With a buzzing medina, cool courtyards, and proximity to Carthage and the Med, Tunisia's colourful capital is sure to enthral

Why go now?

The charming chaos of downtown Tunis is best appreciated in the fresh, sunny days between now and May. Tunisia warms up before the rest of the Mediterranean, but by midsummer, the capital can be stiflingly hot, and the focus shifts east of the city to the string of seaside suburbs and resorts along the Côtes de Carthage.

Touch down

Tunisair (020-7734 7644; www.tunisair.com) flies four times a week from Heathrow, from £156 return. BA (0844 493 0787) has up to six flights a week from Gatwick, with return fares starting at £146. Tunis-Carthage International Airport is handily situated just 8km north-east of the city. Bus 35 leaves for the centre every half-hour, with a single fare of 1 dinar (40p). Taxis are metered, faster and inexpensive: the fare should be less than 10 dinars (£4) for the 20-minute ride to the heart of the city, Avenue Habib Bourguiba.

Get your bearings

The city centre has two focal points, built more than 1,000 years apart. On the west side is the medina, a raggle-taggle of twisting, cobbled lanes, shady, sloping alleys, souks, mosques and minarets, founded about 1,300 years ago. To the north and east, the colonising French imposed a sense of order in the 19th century, constructing a Ville Nouvelle of wide, tree-lined boulevards and graceful, belle époque buildings that have been nicely renovated in recent times.

The ancient stronghold of Carthage lies east of the modern city, beyond Lake Tunis, which is forded by a causeway that carries the road and railway. The main tourist office (1) is near the eastern end of Avenue Habib Bourghiba, at 1 Avenue Mohamed V (00 216 71 341 077; www.tourismtunisia.com), within sight of the modernist clock tower marking Tunisian independence. The office supplies free maps of the city, the medina and Carthage, and opens 8am-6pm every day except Sunday, when it closes at noon.

Check in

In the heart of the old quarter, Dar el Medina (2), at 64 rue Sidi Ben Arous (00 216 71 563 022; www.darelmedina.com), has been imaginatively converted from a private mansion into a 12-bedroom boutique hotel. While the rooms are pristine white and minimalist, the lounges and courtyard are exotically decorated, and there are superb views of the medina from the pleasant roof terrace. A double room, with breakfast, costs from €125 (£96) per night. The clean, functional Les Ambassadeurs hotel (3), at 75 Avenue Taieb Mehiri (00 216 7184 6000; www.hotel-ambassadeurs.com), is extremely good value: a double room with breakfast costs €57 (£44).

Half an hour's drive from the city centre, The Residence (4) overlooks a fine stretch of beach on the Côtes de Carthage (00 216 71 910 101; www.theresidence.com). With a modern take on traditional Moorish design, the public areas flow into each other, and the spacious bedrooms all have balconies. Double rooms start at €275 (£211) per night, including breakfast, though you can get lower rates with a package: Wigmore Holidays (020-7836 4999; www.aspectsof tunisia.co.uk) has a four-night package, including flights and private transfers, for £695 per person.

Take a View

The bigger picture of Tunis is most rewarding. If you're not fortunate enough to be staying at the Dar el Medina (2), some shops around the Zaytouna Mosque (5) will allow you up to their roof terraces to survey a scene that has remained largely unchanged for centuries – apart from the satellite dishes. For the privilege, you may be charged a small fee or be subjected to sales talk. Alternatively, there are some excellent vantage points in Belvedere Park (6).

Window shopping

Although the medina has too many cheap souvenir shops, more than a dozen traditional souks have survived. Haggling is expected. Look for pottery, leatherware, silver jewellery, brass plates and tiles – and carpets, of course, whose authenticity is guaranteed by a metal tag on the back. Just as interesting are the dimly lit workshops, where craftsmen use rudimentary tools to beat metal into shape or stitch the Tunisian version of the fez, the chéchia. It's a dying art: most young Tunisian males prefer to wear baseball caps.

Lunch on the run

Tasty street fare is widely available in the medina; if you prefer to sit down, try the plain and simple restaurant Mahdaoui (7), on rue Jamaa Zitouna, where couscous, fresh fish and a soft drink will set you back around 6 dinars (£2.50). In addition, Avenue Habib Bourghiba has a wealth of restaurants and patisseries.

Cultural afternoon

The astonishing Bardo Museum (8), in the suburb of Le Bardo (00 216 71 513 650; www.di.com.tn/museebardo), is in a 13th-century palace, where innumerable treasures, notably some giant mosaics recovered from Roman villas, are on display. It opens 9am-5pm daily except Monday. In common with all Tunisia's museums and ancient sites, there's an extra charge of 1 dinar (40p) to take photos.

