While Tunisia may not be on many people’s travel radar, we visited the country a while ago and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it has quite a diverse cultural influences and historic background. Starting off with the Carthaginian civilization, the nation today is a melting pot of numerous and background including Amazigh and Punic substratum, Roman, Arab, Andalusian, Turkish, and French. The official language is Arabic, while Tunisian Arabic, Berber, French, English are widely used across Tunisia.
Tunis is the capital city of the nation and it is the gateway that connects Tunisia to the outside world; before we headed off to explore the rest of the country, we had a quick spin in Tunis and visited some of the major attractions. Here, we had a little bit of taste of different cultures in a few days. These places may not be impressive in scale and grandeur, but I think they hold their own character. If you look closely, you may see the beauty and specialty of Tunis.
Staying in a “resort-like” hotel in Tunis
Sidi Bou Said
This is the most photogenic spot in Tunis and probably most featured in travel magazines. So if you only have the quota to go to ONE place in Tunis, this is for sure the place that you should be. You may not remember, or tell exactly what is this place hearing “Sidi Bou Said”, but you must have seen a photo of white houses with blue tents, overlooking the ocean on a cliff, whenever you read something about Tunisia. That’s right, this place is called Sidi Bou Said, a small city located on the outskirts of Tunis with a population of around 6,000.
So, what makes Sidi Bou Said so Special? Let’s find out!
How to go to Sidi Bou Said? The most convenient and safe way to go there is by taxi, it only takes about 20 minutes for the 20 kilometers drive and costs about US$4. if you want to take public transportation, the cities are also connected by train. The journey takes about 40 minutes and costs only about US$0.5 to La Marsa.
The city was originally called Jaba el-Menar, got its fame because of an important religious figure, Abu Said al-Baji, who lived here between the 12th and 13th centuries. That’s why the city was renamed in honor of him. He built his palatial home on a steep cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and facing the city of Tunis. A large group of Said’s followers came here to pay respect until his death in 1231. His house is now a Mausoleum.
Along with Abu Said al-Baji, many artists were inspired by this beautiful place and moved in early in the 20th century, including German-Swiss artist Paul Klee, Gustave-Henri Jossot, and August Macke; French philosopher Michael Foucault, and occultist Aleister Crowley. For Paul Klee, moving to Sidi Bou Said was a turning point for his career – as he started to incorporate light and vibrant colors in his work. Many of his works could now be seen in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
So, why were the houses painted white and blue?
The color code was introduced by French artist and musicologist Rodolph d’Erlanger when he lived there in the 1920s. He suggested and funded the project and soon after the entire city applied the same white and blue to their houses – the white houses, blue doors, and lattice look incredible against the Mediterranean sea and added a great charm to the city as if Santorini or Mykonos was brought to Africa.
The town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site together with the Archaeological site of Carthage. With an aim to boost tourism and to retain its beauty, the city kept the colors and opened gift shops, hostels, cafes, and restaurants.
Now, what to do in Sidi Bou Said?
Sidi Cou Said is a small town but still, you may probably spend a half-day here, here are a few things to see and do:
- Take lots of photos. The beauty of the town is famous for the world and there’s no way of leaving here without taking tonnes of beautiful pictures and sharing it with the world. Just take a stroll in the streets and alleys, observe the locals, admire the views, appreciate the Mediterranean / African architecture, and soak in the North African spirit. It’s up to you to show your perspective with the vibrant white and blue. The colors do look best under soothing sunlight, go there during the morning or sunset to get the best of the lighting.
- Visit Dar El Annabi. It is a small heritage museum at the intersection of Rue Hedi Zaarouk and Rue du 2 Mars 1934. The museum has a couple of displays that showcase the tradition of Carthage people. The museum is not much but it is a popular spot in town. Don’t forget to go to the rooftop and have a good look at the surrounding houses and the ocean.
- Explore the other museums and galleries. There are also a couple of museums and galleries in town that you could consider visiting. A number of artists came here and set up their businesses, and you will be surprised that they are very hip and in style. A. Gorgi is a contemporary art gallery that showcases the work of Tunisian artists, it also hosts thematic art exhibitions periodically. Dar Alaïa is another art museum on the other side of town.
