Behind just about every door in Tbilisi, there’s a great story waiting to be told. Often you have to do a little digging around to find it.
Museum Hotel Orbeliani, a boutique 46-room hotel located close to the river on the edge of Tbilisi’s central Dzveli area, wears its history and heritage proudly on its sleeve. The hotel’s design perfectly combines eastern and western influences with all the trappings of a modern, inner-city palace – which in a former life, it just so happened to be.
A NOD TO OLD TBILISI
This hotel might think of itself as a museum, but there’s no dusty artefacts or clutter here – just a well-curated collection of modernist furniture and art deco pieces. The Gatsby-ish aesthetic alludes to a particular epoch in Tbilisi’s history and gives Museum Hotel a high-society look and feel that’s unlike any of the other contemporary interiors I’ve seen in the city.
Archival prints and a collection of Caucasian carpets are complimented by French mirrors, chaise longue and armoires – the sort of precious objects Armenian merchants once imported to furnish the luxe interiors of old Tbilisi. The lobby features motifs of palm leaf (a very posh symbol in old Georgia) and exotic bird feathers, tassels and tufts, gold and velveteen, parquet floors and brass fittings. Mirrored ceilings and walls render everything in duplicate for double the fun.
A huge marble staircase forms the hotel’s backbone, unfolding onto contrasting upper-floor spaces that are light-filled and enriched with indoor plants and ceramics.
The peacock mosaic that greets guests at the hotel reception references the painted murals found inside some of the city’s apartment entryways – another nod to old Tbilisi from a hotel that’s proud to flaunt its heritage.
If you’re a lover of textiles and design like I am, you’ll think Museum Hotel is a little slice of heaven. It was love at first sight for me – but I gained a whole new appreciation for the Museum Hotel’s style once I learned a bit more about the building’s history.
Today it’s one of Tbilisi’s handsomest boutique hotels – but before that, this was one of the finest private residences in Georgia. The house originally belonged to the Orbelianis, a noble family who also lend their name to the street outside. Playwrights, poets and diplomats, the Orbelianis were the epitome of Georgian sophistication. At the turn of the century, their little palace house was a known gathering place for aristocrats, foreign delegations and famous artists, who would have sat sipping chai on the balcony overlooking the stone quarry that once ran along the bank of the river just beyond their front door.
Later in its history, the house was inherited by one of the Orbeliani daughters. It was around this time that a legend was born…
LOVE LETTERS TO TBILISI
As the story goes, the Orbeliani house became the backdrop to many a clandestine love affair. In the days before the post, young Georgians would come to the house to drop off love letters and secret messages, with Orbelianis taking on the role of inbetweeners to ensure the letters reached their intended recipient. Legend has it that people came from all across the city to swap letters at the Orbeliani house. It’s a wonderful story that has inspired a new novel about old Tbilisi – I hope I can chase down a copy online.
Guests of Museum Hotel are encouraged to keep this sweet tradition alive by penning an anonymous note during their stay. There’s special stationary, a writing desk and a glass letterbox set aside in the lobby for this purpose. Since it was our last day in Georgia, I decided to reflect on our travels and write a little love note to my new favourite city, Tbilisi.
Change has swept through Tbilisi’s streets many times over, and sadly the Orbeliani house wasn’t immune. The building gradually fell into disrepair, was damaged in a fire and lay empty for years until the Museum Hotel team took on the massive task of bringing it back to life. The historic residence is a cultural monument and protected by the state, so the exterior remains true to its original appearance, while the interior takes its cues from the days of Orbeliani.
I think the Museum Hotel team have done a great public service by returning this palace house to its former glory. If you need evidence of what happens when a building’s heritage is neglected, you need only look next door – another historic residence on Orbeliani Street was recently refurbished, turned into a black box and stripped of all its character and historical value in the process.
