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CityTips Guide to Tunis

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The dynamic Mediterranean city of Tunis is a multifaceted place. The urban charm of downtown comes along with the seaside pleasures of suburban sites such as ancient Carthage and the white-and-blue village of Sidi Bou Saïd.

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Local Overview

 

Medina

The medina is by far the most popular part of the city for tourists, and with good reason. The Arabic old town, featuring sinuous alleyways with blank walls, beautiful vaulted alleys and famous monumental doors hiding palaces, is the historical core of Tunis. It is a true architectural wonder and became a UNESCO Humanity World Heritage site in 1979. Restoration is constantly in progress on many buildings in order to preserve the rich cultural heritage of the city. The medina mainly encompasses animated Souks selling spice blends, incense, perfume extract, and tanned leather, where the finest handicrafts share space with "Made in China" baubles. Throughout the passing of the centuries, the Souks remained as dynamic as ever, as can be seen for example in the Souk El Attarine, the Souk El Berka, the Souk El Koumach (Souk des Etoffes), the Souk El Trouk or the Souk Ech-Chaouachiya. In this bewitching universe weighed down by small shops, the merchants and the customers haggle hard for Tunisian green and yellow pottery or a new pair of shoes. But if you move away from the crowd of the trading streets and enter the alleyways, you will find true architectural treasures dating from the Ottoman times. Former palaces converted into various cultural buildings such as Dar Lasram and the Club Tahar Haddad, Dar Ben Abdallah, Dar Othman, Dar Hussein, Dar Bach Hamba, Dar Bouderbala or the Palais Kheireddine, mausoleums such as Tourbet El Bey and Tourbet Aziza-Othmana, medersas such as the Complexe des trois médersas or the Médersa Achouria and mosques like the Mosquée Sidi Youssef, the Mosquée Sidi Mahrez and of course the Mosquée Zitouna. The medina epicenter is the Zitouna Mosque, also named the Great Mosque. The layout of the Souks, divided into craft guilds, relies on a simple principle: near the Great Mosque are the noble Souks, which means that their activity does not create any sanitary, auditory, or olfactory pollution. According to this principle, the Souk of the Perfumers is north of the Great Mosque, to the west is the Souk of the Cloth, to the south the Souk of the Wool and to the east the Souk of the Dried Fruits which used to share this site with the former Souk of the Booksellers. The latter benefited from the vicinity of the Great Mosque which has hosted for centuries a prestigious Islamic university known all around North Africa. The Souks of Food and the Souks that feature noisy activities were relegated behind this first circle. They are the Souk of the Tanners, the Souk of the Blacksmithes (around Bab Jedid) or also the Souk of the Fish Merchants (around Bab El-Bahr). The medina, encompassing this vast array of Souks, was protected by fortifications and enclosed by big doors. At night, each souk was closed so as to protect it. Nowadays, the Souk of the Gold remains the only one to close at night.

New Town

Forget the oriental charm of the Arabic medina and immerse yourself in this animated, Europeanized and Mediterranean-lifestyle downtown. The construction of the New Town started in the beginning of the French colonial times after the lagoon was drained, filled and converted to buildable land. The core of it consists in the most famous Avenue in Tunis, namely the Habib Bourguiba Avenue, which plots a central axis from the east to the west, starting from the medina entrance (Paris Avenue) to the Tunis Lake (by the TGM Station to La Marsa). From Bab El Bahr to the monumental clock of the Place du 7 Novembre (in reference to November 7, 1987, when the current president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took the power), the Bourguiba Avenue welcomes waves of pedestrians, growing in number as the day wears on. This urban epicenter features some distinct architectural landmarks, such as the Porte de France and the Cathédrale Saint Vincent de Paul that both date from the end of the 19th Century. It also features a few modern buildings, such as the Hôtel Africa Meridien, though they tend to pale in comparison to the more historical locations. But the most outstanding architectural features of the New Town are from Art Deco style. Lose yourself in Art Deco buildings on your way to the streets south of Bourguiba Avenue, such as the Carthage Avenue or the Yougoslavie Street. There is also Art Deco architecture right on the Bourguiba avenue, which is the Théâtre Municipal. A detour to the Marché Central de Tunis and its vicinity gives the opportunity to appreciate the dynamism of the popular trading activity of a downtown which also encompasses the biggest part of the economic activity of the capital city, despite the growing competition of the new suburb of the Berges du Lac.

