I have travelled to several countries in southern Africa and thoroughly enjoyed the views and wild animals. Having previously visited Egypt, this was my second trip to further my exploration in North Africa and experience the differences between the regions. In this trip, I covered the city of Tunis in Tunisia and a few of its suburbs.
Getting There and Arrival
We flew in from Doha to Tunis with Qatar Airways. It was on an older Airbus A330-300 aircraft with outdated business class cabin and seats. The flight was uneventful and not as pleasurable compared to flying in the front cabin of Qatar Airways’ Boeing 787,Airbus A350, or even on a Boeing 777.
Tunis Carthage Airport is small and basic. It did not take much walking for us to get from the aircraft to Passport Control. As we were the first to disembark the aircraft, we were the first to reach the immigration control. It was straightforward – no visa on arrival for Canadian passport holders, no landing forms to fill, and no questions asked by the immigration officer.
While waiting for the bags, we gave ourselves a head start by changing some Euro into Tunisian Dinars. Tunisian currency is a closed currency, meaning that it can only be obtained in the country of arrival, and has strict import and export restrictions. Inside the baggage hall, there were two money exchange booths and an ATM machine nearby. We exchanged the currency with Banque de L’Habitat and received a rate of 2.924 Tunisian dinars for one Euro. (Typically, we use xe.com app to check the closing rate, and if it is a difference of a few points, i.e. 1%-3%, we are happy to make the transaction. The dealers have to make money too!) If you forget to change your money in the baggage hall, do not worry as there are more money changers after exiting the baggage area. The rates were about the same as the ones inside the baggage hall. Several ATM machines were also available.
As Tunisian Dinars are a closed currency, it is advisable not to have an excess of Tunisian dinars leftover after your trip. If you have dinars upon leaving, you have to make a declaration. Make sure you have your original receipt of exchange, go to the booth of the same bank that you originally exchanged with on the departure level before your flight and do the exchange. Upon arrival, we were told that we would get the same rate as we initially changed, but in our case, it was not so. We were given 2.973. The amount to be converted back was small, so we did not bother making an argument but this is something to keep in mind.
Getting from Airport to City
Before exiting the airport, we stopped by the Tourist Information counter to ask about the cost of taxi so that we know the top end of the fare. We were told that 15 dinars was the maximum we should be paying. Our hotel was not that far from the airport, about 7-8 km away. We took the yellow taxi and pre-negotiated a fare of 12 dinars. In the end, we still gave our taxi driver 15 dinars, inclusive of tips. The taxis in Tunis have meters, but we were told that they do not like using them.
Hotel and Location
Tunis does not have many international hotel chains. At time of writing, there was no Hilton or Marriott, although these are being built. The accommodation in Tunis is overpriced by Tunisian local standard, in my opinion. Accor Hotels is the dominant chain with Novotel and Ibis available for stays. We stayed at Ibis because we thought that Novotel was unreasonably priced. These two hotels are adjacent to each other. Location wise, they are not in the city centre. They are about 1.5 km away to Habib Bourguiba Avenue, which is considered as the city centre. Having said that, it is a leisurely 20 minutes’ walk on Mohammed V Avenue to Habib Bourguiba Avenue. If you want a central location, pick a hotel at or very near to Habib Bourguiba Avenue. There were a few hotels that we noticed on our walks – which, at least from the exterior, looked pretty decent (for example, Africa Hotel) but the reviews in Trip Advisor can put you off. If you are at Habib Bourguiba Avenue, you are also very near to the Medina which is where most of the city attractions are located.
The hotels here maintain a high security stance. Before entering the lobby, your bags have to be scanned through x-ray machine and guests have to be screened by metal detectors. The front external perimeter is secured with vehicle access barriers using retractable bollards. The security measures are perhaps understandable considering the terrorist attacks three years ago.
Language and People
The prime languages here are Arabic and French. The local Arabic language here is known as Darija. Although it is a derivative of Classical Arabic, many of its words are of French, Turkish, Italian, Spanish and Berber origin. These were the cultures that had influenced Tunisia many hundred years ago.
