I flew with TunisAir from Casablanca to Tunis and the total duration of the flight was a bit less than 3 hours. It was on time, boarding went relatively smooth, and flight was generally comfortable. However, the plane was a bit old, food was inedible, no in-flight entertainment, and seats were in a bad shape. I didn’t have high expectations about the flight as I already knew that TunisAir is going through a turbulent time. On the other hand, cabin crew were very nice, friendly and professional. When I was offered “tea or coffee”, I answered with “Coffee, please” and said that in Arabic, the flight attendant was curious and asked me in a sweet Tunisian Arabic dialect “Where are you from?”. I always pause for moment when someone asks me this question as it’s always hard for me to give a quick precise answer but at the same time, I don’t want to tell my life story to whoever asks me this question. Therefore, this time it worked out and I managed to give a short answer in one sentence. That’s not the end of the story as my answer opened another interesting conversation. She was extremely warm and welcoming and I immediately realized that this is just the beginning and I am going to meet many friendly and interesting people there in Tunisia.
Arrival in Tunis-Carthage Airport
The plane has landed in Tunis-Carthage airport. Shortly after, I was transferred to the airport terminal by bus. Tunis-Carthage airport is small, old, and very crowded. There was a long queue at the passport control. When it was my turn, I handled over my passport to the passport control officer. “Are you from Kuwait?”, he asked. “No, I am Canadian” , I answered. Let me explain something here; it seems that passport control officers in Arab countries always ask people who have Arab roots but hold a Western citizenship about their country of origin. I was never asked about my country of origin anywhere I travelled to except in Arabic countries, which is interesting. Anyhow, he asked me if I am originally from Kuwait because it’s shown in the passport as my place of birth. I said “No, I am not a Kuwaiti” . He asked me again; “Originally, where are you from?” . I was like “Oh yeah, originally I am Palestinian”. “Ok! You’re welcome here”, he said it in a a firm yet a bit hospitable tone. I was happy to get my passport stamped and to be done with all that. Later, I got a local sim card with data plan, paid about 4.5 USD for 5 GB internet and went to the taxi stand to start negotiating a price for a taxi ride to my airbnb apartment. The negotiation took a few minutes. In the end, I agreed to pay around 9 USD for a taxi ride to Sidi Bou Saïd area where my apartment is located. The taxi driver was a cool guy and we immediately started interesting conversations about football, revolution, history, Canada, Europe, Palestinian/Israeli conflict, food, and so many other things.
I arrived in my Airbnb place in Sidi Bou Saïd. Since I didn’t eat anything on the plane, I was starving. I searched for a place to eat in google maps and found one pizza place nearby with great reviews; I went there and had a tasty and flavourful Italian pizza and once again, the owner asked me the same question which I was asked on the plane in an incredibly friendly and hospitable tone “where are you from?” and answering him started another long conversation. Apparently, Tunisians love it when you tell them “I have Palestinian roots”. It felt great.
Tunis the capital
After Pizza, I needed to go to downtown Tunis (Avenue Habib Bourguiba) to see the capital in the early evening. The ride from Sidi Bou Said to Tunis took around 20 minutes in a taxi and costed about 6 USD. It was a Sunday evening so it wasn’t crazy busy but I was fascinated to be in this historical avenue where thousands of Tunisians protested and eventually celebrated after the dictator Ben Ali has fled the country after weeks of mass protests culminated in a victory for people power over one of the Arab world’s most repressive regimes.
I went to a nice little restaurant/cafe (I was full after the Pizza) so I tried a small dish called Harissa which is basically a Tunisian hot chili pepper paste that Tunisian people are obsessed with. Yes, Harissa is an obsession for Tunisians as they add it to most of their dishes. It is spicy and delicious especially with warm olive oil and when it is dipped in fresh baguette. After a few days, I became addicted to it and I now truly miss it. When I was inside the restaurant, I noticed something and that was my first culture shock; people smoke indoor in Tunisia and no one seems to be bothered about it.
Sidi Bou Saïd
Next day, I spent the first half of the day in the stunning Sidi Bou Said; it was a walking distance from my airbnb place. Had a coffee there and walked around to enjoy the beauty of the white and blue houses. The view of Mediterranean from Cafe des Delices is stunningly beautiful. Sidi Bou Said is the Tunisia’s Santorini and I sincerely believe that this place is underrated and it deserves much more social media attention and credit.
No trip to Sidi Bou Said is complete without trying the famous Bambalouni (deep fried Tunisian Doughnut) which is fresh, warm, and delicious. I had one as a breakfast and the price I paid for it was less 30 cents (yes, you heard it right). The taste is great but I must admit that it’s very sweet and full of sugar!
Medina of Tunis
In the afternoon, I went to the city centre to explore Medina of Tunis, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Medina is busy, chaotic, colourful, authentic, and charming. It’s an ideal place to explore the deep roots of Tunisian culture and to do some great shopping if you are into that (I am personally not into shopping while travelling as I prefer to travel light).
Apart from shops inside Medina, there is Al-Zaytouna mosque that is located in the centre of Medina; the mosque is famous to host one of the oldest universities in the history of Islam. The mosque was built in the 8th century and the view of the mosque and its minaret from the roof top cafe is really amazing.
After an interesting tour in Medina, and after having a cup of Turkish coffee on the roof top cafe, I wanted to try local cuisine so my Tunisian friend recommended a great restaurant in Medina where we had lunch. I had a Tunisian meat Couscous and it was delicious. However, once again, Tunisians are obsessed with Harissa so it was spicy but I like spicy food so the taste was great. There is a photo of the dish below and you can see that it’s full of chili pepper, if you zoom in 🙂
Medina of Tunis is very authentic and real! It’s true there are many shops to sell tourists over-priced goods but its also full of locals who are there to shop, eat, or spend time with friends and family. It’s a must see spot and I highly recommend checking it out.
Staying in Sidi Bou Said area has its pros and cons. The biggest advantage about staying there is being in the central of a charming area with amazing views and relaxed environment but one disadvantage is that it is a bit outside the city. Luckily, Tunisia is a very cheap destination if you are coming from Europe, North America, or the Middle East. Therefore, a 20 minutes taxi ride would cost around 5 USD or so. However, if you are on a super tight budget, you can take the TGM train (ticket costs less than a dollar) note that the train is old and sometimes very crowded but it does the job; journey takes about 40 minutes.
We visited Bardo museum; it is the 2nd largest in Africa in terms of richness of collections after the Egyptian museum. The museum houses a huge number of Roman mosaics; some of the displayed items are gigantic and the amount of details is just incredible. However, I must admit that the museum was a bit tired and not in good shape, which is really sad. As you know, Tunisia went -and still going- through a difficult economical situation after the revolution. I am sure that Tunisia is now on the right track to become the first real democracy in the Arab world and people there are serious about it. Anyway, A ticket to the museum costs around 4 USD.
After the museum tour, we headed to a roof top bar -it’s called Jamaica- and the whole building (it’s a hotel, actually) along with elevators and the bar itself reminded me of the 1980s. It was a weird yet interesting place where I was able to see the main avenue in Tunis (Habib Bourgiba Avenue) from the top of a 12 floors building, wasn’t a bad view at all.
Carthage ruins is another UNESCO world heritage and a unique archaeological and cultural site. I don’t exaggerate if I say that Carthage ruins alone can be a great reason to visit Tunisia especially if you have an interest in learning more about Roman history and culture. These Carthage sites are incredible and I spent a good 3 to 4 hours roaming around them. Price of ticket is around 4.3 USD and it gives you an access to 6 archaeological sites. Out of these 6 sites, I visited 4 of them; Baths of Antoninus, Carthage Amphitheatre, Roman Villas, and Punic Port. The first 3 sites are really close to each other so no need to worry about transportation. However, it’s about 30 minutes walk (or 6 minutes by car) from one of these 3 sites to Punic Port. I was exploring sites on my own but an experienced guide -he’s been a guide since 1978- suggested to give me a guided tour for 30 minutes at the Baths of Antoninus; I thought it’s a good idea so decided to go for it and it turned out to be a great idea as the guide was really experienced and knowledgeable; He gave me a comprehensive history lecture about Carthage and I really enjoyed his company. It costed me around 9 USD and it’s something I recommend doing, especially if you are in a group so you can share cost.