Les Berges du Lac

Literally meaning “the banks of the lake,” Les Berges du Lac is the new business district of Tunis. This area started to expand during the 1990, as a result of a great urbanization project of the lagoon between the airport and the Tunis Lake. The whole landscape is a mix of modern buildings and parking lots and is a far cry from the historical atmosphere of downtown. Along with some wealthy residential districts, most of the area is occupied by both Tunisian and international companies. Many diplomatic offices have settled here, including the British and the American embassies. Shopping precincts are slowly developing, most notably, imported high-end clothing stores, located in the area of the Carré du Lac. There are also a growing number or coffee houses and restaurants, some of which have a terrace and great view of the lake (such as the restaurant and tea house Biwa, behind the Golden Bowling, open all day long until midnight), and others, like the nice tea house with terrace Le Phuket's near the Lac Palace mall. The district offers also recreation sites: the area surrounding the amusement park Dah Dah Happy Land Entertainment Park is devoted to leisure, where you can find bowling alleys, such as the Golden Bowling and discotheques. The promenade along the lake shore, usually quiet during the week, is busy during the weekend. A couple of quality hotels have also settled in Les Berges du Lac, fit for business travelers who benefit from the proximity to the airport.

La Goulette

From Tunis, this is the first city stop on the TGM (the Tunis-Goulette-Marsa railway line) enroute to La Marsa, after a ten kilometer-long (six mile-long) crossing of a water. La Goulette is Tunis' trading harbor, from which the ferries leave for the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. This Tunis outpost location assumed a strategic importance in the 16th Century, during the fights between the Ottomans and the Spanish to extend their respective influences on the Mediterranean Sea. The Kasbah Fortress, which unfortunately now is in ruins, stands as a reminder of the storming of La Goulette by Charles Quint. The Ottomans used La Goulette as a prison for the thousands meant to become slaves during the Mediterranean piracy times. Centuries after, during the colonization, the French used also the place as a prison. From the 1950s to the 1970s, La Goulette enjoyed a heyday which is immortalized in the French movie by Ferid Boughdir, Summer in La Goulette. People remember those times as a little Mediterranean paradise where Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Sicilian immigrants lived together and made a triumphal welcome to Habib Bourguiba when he came back from France in 1955. La Goulette features a long popular beach and basic white-and-blue houses and is of little interest for the tourists. However Tunis city dwellers used to come to La Goulette to enjoy one of its good seafood restaurants which have built the reputation of the main drag, the Franklin Roosevelt Avenue.

Carthage

It's hard to imagine that a city that struck fear into the heart of Roma once stood here. This calm posh suburb to the north of Tunis is also now the place of residence of the Tunisian President. To get a hint of this glorious past, you have to go in search of the spreading archeological vestiges between the rich villas of the wealthy Carthage city-dwellers. You will have to forget the part of the archeologist in search of vanished cities and play the one of a city dweller visiting a suburb. Even if the Carthage archeological sites, part of the UNESCO Humanity World Heritage, may not be the most impressive of the Mediterranean basin, it would be a shame not to admire the vestiges of this fabulous ancient city while visiting the Thermes d'Antonin, the Tophet de Carthage, the Colline de l'Odéon (Odeon Hill) and the Colline de Byrsa (Byrsa Hill) which notably encompasses the Musée National de Carthage.

Sidi Bou Saïd

Sidi Bou Saïd is a tourist and picturesque village located 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Tunis. The village overhangs the Bay of Tunis and its 18th-century residences are illuminated by their dazzling white walls and the gorgeous blue of their doors and moucharabies. This ancient village really developed in the 13th Century when the Sufi Abou Saïd settled his Zaouia (religious friary) here. Around his revered tomb a village was built which was devoted to military defense during the medieval period and then became a place for the wealthy Tunis city dwellers. In the beginning of the 20th Century, Baron Rodolphe d'Erlanger erected his palace here and contributed to the architectural preservation of the white and blue village colored by its bougainvilleas. Sidi Bou Saïd has hosted famous visitors, such as the French writers André Gide and Simone de Beauvoir, along with Michel Foucault, Henri Matisse and Paul Klee, who used to go to the Moorish coffeehouse of the Café des Nattes. It is also worth having a tea at sunset at the Café Sidi Chabaane after having visited the Palais du baron d'Erlanger (Dar Ennejma Ezzahra) and the Dar El Annabi residence.

La Marsa

This seaside city is particularly appreciated by the Tunis city dwellers who escape the city once the summer heat comes. It features private and modern villas with blossoming gardens down to the beach. There are also streets with many different shops such as the TGM train station with the Librairie Espace d'Art Mille Feuilles, the Le Grand Salem (Chez Salem) and the Centre Commercial Le Zéphyr mall. The love of this seaside city isn't a new story. The Hafside dynasty which ruled from Tunis from the 13th Century to the 16th Century built its palaces here, such as the El Abdelliya palace, as did the Ottoman beys after them. Nowadays the French and British ambassadors enjoy sumptuous mansions here. At La Marsa Plage (Marsa beach), people of all ages enjoy the beautiful beaches and stroll along the Belvédère seafront before going to the famous coffeehouse Café Le Saf Saf. A World War II French military cemetery overlooking the sea is located just outside the city on the inland road to Gammarth.

Gammarth

Roughly speaking, Gammarth is a seaside and posh Tunis suburb area. It is just north of La Marsa, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away from Tunis. It's long beach and eucalyptus forest have been covered by high end seaside resorts and rich villas.

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