A bit of history
Tunisia was once called 'Ifriqiyyah', a name coming from the Roman word for Africa as well as the part of North Africa they occupied.
In fact, Tunisia is a mix of cultures going back to before the Phoenician times. From circa 1100 BC until 146 BC when Carthage fell to the Romans, it was occupied by Phoenicians. Romans were pushed away by Vandals in 439 AD. Arabs conquered the place during the 7th century and Berbers arrived in 909 AD. At some point, Vikings also passed by.
In the 1600s, Tunisia was part of the Great Ottoman Empire until France invaded it in 1881. From 1883 to 1956, it was a French protectorate (not to be confused with a colony).
Tunisia became a protectorate of France by treaty rather than invasion. The bey remained an absolute monarch with the French resident general for sole authority. The government structure was preserved and Tunisians continued to be subjects of the bey. The official language stayed Arabic and no lands were confiscated nor mosques converted into churches.
As a French protectorate and because the country is very close to Italy, Tunisia was visited by German and Italian troops. They were chased by allies.
In 1956, the French granted full independence to Tunisia in an accord. Bourguiba then became Prime Minister. The rule of the beys was abolished, and in 1957, the republic was declared, with Bourguiba as President. From a democracy Tunisia became an authocracy with Bourguiba centralizing power under his progressive but increasingly personalized rule.
In 1987, he was declared unfit for power and General Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali took over in a bloodless coup d'Etat. It is this coup that is named the "Révolution de jasmin" (Jasmin Revolution). The jasmine flower is considered a symbol of Tunisia.
President Ben Ali promised political liberalization and a transition to democracy but his rule soon became a dictature. People started to disappear, the press was gagged and even Le Routard guide was forbidden because of its comments about the regime.
In spring 2011 Ben Ali was forced out of power by a popular uprising starting the Arab Spring. It all started with the suicide by fire of Mohammed Bouazizi, an 26-year-old unemployed who had been supporting his family by selling fruit from a cart and was once too many times demanded bribes and confiscated his merchandises by local officials.
Unfortunately, since then, not much has changed regarding high unemployment and poverty.
The Old Town of Tunis is a UNESCO site since 1979. Because Tunis was considered one of the greatest and wealthiest cities in the Islamic world from the 12th to the 16th century, it includes some 700 remarkables monuments.
Bab el Bhar (the sea gate), also known as Porte De France (the gate of France), marks the separation between the Medina and the modern city (new town).
You will get lost
In bad shape because of the lack of funds, the medina may look a bit shaby but it is not.
It is very difficult to plan an itinerary and follow it because there are a lot of small streets not shown on maps.
But getting lost is the best way to discover the area.
Often overlooked by visitors, the old city has way more than souqs to offer. There you can see palaces, mosques, mausoleums, madrasas and fountains dating from the Almohad and the Hafsid periods. A lot of these monuments are closed for restoration or lack of (paid) staff but it can be worth it to ask the keeper, if you see any, and see if you can visit anyway. They will almost certainly ask for a few dinars (5 is ok). Keep in mind their salary is very low, when they have any. I do not encourage this but it is sometimes the only way to see beautiful things and with a bit of chance to remind the autorities that people are interested in visiting these monuments. It is not a question of not being open to no-muslims as I have read here and there, it is simply due to a lack of human and financial means.
You can easily spend a day going from door to door. They are beautiful.
Contrary to a belief propagated by misinformed "so-called specialists", the smaller door is NOT for women. It is for people on foot. The bigger door was used by horse/donkey riders.
Windows and Mashrabiya
Along with doors, mashrabiya are also worth a look. It is a typical vernacular ornementation that tends to disappear with modernization.
They serve 3 purposes: privacy of the inhabitants, air-conditioning of the home and shelter for those in the streets.
There are a lot of great mosques here and there in the medina. Many are only open during praying hours.
The Zitouna Mosque was an important place of culture and knowledge for a long time. It was home to the Zitouna University until the independence of Tunisia. Several remarkables scholars studied and taught here. Non-muslims only have access to the courtyard but they do have access. The trick is to find the one door allowing tourist entrance. One of the best views is from La Maison d'Orient carpet shop terrace. You do not have to pay to access the terrace. You do not have to buy anything either!
My favourite one is El Koubba mosque where Ibn Khaldoun, a Tunisian born, did his studies and researches. It is a small mosque built in the 11th century.
