The Georgian capital of Tbilisi is beautiful and crumbling—dusty streets woven into rocky hillsides, ancient churches, frenetic marketplaces. But there is color everywhere: coral apartment blocks, violet frescoes, turquoise rooftops. The vibrancy symbolizes the Georgians' indefatigable warmth. As Gia Areshidze, a physicist turned philosopher whose family traces its roots to 11th-century Tbilisi, puts it, "We have a talent to be happy without reason." The city lies in the heart of Caucasia, the troubled swatch of mountains, mineral springs, and vil- lages between the Black and Caspian seas. It is also an easy two-and-a-half-hour flight from Moscow—when the Russians and Georgians aren't squabbling. (The Kremlin has suspended direct flights to the country, forcing Russians to get there via Kiev, Ukraine, or Baku, Azerbaijan.)
For a truly Georgian evening, book the Kopala Hotel (from $125; 8–10 Chekhov St.; 995-32/775-520), which has 20 rooms built into a cliff overlooking the Kura River, and arrange for a table at the glass-encased restaurant that offers brilliant views of the river, the Old City, and the 13th-century Metekhi Church. Order some kharcho (rice-and-lamb soup), chakapuli (lamb with coriander and tarragon), and a bottle of khvanchkara, a semisweet red wine. Almost as lovely is the 15-room Hotel VIP Victoria (from $120; 1–3 Arakishvili St.; 995-32/291-877; victoria.com.ge). If you ask the front desk for an excellent Georgian meal, chef Shalva Rukhadze will prepare a multicourse supper in the dining room for $15 per person. The 127-room Tbilisi Marriott (from $275; 13 Rustaveli Ave.; 995-32/779-200; marriott.com), the top international hotel here, is where visiting dignitaries stay.
But the real show, the embryo of Tbilisi's post-Soviet development, is the Old City, with its web of cobblestoned streets and French and "Georgian European" brasseries and bars. The most notable are Creperie Suzette (dinner, $100; 7 Bambis Rigi; 995-32/439-094) and Chardin 12 (dinner, $90; 12 Chardin St.; 995-32/ 923-238). Scattered across Erekle II and Sioni streets are galleries showcasing new Georgian painters, sculptors, installation artists, and, increasingly, wine shops hawking local vintages at ridiculously low prices. Be sure to see the oil paintings and egg tempera works by Lado Tevdoradze at the Tevdore Gallery (6 Erekle II St.; 995-32/989-856), and try the Caucasian Carpets Gallery (8–10 Erekle II St.; 995-77/405-311), known for its selection of sumptuous rugs from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, and southern Russia.
To glimpse Tbilisi's darker dens, take a stroll from the Sephardic synagogue up Asatiani Street, past the two- and three-story apartments with rickety wrought-iron balconies. To the left you'll see the staircases leading through rocky switchbacks to the Narikala Fortress and the Mother of Georgia monument. You can—and should—climb the stairs through the dilapidated backyards of structurally unsound apartments to make your way to the fourth-century ruins; the view is superb. On Tbilisi's main artery, Rustaveli Avenue, the Rustaveli National Theatre (no. 17; 995-32/938-818; rustavelitheatre.ge), Georgia's best one, features simultaneous English translations during productions.
Finally, there's Gori. Stalin's hometown, an hour and a half northwest of Tbilisi, is nondescript except for the huge monument to the vozhd—one of the few dedicated to Stalin left standing in the former Soviet Union—and the shack where Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili spent his first four years. Across the street is the Stalin Museum (32 Stalin St.; 995-27/ 075-215; stalinmuseum.ge); just request a driver at your hotel and ask him to take you to the museum in Gori. Here you'll find babushkas who still love the dictator giving tours chockfull of touching vignettes from Stalin's childhood. Clearly, you won't learn much about the Gulag on this day-trip.