Take a ride

A trip on the British-built light railway from Tunis Marine station (9) across the lake to Carthage and the delightful outposts of La Goulette, Sidi Bou Said and La Marsa is an essential Tunis experience. There are good reasons to stop at each station, and bird-lovers will relish the flamingoes on the lake, but the ideal place to get off is Sidi Bou Said (10), one of the most beautiful villages in the Mediterranean. The train runs three times an hour, and the single fare to Sidi is 1.60 dinars (65p).

Sidi is perched on a cliff with panoramic views of the sea and mountains. From the station, a cobbled street leads up a steep incline to a collection of white houses with bright-blue doors and jasmine-scented courtyards. With atmospheric cafés and a tempting hole-in-the-wall doughnut stall en route, continue climbing the pedestrian-only thoroughfare through Sidi until it comes to a sudden stop below a lighthouse on a promontory overlooking the Mediterranean.

An Aperitif

Drink in the spectacular view at Sidi Bou Said's open-air Café Sidi Chebaane, where the tables and rug-draped terraces are arranged on different levels of the steep cliff that overlooks the marina and the Bay of Tunis. Like the other cafés, long popular with visiting artists and poets, it is alcohol-free. If you need something stronger than mint tea with pine nuts (delicious though it is), you can take a drink with a view on the leafy terraces of the Dar Said hotel and Dar Zarrouk restaurant, on either side of the main street.

Dining with the Locals

At the nearby port of La Goulette, there is a parade of excellent fish restaurants. Back in Tunis, behind a forbidding door in one of the medina's more untidy streets, Dar Belhadj (11), at 17 rue des Tamis, is like a mirage: tables are arranged around a covered courtyard, and in a more intimate first-floor gallery, with ornate tiling, pillars and arches. The effect is enhanced by the soothing sounds of the sitar-player. Food is traditional but expensive by local standards: from 70 dinars (£28) a head (booking advisable: 00 216 71 200 894).

A block north of Avenue Habib Bourghiba, at 14 bis rue Pierre de Coubertin, Chez Slah (12) (00 216 71 258 588) is an attractive, less pricey venue that specialises in seafood.

Sunday morning: go to church

Non-Muslims can't enter the 9th-century Zaytouna Mosque (5), the centrepiece of the medina, although they can visit its serene courtyard. The principle place of Christian worship in Tunis is the imposing Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul (13), at the Place de l'Indépendance, built by the French in the 1880s, and featuring a striking cupola above the altar depicting biblical scenes. Mass is celebrated in French every Sunday at 11am.

Out to Brunch

Tunisians tend to eat late on Sundays, but international hotels run all-day buffets to fill the gap. In the north-west corner of Belvedere Park, at the marbled, ground-floor restaurant of the Sheraton Hotel (14) (00 216 71 782 100; www.sheraton.com), you can eat as much as you like, and – as long as you stick to fruit juice, coffee or tea – drink as much as you like too, for 40 dinars (£16) per head.

Take a hike

... around the Roman and Punic ruins in the spectacular setting of ancient Carthage (15), the second world-class cultural attraction in Greater Tunis. The site extends over a large area and would take a week to explore properly: in a single visit, you can appreciate its scale and capture something of the flavour of its epic history by climbing to the top of Byrsa Hill for a splendid wide-angle view of the complex. From there, you can walk among the remains of the Punic Quarter, which was founded in the 9th century BC but completely destroyed by the Romans in 146BC, and elements of the city they built in its place, which became the third largest in their empire after Rome and Alexandria – and was itself severely plundered when the empire collapsed.

The best-restored sections are a residential Punic district dating from the 3rd century BC, and the monumental Antonine Baths, completed AD2. Many important archaeological finds, including two extraordinary Punic sarcophagi depicting a reclining man and woman carved about 2,400 years ago, are housed in the excellent Carthage Museum (open 9am-5pm every day except Monday), situated within the complex.

From April until September, you can visit the outdoor ruins between 8am-7pm daily; a multiple-entry ticket (8 dinars/£3.20) provides access to all the archaeological sites, both in Carthage and throughout Greater Tunis.

Icing on the cake

In this age of minimalist spas where you are pampered to a New Age soundtrack, the traditional Tunisian hammam comes as a shock: in these no-nonsense establishments, your skin gets scaled and polished with a startling but satisfying combination of hot water, steam, mud and a scrubbing mitt roughly wielded by a male masseur or female masseuse.

It's a thoroughly enlivening experience, and if you go to one of the older hammams to be found all over the city (ask at your hotel), you will feel as though you have genuinely immersed yourself in Tunisian life. And there should even be some change from a 10-dinar note (£4) at the end of it all.