Medina of Tunis: the ultimate travel guide

This post is about the Medina of Tunis. The Medina of Tunis is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a rich history, vibrant culture, and unique architecture.

Once you enter the maze of narrow alleyways through one of its ancient gates you enter a world of its own. One that is very different from the rest of Tunisia’s capital. 

The Medina of Tunis was one of the highlights of all the things to do in Tunis. I spent an entire day exploring the streets, markets, mosques, palaces and madrassas. With more than 700 ancient monuments, the medina of Tunis deserves its own travel guide. 

The Medina of Tunis
Wandering around the Medina of Tunis

The Medina of Tunis

The Medina of Tunis is a journey back in time. The first traces of a settlement and market are from 698 and in 700 the Zaytouna mosque was built over the remains of a Christian basilica. 

This makes the medina of Tunis as old as Tehran Grand Bazaar, which is one of the oldest bazaars in the world. 

A medina in Northern Africa is more than just a market though. The medinas of the Maghreb are fortified mini cities where people have lived, worked and traded since medieval times. 

The Medina of Tunis truly developed from the 12th to the 16th century under the rule of the Almohads and Hafsids. During this time Tunis was one of the greatest cities in the Arab world with one of the largest Islamic universities in the region. 

The Medina of Tunis then became part of the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans had a big influence, building several mosques and palaces. In the 19th century the French built the “Ville Nouvelle” or the New City. While many rich families moved to the newer parts of Tunis, rural immigrants arrived into the medina, keeping its markets alive. 20,000 people still live in the medina of Tunis today. 

Many people say that the medina of Tunis is one of the most beautiful medieval medinas in northern Africa. Personally, I enjoyed the medina of Tunis much more than the ones I visited in Morocco that tended to be touristic and overcrowded. The Medina of Tunis can be busy as well, but you will see few tourists making it a more authentic experience. 

The medina of Tunis with its maze of streets and alleyways is home to covered souks where you can see many artisans at work. From medicinal herbalists, to hatmakers, cobblers, goldsmiths and tailors. A highlight are the brightly painted traditional doors and columns as well as the colorful tiles everywhere. You just keep taking pictures as every corner reveals something new.

Inside the Medina of Tunis
Inside the Medina of Tunis

How to find you way

It is easy to get lost in the Medina of Tunis when you wander around the streets and alleyways. I would say that this is exactly what you should do, because this is when you will explore and find the hidden gems of the medina of Tunis. 

The medina of Tunis really deserves at least half a day of your time as there is plenty to see and do. Most sites are along the central “Rue Sidi Ben Arous” and “Rue Dar El Jeld”. These streets are helpful in finding your way. 

It is easy to get lost in the Medina of Tunis
It is easy to get lost in the Medina of Tunis

What to see in the Medina of Tunis 

Bab el Bahr

The Bab el Bahr is the main entrance gate that now divides the modern part of Tunis from the old Medina. Almost everyone starts their journey into the medina at this gate, also known as the French gate. The French actually demolished parts of the outer walls to create”place de la victoire”. 

Bab = Bab is the Arabic word for door or gateway. 

Place de la Victoire

Place de la Victoire, or Victory square, lies right beyond the Bab el Bahr. This small square is always busy and it is a great place to watch people before delving into the maze of the narrow alleyways of the Medina. 

The Royal Victoria Hotel at the square is now a hotel, but used to be the British embassy. It is one of the more luxurious places to stay in Tunis. The cafe el Medina is a great place to have a coffee or a Tunisian mint tea.  

Bab el Bahr and Place de la Victoire
Bab el Bahr and Place de la Victoire

Souq el Berka

One of the most vibrant and busiest areas of the Medina of Tunis are the different market areas. The Souk el Berka now sells jewelry and gold, but has a darker past.  

This souk used to be the slave market where slaves from West Africa and even Europe were sold. The Arab slave trade in Tunisia continued up till 1846. Tunis was an important stop for trade caravans that brought slaves from West Africa through Mali and Libya to Tunis and further on to Egypt and the Levant. 

Souq = market area or bazaar

Souq el Berka
Gold and Jewellery in the Souq el Berka

Souq el Blat 

One of the most interesting souks is the Souq el Blat where medicinal herb sellers sell local plant medicines. You will see bundles of leaves including wild thyme, sage, eucalyptus and garlic.

