and finishing with a growing number of hotels and cosy restaurants, serving the delicacies of the Georgian kitchen.
After all, it was not Kutaisi's fault that it couldn't satisfy my unreasonable expectations in the beginning. It was my fault that I could not appreciate Kutaisi for what it was - the most authentic big city in Georgia, with its unique mix of true Georgian hospitality, slow-moving and relaxed provincial lifestyle and an eclectic combination of Imperial, Soviet and modern architecture.
Going back in time, Kutaisi has been the cultural and political centre of the western lowlands between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus for centuries and there are a couple of UNESCO World heritage sites in the neighbourhood to prove the point. Later, during the Soviet period, the city became a major industrial centre, boasting huge factories pumping out anything from bricks to trucks. But the messy initial years after regaining independence in the early 1990s led to armed conflicts across the country and to a total economic collapse. Rapid closures of all those factories followed, leaving tens of thousands of people out of work for years to come.
25 years later, Western Georgia has still not fully recovered from those shocks and the big, mostly ruined industrial complexes still pollute the citiscape here and there. The industry has been slow to return, and the countryside has never coped with the complete collapse of the once dominating tea industry that provided most of the work in the villages and smaller towns. So, it's fair to say that the last decades have not been easy for Kutaisi and neighbouring regions. Most of the "real Georgia" outside of Tbilisi and Batumi is still struggling economically and trying to cope (and at the same time fight) with the brain drain, where young and more active people are moving out to Tbilisi or abroad.
But every coin has two sides, and I believe that it is exactly the long and glorious history in combination with the industrialization of the 20th century and recent hardships that have formed the city's unique and authentic flavor today. And as the trends have started to point upwards recently, there is a reason to be carefully optimistic about the turn in fortune for Kutaisi and its habitants. After years of almost complete absence, the industrial companies have slowly started to return. Because of the nearby Wizzair hub at the "David the Builder" airport, there is a rapidly growing flow of tourists who are stimulating a whole new range of services and businesses. And as the optimism about the future is never in short supply in Georgia, the things are starting to look more bright again :)
Kutaisi is well worth visiting
When you are planning your visit to Georgia, reserve a few days for Kutaisi and chances are that you will not regret that decision. But don't make my mistake and expect Kutaisi to be something that it isn't. Just relax, stroll around and sense the relaxed, slow-moving vibe - this is it, the real Georgia ;)
And while here, come to check out our Renegade Tea Estate as well. Just 10 km from Kutaisi center. Learn how to visit us
Written by Hannes