My favorite Things to Do Tunis
My Favorite Things To Do Tunis - Introduction
Tunis is the capital city of Tunisia. Tunisia - easy to confuse! Even before the 'Arab Spring' Tunisia has been one of the more open Islamic societies and can be described as the Turkey of Northern Africa (with a heavy French accent). In fact, French is widely spoken and of course Arabic. However English is rather rare beyond simple words (that sound similar to French).
Tunisians can't be described as superbly friendly - they are generally indifferent towards foreigners. However, unlike many areas in Morocco or Turkey, they generally leave you alone. It's rather uncommon to be approached even in tourist areas - that is very refreshing.
Tunis is not getting a lot of visitors, most European tourists head straight to the resort areas outside town or further south towards Djerba. Tunis makes for an interesting discovery of a city shaped by Islam without being too restricted as a foreigner.
The Tunisian Dinar is trading at about 3:1 to the US Dollar. However, prices are generally the same in nominal Dollar amounts so many local services (and many hotels) trade for one third of what you would pay in the US.
My Favorite Things To Do Tunis - Safety
Tunis is generally a safe city. Crime is low and if it exists it is not targeting foreigners. However, there have been Islamic terror attacks around the country so watch the recent news.
Traffic can be unpredictable as drivers are courteous but go at uneven speeds and there are seemingly no rules for traffic.
I also avoided walking after dark with the somewhat fragile state of sidewalks. There is not a lot of street lighting either.
It's a good idea to dress down and more conservative in Tunis though it is not required per se.
My Favorite Things To Do Tunis - Get Around
The city of Tunis has a rather rickety tram system and public buses that get you around town. Bring some good Arabic or French to ask locals where to go as signs and maps are rare (there are also no real timetables).
Taxis is the way to go in town and while there is no real taxi app (the Bolt app is marketed heavily but I never got a driver to accept my ride requests) at least half the cars in town are yellow taxi cabs. Most drivers will agree to switch on the 'taxi meter' with just a bit of backlash. Rides are generally cheap at about $10-$12 per hour - with most city rides under $2.
Walking is an option in most areas as sidewalks exist and many locals walk as well. However, they can be in bad shape with missing manholes and lots of trash. I avoided walking after dark.
Taxi rides from/to the airport to town can be had for under $3 if you negotiate in French patiently.
My Favorite Things To Do Tunis - Connectivity
Tunis (and most of Tunisia) has excellent Internet connections. 10Mbit is easy to find even at tiny coffee shops. Most hotels will spoil you with 50Mbit or better. I used the T-Mobile free international roaming but local SIM cards can be bought for a few dollars in many places (even at the airport).
My Favorite Things To Do Tunis - See
Medina is the word for an old town that comes with the small alleyways. Ideal to keep the sun out and temperatures low during the long hot desert summers. The Tunis Medina is much smaller than the Medina in Marrakech but it is much more relaxed. Shopkeepers let you browse and you won't be annoyed even after a few hours of browsing.
There are dozens of little tea and coffee places inside the Medina where you can drink delicious pine nut mint tea (try) and stock up on Middle Eastern and Arabic delicacies.
I like the Medina so much I went to explore it four days in a row!
Carthage Site and Museum
The Romans tried a few times and finally succeeded to conquer the city state of Carthage during the Punic wars. While the original city was completely destroyed the Romans had rebuilt Carthage as a Roman city in the first century AD. The museum at the Carthage site is currently closed for renovation. There are a few columns left from the Roman times and a few ruins of houses (Though they may have been a reconstruction).
The entrance fee is just $4 per person (but bring cash there are no ATMs and no credit cards are accepted). There are a number of aggressive touts disguised as guides inside and outside the area. The cathedral next door looks beautiful from afar but not so much from closer up. Keep in mind that no crosses can be found as it has been transformed into a communal hall.
La Marsa is an affluent suburb close to Carthage (the French spelling). It has a number of high-quality restaurants and better coffee shops. A little further out are a number of beach resorts.
My Favorite Things To Do Tunis - Eat and Drink
At times it seems the whole town is busy smoking and drinking espresso. You will smell so much smoke on sidewalks it will take your breath away! Generally, men (but also women) spend 10-12 hours in a 'cafe' every day smoking and drinking. Local cafes are crowded even at 6 AM (just after prayer time for many) until late at night.
However, the coffee served is usually watery and low quality. The more favorite drink became the 'capucin' - that is like a macchiato, with a bit of milk added.
Keep in mind that Tunis is not a foodie town and low-quality food and fast food dominates the local palate. Strangely while people are out to have coffee, a smoke and maybe a pastry they seemingly NEVER eat anywhere but home.
The city must have 500 or more coffee shops - in fact, every street corner has a few. Here are my favorites:
B Sweet Cafe
B Sweet is as close as you can get in Tunis to an Addis Abeba style Tomoca. It is standing room only and the coffee is better than in most cafes around town. The atmosphere is friendly and cozy. There is no WiFi but it's a great spot to soak up some winter sun in the morning
Eric Kayser is an international bakery chain that can be a scrumptious affair (like in Dakar, Senegal) or a hyper-modern coffee shop (like in Hong Kong). In Tunis, they tend to be tiny and just have a small selection of pastries and bread. However, the quality is still excellent.
Most locations are right next door to a coffee shop where you can eat in peace and have some watery espresso with it.
El Ain Cafe Medina
While it certainly looks like a tourist trap and the staff can have a serious attitude this local eatery hidden in the Medina is a winner. The local dishes are done to perfection and the ambiance makes you feel you just dropped into an 'Aladdin' world. Note the strict hours for breakfast/ lunch/ dinner that are enforced at all times (with vigor).
El Mida (Marsa)
This modern eatery serves a refreshingly small but eclectic menu of freshly grilled meats and seafood. Just point over to the patrons' table and choose what you like most - I found the quality to be very good.
Le Carmine (Marsa)
If you are craving meat this is the spot to come by. It's expensive by local standards but the portions are huge. The taste is a bit off at times but I still liked it.
There are a number of local eateries serving local dishes and often you can see what other patrons are eating (or there is a bit of a buffet which is rare). If you find one you like you can eat under $5 for fresh food.
I found the Italian dishes at Peppino surprisingly good. It's part of the Golden Tulip hotel and the dining room looks like it is 40 years old with no atmosphere to speak of but the pizzas and appetizers are excellent and come with a low price tag - I was surprised!
My Favorite Things To Do Tunis - Where to Stay
The few 5 Star chain hotels in the city are often priced at $250 or more and points required for redemptions are high.
Golden Tulip in El Mechtel
Located right across a major city park this is an aging 4 Star hotel. However, it has a lot of space, big rooms (some are renovated). The staff is friendly but hapless. The room quality and the super-fast WiFi made for a good stay and prices around $60 are a good deal.
El Mouradi Gammarth
This 5-star hotel is a beach resort and has a beach directly behind the hotel. I loved the enormous pool, the lighting fast WiFi and the lovely and modern superior rooms. The food is nasty and the large groups can overwhelm this place easily.
Business Hotel Tunis
This tiny hotel is close to many of the better cafes in town. The rooms are small but very modern and cozy. The rooftop terrace and restaurant are great and the staff is super friendly and knowledgable.