The Best City You’ve Never Heard of That’s Two Hours from Paris
If you’re like me, you’re always looking for ways to maximize your adventures by looping in every last stop on any trip you take. Wanderful women want the most bang for our buck, yet European adventurers often overlook opportunities to the continent’s south.
Just a two hour flight across the Mediterranean, one often forgotten spot that I recently had the opportunity to visit was Tunis, Tunisia.
You likely know Tunisia as the country where the Arab Spring began in the town of Sidi Bouzid in December of 2010. Nearly six years after the revolution, Tunis is on the rebound and boasts reemerging artistic, cultural, and innovation scenes as it navigates its new democratic path ahead. And the best part? Flights are available for just about $250 USD round trip on Air France or Tunisair on direct routes from Charles De Gaulle to Tunis-Carthage International Airport, as well as other major European cities. In my case, I had my morning coffee in Frankfurt and was ready for couscous in Tunis by lunch.
Where to Explore
Tunisia is broken down into neighborhoods around a large peninsula. I was struck by the colonial architecture downtown, but with beautiful coastal drives throughout the small city, your best bet is to stay in an upscale waterfront area like Gammarth or Sidi Bou Said. English is not widely spoken, so bring your finest French and Arabic skills.
While visiting the trendy Les Berges du Lac zone, I found the bifurcated neighborhoods of Lac I and Lac II, an area of significant recent development where the American and British embassies, Microsoft, and Siemens Tunisia offices, telecom conglomerates Ooredoo and Orange Tunisia, and Cosmitto Coffee are all located.
Where to Work
If you’re working while on the road, you’ll be right at home in Les Berges du Lac’s Cogite Coworking Space where you can sit among some of Tunis’s emerging visionaries, provided with high speed Internet and a place to work for about $10 USD per day.
You can focus in the indoor computer lab or bask in the sun on a beanbag chair next to the inground pool (fully dressed, please). Swimming is for members only. Cogite also hosts events, civil society programs, and trainings. (While you will find progressive organizations and individuals in Tunis, LGBTQ travelers should be aware of a recent uptick in police crackdown on queer culture.)
How to Relax
When you’re ready to relax, be sure to spend time in Sidi Bou Said.
I adored the white houses, blue doors, winding hilly streets, and seaside views overlooking the Mediterranean. I meandered among the street vendors and took in the bright fuchsia bougainvillea trees with a warm bomboloni — a hollow, sugared donut — tucked in hand, purchased from a small street stall for about 25¢ USD (I bit into the sweet treat expecting that it would be cakey, but in fact it was light and airy, almost like a crepe!).
While in Sidi Bou Said, I lounged at a rooftop café to sip citronade (a cold, rich drink similar to lemonade, made of fine lemon puree) and enjoyed the view of the sprawling city below. Basking in the sun, I breathed the sea breeze and enjoyed the mocktails while my friends smoked apple shisha from a bubbling hookah.
It’s easy to find souvenirs in Sidi Bou Said, but if you want to bring home something truly unique, I highly recommend visiting the woman-owned glass shop Dar Sadika in Gammarth. Artisan Sadika Keskes’s outpost not only blows all their glass on site, but all of her work also features her signature “shattered” style. Pick up some colorful cups, bowls, plates, and more to put in your carry on (the shopkeeper will even wrap your goods for travel!). I was tempted by the glimmering pitchers and delicate earrings, but settled on purchasing four ocean-blue whiskey glasses for about $20 USD.
What to Eat
When your tired feet need a rest, you’ll be ready to eat, and seafood absolutely cannot be missed in this oceanfront city.
If you plan to cook, wander into the Marché Central on the outskirts of the medina (market district) to grab fresh produce and smell your way to the multitude of fresh fish, prawns, octopus, shellfish, and most notably, tuna. Note for the mercury-wary: tuna is the name of the game in Tunisia. You’ll find it on pizza, in pasta, and with salads. If you’re dining out, eat where the locals eat. Le Café Vert in the port neighborhood Goulette is a resident favorite and its freshness is evident. Upon arrival, you’ll be instructed to head straight back to the kitchen to pick your fish from among a three foot pile on ice. Your selection will be delivered to your table, grilled and adorned with lemon halves. Expect to see the head fully intact on the plate. I inhaled meaty, smoky bronzini that melted in my mouth, as well as sweet prawns and delicate pan-fried fish no bigger than my palm. As I picked at the bones, I sipped Chardonnay, which was refreshing next to the briny fish (Wine is widely available in restaurants, and some supermarkets, such as Carrefour.).
To accompany the fish, I indulged in some of the freshest salads I’ve ever tasted, including salata mishwiyya, which blends grilled bell and chilli peppers, tomatoes, and onion into a spicy minced paste adorned with tuna, hard boiled eggs, olives, and lemon. Piping hot french fries completed my feast.
As with many Tunisian meals, my taste buds were shocked by tart lemon sorbet for dessert. A tastier dinner can’t be found.
You cannot miss Tunis.
While even veteran travelers may have reservations about visiting North Africa (safety and travel have been written about extensively by other contributors to Wanderful) and the country remains fraught with political, social, and security challenges, Tunisia is (precariously) more stable than many of its neighbors. In addition to its relative calm, like the neighboring North African cities Rabat and Algiers, Tunis offers a unique mix of African, Italian, Arab, and Spanish influences that can’t be replicated in Europe.
Give the whole Mediterranean a chance. Take a break from the European Union and embrace an opportunity to experience a true cultural melting pot just two hours from Paris.
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Where are some of your favorite places to travel that others often don’t think of? Share in the comments!