Tunisia is an intoxicating place. Visitors can expect a vibrant blend of pristine, sandy beaches; warm, spice-filled air; and a rich ancient heritage. Phoenicians, Vandals, Byzantines, Spaniards, Turks, and the French have all left their mark, and there are eight UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country. It’s difficult to know where to start, so in this feature I’ve suggested some things to do in Tunisia if you want to sample the sights, sounds ands scents of the north African country.
I travelled to Tunisia on a press trip. The Tunisian National Tourist Office covered my expenses.
Tunisia: a country with links to Europe
Tunisia has traditionally been a magnet for Gallic bohemians. Colette, André Gide, Henri Matisse and Simone de Beauvoir all spent time in the country’s al fresco cafés. With French as one of Tunisia’s official languages, and a Mediterranean climate in the north, you might be forgiven for briefly thinking you’re in southern France.
And it’s not just France that the country evokes. Sicily lies just eighty miles to the north. Tunisia’s whitewashed towns are very similar to those you find in southern Italy.
But it’s the Arabic heritage that rings through the loudest, in Tunisia’s lively souks, spice-rich cuisine, and plethora of mosques.
If you only have a short time to experience the country, and are staying in the north, I would recommend the following things to do in Tunisia. They’re all based on my trip with Discover Tunisia.
Wander the streets of Sidi Bou Said
Tunisia’s known for its blue-and-white towns. Perhaps the most well-publicised example is Sidi Bou Said. A 20-minute drive from Tunis, the country’s capital, the pretty town attracts visitors from overseas, as well as well-to-do Tunisians. Its name means ‘the fire mountain’. It’s perched on a steep hilltop, with otherworldly views across the Gulf of Tunis to the twin peaks of Mount Bou Kornine. These mystical-looking mountains sit over the shimmering sea like a couple of Îles Flottantes.
Our walk through Sidi Bou Said
On our trip, our driver dropped us at the top of the town. We wandered down the narrow, cobbled streets of Sidi Bou Said to the town’s car park at the bottom of the hill. This gave us a chance to really take in the pretty lanes of whitewashed walls, whose gateways, doors, awnings and balustrades were all painted a uniform shade of regal blue.
The warm late September air carried the scent of jasmine, the national flower of Tunisia, and bougainvillea, which flowered everywhere.
The main streets were busy with sightseers, taking pictures of the town’s ornamental doors, and buying hammam towels, kaftans and fridge magnets. When we stepped away from the main drag, though, the streets were practically deserted. We just had the occasional passer-by and friendly stray cats to keep us company.
Things to do in Sidi Bou Said
Sidi Bou Said is home to several boutique hotels. You can read about some in this feature by My Travel Monkey. If you can, it’s worth staying in the small town itself, to experience the magic of the tranquil streets once all the coach-trip visitors have gone. If you only have a day to spend there, though, it’s worth putting these places on your list:
Built in the 1910s and 20s by the French-born artist, Baron Rudolph d’Erlanger, Dar Ennejma Ezzahra is a spectacular example of Maghrebi-Andalusian design. It’s nestled in a spot that allows for spectacular views across the Gulf of Tunis.
The palace’s five hectares of carefully tended grounds harbour cypress, eucalyptus, agave and prickly pears. Inside you’ll find high ceilings, marble floors, soaring columns and detailed archways, in cool, restful shades of earth, amber and rose.
The Baron was an enthusiastic collector of musical instruments, and Dar Ennejma Ezzahra is home to an internationally renowned collection of musical instruments from Asia, Europe and Africa.
When we visited, on a weekday in September, we had the place to ourselves.
Address: 8, Rue du o2 Mars 1934, 2026 Sidi Bou Said
Dar El Annabi
El Annabi is a museum set in a reconstructed 18th Century Tunisian house. It’s a popular venue for weddings and photo shoots. Visitors are welcome to take a glass of mint tea and wander the courtyards, summer room and rooftop terrace of this ornate dwelling. Waxwork figures in period costume help set the scene.
Address: 48 Rue Hédi Zarrouk, 2026 Sidi Bou Said
Café des Delices
We didn’t eat at Café des Delices, and I’ve noticed that online reviews are mixed. But the views over the Gulf of Tunis from the clifftop restaurant were exquisite.
Take your pick from the best beaches in Tunisia
With 900 miles of Mediterranean coastline, Tunisia is a top destination for beach-lovers. Many of the larger coastal hotels offer their guests a slice of private beach. This was the case with the two hotels we stayed in: Manar Resort Hotel, in Hammamet, and Ramada Plaza Tunis, in Cotes de Carthage. This was essentially an exceptionally nice airport hotel. But with its own section of beach, and a large outdoor pool with a bar and lots of canary-yellow parasols to lounge under, the Ramada went well beyond anything I’ve experienced on a pre-flight overnight stay.
