Beyond its chaotic aspect, Tunisia’s capital is home to one of the world’s most mesmerizing medina, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its tiny maze-like streets are full of hidden treasures. From century-old houses where craftsmen practice ancestral arts to little cafés where you’ll enjoy drinking mint tea, sinking in the local atmosphere… Tunis is where you’ll get the pulse of the country, a crossroads between traditions and modern life.
Only a couple of miles away, the coast boasts several mythical villages such as Sidi Bou Said, a quiet white and blue little town, perched atop a huge rock. History lover won’t be disappointed either, with Carthage, a city where Phoenician history is discovered through the ruins of what used to be Hannibal’s capital.
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Here are the best things to do in Tunis:
1 – Visit Tunis’ Medina
Medina means “town” in Arabic, in Tunisia, it usually refers to the historical part of the city where you’ll find the fortifications and the souk (market).
The medina in Tunis is huge, built in the 7th century, it is now a UNESCO world heritage site. Walking through the medina, you’ll notice different architectural styles: Andalous, Arabic, Roman, Byzantium… as it used to be an important Mediterranean place of trade. Get lost in its small streets looking for the Mediterranean Basin’s most impressive mosques, Medersas (Koranic schools), tourbets (family mausoleum), Zaouïas (saint mausoleum) and Dar (traditional houses).
Most of the alleys have buildings built on top to keep the temperature inside the medina cool. Be careful not to get lost in there, it’s like a maze, and when you are in this type of alleys, guess what? The GPS will not work. This being said, it’s always pretty crowded so you’ll always find someone to help you. You can also hire a guide if you want, but I would say it’s not necessary. If you are really into architecture and history it can be a good idea to hire one.
The main thing to do in the Medina is, of course, shopping. I wouldn’t recommend shopping there, even with good haggling skills. The sellers overcharge foreigners. I guarantee it. It can even get really frustrating when you know the real price of things.
Even without buying anything, it’s still worth a visit. The Medina is amazing because it’s so different and really typical of Maghrebian countries. There, you should also take a look at the Zitouna Mosque, built in the 8th century, it used to be a university as well. Since the revolution, most mosques in Tunisia are not open to visitors. If you want to visit this one, go around prayer time, appropriately dressed and just ask someone from the mosque if you can take a look inside. They will usually say yes.
You can also enjoy sipping an almond tea on one of the many rooftop cafes found in the Medina (some of them even serve beer!). From there you’ll get a full view of the Medina. Be careful when choosing a restaurant, some of them can be expensive.
One of the best things to do in Tunis is also visiting traditional houses (Dar). Among the most popular: Ed Dar (rue Sidi Ben Arous), built in the 15th century, it has now been turned into a souvenir shop, but it’s worth a visit, even just to look at the architecture. You can also visit the Dar Bach Hamba (rue Kouteb el Ouiazir), now a cultural center.
Try to be out of the Medina before 7 pm, by this time everything is closed and the area is deserted. It’s creepy and not super safe. Avoid also Fridays and Sundays as it usually off days and almost everything is closed.
2 – Learn about Tunisia’s past at the National Bardo Museum
The Bardo Museum has an impressive art collection. It’s the second most important museum in Africa and one of the best in the Mediterranean Basin. Through its collections, you’ll learn about Tunisia history and get a feeling of what African-Roman life was like. Mostly antiquities, the museum retraces the country heritage, from the Prehistory all the way through the Middle Ages, from the first tools to Islamic Art.
Plan to spend at least 3 hours on-site, you can organize a guided tour in advance by calling the museum. Some travel agencies also offer a half-day tour including the museum and the medina.
3 – Try a traditional Hammam
A visit to Tunisia is not complete without going to a traditional hammam. You won’t realize how much dead skin you have until going to one. It’s one of the best things to do in Tunis. You’ll need to bring: a towel, a swimsuit or a change of underwear, your soap and shampoo, and a kese (scrubbing glove). You can usually buy the glove and different types of beauty products at the hammam.
