31 December 2019 – Tunisia, the smallest country in North Africa, is diverse, from the seaside villages and cities of the coast to its agrarian heartland and the desert of the South. This article deals with Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia, Tunis, and its surrounding must-sees: Carthage, Sidi Bou Said, the Bardo Museum, the Medina... which, despite some magnificent sights, has escaped mass tourism as sun-seekers head to the coast resorts, often bypassing the cultural jewels of the capital.
Slightly larger than the US state of Georgia (or half the size of Germany) and 99% Muslim, Tunisia is in North Africa, sandwiched between two unstable behemoths: Algeria and Libya.
Its colonial history links it to France rather than Britain, which may be one of the reasons it's not that familiar to English-language travelers. In resort areas, for example, the second language tends to be French, given the number of French tourists, although English is increasingly spoken, especially among young people.
Tunisia has an illustrious history. Here's the capsule version: it was founded by Phoenicians and Carthage, whose magnificent ruins are near Tunis, was such a Mediterranean power it even rivalled Rome for a while. And lost. And was absorbed by Rome. And was conquered by Muslims, and integrated into the Ottoman Empire until the French decided to "protect" it. Tunisia finally became independent in 1956.
More recently, you may remember that Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring, which started when a young Tunisian set fire to himself, sparking protests across the Arab world.
Despite the emancipation of women, a robust legal system and many facets of Western society, there are plenty of conservative forces at work, and fundamentalists are a constant challenge. The country has suffered several terrorist attacks in the relatively recent past, with the deadliest year being 2015. That year saw three attacks: two in Tunis (including one at the popular Bardo Museum) and one in Sousse. Most recently, in 2019, two suicide bombers attacked the French Embassy in the heart of the city and Tunis feels uneasily peaceful.
But that doesn't mean Tunisia is unsafe: it just means that caution is required. Tunisia travel advice doesn't warn you to stay away. Even the US State Department, which tends to be overcautious, gives Tunisia a Level 2 rating: "Exercise Increased Caution". It does list some border areas near Libya or Algeria to avoid but otherwise, it's the usual sensible advice... watch out on the roads, avoid demonstrations and don't wander too far from from cities and resort areas. Frankly, the cities and resort areas are among Tunisia's loveliest sights.
Security in the capital has been ramped up, there are a few checkpoints on the roads and people pay more attention to their surroundings. Barricades block off automobile access to most government ministries and you can sense that people are cautious. But cautious doesn't mean scared.
Plenty of foreigners are visiting, while locals go about their lives. I spent two weeks in and around the capital, along the coastal resorts and visiting the rural interior. I was cautious but never felt unsafe, even when going out after dark on my own to eat in the evenings.
And I'm not alone. Visitors have returned since the initial terrorist scare and are enjoying what turned out to be an absolutely delightful city. That doesn't guarantee they won't happen again, but that is not guaranteed anywhere.
Without going far from the capital, you can swim in turquoise waters, explore Roman ruins, visit whitewashed villages and get lost in atmospheric Ottoman alleys.
That said, Tunis sightseeing is limited to a few sights - but these sights are worth every bit of the journey.
Some 20,000 people still live in the Medina of Tunis, the old medieval town. Cobbled alleys are lined with buildings built high because there was no room to expand within the old walls. That height also helps block out the torrid summer sun, which the houses are also built to survive.
Many of the houses are being restored, but unlike the Fez medina in Morocco, they're not often being sold to foreigners (although a few are being turned into hotels or guest houses).
Several noteworthy mosques are in this part of town, including the Al-Zeitouna Mosque (spelled in a variety of different ways, it means Mosque of the Olive), which is the oldest in the city. You can see it from above (the mosque itself is closed to foreigners) if you climb the stairs at the back of the Panorama Café, from where you can glimpse some of the 160 columns brought over from the ruins at Carthage to build it.
With tiles and marble floors and water recovery schemes, houses of the medina are kept cool in summer and warm in winter.
This was the elite section of town, where high Ottoman functionaries, judges and learned individuals once lived.
The Ottoman houses follow the same pattern. Some may be smaller and less ornate, but most houses have a reception room called skifa once you go through the front door, three tiled rooms (tiles were imported from Andalusia) that serve as connectors, or dribas, leading to a large central patio surrounded by bedrooms and living quarters.
The patios are far removed from the main door so that no one can look in and privacy is maintained. The patios are usually built on a slight incline and the ceilings are open so when it rains, water pours in and moves downhill, to be gathered in cisterns for washing and cooking. These patios aren't for sitting but are functional, for washing or storage or to have parties.
The interiors of wealthy houses are richly done up, with influences that reflect the many trade routes that led to Tunis. For example, the floors were always covered in marble, Italian Carrara for the rich and lesser marble for the more modest; chandeliers from Murano weren't uncommon; ceilings were either intricately painted or covered in plaster and marble dust carvings and mouldings.
A typical house I was able to visit, Dar Lasram, is now the headquarters of the Association for the Protection of the Tunis Medina.
Despite the ornateness of these houses, when the French arrived in 1881, they chose to build their large dwellings with exotic gardens outside the walls. The wealthy families of the medina followed suit and soon, they were enjoying the sea breezes rather than their old, dark homes. Eventually, migrants from the countryside took their place.
As is the case in other parts of the world, some ancient buildings were torn down to make way for new ones but today, safeguards are in place and the Medina is well protected. The one disconcerting feature is… car traffic. Of course people live here and have cars, but at times, when one pushes its way through, no amount of flattening yourself against a building will save you from being thumped by a rearview mirror!
One of the medina's most characteristic sights are the lovely doors you'll see everywhere you turn, and it's difficult to walk by without being tempted to take photos of every single one. Have a look and you'll see what I mean.
The designs on the doors are fascinating and each means something different: a fish for fertility, a crescent for Islam and so on.
Houses of the moneyed classes tended to have two doors: a larger one for people, and a smaller one, often around the corner, for animals and merchandise.
Interestingly, people didn't enter through the large double doors you see here. Notice the small cut-out door panels on the right − that's where people would come in, bending down, a sign of respect for the house they were entering.
Each door panel, the left and right, has its own door knocker: one for men, and one for women. They even have different knocking sounds! In this way residents would know who was calling, a man or a woman. If it was a man, the women of the house would have time to put on their headscarves or hide from the visitor.
Like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the old town is also home to a warren of covered commercial streets, to allow for shopping in any weather. The souks are miles long, and one wrong turn will have you going around in circles.
Getting your bearings isn't too difficult. From the Porte de France, an archway that was once the medina's entrance (and that all taxi drivers know), find the Rue de la Kasbah (Kasbah Street). And follow it to the end. You'll end up on the Place de la Kasbah, where many government ministries have set up shop in fabulous Ottoman buildings. You'll know you've arrived when you see a modern monument in the middle of a huge square, and plenty of barricades.
Traditional businesses still exist in the souk, from jewellers to woollen cap makers, but many have also closed as culture and mores change, and the need for such traditional items as head covers disappears. Some of the shops may be boarded up, but others have found renewed life as cafés, well frequented with the city’s youth.
Popular with visitors is the Souk des Chéchias, a chéchia being the woollen cap traditionally worn by men during Ottoman times. Some men still do wear them but it's increasingly rare, and the shops survive by exporting the caps to other Muslim countries. Back in their heyday, a million chéchias were made here each year. Now, some 50,000 are manufactured and many of the shops have closed. This is the part of town you'll want if you're in a shopping mood... Other souks are dedicated to perfumers, jewellers, curtains and carpets.
The medina is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site both because of its history and its many historical monuments - a quick stroll through and you'll see why.
You can visit the medina by wandering around on your own or picking up a map from the Tourist Office. I took the free GuruWalk medina tour (free to take, just tip at the end) and was thoroughly pleased with the guide's knowledge and helpfulness.
A great way to get a sense of a place and its people is to visit its food markets. The Marché Central (Central Market) in Tunis has a great feel to it, and the first thing you'll notice is the smell: fish. Tunis is by the water so that's not surprising, and you can choose fresh fish and have it cooked by one of several small stalls.
But as with most food markets, what catches the eye are the mounds of beautifully arranged fruit and vegetables, almost begging you to plump and squeeze.
Around the market you'll find plenty of other food shops and stalls, my personal favorite being a man selling fresh Tunisian bread near the entrance, just cooked and still warm.
