Liberty, Order, Justice
Tunis, a vibrant modern capital city growing constantly in the shadow of its rich ancient history; beautiful, elegant, organised and safe yet often bypassed by the tourists seeking the resorts along the coast such as Sousse, Monastir or Djerba; however it really deserves a special mention and visit. This is a place where you will fill at times as if you were anywhere in France while at the turn of a street, in the middle of an Arabian Night tale, all in perfect harmony coexisting each others with care and respect. No wonder why Tunisia has gained its reputation as one of the most open and respectful country among the Arab world. A mosque, a Catholic church or a Synagogue on the same street? no problem, everyone is welcomed.
Having been a French colony, the architecture and language is clearly part of its heritage. French and Arab is understood and spoken across the nation, not so much with the English for what a little bit of French would help you going further and getting better deals when bargaining the shops of the bazaar in the Medina. While this is a maze of labyrinthine narrow streets completely filled with shops along both sides of the road, traditional Arab architecture in the mosques, houses, schools and palaces all of which now listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site; in the other hand, and side by side, is the Ville Nouvelle. The new city created by the French with planned tree-lined wide avenues and squares built with the architectural styles of that era. Expect to see mostly art-nouveau and art-deco.
Visiting the city, both the Medina and Ville Nouvelle is easy and straightforward. An entire day is generally a good calculation. Certainly less than that will be pointless to be honest, 2 days would be ideal, but any longer is unnecessary. Still, you need to include in your plans Carthage and Sidi Bou Said (explained later), and this means an extra day. Now if you ask me if the city and these places can all be visited in a weekend trip, then yes, but only if knowing how to move from a place to another without losing any time. But in a country where you can have some great beers and wine in nice bars (it is allowed to drink alcohol), with that many incredible coffee and shisha places, restaurants and shops, don’t rush this too much, 3 days is the ideal.
As for the ancient city of Carthage, the once capital city of the Phoenician Colony in the west, is sad to see how little of the bygone grandeur is left. However, that is not a legacy from the recent times, but goes as far as the Third Punic War (149–146 BC) when the Romans destroyed and captured it. Rebuilt afterwards, but succumbed in the many other occupations by civilizations and wars that followed through the centuries. It’s not much there to see if you’ve already been to other ancient Roman cities, but a great part of the history no doubt, with some imposing ruins of what was one of the largest baths ever built.
Not much farther ahead, north of Carthage, is perhaps the most beautiful image one can take from Tunisia. The idyllic white and blue village of Sidi Bou said. Located on top of a hill, with narrow bending streets heading towards the sea, all painted white and blue doors and fences. Almost every coffee place and restaurant offer a terrace on the roof from where you will enjoy marvellous views towards the main mosque’s minaret and the Mediterranean, the countless olive trees and colourful flowers everywhere.
In terms of food, there are plenty of places all over the city with very competitive prices and generally great quality. Grilled chicken, lamb, merguez sausages with vegetables; fish, hummus, tajine (different to the Moroccan in which is more like a quiche), of the very famous couscous, traditional Berber dish of semolina with meat, vegetables and cheek peas stew spooned over it. Aim for a couscous whenever you can, honestly, it is delicious, and also served on a beautiful multicoloured clay pot.
For further information about about Tunis visit Wikipedia or Wikitravel sites. Tunisia’s currency is the Tunisian Dinar (TND). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Tunis
- Medina An UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, making it one of the first sites to ever been listed. It’s a maze of little streets, all blue and white, where the main attraction are the souks with every business selling from souvenirs to real antiques, lamps, shishas, coffee shops, hostels. It occupies a large section of the city, and some sights include:
-Victory Square At the western end of Avenue de France, providing access to the Medina along the eastern side, the most beautiful. Surrounded by great architecture all around.
-Bab El Bahr The Sea Gate, which remains unchanged since its erection in 1848, the main highlight in Victory Square.
-Rue Jamaa Ez Zitouna One of the principal streets, connecting Victory Square with the Zaytouna Mosque towards the southwest. The market and shops align all the way.
-Rue de la Kasbah The other major street also starting by the Victory Square and terminating at the Place de la Kasbah at the southwest.
-El Habibi Mosque Few meters ahead on Rue de la Kasbah, built in 1926 with a nice courtyard.
-Episcopal Library The building adjacent to the Habibi Mosque, on the little alley Rue Sidi Saber than links Zitouna with Kasbah streets.
-Zitouna Mosque The largest mosque in Tunisia, this Aghlabite mosque dates back to the 8th century, although the distinctive square minaret is a much later 19th century addition. Modest dress is essential, but non-Muslims can only enter the courtyard (3 TND), not the mosque itself. It is open every day except Friday, from 08.00 am to 11.00 am.
-Mausoleum of Sidi Ben Arous In the little street that links Zitouna Mosque at the south and Hammouda Pacha Mosque at the north. Built in 1437 with a later restoration in 1654.
-Hammouda Pacha Mosque On Rue de la Kasbah. Another landmark construction, dating from 1655 in a Turkish style architecture.
-Chachia Souk Side by side with Hammouda Pacha Mosque, specialises in the production and trading of chachia, the boiled wool red colored men’s head-wear which is from Andalusian origin.
-Youssed Dey Mosque South behind the Chachia souk. Built in 1631.
-Dar el Bey Palace Built for Hammouda Pasha Bey El Mouradi in 1650, it is the home of the Prime Minister. Overlooks the Government Square.
-Kasbah Square West from the Government Square, it acts as a western edge of the Medina. Several governmental offices and ministries are around the area.
-Kasbah Mosque On the southeast corner of the square. Built in 1230, the second in the city after Zitouna.
-Farhat Hached Mausoleum Opposite the Kasbah Mosque, dedicated to the independence activist assassinated by a terrorist group on behalf of the French foreign intelligence.
-Kasbah Tower At the southwestern side of the square, some remains of the former city walls.
-Boulevard Bab Bnet – Rue Bab Souika The ring road along the western edge of the Medina is a nice treat of open space after the narrow alleys of the Medina. Along its way you will find some ministries and various other elegant constructions.
-Sidi Mahres Mosque Dating from 1692. At the northern tip of the Medina, by the confluence of Rue Bab Souika and Sidi Mehrez.
-Bab Saadoun Originally built in 1350 but replaced for the current one with three arches in 1881. Located at the far northwestern edge of the old town, not the Medina itself, by the metro station of the same name.
- Ville Nouvelle The new town built by the French east of the Medina, following an orthogonal grid of streets and main avenues is where you will find that colonial flair from the very Mediterranean architecture.
-Avenue Habib Bourguiba Crossing from north to south the new town, often referred as the Champs Elysees of Tunis due to the elegance of the colonial buildings aligning the wide and tree-lined boulevard.
-Clock Tower It became one of the symbols of new Tunis, located towards the east end of the avenue at a fountain-roundabout.
-Hotel Africa Of recent construction, it is one of the highest towers in the country. The vies from the top bar and restaurant are also some of the best.
-Théâtre Municipal The main opera house in the country, a beautiful piece of art-nouveau architecture.
-Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul This is the catholic cathedral of Tunis. Completed in 1897 in a mix of architectural styles.
-Place de Barcelone South of Avenue Habib Bourguiba is the major transport hub in the city, where the railway station is, several bus lines and the metro.
- Carthage The ancient Carthaginian city along the Mediterranean coast, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, captured by the Romans as they destroyed it in the 3rd Punic War and nowadays lying in ruins scattered through the new town, is one of the major sights when visiting Tunis. Getting there could not be easier by taking the metro from the train station located east of the Clock Tower. Now, if you follow my advice in order to follow an easy route, then get off at Carthage Byrsa station. From here, first walk towards the Punic Port and then to Byrsa Hill where the Acropolium is. After it head towards the Theatre, the Odeon, and then end up at the main sight of Carthage, the gigantic Antonine Baths, right by the sea.
- Sidi Bou Said Another of the major landmarks when visiting Tunis. The wonderful white and blue village perched from a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. Simply get lost though the streets, wander around the mosques, souk and squares; and have a delicious couscous and cold beer at any of the many restaurants. You can reach it right after Carthage, it’s only 3 stops away on the same metro line, and two stops before the end of the line, therefore there is no way of getting lost or missing your stop.
Tunis Carthage International Airport is the main gateway into the country, and very convenient to reach the city centre. Located at merely 8 kilometres to the north, is connected by frequent buses SNT 35 and 635 services running every 30 minutes at the cost of just 1 Dinar towards Tunis Marine train station on Avenue Habib Bourguiba. However taking a taxi in Tunis is extremely cheap too, and sometimes is not even worth to get on a bus if you carry some luggage with you or you are in a group of 3 or more. In that case do not hesitate in getting a taxi, which at an already inflated fare of 10 Dinar more or less to the city centre will drop you comfortably in no time.
Coming overland from elsewhere in the country is a good option. The road network is quite developed between the capital and the major cities, especially these along the coast and the main resorts, and so are the trains. International border crossing is also possible but requires of multiple checks, correct up-to-date visas where needed and long waits. Lastly, reaching Tunis by ferry is also possible from ports such as Palermo, Salermo, Trapani, Genoa and Marseille.
Within the city there are 4 metro lines. Let’s clarify this, not exactly an underground system, but a surface one more like a light rail and tram combined. The centre for all lines is Place de la République – Place de Barcelone. A single ride costs the ridiculous amount of 0.50 Dinar. Tickets need to be bought before you enter the train, at any of the vending machines at the stations, however after 21.00 pm the kiosks are closed and tickets are only available inside the trains. Buses do cover the entire city and metropolitan area, quite new and very reliable, it works as any other city in the world with defined bus stops where you can see the route maps and timetables.
Considering how compact the city is, and the distance in between the sights, there is really no need at all for taking any public transportation unless your accommodation is far. The only time you will need to take the metro would be when going towards Carthage and Sidi Bou said.
As the larger city in the country, principal place of arrival for tourists, major business centre in North Africa and the Arab World and one of the safest and most friendly open Muslim countries, the choice of hotels is quite large and good too. Majority of the Western chains have a property if not more here, and so the local and Arab chains. Considering you can get some great deals, do not hesitate in go for something of a higher class, after all, the price difference is not that acute as generally is anywhere else in the world. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Hotel Diplomat, at number 44 Avenue Hedi Chaker, nearest metro station Nelson Mandela. A great 4* property right in the heart of the city, walking distance to both the new city and the Medina hence the perfect location to enjoy sightseeing in comfort to the maximum. Recently renovated, it exceeded our original expectations in every sense. Very friendly and helpful staff, clean, comfortable and quiet rooms and great breakfast. We could not ask for for for our 3 days trip to be honest, highly recommended.
Album of the city of Tunis
Album of Carthage
Album of Sidi Bou Said