“I have never seen someone so excited to go to Tunisia!” my pilot said, taking my photo next to the plane. “I must selfie with you.”
I sat in my seat and watched the propellers fire up. Soon, we were en route, hovering over the Mediterranean between Malta and Africa. I was bursting with anticipation.
I’m going to Tunisia. By myself.
After a short time, we landed. While I was waiting to disembark, my pilot friend came out of the cockpit and said, “Go! Enjoy the adventure! You are welcome here. Bienvenue en Tunisie!”
“Mais oui!” I told him, feeling very welcome, indeed. “Merci beaucoup!”
I often found myself struggling to verbalize my amazement with the experiences I had in Tunisia. I turned to photography as another means of communication, but for every one photo I took, there were seemingly hundreds of others just beyond my reach. From the flowers that bloom with all their might, to the parade of brightly-colored doors in the old city, Tunisia is an ancient and sacred place with so many small, intricate, and meaningful details.
Before traveling to Tunisia, I had zero prior connections (friends, colleagues, etc) to the country or surrounding area. Thanks to a copious amount of Google searching and the wonders of social media, I was able to make several contacts ahead of my visit, in particular, to arrange lodging, food, and driving. As a solo traveler, when my plane touched down, it was nice know that I had people expecting my arrival. I based myself in the capital, Tunis, and spent a long weekend (Friday-Monday) exploring the village of Sidi Bou Said, downtown Tunis, the Tunis medina, the town of Testour, and the ancient roman ruins of Dougga.
Located at the very top of the African continent, Tunisia is home to more than 11.4 million people. In ancient times, Tunisia was originally inhabited by the Berbers. Over the course of history, Tunisia has seen the migration of Phonecians, occupation of the Romans, and the rule of the Ottoman Empire. French colonization of Tunisia took place in 1881 and aspects of French culture are still apparent today in Tunisia’s cuisine, architecture, and language.
Tunisia is regarded as the birthplace of the Arab Spring, a series of protests and demonstrations that took place throughout the Arab world between 2011 and 2012, beginning in the capital of Tunis. The 2011 Tunisian Revolution resulted in the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Today, Tunisia is the only full democracy existing in the region, if not in the entire Arab world.
Looking across North Africa, Morocco is easily the most popular and developed tourism destination of the three northernmost African countries (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia). Morocco has seen a huge tourism boom in the last few years, with an estimated 11 million visitors in 2017.
Tunisian tourism saw a massive dip in tourism after two terror attacks on foreign tourists in 2015. Islamic State-affiliated jihadists killed 22 people at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, and later in the year, killed 38 people at the Sousse beachfront.
In a nutshell, Tunisia is less widely explored by tourists and is generally under-promoted for tourism. However, tourism is beginning to pick back up. According to Reuters, about 6.7 million tourists visited Tunisia in 2017, a 23 percent increase from 2016.
With the Mediterranean Sea lapping at Tunisia’s 810 miles of coastline, the lush, green valleys in the north, the Atlas mountains to the west, and the Sahara desert in the south, this is an extremely diverse country in geography and climate.
HOW I GOT THERE
I booked a TunisAir Express flight online about 2 months in advance. The flight was inexpensive, fast, and enjoyable, as you can tell from the photos above :) SunTrust threw a fraud alert when I booked my ticket, but a bank warning is an integral part of any great adventure, right? Thankfully, with the exception of a small flight delay, everything went smoothly and the trip from Malta to Tunis was very easy to make. Once I landed, my Airbnb hosts’ neighbor, Nabil, a local private driver, was right there at the arrivals lobby to meet me. Nabil was incredibly gracious, even though he had fasted all day and waited on my delayed plane, he drove me right to the front door and helped with my luggage.
On our drive to my Airbnb, I was struck by how desolate the highways were--but I knew why. Approximately 99.1% of Tunisia’s population is Muslim. Since my plane arrived at sundown, nearly everyone was at home breaking their fast (Iftar). It was powerful and moving to see all the lights on through the windows of houses and high-rises, all full of people sitting down for their first meal in many hours.
HOW I GOT AROUND
About three weeks before my trip, I started to feel a bit unsure about whether I could get everywhere I wanted to go during Ramadan. During the month of Ramadan, many businesses, museums, restaurants, and public transit options observe altered hours. I didn’t have much of a game plan, other than to try and take buses and trains everywhere I needed to go. I think I was rightfully worried about missing the last bus, or having my transportation simply not show up. With the exchange rate in my favor (1 Tunisian Dinar = 0.40 USD), I knew I could save myself a lot of hassle by hiring a car to take me exactly where I wanted to go. It was just a question of how, and who...
I will be forever grateful to Yvette, the owner of Tunisian Journeys, for helping me craft the perfect journey. When I reached out to Yvette, I told her I wanted to see local life, explore the medina, and, if possible, visit the roman ruins of Dougga. Quick as lightning, she replied and told me they could make it happen. I immediately felt relief.
Of course, I could have tried to self-guide my journey, but I would have risked questionable transportation and logistics. And with no updated Tunisia tourism books on the market (seriously, I couldn't find anything that had been updated since 2010-ish) I would have missed out on so much knowledge and historical context that only an experienced guide could provide. Worst of all, I would have missed out on meeting my guide, Moez!
My days with Moez were delightful. In addition to his extensive knowledge about Tunisian history, he is a fascinating conversationalist. I enjoyed talking with him about politics, current events, family, and his life on the island of Djerba.
"What's that plant called?" "What does that sign say?" "What do people do for work in this town?"
Moez answered every last one of my questions, no matter how obscure they were, because I was curious about everything! His easygoing nature and his wealth of knowledge made him an absolute pleasure to spend time with.
Tunisian Journeys' specialty is guided, tailor-made, in-depth tours for solo & individual travellers and small groups in English, French, Italian, German and Arabic (various spoken dialects & Classical Arabic). I especially love that they support local communities, charities, NGO’s, and small businesses. When guiding visitors, Moez always encourages and facilitates direct interaction with the local people. This was exactly what I’d hoped for when I chose Tunisia.
Moez’s friend and colleague, Mohamed Nabli, graciously drove me to the airport for my departing flight to Palermo, Sicily. I told him that I had a handful of postcards I was excited to mail from the airport. But when we arrived for my morning flight, Mohamed and I discovered that the airport post office was not yet open. Mohamed offered to take my postcards and mail them for me later. Sure enough, a day later, he sent me a WhatsApp message with pictures of stamps on my postcards, and a photo of his hand putting them into a mailbox.
This is just one of several instances where my Tunisian guides, hosts, and drivers went above-and-beyond for me. That level of hospitality and thoughtfulness truly made my experience.
WHERE I STAYED
In Tunisia, traditional homes are called dars, which are often entered via alleyway and open up to an internal-facing, open-air courtyard. I wanted an authentic taste of local life, so I decided to turn to Airbnb for a home with locals, rather than a hotel or resort.
My Airbnb was a huge source of happiness for me during my stay in Tunis. I was enthusiastically welcomed by Nozha and Hatem, retired Tunisia-natives. Their beautiful, fully-restored dar is located near the Halfaouine district, not far from the heart of Tunis. You can check out the listing here.
At $29 USD per night, the dar was an incredible value. My reservation included a huge (and gorgeous!) guest room, a full private bath, use of all common areas, and a full breakfast each day. Nozha and Hatem went above-and-beyond by inviting me for tea, coffee, a mid-afternoon snack, and even two full dinners. Grisu, the resident kitty, was an added bonus and an endless source of entertainment.
WHERE I WENT
SIDI BOU SAÏD
My morning stroll through Sidi Bou Said stands out as one of my favorite memories. Perched on a hilltop, this white-washed village sprinkled with blue accents is arguably one of the most recognizable tourist spots in the country. Overlooking the Gulf of Tunis with views of Cap Bon in the distance, Sidi Bou Said is a paradise for photography, bird-watching, and leisurely walks.
My advice would be to arrive early, just as the shops are opening for the day, and wander for a few hours. As Moez and I were leaving, throngs of tourists began closing in on the picturesque scenes with their selfie-sticks and tour guides. There are several little cafes where you can enjoy some local specialties, like mint tea with pine nuts. With many artists and artisans residing in Sidi Bou Said, the village is a great spot to score souvenirs. Be prepared to haggle down the higher, tourist-adjusted prices, and be willing to walk away if someone is being unreasonable. If you are traveling without a private car or driver, Sidi Bou Said is very easy to reach by train or taxi.