French is widely spoken and written. Virtually, all the menus are written in French and Arabic. English, on the other hand, is not widely spoken. If you do not speak French, you will struggle to communicate, but a few hand gestures will get you through the basic stuff.
The people in Tunis are very friendly. They really do not bother you and let you get on with your things. They tend to dress in stylish modern western attire, much to our surprise. They appear to be more secular than we expected. We hardly saw anyone with the niqab (head covering and scarf that conceals the face), but many women do wear the hijab (scarf covering the head and neck).
Yellow taxis were plentiful, and they lingered around the hotel premises. As soon as you exit the hotel, the drivers will approach you for a fare. Our main mode of transport was by foot. We prefer walking as we can learn more and be more immersed in the local culture. As it was April, the temperature ranged from 18°C to 22°C during day time – just ideal for walking.
On our second day, we set out to discover the ruins of ancient Tunis and its coastal lines located outside the city centre. Taxi was deemed the best mode for this purpose as it involved multiple sites that were not particularly close to each other. We negotiated an hourly rate with the taxi driver. He wanted 25 dinars per hour, but we countered at 20 dinars with a promise of a generous tip, which he accepted. His taxi was very clean. He spoke moderately good English and was friendly and respectful. We ventured from Tunis to the archaeological sites of Carthage (six different places), Sidi Bou Said, La Marsa and Gammarth, and then back to Tunis.
The whole excursion took 5 hours to complete including stops and lunch. It costed us 100 dinars and we gave him 50 dinars as tip (as he doubled up as our unofficial guide due to his proficiency in English).
We somehow missed out on La Goulette during our day trip excursion but decided to check it out independently the next day. We took the TGM train from Tunis Marine (at the water end of Habib Bourguiba Avenue) to La Casino station (one of the stations in La Goulette). The ticket was only 1 dinar one way. Buy the ticket from the ticket counter at the respective station. The TGM trains were quite regular and took only 15 minutes point to point. The physical conditions of the train were quite poor; they were in a state of decline and had definitely seen better days.
Main Places to See
My first impression of this city was that it was a dusty little city. Many vehicles and roads were enveloped with layers of dust. Tunis has interesting culture and history, evidenced by its charming and decently maintained colonial buildings and its ancient Medina.
Medina of Tunis
This was clearly our favourite. The Medina became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. This area houses many mosques, palaces and monuments. Its buildings have distinctive and interesting facades with giant traditional doors. A maze of narrow but colourful souks (market places) populate the area. The souks trade in a plethora of goods – baskets, pottery, jewellery, carved ornaments, clothing, spices of every kind, and delicious sweets and cakes. The traders do not hassle you, and if you are approached but not interested, just smile and walk on.
Habib Bourguiba Avenue
This is the Tunisian version of the Champs-Elysees in Paris. This broad avenue runs in east-west direction and is lined with trees and shops on both sides. To the east is the marine area, and to the west is the Medina of Tunis. By all accounts, Habib Bourguiba Avenue is considered as the city centre and the happening place. There are many cafes, restaurants and stores. The Tunis city folks, mainly the males, love to hang out at the street cafes, watching people pass by while sipping their strong coffee in small cups.
At the time of our visit, there were many armed police patrolling here, many in full military fatigues. Steel barriers were erected, diminishing the views of the street. At Place de l’Indépendance, we could see a defensive battle post, complete with sandbanks and rolls of barbed wires. Despite the heavy police presence, the people of Tunis seemed unbothered and went about their business as usual. With all this security, we still did not feel threatened or unsafe at any point during our stay.
Carthage Ancient Ruins
These ancient ruins are located about 20 minutes’ drive from Tunis city centre. It is possible to take the TGM local train to Carthage but once you get there, it is difficult to hop over from one site to another, and other public transport including taxis are not readily available. The Roman ruins dominate the ancient ruins in Carthage. We had the opportunity to explore Carthage Museum in Byrsa, Carthage Mohamed Ali, La Romain Amphitheatre, Les villas Romaines (Roman residences) and Les Thermes D’Antonin (Antonine Baths). If you start your visit at Carthage Museum, you can buy a ticket that allows you to visit 8 ancient sites and it costs only 10 dinars per person. You also have to pay 1 dinar to use your own camera.
