A guide to visiting the Dezerter Bazaar, the biggest and most vibrant Tbilisi market.
First published: March 10, 2017
Spend a few days in Tbilisi and you’ll start to realise just how integral food is to Georgian life and culture. Nothing says ‘Georgia’ more than a heaving plate of khinkali dumplings, a cheese-stuffed khachapuri and a carafe of amber wine shared between friends.
The best place to learn about Georgian cuisine is, of course, at the dinner table. The second best place is at the Dezerter Bazaar, the main Tbilisi market.
Keep reading: Where & what to eat in Tbilisi.
Maybe ‘fresh’ isn’t the first word I would reach for when describing Georgian food (Heavy? Rich?); but the cuisine is fiercely regional and locally grown/slaughtered/brewed/prepared/pickled ingredients feature prominently in most recipes.
One of my favourite dishes is a traditional Georgian salad: thick wedges of cucumber and tomato smothered in a creamy walnut sauce and finished with handfuls of parsley – yum!
Wherever you are in the world, if you want to know more about a place and its people then a visit to the local food market is a good place to start. Spending a few hours wandering around Tbilisi’s largest open-air market is pretty much a necessity if you want to deepen your understanding of Georgian food, and thus culture.
It gave me a new appreciation for the quality and quantity of Georgian produce (just wait until you see the colours), and it certainly made me curious to try some lighter, fresher Georgian dishes come springtime.
Read next: Awesome things to do in Tbilisi, Georgia.
History of Tbilisi’s Dezerter Bazaar
The Dezerter Bazaar (also called Dezertirebi Bazroba and listed as ‘Desertir Market’ on Google Maps) covers more than 2,000 square metres. There’s no telling just how many individual stalls and shops fit together to form the Bazaar proper – the scale of it is staggering!
The main marketplace underwent a major renovation in the early 2000s and the relatively polished grey-and-peach facade you see today was only finished in 2012. Stallholders were asked to temporarily vacate so that construction works could begin, and apparently many never returned to the new building.
Instead, they carved out niches from which to sell their wares in the streets, laneways and car parks around the bazaar and inside an adjacent building, the Central Bazaar. This all adds to the Dezerter Bazaar’s sprawling feel.
The Dezerter Bazaar earned its name during wartime: Soldiers absconding from the Russo-Georgian War in the 1920s would offload their weapons and gear at the marketplace, earning it the moniker ‘deserter’. Or so the story goes.
Similarly, Phnom Penh’s Psar Toul Tom Poung – better known as the Russian Market – owes its English name to the Soviet soldiers who shopped and traded there. It’s still a favourite spot for buying old Soviet coins – and according to some, grenades.
But that’s where the comparison between a Cambodian wet market and Georgia’s agrarian Dezerter Bazaar end.
Looking for a non-edible souvenir to take home from Georgia? Check out my guide to buying handmade textiles, gifts and souvenirs in Tbilisi.
A look inside the biggest Tbilisi market
A laundry list of what’s available at the Bazaar would be redundant: take a look for yourself in this series of photos I captured on our first visit to the Dezerter Bazaar one Friday morning in March, and during our second visit in summer (July).
Getting to the Dezerter Bazaar
The Dezerter Bazaar is located north of downtown Tbilisi on the eastern bank of the river, close to Station Square (Tbilisi’s main train station) and the Dinamo Arena. There are lots of ways to enter the Bazaar, but the main entrance is on Tsinamdzgvrishvili Street.
To get there, take the metro to Station Square and walk one block west. Buses 33 and 46 from Freedom Square pull up right outside the market at the stop called ‘Tsinamdzgvrishvili Street #135’.
Opening hours for the Dezerter Bazaar
The Dezerter Bazaar is open daily from 7am until 5pm. The market is at its liveliest in the morning, so I recommend coming in right after breakfast.
Navigating the Dezerter Bazaar
It’s hard to know exactly where the Dezerter Bazaar begins and ends. Walking back to our apartment in Tsereteli, we noticed fruit and clothing stalls that continue all the way along the road past the stadium. One market seems to merge into the next.
The main part of the market is the grey-and-peach-coloured shed (fresh produce at the entrance, a car park underneath and wholesale fruit market upstairs). In the laneways around the right, there are vendors selling spices and cheese.
The upstairs section of the building next door, accessible by stairs to the right of the main entrance, is where you’ll find the butchers shops. Along Tsereteli Ave, to the left as you exit, there is an arched walkway with yet more vendors set up underneath. Follow this around to the back of the market, and you’ll see lots of bakeries and cheese shops.
Finally, across the avenue in front of the market, is a second, smaller market made up of tin sheds.
If you’d prefer to let someone show you around the market, Culinary Backstreets run a culinary walk of Tbilisi that focuses on the Bazaar. Friends of mine have taken this tour and highly recommend it.