If you're a lover of Roman mosaics, your eyes won't know where to look once you enter the Bardo Museum: the walls, the floors, every corner of every room seems to be papered with them. This museum houses one of the world's greatest collections of Roman mosaics.
There are plenty of other jewels － from marble and terracotta statues to Roman deities. Even without intimate knowledge of ancient history, you can wander in amazement and try to imagine what life might have been like when each of these pieces was painstakingly carved, hewn or cut.
The Bardo is Tunisia's top museum and in Africa it is second only to the Egyptian Museum. Most of its pieces come from nearby Carthage and other Punic and Roman ruins. The mosaics especially are so phenomenal the Bardo has built an international reputation on them. Some of them can be seen below.
Plan your visit before you go because the Bardo is made up of large rooms that lead to other rooms and unless you've mapped your visit, you'll probably overlook quite a bit.
Apart from its magnificent contents, the museum itself has an interesting history. It sits on the site of a military city of the same name, the site of magnificent palaces. In 1881, the French decided to 'protect' Tunisia and along the way restored and converted the Bardo palaces into exhibition halls to protect Tunisia's heritage and history. The Alaoui Museum, the Bardo's predecessor, was inaugurated in 1888 with great pomp and circumstance, renaming itself the Bardo at independence.
Seeing it today, it's hard to imagine the museum was the site of a gruesome attack only a few years ago, in 2015, when ISIS took tourists hostage and killed 22 people.
The ruins of Carthage may seem a little strange at first – they have a suburban feel because housing has been built around them, lovely villas belonging to politicians and diplomats (not to mention the Presidential Palace).
It's understandable, given its stunning views... but a bit disconcerting nonetheless.
Carthage was the capital of the once powerful Carthaginian empire, one of the wealthiest on the Mediterranean during the first millennium BC. Today, a few remnants of the mighty city are left, scattered along a patch of shore between Tunis and the Presidential Palace, which is clearly visible from the ruins.
According to legend, Carthage was founded by Queen Elissa (also known as Dido) to escape her brother, Pygmalion, the King of Tyre. It seems Pygmalion coveted her husband's wealth and had him killed to get his hands on the money. Dido threw her husband's wealth into the sea, to appease the spirits. Well, it turns out her husband had hidden the money elsewhere and all she threw into the water were bags of sand. Pygmalion was not amused and so Dido had to flee.
It is said she eventually arrived at the present site and asked local authorities for a small piece of land, one that would fit into the area covered by an oxhide. The crafty Dido then cut the hide into thin strips and joined them end to end: they covered the base of an entire hill, which became Carthage.
One day, the local king decided he wanted to take Dido as his wife but Dido wouldn't leave her beloved Carthage - she built a funeral pyre in honor of her late husband and threw herself upon her sword and into the pyre. She was deified, which is why she is often referred to as a goddess.
Walking through these ruins, feeling the soft Mediterranean breeze, one can image why she might never want to leave...
Whatever other blogs and guidebooks say, visiting Carthage is best done by hiring a taxi by the hour to go from site to site. The ruins are spread over several sites and getting from one entrance to another is complicated - and unmarked. A lot could be done to improve this and a taxi is an inexpensive alternative to frustration! Another comfortable way to visit Carthage is by taking a day tour from Tunis. While I like exploring on my own, this is one time a tour would have been welcome.
Carthage is a stone's throw from Tunis, a quick taxi ride for a few dollars. You can also take a local TGM train from Tunis Marine station (just beyond the clock tower), but the walk to the ruins is uphill and poorly marked, almost guaranteed to get you lost. The best is a combination: take the TGM to Carthage Hannibal, and from there try to hire a taxi for a couple of hours to ferry you around the various sites.
The coastline east of Tunis is dotted with a series of villages, one of which looks terribly familiar, so familiar you might think you're in Santorini, if only for a moment: brilliant white-domed buildings with deep turquoise trim, perfect white domes outlined against a dazzling sky and a limpid sea... but no, you're actually in Sidi Bou Said, a quick half-hour train ride from Tunis or 20 minutes by car (outside rush hour).
You can easily spend an afternoon here, or a day, or longer, enjoying not only the beauty but the history, which sets its founding in the 13th century with the arrival of a Muslim saint who gave his name to the village.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the village was a magnet to artists and writers, ranging from Simone de Beauvoir to Matisse and Klee.