Madrasas are a specific type of religious school or college for the study of the Islamic religion, though the students may also study other subjects.
In Tunis, when they were built, those schools would contribute to educate the state civil servants.
They are now mostly used as accommodation for the students studying in Ez-Zitouna University or housing associations.
Some are open to the public and held public conferences. The best know is Madrasa Slimania (Ottoman era).
Museums, dars and mausoleums
The palaces or the Dars are some of the most important historical monuments. They were inhabited by politicians, wealthy class and dignitaries of the city. They now house luxury hotels, museums or are still own by families.
Regarding the museums, again, some have been closed for years due to restoration works that cannot be finished because of lack of funding.
The most important mausoleum, Torbet El Bey, the Tunisian royal mausoleum, has been recently restored but you need to find the keeper in order to visit it. Do not trust any schedules you might find on the internet.
Don't be tricked by people who want to make you pay the access to their rooftops. There are many free terraces.
Everybody is going to Maison d'Orient. The view is really great but it can get really crowded.
There is a little gem in the souq, Ed-Dar. It is a shop and museum at the same time own by the lovely Si Youssef Chammakhi. His brother and himself use their home to showcase not only their marchandise but also traditional features. Icing on the cake, the terrace is superb. Keep in mind that no photos are allowed in the shop because it is a display of family properties.
Rest your feet
Right next to the (closed for restoration - find the keeper) Ben Abdallah Museum (Arts and Traditions), there is the Café-Théâtre d'Art where you can rest. The cafe is housed in the converted stables of the Dar Ben Abdallah Museum. It hosts occasional theatre and cinema events, hence its name.
El Ali Restaurant and Café is a great place to stop as well; either to eat or to have a drink. There is a nice and comfy terrace full of students, and the restaurant itself has several beautifully decorated rooms. Lot of stairs though.
Avoid tourist traps in souqs
Most of the souvenir stalls are in the area between Rue Djemma ez Zitouna and Rue Kasbah.
There are many souvenirs, clothes, ... made in China in the medina. One way to find made in Tunisia objects is to go further in the souqs and in shops with elderly sellers. Young salesmen tend to have knowledge in sales/business ..., are more "agressive" and are more likely to sell bad quality, Chinese or overpriced goods.
Many pieces of jewellery in silver is in fact only covered by silver. They will turn green once in contact with your sweat.
Bargain tends to disappear nowadays as prices are more often written on packages but it is still done. Do not do like US people who pay way more than expected because they are not used to it. On the other hand, pay enough so they can make a living out of it. Best is to go to official shops to check their prices or ask your hotel staff.
Souk des Chéchias is a must see. It is where the makers of Tunisia's traditional woolen hats have had their workshops for centuries.
To avoid any surprise, it is better to buy carpets, jewellery and other important goods at the official retailers known as maisons de l'artisanat.
To get a real taste of locals' way of life, the best is obviously to go to the "ordinary" souqs where people buy their food, furnitures, shoes and clothes. It is less clean (especially around the meat and fish stalls), more messy and smelly but it is the real Tunis.
Cats and dogs
Be extra careful when petting them. Rabies is still very present in Tunisia.
The authorities only solution is to organise killing campaigns from time to time. So if you are in Tunisia, do not take back a cat to Europe. One of the last time it was done, the kitty had rabbies and brought it back to France, making people sick.
The new town along Avenue Bourguiba is a beautiful concentration of Art Nouveau/Belle Epoque, Moorish, Eclecticism architectures dating from the French protectorate. There are a few modern buildings but not enough to destroy the homogeneity of this part of the city. Unfortunately, many buildings are in bad shape, with peeling paint and cracks. This said, it does have a European feeling and there are many cafes and restaurants there, as well as all the trendy shops.
Cinema Le Palace
Great example of Eclecticism, this movie theatre is not afraid to display movies that have been censored in other muslim countries.
This theatre is an amazing example of Art Nouveau and the only one of its kind in North Africa. It is seen as the most representative of the architectural style in Africa.
It was built by Jean-Émile Resplandy who introduced Art Nouveau in Tunisia and was the architect of the bey.
St. Vincent de Paul Cathedral
This imposing church is the largest surviving building of Tunisia's French colonial period. It has a neo-Romanesque facade and dates back to 1893. There are some beautiful mosaics inside.
When Ben Ali took over, he removed Bourguiba's equestrian statue and replaced it with an imposing clock tower nicknamed Big Ben.
