Mixing the flavours and vibe of the Med with the character and spice of North Africa, Tunisia is a great escape for a long weekend or short break. While it’s always been a favourite of the package holiday tourist, it’s not all about sea, sand and all-inclusive sunshine deals. If you base yourself in and around Tunis, you can enjoy a long weekend as varied as they come. After visiting Tunis, Sidi Bou Said and Carthage recently, here’s my advertising post for a weekend in Tunis and the surrounding area…
Weekend in Tunis: Saturday 10am: Explore light at Sadika Keskes glass gallery
I am in a gallery filled with glass blocks. They gently bob, side by side, and to and fro. Beyond the glass blocks is the artist’s whitewashed home and art centre, and beyond this, a street, where camels gently sway, side by side, to and fro, navigating the traffic on their way back from the beach. Beyond this, a sandy bar with swings, where young people gently rock, side by side, to and fro, watching the tide come and go, and the day, and later the night, unfold.
Catching the history of light
Everywhere is filled with gentle movement and everywhere is filled with light. A bright, smile-forming, sun-warming light. There could hardly be a warmer welcome to this North African country, which is reaching out to embrace visitors after terror incidents several years ago made an impact on its tourism.
“I am catching the history of the light,” says glass blower Sadika Keskes. Sadika’s aim is to show the architecture of light to strangers from far and wide. She is currently redeveloping her arts centre to include a café overlooking the glass blowing workshop. But it’s not all for the tourists.
“What light you can see in the cube she can find in society,” explains Sadika’s daughter about her mother’s art, which includes memorials to refugees abroad, and people who died in revolution at home. Sadika brought glass blowing back to Tunisia from Murano, after it had lain dormant for centuries. If you have a decent souvenir budget, Sadika’s Gammarth gallery is the place to buy fine glass. Or a block of light, to sway to and fro in your own home.
12pm: Lunch at Sidi Bou Said Port
The oldest port in Tunisia is perfect for a short stroll before lunch. Gaze out to sea and marvel at the aqua blue waters the coast is famous for, or size up a yacht for when you are rich. Now look up at the whiter than white building on the hill. You will be visiting that palace later, as well as the town that surrounds it. Sidi Bou Saïd is a must visit destination; famous for its blue and white architecture and ornate doors.
Unsurprisingly Sidi Bou Said’s Le Pirate restaurant, next to the marina, is all about the seafood. But be assured a two course lunch will come with enough harissa accompaniment to blow your mind. Follow a starter of calamari with the sea bass. But don’t have dessert. You need to leave room for cake.
2pm: Tour the palace of Ennejma Ezzahra
Baron Rudolpe d’Erlanger was a collector of eclectic musical instruments, while his wife allegedly collected views. The view from their hillside palace is worth the walk alone, and that’s before you pass through startlingly yellow curved doorway into a cool world of early 20th Century interior design. Ennejma Ezzahra is the palace at the edge of Sidi Bou Said, if not the world. If you have poets in the family they will love its Arabic translation as ‘Star of Venus.’ but the most novel thing about the palace is the education into Arabic music. One of the more unusual exhibits is the mezoued, (mizwad,) a version of the bagpipe. Vegetarians look away; the instrument is actually a skin bag from a sheep, commonly played at Tunisian weddings. I really wished we could have timed our visit with music in the ornate concert hall – maybe you will be luckier.
3pm: Blue door spotting in Sidi Bou Said
You’ll need flat shoes for a visit to Sidi Bou Said. It’s a winding, steep, cobbled, joy of a settlement. Planners have been wise to retain the character and colour palette of this medieval town less than 20k from the capital. Stroll up from the car park through the markets; a fun experience in itself. You’ll find loads of souvenir shops to occupy your attention as the narrow passages open out to wide sunny streets. But the big draw is the selfies. You’ll need to allow time to take them as every building is a fresh photograph. In fact you may need to queue for some of the best. When you’ve had your fill of snapping, replenish your energy with bambalouni – a type of doughnut; there are plenty of stalls making them to order. Thirsty now too? Well, have I got a treat for you…
4pm: Tea with mint and almond in Cafe des Delices
The most famous cafe in town is Cafe des Delices, set on a steep terrace that winds downwards with incredible views of the bay at every turn. Order the tea with mint and almond. But don’t add extra sugar – it’s pretty sweet already. And watch waiting staff ably serve a deluge of sightseers, as they have done since the 1960’s.