Spend an hour strolling along the cobblestones and you'll understand why artists have found this village so attractive.
Here and there, behind the whitewashed buildings, you'll see a sea so blue you'll whip your sunglasses out, unable to look away. In the background, the muezzin sounds, carried by the breeze. Along the walls, bougainvillea tumbles, its bright pink flowers cutting through the bright white.
Stroll up and down the gentle hills of the village, stop at some of the stalls. They're not all tacky souvenirs or dresses and headscarves − you'll find plenty of quality metal work and art, and the ubiquitous blue and white bird cages that are so characteristic of Tunisia.
Get lost in the narrow, twisty streets but beware the unexpected arrival of a few cars that almost scrape the buildings. Somehow, the many kittens in the streets manage to dart away just in time. Many of the houses have been restored and now belong to wealthy business owners or politicians.
For the best views, keep walking uphill or stop at one of the restaurants that overlook the sea.
One of the intriguing sights in Sidi Bou Said is that of the so-called Tunisian House, which showcases a 'typical' Tunisian home. Built at the end of the 18th century, the house was redone for summer residency two centuries later so what you'll see is an older Arab-Muslim building with a mid-20th century feel - a bit odd, but interesting.
It is a house of contrasts, a kitchen with modern appliances but ancient tiles, the hallways and study walls lined with paintings and illustrations of ancestors. What makes it interesting is that this is not a static museum but a home that has been lived in, filled with memories and which has evolved much over time. I felt privileged to peek into the family prayer room and loved seeing the library with its collection of ancient books and manuscripts.
As is the case throughout Tunisia, the house has living quarters built around a central courtyard, with cool terraces surrounding it. However hot it might be under the summer sun, this is an area designed to provide coolness and shade and overflowing with flowers and plants.
Sidi Bou Said dates back to the 13th century and was named after a Muslim saint who came here to pray in peace, but it didn't look like this - white and blue - until the 1920s, after the Baron Rodolphe d'Erlanger, a French painter and musicologist, built his palace - Dar Ennejma Ezzhara (the ‘The Star of Venus’ or ‘Sparkling Star’) - on the edge of the sea.
The Baron, who moved here for his health, spent ten years building his Neo-Moorish retreat, which attracted artists and musicians from Europe and beyond.
Lovers of architecture will be treated to a mixture of Arabic and Art Nouveau building, a happy marriage that is both sober and whimsical. The palace belongs to the government now and has been beautifully restored after suffering some damage during World War II, when German soldiers moved in and did some damage.
It is filled with fabulous mouldings and mosaics, and a fascinating music museum.
Partly as a result of d'Erlanger's advocacy for preservation and beautification of the village, it came under UNESCO's protection as a World Heritage Site.
Food and coffee are two things you won't have any trouble finding.
Tunisian food itself may be familiar if you've had couscous in Morocco, because I couldn't find much difference between the two.
The most ubiquitous dish will often be brik, a light pastry that encloses an egg yolk and tuna, shrimp or cheese, all of them much beloved by locals whose eyes light up when you ask for one.
The other most common dish is salad, not surprising in a city with an excellent market. Tunisian salad is a regular salad with added tuna and egg, and mechouia salad (my favorite), a spicy mixture of chopped peppers and tomatoes, mixed liberally with onions and garlic. Can be hot!
Like all Middle Eastern countries, Tunisians love their sweets and pastries. Many traditional sweets look like their regional counterparts from other countries, but you'll also find plenty of pastries inspired by the French presence, although Tunisians tend to use significantly more sugar.
You'll find every coffee under the sun, and if you want something longer than an espresso but not watery like a Starbucks, ask for an Americano. One of the nicest things to do is sit in a café in Sidi Bou Said or La Marsa a little further along the coast, sipping a coffee on a rooftop terrace, watching the sea below.
Visiting Tunis and its surroundings will be fascinating and an opportunity to experience a corner of the Maghreb with which you may not be familiar yet. Here are a few more Tunisia travel tips because the country may be lovely but it's not perfect...
There is much more to see in Tunisia than the capital region and if you have the chance, stay longer and visit some of these other memorable sights:
I've left out many equally excellent sights, Roman ruins, film locations and other fascinating places, but you'll have to discover them for yourself.