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Sidi Bou Said’s signature blue-and-white houses are framed with sweet-smelling jasmine and bougainvillea. The soft sunshine is making them seem so picture-perfect it’s hard to associate this with tanks and barbed wire. A short cab ride away from the Tunisian capital, this coastal hilltop town is full of steep cobbled streets, beautiful buildings and lazy cafés. It captures the appeal of a Tunis minibreak – stunning, stylish and seemingly undiscovered. But yes, there is the odd army tank in Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s central artery, and rolls of razor wire close off parts of the street next to the interior ministry and the French embassy.
Political tensions have been running high recently: a political assassination in March; two deaths at an attacked US embassy late last year; flashes of ultra-religious violence in the country that started the Arab spring in January 2011. But some of the coverage of this North African country has lately swung into the hysterical – in fact there is mostly calm on the capital’s streets and a welcome reception for anyone who chooses to go beyond the scary headlines and actually visit.
Tunisians are keen to get their tourism industry running again – visitors dropped from 7 million in the year before the revolution to 3 million in the years after. Tourism has mostly been of the package, beach-resort variety along the country’s sun-dappled Mediterranean coast, but the capital, Tunis, deserves to be a destination in its own right. With its satellite beach towns – such as the lovely Sidi Bou Said and the tranquil, upmarket La Marsa – and its Unesco World Heritage medieval medina lodged alongside more modern attractions, Tunis is ideal for curious travellers.
The city’s striking architecture – like the language, an intriguing juxtaposition of French colonial and Arabic – is best viewed at a slow stroll, with frequent pit stops for coffees and pastries. The stunning detailing of all these period buildings – hypnotising floor tiles, wrought-iron balconies, ornate, bold blue doors and extravagant Ottoman features – needs time to sink in. And nobody would hurry a faux-melodramatic haggle with the medina’s pottery, textile and jewellery traders.
This slower speed will give you time for another Tunis attraction: the street food. Two unmissables are ojja, a harissa-laden tomato stew with added meat of your choice (chicken or merguez sausage being favourites), and lablabi, a spicy, brothy chickpea soup served over baguette pieces with a raw egg stirred into your steaming, traditional-pottery bowl to cook. Don’t peer too closely into the giant soup pot (there may, for instance, be cow’s hooves in there) and don’t take offence if the person ladling the broth over your bread is picky about the way you crumbled it into your bowl – this is to ensure your dish is at its best consistency.
Locals carefully rate the street food joints. One ojja stall in Tunis’s central market (in the meat-district street selling rabbits and chickens, I was told) currently holds top rank. Also highly rated is the packed and chaotically efficient Chez Chouchou in downtown Tunis (Rue Borj Bourguiba), where each order is made on the spot in front of you.
But if street isn’t your preferred style (you want to eat while seated, say, or to use something other than bread as cutlery), there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. Staunch favourites include Chez Slah (14 bis rue Pierre de Coubertin), a family-run restaurant known for serving the best fish in town, and Dar el Jeld (dareljeld.tourism.tn) in the medina, an 18th-century palace serving high-quality traditional Tunisian cuisine.
Meanwhile new ventures in small, home-grown cafés have sprung up since the revolution, part of a trickle of start-ups hoping to grow Tunisia’s hospitality industry from the ground up. These include the brand-new Cook’s in Sidi Bou Said (facebook.com/cooksfood), which does innovative seasonal salads alongside perennial pastries, and Lyoum in nearby La Marsa (facebook.com/lyoumconcept) – lunch menus are based on what’s available locally, and it also does a line in kids’ clothing, also made locally.
Ethnic-meets-modern is the theme of the city’s boutique hotels. Dar el Medina (darelmedina.com, from $205), one such hotel de charme in the old city, is a beautifully furnished Ottoman, multilevel building full of tiled floors and elegant terraces, with period furnishings alongside contemporary paintings and latticed windows. There are more boutique hotels in Sidi Bou Said, with Dar Said (darsaid.com.tn, €190), Villa Didon (villadidoncarthage.com/en, from €235) and Dar Fatma (darfatma.com, €96) getting gold stars.
There are no current UK travel warnings to Tunisia, but you are advised to stay alert to political events that might have an impact on western tourists. Also be ready for conversations with helpful Tunisians, mostly about what you think of their capital – and whether you’ll return.
British Airways (ba.com) flies London to Tunis from £83 one way. For more travel tips, go to guardian.co.uk/travel/tunisia