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Introducing Tunis

Tunis is the country of Tunisia’s largest city, and is the capital of both the Tunisian Republic and the Tunis Governorate. Tunis’ greater metropolitan area is home to around 2.5 million people. Located in north-eastern Tunisian on the Gulf of Tunis off of the Mediterranean Sea, the city sits behind the large Lake of Tunis and the port of La Goulette. The ancient city of Carthage is just north of Tunis along the coast.

Said to date back to the 4th century BC, the city has a very long history. Tunis was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, but was rebuilt under the rule of Augustus and remained under Roman control until it fell to the Carthaginians. In more modern times, Tunis became a French protectorate in 1881 with both Arab and immigrant populations, and greatly benefited from the French development of water supplies, natural gas and electricity networks, public transportation systems, and other forms of public infrastructure before the country of Tunisia finally gained full independence in 1957.

As the capital city, Tunis is the hub of politics and commercial activity for Tunisia. Tunis has experienced rapid modernization as a result of its economic expansion in recent decades, the results of which are apparent in many regions. Tunis is full of contrasts of old and new, with the old town medina being engulfed by colonial and modern buildings.

Quick facts
  • From the 12th century to the 16th century Tunis was one of the richest and grandest cities in the Islamic world, with a population of about 100,000
  • Between 1881 and 1956, under the French protectorate, Europeans formed half the population of Tunis
  • During World War II, Tunis was held by the Axis forces from November 1942 to May 1943 as their last base in Africa
  • The Arab League, representing 22 Arab nations, was headquartered in Tunis from 1979 to 1990
  • The official language of Tunis is Tunisian Arabic, but children generally learn French (and often English) in school
Exploring
The city of Tunis is divided into the old city, known as the medina, and the new city, known as Ville Nouvelle in French. The medina is found at the centre of the city, and is quite an adventure to traverse. A dense series of alleys and clandestine passageways filled with exotic aromas and the sounds of boisterous haggling, the medina is a wonderful place to experience a step back in time. The souks (marketplaces) are very traditional, and many of the local coffee houses are for men only, so be prepared to adjust to local customs. Clothing (particularly for women) should be conservative, with knees and shoulders covered. In other regards the city is quite Western, and very liberal by Islamic standards.

Though still considered part of a third world country, Tunis is very clean and crime is generally quite low (although warnings about pickpockets should always be heeded). The city can get very hot (particularly during the summer months) so make sure to keep hydrated and pace yourself as you explore. Ville Nouvelle’s many pavement cafes are a great excuse to sit down and sip a cool drink in between shopping excursions or sightseeing outings. This newer part of the city is a stark contrast to the tangled maze that is the medina; the Ville Nouvelle is centred on Ave Habib Bourguiba, a lovely (and straight!) tree-lined street perfect for evening strolls.

Getting around
Tunis’ growing metropolitan area has an extensive network of public transportation offerings, including buses, and above-ground light rail system (called le Metro), and a regional train line (called the TGM) connecting the city centre to the northern suburbs. Taxis are also available in Tunis, and can be hired either per trip or at an hourly rate. Shared taxis are also a unique offering–for a cheaper fare, one can hop into one of these 8 passenger minivans known as louages. More flexible than buses, they are usually slightly more expensive, as well. Renting a car is not recommended as the roads are rough and the signage is generally poor.

The Tunis metro (which is actually an aboveground tramway system) is one of the best ways to get around town. Inexpensive tickets can be purchased from kiosks at the stations, which range from proper stations to small railed-off sections of pavement. Make sure that you count stops when on the metro, however–many stops do not have good signage, so it is easy to miss your stop by sight alone. Ferries connect Tunis to a variety of Mediterranean locations, such as Palermo, Naples, and Marseille. The main ferry terminal is located at La Goulette, but there are multiple ports so make sure to do your research ahead of time to make sure you’re in the right location.

Beyond Tunis
The most notable day trip option from Tunis is to the ancient city of Carthage. Located on the eastern side of Lake Tunis, along the sea coast, Carthage has a long and illustrious history. Reported to have been founded by Phoenician colonists, Carthage was a large, rich city and a major power in the Mediterranean region, and a major rival of Rome–resulting in many wars over the years. Very few primary historical sources of Carthage exist, as the city’s records were destroyed by the Romans following the Third Punic War. This leaves most of the history of Carthage up to the Greeks and Romans–who were often in conflict with Carthage, meaning many of the records are not complimentary.

Today Carthage is home to many ancient ruins and is a popular tourist attraction. Many Roman sites, such as theatres, temples, villas and baths can be seen–including the ruins of a Roman amphitheater and the thermal Antonine Baths, considered the largest baths built by the Romans.

The best way to travel to Carthage is by taking the small suburban train (TGM). Travel from the Tunis Marine TGM station to pass through La Goulette, Carthage, and Sidi Bou Said (a nearby artistic town also worth visiting). The travel time to Carthage is about 30 minutes.

Local activities
Medina of Tunis
The Medina of Tunis was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, and contains over 700 monuments including palaces, mosques, mausoleums, madrasas and fountains. This old section of Tunis offers great shopping and sightseeing, and most cruise lines offer walking tours of this historical heart of the city.

Sahib Hammam
A visit to Tunis isn’t complete without a visit to a hammam (a public bathhouse). With echoing domed rooms, Sahib Hammam is a local favorite and is guaranteed to provide an amazingly relaxing and exotic experience. Remember to bring a towel, as well as shampoo as soap–and be advised that people wear underwear (or even shorts) in the baths. Women should bathe in the afternoons, while men bathe in the evenings.

Bardo Museum
For a look into the history of Tunis, visit the Bardo Museum–Tunisia’s most celebrated museum. Home to one of the finest collections of Roman mosaics in the world (many gathered from the floors of Tunisia’s Roman sites), the Bardo also contains antiques from Ancient Greece and displays objects ranging from pre-historic artefacts to beautiful modern jewellery.

Local cuisine and drinks
Tunis is famous for its grilled fish and meats, couscous dishes with fresh vegetables, eggplant salad, and date cookies. Desserts such as almond and chocolate cakes are quite popular, and one cannot visit the city without trying the ubiquitous mint tea, served just about everywhere and thought to be good for indigestion. Local brands of fizzy soft drinks and good red and white wines are also plentiful.
Where you are docked
The cruise terminal building has its own indoor souk (market) to welcome passengers, and is an impressive complex offering shopping, dining, banking services, and even spa treatments. Located about half a mile from downtown La Goulette, one can grab a bite to eat in town before heading down the road to Tunis. Haggling cab drivers are plentiful at the pier, and will offer rides or even tours of the area.
Regional weather
Tunis experiences a mixture of Mediterranean and African weather due to its subtropical location. Split into two distinct seasons, a hot dry summer/ spring, and a cool but moderately warm winter. August is often the hottest month and in comparison December or January the coolest months of the year.
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