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 French quiche. Vegetarians aren't completely stuck, but non-fish eaters might find food on offer a bit bland. Having said that, there are plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, with home-grown olives, oranges, melons, tomatoes and dates.
- Language? French and Arabic. My school-level French got us by, and locals will appreciate the effort - pretty much everyone speaks French (not always to a high level), though Arabic is the first language. English speakers outside of the seaside resorts are rare, but if you stick to the coast you'll be ok. Tunisian Arabic is understood by other Magreb country natives, but it is a dialect. Arabic seems to be a massively dialectical language in general.
- What to take? A rucksack should be packed lightly, and this is a perfect country for travelling as light as possible. A few changes of clothes - shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops, a light top or thin jacket, the usual toiletries etc. A lot of sun-cream and anti-mosquito and -insect spray is essential - we were sometimes plagued. Phone cards are easily and cheaply purchased, and it's advisable to do so as costs will mount up if you use your foreign phone card here. An e-reader or tablet for books is a good idea. English bookshops are non-existent, but hotels will have plenty of romances, thrillers and pot-boilers lying around, left by previous guests.
Tunis - Medina
We gave ourselves three days to see Tunis (French Quarter, Medina and Bardo Museum) and its surrounds (La Goulette, Carthage and Sidi Bou Said). The first two days we used to get to know central Tunis - essentially, its walled medina, which is huge and maze-like, similar to most medinas - and then its more modern French quarter - less interesting, but with some striking Art nouveau buildings. We also made sure to see Bardo Museum, which should be high on anyone's itinerary - a collection of Roman mosaics larger than anywhere else in the world. We arrived around midday after a fairly painless journey from Kraków with Lufthansa involving one change in Frankfurt - five hours all told, and 300 Euros return. Our apartment in the medina (old city) of Tunis was great for the price - central, clean, and full of character. Taxis from the airport charge extortionate prices (don't they from airports everywhere?) and there's not much you can do about it. That's only relative to the general cost of them in Tunisia though. Try to beat them down to about 10 Euro if you can. Buses seem non-existent. Tunis medina, like medinas in all the major old cities in the Magreb (French-speaking north-west Africa, essentially Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) is an absolute maze, and it pays to hire an English-speaking guide to show you around it. We got one through our guest house, and didn't regret it. Some cities in Morocco are an absolute nightmare when it comes to exploring the old walled medinas (I'm thinking of Fez and Marrakesh in particular here) - you get accosted at every turn and hassled non-stop. Tunis is a refreshing change from that. Foreign visitors are pretty rare, and as a result, you're left pretty much alone and given time to breathe and appreciate the sights and sounds around you.
Every Arab city revolves around its medina or old town – and that’s no different in Tunis. Built in 698 A.D., the Tunis medina was one of the first Arabo-Muslim towns in the Magreb, and thus houses many must-sees for visitors. Chock-a-block full of crumbling buildings and alleyways winding in higgledy-piggledy routes, you’re bound to get lost once passing the main entrance gate of Bab el Bahr. Embrace the chaos of the souks, stumble onto the fabulous monumental relics, and take a breather in the lavish palaces on Sidi Brahim.
he following are the top places to see in Tunis Medina:
If an Arab city revolves around its medina, the medina revolves around its mosque. Unquestionably, the Zitouna Mosque pumps the blood through Tunis’ veins and has been doing so since 732 A.D. It is an architectural tour de force, consisting of a magnificent prayer hall (which is not open for non-Muslims), a tranquil courtyard and a rooftop with dazzling tile work to marvel at. A panoramic photo of the medina or a selfie with the city’s twinkling lights in the background make for a fun extra.
Mosque Sidi Youssef
The mosque is majestic inside and outside, and the surrounding neighborhood offers plenty to explore. The Sidi Youssef mosque was the first monument built with an octagonal-shaped minaret crowned by a circular balcony and a canopy, enabling the muezzin to perform his call to prayer without having to worry about rain. Very interesting history and a beautiful mosque.
