One of the pleasures of the Tunis medina is browsing the stalls of the souk and the specialty shops that brim with all manner of garments, gadgets, homewares, books, beauty products and accessories.
Here are four of my favorite shops in Tunis’ medina, best enjoyed between stints smoking shisha in a cafe, and aimless wanderings through the mazelike warren of streets and alleyways. Who knows what other gems you’ll find?
Fethi’s chechia shop
Fethi Ben Mohammed Bleich’s beautiful chechia shop has been open since 1924. Fethi himself is now in his eighties, but he turns up every day, lovingly making chechias – or traditional red Tunisian hats – by hand. “Once, Tunisian men wore chechias year-round,” Fethi explains, holding up his latest creation. “But now they are worn only in winter because Tunisians are losing the tradition to cover their heads,” he says. In the 17th and 18th century, there were 15,000 chechia workshops in Tunisia, with exports reaching all corners of the Mediterranean. Now Fethi does most of his business with regular customers and with visitors to the souk, who stop by the old-fashioned green, sculptured store to hear about chechia-making; it’s a process that can take up to three months.
Address: 4 Grand Souk des Chechias
Souk des Parfumeurs
Tunisia’s famous essential oils are mostly produced near Nabeul, close to the beach resort of Hammamet. But they are distilled and sold in souks around the country. Rose, sandalwood, orange blossom and Sahara flower are the most popular, but vendors also sell tiny, fragrant blocks of amber to rub onto your skin — great for freshening up after a day in the sun. At the souk des parfumiers (also known as Souk el Attarine), small vials of oils mixed with alcohol go for about 8 dinars. Expect to pay 15 to 20 dinars for the larger, purer vials that haven’t been mixed with alcohol.
Address: Rue de la Kasbah, at the foot of the Grande Mosque
Part museum, part emporium, this ancient multi-storey carpet store is run by two jovial brothers. As you enter the store, you’ll spot cabinets laden with pretty jewelry, but it’s upstairs that the serious business takes place: there, the brothers will roll out carpet specimens while you sit back and sip mint tea. If you’re not in the mood to buy, they won’t exert too much pressure, although it’s easy to see why the store is a hit; prices are reasonable as long as you bargain, and the designs – many of which are handmade – are striking. Don’t miss the rooftop terrace, adorned with the ruins of an ancient, ceramic-laden house. It’s worth the climb up here even if you’re not in the market for a carpet.Address: 8 Rue Sidi Ben Arous, 7 and 30 Souk Ettruk
La maison des sacs
The proprietor of this amazing little store works entirely by hand, transforming classic handbags into works of art. Unusually, he incorporates beautiful fabric into his designs and every bag is different. You’ll find saddle bags featuring traditional loom-woven front panels, purses adorned with baby blue silk and sleek briefcases created with serious style. Prices are steep for Tunisia, but it’s worth the stop; despite pressure from loyal shoppers, the proprietor refuses to export his designs and so you won’t find purses like these anywhere else.
Address: Rue de la Kasbah