Holy Trinity Cathedral AKA Sameba Cathedral is the main centre of the Georgian Orthodox Church in Tbilisi.
As well as being the biggest place of worship in the country, it is one of the largest Orthodox cathedrals in the world.
Sameba is a symbol of the city and the nation, and I consider it a must-see in Tbilisi. In this quick guide, I will run through 10 essential tips to help you make the most of your visit.
- Sameba appears on my list of 12 churches to visit in Tbilisi
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Briefly about Sameba Cathedral
With its gleaming gilded dome throwing light on the rest of the city, and in many ways Holy Trinity Cathedral is indeed a beacon of hope. Built in the days following the collapse of the USSR and Georgia’s self-declared independence, it symbolised a ‘new chapter’ for the nation – with the Orthodox Church squarely front and centre.
Designed by Georgian architect Archil Mindiashvili, Sameba was the only large-scale project launched during the 1990s, one of the darkest periods of Georgia’s modern history, when the country was wracked by inflation, crime, and civil war. Construction began in 1995 and would last almost a decade.
This was a time when most Tbilisians didn’t have 24-hour access to electricity or running water. Embarking on an ostentatious building project must have seemed, to many, as insensitive at best. After multiple stops and starts due to a lack of finances and other controversies, the church was finally completed in 2004 with the help of several private donors. It was consecrated on November 23 of that year, coinciding with the important holiday, Giorgoba (Saint George’s Day).
The idea for Sameba can be traced back to 1989 when Ilia II, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, requested a new centre for the Orthodox Church (superseding Sioni Cathedral in Old Tbilisi).
Not unlike the Chronicles of Georgia monument, Sameba was also timed to coincide with a special milestone: The 2000-year anniversary of Christianity.
Soil from sacred places around Georgia and other holy artefacts were laid in the main church’s foundation. Atop, two components were erected: The lower sanctuary with nine chapels (five of which are underground), and an upper sanctuary which follows a traditional cruciform shape with a central dome.
Also on the grounds of the church is a residence for the Patriarch, a monastery, a theological school, a Decorative Gardening College, and a hotel.
Sameba is located high atop Elia Hill on the site of the former St. Astvatsatsin Church and Khojivank, the biggest and oldest Armenian cemetery in Tbilisi (with a 300-year history and some 90,000 graves).
Few outsiders realise that Tbilisi has always had a strong Armenian community (Armenians outnumbered Georgians until the 20th century), and Avalabari (Havlabar) has traditionally been the city’s Armenian district. Several important artists, writers and public figures were buried at Khojivank, including the poets Sayat Nova and Hovhannes Tumanyan, both of whom were born in Tbilisi.
Khojivank was destroyed in the 1930s on the orders of Lavrentiy Beria, who sought to ‘cleanse’ the city of its Armenian connection. He also razed the majority of Tbilisi’s Armenian Apostolic churches (the only two active churches that remain today are the nearby Ejmiatsin and Surb Gevorg in the old town).
At that time, gravestones and ornate marble khachkars were apparently pillaged and reused for new buildings, including the Marxism-Leninism Institute on Rustaveli Avenue (now the Biltmore Hotel) and Beria’s own private house at 11 Machabeli Street in Sololaki (now the HQ for the Georgian National Olympic Committee).
According to some reports, when Sameba broke ground, further damage was wrought as more graves were overturned. Erecting the country’s largest temple to the Georgian Orthodox Church on one of the most sacred places for Armenians understandably drew controversy to the project.
The Armenian Pantheon contains the few dozen gravestones that were salvaged from Khojivank (more information on that later).
Interesting facts about Sameba
- At 87 metres tall from its base to the top of the crucifix, Sameba is the highest church in Georgia. By comparison, the second-tallest church, Alaverdi in Kakheti, is 50 metres tall.
- The foundation of the cathedral is built directly into the hillside, so the back part of the church is underground. When measured from the foundation to its highest point, the actual height of the church is 101 metres.
- Depending on which measurement you use, Sameba is either the fourth or ninth tallest Orthodox church in the world, behind churches in Russia and Bucharest, Romania.
- With a 3,000-square-metre interior, it is among the 10 largest Orthodox churches in Europe by volume.
- The square surrounding Sameba is 5,000 square-metres and can hold an additional 15,000 worshippers.
- There are 9 bells hanging inside the belltower, all of which were cast in Germany. The main bell weighs in at 8,000 kilograms.
