Tunisia in a Month (Part 1): Overview & Tunis
Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Is it Safe?
The idea of going to Tunisia is one that I had been mulling over for a while - in fact probably more than a decade. The events of 2011, when a man who self-immolated in Tunis and set off the Arab Spring' and of 2015, when 97 people were murdered in two separate attacks which took place in Sousse and Tunis' Bardo Museum, were at the back of my mind, although the UK travel advisory in early 2018 had cleared the majority of the country as 'safe' to travel in, reassured by Tunisian security service's efforts to fight ISIS and Islamic extremism in the country. That didn't stop anyone I told I was going to Tunisia from inquiring whether it was safe for travel - the consequences of such a spectacular attack are felt for years after. I expected tourist numbers to be down of course - and for prices to be reasonable, given that the Tunisian Dinar has lost 30% of its value in the last three years; what I was less sure of was the reception that we'd be given in the country, and how easy it would be to travel around. Moreover, Tunisia is a country which has a rather one-dimensional image of itself as a tourist destination. It sells itself as a cut-price Mediterranean destination for families, where purpose-built holiday resorts along the coast are by far the most common option for foreign visitors. Unlike its Maghreb near-neighbour Morocco, which has long been a shangri-la for backpackers, Tunisia is not on most budget or independent travellers' itineraries. In a way, it's a country hiding in plain sight; there are hundreds of kilometres of prisitine coastline of course - much of which has evaded development and commercialization. But there is so much more to it too, from the fascinating cities of Tunis and Kairouan, where you can get a flavour of North African Islamic influences, to mountain villages like Matmata where you can see troglodyte dwellings built into the ground (made famous by Star Wars of course) and the Berber villages of the south with their incredible Ksour - Berber fortified granary buildings. Not to mention a wealth of Roman and Punic remains such as there are to be found at El Djem and Dougga and those miles and miles of coastline to be savoured at well-known places like Djerba, Hammamet and less-well ones such as Mahdia, Bizerte and Tabarka. I hoped that one positive effect of recent political events would be that such sites would not be overwhelmed with tourists as they are in some other parts of the Mediterranean. In that respect I wasn't to be disappointed. What I found was a country really struggling to get back on its feet, economically and psychologically after the events of 2011 and 2015 respectively, but which was showing resilience and a determination to get back to what it was: a relatively thriving, comparatively liberal, North African country which welcomes visitors and offers adventurous budget travellers plenty.
In this series of blogs, I aim to answer the question of what it means to travel in this beautiful, largely-ignored country, and to encourage adventurous travellers to go. I'm going to forego the usual personal blog style for a more practical guide of what we did and how we did it in a month. Here are a few basics before I start.
- Where? Our itinerary took us around the majority of the country's sights in four weeks, allowing us to travel comfortably around it without ever feeling rushed, and plenty of time to relax. Our itinerary took us to the following places in a month: Tunis, Bizerte, Tabarka, Le Kef, Kairouan, Monastir, Mahdia, Kerkennah Islands, Jerba, Matmata, The Ksour around Medenine, Douz, Tozeur and Hammamet.
- When? We travelled there in the month of September 2018. This is a good month to travel - still warm (indeed hot, at times too much, especially in the south and west desert regions), but without the scorching, unbearable heat of July and August. Temperatures were uniformly between 25-35 degrees the whole time, cooling down obviously towards the end of the month. We had one day of very light rain. Resorts were generally quiet at this time, although even in peak months right now over-crowding isn't a problem. April to June and October to November would also be a good time to visit, when crowds are thin and sunshine still abundant.
- Sleeping? We stayed at budget-end hotels, guesthouses and the odd Airbnb.com place. However, both it and Booking.com were surprisingly unhelpful in this Francophone country - presumably people advertise on alternative French sites. Quality was reasonable, if not top end. Our average budget on a long trip rarely exceeds about 20 Euro each per night, and for that price you can do reasonably well. Except a good-sized apartment room, occasional sea views and small luxuries like fridges and TVs in your room at that rate. as an independent traveller, you needn't worry too much about the zones touristiques, or tourist areas, which the package holiday tourists are shunted into. They usually occupy areas on the edge of coastal resort towns, and can be avoided completely most of the time. If you do venture to them, expect exclusive, purpose-built hotel complexes which resemble small towns, full of over-priced shops and restaurants with private beaches and little local culture.
- Transport? We travelled by public buses, trains and taxis. Buses are relatively good - cheap, frequent, normally on time and safe. They also run to almost all places of tourist interest. Trains are less useful, and are only much good if you're travelling down the coast from Tunis to Hammamet, Sousse, Sfax and Jerba. Taxis, in cities, are a godsend. They are incredibly good value - about as cheap as I've seen anywhere, and I've been to some pretty inexpensive places - you'll rarely spend more than a few Euro, even on a cross-city trip.
- Money/Prices? The Tunisian currency is the Tunisian Dinar. You are best off bringing some Dollars to change in emergency, but cash points are in all but the smallest towns or villages so no problem with a regular bank card. Rates are favourable and commission isn't charged, so the more foreign currency you bring to change, the better. Prices are low. You could get by on about twenty Euros a day if you were a true scrimper, but most budget travellers would pay around 30-50 Euros with a few luxuries like 2-3 meals out a day, taxis, museums, and the odd bottle of wine..
- Alcohol? Speaking of which, one of our worries before going was whether there would be any of that available. Thankfully, Tunisia is more relaxed than Morocco for example, and there are bars in most towns and cities where you can purchase alcoholic drinks, not at extortionate prices. Tunisia produces some decent wines (especially dry reds) of its own, and it is available to buy, usually at French-run stores like Carrefour - at restricted times of the day such as 6-9pm, and not on religious days. Beer is not a world-beater - Celtia is the main, and often only, brand available, and is predictably bland. Don't expect craft beers here. Spirits are also drunk, especially boukha - a distilled drink made from figs that is probably best avoided.
- Food? Tunisian food is not as imaginative and flavourful as Morocco, but better, on the whole than Egypt - subjectively speaking. It's strong on seafood, including shellfish and plenty of sea fish. Cous cous is popular, and can be excellent with lamb. 'Tagine' here has a separate meaning to Morocco - it's a kind of flaky pastry with cheese and spinach, like a cross between Balkan borek and F