5pm: Happy hours in Gammarth and Carthage
Don’t relax too much though. It’s almost party time. Although Tunisia is a predominantly Muslim country, the coast is packed with nightlife and in the last five years happy hours have caught on. We visit the Ardjan Gammarth complex encompassing several bars including the funky Jobi, each with their own character and accessories, from swings on the beach to a tree growing up the middle. We then head on to a lively trio of bars in Carthage. A favourite of our host, ToBe is a sports bar with twelve screens, a restaurant and a chill out bar zone.
8pm: Relax at Dar El Marsa Hotel
Our hotel Dar El Marsa in La Marsa, also on the coast, provides a chilled out and welcoming end to our day. Each of the rooms in this boutique ‘lifestyle’ hotel has a sea view and balcony. We have dinner overlooking the illuminated swimming pool, trying out local specialities including traditional Tunisian madfouna and mint meat balls, and the national dish of couscous in the form of Couscous Borzguenea l’agneau et fruits secs. The dish is built around lamb and packed with fruit and nuts. We are told by local ‘Slim’ that Sunday is couscous day, where families gather to cook and eat, when they have time to do it leisurely. “In the north they eat couscous with lamb or ewe and at the coast with fish.” he says. I can confirm it’s pretty good on a Saturday too.
Sunday: 8am: Café Culture in La Marsa
The cats are prowling up and down the rainbow steps. Café owners are straightening umbrellas. Joggers are warming up. There’s a surfer already out on the waves. On a Sunday morning you’ll find plenty of action at the beach. I enjoy the giant fish sculptured from junk and find myself gazing at the faded architecture of a pier restaurant someone stops to tell me was once a famous landmark. I then pop into the nearby shopping area where the locals are doing crosswords and hanging out at Cafe Ben Edder and Cafe Le Saf Saf. More about this in my next post. There’s no hard sell to buy anything and the waiting staff are laid back; this is Sunday cafe culture at its best.
10am: Absorb the centuries at Carthage
What did the Romans do for Carthage? Quite a lot actually. This atmospheric place is still buzzing with the exploits of Hadrian and friends. And every story and visual image leads to ten more. From the sculptures cemented into the walls to the iconic pillars standing steadfast and proud next to the sea, it’s a vivid and peaceful walk through the past. And like many Tunisian must see sites like El Jem, it’s relatively uncrowded. The ancient ruins, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stretch through history from the Pheonicians to abandonment in the 13th century and you can get up close to the artifacts. If you have teens you can bike around them. and if you have toddlers you can dress up as shiny Romans for a photograph.
We hire a guide to put it all in context and she rattles off facts faster than we can absorb them. But you can simply wander the maze of arches and paths and absorb the colours and textures of the limestone from Gabon. “You can’t help but touch the history, says my fellow traveller Nichola West who is also captivated by the Tunisian people. Our guide explains headless statues scattered around the ruins reflect how quickly rulers went in and out of favour: “They changed the head and kept body. They could change a head and hands in six days.”
One of the best parts of our visit was imagining the female gladiators preparing for a fight at the Baths of Antoninius. The sheer size of the Roman entertainment complex is brought home when we hear about 500 rest rooms. Can’t Imagine that queue for the loo?
1pm: Lunch at the Villa
Hotel Villa Diddon, near the Carthage site, offers local fish, with a bay view. On our visit the sea bass is paired with mussels and the asparagus pasta is a dream. Try the hot chocolate bomb for dessert.
