x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Ask the Expert: rich history and retail therapy in Tunis

What are the important sites and shopping spots to visit when in the Tunisian capital?

I am going to Tunis next month for a couple of weeks. What are the important places to visit and the best shopping spots?

Tunisia's capital offers a heady mix of cultures, plenty of shopping and several interesting attractions, from museums to historical monuments. It is also a good base from which to go on day trips to archaeological digs in Sousse and El Jem.

Start your sightseeing at the Zaytouna Mosque, Tunis's oldest mosque, and once used to serve as a school for Islam. Its foundation dates back to 732AD, but the mosque was rebuilt in the ninth century. It has been modified several times since then; the last addition was a 44m-tall minaret, constructed in the 19th century. The mosque is open from 8am to 3pm daily, except on Friday. Entry is four Tunisian dinars (Dh10) per person.

Bab el Bahr, or "Gate to the Sea", is Tunisia's own triumphal arch - the stone monument was built in 1848 at one end of Place de l'Indépendance. Nearby is the St Vincent de Paul cathedral, one of the city's biggest monuments to colonialism, built in 1882, offering a strange mix of European and Islamic architectural styles.

Bardo Museum (rue Nationale 7; 00 216 1 513 650), Tunisia's national archaeological museum, has on display vast collections that range from prehistoric artefacts to impressive Roman mosaics dug up from the ancient settlements in El Jem and Sousse. The museum is open daily from 9.30am to 4.30pm except on Monday; entry costs seven dinars (Dh17) per person. Be prepared to fork out an extra dinar (Dh2.4) if you want to take your camera inside.

Plan a day trip to El Jem to explore the Roman Thysdrus amphitheatre. Constructed by Emperor Gordian between 230AD and 238AD, it is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. The stadium, which used to seat nearly 40,000 people, bears a striking similarity to the Colosseum in Rome (although it is said to be in a somewhat better condition). Getting there is simple enough - El Jem is about a two-hour journey by train from Tunis (second-class fare is 10 dinars [Dh24] per person; tickets can be booked at www.sncft.com.tn/).

Shopping in Tunis is an interesting experience, especially in the traditional markets found all over the city. The best-known is the seventh-century souq, referred to as "medina" by the residents because it lies in the old town. The market is criss-crossed with shaded alleys lined with dozens of small stalls and shops selling garments, spices, silver, souvenirs, carpets, pottery and cheap household goods. Shopkeepers tend to inflate prices, thanks to the high number of foreign visitors to the souq, so haggle long and hard if the things you want have an outrageous price tag attached.

At the end of the day, stop for mint tea at one of the small cafes dotting the souq.

For designer goods, head to Tunis City Mall, which has more than 80 brand-name outlets to choose from.

If you're looking to buy gold, head to the city's Souq el Bey for intricately designed jewellery, both modern and traditional.

Central Market, Tunis's food bazaar, is the place to go for freshly baked bread, cheeses, seasonal produce and the best harissa in the city - perfect if you're planning a picnic lunch in one of the city's green spaces, such as Ennahli National Park, which is worth a visit for its sprawling gardens and tranquil atmosphere.

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