Lonely Planet Local Erin Harvey moved to Tunis two years ago and has relished the relaxed pace of life and the many sunny days, which are perfect for taking advantage of the bountiful local beaches. Full of culture set to a perfect Mediterranean backdrop, Tunis still feels undiscovered by mass tourism. She loves everything Tunis has to offer, from shopping in the ancient medina to secret concerts and dancing until dawn. With scented jasmine- and bougainvillea-lined streets, it’s hard not to fall in love with this picturesque city.

White and blue architecture in Sidi Bou Saïd, Tunis, Tunisia © Yoshio Tomii / Getty Images
Relax in the white-and-blue cafes with stunning views in Sidi Bou Saïd © Yoshio Tomii / Getty Images

When I have friends in town… I like to show them the ancient medina, with its winding alleyways. One of my favourite spots is the secret roof terrace at Ed Dar next to the Grand Mosque. Other options are the beautiful views from the ruins of Carthage and the floral hills of Sidi Bou Saïd. The courtyard at Villa Bleue is stunning for an aperitif. There are usually small artisanal markets held each weekend selling eclectic handicrafts from local creators. For a break, I love going to Café Le Saf Saf for a pine nut mint tea and a spot of people-watching. Sunset at The Cliff restaurant on the edge of the sea is a must on a warm summer's evening, and I’ll always save a day for a picnic on La Marsa Beach or Amilcar Beach with deli food from the delicious Les Ravioli D’Anny.

On horseback on the beach in Gammarth, Tunis, Tunisia © Erin Harvey / Lonely Planet
Weekend views along the beach in Gammarth, Tunis © Erin Harvey / Lonely Planet

A typical weekend involves... lots of sport and socialising. I start the weekend with a game of tennis after work on a Friday followed by aerial yoga or sunset beach yoga and catching up with friends somewhere like La CuisineNippon or Café Takina. Saturday starts early on horseback with show jumping training or galloping on the beach. Saturday evenings start out chilled with low-key drinks at Jobi or the newly reopened Villa Les Palmas, but often end up with dancing at Wax BarCarpe Diem or Boeuf Sur Le Toit. On Sunday mornings, I’ll cycle or run via my favourite viewpoint from Gammarth that looks across the coastal suburbs, and then I head to the bustling fruit and vegetable market in La Marsa to stock up on local seasonal produce for the week ahead.

When I want culture… I head to Sidi Bou Saïd for some gallery hopping. The galleries are small but have great exhibitions from renowned regional artists; Ghaya Gallery and Gallerie Saladin are favourites of mine. Places like Café Cultural Liber’The and CineMadart are at the forefront of showcasing Tunisian films that explore some boundary-pushing topics and usually host seminars with the directors. Live music plays a big part in Tunisian society, and experiencing it in one of the old Roman amphitheatres or Tahar Hadid in the medina is really special. Sofa Sounds recently started in Tunisia and is the perfect way to spend a Sunday evening. Each month they use a different location around Tunis (including people’s homes) to showcase up and coming local musicians.

CouCou Dream Beach, Ghar El Melh, Tunisia © Erin Harvey / Lonely Planet
It's easy to escape the city and head for a stretch of private beach © Erin Harvey / Lonely Planet

When I want to get out of the city… I explore the whole country. I love the greenery of Zaghouan and Testour, and finding lesser known Roman or Berber ruins such as the abandoned town of Zriba. In summer, I either head north to Raf Raf or southeast to Cap Bon most weekends. There’s a tiny peninsula of private beach just off the coast of Ghar El Melh with four shack restaurants, which you're spirited over to in a small boat. My favourite is CouCou Dream Beach. It’s such a great place to completely chill, eat well and rock in a hammock at the calm water's edge.

Picturesque alleys in the medina of Tunis ©  Kelly Cheng Travel Photography / Getty Images
Get lost in the picturesque alleys in the medina of Tunis ©  Kelly Cheng Travel Photography / Getty Images

When I’m in the mood to shop… I head to one of the many concept stores such as XYZ or Super Souk to check out what’s new from local homeware and clothing designers. I love Lyoum for slogan t-shirts with a Tunisian twist, and I get interior design inspiration from Rock the Kasbah’s showroom. I’m crazy for Tunisian kilim rugs and Berber weaving; the owner of tiny Gallerie Yasmine – tucked away behind the main thoroughfare in Sidi Bou Saïd – keeps an eye out for designs I may like, and I go to Holya in Sidi Daoud for made-to-order rugs. Sadika in Gammarth is part hand-blown glass atelier and part art gallery and is wholly fantastic value for money. I take fouta towels, pottery and glassware back to the UK as gifts. 

Makhroud is a traditional Tunisian sweet made from pastry stuffed with dates and deep fried © Kelly Cheng / Getty Images
Makhroud is a traditional Tunisian sweet made from pastry stuffed with dates and deep fried © Kelly Cheng / Getty Images

Make sure to eat… makhroud. Half a kilo of these sweets (dates or figs wrapped in a semolina pastry) are just a few dinars in the medina, and they are dangerously moreish. I am obsessed with dates and have to keep a supply of pistachio-filled ones from Deyma. The bambalouni (fried doughnuts) in Sidi Bou Saïd are ridiculously cheap (and sugary). In restaurants, try mechouia (a spread made with roasted peppers, tomato, onion and garlic) as a starter alongside local flatbread with Tunisian olive oil and spicy harissa. Les Terroirs de Tunisie makes the best harissa with variations such as added ginger or rosemary.

During Ramadan…the whole city changes. Between 6pm and 8pm, it is so silent that you can hear a pin drop as people enjoy iftar meals to break the day's fast, but by 10pm, a carnival atmosphere takes over. La Marsa Corniche is busy until the early hours, and all the cafes are bursting full. The roads go from empty to gridlock in a matter of minutes. During the last two weeks of Ramadan, the medina comes alive at night with lots of live music and special exhibitions and events.

Erin shopping for traditional carpets in Sidi Bou Saïd © Erin Harvey / Lonely Planet
Erin shopping for traditional carpets in Sidi Bou Saïd © Erin Harvey / Lonely Planet

One thing that surprised me about Tunis is… how fun and cool it is! I think people have misconceptions that it’s all camels and couscous, but it’s a sophisticated, relaxed city with a big Mediterranean influence and buzzing nightlife. For me, it’s incredibly unique in North Africa. Pasta is definitely more popular than couscous, and there’s a great vibe and open-minded attitude amongst the people here.

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