In Tunisia, ancient history is woven into the country’s fabric, from the atmospheric medina (old town) to the ruins of once-powerful Carthage. Among the African, European and Islamic heritage is a modern way of life, with bike tours, cool cafes and an annual arts festival helping make Tunis a stylish city break.
The Unesco-protected medina (old town) of Tunis has stood in this spot since 698CE, making it one of the first Arab-Muslim towns in the Maghreb. Between its crumbling buildings are a tangle of alleyways – getting lost once you pass the main entrance gate of Bab el Bhar is all part of the fun. Explore the mosques and mausoleums, embrace the chaos of the souks and take a dip into the lavish buildings of Sidi Brahim.
La Goulette is the city’s port, on a sandbar between Lake Tunis and the Gulf of Tunis. It’s a rustic suburb, but its large Kasbah fortress makes it worth the trip – built by Charles I of Spain in 1535, it was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1574. Trams run here from the city centre every 15 minutes – at weekends, you’ll see locals making the journey for lunch at La Goulette’s smattering of fish restaurants.
Wandering around a souk – an Arabic market – is a multisensory experience. Smell the heaps of vividly coloured spices, taste fresh-from-the-oven makrouds (cookies made with dates and nuts) and feel silky fabrics and leather as you roam around the stalls. Grouped according to craft, the shops sell everything from jewellery and perfume to wedding dresses and rugs.
In the olive groves of northern Tunis, the Parc du Belvédère provides a tranquil respite from all that sightseeing. It was established in 1892 by Joseph Laforcade – the prestigious head gardener of Paris at the time – who designed the 100ha (247 acres) park in an English style, with flowerbeds, groves and lawns. You’ll also find the city zoo, which has 155 species including elephants, lions, monkeys and jackals, plus a play area for kids.
Mythical prestige lingers among the ancient ruins of Carthage, the former seat of the Carthaginian Empire, which was one of the major powers of the ancient world at its height in the fourth century CE. The Unesco Heritage Site features bathhouses, an enormous amphitheatre and crumbled villas, overlooking the Gulf of Tunis. Admission to the ruins includes entry to the Carthage Museum, where artefacts from the Carthaginian and Roman conflict are on display.
During Ramadan, the Tunis Medina Festival lights up the capital every evening. A programme of cultural events spring up across a range of venues, so you could be watching a short film by an Arab director one night, and listening to live traditional Tunisian music the next. The festival feeling spills out into the streets, with jugglers and bands attracting crowds in the medieval setting.
Bike tours are big business in Tunisia. Le Lemon Tour, based 15km (9.3mi) from Tunis, offers bike rentals and guided tours around the wonders of Carthage. Reach it by catching the metro from downtown Tunis and hopping off at Hannibal Salambo. A typical three-hour tour covers a distance of 32km (20mi), its 10 stops including the mosaic-filled Antonine Roman baths, Roman Villas and Byrsa Hill, from where you can take in a sensational view of Tunis.
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