Shopping in souks, sipping mint tea by the sea - it's all just three hours' flight away, writes Mike Gerrard
Several tour companies have introduced short breaks in Tunis into their brochures this year, suggesting they feel the time is right for us to go. It's a delightful small city with a dash of French sophistication added to its own North African atmosphere. Tunisia itself is unusual, being a Muslim state where women have equality, and where the emphasis on education has produced a cultured society. Tunis has one of the finest museums in Africa, the remains of ancient Carthage, a warren-like medina (old town), beaches and tasty spicy food.

When to go

Avoid August, when temperatures soar to about Gas Mark 7, and avoid the depths of winter when, despite it being hailed as a year-round destination, it can be cold and wet. Otherwise, Tunis is pleasant any time. June-early July and September-November are ideal.

Getting there

There are four direct flights each week from London to Tunis with both GB Airways (tel: 0345 222111) - a return ticket costs from pounds 186 plus tax - and Tunis Air (tel: 0171-734 7644) where a return ticket is from pounds 196 plus tax. There are also charter flights all summer serving Tunisia's beach resorts. For economy, look for a last-minute charter deal, but for comfort, a package deal using a scheduled flight is the best option, and not expensive (see deals and packages).

Getting around

Taxis are cheap and plentiful, and by far the easiest way to get about if time is limited. Tunis also has a good Metro service, which is in fact a tram network, and a bus service too, though not all the scattered Carthaginian remains have convenient public transport connections. A taxi to, say, the Bardo Museum in one of Tunis's suburbs would cost less than pounds 2. Journeys within the city centre cost less than pounds 1.

Where to stay

The basic choice is whether you want the bustle of the city centre, or a bit of beach/poolside relaxation as well. For bustle, the four-star El Hana International is right on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, just a few minutes from the medina, and close to many good eating places. The five-star Abou Nawas Tunis is still central, but about 10 minutes' walk from the medina, though it also has its own swimming-pool.

There is also an Abou Nawas hotel in the beach suburb of Gammarth, where the luxurious Residence Tunis can also be recommended. Both have free shuttle buses to the city centre, but the area is rather soulless - why have a city break and then base yourself in an artificial up-market beach resort?

What to see and do

The medina. The walled Old Town of Tunis contains a network of souks, as well as museums, mosques, bath-houses, and an endless supply of carpet touts. Don't listen to anyone who offers to show you an exhibition (it will be of carpets), a museum (it will be a carpet shop), a view (it will mean going into a carpet shop) or a good cafe (it will mean a cup of tea in a carpet shop).

But that aside, the medina is a fabulous medieval jumble, and don't worry about getting lost: you will, and it's the best way to discover the back streets. Leave the souvenir shops on the main street, and explore the perfume souk, the spice souk, the jewellery souk, and the cloth souk.

The Bardo Museum. The Bardo is a delight because it is little-known, so expectations are not high, yet it has the finest collection of Roman mosaics in the world. Even if you have no previous interest in mosaics, you will admire the colour and artistry, not to mention the scale, of the items in the Bardo's collection. Open in summer 9am-5pm, Tue-Sun. Admission 3.15 Tunisian dinars (just under pounds 2) plus TD1 to take photographs.

Sidi Bou Said. This coastal resort on the outskirts of Tunis is one of the most beautiful villages in Tunisia, if not the Mediterranean. Its houses are dazzling white with deep blue doors and shutters, and it has an excellent view across the Gulf of Tunis. Come here for a fish lunch, or mint tea in one of the cafes.

Carthage. Not one place but several, the ruins of this Roman city are now spread out through the Tunis suburbs. Some remains are disappointingly small, but among the highlights are the Antonine Baths, next to the modern Presidential Palace (photography of which is forbidden, so be careful where you point your camera) and Byrsa Hill, which also has the Carthage Museum and grand Cathedral of St-Louis. All Carthage sites are open daily in summer, 8am-7pm, and one TD4.2 ticket covers all of them, (plus TD1 for photographs).

Avenue Habib Bourguiba. This wide French-style main street of Tunis is named after the country's first modern President, after independence from French rule in 1956. Bourguiba, who is still alive though elderly and frail, is a modern hero who was forward-thinking and produced a modern Muslim society. Women were given equality, and he gave 30 per cent of his annual budget to education. The Avenue has a central leafy pedestrian area, and is lined by shops, cafes, patisseries and restaurants.

