What’s blue and white, next to the sea, and super Instagrammable? Santorini might be the obvious response but a cheaper, less crowded and just as beautiful, if not more, answer is Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia.
The town overlooking the Mediterranean and Gulf of Tunis is named after a 13th century Sufi saint while a French baron is widely credited for its blue-and–white colour scheme.
Having had a taste of the Middle East and North Africa region through my sojourn in Morocco and tempted to explore more of the culture, I set my sights on Tunisia, found a fellow traveller and booked a ticket for Tunis.
While the original plan was only Tunis, Sidi Bou Said in all its azure glory popped up on my social media feed thanks to my former editor, who lives there, and it looked too scenic to not include in the itinerary.
Sidi Bou Said is less than an hour’s drive from the Tunisian capital and the journey was pleasant enough with greenery and mountains on the way.
As we arrived, the hilltop town looked just like in the pictures; all white and blue, narrow alleys but big enough for a car to pass through, and orange trees every few steps.
Sidi Bou Said doesn’t have too many hotels to choose from and among those few options, Hôtel Dar Said (dar: house) had the most raving reviews. With its blue cast iron window grills, beautiful tiles plus views of the sea from the room, Dar Said set the bar really high for all future accommodations.
Our first stop, considering it was late in the afternoon and we were famished, was Café des Delices. Now, when you search for this café online, you’ll see three videos pop up on Google — all of Patrick Bruel crooning in French about Café des Delices. (I suggest clicking here and reading the rest of the article with Bruel’s voice in the background, only because I played it incessantly during our three-day trip).
The café’s terrace was an ideal spot to unwind with views of the Gulf of Tunis, albeit the weather in early March was chilly for sitting outdoors. What helped was thé aux pignons — Tunisian tea with mint leaves and pine nuts.
In true Maghrebi style, tea is a key part of any meal in Tunisia.
Like with your Turkish coffee and Moroccan mint tea, ask the server to adjust the sugar so as to avoid it being too sweet.
From a sun-kissed evening to night-time views of the glittery marina down below, we took it all in over cups of tea and Brik: a thin deep-fried filo pastry, filled with tuna — a staple in Tunisian cuisine — or a runny egg, or both.
As we walked back, there was barely anyone around and we had the dimly lit cobblestone streets all to ourselves, with the occasional sound of music and conversation coming from inside restaurants and houses.
Day two was all about exploring the town on foot after a breakfast of local cheese and jam — and dates filled with butter. While I’m still not sure as to how I feel about the tea and pine nuts combo, I can tell you dates and butter are a decadent pairing.
From the emptier inner alleys, we made our way to the main street, Rue Habib Thameur, lined with shops, boutiques, galleries and eateries.
One of the first things we spotted was a queue outside a window looking into a kitchen, serving deep fried desserts. We bought two Bambalounis — sugar-dusted delicious Tunisian doughnuts — and went further down the street, where we came across the tomb of the saint after whom the town is named.
According to historians, Abu Said Ibn Khalaf Yahya al-Tamimi al-Beji settled in this part, which at the time was known as Jabal el-Menar village, and established a sanctuary here. After his death in 1231, a zawiya (Islamic religious school) including a mosque was constructed for the saint and the town, which came to be known as Sidi Bou Said, slowly grew around it.
“Almost 500 years later, in the 18th century, the Turkish Beys of the Husainid dynasty, then ruling the region, built their residences in the town. Later, in the early 20th century, the town attracted wealthy Tunisians and French nationals.” – Sacred Footsteps
Adjacent to the zawiya is Café des Nattes, a typical local coffee shop and one of the most recognisable landmarks of Sidi Bou Said. We went up the stairs to the terrace of the café, where there was a hint of smoke from the water pipes mingled with the scent of coffee, and spent a few hours people-watching.
Maybe it was off-season due to the weather or perhaps Sidi Bou Said is still making itself known to travellers, but we spotted few tourists and more Tunisians from nearby cities and towns during our stay.
Locals in Sidi Bou Said converse in Arabic or/and French, and since we didn’t know either, communication was a mix of broken English and Arabic plus hand gestures. People were generally friendly and happy to answer questions about the town but they weren’t used to seeing Pakistanis in their side of the world.
“Where are you from?” asked the shopkeepers, and the guesses ranged from Europe to Africa, but never Pakistan or even India.
But, like Morocco, the affinity with a Muslim country seemed to run deep.
“Yes, Pakistan, I know. Muslims, brothers and very nice people,” said one of the shopkeepers, handing my friend and I free keychains.
The shops are mostly tailor-made for tourists, but you can find beautiful pottery, sketches, and even handmade beauty products.
The art shops and galleries were one of the most appealing ways to spend time, with the people running them being a great source for learning more about the local art scene as well as the town.
Sidi Bou Said, which was once a popular retreat for writers and artists (including the likes of André Gide and Henri Matisse), has all the quintessential qualities of a charming, small town.
The hilly neighbourhood is dotted with white houses set off by blue, ornate windows and some of the most beautiful doors I have ever seen; some newly painted with studs that are arranged to make stars and crescents, among other shapes, and others old with cracks and chipped paint and not necessarily blue.
(Full disclosure: I have a thing for colourful doors, particularly old and traditional ones).
Some turns will take you to secluded areas with views of the sea, others into smaller side-streets, shaded by bougainvillea and orange trees and featuring more blue latticework window screens — known as mashrabiya — and wrought iron filigree.
Regardless of the turn, if you’re like me, you’ll be stopping every few steps to take a picture.
We didn’t have ‘sightseeing’ in mind during our stay in Sidi Bou Said, but the one exception we made was for the palace of Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger, the Frenchman who is said to have set off the blue-and-white trend.
Baron Rodolphe was a painter and musicologist, who also specialised in Arabic music, and reportedly settled in Sidi Bou Said in 1901.
The palace, atop a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean, is called Ennejma Ezzahra (‘Sparkling Star’) and was built between 1909 and 1921.
It is also referred to as the House of Baron.
According to a New York Times article, 7,000 pickaxes were broken in the excavation, and 10 craftsmen — two Tunisians and eight Moroccans — worked a decade on the palace's intricate ceilings and balconies, crannies and walls made of marble.
The meticulously put together interior, inspired by Arab design, deserves at least a couple of hours.
The building with a simple blue and white exterior now houses the Museum of Arab and Mediterranean Music.
When we asked some locals about how the town got its colour, they didn’t have a clear answer, and none mentioned the baron.
However, if majority of the articles that I went through upon my return are to be trusted, it was his palace that inspired the vivid blue and white.
The staff at our hotel insisted that a meal at restaurant and lounge Dar Zarrouk was not to be missed. Because of the cold winds, the terrace was shut but the courtyard with chic wicker furniture and the scent of jasmine and oranges in the air was cosy enough.
The couscous with lamb and dried fruits was good but the harissa — a hot, aromatic chili paste gifted to the world by the region — that came with it elevated the dish to the next level, at least according to my Pakistani taste buds.
My recommendation is yes, the couscous, but also the crème brûlée at Dar Zarrouk. The flawless French dessert was infused with orange blossom and came with a shard of burnt caramel that struck such a perfect balance of sweet and bitter that I would have ordered it on its own.
The next morning, before our drive back to Tunis, we wandered aimlessly some more, indulged in another Bambalouni and picked up some trinkets.
The trick to making the most of this picturesque town, which begs to be heaped with flattering adjectives, is simple: don’t overthink what to do, where to go, what to eat. Everything is laid bare in front of you, wrapped in gorgeous cobalt blue accents — all you have to do is walk the streets, take your time and pause to admire the many blue doors.