Why Tunisia’s capital remains an undiscovered gem

Tunis is known for its colorful ceramics – Alamy Stock Photo

“When you say Tunisia, people think of the beach and these huge resorts,” says Tunisian local gallery owner Selma Feriani. “But the capital is so underestimated.”

And she’s right. Nearly 200,000 British tourists headed to Tunisia last year, and with new flight routes launching this summer, it looks like the country will be even more popular in 2024. But despite this rise in popularity, it is still the lure of the fly-and-flop – in Hammamet or on the island of Djerba – that attracts the majority of Tunisian visitors. Meanwhile, the country’s more than 3,000-year-old capital, Tunis, remains a largely undiscovered gem – and one that increasingly deserves to be seen as a worthy destination in its own right.

Bursting with fascinating food and art, and steeped in Berber, French, Roman and Ottoman influences born of trade and empire – and just under a three-hour flight from Britain – Tunis offers rich (and practical) choices for a city break. Wandering through the medina, taking in the treasures of the Bardo National Museum and immersing yourself in the city’s burgeoning creative scene, you get the sense of a powerful duality: a city at once rich in history but resolutely forward-looking is. And what city breaker could wish for more?

The best place to start is in the maze-like medieval medina, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. The Zitouna Mosque, the oldest in the city, dates back to 698 and is dotted with smaller mosques, hammams and the secluded, intricately decorated courtyards typical of madrasas (religious schools).

The Zitouna Mosque is the oldest in the cityThe Zitouna Mosque is the oldest in the city

The Zitouna Mosque is the oldest in the city – Alamy Stock Photo

Like those in Marrakech, the narrow streets of the souk are lined with stalls, decorated with everything from fabrics and tableware to slippers. However, unlike those in Marrakech, you will find these vendors less vigorous, the tourist traps far fewer in number and the atmosphere generally friendlier.

The souks of Tunis are definitely worth a strollThe souks of Tunis are definitely worth a stroll

The souks of Tunis are definitely worth a stroll – Alamy Stock Photo

Just beyond the babs (gates) of the medina, the Ville Nouvelle district – centered on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, with its Big Ben-like clock tower – reflects the city’s time under French rule (1881-1956). With the Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Olivia of Palermo, emblematic of the colonial period, the wider architecture of the area consists of three main styles: art deco; Art Nouveau; and Arabisance, a style that combines elements of European and Islamic architecture.

Several millennia of Tunisian history are well presented at the Bardo National Museum (bardomuseum.tn, entry £3.30) – home to one of the largest collections of Roman mosaics in the world – while the extensive archaeological site at Carthage (commune-Carthage .gov .tn; ​​£2.55) offers visitors the opportunity to stroll through the Roman Baths of Antoninus, the Punic Harbors and the Amphitheatre.

Our writer went to sleep in Dar Marsa CubesOur writer went to sleep in Dar Marsa Cubes

Our writer went to sleep in Dar Marsa Cubes

However, the history of Carthage did not begin with the Romans. The original city and eventual trading empire was founded in the 9th century BC, but was destroyed in 146 BC and later rebuilt by them. But what if it wasn’t destroyed? This is the question that Tunisian artist Nidhal Chamekh asks Et si Carthago? (And What If Carthage?), the inaugural exhibition at the Selma Feriani Gallery (selmaferiani.com) which took place earlier this year and drew striking parallels between the Romans in Africa and later European colonization.

The new 2,000 square meter space – the country’s largest commercial art space, with three exhibition spaces and a bookstore – opened in January 2024 and sees Feriani uprooted from a former monastery in the idyllic hilltop Sidi Bou Said to the industrial La Goulette district. “In Paris, New York and London, many galleries are located in industrial areas, but for Tunisia this is new,” Feriani explains.

Work by Tunisian artist Nidhal Chamekh, shown during the opening exhibition at the Selma Feriani GalleryWork by Tunisian artist Nidhal Chamekh, shown during the opening exhibition at the Selma Feriani Gallery

Work by Tunisian artist Nidhal Chamekh, shown during the opening exhibition at the Selma Feriani Gallery – Selma Feriani

The rise of creative centers in such areas has been a theme in Tunis’s evolving art and design landscape, which many local artists believe was catalyzed by the 2011 Tunisian revolution. Contemporary art center La Boîte is actually based in a medical distribution company tools, which literally ‘brings art to the workers’, explains project manager Manel Ben Ali, also a visual artist himself.

La Marsa’s PhosPhor design district brings together some of the city’s leading creatives and offers a kind of one-stop shop for a venture in the fast-growing scene: interior design and furniture at Marmo Spirito, homewares and pop-up fashion boutiques at Marlo & Isaure, tradition-inspired accessories at La Liste Tunisienne, and a host of lively events (from exhibitions to DJ sets) at creative collective La Ruche.

Back in the city center, L’Art Rue (lartrue.org) is a community center that works largely with young people living in the medina, but is best known for its epic biennial event Dream City, which brings together local and international artists (along with thousands of visitors) to hidden corners of the maze of old streets. The varied offering from 32bis and Central round off a day of creative explorations in the center of Tunis.

But it would be remiss to come here just for culture: Tunis also has a wonderful, diverse food scene full of rich local produce. You can fuel your exploration with bags of dried figs in olive oil, fragrant bergamot oranges and soft cheese with parsley, picked up at the Central Market (9 Rue de Allemagne), but there are also plenty of small, inexpensive outlets dotted around the city, which such as tuna, potato and harissa filled fricassé sandwiches, sugar-sprinkled bambalouni donuts and egg-filled brik filo pastry.

Food markets occupy a prominent place in TunisFood markets occupy a prominent place in Tunis

Food markets feature prominently in Tunis – Getty

If you prefer to enjoy your meals, it’s worth stopping at Fondouk El Attarine for Tunisian specialties (fondoukelattarine.com), or at Le Golfe on the seafront, a chic spot serving spaghetti with Mediterranean boutargue caviar ( restaurantlegolfe.com).

Although the center is also full of cafes, the seaside district of Sidi Bou Said reigns supreme when it comes to coffee. Visit the district in the morning and sit among the orange trees at the stylish brunch spot Bleue! (8 Rue Habib Thameur), or enjoy traditional brews at Kahoua El Alia teahouse, located in a former mosque next to the ruins of Carthage.

But when night falls? It’s time to try the local wine. There are plenty of nice places for that, but the most beautiful is the cozy terrace of La Villa Bleue (lavillableuesidibousaid.com), where you can look out over the Gulf of Tunis and toast the discovery of a new favorite city. “Saha!” (cheers), as they say in Tunisian Arabic.


Elise Morton was a guest at Selma Feriani Gallery (selmaferiani.com).

Tunisair (tunisair.com) flies direct from London Heathrow and Gatwick to Tunis, from £140 return.

Dar Marsa Cubes (dar-marsa-cubes.com) has double rooms from £85 per night.

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