The souq is over 700 years old and the knowledge on how to pick and prepare the medicinal herbs is passed down from generation to generation. Some only sell plant medicines, others also sell lucky charms to ward off the evil eye. You might see turtle shells, hedgehog carcasses or crushed iguana powder. It is the best place to learn more about the spiritual beliefs that still have a big influence in Tunisian society. 

Souq el Blat
Souq el Blat

Souq el Attarine

The Souq el Attarine specializes in perfume and beauty products such as henna, rose water and jasmine. This part of the medina is very close to some of the medina’s most important historic sights such as the Zaytouna mosque. 

Zaytouna mosque

The Al Zaytouna mosque is the oldest mosque in the medina of Tunis. One legend is that the mosque is built over the ruins of a Byzantine church dedicated to Saint Olivia. 

Olivia was a Christian Saint from Palermo in Sicily. In Tunis she performed several miracles and converted people to the Christian faith for which she was arrested and beheaded at the young age of 15.

Legend goes that her tomb still lies under the Zaytouna mosque and that when her body will be disturbed or relocated something bad will happen. Locals believe it could mean the end of Islam. 

The Minaret of Zaytouna mosque

Hammouda Pasha mosque

The Hammouda Pasha mosque dates back to the Ottoman period. It is therefore no surprise that some of its design will remind you of mosques in Istanbul or Sarajevo

Tunisia was part of the Ottoman empire from the 16th till the 19th century. Hammouda Pasha was the second Ottoman ruler or Bey.

Hammouda Pasha brought peace and order to Tunis and constructed many buildings in the medina of Tunis. Besides the Hammouda Pasha mosque, he also built a hospital, souks and palaces. 

Bey = Turkic title for chieftain or ruler

Hammouda Pasha mosque
Hammouda Pasha mosque

Dar Hammouda Pasha

The Dar Hammouda Pasha is one of the palaces that Hammouda Pasha built for himself when he ruled over Tunisia.  

It is the palace where he first lived with his wife and children, before moving to the newer palace of Dar el Bey

You can recognize the palace from its beautiful yellow door. It was home to a restaurant, but the building is now closed to the public. 

Dar = arabic word for house or palace

Dar El Bey

As Hammouda Pasha got older he gave Dar Hammouda Pacha to one of his sons and moved to the newer and larger palace of Dar el Bey. It lies in a more quiet and upmarket part of the medina of Tunis. Nowadays it is the main office for the head of the Tunisian government. 

Dar el Bey is in a more quiet part of the medina of Tunis
Dar el Bey is in a more quiet part of the medina of Tunis

Dar El Jeld

The Dar El Jeld is a historic building that was the administration of the Ottoman Beys. It was renovated to become one of the best and most popular Tunisian restaurants in the medina of Tunis. 

Sidi Youssef Dey mosque

The Sidi Youssef Dey mosque was the first Ottoman mosque in the medina of Tunis. Dey is the Turkic title for a military commander

While the Bey had the highest position, the Dey also had a lot of power in practice. Sidi Youssef Dey also built many souks in the medina of Tunis. 

Dey = Turkic title for military commander 

Sidi Youssef Dey mosque

Tourbet el Bey

The Tourbet el Bey is the mausoleum where the Ottoman Bey of the Husainid dynasty are buried. There are different funerary chambers with the Bey, their families and other important ministers and servants. 

The rooms contain marble tombs and the walls are beautifully decorated with colorful tiles. The architecture and design has many similarities with the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. 

Tourbet el Bey

Madrassa Slemania

The Madrassa Slemania was the first madrassa to be built by the Ottomans in the medina. The beautiful entrance with elegant decorations gives access to a nice and small courtyard. 

Madrassa = Islamic school to study Islam and the Quran

Madrassa Slemania

Hammam al Kacharina

The Hammam Al Kacharina is one of the few ancient bathhouses in the medina of Tunis that still operates. You will recognize the bright yellow and red door that is the entrance. When I was in Tunis, the hammam was closed so I couldn’t go. From what I have heard it is a rather local rustic experience. The staff do not speak English. 