Neighbouring the Les villas Romaines is the grand Mosque of Mâlik ibn Anas (originally called El Abidine Mosque). We did not have the opportunity to venture inside due to prayer time, but it looks quite majestic from the outside.
Sidi Bou Said
We love this charming little town, characterised by its distinctive blue and white buildings which lined the cobblestone streets of Sidi Bou Said. It rests on a hilltop with cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, and the ocean views are simply gorgeous. This was where we had our lunch stop at Cafe des Delices, recommended by our driver, after we told him that we wanted authentic Tunisian food. The café overlooked the ocean and presidential palace. The views were stunning but the food was mediocre, and that was to put it kindly. The couscous was bland, and the grilled fish was nothing special. Sadly, it was not worth the money we paid for and it was really a tourist trap.
After Sidi Bou Said, we continued to La Marsa, which was just a couple of minutes’ drive away. We did not spend much time here but did stop at the waterfront promenade that offers an expansive view of the Mediterranean Sea.
Adjacent to La Marsa is the upmarket seaside resort of Gammarth. At the viewpoint, as with La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said, Gammarth offers breathtaking views of the ocean. We also had the opportunity to set foot on the beach. The sand is light brown in colour, and the beach was very clean and uncrowded. Although we did not see anyone swimming in the sea, probably due to the season of the year, it feels comfortable enough to go for a dip here.
We took the local TGM train to this port town. As frank as we can be, we did not find this place very appealing. We arrived at dusk and the place was pretty much deserted.
Tunis City of Culture Centre
If you have time, drop in to see this cultural centre which was built to showcase the cultural wealth of the Tunisian people. Apparently, they spent 130 million dinars (€44m) to build this. It is free to enter and was only opened recently (21-MAR-2018). It is located on Mohamed V Avenue, just across the street from Novotel. It is an impressive modern building but retains some of the customary Tunisian architectural feel. When we visited this complex, there was barely anything happening. However, there was a small cinematic exhibition depicting the old 1960’s / 1970’s movies, prominently featuring Claudia Cardinale, the Tunis-born Italian movie star. Apart from that, there was nothing much else to do, see or even to eat or drink but since our hotel was just across the road, we thought we should check it out.
It is our unwritten rule to eat local cuisine wherever we travel. However, in Tunis, this somewhat eluded us. We were looking forward to having a daily helping of Tunisan tanjine, lamb a la gargoulette, Tunisian couscous, kefta and brik, amongst others, but they were hard to locate. There was virtually no eatery around our hotel and we had to head to Habib Bourguiba Avenue for our food. The restaurants on the side streets were not very inviting or appealing so we ended up eating in the cafes by the main thoroughfare of Habib Bourguiba Avenue. The local bread, khobz tabouna, was quite delicious. When stuffed with shawarma fillings, you get a sandwich. The fillings consisted of shavings of meat that was roasted in vertical spit, chopped vegetables, pickles and various condiments. Pizzas are popular here, along with various variants of kebab. Generous helping of olives and olive oil are also common. Meals were relatively inexpensive.
Try the bambalouni – a Tunisian doughnut with light dough sprinkled with sugar. A perfect sweet companion while walking and exploring the Medina.
If you are a western fast food lover, it is bad news for you. There is absolutely no McDonald, Burger King, Pizza Hut or similar but I have been reliably told that KFC now has an outlet in La Marsa.
This secular city inherits centuries of history with blend of Arabic, Ottoman and European cultures. The relaxed approach of the Tunisian people to daily life makes Tunis an easy and pleasurable place to navigate around and sightsee. The city is also blessed with the beautiful Mediterranean coastline. Unlike Algeria, Tunisia does not require visa to enter (for citizens of many countries)– one more reason to include Tunis for a quick layover or a long weekend.