General tips for planning a visit to Sameba
Now that you know a bit about Sameba’s history and significance, here are my top practical tips for planning a visit.
1. Exact location of Tbilisi Sameba & the best entrance to use
Sameba Cathedral is a huge complex with several entrances. On my most recent visit, I made the mistake of doubling back and retracing my footsteps. If you pick your entrance and exit point wisely, you will save yourself a lot of time and unnecessary walking.
The main church gate is located on the western side of the complex, on Samreklo Street. It is marked on Google Maps here. At this entrance, you will find public bathrooms, a gift shop, and a cafe. As you enter the grounds, you will see the famous cascading staircase directly in front of you.
If you want to visit the Sewing Shop first (more below), you should use the south-eastern entrance at the top of Khivi Dead End (see the exact location here on Google Maps). This will bring you to the small stone chapel then directly up to the public entrance to get inside the church.
And if you want to visit the Armenian Pantheon first, you should use the north-western entrance off Gumbri Street (see the exact location here on Google Maps). This will bring you onto the part of the square where the most magnificent views are.
When it comes time to enter inside the main sanctuary, it can be a bit confusing! Do not try to enter through the tall doors at the top of the stairs – these are reserved for special occasions. Instead, loop around to the right and use the public entrance on the southern side.
2. How to get to Tbilisi Sameba
Sameba Cathedral is located on Tbilisi’s Left Embankment on the opposite side of the Mtkvari River from Kala Old Town. There are several ways to get up to the church.
Option 1: Walking to Sameba
If you have time, it can be quite pleasant to walk all the way up to Sameba. From the Old Town, it takes around 30-40 minutes. The route is mostly flat, with an incline at the end.
Starting from Freedom Square, I recommend walking down Pushkin Street (alongside the old city wall remnants), across Baratashvili Bridge (take a moment to check out the street art murals in the underpass, then cross beneath the traffic on the bridge’s lower pedestrian level), past the Nikoloz Baratashvili statue, then up Akhvlediani Street to the main gate.
Starting from the Old Town, I recommend crossing Metekhi Bridge, walking up the historic Wine Rise adjacent to Rike Park, then following Meskhishvili Street to the top of the hill. This second route is more interesting because you will pass several other landmarks (including Queen Darejan’s Palace) and see some of my favourite parts of Old Avlabari along the way.
Option 2: Metro + bus
The closest metro station is Avlabari. From Freedom Square, ride the First Line (red line) in the direction of Varketili. You only need to travel one stop. The fare is 1 GEL.
From the metro station, you can either walk 600 metres up to the main gate, or take city bus #391, which will drop you off directly in front of the main gate.
The bus originates at the new stand adjacent to Avlabari Metro Station (on the western side). There is a bus every 15-20 minutes. Ride 3 stops (around 5 minutes) to reach the cathedral.
If you transfer directly from the metro to the bus within 90 minutes, the fare will still be 1 GEL.
Minibuses 434, 440, 478, 479, 522 and 576 also stop in front of the church. The fare is the same, and you can use your MetroMoney/Travel Card to pay.
Option 4: Taxi
A taxi to the church from Freedom Square costs 4-6 GEL when booked through the Bolt app. I always recommend using Bolt to order taxis in Tbilisi.
Do not put ‘Sameba’ as your destination – this will route you to the village of Sameba 16 km outside Tbilisi! Instead, use one of the following addresses (depending on which entrance you prefer to use):
- For the main entrance to the church: 26 Samreklo Street
- For the entrance near the sewing shop: Khivi Dead End
- For the entrance near the Armenian Pantheon: 33 Gumbri Street
3. Opening hours, liturgy times & the best time to visit Sameba
The official opening times for Sameba Cathedral are 8am until 10pm, Monday to Sunday.
If you want to sit in (or rather stand in) for Orthodox mass, you should visit on a Saturday afternoon at around 4pm or Sunday morning at around 10am. Chanting is incorporated into the liturgy, so this is a nice opportunity to hear a bit of Georgia’s famous polyphonic singing.
Sameba holds special services in the lead-up to Orthodox Easter, Orthodox Christmas and other feast days. If you are visiting Tbilisi for Easter, I encourage you to attend the midnight mass at Sameba. It’s a wonderful experience.