There were talks about dismantling it but they finally decided to keep it. Bourguiba's statue has returned a few steps away in 2016 after having spent almost 20 years in exile in the suburbs.
Musée du Bardo
Not to be confused with the Bardo Museum in Algiers .
It is a must see as it hosts the best and largest collection of mosaics in the world in an old Beylic palace dating back to the 19th Century.
It retraces some 40 000 years of Tunisia’s history and deserves a full day visit.
This is where all the expats live. It is worth a trip because you can find a typical but rare architecture: houses with white walls and red roofs.
Also, there are a church (now a library) and a mosque side by side.
The biggest park in the city. Avoid the zoo, it is depressing.
Take the metro (actually a tramway) or a taxi. Buses are awfully crowdy and signs are in Arabic. Metro is very convenient, as are suburbian trains. Taxis are inexpensive.
Avoid driving in Tunis, it is anarchy. Outside of Tunis, it is ok and roads are in good shape.
If taking the plane, the best is to take Tunisair whenever you can. Staff is nice and it is a way to support local economy.
Ferry rides from Italy and France are also possible. You can then take your car with you.
Safety and behaviour
Tunis is as safe as any European city, if not safer than the US ones. There are issues near the Libyan border and around Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine (where the revolution started) as problems have not been solved since 2011 so it is best to avoid these parts of the country.
Just like anywhere else, do not show off your belongings and beware of scooters and bikes. This said, I walked the whole Medina with my camera at hand and had no troubles. Same in Carthage. Women travelling solo are safe. You might accounter a creep or two in the metro but if you react people will help you. Again, I never had any problems but uncontrolable laughing with fellow passengers. Better not be alone in the streets after 8pm. People are used to female working night shifts nowadays but it is still a bit sensitive, mainly for your reputation. No trouble driving as a woman. More trouble just driving in Tunis. It is hell. Women driving are allowed not to stop when police ask them to during night time as there have been a few agressions in the past. But in Europe it happens as well although we do have to stop.
Yes Daesh is there, but Tunisians are stubborn and if there is a threat they will all be in the streets of Tunis with their family to show they are not afraid and how much they disagree with them.
Ladies, please refrain to wear mini skirts, mini shorts and to show too much flesh. Tunisians are open-minded but it is a Muslim country and it is disrespectful. Also you might have some creeps harassing you. By doing so, you are not encouraging the emancipation of Tunisian women (who do not need it anyway, having the most advanced laws regarding women rights in Muslim countries) but actually encouraging bad behaviour towards women in general and especially the ones from Western world. Apart from that, you will see that Tunisians are wearing the same clothes than in Europe. Factories are in Tunisia. Jeans, legging, t shirt, long shorts or dresses are ok. There are more and more tops without sleeves. Tunisians actually like to dress well, especially when going out. No mandatory scarf. Full cover is not really well accepted by them, as it comes from Saudi Arabia and they do not like... no, actually they hate Saudi Arabia.
Also, sexual tourism is a big problem in Tunisia, with a lot of German and Swedish, but not only, women coming to enjoy their time. This is simply and purely exploitation of poverty and no more than prostitution.
Do not believe that Turkey is safer than Tunisia. This is propagated by Europe and Turkey to make people go there instead of Tunisia. You will not find loukoum and humus here, it is from the other side of the Mediterranean (Turkey and Liban). But sweets are way better here ;-)
Olive oil is great. You can order alcohol at bars and restaurants. This said, beware that there are some puritans annoying people during Ramadan.
There are places that look like only for men. They are not but women might feel unconfortable going there on their own. In case of emergency, do go. They will do their best to help you.
Since the Revolution, you can freely talk about politics wherever you are, which is a big change but not an excuse to criticize the current problems. Tunisians are well aware of those. It is not your place as a guest.
Do not talk about Revolution of Jasmin. That was when Ben Ali took over power.
Try not to criticize waste in the streets or the bad shape of the buildings. It is due to lack of education and means. Europe promised a lot of money after the revolution. Almost nothing arrived. Unemployment is high, poverty is important, therefore environment is not (yet) a priority. Many people working in the cultural field have not been properly paid for years. There are no fundings for restoration. Because Ben Ali founded the Tunisian economy on tourism, you can easily understand that no tourists = no money. Plus, the average salary is between 300 and 600dt/month.
Remember that the countryside is way more conservative than Tunis and beach resorts such as Hammamet and Djerba. But still they are quite tolerant.