Had enough of expensive European cities? For the last six months we’ve been focussing on Tunisia as a family destination. The north African country is an intriguing blend of familiar and different; a land where African spice meets Mediterranean fruitfulness. In this advertising post, a collaboration with the Tunisian Tourist board and four other family travel bloggers, we launch a free e-book that guides you through the capital of Tunis and surrounding area. Here’s an extract from Tunisia Beyond the Beach. Download it in full if you are looking for somewhere new and exciting to travel in 2020…
Tunisia Beyond The Beach
Whatever the time of day or night, it’s colour that leads you down winding alleyways and welcomes you through ornately decorated open doors.
Blue, white and gold are the predominant colours of the coast, and the beaches have drawn tourists to this North African country for a century, to rest and unwind under the deep blue sea and sky.
But in our free e-book we take you beyond the coast and the sea, to places where personality and creativity shed light on the country and its culture. We take you to locations where you can almost touch the past and taste the future. We follow cats as they meander through the medina and camels as they pop up unexpectedly in the street.
Things to do in Tunis
We follow locals to their favourite bars and cafes, to find out what they like to eat and drink and see and do. And in an age of Instagram we follow the tourists to a steep coastal town where the selfie is elevated to an art form and capturing blue doors and windows is a mission. In this short guide to Tunis and the surrounding coast and countryside we explore the places where art is created, where food is made and shared, where history was born and continually changes, along with the people and the vibe.
See that beautiful door? Let’s open it and explore…
Welcome to Tunis
Two worlds sit side by side in the fascinating city of Tunis: the medieval medina and the modern metropolis. The Tunisian capital’s ninth-century medina is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is known as one of North Africa’s most impressive examples of a medieval medina.
At one time the medina had 17 gates and was enclosed by around five miles of walls, but these were destroyed by the French during the colonial era. The medina’s winding streets are home to covered souks selling handcrafted goods, workshops where artisans create traditional products, and grand residential buildings with colourful painted doors. Some of the historic buildings in the medina are now beautiful boutique hotels, making it an ideal base for exploring Tunis and the surrounding area.
Beyond the medina, the rest of the city has much to offer. The Bardo Museum is famous for its outstanding collection of Roman mosaics. Tree-lined Avenue Habib Bourguiba has a distinctly French feel, and its Théâtre Municipal is a classic Art Nouveau building. The vast 19th century Marché Central food market is the place to go for locally caught fish, spicy harissa, herbs and plants and of course for haggling and people-watching.
Vibrant Tunis is easy to reach from London, with direct daily three-hour flights by Tunisair making it a great option for a sunny city break.
Getting around Tunis
There’s plenty to do in the suburbs of Tunis, particularly to the east where the sea glistens and beckons visitors to relax in its turquoise hues.
The most popular area is Sidi Bou Said, an evocative town of blue and white which rivals any of the Greek islands in beauty. There are cafes, souvenir stalls and best of all the street sellers serving up hot bambalouni, the Tunisian doughnut that comes scalding hot and sprinkled with large sugar crystals. Down below the winding streets of the town, expensive yachts bob harmoniously in the harbour, making it the perfect place for a post-dinner stroll. It may be touristy but there’s something hypnotic about Sidi Bou Said.
The seaside town of La Marsa is much more down to earth and is the place for beachside promenades and coffee in the pretty little town centre. The cafes here are more rustic than Sidi Bou Said but packed full of charm and with friendly locals it’s a great place to while away an hour or two.
Carthage, further down the coast, comes with the weight of history and doesn’t disappoint. Walk across Roman mosaic tiled floors and weave around the bath houses where gladiators would have roamed. This is as atmospheric as historical sites come.
Finally Gammarth is full of vibrancy and packed with fantastic hotels and restaurants. With beachside bars and happy hours in full swing it’s the place to kick back and enjoy modern Tunisia’s fun side.
Discovering Tunisia with kids
No visit to Tunis is complete without discovering some local culture with the kids or without. Not just the country’s impressive sights but its food, its music, its traditions. You’ll stumble across plenty of authentic experiences as you explore but more than ever, Tunisians are introducing their cultural heritage to visitors with tours and activities.
Simply head to the 19th century Marché Central, the covered market just off Avenue de France, to soak up the sounds and smells as the city’s inhabitants do their shopping. Enjoy a musical chorus from the fishmongers touting their wares, the sight of glossy olives shining in oil or vibrant pink beans piled high, the scent of sweets and spices and the chat of friends catching up over mint tea.
Relaxing with the locals
There’s more of that friendly gossip in a hammam too, the traditional bath houses where after relaxing in the steam, you’re scrubbed until your skin squeaks, then massaged until you almost fall asleep.
Enjoy the Sunday soundtrack – whether you’re at an ancient temple or kicking back in a café or restaurant, Sunday is the time for family and music. Look out for musicians playing old favourites, spontaneous singing and bring your dancing shoes to join in with the locals.
Art and cookery at Dar Ben Gacem
Boutique hotel Dar Ben Gacem, converted from a 17th century house in the heart of the medina, specializes in cultural experiences for its guests – visit the last bookbinder in the historic souks and make your own notebook as a souvenir, or try your hand at Arabic calligraphy for example. Look out for the Arabic letters decorating the hotel’s rooms, all designed in a striking historic Arabic font which owner Leila is on a mission to repopularise.
And what’s more essential to a country’s heritage than its food? With cooking demos showcasing another side of Tunisian cuisine than the classic couscous and brik, you can hear tales of hunting down recipes from Tunisian grannies as well as ways to update them while chef and recipe-hunter Wajdi concocts some of the dishes to devour.
Food with a north Africa twist
Tomato pasta gets a North African twist with coriander, fresh fish is ‘cooked’ with wild lemons and smoked rosewater, earthy ghee joins quinces and bsissa, a spiced nutty olive oil paste among the other ingredients.
Or wander through the twisting cobbled alleys of the medina itself with a local architect, discovering the secret corners only the locals know, and overdosing on the gloriously bright studded doors.
Download our free Tunisia-Beyond-the-Beach-Ebook
Tunisia Beyond the Beach was written and produced by members of The Family Travel Collective in a paid collaboration with the Tunisian National Tourist Office.