Food and drink

Tunisian food blends North African spice with French flair, and is generally good. It is a fertile country, with plentiful supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as good fresh fish, and this is reflected in its own unique dishes. It is standard practice to serve complimentary appetisers, such as olives, crisps, nuts, cheese or dips.

Harissa is a fiery dip of varying degrees of intensity. Treat the first mouthful with caution. Brik is a universal starter, a very thin pastry parcel, deep-fried, and usually with a fried egg or tuna inside. Couscous is as common here as elsewhere in North Africa. Wine is served in most restaurants where tourists are likely to venture, and the country produces some good ones. They may not win international prizes, but at the price, they are good quality table wines. Look for names likes Vieux Magon, Magon Rouge, Bizerte and Chateau Mornag. Eating out is relatively cheap: even expensive restaurants are pretty inexpensive by Western standards.

Chez Nous, 5 rue de Marseille. One-room French restaurant, long-established and popular, as evidenced by ageing photos of past diners, including Edith Piaf and Marcel Marceau. Did he mime his order? I would like to have seen his prawn salad, but fresh fish such as dory and sole are a speciality here. Moderate prices, but expensive if you opt for fish.

Baghdad, 29 Avenue Habib Bourguiba. Done out like a harem, this Tunisian/international place varies in quality. I had a mouthwatering sauteed squid and chocolate mousse (not on the same plate), but a cold cup of coffee. Generally attentive service, though, and moderate prices.

La Huchette, 20 rue de Marseille. A personal favourite, for friendly staff, good food and complimentary coffee, or fruit, or both according to their mood. French/Tunisian dishes. Cheap.

Restaurant Dar el-Jeld, 5 rue Dar el-Jeld, in the medina. Rated the best in Tunis, maybe even the country. Wonderfully palatial setting in former mansion, Tunisian dishes enhanced by French wines and entertainment. Expensive.

Cafe de Paris, corner of Avenue Habib Bourguiba and Avenue de Carthage. Busy spot to meet in the town centre, for local workers, intellectuals, tourists and anyone else in need of a coffee, cake, wonderful fresh orange juice or a beer (it's one of the very few cafes to serve alcohol).

Cafe des Nattes, on the main square, Sidi Bou Said. Like the Cafe de Paris in Tunis, a great place to people-watch, where everyone comes to hang out.

Nightlife

Tunis is not a great place for night-owls, as this is a Muslim country - albeit a very liberal one. Many restaurants offer floor shows, usually including a belly-dancer, but decent bars are few and far between. Some of the big hotels, such as the El Hana, do have discos, but the main evening occupation is eating, followed by a coffee-drinking.

Out of town

If you want to check out Tunisia's beach resorts, there is a bus service to Hammamet, which takes about 90 minutes, and to Sousse, a further 30 minutes away. There is also a frequent train service to Sousse, but it takes the same time. Hammamet is more touristy - not surprising as 30 per cent of Tunisia's tourists stay here. Sousse is bigger, with more to see and a marked distinction between the town, with its medina, fort, museum and market, and the out-of-town "Zone Touristique", where most of the hotels have been built.

For culture, take a day trip to Dougga, the impressive remains of a Roman town on a hillside above a valley covered in with olive groves. It is one of Unesco's World Heritage Sites, and quite rightly so, with its theatre, temples, cobbled streets, bath-houses, even the remains of a brothel and a public latrine.

Take a good guidebook along with you (the Rough Guide has a detailed map and lengthy descriptions), or hire a guide at the gate. Their English is usually good and their knowledge excellent.

Deals and packages

Mike Gerrard travelled with Cadogan (tel: 0238 828366) and stayed at the four-star El Hana International Hotel, five minutes from the medina: pounds 313 for two nights, pounds 341 for three nights, both deals based on two sharing and including return flights, from now until 15 December.

Cresta (tel: 0161-927 7000) does two-night packages in the nearby five- star Abou Nawas Tunis hotel for pounds 330 before 15 July and pounds 347 after, or three nights for pounds 379 or pounds 396 respectively, all based on two sharing and including return flights.

Panorama (tel: 01273 427777), Wigmore (tel: 0171-486 4425), Elegant Resorts (tel: 01244 897777) and Travelscene (tel: 0181-427 4445) also feature good short breaks to Tunis.

Further information

The Tunisian National Tourist Office, 77a Wigmore Street, London W1H 9LJ (tel: 0171-224 5598).

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