Some hammams are exclusively for women and others for men. Some hammams have a schedule for women and one for men. Always check beforehand.
It’s usually crazy cheap, if you pay more than 5 dinars for the entrance, you’re getting scammed. You can also add several services such as massages and scrubbing. Do try the scrubbing, you’ll feel like she’s peeling off your skin but you’ll never get scrubbed like this anywhere else.
Hygiene is usually okay, I’ve been to several different ones and it always seemed clean but it stays a public bath and you cannot really see if there’s bacterias or not. Always throw some water before you sit and rinse everything you use properly (before using it).
Here are some hammams in the medina you can go to: (no need to book in advance)
- For women: 6 rue du pacha (open only in the mornings) or rue de la Noria (open all day)
- For men: Kachachine Hammam (rue des libraires) one of the most authentic but from what I heard not super clean. You can also go to the one rue El Adjamine (cleaner)
- “Mixed”: Hammam Daoulati (rue El Abri) – men in the morning and women after 2 pm – or Hammam Halfaouine (rue Sidi Chicha) – men in the morning and in the evening, women in the afternoon.
4 – Stroll through Sidi Bou Said – Tunisia cutest town
One of Tunisia’s most beautiful cities, Sidi Bou Said will remind you of Greece with its white and blue villas. Only the doors, typically Maghrebians, will remind you of where you are. Strolling through the city pedestrian streets will have you mesmerized faster than you could imagine.
Take a tea on a rooftop terrace and enjoy the view over Sidi Bou Said, watching the sunset. Walk around looking for the colorful doors, often blue sometimes yellow, always full of intricate Muslim symbols, made of large nails. Visit one of the traditional houses, either the Dar El-Annabi (DT 4,5), a beautiful Arabo-Muslim house dating back to the 18th century, or the Arabic and Mediterranean Music Center (DT 5 + DT 2 for the audio-guide), Sidi Bou Said most beautiful house. Built between 1912 and 1922, this palace offers one of the best examples of traditional architecture.
Information: The Arabic and Mediterranean Music Center is open from 8 am to 2 pm during Ramadan, from 9 am to 3 pm in July and August, and from 9 am to 5 pm with a lunch break from 1 pm to 2 pm the rest of the year. Closed on Mondays and during public holidays.
5 – Visit Carthage and discover the history behind this great Empire
Carthage Empire dominated most of the Mediterranean during the 4th century BC, thanks to its famous leader Hannibal. Now a modern city, some parts of the ancient Carthage can still be visited today. Excavation and restoration works are still ongoing. Some of the sites have been really well preserved and walking through them, you’ll get a feel of what life used to be like millenniums ago.
Among Carthage’s most famous places, you should visit the Carthage Byrsa Museum. Right next to it are the remains of the Byrsa quarter, built during the 2nd century BC. The Antonine baths are also a must-see, only the first floor, and some columns are left standing but the area is huge and covered with marks from the past.
The Tophet is also a unique site, a children cemetery from the Punic era surrounded by mystery regarding the death of these children.
From the Roman Era, you can also visit the Roman villas, some of which are really well preserved, look for the mosaics. Next to this area is a Roman theater but they use it now as a concert venue and it has been too much restored.
6 – Try the local food
One of the best things to do in Tunis is, of course, trying the local dishes. Tunisian foods is rich and tasty. If you’re on a diet, it’s probably not the best option for you. Tunisians eat a lot of couscous and sometimes some pasta. These are basically the two main dishes there. Make sure to try couscous in every city you go, each town makes it in a different way. If you’re there during summer, try the mechouia salad, usually vegetarian, but ask first, they sometimes put tuna in it, it’s also usually really spicy so brace yourself.
On the sweet side, makroud are must-tries, it’s just delicious, you can easily find them in the Medina. You should also try Bambalouni, a type of fluffy donut dipped in sugar, you can find it as street food almost everywhere.
Check out other great things to do in Tunisia.
Don’t have much time? or just want to visit Tunis with a guide? Take a tour:
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