A modern metropolis in full growth and major historic city, Tunis is always full of surprises. On the side of the medina, numerous ancient buildings open their doors, some transformed into museums or cultural centres, others into restaurants and tea rooms. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, the medina conceals treasures. From its gates extend picturesque quarters with beautiful façades from the 1900s, whilst on the peripheries, chic restaurants and entertainment venues rub shoulders in the modern quarters.
What to see ?
Medina and Art Deco buildings
The ancient quarter of Tunis, the medina, is exceptionally well preserved. The souks, covered with arches let in a dim light, teeming and bustling and overflowing with all sorts of merchandise: fabrics of a thousand colours, perfumes or precious jewels. The contrast with the peaceful neighbouring alleys is striking. White walls and blue ironwork, vaulted passageways, domes with green tiles, yellow doors framed with delicate patterns in carved stone… Knowing how to meander is important to fully appreciate the diversity of the medina.
On the modern side, the neighbourhoods surrounding Bourguiba avenue have their own special charm. At the foot of the buildings in the Art Nouveau or Art Deco style, a lively crowd squeezes into popular cafes, fashion boutiques, tramways and the rows of palm and fig trees. Visit the Central Market overflowing with groceries. Drink a soda on a terrace admiring the carved façade of the Municipal Theatre, inaugurated in 1902, and the statue of Ibn Khaldoun, the great thinker born in Tunis in the 14th century.
What to do ?
Culture or trendy parties
In the medina of Tunis, you can visit remarkable monuments (see p. 22), see a photography exhibition in the Kheireddine Palace, hear a concert of Arab-Andalusian music in a former madrasah or attend the biennial contemporary art event Dream City. In the city centre, visit the cathedral in the Byzantine-Moorish style, always full of activity. Hear a classical music concert in the Municipal Theatre, built in 1902, or take a stroll in Belvedere park. Play a round of golf (two courses very close to Tunis) or take advantage of the proximity of Carthage Land theme park. For a trendy evening, pay a visit to the fashionable modern quarter, Berges du Lac, or to La Goulette, once a favourite place to stay for the Jews of Tunis. The sea is not far from the city centre: you will find find beaches and numerous activities at Borj Cedria and Ezzahra, 20 km away. History buffs, visit the archaeological site of Oudhna (25 km away). And not far from Tunis, enjoy all the attractions of the Coasts of Carthage (see p. 24).
What to eat ?
Kaftaji or seafood lasagna
In the souks of the medina, you will find delicious snacks for when you are peckish: the famous golden and crispy ‘brik a l’œuf’, the small fricassé sandwich, a plate of kaftaji (summer vegetables with egg, crushed and fried) or a bowl of lablabi (spicy chickpea soup). When taking a seat in a former palace or fondouk (caravansary) converted into a restaurant, you will taste the best of Tunisian gastronomy: couscous with grouper, quince and rosebuds; the stuffed vegetable dish fondouk el ghalla; marqa h’loua the sweet and savoury lamb stew simmered with prunes and almonds… For dessert, try the pistachio cream bouza or the pastries perfumed with rosewater. For a more modern atmosphere, pay a visit to the new quarter of Berges du Lac. There you can eat sushi, seafood lasagna or a steak with blue cheese sauce while contemplating Lake Tunis.
Where to sleep ?
International business hotel or medina guesthouse
In the city centre, in the new quarters or the heart of the medina, there is a wide range of choice. You could stay in a business hotel or an international palace. For a more romantic stay, choose a hotel in the 1920s style. By choosing a guesthouse in the medina, you will enter into the intimate atmosphere of the historic quarters of Tunisia: traditional cuisine, great restaurants and historical heritage. If you would like to enjoy the coast, you can find seaside hotels in Ezzahra and Borj Cedria, to the south of Tunis.
Sultans, Beys and medinas
Originally a small Berber city, Tunis gained in importance after the fall of its neighbour Carthage, until it became the capital of the country in the 11th century. Then, the Hafsid sultans, who reigned over a large part of the Maghreb, made it a jewel of a city by attracting the elite of Andalusia. After the Ottoman conquest, in the 16th century, Italian and Turkish influences gave a particular charm to the old quarters. In the medina, admire the Great Mosque Zitouna, from the 9th century, and the Turkish mosques decorated with marble. Visit the Tourbet el-Bey monument, which shelters the tombs of the Bey family, the elegant madrasahs from the 18th century, the palaces richly decorated with ceramic tiles and arabesques of carved plaster. Observe also the central souks, covered streets reserved for trade and crafts: jewellery, traditional embroidered dress and chéchia, the traditional red felt hats typical to Tunisia.
The Bardo Museum
The most fabulous exhibition of mosaics in the world is found in Tunis, in the former palace of the Beys, the Bardo, completely renovated and extended in 2012. This museum possesses a unique collection of Roman artifacts to which have been added artifacts from across Tunisia’s history, from ancient Carthage to the Ottoman era. In the entrance, in a well of light, let yourself be entranced by the immense mosaic displaying mythological scenes around the god Neptune’s chariot. Then contemplate the strange goddesses of Carthage, the Hellenistic works of art drawn up off the coast of Mahdia, the marble statues which adorned the Roman temples. You will also discover the Jewish heritage of Tunisia and the mysterious stone slabs showing Numidian deities. The Islamic art of Tunisia has pride of place: astrolabes, precious manuscripts, ceramic goblets, without forgetting the rich decoration of the palace itself. But above all, you will not get bored exploring one by one the countless masterpieces of the Tunisian mosaic artists, which were famous throughout the Roman world. Realistic, full of life and finely nuanced, these scenes tell of the adventures of Ulysses and of work in the fields, the amphitheatre games and the gods of Olympus… a fascinating journey through time.
Good to know
The light railway (tramway) serves the whole capital, but the taxi remains the most practical and inexpensive way to get around. The coastal resorts of southern Tunis (Ezzahra, Borj Cedria) are connected by train from the Central Station, and its northern suburbs, via the TGM train connecting Tunis-Marine station with La Goulette and La Marsa.
In the medina, you will find the most refined examples of Tunisian handicrafts: embroidered silk robes, chests and jewellery in engraved silver, or even chéchias, the traditional bonnets made of red felt, today available in every colour. The modern quarters have several shopping centres where major international brands rub shoulders with designer boutiques and artisanal creations.