Whenever western visitors step behind the remnants of the Iron Curtain, it’s natural to be curious about what life was like there once upon a time. We hear stories, read history books, listen to interviews, and watch films, but if you’re really curious about life in the USSR or another satellite country, it really helps to travel in this part of the world. Places like Chernobyl and Transnistria act like time capsules while getting out to the large cities and towns offers a chance to see how the nation’s past affects life today. In many post-Soviet and post-Communist countries, cities are full of vibrant youth scenes and public works projects, but there’s almost always a flea market or twelve where you can see a different side of life after the USSR. During my time in the city, I went to check out the Tbilisi flea market that seemed the most intriguing (it also happened to be right by my apartment): the Dry Bridge Market.
Arriving at the Dry Bridge Market
During my visit, I wandered up and down the booths, admiring the different offerings and figuring out how I would fit different items in my suitcase. While I ultimately gave up the dream of bringing home a samovar or vintage rug in my 48-liter backpack, I snapped a ton of photos so that I could at least remember some of the cooler items for sale. Here are my favorite photographs from my visit, plus tips for visiting flea markets in Tbilisi.
The name might be one of the best names for a flea market in the world. It’s two parts inspiration and two parts practicality. When I was putting together an informal list of places to see in Tbilisi, I had noted it. However, my actual time in Tbilisi was scatter-shot, and I didn’t accomplish half of what I wanted to while I was there. The afternoon that I stumbled across the market, I hadn’t even been planning on doing anything more than going to the grocery store. But I saw the first booth lined up on the river bridge, and a little kernel of an idea popped into my head: this might be the beginnings of a large market. At that point, I couldn’t tell, so I just kept walking, passing individual booths and seeing no end to the line.
After crossing the river, I finally saw the larger market unfold in front of me. Booth after booth was lined up on paths through the park run by folks who spend their days haggling with tourists. I saw everything from second-hand axes to used sunglasses to stacks of hubcaps. It seemed like this was the kind of market where people sell everything under the sun.
Soviet Memorabilia on Display
Of course, most tourists don’t come for the axes or for the silverware. While locals come down to get a bargain on practical items, and young Georgians love the booths of used vinyl records, tourists come for one main purpose: to pick up their very own Soviet memorabilia. There are booths full of old rubles, military medals, propaganda poster reprints (though you can sometimes find originals), flags, and anything else that’s survived the thirty years since perestroika.
Tourists who haggle well (and in Russian) can get the best deals, but don’t expect to pay what the locals do. At first, people find this concept a bit offensive, but keep in mind you’re not looking to buy the same kinds of items as locals, anyway. If you do end up purchasing a small sliver of Soviet history to take home with you, make sure to be respectful fo the people who sacrificed and suffered during the Soviet Union and in the years since.
There are also booths with t-shirts and other obviously reprinted and newer items with Soviet insignia. Expect there to be a lot of tourists no matter when you visit, but there will be more booths and more tourists there on the weekend than on the weekdays. The Dry Bridge Market has a reputation of being one of the coolest spots in the city, so its alternative goods don’t mean that it’s off-the-beaten-path anymore.
Beyond Soviet History
History lovers can come for more than just Soviet nostalgia. There are pre-Soviet items and pieces from all over the Caucasus and central Asia. You can find items made in the nineteenth century if you know where to look, just make sure you know what you’re looking at before you spend your Georgian lari on something that ends up being a knockoff. While this market has a reputation for being mostly second-hand only, conversations about provenance can easily get lost in translation.
The Art Market
Behind the booths of second-hand goods are fences full of local artwork. Mostly mass-produced for tourists, you can find interesting pieces if you look hard enough. Further, while my art collection is my favorite way to buy souvenirs when I travel, I think it’s still thrilling to get a piece that’s not necessarily unique but that would be impossible to get back home.
Working at the Market
The men and women who run booths there work hard. Keep this in mind when you negotiate with them. Most work at the market daily. I found that very few stopped to ask me to buy anything or were at all pushy. Since I was mainly taking photography, I really appreciated this. Every time I paused to observe tourists negotiating or interacting with the booth owners, they were always polite. While most workers do come every day, some booths are temporary when a local needs to make an extra buck quickly. In these cases, they’ll be selling you their own personal possession. Please make sure to be polite and to always avoid being “ugly American” when visiting!
The History of the Dry Bridge Market
During Soviet times, capitalism and commerce were illegal. Of course, there was always an underground black market scene, but this flea market is one of the legacies of perestroika. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgians needing to make ends meet came out to sell their own goods. Slowly the market became a permanent fixture and booths opened aimed at tourists. However, it’s always been a place for finding a Soviet trinket or other pieces of memorabilia from the USSR since these were some of the first things sold to foreigners when people started bringing things here to sell on their own.
Tbilisi Flea Market Tips
- To visit the Dry Bridge Market, head down daily from 10 am to 5 pm. If the weather is bad, the flea market may not be operating.
- Prices will probably be higher for tourists. That’s just a fact of travel in this part of the world, but haggling in Russian will most likely get you a discount on the price.
- Be polite! Some of the booths are locals needing to make ends meet and selling their own possessions.
- Bring cash! Vendors do not take credit cards. There is a Silk Road Bank atm right on the other side of the bridge. Note that these ATMs only take Visa and do not take Mastercard.
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