The medina is the first and only stop for most travellers; compare prices at a number of shops before deciding to buy, and try to bargain down the price with some good-natured haggling. Look out for babouches (traditional slippers), chechias (traditional felt hats), foutas (cotton bath towels), floral waters and essential oils.
What to Buy
Chechias are the small, red felt hats sported by older Tunisian men. The Souq de Chechias in the medina is the obvious place to look, and you’ll doubtless also get an interesting demonstration of how they are made – they start off as a loosely knitted, saggy white bag.
Copper & Brass
You’ll see people engraving beaten copper and brass items in the medina shops. Beaten plates make good souvenirs and can be anything from saucer to coffee-table sized.
Esparto Goods & Basketware
Rectangular, woven esparto baskets are practical and cheap. Some are pure tack, with pictures of camels and desert scenes, but there are plenty of other simple, elegantly rustic designs. Most esparto items come from Gabès and Djerba in the south.
You can also buy the attractive large baskets that local people use for going to the market and the straw hats that are worn by farm workers in rural areas.
Arabic gold jewellery is often extremely ornate, gem-encrusted and bound for blushing brides, but there is also plenty of budget-friendly silver folk jewellery on sale in the medina. A traditional Arabic motif is the Hand of Fatima (daughter of the Prophet) or khamsa, used in everything from small earrings to large neck pendants. In pre-Islamic times this same design represented Baal, the protector of the Carthaginians. It’s thought to ward off the evil eye (of envy), an enduring superstition. Other common motifs include the fish (huut) and the dove (hammama).
Traditional pieces you will come across include the hedeyed, wide engraved or filigreed bracelets made of gold or silver, and the kholkal, which are similar but worn around the ankle. In Carthaginian times kholkals were commonly worn to signify chastity; today they’re still a symbol of fidelity and are often part of a bride’s dowry. You’ll also see khlal brooches, made from silver, and usually a triangular or crescent shape with a pin; these are used to fasten clothes.
The quality of pure silver and gold jewellery can be established by the official stamps used to grade all work, and the quality of unstamped items is immediately suspect. The stamps in use are the horse’s head (the Carthaginian symbol for money and used to mark all 18-karat gold jewellery); the scorpion (all nine-karat gold jewellery); grape clusters (90% pure silver); and an African head, aka tête de nègre (80% or less pure silver).
There’s a huge variety of leather goods on sale in the medina, but check the quality, as often both the hide itself and stitching can be on the shoddy side.
Other articles for sale include traditional pieces such as camel and donkey saddles, water skins and pouches. Brightly coloured, supersoft babouches (slippers) make stylish and lightweight presents.
Oils & Perfume
Head to the Souq El Attarine to source essential oils, especially orange blossom and geranium.
Pottery & Ceramics
The medina is full of shops selling vividly glazed ceramics. Styles range from simple terracotta to bright Andalusian-style vases and tiling.
Rugs & Carpets
There are a few shops selling rugs in the medina – Rue Sidi Ben Arous is a good place to start your search.
Sand roses are a speciality of southern Tunisia, but are sold in many medina shops. They are formed of gypsum, which has dissolved from the sand and then crystallised into spectacular patterns that resemble flower petals.
These ubiquitous water pipes are a popular but bulky souvenir.