Strolling down the souks
Wandering around in a souk or Arab market is a sensational experience for any Westerner. Whether looking for souvenirs, wanting to enjoy the atmosphere or just have a fun night out; the souks in Tunis will not disappoint you. Grouped according to craft, you can find tiny shops selling jewelry and perfume, wedding dresses, spices, carpets, fabric and leather wear. Smell the heap of vividly colored spices, taste the delicious makroud (truly divine local pastries), and have a chat with the friendly shopkeepers. So much more exciting than the local market at home.
Cafe Culture at El Ali
With a rooftop terrace overlooking the Zitouna Mosque, this cafe-resto has it all. A superb location in the heart of the medina, splendid traditional Tunisian food, charming staff serving citronnade and fresh smoothies, and a special iftar-menu during Ramadan. Inside, the library and sofas create a homely atmosphere in which you gladly sip of your super sweet mint tea. On top of that, El Ali is truly a cultured hide-out, with weekly musical soirées during which local bands, gnawa musicians and afro-Berber artists will get you shaking on swinging rhythms and catching tunes.
Bab El Bhar
This arch and the fountain in the square are very popular spaces for locals to hang out. There are several streets and alleys leading into the medina from here. Routes on the right are more for clothes/shoes, those on the left are more household items and touristy. Best advice is to plunge in and wander. You will get lost, but so what? When you've had enough ask for directions and somebody will be only too happy to guide you out for a couple of dinars.
We decided to set out a bit further from home having got our bearings a bit. Tunis isn't the most pedestrian-friendly city once you've left the traffic-free medina, so your best bet is to hail a taxi (easier said than done sometimes) and just zip around the sprawling 4 million plus city that way. The European style of the ville nouvelle (new town) is where French café culture sets the speed of the day, and sumptuous Belle Epoque architecture lines the ordered streets. A world away from the organic jumble of the medina, Tunis' ville nouvelle was developed during the French colonial era. Its main core is Avenue Habib Bourguiba - a magnificently wide avenue planted with palms and eucalyptus trees. The street heads eastwards, from just outside the medina on Place de l'Indépendance towards the harbor, in a dead straight line. The imposing St. Vincent de Paul Cathedral is the largest surviving building of Tunisia's French colonial period. Its bulky neo-Romanesque facade presides grandly over the north end of Place de l'Indépendance and at the time of construction in 1893, it was a monumental reminder of France's dominance over the country. Inside is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Architecture fans should check out the wonderful mix of colonial and post-colonial buildings along Avenue Habib Bourguiba, from the Modernist inverted pyramid of Hotel du Lac to the more genteel and grand European-style of the government buildings. At the intersection with Avenue Mohammed V, Place d'Afrique has a clock monument symbolizing Tunisia's modern era.
Outside of the center is one of the city's most important points of interest: The fabulous mosaic collection of the world-famous Bardo Museum. The world's most renowned mosaic collection resides in this opulent palace in Tunis. Along with Cairo's Egyptian Museum, the Bardo is one of North Africa's two top museum experiences. Inside, room after room exhibits gloriously intricate and still vibrantly fresh examples of mosaic art that have been unearthed from sites across the entirety of Tunisia. The Sousse Room, Odysseus Room, and Dougga Room have particularly impressive exhibits of this art form, but the entire collection is a treasury and is well worth an afternoon of browsing. The ground floor of the building holds some interesting non-mosaic exhibits with displays of the neo-Punic, Christian, and Islamic eras. The main draw at Tunisia's top museum is its magnificent collection of Roman mosaics. These provide a vibrant and fascinating portrait of ancient North African life. Also here is some equally magnificent Hellenistic and Punic statuary. The massive collection is housed in an imposing palace complex built under the Hafsids (1228–1574), and fortified and extended by the Ottomans in the 18th century. The original palace buildings now connect with a dramatic contemporary annexe, which has doubled the exhibition space. The Bardo is 4km northwest of the city centre. Take métro léger line 4 (0.5DT) to the Bardo stop, or opt for a taxi (around 5DT from Centre Ville).
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This blog is part of a series. To read the next part, about Carthage and Sidi Bou Said, go here.
To read a similar series on other destinations, go here: