Tunisia, north Africa’s newest spot for culture and history travelers, boasts fine hotels and restaurants.
Several of Tunis’ hotels extend a warm welcome to families and the country’s star rating system is useful in selecting one. The three-star (comfortable tourist class), four-star (extras like a minibar, more than one restaurant or bar), or five-star ratings (typically a pool, larger rooms, bathrooms with separate shower and toilet facilities) posted on websites and in lobbies mean government regulated pricing as well.
La Maison Blanche
45 Ave Mohamed V
216 71 849849
This five-star Best Western affiliate is a find in Tunis. A contemporary style and large, gracious suites make up the small, 47-room property centrally located on blvd. Mohammed V. While there is nothing special to attract travelers to this neighborhood of banks and businesses, it’s within a quick taxi ride of most local sights and restaurants. At this white eight-story tower, each junior suite offers guests a full living room area with minibar and TV, dining table with four chairs, a work desk and complimentary Internet access, and two beds or a king size bed, with plenty of room for one or two rollaway beds. A small dressing area boasts two full size closets and a safe, and leads to a bathroom tiled in the vivid patterns of Kairouan, with a separate bathtub, shower stall and toilet. The large marble vanity offers a makeup mirror, hairdryer and a variety of toiletries for each guest. To have so much living space for a family, one that is accompanied by super service, a friendly staff, small business center, excellent French restaurant, stylish bar, and a breakfast room (sorry, the breakfast buffet is ordinary), makes La Maison Blanche an excellent value. All it needs for perfection is a pool. $-$$
Rue Toumi 2026
Sidi Bou Said, Tunis
216 71 729 666
For a totally different choice, one that recalls the grandeur of Arab decor in the last century, travelers without a budget must consider Dar Said in a wealthy north Tunis enclave. Calling itself a dar or family house in Arabic, this enormous maze of rooms and courtyard gardens is a totally charming 24- room hotel de charme, as the French like to say. Each uniquely intimate room might have an ornately tiled wall, or a gilded four-poster bed, or homespun rugs or pillows, plus a marble bathing area with the finest amenities and the mod-cons of air-conditioning, heat, Internet access, laundry service. However, only a few accommodate more than two guests with a rollaway bed. Dar Said’s hilltop location in picturesque Sidi Bou Said allows guests to remain tranquilly above the din of tourists and locals strolling the main street, while they enjoy a small swimming pool, outdoor parlors, dining area, and a bar draped in bougainvillea overlooking the Mediterranean in the distance. Dar Said will not be appropriate for all families, but it is a very special place to stay. $$-$$$
Within Tunis’ downtown, there is also a contemporary Hotel Mercure, part of the French Accor chain located in the business district, and an elegant hilltop Sheraton Hotel next to the Bardo Museum, formerly the popular Hilton. Both provide very clean and comfortable business class accommodations.
Tunisian cuisine centers around the rich and tasty fresh vegetables that are grown year round and prepared with mild spices. Tomatoes and peppers are the basis for stews such as couscous with cooked lamb or fish. Mechaoui is a very popular chopped salad that is delivered as a complimentary starter at all meals, usually accompanied by olives, the spicy red paste called Harissa (drizzle it with olive oil then use as seasoning), and fluffy breads in every shape and size. Since many appetizers are eaten by hand from a communal plate, meals often take on a casual air.
A few Tunisian specialties to look for: brick a l’oeuf (a lighter than air crepe filled with ground meat or tuna and a fried egg); tajine (a baked omelette filled typically with spinach, cheese or parsley); souflet (a half-moon pastry stuffed with a variety of meats or fish, usually baked with cheese until it has melted inside); the national dish couscous (semolina grain baked in a clay pot with sauce and served with meats, fish or vegetables); and te a la menthe or te aux pignoles, a Chinese green tea brewed with mint or pignoli nuts, usually very sweet and much stronger than that found in other Arab cuisines.
Dar El Jeld (5-10, rue Dar El Jeld, La Kasbah, 216 71 560 916) is considered the city’s best Tunisian restaurant, ironic because it recalls the traditional homes and cuisine of an Arab culture that is less and less visible to visitors. Arab heritage begins at the enormous yellow doors fit into a wall of the old Kasbah, where a gentle tap on the wrought iron ring brings a uniformed staff member to the door. In the past, the huge doors would have admitted a trader on camel or horseback, but today the small door within the portal is used to lead guests into a cool, dark interior decorated with hammered silver chandeliers and Berber rugs. Accompanied by impeccable service, friendly yet formal, this is the perfect spot to introduce the family to the richness of Tunisian cuisine. From the initial house cocktail, a scrumptious blend of fig liqueur, fresh mint and lemon juice, to the many salads of tomato and eggplant, grilled shrimp brochette, lamb tajine baked in a clay pot, fresh dorado poached in an anchovy sauce, or the variety of couscous and the myriad sweets of pistachio and honey, Dar El Jeld offers every palate an easy to appreciate taste. It’s open year round for lunch and dinner except for July, when it serves dinner only and August, when it closes for vacation.
For a fine dinner in the French style, book one of the lovely tables at Restaurant Yvan (Hotel La Maison Blanche, 45, Avenue Mohammed V, 216 71 842 842), open for lunch and dinner (only dinner in the summer months, closed August). Paris’ award-winning Chef Yvan, chef de cuisine for Tunis’ international congresses, uses local spices and fresh produce with an innovative approach. From a delicate salad of grilled shrimp with orange slices to a roast duck with coucous, chicken roasted in lemons and olives, or the boeuf bourgignon using free-range beef, Yvan offers excellent cuisine. The friendly staff and extensive dessert menu make it easy to engage children in the more formal dining experience, especially in the early evening before the local elite arrives for supper (about 10pm.)
Around the busy Boulevar Bourguiba, stop and dine upstairs from 10, rue Ali Bach at the highly recommended Le Carthage (216 71 255 614). It is a small restaurant touristique that is filled with replicas of the mosaics found at the archeological site. Its varied menu lists pasta dishes as well as Tunisian specialties, all fresh, inexpensive, and served by professional waiters with a theatricality that will please all ages.
In summer, Restaurant La Falaise (Rue Sidi Dhrif, La Marsa corniche, 216 71 747 806) is the best clifftop dining room, and attracts diplomats and local business people to its outdoor terrace and panoramic Mediterranean vistas. La Falaise is in the neighborhood of La Marsa, about 15 minutes by taxi from downtown Tunis and within 10 minutes of Sidi Bou Said. While there are many picturesque places in Sidi Bou’s gnarled medina, the fresh air and sea breezes, coupled with terrific fresh fish that you choose yourself from the day’s catch, make La Falaise a special choice.
The picturesque neighborhood of Sidi Bou Said, with its cliff top views and outdoor cafes, is most appealing after the shop-till-you-drop cruise ship passengers have set sail for their next port of call. At dusk, stroll up the main cobblestone pedestrian lane then down the first route toward the sea. Here, the Cafe Sidi Chabaane has stucco banquettes lining the sea wall, a variety of local wines, mint tea, and wonderful views of clingy mansions and footpaths descending to the beach and Mediterranean below. Strolling is free of course, but foreigners should remain alert at shops and cafes in this tourist trap — the tab for our drinks dropped from Euros 14 (about US$17) to DT 4.5 (US$3.60) just by the raising of eyebrows.
Photo courtesy of the Dar Said website.
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