- Have a sip of mint tea at Café des Délices. There are many terrasse cafes and restaurants there, and visitors are welcome to sample these places. You are welcome to leave comments and let me know your recommendations. However, you should not miss the Café des Délices, not because of the tastes, but because of the view. True, this place is getting touristy: it has the best location overlooking Tunis, and it makes a perfect photo under the blue patio umbrellas. Of course, top your experience with a glass of classic Tunisian mint tea with pine nuts – Le thé aux pignons. It costs slightly higher here, but still, it is cheaper than a grande iced americano from Starbucks.
- Enjoy a meal at one of the terrasse restaurants. There isn’t too much to eat at the Café des Délices, except some snacks or cakes, but why don’t expand your territories to the other restaurants around? Or, enjoy some snacks at a local cafe. Have some pizza, sandwiches, or a salad. To take it above and beyond, I had a bambaloni, a sweet Tunisian donut. The original flavor had sugar sprinkled, or honey soaked, or, go for the chocolate that has chocolate dipped on the dough.
- Buy a local handicraft. Tunisian art is distinctive and is known for its mosaic and pottery. As you walk through the streets you will see plenty of colorful plates, pottery, or mugs painted with geometric patterns, jasmine, hamsa (a palm-shaped amulet), or sign of Tanit. While some stores may be very commercial and “touristy”, if you look deeper, you will still find some unique boutiques with art and crafts created by aspiring local artists that would look perfect with your home decor. If you want to buy some food as a souvenir back home, Tunisia is also famous for its high-quality sardine and olive oil.
- Visit the landmarks as well. As you walk around, there are a couple of “checkpoints” that you ought to go and see. The Sidi Bou Said lighthouse is another good viewpoint of Tunis from the top of the cliff; going down to the water, take the staircase and go down to the beach and Harbor Sidi Saida, observe how local fishermen work, and the glistening sea looks beautiful during sunset.
The doors of many houses in Sidi Bou Said are beautiful. While the houses’ walls are always painted in white, the majority of doors and windows are painted in vibrant color, mostly blue. On top of that, these features are adorned and decorated with a cultural touch; That’s why visitors like taking pictures of them as they explore the town. One symbol that would be frequently seen is hamsa (or khamsa), a palm-shaped amulet that is either embedded on the door or used as a doorknob. In local belief, this “hand” protects the household by wearing off the effects of the evil eye.
How about the door rings? You will find there are a couple of door rings on the door, usually two or three. Each ring makes a different sound, therefore, the household can tell who is coming to the house. The top left is for the man or the master and the top right is for house guests. When the master comes home, the wife will go to the door to greet her husband; if it is a guest, the master or the housekeeper will go to the door instead, and the lady will be excused.
An additional lower right door ring is for the sons and daughters. In other words, if you only see two rings on the door, that means the household is yet to have children.
Two kilometers away from Sidi Bou Said is the Carthage Ruins which makes a perfect one day trip in Tunis. Before I talk about the ruins, let’s dive in to learn a little bit about the history of Carthage.
Who is the Carthaginian?
Carthage was the capital city of the ancient Carthaginian civilization, located on the eastern side of the Lake of Tunis (and then it became the country – Tunisia). The founding of the city was quite an interesting story. Based on an ancient Greek historian, Timaeus, he recorded Phoenician queen Dido (Elissa), who fled Tyre from her brother (who killed many of his family members for his power and wealth) 3,000 years ago, eventually landed on the coast of North Africa. She asked the Berber king Hiarbas for a small piece of land for temporary refuge. How small is a piece of the land? – It was supposed to be an area encircled by a single oxhide. The clever queen didn’t take it so literally as she soaked it in water, and then cut it into thin strips, making it a long string, and laid it on the ground in a circle. This trick maximized the area that the Berber king had in mind, and it was large enough for the queen to build a kingdom on it, and there, she became the legendary founder of Carthage.
Carthage then developed as one of the most affluent cities in the Ancient Mediterranean as an important trading hub, agricultural and commercial powerhouse. It was later conquered by the Romans after the Punic War. They built a new city there and it continued to thrive, it rivaled Alexandria for second place in the Roman Expire in AD14, with a population of 600,000. It was later defeated by the Arabs in the 7th century. The city was badly destroyed and it became a city-state of the Abbasid Caliphate.
