Tunis is a city of unexpected delights, hidden wonders, and layers of history. This small North African capital radiates a laid-back charm that belies the richness it contains.
Where else can you get lost in a twisted Medina, wander the sprawling ruins of ancient Carthage, sip strawberry juice by the sea in a whitewashed suburb that wouldn’t be out of place on a Greek island, and eat a cuisine flavored heartily with the hot pepper paste harissa? For a city of just over a million people, there’s a lot tantalizing textures to explore.
Your first stop in Tunis should be its old city Medina, a neighborhood of knotted streets and curlicue alleyways. Wandering through the labyrinthine Medina, it’s easy and pleasant to feel completely untethered from the modern world. The chatter and cry of men selling small vials of perfume or heavy olive wood cutting boards reverberate through the narrow streets, combining the local dialect of Tunisian Arabic with French, and occasionally Italian or English or Spanish. Haggling is expected, so don’t be afraid to drive a hard bargain for that perfect souvenir. Built in the 8th century, Zaytouna Mosque is the oldest mosque in Tunis. It anchors the Medina, and its sprawling courtyard offers space for contemplation before lunch.
Tunisian food is fresh and spicy, and best experienced in some of the historic mansions that dot the Medina. Dar El Djeld hides on a quiet residential street behind an ornate egg yolk-colored door, which opens to reveal an opulent 18th-century interior. Try their calamari couscous. Deeper in the mercantile section of the Medina is Fondouk el Attarine, where you can whet your sweet tooth with a bowl of zriga, a rose-flavored dessert with pistachios and cream.
Spend a long evening in the waterside neighborhood of La Goulette, a short cab ride away from the city center. This part of Tunis historically was home to some of the city’s Italian and Jewish residents, and wandering past the faded charm of beachfront cafés in the evening glow, it’s easy to imagine that you’re in an older version of the city. Pop into one of the neighborhood’s many fish restaurants and feast on the catch of the day, accompanied by a wide variety of Tunisian appetizers: that smoky-spicy harissa, salade tunisienne topped with a dollop of tuna, pomme fritte, and more.
Afterwards, wander down by the water, where old neon signs advertising tea and coffee bleed colors onto the sidewalks. Pull up a chair and try a cup of sweet mint tea with pine nuts and listen to the soft churning of the sea. If you prefer a livelier evening, swing by Tutu, a hip rooftop venue accessible through a shabby lobby. Don’t be deterred: this place pulses with electro-funk, hip hop, and an effortless cool.
You can spend a day or even two exploring Tunis’ northeast suburbs. Sidi Bou Said is easily accessible by cab or local train but feels like a different world. Perched on the hills above a turquoise sea, the buildings here are blinding white and trimmed with cerulean shutters. Combined with the wide cobblestone streets and bright bougainvillea blossoms cascading down walls, Sidi Bou Said feels like a vacation within the city. In 1914, Sidi Bou Said served as a creative spark to the painter Paul Klee, who was smitten with the clean colors of the coastal village. The best vantage point to soak in that inspiration is at Café Les Delices, where you can enjoy a sweeping view of the water framed by palm trees while sitting shaded under deep blue umbrellas, cooling off with fresh fruit juice or a cone of lemon ice cream. If you linger late in the day, you can catch one of Sidi Bou Said’s vibrant sunsets.
Near Sidi Bou Said lie the Phoenician and Roman ruins of Carthage. Sprawling out over a wide space, it’s easy to spend a day completely immersing yourself in the vastness of this ancient city. The modern city of Tunis is a distant memory surrounded by the peaceful quiet of Carthage. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Carthage was initially founded by the Phoenicians in the 9th century BC; after a series of wars left the city savaged, it was re-founded by the Romans and the current ruins are a jumble of layers left by the different empires that have laid claim to the place. Wander the vast Baths of Antoninus Pius, the largest remains of Roman baths in Africa. Imagine you’re walking ancient sidewalks in the Punic Quarter, perched near the water not far from the 19th-century Roman Catholic Saint Louis Cathedral of Carthage. The Roman Theater is not only well-preserved, but also hosts various festivals, including the Carthage Jazz Festival and the Carthage Film Festival.
Make sure to stop by the Carthage National Museum, which contains excavated material from the site, including statues and amphorae. Housed in a former monastery, the museum has signage in French, Arabic, and English and serves as a strong supplement to the ruins just outside its door.
Whether strolling the long tree-lined Bourguiba Avenue in the center of Tunis, past the crumbling splendor of the city’s French Colonial buildings and sprawling cafés or losing yourself in the tangle of the Medina or in the scope of history at Carthage, it’s hard to escape the vibrancy of this laid-back Mediterranean city. Like a dollop of the harissa that Tunisians love so much, this city packs a punch.