Tunisia is a gem of a small country in the Southern Mediterranean, the North African nation with the closest ties to Europe and by far the highest per capita income and levels of education.
Few in the United States will also know that it is the country in North Africa with the most advanced women's rights movement. Something like half of all the doctors and lawyers in Tunisia are women, as are half the judges and half the elected officials. This is in part the result of far-sighted policies instituted in the 1960s by Habib Bourgiba, Tunisia's first post-colonial leader, who insisted that women be granted all the rights of men including the right to an education. Bourgiba was a quirky figure in many ways, but his legacy is a nation where women have advanced much farther politically, culturally, and in the workplace than any other nation on earth, including, arguably, the United States and Great Britain.
Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, is the site of the ancient city of Carthage, the Roman capital of Africa. Tunis's magnificent harbor faces the western coast of Sicily and the southern coast of Sardinia. There was likely once a land bridge connecting Africa to Italy at this point. It is said that you can throw a stone from Tunisia and have it land in Sicily, but that is not quite true. The distance between the coastlines is about 95 miles.
Like every major city in North Africa, at the heart of Tunis lies the medina — the “Ancien Quartier” or Old Quarter, and even for Tunisians who have spent their whole lives in the city, taking a stroll through the medina to gaze upon such distinguished pre-colonial buildings as the Great Mosque and Bey's Palace in the cool of late afternoon or early evening is a favorite pastime. Half the people you see on such walks are not tourists, but locals.
Tunis is also home to one of the great museums of antiquities in the Med Basin, the Bardo Museum, which houses one of the largest collection of Roman mosaics under one roof anywhere in the world, as well as artifacts from ancient Greece and the Arab world. The curator of the Bardo once told me that on any given day, only about two per cent of the museum's holdings are on display because space in the museum, formerly a palace of the Bey of Tunis, is so limited. A major effort is now underway to create high quality digital images of all the Bardo's mosaics so that they can be shared with students across the globe.
Unlike Rome, in which the modern city was built directly on top of the ancient city, modern Tunis is built more or less next door to the ancient city of Carthage. This means that the ruins in Carthage are in a much better state of preservation than Roman ruins in Italy, and you'll find there remarkable sights such as the Roman amphitheater and the thermal Antonine Baths.
The modern city of Tunis is called locally “ville nouvelle” or the New City. It is in the new city that you will find the best hotels. I have lived in Tunis for several years and maintained a home there, and I've also stayed in half a dozen of the city's best hotels. It's difficult for me to pick a favorite. If I were going back today, I think I would stay at The Residence. This palatial hotel is situated on the seafront in Gammarth, close to the ruins of Carthage and the famous artist's colony of Sidi Bou Said, an exquisitely lovely hillside community overlooking the blue waters of the Mediterranean.
Sidi Bou Said has a special charm, universally regarded as the most beautiful neighborhood in Tunis, a haven for the Tunisian version of hippies, artists, and writers, some of the most interesting Tunisians you can hope to meet. Most Americans are surprised at how accessible they are, how easy it is to strike up a conversation. English is taught as a mandatory course in schools from the third grade on, so every educated Tunisian speaks at least some English. Of course, they also speak Arabic and French and many speak German, too because Germany is the main source of tourism for Tunisia.
Sidi Bou Said is mainly comprised of a single winding road going up the side of a steep hill, with whitewashed buildings on both sides and blue doors reminiscent of Greece's Santorini. Take the time to look at some of the lovely private residences on these winding streets, and to admire their doors. Some doors are large, others small; some are new while others are old. Some have tight porter's openings while others remain open to reveal a fleeting glimpse of the traditional Mediterranean Arab style home.
In every corner and cranny of this cozy seaside village there is an unexpected pleasure, cobbled streets with tiny, shaded souks, small art galleries and charming cafes. Before you go back to your hotel after a day of pleasure in Sidi Bou Said, Café des Delices is a must stop to unwind and enjoy some mint tea after a long day of practicing your newly acquired Arabic while bargaining for local handicrafts.