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Tunis - Sidi Bou Saïd harbour and beach    Carthage (c) Patrick Giraud

Tunis - medina spices

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FOLLOWING MAJOR ISLAMIST ATTACKS DURING 2015 AND 2016, , WE CURRENTLY DO NOT RECOMMEND A VISIT TO TUNISIA, WHERE A STATE OF EMERGENCY REMAINS IN FORCE.

A cosmopolitan mix of traditional Arabic and French colonial cultures gives the Tunisian capital its distinctive appeal. Along broad, sunlit city-centre avenues, edged with palm trees and flowers, there's sophisticated European-style shopping, yet take a turn into the twisting shady alleys and crowded passages of its Medina, or central Arab quarter, and you risk getting quickly lost in a charming but confusing different world. Just out of town, the picturesque, pleasant waterfront area Sidi Bou Saïd  is close to the important ancient site of Carthage. A short journey down the coast is the popular beach resort of Hammamet. Two other resorts, Sousse and Monastir, lie just beyond, while the busy commercial town of Sfax offers an insight into authentic Tunisian life.


 What, why, where

Tunis, the capital of Tunisia is set back from the Mediterranean coast on the Lake of Tunis in the extreme north of the country. It's by far the country's biggest city, with a population, including the suburbs, of about 4 million.
  Tunis has had continuous existence at least since the building of Carthage by the Phoenicians (7thC BC), and probably predated it as a Berber settlement by some centuries. In 146BC, the Romans destroyed ancient Carthage and rebuilt it as a Roman city.
  The 7th-century Arab invaders destroyed Roman Carthage and created the Muslim city of Tunis. It became a more or less autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century onwards. Its modern history is clear from the architectural divide. Tunis was taken by the French in 1881 and remained a French colonial city until 1956.
  The first president of an independent Tunisia was Habib Bourguiba, whose pro-Western autocratic rule continued until 1987, when he was displaced in a coup by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali who held an iron grip on the country until the 2011 Uprising - start of the Arab Spring.

 The 2011 Uprising and after

In January 2011, Tunisia led the way for the Arab Spring, with a huge popular revolt that overthrew the dictatorship of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. In its aftermath, the people of Egypt and other Arab countries were inspired to rise up against their autocratic rulers.
  Calm and order were restored to Tunisia within a few weeks. Democratic elections in October 2011 were won by 'moderate Islamist' party Ennahdha.  However, the turmoil was reignited in 2012, with further disturbances in 2013, including the murder of Opposition leaders. A new constitution was created in January 2014. Attempts to move towards democracy appeared to come to fruition following the parliamentary and presidential elections at the end of 2014, when Beji Caid Essebsi was elected president
with about 55% of the vote.
  The uprising and disturbances damaged tourism, with many tour
operators cancelling programmes, visitor numbers falling by 35% and tourism revenues down by 50% in 2011, followed by a modest recovery in 2012, which faltered after the disturbances in 2013 and continued to fall. 2014 saw a 4.5% increase in visitor numbers, but the hoped-for recovery was ended by further Islamist violence.
  In March 2015, in an attack on the Bardo Museum (see right), a large number of people, mainly foreign tourists, were taken hostage. 21 of them were killed and about 50 injured, at least one of them fatally. ISIL / Da'ish claimed responsibility. In June 2015, an Islamist gunman or gunmen killed 38 tourists, mainly British, at a beach resort 10km N of Sousse. No organisation claimed responsibility.
  In November 2015, when a suicide bomber attacked a police bus, a state of  emergency was declared which (at the time of writing) remains in force.
  In 2016, in March and May, Tunisian forces engaged in gun battles with Islamist fighters, including within the city of Tunis.

 Getting started

The city's main tourist office (ONTT) is at 1 Avenue Mohammed V, on the junction with Avenue Habib Bourguiba at Place 7 Novembre.
Tunisia Tourist Office website (UK)
Tunisia Tourist Office website (US)

More information For a detailed online guide to Tunisia - visit Tunisia Travel Planner.

 Compass points

The centre of Tunis is the western end of Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the broad main street of Tunis’ European-style colonial Ville Nouvelle or French City. Bab El Bhar is the main gateway into the Medina, the evocative, older central Arab district. Rue Jamaâ Ezzitouna, leads to the Medina's focal point, the historic Ez Zitouna mosque.

 Get the feel

The Medina, the historic Arabic district at the heart of the city, is an evocative warren of arcaded passages, alleys, crowded souks and tranquil courtyards, with mosques, mansions, open-fronted stores and traditional cafés.
  At the same time, Tunis is largely a modern administrative city, with embassies, government offices, French restaurants and smart boutiques in the streets of the Ville Nouvelle. Together with the large number of diplomatic staff and foreign officials and their families who reside in Tunis, this gives the city centre a cosmopolitan feel, with a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere.
  Despite this, there's no doubting the strongly Islamic base, with few unaccompanied women in streets or cafés, and muezzin calls to prayer five times a day.

 Getting around

The city centre is compact, and can easily be explored on foot. If you prefer to ride, or are heading to Carthage or Sidi Bou Said, the city and surroundings are served by frequent low-cost buses, trams and large numbers of inexpensive yellow taxis. Shared taxis, known as "louages", follow fixed routes and usually wait for a full load  before departing.

 Eating and drinking in Tunis

Eating and drinking in Tunis
In the Medina, pick up sugary or salty snacks as preferred from numerous stalls in the souks, or take a seat in the traditional inexpensive Arab eating places serving tasty local dishes like savoury fried fish, brik (a triangular pastry filled with egg, onion and herbs), and other filled filo pastries.
  Dar Belhadj, in a fine traditional house in Rue des Tamis between El Attarine et El Balgagia souks, is a beautiful place to sample good-quality traditional cooking.
  In the Ville Nouvelle, French, Arab and international cooking is found in brasseries, restaurants and hotel dining rooms, with plenty of salads and cous-cous (the North African speciality of meat with tender wheatgrains). Le Capitole is a popular spot with classic dishes on an inexpensive menu and good views of Avenue Habib Bourguiba.
  Alcohol is forbidden in Islam, so many places do not serve it. Nevertheless, good wines and beer are readily available in other establishments, including the Tunisian beer Celtia, Tunisian wines like Magon (red) or Thibar (white), as well as fiery Boukha, a local spirit distilled from figs. Locals, though, are more likely to sip soft drinks or traditional mint tea.

 Hotels in Tunis

Best places to stay in Tunis are the city centre or nearby seashore resorts which are almost suburbs of Tunis: there are 3, 4 and 5 star resort hotels at Gammarth and La Marsa.
In the appealing seafront village of Sidi Bou Saïd, the calm and beautiful blue-and-white Hotel Dar Said (www.darsaid.com.tn) is a traditional mansion with  patios, trees, comfortable rooms and its own hammam.
Good hotels in Tunis are mainly in the northern part of the Ville Nouvelle, or on the seafront at La Marsa north-east of the airport, such as top-of-the-range spa hotel The Residence, which also offers several good restaurants (www.theresidence.com). Among those located close to the Medina, is the rather dated 4-star Tunisia Palace (www.goldenyasmin.com).

 Must-see

 Medina 
Enter the Medina at the western end of Avenue Bourguiba. The crowded souks each have their speciality, best-known of them being the exotic and fascinating El Attarine Souk, the perfume market where scent fills the air. The heart of the Arab quarter is the 8th-century Ez Zitouna Mosque. Non-Moslems may only enter certain parts of the building. Visit its calm marble courtyard, enclosed  by arcades. 

 Carthage
Its ruins surviving in a magnificent  and evocative archaeological site on the edge of Tunis, the city of Carthage was founded by Phoenicians in the 9th century BC during the rule of Queen Dido or Elissa. It remained for centuries the most powerful city on the Mediterranean, especially under Hannibal (248-182 BC). There were frequent wars with Rome.
  In 146BC, the Romans finally conquered Carthage. They destroyed all the Phoenician buildings, rebuilding Carthage as a Roman city. In its final years the city became an outpost of Byzantium.
  Carthage was reduced to ruins by the Arabs in the Muslim Conquest of 698AD. The site's most impressive ancient structures date from the Roman period, notably vestiges of the oval amphitheatre and the basement area of the once-huge Antonine Baths.
  Among more recent buildings are the 19th-century St Louis Basilica, beside which the Carthage Museum displays a large and impressive collection of finds made on the site.
UNESCO Carthage webpage

 Sidi Bou Saïd
The pretty waterside town has a fresh, pristine feel - all its buildings are white with blue paintwork - and lovely views onto the Gulf of Tunis. It's close to the site of ancient Carthage, and has also become something of a leisure district for Tunis, with appealing cafés and restaurants. Classiest dining venue is Au Bon Vieux Temps, housed in a romantic and elegant mansion with masses of charm and superb views, offering excellent French and Tunisian cooking. Former customers include numerous presidents, tycoons and celebrities from around the world.

 Bardo Museum
The Bardo has astonishing, extensive collections of beautiful Phoenician and Roman sculpture and artworks of Tunisia’s Christian period, including what is said to be the world's largest collection of Roman mosaics, displayed in an imposing former palace in western Tunis.
www.bardomuseum.tn

 Further out of town 
Impressed by Carthage? Wait till you see Dougga, in a rural setting about 2hrs drive from Tunis. Its exceptionally well-preserved Phoenician, Roman and Byzantine ruins make it the most rewarding excursion from Tunis. It is described by UNESCO as "the best-preserved Roman small town in North Africa.”
  Just beyond the eastern edge of Tunis are the beaches of La Marsa and Gamarth, while a short drive south brings you to popular resorts on the sandy coast of Hammamet Bay. Tunisia also has top-quality golf courses, including two within easy reach of the capital, Carthage Golf Course and The Residence Golf Course.

 Entertainment and nightlife

Tunis nightlife is dominated by bars intended for an exclusively male clientele, often with strippers and similar entertainment. Respectable mixed bars and cafés along Avenue Habib Bourguiba and Avenue de Paris are lively until midnight, but many of these do not serve alcohol. The rooftop bar of the 1970s 'upmarket' El-Hana International Hotel on Avenue Bourguiba attracts a crowd of well-to-do locals, as well as foreigners, and has great views. Café de Paris is a popular central bar on the corner of Avenue Bourguiba and Avenue de Carthage.
  Tunis has a small but vibrant choice of European-style clubs and dance venues, like Calypso. Best way to find them is to ask locals.
  Take a taxi to nearby Sidi Bou Saïd to relax at a café with a nargilah (hookah, or waterpipe), or to the popular seaside resort of La Marsa for a relaxed late-evening cafés and a waterside stroll, or to visit one of the hotel nightclubs.  

 Shopping in Tunis

What to buy – Buy traditional arts and crafts at little shops and crowded souks, including leather goods, traditional perfumes, brass work, carvings of olive wood, Berber jewellery, traditional hand-made kilim rugs and fine filigree.

Best buy – Tunisia has long been known for high-quality weaving, tapestries and rugs. In the souks and in specialist stores, find ornate, top-quality hand-made traditional kilim (or kellim, klim, etc) and mergoum  rugs and mats, as well as richly coloured pile carpets and beautiful tapestries.

Where to buy – The souks are a network of alleys and lanes, each with its own speciality. Several surround Ez Zitouna Mosque. Souq El Attarine, closest to the mosque, is the famous perfume market.

 In the Know

Spring is the best season in Tunis, with warm dry weather and trees laden with blossom.
Haggling is de rigueur in the souks, and often in Western-style shops too.

 Events and festivals

Festival of the Medina
(2017 - CANCELLED)
A wide variety of Arabic and Western entertainment from classical music to cinema to such diversions as jugglers. Main venue is Tunis Municipal Theatre, but with several other venues around the medina.

Carthage International Festival
(2017 - CANCELLED)
Film, dance, jazz, world music and spectacular stage performances in the Roman amphitheatre at Carthage.
www.festivaldecarthage.com/

 Tunis basics

Where is Tunis?
In NE Tunisia, by the Mediterranean coast. 155km (105mi) from the Italian island of Sicily.
International phone dialling code:
+ 216 71 (+ drop initial 0 from local number)
Time zone:

GMT + 1 hour (all year: no Daylight Savings Time).
Money:

Tunisian Dinar (TD).

 Flights to Tunis

Flights to Tunis take just under 3 hours from the UK, 9 hours from New York. Flights arrive at Tunis-Carthage International Airport, on the city's north-east edge, about 7km (4mi) from the centre. Buses run every ten minutes and taxis meet all flights.
Tunis Airport - unofficial site


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 Tunis
Updated January 2017. All rights reserved worldwide.
Text © Focus Guides and Andrew Sanger.
Pictures: All pictures of Tunis and Sidi Bou Saïd ©, courtesy of Tunisian National Tourist Office; picture of Carthage © Patrick Giraud under Creative Commons Licence.
Permission to use: This guide may be freely PRINTED ONLY for personal non-commercial use. Unless a LICENCE has been obtained it may not, in whole or in part, be COPIED nor used for any COMMERCIAL purpose.
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