48 hours in Tunis

It's a city that mixes the cool elegance of French sophistication with the heady ambience of North Africa. Wander through winding alleys, browse in the souks and experience the multi-cultural flavour of Tunisia's capital

The capital of Tunisia combines the pleasures of sunny European boulevards (courtesy of the French) with those of one of North Africa's most atmospheric Arab medinas. With the fruit trees in blossom and temperatures in the city at a comfortable 22C, spring is the ideal time to traipse around the Antonine baths of nearby ancient Carthage, or replenish your vitamin levels beneath an African sun.

Why go now?

The capital of Tunisia combines the pleasures of sunny European boulevards (courtesy of the French) with those of one of North Africa's most atmospheric Arab medinas. With the fruit trees in blossom and temperatures in the city at a comfortable 22C, spring is the ideal time to traipse around the Antonine baths of nearby ancient Carthage, or replenish your vitamin levels beneath an African sun.

Beam down

Tunisair (020-7734 7644, www.tunisair.com.tn) departs from Heathrow on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and flights cost from £230.60. GB Airways flies on behalf of British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) from Gatwick to Tunis on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays from £233.70. Tunis-Carthage airport is 10km outside the city. A taxi from the airport to the centre costs around 5 dinar (£2.50); buses run every 10 minutes for 1 dinar (50p).

Get your bearings

The city divides into the old medina and the New Town, or Ville Nouvelle, built in the colonial era to house the French government and expatriates. In the New Town, the Avenue Habib Bourguiba is the main focus for bars, cafés and shops. The gateway to the medina is the Bab El Bhar. Here the gridiron of French town planning clashes head on with sinuous alleyways of traditional Arab quarters. Think of the Avenue Habib Bourguiba as an arrow going straight to the heart of the medina. The main tourist office (00 216 71 341 077, www.tourismtunisia.co.uk) is in the New Town, opposite the clock tower in the Place du 7 Novembre, with smaller offices in the Tunis-Carthage airport and in the Place de la Victoire.

Check in

What the El Hana International lacks in character, it makes up for in its central location on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba (00 216 71 331144), in the liveliest part of Tunis's new town, and within minutes of the medina. Double rooms cost 120 dinar (£60). Also in the centre of Tunis is the charmingly decayed Hotel Majestic (00 216 71 332666, majestic@gnet.tn). The Soviet-era furnishings betray colonial grandeur – vast echoing bedrooms with high ceilings and spacious bathrooms. At 50 dinar (£25) for a double, the oldest hotel in Tunisia is a bargain for nostalgic travellers looking for the spirit of André Gide. Ask for a room on the top floor, looking on to the Avenue de Paris. The Hotel Salammbo (00 216 71 334252, hotel.salammbo@gnet.tn) is a bargain at 30 dinar (£15) for a double room. There is a dearth of classy small hotels in central Tunis. But 20 minutes east of the city centre lies Sidi Bou Said – a chic Mediterranean village with superb views across the Gulf of Tunis, which is a relaxed base from which to dip into the capital. The Hotel Dar Said (00 216 71 729666, www.darsaid.com.tn) is a restored merchant's house. A standard double costs 250 dinar (£125).

Take a hike

From the western end of the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, pass beneath the stone gates of the medina. Take the passage immediately opposite, the Rue Jamaâ Ezzitouna, and continue uphill to the Zitouna mosque. The prayer hall is not open to non-Muslims. However, from 8am-12 noon, visitors are allowed into the viewing gallery. From here you get great views of the tiled minaret and the Byzantine turrets. The mosque was built around 860. Admission is 1 dinar 100 millimes (50p). Around the mosque are souks selling leather goods, perfume, carpets, and jewellery. There is a covered market dedicated to what was once Tunis's most profitable export – the fez hat (chechia). Just southeast of the mosque is the Medersa Slimaniya – a traditional Koranic school of the 18th century, which sports one of the few mosques in the country open to non-Muslims. From the medersa, pass through the jewellery souk, and take a right into the Rue Tourbet El Bey, which leads to the northern district of the medina.

Lunch on the run

Hidden within the jewellery and gold souk, near to the Medersa Slimaniya, in the Rue Souk du Coton, is Chez Les Orfèvres (00 216 71 339767). The restaurant is on a sunny rooftop terrace that provides welcome relief from the oppressive alleyways below. Try Doigts de Fatma – filo pastry, tuna and egg – and Poisson Farcie – crispy fried fish stuffed with herbs and spices. A three-course meal for two will set you back 15 dinar (£7.50).

