Tunisia may be better known for its beach resorts, but Philip Sweeney finds lots to love in the capital city
Unlike neighbouring Egypt and Morocco, with the showcase cities of Cairo and Marrakech, Tunisia’s tourism has had a tendency to be focused on the beach – or at least, on sand. T hose not heading to its golden shores have trekked inland looking for desert adventure.
But Tunis is a pleasant and manageable city, not too large, with a relaxed and welcoming population, excellent food, and loads to see, including the northern seaside suburbs of ancient Carthage and pretty Sidi Bou Said. With a flight of just three hours, it’s an easy short break, or an add-on to a fly-and-flop holiday.
09.00: Start by tackling the Medina, the original heart of Muslim Tunis. It’s a mesh of narrow streets, mosques, libraries, government offices, baths, markets, and all the attributes of a medieval city, surrounding the great Zitouna mosque, which was built between the ninth and 19th centuries and in its heyday was a regional centre of Islam to rival Cairo’s Al Azhar university.
Around the mosque are the different crafts’ souks, with the perfumiers – the Souk El Attarine – and the cloth sellers – Souk El Kmach – the nearest. Haggle gently for an ornate mini flask of rose or orange flower essence, or a genuine tassled red Fez, headgear once de rigueur for any smart male Tunis dweller.
11.00: Emerging from the Bab el Bahr gateway of the Medina, beside the old British Embassy, walk up the tree-lined Avenue Habib Bourguiba past the white-pillared French Embassy, the Cathedral Saint Vincent de Paul and the elegant buildings of the European town, built outside the Medina in the late 19th century.Stop for coffee on the terrace of Le Grand Cafe du Theatre, adjoining the beautiful art nouveau National Theatre.
12.30: Shopping stop two. Tunisian wines are improving constantly, and a couple of bottles of Mornag, Coteaux de Carthage or Coteaux de Tebourba are worth taking home. Tunis airport duty-free is the most practical source, with a good selection, but also look in the Monoprix behind the French Embassy, and while you’re at it buy some dates, a box of pastries, and tubes of fiery Cap Bon harissa to flavour the couscous you’ll doubtless make when you get home.
13.15: For lunch, either take in one of the last old-style Franco-Tunisian family restaurants, L’Orient, or go for the medina atmosphere in Dar El Jeld. Order meat, as the rest of the 48 hours will be fishy. Try a gargoulette of lamb, which is oven-cooked slowly with vegetables and oil in a sealed terracotta container.
14.30: Time for serious culture. The Bardo museum, a 15-minute taxi ride from the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, recently reopened one of the world’s greatest collections of Roman mosaics after a massive refurbishment, and they are spectacular.
16.30: Take a taxi to the Berges du Lac, which is home to offices and new smart marble and glass shops, for a stroll and an ice cream and a look at the very latest stratum of the city’s evolution.
19.00: Take another taxi to the adjacent port area, the popular and bustling La Goulette, to stroll along the seafront boulevard and watch the fisherman on the beach, and the parallel Avenue Franklin Roosevelt. Choose a restaurant from the row of seafood places for dinner and tuck into one of the glories of Tunis cuisine, a savoury fish couscous, with chunks of firm white bream or bass, vegetables and a savoury russet sauce to soak into the bouillon-steamed orange grain.
La Sirene (cheap and bustling), La Victoire (more sedate but popular) or Le Cafe Vert (fashionable centre of Tunis’ esteemed Jewish gastronomic tradition) are all good bets.
09.00: Time to explore the string of seaside suburbs, via the excellent TGM train that connects them all from the terminus at the end of the Avenue Habib Bourguiba.
Start with Carthage, the rambling site containing the remains of the greatest Phoenician city of the ancient Mediterranean, and the Roman city that replaced it. Carthage Hannibal is the nearest station. Don’t miss the amphitheatre, the Antonine Thermal Baths, and, if you have time, the view from Byrsa Hill is beautiful.
11.30: Continue to La Marsa, a sizeable conurbation, where you’ll find embassies, fine villas, and a nice beach promenade. Have a light lunch at the famous Saf Saf cafe, which has a reputation for attracting intellectuals and literary talents.
14.00: Onwards again to Sidi Bou Said, the famous blue and white hillside village with bougainvillea-draped buildings. Stroll the pretty cobbled alleys, check out the small souk, avoiding the more egregiously tourist-trap stalls, and have a mint tea at the central Cafe des Nattes, a traditional Moorish coffee house, with rush mats and ledges to sit on, as opposed to the French-style tables and chairs.
17.00: Still in Sidi Bou Said, visit the house of painter and musicologist Baron d’Erlanger. It’s a stunning 1920s Moorish mansion overlooking the sparkling blue waters of the bay, built by a German banker and orientalist and still equipped with exquisite daybeds, ottomans and sumptuous fabrics.
19.30: Have dinner down by Sidi Bou Said’s marina, at the smart but casual Le Pirate on Avenue du President Kennedy, one of Tunis’ best purveyors of serious modern food. Go for fish again – the couscous is outstanding, or a plain grilled bass or bream served with a fried egg, sautéed potatoes and a few vegetables.
22.00: For a finale, sample the nightlife of Tunis’ young Bohemian crowd. The Kobet El Hawa is a crumbling 19th-century bathing pavilion built for the former Turkish governor, suspended over the sea at La Marsa. Entry is free; drink Celtia beer and dance to house or rock music depending on the evening.
Due to recent political events and civil unrest, check Foreign & Commonwealth Office advice before clients travel.
This is a community-moderated forum.
All post are the individual views of the respective commenter and are not the expressed views of Travel Weekly.
By posting your comments you agree to accept our Terms & Conditions.