The Tunisian tourism industry is based primarily around escapism: beaches with some sand dunes and ancient ruins thrown in. In contrast, the capital Tunis, is a sleepy thing where tourists, though present, are primarily a side-effect of a journey headed elsewhere. While there are plenty of hotels in the city and its surrounds, the boutique hotel movement cannot be said to have taken off, nor has its ancient medina been taken over by the frenzy of riad renovation madness that has beset neighbouring Marrakech. This could be a good thing. Here’s our selection of cool hotels in Tunis…
Medina: La Chambre Bleu. Situated in a 19th century Italianate-style villa that was formerly part of the Palace Agha complex, La Chambre Bleu is a one-room B&B in the heart of the heart of the historic Medina. The beautifully tiled room, which forms an independent apartment on the second floor of the building, gives you 40 square metres in generous living space – including a sleeping alcove, sitting area, sofa bed and access to the courtyard for breakfast. What you can expect here is oodles of atmosphere and the experience of staying with friendly and helpful hosts, a local Tunisian family. There’s no air-con, but there is central heating and internet. Note: The medina is largely a car free zone, so if you stay here or in another medina property you will have to walk at least part of the way to your hotel. (Late arrivals and solo female travellers – ask someone to meet you.)
Medina: Dar El Medina: This lovely 19th century renovated riad is the medina’s most professionally run B&B. Riads were traditionally designed for families so there are always quirks when they are adapted for tourism purposes: oddly shaped rooms and winding staircases are to be expected. The public areas are quite grand, and the courtyard is a pleasant spot to while away a few hours scribbling postcards etc. The rooftop terrace lends itself to a lazy apero while the sun sinks over this white city. The 12 rooms are designed to avoid the blast of the summer sun, so for this reason, you might find some rooms on the dark side but they are all unique and beautifully decorated. We also love the neighbourhood…
Medina: Dar Hayder: Among certain aficionados Dar Hayder, a renovated 19th century Italian Palace, is the most authentic of the city’s restored historic homes. The owners form part of Tunis intelligentsia (the hostess used to be the Director of the National Library of Tunisia) so interesting conversations are on offer and they are also excellent cooks, dinners can be arranged amid candlelight on the patio, the impressive roof-top terrace or at the lovely old dining table inside. The rooms come in a range of forms and sizes erring on the generous. What we loved: the atmosphere of the living space has a beautiful patina that can only be acquired over time. Where it needs to improve: Despite the friendliness and civility of the owner, the enterprise falls short of professional, the rooms were dusty, no glasses or water were provided and the bedding was minimalist. Also, its position outside of the medina will feel a little lonely after sundown if you are a woman travelling alone. Our recommendation: this is an interesting address and a beautiful house, but best booked as a bunch of friends so you can have the run of the place or as somewhere to host an event, cocktails etc. Contact: darhayder[at]gnet.tn
Sidi Bou Said: Villa Didon Carthage: Villa Didon is the hip hotel in town. Shamelessly modern and minimalist in its fittings, this ten room hotel claims to take some aspects of its design – such as the separation of wet/dry areas in the hotel rooms – from the ancient city of Carthage which is one of Tunis’ main drawcards (you can see historical ruins from some parts of the hotel). To our mind the hotel design is a little on the cold side, and the service a tad pretentious. On the positive, the seaside rooms have amazing views (and prices to match). The hotel attempts to create a cultural clique with regular events, exhibitions etc which is potentially interesting if bling-friendly. Also, a plus are the hotel’s lobby and bar areas, this is a cool place to mingle and watch the sun go down and this being Tunisia, the cool crowd is likely to be friendlier than the cool crowd anywhere else. The downside is you may be bugged by bar noise on the weekend and will have to compete with bar guests etc for space. If you stay, you could try the in-house hammam.
Sidi Bou Said: Dar Fatma. Located in Sidi Bou Said, the fashionable-meets-touristic seaside village 20km from Tunis, is Dar Fatma. This historic B&B combines Tunisian simplicity with some arty touches – blown up vintage photographs of Tunis, some furnishings from Philippe Starck, etc. Understated and simple, it provides respite from the bustle of Sidi Bou Said. Visitors will love watching the sun go down from the roof top terrace and the small swimming pool will serve you for a quick, cool off dip. Like all B&Bs in Tunis, if services such as internet and air-conditioning are vital to your wellbeing, it’s best to check they are in your room before you arrive. Sidi Bou Said itself is a charming blue and white town with a touristic bent, advantages include the sea breezes, the promise of fresh seafood and a couple of cool art galleries nearby.
Gammarth: Mövenpick Hotel Gammarth Tunis. As the name suggests, the Mövenpick group have set up shop by the seaside in Gammarth, 20km from Tunis. As you might expect the lobby and dining areas are tres swish in a tasteful sort of fashion and it must be said that breakfasting outside beneath the sun-shades is a wonderful experience. (It certainly isn’t cheap, but the buffet is good quality and plentiful.) What this hotel offers is a resort-style experience: the plus is you have full access to the beach, and a pool and never have to go anywhere. The downside, is you never have to go anywhere, and if you do, you’ll have to go by car. To our mind, it’s not particularly ‘Tunis’ but it will make for a lovely beach weekend free of quirks if tourism is not high on the agenda.