Originally, the city is protected by a 37-kilometer long stone wall that is longer than any other city. In 1979, it was listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site, together with Sidi Bou Said. Today, what visitors can see here is the infrastructure that the Romans left behind. There is still a lot of evidence about the way people lived in that period of time. Walkthrough the rocks and shambles you could still get a hint of the military pillbox, aqueduct and watering systems, theatre, amphitheater, bath, and arena.
If Sidi Bou Said is the number one attraction in Tunis, I rank Bardo Museum number two. In fact, not many of you would know that this is one of the most important museums in the Mediterranean region and the second museum of the African continent after the Egyptian Museum of Cairo by the size of its collections. The museum showcases art, history, and important treasure of Tunisia over several millennia and across several civilizations through a wide variety of archaeological pieces.
How to go to Bardo Museum? The museum is located in the suburbs but it is also very easy to get to by taxi. Originally, it was a Hafsid palace back in the 15th-century. The premise was donated to the government in 1888 and hence it was converted into a museum. It houses an impressive number of Roman mosaics from the various mansion and archaeological sites in the nation such as Carthage, Hadrumetum, Dougga, and Utica. Work like Virgil Mosaic represents a unique source for research on the way of life in Roman Africa. Moving on, the museum also showcases a collection of marble statues of Roman emperors and deities that were excavated from Carthage. In the Islamic Department, you will be able to see famous works such as the Blue Qur’an of Kairouan, and items from the Maghreb and Anatolia.
The museum used to restrict photo-taking by issuing photography coupons, but luckily, not anymore! It has three floors and they are separate into different sections, and there are a number of items that you must check out:
Virgil Mosaic. This is the most emblematic mosaic of Roman Africa because it’s the oldest portrait of the Latin poet Virgil. The mosaic was found in 1896 in Hadrumentum, a garden of Sousse, within centimeters below the ground, in the ruins of the mansion in the 3rd-century AD. In the same mosaic muses, Clio (muse of history) and Melpomene (muse of tragedy) were also there. The mosaic is also nicknamed “Poet and Muse”: The poet Virgil and the two muses.
- Carthage room. The room displays an altar dedicated to Emperor Augustus and a number of monumental statues from Carthage, for most of the gods and emperors portrayed as gods (1st to 3rd century AD).
- The Demma baptistery. It is a Byzantine-era baptistery dated in 6th to 7th century AD Parish Church of the rural town of Demma near Kelibia. The baptismal font was removed and reassembled by the Bardo museum mosaic restoration specialists in 1955, under an identically rebuilt canopy on piers, with a groined vault ceiling. The symbolic and allegorical decoration illustrates through a rich iconography repertoire the concept of the salvation of the neophyte, illuminated by faith (lit candles) baptized and admitted into the church of Christ, considered as a summary of Christian cosmos-land.
- Neptune Roman Mosaic
- Ulysses Mosaic
- Small Patio of the Palace
- Virgile Room
- Torah scrolls. This is a rare and ancient manuscript of ancient Torah Scrolls seized in Ben Arous historical importance.
- Inscription of the great hall of the synagogue of Naro-Hammam-Lif. The 6th-century inscription was offered by Asteris son of Rusticus. It was installed in the great hall of the synagogue of Naro (present-day Hammam-Lif) in Tunisia.
Eventually, going back to the city of Tunis and taking a look at its city center. If you wonder why French is widely used in Tunis – huh, it was because the country was once a French colony! We have been walking back in time to the Roman and Carthage past, and Tunisia was colonized by France from 1881 until the nation’s independence in 1956. During that period of time, Tunis took its shape and basically becomes the look that it has today – filled with Neoclassical Architecture with an interesting mix of European features and African colors.
Walking down the Avenue De France you might “almost” think that you are walking down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. There are also a couple of notable sites and landmarks that you could take a look at; Check out Place de la Victoire (and maybe the shopping area behind it), the Statue of Ibn Khaldun at Place de l’Indépendance, Theatre National is an impressive architecture, Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul, I Love Tunis sign and the shopping malls along the avenue all the way to the Clock Of Habib Bourguiba Avenue. If you stay in the city and want to look for a place to eat, this is also where you should be – you will be able to find some cafes or deli with friendly staff.