THE TUNIS MEDINA
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage in 1979, the medina of Tunis is a sensory experience not to be missed. Even during Ramadan, the area is bustling with life. While the majority of the population was fasting throughout my visit during Ramadan, people are out in droves to shop for goods ahead of Iftar dinner. The narrow alleyways of the souks feed out into massive markets of produce, fish, dried tea leaves, soaps, perfumes, and more. I really enjoyed seeing all ages just going about their daily life, lining up for buttermilk and sweets to take home and enjoy at sundown.
Outside the medina is the contrasting architecture of downtown Tunis. The striking buildings are best described as an eclectic mix of ancient and new, restored, under restoration, or in need of restoration. One of my favorite spots is the Catholic Cathedral. A bright yellow, stand-out landmark across from the French Embassy. Other highlights include the Greek Orthodox Church, the bright blue/modern-day geometric hotel, and the moorish-looking hotel in Place de la Victoire.
THE BARDO MUSEUM
The National Bardo Museum is the oldest museum in all of Africa! Housed in a beylical palace, the intricate mosaics and architectural details have dazzled visitors since 1888. Imagine if in modern-day times, we chose to tell our stories through minuscule tiles on every surface of our homes—the floors, the walls, the ceilings, even the bathtubs. And even then, imagine them lasting for thousands of years, and being interesting and clever enough for generations to interpret later. I love small details, myself, and I was beyond impressed by the thought, the talent, and the lasting legacy of those who created these mosaics.
To me, places that are overtly marketed as tourist destinations aren't the only places worth exploring. In fact, those "uncommon" little villages and towns are often the places with the most authentic local experiences.
I am so glad we stopped in Testour, a very small town perched on the hills of Medjerda Valley. The small farming town serves as the crossroads between Tunis, Béja, and the north of Tunisia. Muslim and Jewish refugees from Andalusia, Spain settled here and brought distinct architectural elements and styles to the structures they built. Among my favorites is the Great Mosque of Testour, which features unique details like the Star of David, Spanish tiles and a backwards clockface, reflecting the refugees' desire to turn back time.
Testour is actually the official sister city of Chefchaouen, Morocco, which is often known as the blue pearl or the blue city. Testour had some beautiful blue doors that reminded me of my time in the mountains of Morocco!
We purchased local cheese for a picnic and it was divine. We also stopped to buy roadside produce from a group of brothers. Apricots, oranges, peaches, dates, mulberries galore. Across the board, the produce in Tunisia was pretty darn incredible.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to run your fingers over words that were carved in 6th century BC. The ancient mountaintop town of Dougga, also known as Thugga, is a UNESCO world heritage site. Located a little less than 50 miles from the Tunisia-Algeria border, the area is an outstanding example of the birth, development and history of an indigenous city since the second millennium BC. The town flourished under Roman and Byzantine rule, but declined in the Islamic period. Nestled in a fertile valley (Oued Khalled) of olive trees, the ruins are remarkably preserved—widely regarded as the best-preserved Roman ruins in North Africa. Possibly most surprising of all, the site receives only 50,000 visitors each year.
HOW I COMMUNICATED
From middle school through college, I amassed 8 years of French class experience. Nothing puts your knowledge to the test quite like full-immersion in a foreign country. All of my Tunisian contacts spoke at least some English. In my Airbnb, we spoke a mixture of French and English. Nozha and Hatem were interested in practicing their English and I was interested in practicing my French. Some of our conversations ended up making absolutely no sense and we would all burst out laughing. In those cases, Google Translate was extremely helpful.
WHAT I WORE
As is the case in all Middle East / North African countries, it is most respectful to air on the side of conservative dress. I always carried a scarf in my bag, but actually never ended up needing to cover my head and hair. I kept my shoulders covered at all times and never showed skin above mid-calf. The ideal packing combination would be a mixture of long skirts, long dresses, long pants, and tops with at least ¾ length sleeves. When I was walking home one day, some local women complimented my outfit, which was reassuring!
Pickpocketing and petty theft is a risk in virtually every large city on earth. For that reason, I often wore my Kavu rope sling bag on my front. I also kept my important belongings on my person -- passport, cards, cash, and a printed copy of my plane ticket out of Tunis.
WHAT I ATE
I'm still dreaming about what I ate on this trip. Stay tuned for my next blog post, which will be dedicated entirely to eating gluten free in Tunisia!
HOW I HANDLED SAFETY
There comes a time when you have to trust your research, your judgment, and your gut. It’s also beneficial to acknowledge the things beyond your control. I had to put my trust in the people I was going to meet -- I trusted that my drivers would show up on time, I trusted that my Airbnb owners would lock their doors at night, I trusted that my pilots would land the plane properly, and so on.
After I adopted that mindset, I didn’t stress one bit, and that allowed me to focus on enjoying myself and be open to all of the amazing possibilities that await any visitor in Tunisia.
That being said, I still remained aware of my surroundings. I made a few withdrawals from ATM’s in Tunis and I’d always strategically pick my ATM so I was in plain sight, not somewhere secluded. When I found myself in large, close-quarters crowds, I would conceal my camera, phone, and any other valuables, then walk with my hands on my bag. I always located possible exits and tried to minimize my obstacles if I needed to flee or seek safety.
There were some really pleasant surprises, too, like never getting cat-called or followed. A few men in the Medina said hello, made eye contact, or asked me to take a look at their items for sale, but I never felt unsafe. In fact, I have experienced more street harassment (honking horns, calling out, etc.) in America than anywhere I visited in Tunisia. Having Moez with me was certainly a deterrent for anyone wanting to hassle me and I was grateful for an extra pair of eyes for pickpockets and potential danger.
GOING SOLO IN TUNISIA: THE BOTTOM LINE
Whether you go solo or travel in a group, Tunisia is ready for you.
The greeting I repeatedly received was, “You are welcome here.” This country is a treasure trove of colors, history, sweeping views, architecture, food, and culture. I didn't even scratch the surface, so I look forward to returning one day and visiting the south.
Here are my top keys to success for travel in Tunisia:
Identify great lodging in a central area. Decide what sort of experience you want! For me, Nozha and Hatem’s traditional dar was the perfect fit for me.
Know what you want to see and what you feel you could skip. From there, consider the time of year you’re traveling, heat, and other important factors that could sway you towards self-guiding vs. hiring.
If you are hiring a guide, try to reserve as far in advance as possible. I e-mailed Tunisian Journeys just a few short weeks in advance of my trip, but had I waited any longer, they likely wouldn’t have been unavailable.
Pack and wear your wardrobe to respect local customs.
Be confident! Walk with purpose. Familiarize yourself with maps, street names, etc. in advance so you don’t appear to be lost. Also plan how you will deal with potential hecklers and aggressive vendors. If this happens to you, it helps to avoid eye contact and swiftly walk in the opposite direction.
Double-check your cell phone coverage and plan options. Turns out Verizon Wireless’ foreign travel plan, TravelPass, doesn’t work in Tunisia (who knew? Come on, Verizon!). As a result, I had to turn off my data or risk a massive bill. As a side note, this is another reason why having a guide with a local cell phone/internet access was so helpful. I could’ve easily stranded myself otherwise.
Install the Google Translate app on your phone. Download Arabic and French for offline use.
Lonely Planet is my go-to: www.lonelyplanet.com/tunisia
Lauren Keith, Lonely Planet’s Middle East & North Africa Editor, was an amazing resource as I prepared my trip and decided where I wanted to go! I absolutely love her content on Tunisia and beyond. I highly recommend following her instagram: @NoPlaceLike_It
My Pinterest board: Tunisia to Sicily (destinations are bundled because of my travel route)
The Tunisian Ministry of Tourism: http://www.tourisme.gov.tn/accueil.html
Another huge merci beaucoup to Yvette, Moez, Nozha and Hatem, Nabil, Mohamed, Hawa, and others who made my Tunisia experience so wonderful. For more information about travel with Tunisian Journeys, visit their Facebook page.