In Tunisia's capital, the term "living history" really does apply. Here, periods of conquest, trade and independence have woven into the city's fabric and culture a rich and complex flavor that becomes apparent wherever you explore.
Take the magnificent medieval medina, sidelined by the French after colonization but coming into its own in the 21st century, as boutique hotels open and arty cafes lure locals back to the neighborhoods their grandparents grew up in. And consider the historic settlement of Carthage, once colonized by Phoenicians and Romans but now the province of upwardly mobile locals, whose sophisticated lives play out among the ruins.
In some ways, these developments – and the optimism that is inspiring them – fly in the face of the economic downturn apparent elsewhere in the country. But Tunis has always been a resilient and forward-looking settlement, one that makes an excellent starting point for any exploration of Tunisia.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Tunis.
This sprawling maze of ancient streets and alleyways is one of the most impressive medieval medinas in North Africa and one of Tunisia's great treasures. It's home to numerous covered souqs selling everything from shoes to shisha pipes, as well as bustling cafes, back streets full of artisans at work and residential areas punctuated by grand, brightly painted doorways. Historic palaces, hammams, mosques and madrassas (schools for study of the Quran) are scattered throughout, many lavishly decorated with tiles, carved stucco and marble columns.
The main draw at the 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.
A medina highlight, this hugely atmospheric souq is filled with exquisitely decorated shops producing and selling c hechias, Tunisia's traditional blood-red felt caps. In the 17th century, when this souq was built, a million chechias were made annually by 15,000 craftsmen, sold locally and exported worldwide. Today, the 10 or so chaouachis working here produce the traditional Tunisian version as well as customised hats in a variety of colours and styles exported to North and West African countries.
Tunisian food markets offer a great introduction to local culture, and Tunis' Marché Centrale is particularly atmospheric. The original market building dates from 1891 and the halls behind are later additions. There are three distinct areas: an enormous fish hall where you can watch locally caught fish being theatrically weighed, gutted and scaled; a central hall where mounds of spicy harissa, tubs of plump olives and blocks of pungent cheese are sold; and a rear fruit and vegetable section.
The Romans chose a sublime seaside setting for this monumental terme (bath complex), a short walk downhill from the Roman villas. Begun under Hadrian and finished in the 2nd century AD under Antoninus, it was the largest terme outside Rome, supplied with water by the great Zaghouan aqueduct. Just the foundations remain, but they are awesome in scale. A plan of the baths above the main complex will help you imagine how the complex would have functioned in its heyday.
Located in the heart of Tunis' medina, this important mosque was founded in 734 and built on a site once occupied by a church. It was totally rebuilt in the 9th century and restored many times over the centuries, and its huge prayer hall incorporates more than 200 columns scrounged from Roman Carthage. Its Almohades-style minaret in the northwest corner is a medina landmark. Only Muslims may enter the mosque, though the courtyard can be viewed from the terrace of the Panorama Medina Cafe.
Once home to the Lasram family, who provided the beys with scribes, this magnificent building dates from the early 19th century and was one of the first historic mansions restored under the auspices of the Association de Sauvegarde de la Médina de Tunis, the offices of which are now based here. The interior features magnificent, richly tiled rooms and courtyards. A small collection of materials documenting the Association's work preserving the historic fabric of the medina is on display.
Join the local crowds flocking to this urban beach to escape the summer heat with a dip in the clear waters of the Med. In colder months, the sand becomes a playground for fishermen, footballers and romantics taking afternoon strolls along the shoreline. It might not be the cleanest of beaches, but the view to Gammarth is charming, and there are a number of decent cafes nearby.
Head up the exterior staircase to visit this impressive commercial gallery close to the train station in Sidi Bou Saïd. It gives contemporary Tunisian artists the chance to show their work in individual and group shows, and has a curatorial approach sitting comfortably on the cutting edge.