Window shopping

The souks comprise a network of alleyways; some glittering with jewellery, others fragrant with spices. The souks that surround the Zitouna mosque were allotted positions according to the seniority of their trade. The perfumers market, Souq El Attarine, was considered the most "noble", and its stalls run up against the walls of the mosque. Others – jewellery, fabrics, and leather – fan out from the mosque. The Rue Charles de Gaulle has lingerie boutiques and a useful Monoprix supermarket. Opposite Monoprix is Patisserie Ben Yedder, for honey-drenched sweets, and there are watchmakers along Rue Mongi Slim (16).

An aperitif

The best local bar is the Café de Paris, which sits on the corner of the Avenue Habib Bourguiba and the Avenue de Carthage. The Tunisian beer is called Celtia, and is very good. A bottle will cost around 1.5 dinar (75p). On the other side of the Avenue Habib Bourguiba is the Brasserie des Deux Avenues. On the street terrace you can find all the usual spirits with the addition of the local "schnapps" – Boukha – which is distilled from figs.

Dining with the locals

The best Tunisian food issues from the renowned kitchens of the Dar el Jeld 5 Rue Dar el Jeld, (00 216 71 260916, www.dareljeld.tourism.tn). Set in a restored courtyard house, the menu focuses on fresh fish. A meal for two will cost around 100 dinar (£50). Restaurant Margaritas Hotel Dorée, 6 Rue de Hollande (00 216 71 241610) is formal, but the food is good. Those on a tight budget could try the 4 dinar (£2) set menu at Le Carcassone 8 Avenue de Carthage.

Sunday morning: go to church

The handsome Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul, in the Place de l'Indépendence, holds a service at 9am. The service is spoken in Italian in front of an elderly congregation of Italian expatriates. The painting in the apse of the cathedral depicts the Christian mission that was set up by St Vincent in the 1700s to nurse ailing Christian slaves.

A walk in the park

If you don't have time to take the train to the coast for some fresh air, the Belvedere Park is a good alternative. The zoo is depressing, but nearby there is a very pleasant café by the lake. The hill north of the lake is planted with an eclectic and shady mixture of pines, eucalyptus and palms. The views over the city are spectacular. Several Moorish pavilions stand among the shrubbery.

Take a ride

Tunis is connected to the coastal resorts of La Goulette, Sidi Bou Said and La Marsa by an overland train, the TGM. Take the La Marsa route to visit the ruins of ancient Carthage. The ruins are a little disappointing, and a short stop should give enough of an impression of this once-great city. Jump off at Carthage Salaambo station to view the Tophet and the Punic harbours, and two stops further on at Carthage Hannibal station to see the Antonine baths. You can buy tickets at any station kiosk for 500 millimes each (25p). Continue north for 10 minutes along the same line, and you arrive at Sidi Bou Said. The main TGM station is at the eastern end of Avenue Habib Bourguiba, half a mile beyond the Place de L'Indépendence.

Bracing brunch

The hill-crest village of Sidi Bou Said, just 15km from Tunis, is the St Tropez of Tunisia. Below the picturesque white mosque and restored villas, the harbour provides shelter for yachts flying an array of international flags. The views across the Gulf of Tunis from the Restaurant Chergui, in the centre of the old village, are reviving after a busy morning. The fish is good and prices for a meal for two range from 15-30 dinar (£7.50-£15). It might lack a sea view, but if you are looking for a sophisticated Sunday lunch, then try the locally renowned Restaurant Pirates, just behind the Marina.

Cultural afternoon

In Tunis's western suburbs is the Bardo Museum ( www.tourismtunisia.com/culture/bardo.html). The Punic and Roman mosaics hang like vast tapestries, virtually unblemished, and depictlife in Roman Africa. The Bardo – a converted Ottoman palace – also houses a superb collection of classical statues. A taxi to the museum will cost 3 dinar (£1.50). Opening times are 8.30am-5.30pm, closed on Monday. Admission costs 3 dinar with an additional charge of 1 dinar (50p) for photography.

Write a postcard

Just across the street from the restaurant Chergui, in the heart of Sidi Bou Said, is the Café des Nattes. The café sits atop a steep flight of steps, and can't be missed as you enter the village. Sit among the basking cats and enjoy sensational views over a syrupy mint tea or a gritty Turkish coffee.

The icing on the cake

If you are in Sidi Bou Said, the Dar Nejma Ezzahra is a great place to spend an hour or two. Created by the ailing Baron d'Erlanger in the 1920s, this mock palace is a whimsical blend of Oriental and European interior design and furnishing. The views from the manicured gardens are wonderful and no detail is overlooked inside the palace. Every cornice and skirting board is gilded, painted, enamelled or tiled. The result is a giant jewel box that drew artists and musicians from across Europe and Tunisia. The museum is open every day except Monday, from 9am-12pm and 2-5pm. Admission costs 3 dinar (£1.50).

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