Hammamet began as a sleepy fishing town, but it’s now one of Tunisia’s most thriving resorts. Hundreds of low-rise hotels overlook a 20km stretch of coast, where local families congregate on golden-white sand. On the edge of the medina, the 16th Century Hispano-Turkish Hammamet Fort overlooks the warm blue sea – and at its base are bustling restaurants. Despite its popularity, Hammamet didn’t feel crowded when we visited.
We didn’t have time to explore the rest of Tunisia’s beaches, but those in the sheltered Cap Bon area, near Nabeul, are credited with being the finest in the country. Also noteworthy are Gammarth and La Marsa, near Sidi Bou Said, and Sousse.
Have a thalassotherapy spa treatment
Hammams are a Tunisian custom dating back to the Roman era. Traditionally, Tunisian men and women would gather (on different days) in the hammam, a series of rooms with varying temperatures. These sauna and steam rooms were places to boost circulation, ease aches and pains, and have a good gossip. So spas run deep through the veins of Tunisian culture – and the thalasso spa is a relatively new incarnation.
Thalassotherapy treatments use seawater and marine-based plants like seaweed and algae. With its miles of coastline, Tunisia is well-placed to harness the healing properties of the sea, and its thalassotherapy spas (often located in luxury hotels) are among the best in the world, attracting celebrity spa-goers. The most recent high-profile visitor is French actor Gérard Depardieu.
Tunisia’s best thalassotherapy spas include at least one thalassotherapy pool (a saltwater pool that may direct jets of water to massage and heal aching limbs), a steam room and saunas, as well as massages and wraps involving mud, sea salts and nutrient-rich algae.
My thalasso treatment
In the Manar Hotel in the coastal resort of Hammamet, I tried a thalassotherapy treatment that included a seawater jacuzzi, a seaweed wrap (where I was covered in mud then bundled up to swelter inside clingfilm and a thick blanket), and a delectable massage. It was relaxing and energising at the same time – the perfect spa treatment.
Visit the Bardo Museum
Located in a renovated building on the site of the beautiful Hafside Dynasty Palace of the Beys of Tunis, the Bardo National Museum traces the story of ancient Tunisia. It’s feted as one of the must-see museums on the African continent. The calm interior houses many treasures, including glass Punic masks discovered on the site of Carthage, and furniture salvaged from the remains of a Roman ship, wrecked off the coast of Cape Africa.
The museum’s exceptional collection of ancient mosaics is the most impressive sight, though. It’s the world’s largest collection of Roman mosaics. Stretching metres up the high walls of the Bardo, the intricate patterns are surprisingly vibrant, considering some of them date as far back as the 2nd Century. They show scenes from myths and legends: Ulysses resisting the lure of the Sirens, Neptune with his sea creatures, and the Goddess Diana, shooting a deer. The Bardo’s mosaic collection also includes the only known depiction of the poet Virgil.
As you walk from room to room, looking up close to see the detail of the tiny squares embedded in their mortar, and then stepping back to take in the vast grandeur of the overall piece, it’s difficult not to be overawed at the artistry and labour that went into each mosaic. There are none of the interactive features that you find in many family-friendly museums in western Europe. But I imagine children would be interested in the huge, arresting pictures, and the mythical tales many of them represent.
Address: Avenue Mongi Slim – 2000 Le Bardo – Tunisia
Spend time in a souk
The souk is a traditional market that you find in Arabic-speaking countries. Some, like the ones in Tunis, are set inside the medina, the oldest part of the town. We didn’t have much time to explore Tunis Medina on this trip. What I did see of this historic quarter was a lively, bustling warren of narrow streets. Much of Tunis Medina is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A place where we did spend more time was Nabeul, the main city in the Cap Bon area. Famous for its harissa and its pottery, Nabeul was a vibrant town. We wandered under wide arches into a busy pedestrianised street: the souk of Nabeul.
Vespa scooters whipped past us every few minutes, and shopkeepers beckoned us in, to explore the dimly lit inside of their establishments. The items for sale ranged from colourful hammam towels, heaped 10-deep; dried scorpions, found in the Sahara Desert and preserved in display cases; and intricately patterned brass and metalware, which a craftsman inscribed in front of us.
We walked past stall after stall selling fragrant spices, with saffron and other treats available at bargain prices. Deeper inside the souk, families ate freshly cooked fish and sweet-smelling roasted peppers at plastic tables. Small cats and kittens danced around their feet, begging for scraps. The souk had a friendly, busy vibe, and was full of locals, doing their shopping and socialising.
Ceramics in Nabeul
A short distance from the souk, we visited a couple of shops selling ceramics. In Société L’Artisan, we watched artists at work, turning the plates, bowls and pots before they went into the kiln. Once fired, three people painted and gilded the ceramics. Then they were heaped into brightly-coloured piles on the cavernous shop floor.