The designers have taken a more conventional route when styling Museum Hotel’s 46 rooms. Pared-back decor, clean lines and neutral tones with highlights of amber and midnight blue provide some much needed relief from the hotel’s exquisite but visually overwhelming common spaces. Each room has parquetry throughout, a slick marble bathroom, and in the bedroom, just a few curlicues to remind you where you are – gorgeous deco-style spherical lamps and plush headboards.
Even the more compact rooms feature a large desk and lots of storage space, while street-facing suites have their own private balconies and leafy views of 9 April Garden. The hotel only opened its doors in August 2016, so everything is still in flawless condition.
SIRAJKHANA WINE RESTAURANT
There are several dining options on the Museum Hotel property, the highlight being Sirajkhana Wine Restaurant.
In Georgia, it’s something of a tradition to transform your old wine cellar into an underground tavern. I love this style of dining – the only problem is that cellar restaurants can get stuffy and claustrophobic in the warmer months. Sirajkhana is located in the Orbeliani house cellar, but the architects have done a great job of transforming it into an open, comfortable space with high ceilings, plenty of ventilation and minimal exposed brick. Better still, the restaurant (like the entire property) is non-smoking! If you’re a non-smoker who has spent time in this part of the world, you’ll understand just how important this is.
Sirajkhana’s menu curbs the trend too by giving classic Georgian dishes a Persian twist. This is a stroke of brilliance – the flavours of the two cuisines pair together so well, and Persian ingredients give Georgian food (which can sometimes be a little heavy) a nice lift. We ate a delicious meal of Kakhetian mushrooms lightly sauteed with lemon, garlic and herbs and topped with pomegranate jewels, zesty chikhirtma soup served with flatbread, and a salad of fresh grapes, red onion and walnuts – yum. The house label wine, made from Georgia’s famous saperavi grapes, was a perfect accompaniment.
For daytime dining, there’s the upstairs Museum Cafe. This is the first space you encounter after checking in to the hotel and the pinnacle of the property’s design. (It’s honestly one of the most beautiful rooms I’ve walked into for a long time!)
We didn’t eat at the cafe, but we did sit down for an iced coffee, which was almost a meal in itself. The ground floor terrace that extends across the front of the hotel is a nice place to sit in the late afternoon.
The cafe is also the venue for the hotel breakfast. Served buffet-style, it covers the full length and breadth of English and continental favourites, plus a decadent sweets section. Meringue with summer fruits to start the day? Totally acceptable in these surroundings.
On the hotel’s top floor, you’ll find Mixology Bar 810. (The name comes from the hotel’s street address). It’s another on-point interior but with a very different feel – large windows and a clever sail roof let in plenty of natural afternoon light.
Come nightfall, the bar transforms into a cosy, library-like space – the perfect setting for a nightcap. Mixology Bar 810 has a well-deserved reputation for being one of Tbilisi’s best cocktail bars and like the restaurant and the cafe, you can drop by any time, even if you’re not a guest of the hotel.
One of the best things about Museum Hotel is its location. Away from the main tourist drag and Tbilisi’s bustling Old Town, it’s located on one of my favourite streets in the city, surrounded by beautiful historic houses and residential laneways. There are carpet shops, galleries and art cafes nearby, plus you’ll find a Carrefour supermarket a few blocks behind the hotel.
Tbilisi’s famous Dry Bridge Market is located just across the road – perfect if you’re feeling inspired by Museum Hotel’s decor and you want to do a spot of antique shopping. The flea market is open every day but is at its biggest and best on weekends.
Heading in the opposite direction, it’s a pleasant stroll down to Rustaveli, one of Tbilisi’s main avenues, and the metro station. From there, you can easily connect to other parts of the city – not that you need to stray very far, with everything you need for an enjoyable stay in Tbilisi right on Museum Hotel’s doorstep.
Museum Hotel Orbeliani
8-10 Vakhtang Orbeliani Street
+995 322 24 49 99
Standard rooms start at 180 USD/night – check availability here.
I was a guest of Museum Hotel Orbeliani and Sirajkhana Wine Restaurant but all opinions and recommendations are my own.