Morocco has always had so much to offer in terms of geography, hotels, restaurants, and exotic cityscapes that I have rarely been tempted to go anywhere else in North Africa: Algeria was, and is, dangerous; Libya was, and is once again, at least for most Americans, off-limits. Tunisia, on the other hand, was known mainly for its mass tourism, the country's relatively liberal climate having attracted travelers—and developers—to this part of Africa's northern coast. Though for many it conjures exotic images of bustling markets and hill towns overlooking the blue Mediterranean, when I thought of Tunisia, I had visions of beaches packed with Northern European tourists getting too much sun and drinking too much. Perhaps because I have lived in Marrakesh off and on for decades, Tunisia and its cookie-cutter resorts never held much allure for me. But with the opening of a handful of small hotels, created from historic town houses and mansions, alongside the white-sand beaches and timeless medinas, there are new ways to experience the country's historic sites.
Dar El Medina, Tunis
I've often been wary of going to a Muslim country during Ramadan, with its sunrise-to-sundown fasting and supposed lack of things to do. Unfortunately the only time I am able to visit Tunisia is during the last week of that holy month. But when I arrive at my hotel in Sidi Ben Arous—a Tunis neighborhood in the medina that has cobblestoned streets, columned archways, and whitewashed houses with blue doors and trim—I am surprised to discover a smart little party going on in the courtyard at 10:30 in the evening. It's a very civilized affair: a young lutenist plays softly by a fountain, and well-dressed locals cluster at café tables, indulging in mint tea, honey-drenched pastries, and crunchy nut cakes. Some take puffs on tall silver shishas, or water pipes, filling the air with the aromatic smoke of fruit-flavored tobacco.
"Welcome to Tunis," says Salah Belhaouane. Two years ago, with his brother Mustafa, he transformed their family mansion into the Dar El Medina, the first boutique hotel in the capital's ancient quarter. He escorts me up a tiled staircase to a courtyard shared by two suites. Mine is a small duplex with marble floors, Tunisian kilims, hand-painted furniture, and a sleek gray bathroom down a secret staircase. Despite the festivities below, the room is quiet.
For the moment, the Belhaouane brothers' creation, with 12 rooms and suites ranging from over-the-top Ottoman to Moorish minimalist, is the only boutique property in the medina, but several other projects are in various stages of development here. "We welcome competition," Belhaouane says. "An only child is lonely; it's better to have brothers and sisters."
What to Do Many of the palaces and mansions in the city's medina have been converted into museums: worth seeing is the 18th-century Dar Ben Abdallah, with its salons and dioramas of late-19th-century bourgeois life. The Tourbet El Bey mausoleum is a maze of elaborate multicolored Italianate marble chambers and sculpted sarcophagi of the Husseinid dynasty, which ruled Tunisia from the early 18th to the mid 20th century.
The most impressive sight is the Ezzitouna or Great Mosque. Begun in the early eighth century, after the Arab conquest of Ifriqiyya, as Tunisia, eastern Algeria, and parts of Libya were known at the time, this enormous structure embodies the architectural traditions of the different dynasties that have ruled the city. And although it is off-limits to non-Muslims, much of the main prayer hall, with its carpets and massive chandeliers, can be glimpsed from a side patio, which is open to the public, as is a stretch of the impressive arcaded courtyard, built in the ninth century with columns salvaged from nearby Roman ruins. Don't miss a meal at Dar El Jeld and shopping at Ed-Dar.