If you’re visiting on a weekday or you’re more interested in the best time to visit Sameba Cathedral for nice lighting, then I highly highly encourage you to visit later in the day, around sundown. The light is perfect during blue hour, especially during winter when the skyline is washed out with hazy tones.
Sameba Square commands sweeping views of the city. The church faces west, making this one of the best places in Tbilisi to watch the sunset.
4. What to wear & bring with you
As with all Orthodox sites in Georgia, Sameba has a particular dress code that all visitors should observe. I have noticed recently that not all tourists abide by the code – and while you’re not likely to get rejected or chastised, it is extremely disrespectful to flaunt the rules.
Please do the right thing and dress appropriately – it’s not difficult.
Women should wear long pants or a long skirt that covers their knees, a top that covers their shoulders, and a scarf over their hair. A skirt is preferred for women, but pants will do. Men should similarly have covered knees and shoulders, and leave their head uncovered.
At the public entrance, you will see a big basket of apron skirts and headscarves that you can borrow to wear inside. These are made of a disposable material, but I am pretty sure they get reused again and again. For ease and sanitary reasons, I recommend bringing your own lightweight scarf. (I carry one in my bag at all times when I’m travelling around Georgia.)
5. General etiquette & taking photos inside the church
Sameba is a fully functioning church and a sacred place for Georgians. Yes, it’s a major tourist attraction – but keep in mind that when you visit, you will surely be sharing the room with locals who are there to pray.
Running, yelling and other disruptive behaviour is banned on church grounds. Smoking is prohibited.
There are no signs saying photography is prohibited inside the church, but I do recommend being discreet. Try to avoid photographing people.
Aerial shots of the church and the square, with its pattern of interlacing stone squares, are very impressive. I am not aware of any laws that prohibit you from flying a drone over Sameba. The best place to take off would be from the back of the church, near the railway tracks. It’s quiet here, and you’re not likely to encounter other people.
Do keep in mind that the church sits on top of a hill and it does get quite windy.
Things to see at Sameba Cathedral
6. The lower grounds
The lower grounds of the church are very beautiful, especially the long promenade flanked by mature olive trees and stone pillars that leads to the staircase.
I’m not one for selfies, but it’s great fun to wander the gardens and snap photos of others climbing the stairs – the sheer scale makes people look like ants!
On the southern side there are rose gardens, lavender bushes and a small vineyard. There is even a lake and a resident community of peacocks, ducks and swans.
Tip: If you want to skip the big staircase, you can walk around to the right, through the gardens, instead. This will bring you to a pink stone chapel and a smaller staircase that you can take up to the main door.
7. The upper square & views of Tbilisi
The vast square around the base of Sameba commands fantastic views of Tbilisi city. My favourite spot is the north-western side in front of the glass enclosure that holds St. Nino’s Cross. Look out to the west, and you will see Old Tbilisi, the TV Tower and Mtatsminda, with the impressive church gate and bell tower in the foreground.
I recommend walking a full loop around the church to see the exterior decorations close up. There are beautiful stone carvings on every facade – and unlike other churches in Georgia they are quite contemporary (I particularly like the grape vine motifs).
You can get great photos of the church’s ‘stacked’ facade from the square, looking directly up towards the dome.
8. Inside the church: Icons & the iconostasis
The interior of Sameba is also quite grand, with soaring free-standing pillars, a marble floor, and a white stone iconostasis.
Many photos online show scaffolding erected in the main sanctuary. The frescoes by painter Amiran Goglidze are mostly complete, but there was one piece of equipment remaining at the time of my most recent visit.
As is customary, the base of every column and the walls around the sanctuary are covered with icons. The ones at Sameba are particularly lavish, all gold and dark wood. Of particular note is the icon of Mary at the entrance, which was painted by Ilia II himself.
There are several relics housed behind glass, including the Cross of Jvari and a miniature of Jerusalem rendered in mother of pearl.
Unfortunately there is no English signage in English and with no guides available, it is tricky to fully appreciate what you’re looking at. If you want to go deeper, I would consider visiting Sameba with a local guide who can interpret the icons and give you more information about the church.
The following tours include a visit to Sameba:
9. Sameba Sewing Shop
One of my best tips for visiting Holy Trinity is to stop by the Sameba Sewing Shop, which is located on the church grounds at the southern corner, behind the stone chapel.
This is where all church vestments (the symbolic robes worn by members of the clergy) and the ceremonial banners and flags are made. Their work is extremely detailed and very skilful.
