Editor's Note: A terrorist attack on March 18th, 2015, in the capital led to all cruise lines canceling port calls to Tunis for the remainder of that year and most of 2016. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises became the first cruise line to visit the port following the terrorist attack, with one call in October 2016, while Viking Ocean Cruises has added a series of dates calling there in 2017 and 2018.Tunis is the capital of Tunisia, the northernmost country in Africa, but the city feels neither Arab nor African. It's a place where old and new mix without any seeming conflict, in both the architecture (with Moorish and French influences) and way of life.
Port of Tunis (La Goulette)
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On one corner in the capital city of 2.5 million, you might see a group of girls in tight jeans and tops with dangling earrings possibly heading to one of the modern shopping malls. On another, an old lady with a traditional head covering stands with her camel. (Women have not had to cover their heads there since the mid-1980's.) Meanwhile, a street sweeper wields an old-fashioned thatched broom while he chatters away on his mobile phone.
Outside the very Arab souk (main market) in the well-preserved Medina (Old City) is a square with a fountain where we spied men sitting and talking dressed in garb that would look at home in Rome (one wore a light tan suit -- his blue shirt open -- and tasseled loafers without socks). Passing them were men in traditional red skull caps.
Tunisia's history dates back over some 3,000 years. The country has been occupied by the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Turks, Spanish and French. During the 12th to 16th centuries, Tunis was considered one of the most important and wealthiest cities in the Arab world. It finally gained independence from France in 1956. Tunisian presidents are elected, although the same leader ruled from 1957 to 1987. His successor, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ruled from 1987 to 2010, when nationwide demonstrations over unemployment, corruption and poor living conditions forced him to resign from office. "We have elections, but we know the outcome of these elections before they take place," said our guide, noting that the system is more a wink to the concept of democracy than reality.
This is a poor country, with a 15-percent unemployment rate. It is one of the world's largest producers of olive oil. Other products include citrus, wine and dates. Tourism is an important business here (more than five million tourists visit each year, mostly French and German), though cruise calls are still pretty exotic and limited largely to European ships (like those from Costa and MSC Cruises) and U.S. lines that offer more exotic Mediterranean itineraries (such as Oceania). And though it may be considered a third world country, we saw few genuinely poor folks. The streets and towns were extremely clean, and crime (though we heard of the occasionally run-in with pickpockets) is low.
To be sure, if you get off the ship on your own rather than a shore excursion, you will immediately throw yourself into a foreign atmosphere including cab drivers at the pier haggling to give you a tour -- more intense haggling than I've come across in other places. And the souk is very much a place where Arab traditions rule -- so are many coffee houses, which are for men only.
But all in all, you'll find a laid-back city, very liberal by Islamic standards, and much more Western than you'd expect.
Where You're Docked
Some ships dock at the commercial pier in La Goulette, a fishing port eight miles north of Tunis, but a new wharf was recently completed, adding two new docks and corresponding cruise terminals. The 2,165-foot-long quayside area also includes a tourism and recreation complex, Goulette Village Harbor, which offers everything from shopping and dining to banking services and spa treatments.
The docks are only about half a mile from downtown La Goulette; though the port once catered only to cargo ships, an upgraded terminal building at Goulette Village Harbor welcomes cruise passengers with a souk. In addition to its shops, the facilities are also home to a Hammam (Moorish bath), where you can opt for a scrub-down or one of several other interesting treatments, including one where fish eat dead skin off of your feet.
The town of La Goulette itself features some of Tunis' best seafood restaurants. Otherwise you're better off heading to Tunis, about eight miles from the port, or to attractions just outside of La Goulette, like Carthage and Sidi Bou Said. Three phones for public use are available inside the cruise village; they accept both dollars and euros.
Good to Know
Heed local customs: Do not wear clothing that is overly revealing. Knees and shoulders should be covered. Pickpocketing is not a major problem here, but we did hear of a few instances (including one passenger who asked a local for directions and found the guy's hand surreptitiously in his pocket). Also, Tunis can get very hot. Pace yourself, and stay hydrated.
By Taxi: Cabs are available at the gate to the port. Fares are fixed by the number of seats (four, six or eight) and by destination. It can be difficult to find a cab back to port, though, so you might want to make arrangements with your driver to stay with you or come back to pick you up later.
By Train: There are also electric trains from La Goulette to downtown Tunis.
By Bike: Bikes are available to rent inside the cruise village. Guided tours by bike are also provided for affordable rates.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The official currency is the Tunisian Dinar (TND). (Current conversion rates can be found at www.xe.com.) U.S. dollars and euros are usually accepted. There are banks downtown, as well as ATM's.
The official language is Tunisian Arabic. Children learn French and another language, generally English, in school. In the souk, we heard a lot of "Hey, lady" and had no problem conducting negotiations in English.
Food and Drink
Fish, couscous with vegetables, grilled meat, eggplant salad and cookies filled with dates and fried in olive oil are all on the must-eat list here. Casual eateries tend to serve light meals and snacks throughout the day; restaurants, on the other hand, generally are open until about 2 p.m.
Best Choice in La Goulette: Enjoy a fish lunch at La Victoire (01, Avenue Franklin Roosevelt) or La Petite Etoile (Port de la Goulette).
Best Choice in Sidi Bu Said: We had a lovely, elegant lunch at Dar Zarouk (Rue Hedi Zarouk), a boutique hotel and restaurant perched on the edge of the mountain and overlooking the sea; the fish dishes are specialties. Another good spot for catching your breah is Cafe Sidi Chabaane (Rue Hedi Zarouk), which has a terrace built on the side of the cliff, also overlooking the mountains and sea.
Best Choice in Tunis: Dar El Jeld (5, Rue Dar El Jeld) is considered among the best eateries.