Designs ranged from traditional serving dishes shaped into the Hand of Fatima, to more experimental shades and patterns. The artisans tested out their designs by trialling them in the souk. If a new pattern sold well, they would make more, to sell in the shop.
Eat delicious Tunisian food
Like its culture, the cuisine of Tunisia comes from a deliciously mixed heritage. Expect to find flavours of Arab, Jewish, Berber and Spanish cooking, as well as Turkish, Italian and French influences. Apart from breakfast, every meal I ate in Tunisia was served with harissa as a condiment. This thick paste made with chillies, garlic and olive oil is hot and flavoursome. Definitely not something for those who prefer their food to be bland rather than spicy.
Places to eat in Tunisia
We ate at two exquisite restaurants. The first, Chez Achour in Hammamet, was set in a courtyard with bougainvillea trailing over the walls. Our linen-dressed tables sat under the shade of fig trees.
This restaurant served deliciously fresh fish. You could choose to have the catch of the day grilled, or baked in a salt crust. I decided to eat pasta with squid, which was one of those simple dishes where the quality of the ingredients elevates it to something special. The pasta was perfectly al dente, and the squid was soft and tender.
My favourite part of this meal, though, was the brik I ate as a starter. Brik is a traditional Tunisian dish of egg (and sometimes tuna or mince), wrapped in a thin layer of fried pastry. My brik arrived with a wedge of lemon to squeeze on top. It was crisp and flavoursome – not the lightest of starters, but something I know I would enjoy eating over and over again.
Address: Chez Achour, Rue Ali Belhouane, Hammamet
Another place where we ate traditional food was Dar Belhadj, inside the Medina of Tunis. The restaurant was popular with large groups of family or friends. It was a real surprise to walk inside from a street that looked a little shabby, with crumbling walls, to find a grand, opulent room, with waiters impeccably dressed in suits.
We ate a starter of mezze similar to those you might find in Turkey – only zinged up with lashings of harissa. My main course was lamb so tender it fell off the bone, and the dessert was a custardy milk pudding, topped with a pretty sprinkling of chopped-up pistachios. Dar Belhadj is a genteel establishment where no alcohol is served, and a woman daubs rose water on the hands of guests as they leave.
Address: Dar Belhadj, 17 Rue des Tamis, La Médina Tunis
Other things to do in Tunisia
In our all-too-short two days, we only sampled a tiny fraction of all the incredible things to do in Tunisia. Other highlights I’d love to experience are the Roman amphitheatre of El Jem, the remains of ancient Carthage, which are widely considered the most important trading hub of the Ancient Mediterranean, and the island of Djerba Tunisia. The Star Wars films were partially shot in Tunisia, and several locations in Djerba, as well as other parts of southern Tunisia, might be recognisable to fans of the movie franchise.
Traveling to Tunisia from the UK: practical information
Flying to Tunisia
Holidays to Tunisia from the UK are good value at the moment, and relatively cheap flights to Tunisia run from several airports. It only takes around two and a half hours to fly to Tunisia from London, and during British Summer Time there’s no time difference between the two countries. We flew via Tunisair on a direct service from London Gatwick to Tunis. The flight cost included a meal and a nice mini-bottle of Tunisian wine.
Temperature in Tunisia
The temperature in Tunisia is typical of a Mediterranean climate in the north, and Saharan in the south. Temperatures along the coast reach highs of around 16/18 °C (61/64 °F) in winter and 32/33 °C (89/91 °F) in summer. The inland southern region can get very hot from June to September, with temperatures exceeding 40 °C (104 °F). Even in the north, inland areas like Tunis also get very hot in the summer. The country’s an excellent choice if you’re looking for some winter sunshine.
For information on injections for Tunisia, see the UK Foreign Office website.
Is it safe to travel to Tunisia?
When I asked on social media what people wanted to know about travelling to this part of the world, one question that came back a few times was, ‘is it safe to go to Tunisia?‘
Security in Tunisia
The state of security in the country has improved dramatically since the 2015 attacks. With elections underway, the country’s in a state of flux, so it’s best to get the most up-to-date information. You can see the current UK Foreign Office advice on travelling to Tunisia here.
When I visited Tunisia in September 2019, security was very tight. There were metal detectors, under-car mirrors, bag searches and armed security guards at the entrances to our hotels, the Bardo Museum, and the road leading into Sidi Bou Said. This reassuring level of security was similar to that in the tourist hotspots in my home town of London.
Gay and straight couples in Tunisia
It’s worth bearing in mind that exta-marital sex is still technically a criminal offence in Tunisia. So is homosexuality, although I was told that there is a strong LGBT civil society movement in Tunisia. You can see the UK Government’s advice for LGBT travellers here.
If you’re looking for some winter sun and would like to research more destinations, check out this feature on winter sun holidays.
Have you been on holiday to Tunisia? What would you recommend?
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