After hearing about Tunisia for years from Soukra founder Pauline, London-based Emily and Angus Haldane visited Tunisia for the first time on a 5-day trip in February 2019. They enjoyed the historic sites of Carthage, bambaloni fried dough in Sidi Bou Said, and the meandering souks of the medina. We’re thrilled Emily shared with us her impressions, and a few dos and don’ts. And read Angus’s impressions of Carthage here.
We touched down after a delayed flight feeling jaded, but arriving to the Dar El Jeld Hotel & Spa was a wonderful welcome and auspicious beginning to our trip. The suite-only hotel is in the heart of the medina (the oldest part of town) in Tunis and just recently opened. The hotel has been renovated from a house to a hotel, and, like most properties in the medina, the layout is organized around a central courtyard. Our suite had plenty of room and two bathrooms (which, obviously, is the key to a successful marriage).
We woke up the following day to a delicious breakfast in the restaurant, although, Ang’s French was a bit rusty and he mistakenly ordered eggs three ways (instead of a three-egg omelet) so was comically full for our private walking tour of the medina, which had been arranged by the hotel.
Youseff (French Arabic for Joseph, duh) was mayoral in his knowledge and pride of his native city but also brilliantly fluent in English having taught French in West Yorkshire in the 1970s (all he would say, with a shudder, was the food and weather were terrible and he hasn’t been back to the UK since). Teaching us about the symbols on the fabulously ornate doors and how they were there to indicate what type of family lived there (Berber, Jewish, Christian, etc.) was a highlight, as was the view of the city from a popular roof top cafe.
That said, all three of us agreed that the peak experience was visiting a tiny pre-K school attached to a local mosque where, after taking direction from their proudly beaming teacher, a group of 4 year olds sung us a religious song and then fell about giggling. It is worth noting that the only up-sell was a soft introduction to a perfumer who romantically told us about the history of each scent and what major perfume brand uses them as base and top notes. We gave in easily and bought vials of essential oils that we are still decanting into the bath.
We lunched at the courtyard oasis of Fondouk el Attarine, which we mistakenly thought was a 3-course set menu but only realised afterwards we could have ordered a la carte. It is literally in the center of the souk so quite easy to find and also has stores surrounding the courtyard which offer a refined shopping experience with beautiful goods including babouches slippers and hand blown glassware.
Another amazing find was the street stall making fresh mlawi – like a folded pizza/calzone – which we ordered from the counter and witnessed the chef freshly making to be delivered with a salty paper packet of fries. The sandwich and, reluctantly, the portion of fries were so hearty we shared the meal which cost 4 Dinar (£1). Returning to the hotel with our meal could only have been bested if we had a large ceramic bowl to eat from.
We took a car between Dar El Jeld and our hotel in Sidi Bou Said, La Villa Bleue. The drive was an eye opener as Sidi Bou Said is a northern suburb of Tunis and wonderfully coastal – you could feel the density of Tunis city centre fall away and fresh air pour in.
La Villa Bleue is a charming higgledy-piggledy buidling with rooms on different levels and a sense that you had your own bolt-hole that happened to be in a hotel. Our suite had a sizeable terrace, with a stunning view of the Mediterranean ocean. It was the perfect spot for us to breakfast each morning and to have sundowners each evening.
After the ancient delights of Carthage (read Angus’ impression of Carthage here), we motored to Le Golfe, a chic beach-fronted restaurant for a great meal polished off with a muscular Tunisian mint tea. We walked into La Marsa armed with the hit-list of stores recommended by Pauline and it was quite difficult to not buy everything. We then took the tram between La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said. It was rewarding to see how some residents get around Tunis and again, it was an insanely reasonable 0.4 Dinars (£0.10) a ticket.
A special mention needs to be made of Sidi Bou Said bambaloni. Piping hot fresh donuts which are shaped, fried and sugar dusted in front of you were nothing short of sent from the heavens. We walked up the steep hill from the tram to ‘earn’ ours but frankly, if I could have worn some on my wrists like bangles to snack on, I would have.
All in all, we strongly reccomend you visit Tunis in person but if you can’t make it, a close second is having Tunisia curated and sent to you by the brilliant team at SOUKRA.
Bring tissues or toilet paper with you as well as some hand soap or gel as both are scarce in public restrooms – even in restaurants.
Do your bit for the Tunisian tourist industry and employ guides and cab drivers as much as possible. They are very reasonable and will enrich your visit.
Only eat in fancy restaurants. Some of the freshest food you will have will be street-side.
Stay at the Four Seasons Tunis. Stay literally anywhere else.