3pm: Taste the wine trail
Tunisia has a wine history other countries might envy. 2000 years of the stuff, with 40 million bottles a year currently made in the country. Any study of the emerging wine route should rightly start with an education at the magnificent Bardo in central Tunis; the museum’s collection of Roman mosaics includes Dionysian and Bacchic mural scenes. Then, if your budget stretches to a driver or a cab, book an hour or two and head out into the countryside in the north east. Grombalia, once the home of Sicilian winemakers, is a heavyweight, We visit nearby Neferis, where a stroll in the grounds of the 19th century chateaux and a wine tasting pass a very happy afternoon. Wine maker Rached Kobrosly introduces us to his red, white and rose wines and invites us back to spring weekend tastings in the gardens. If you would like to organise a group wine tasting at Domaine Neferis then you can contact Rached via his facebook page.
5pm: Into the medina
What, no souvenir shopping? If you want to get right into the heart of the medina Dar Ben-Gacem is a great location for your last night in Tunis. A boutique hotel in a seventeenth century building, and the second to be redeveloped by the owner, Dar Ben-Gacem is committed to preserving Tunisia’s cultural history by working with local artisans and ploughing profits back into the community. There’s also some fun art on the bedroom walls although you are likely to spend much of your time on the rooftop terrace, with private areas and huge terracotta pots. Or walking the medina. It was dark and mostly deserted on the Sunday night of our visit, but still a very atmospheric experience.
Monday 8am: Shopping in the souks
Sidi Bou Said isn’t the only Tunisian destination where door bagging is compulsory. Tunis is a rainbow game of Instagram opportunities, where every door has a secret to be discovered from the colourful studs and knockers to what lies within.
As we take a stroll before breakfast, women buy bread in shops with old fashioned scales, while wood carvers are already at work on their creations, Meanwhile the souks are piling them high and preparing to sell them cheap, including hats, scarves, souvenirs and every form of camel known to the toy shop. I refrained from buying the camels at Carthage and walked past the seaside portraits and blue painted ceramics in Sidi Bou Said. But now it’s time to unleash my shopping and bartering creativity on stall holders who are far more creative than me. I soon part with Nichola’s money as well as my own; getting into the spirit of it all, we acquire three hammam towels, and a silver hand of fatima necklace. No camels though as our flight to Gatwick calls.
City break with a warm glow
As we push through the traffic to Tunis Carthage Airport, light falls on a bridge coated in street art. As I take a picture and swipe through my gallery, I think of Sadika, and her architecture of light project. Our short break in Tunisia is lit with a warm glow that’s impossible to capture on a camera. I could show you my door photographs until the camels come home, but really you just have to see it for yourself.
If you are based in the UK, a daily Tunis Air flight from London’s Heathrow or Gatwick will drop you in Tunisia in three hours. If you base yourself at La Marsa or the coast, there’s a local train to Tunis and Carthage,
Tunisia with kids
Visiting Tunisia with kids? Explore our season on Family Tunisia, Here are some posts you might have missed:
If you fancy spending five days in Tunisia, check out this handy itinerary from Mums Do Travel’s Gretta Schiffano. Gretta also has a three day itinerary including a visit to El Jem. And here’s her advice for getting the best bargain in the souks. This subject is also taken up by Nichola West as she shares some of her ideas for souvenirs.
Meanwhile Cathy Winston also has a 48 hour itinerary that’s very different to mine, and in this post she shares her top reasons to travel to Tunisia with kids. Before I visited I put down some thoughts on Tunisia for families here.
What to eat? Read this post on Tunisian food by Ting, and I’ll be following this post with some ideas on what to drink.
Disclosure: My visit to Tunis and surrounding area was part of a paid campaign with the Tunisian Tourist Board. All medina wandering, doughnut eating and wine slurping was all my own, as were the words and images.