Not far away from Carthage ruins, there’s a beautiful coastal town called La Marsa; the view of Mediterranean from there is absolutely stunning. It’s an ideal spot to meditate and think about all the great things I experienced in the trip. I was deeply touched by the great amount of hospitality, generosity, and friendliness that I received from Tunisian people. I deeply connected with many people I met there and I discovered that they have some great values. Also, it’s fascinating how they fought bravely to defeat the dictator and to get their freedom back. When I was at La Marsa beach enjoying the beautiful view of the sea, I memorized the beautiful words of the Tunisian poem which some verses of it are in the Tunisian National Anthem “If, one day people desire to live, destiny must surely respond. And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall”.
Back to Sidi Bou Said
You can easily tell that Sidi Bou Said was my favourite spot in this Trip to Tunisia. It’s such a charming underrated town that many of us never heard of. I was able to explore more places in the town during my last day. However, I must admit that I had a hard time by some shop owners when I decided to get some small gifts for friends and family. They were truly pushing too much! Looks like I was there in low season so they didn’t have many other clients so they were desperate to sell me loads of things I didn’t need.
I did my best to visit the places which I planned to see before the trip. There are some other spots which I couldn’t visit due to lack of time and energy. I would definitely do my best to visit them if I get the chance to visit Tunisia again:
-Hammamet (beautiful beaches)
-Djerba Island (arguably the most touristic spot in Tunisia during the summer)
-City of Sousse (beautiful coastal city)
-Kairouan Mosque (one of the oldest places of worship in the Islamic world)
-Sahara (such a magical place)
How do we heal from the love of Tunisia?
In my last hours there, I thought that there are some great reasons to visit Tunisia; warm sun, beaches, food, history, culture, etc… but there is something that is, in my opinion, more important than any of the above; it’s the warmth and hospitality of Tunisian people. After visiting Tunisia, I realized why Mahmoud Darwish -regarded as the national Palestinian poet- said these beautiful words about Tunisia “How do we heal from the love of Tunisia?”
Tunisia is a great country to visit; beautiful beaches, charming spots, thousands of years history, sunny destination, affordable, good food and awesome people.
Best time to visit Tunisia? Probably between April to June and September to October. You can still go there in summer months (Djerba Island is very popular in the summer) to enjoy the beach but it might be too hot in some areas such as Sahara or even inside the city. I was there in January and it was alright but I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the beach or to do any water sport.
During my stay, I stayed in a nice airbnb apartment in Sidi Bou Said area, the apartment was neat and clean and served its purpose. There are plenty of other options such as hotels and airbnb apartments and rooms, and hostels. I noticed that hotels have international rates so they can be costly so I decided to go for an airbnb apartment.
Transportation is easy and cheap; you can either hail a taxi or use a taxi App “Bolt”. It’s a convenient app but you still have to use cash to pay the driver. By the way, just like Morocco, you will have to use a lot a of cash in Tunisia as credit cards aren’t widely accepted. Another method of transportation is public transit; there are train stops in Tunis city centre, Sidi Bou Said, Carthage, and La Marsa so it is easy, cheap, and convenient to move around these spots. Also, many Tunisian cities are connected through railway.
Food is good and cheap and portions are huge. I really liked the taste of Harissa but if I have to choose between Moroccan and Tunisian cuisines, I would choose Moroccan! Sorry Tunisian people 🙂
About getting to Tunisia, if you live in Europe, that should be very easy as there are direct flights from most of major (or even smaller) European cities. In the summer, there are even more charter flights hence more options. If you come from Middle East or Asia, Emirates, EgyptAir and Qatar Airways have daily flights to Tunis. If you come from North America, you will most likely have to fly to Paris, London, or Frankfurt and then change there and then fly to Tunis.
That’s everything I can say about Tunisia for now! I hope you enjoyed reading this and let me know if you have comments or questions.
Stay tuned for more!!