The shop is quite small, but the women who work there are always happy for visitors to pop in and look around. Inside, you will see rolls of luxurious fabrics, hand-embroidery, and lavish gold brocade.
10. The Armenian Pantheon
Another must-do is to stop by the Armenian Pantheon. It is located behind the church on the north-eastern side, and is accessed via a separate gate. To get there, exit Sameba from this point and follow the road around to the right.
It is much smaller than the original cemetery that once stood here, but it contains memorials to several important figures who were previously interned at Khojivank. This includes the grave of poet-activist Hovhannes Tumanyan.
There is also a small memorial for avant-garde film director Sergei Parajanov with a pomegranate tree planted in soil transported from his burial site in Yerevan.
Along the walls of the pantheon you will see fragments of headstones and khachkars that were saved when Khojivank was demolished.
It’s a sombre, sad place – not only because it’s a cemetery, but because of what it says about the legacy of Tbilisi’s Armenian community.
Where to eat near Sameba Cathedral
Here are a few of my favourite Georgian restaurants near Sameba.
Located on the grounds of the church, immediately to the left as you enter through the main gate, Lagidze Water is a great place to grab a drink and a quick bite. This cafe is a Tbilisi institution: The interior of the new venue is styled with old photos and reproductions of the beautiful Soviet-style mosaics that once graced the original cafe on Rustaveli Avenue (sadly, it is long gone).
Lagidze Water is a popular Georgian drink that was invented by a Kutaisi-born pharmacist in 1887. Order a glass from the fountain (natural flavours include pear, lemon and chocolate) plus a lobiani. The bean-filled bread is made in the Imeretian style and is absolutely one of the best in Tbilisi (trust me, I have tried almost all of them!).
- Location: Adjacent to the main entrance of Sameba (hours & info here on Facebook)
For something more substantial, this restaurant is located behind the church on Elia Hill. To get there, you should exit from the back of the church then cross the railway tracks. As you crest the hill, you get a very different view of the church.
Vakhtanguri’s has been serving chebureki (a deep-fried dough pocket filled with mushrooms, cheese or meat) since 1995. They recently moved to a new address, a home-kitchen with a lovely courtyard and a stylish dining room. Everything on the menu is delicious, and they have Black Lion beer on tap.
- Location: 28 Joneti Street (hours & info here on Facebook)
More things to do in Avlabari
There are several other points of interest in Avlabari that you can see before or after Sameba. My top picks are Karmir Avetaran, a partially destroyed Armenian Church, Queen Darejan’s Palace, Wine Rise, and of course Metekhi Church and Bridge.
Walk along Viktor Jorbenadze Street that runs perpendicular to the river and you will see lots of beautiful restored buildings. There is a watchtower at the top of the street with great river views.
The rest of Avlabari is all timeworn, tumbledown houses. There are some really unique and devastatingly beautiful buildings on the backstreets between the cathedral and the metro station. If you enjoy street photography, a walk around this district is a must.
Where to stay in Tbilisi
See my Tbilisi neighbourhood and accommodation guide for a detailed break-down of the different areas and options. Here are my top overall Tbilisi hotel recommendations:
TOP CHOICE: The House Hotel Old Tbilisi (⭐ 9.7). Located in the heart of Kala Old Town, this intimate 17-room hotel features turquoise balconies overlooking a typical Tbilisi courtyard. Complimentary breakfast is served at the onsite restaurant-bar, Blue Fox, while some of the city’s best restaurants are an easy stroll away.
BOUTIQUE: Communal Plekhanovi (⭐ 9.2). Located in my favourite Tbilisi neighbourhood, this boutique hotel is among the finest in the city. Rooms are thoughtfully decorated with modern art and antiques, and there’s a fantastic restaurant, a wine bar and a gift shop onsite.
MID-RANGE: Graphica Hotel (⭐ 9.2). Explore the lesser-travelled Avlabari neighbourhood when you stay at this chic boutique hotel. Graphica is footsteps from the metro for easy access to the rest of the city. Rooms feature work desks, and a complimentary breakfast is included.
BUDGET: Pushkin 10 Hostel (⭐ 9.2). Located footsteps from both Orbeliani Square (near the Dry Bridge Market) and Freedom Square, this popular hostel has bright dorms and private doubles. The breakfast room overlooks the city from its 3rd floor location.
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