Lauren Razavi guides us through five distinctive features that’ll have you wanting to flee Tunis for the beauty of nearby Sidi Bou Saïd
The medieval village of Sidi Bou Saïd is a unique destination in North Africa. Located just 20 kilometres from the Tunisian capital of Tunis, it’s the perfect place to escape the hustle of the city streets for a softer, well-preserved and authentically Tunisian experience.
The most striking and distinctive feature of Sidi Bou Saïd is its two-tone tapestry of colour; white walls are awash with gorgeous ocean-blue trimmings wherever you go in the town, making the occasional splash of another shade appear all the more vibrant. The tremendous natural landscape combined with its tantalising hues gives the entire town an exotic fairy-tale charm. When the sun is shining – which is most of the time in this country – everything in sight, whether man-made or totally organic, seems to shine.
Drawing its name from a 13th century Sufi saint and savant, many early visitors journeyed on pilgrimages to pay their respects at Sidi Bou Saïd’s mausoleum, contributing significantly to its rise and then growth as a mini-metropolis. Its name may be a reflection of Tunisia’s respect for heritage in itself, but it’s more than just the foundations of Sidi Bou Saïd that are soaked in a fascinating history. The same families have run the town for as many generations as locals can remember, keeping its culture alive and offering insight into the traditional way of life in Tunisia.
These days, the townspeople are very much used to an influx of international tourists each summer, but they work hard to retain the authenticity of the place and they seem to do so seamlessly.
Sidi Bou Saïd has a long history of attracting artists and bohemian types to its shores, especially writers and painters. Notable figures such as the French philosopher and literary critic Michael Foucault and the Swiss painter Paul Klee spent time here, drawing inspiration from the location’s picturesque charm and tranquil atmosphere. This tradition has continued to the present day; many archways and highly decorated doors that can be seen from the winding streets lead into studios and workshops.
At the town’s highest point is the beautiful Ennejma Ezzahra, a mansion built by the French-German banker and music aficionado Frédéric Emile d'Erlanger in 1911. Architecturally magnificent, the structure is notable now as home to the Centre des Musiques Arabes et Méditerranéenne – an impressive multi-arts centre and museum celebrating the music of the region.
Equally as stunning as its blue and white architecture, Sidi Bou Saïd is notable for its cliff-side position overlooking the Bay of Tunis – a dazzling emerald stretch of the Gulf of Tunis. The majority of restaurants and coffee shops in the area benefit from incredible views over the Bay and the Marina, creating a wonderful setting to relax and reflect on the day’s events.
Outdoor café Café Sidi Chabaane (Rue Sidi Chabaane, Sidi Bou Saïd, Tunisia 2026) offers an astounding panorama over much of the water, with delicious mint and pine nut teas to accompany. The most famous of cafés in Sidi Bou Saïd is Café des Nattes (Place du Souk, Sidi Bou Saïd, Tunisia 2026), which is a fantastic spot for people watching with its views over the town’s main street.
Just a few feet away is a tiny shop selling freshly-made Tunisian doughnuts, covered in sugar – these are absolutely irresistible.
When you’ve taken ample time to soak in the culture and visage of the place, Sidi Bou Saïd also had an impressive variety of activities to choose from. Its location atop the Bay of Tunis means watersports including windsurfing and sailing are on offer all year round, while those looking for entertainment on the ground can embark on camel and horse riding escapades, or taken an afternoon to socialise with the locals and explore the many market streets.
Local trade around Tunisa centres on silver craft and objects carved out of olive wood, as well as the herbs and spices, ceramics, clothes and other souvenirs found all over Tunisia.