Hammam = bathhouse

The brightly painted door of the Hammam El Kacharine
The brightly painted door of the Hammam El Kacharine

Zaouia of Sidi Mehrez

Sidi Mehrez is the patron saint of Tunis. Sunni muslims believe he was a descendant from the father in law of the prophet Muhammad. He was a teacher and wrote books about Islam. His mausoleum is popular among women who visit the tomb to pray for a happy marriage and many children.  

Zaouia = A Sufi place of worship

Zaouia of Wali Sidi Ben Arous

Sidi Ben Arous was a 13th century scholar and religious leader. He became a wali for his help to the poor. His tomb is beautifully decorated and has a small prayer room where locals come to pray. 

Wali = Islamic saint

Many places of worship in the medina of Tunis have beautiful decorations
Many places of worship in the medina of Tunis have beautiful decorations

Try Tunisian Food

Tunis is a great city to try authentic Tunisian food. Tunisian cuisine is a delicious and diverse fusion of Mediterranean, North African, and Middle Eastern flavors. Its aromatic dishes often include spices and herbs such as cumin, coriander, saffron, cinnamon, paprika, and harissa (a spicy chili paste).

No Tunisian meal is complete without Harissa. It’s a paste from crushed red chili peppers, garlic, olive oil, and various spices. Restaurants give it as a starter with some bread, but it’s also the main ingredient in many marinades and sauces.

The medina of Tunis is an excellent place to try Tunisian street food. There are plenty of stalls selling sandwiches with your choice of filling. The Tunisian Malfouf is a delicious flatbread with a number of ingredients. Popular fillings include tuna, harissa and egg. The Fricassee is the same idea but uses fried doughnuts as a sandwich.

Bambalouni are also deep fried doughnuts, but they are a sweet snack. They’re often sprinkled with powdered sugar and can be enjoyed as a sweet treat any time of day.

One of my personal favourite street foods was Brik. A deep-fried pastry with a crispy exterior and a savory filling of egg, potato and parsley.

At last, you should try Lablabi. This chickpea soup is flavored with garlic, cumin and olive oil and is a popular streetfood served with bread.

Tunis also has great restaurants. You will find Tajine and Couscous on the menu. I found them a bit more spicier than in Morocco, probably because of the use of Harissa. Given the country’s coastal location, seafood is also a culinary highlight.

Tunisian food

Medina of Tunis travel tips

Where to stay

Budget: There are not really any hostels in Tunis. I stayed at the Hotel metropole residence that falls in the budget category in Tunis. It is a decent hotel close to the medina. Rooms are simple, but nice. 

Midrange: If you want to stay in a traditional house inside the Medina I can recommend Dar Ben Gacem that has good reviews.

Luxury: For a more upmarket experience in a traditional house in the heart of the medina you can stay at the Dar El Jeld Hotel and Spa

Souvenir from the Medina of Tunis
Souvenir from the Medina of Tunis

Where to eat

Tunisian cuisine has a unique blend of Mediterranean and North African flavors, and there are many delicious dishes. Tunis has lots of restaurants to try Tunisian food.

Restaurant of people: this small restaurant near the Bab el Bahr gate serves cheap and filling sandwiches with grilled meat. I recommend the Tunisian style shoarma roll with harissa spread. 

Dar Belhadj: an upmarket restaurant in a traditional home with beautiful decor. They have delicious couscous and other Tunisian specialties.  

Cafe Panorama: Cafe Panorama offers the best views over the medina. It also offers nice cups of tea, including a special mint tea with walnuts and almonds. 

Cafe Panorama has the best views of the medina of Tunis
Cafe Panorama has the best views of the medina of Tunis

When to visit 

The best time to visit Tunis is during the spring (March to May) or the fall (September to November) when the weather is mild and comfortable. During these seasons, temperatures are usually in the mid-20s Celsius (70s Fahrenheit), and there is less humidity and rainfall.

Summer (June to August) can be hot and humid, with temperatures reaching the high 30s Celsius (90s Fahrenheit). Due to climate change there is an increase in heatwaves and droughts during this time. 

Winter (December to February) can be rainy, with temperatures ranging from 10-15 Celsius (50s Fahrenheit). While winter is not the best time to enjoy outdoor activities, it can be a good time to explore indoor attractions such as museums and historical sites.

Disclaimer: This post about the best things to do in the medina of Tunis contains affiliate links. If you buy a service through one of my links, I get a small commission. These earnings help me to keep Backpack Adventures alive! Thanks for your support!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *