La Marsa, Tunisia's coastal gem: Where to shop, eat, sleep
While the sibling towns of Carthage and Sidi Bou Said have garnered more fame, La Marsa—a coastal town northeast of the capital city of Tunis—deserves greater recognition.
With its historical allure, breathtaking coastline, verdant hills, and a captivating array of restaurants and artisan boutiques, La Marsa stands as a hidden gem along the Mediterranean shoreline.
Originating as a fishing and farming village, its soccer club is known as lginawiyya (okra) in honour of the vegetable that once dotted its landscape, La Marsa in the 19th century became a resort town where the Tunisian royal family established summer palaces.
"Traditional Tunisian features—such as arched doorways, ornamental tiles, and courtyards—harmonise with European neo-classical and Art Deco motifs"
Dar al Taj (House of the Crown) was the seasonal home of successive Beylik monarchs until its demolition in 1956. The palace was constructed in the mauresque fashion, a style that emerged in 18th-century Europe imitating Moorish architecture in Spain and Portugal.
Henry Dunant, a native of Switzerland and founder of the Red Cross, recounted his visit in 1858, “In the centre of this courtyard is a large alabaster fountain, with three ponds superimposed and surmounted by a spire decorated with the crescent. [...] The bey often receives [guests] in a vast Moorish style gallery with stained glass windows of a thousand colours.”
During the 20th century, Marsa’s development grew under the French colonial period with new infrastructure and urban planning that encouraged the migration of affluent residents, both locals and French colonists. Unlike other coastal towns that have since lost their appeal, La Marsa remains a highly sought-after location in Tunisia, where residents now call it home throughout the year.
A prominent palace from that era is the Essaâda Palace gifted by Naceur Bey for his wife. The architecture is a mix of French, Italian, and Spanish-Moorish styles, once the residence of the Husainid Beys.
This palace showcases a blend of Ottoman, Moorish, and French architectural elements, reflecting not only the prevailing style during the Beylik's rule but also the cosmopolitan nature of La Marsa. It briefly served as the home of Tunisia’s independence leader, Habib Bourguiba, and currently serves as a municipal office open to the public to tour.
La Marsa's most iconic landmark, Qobbet el Hawa (Dome of the Wind), was once perhaps the Mediterranean's most refined beach hut. Qobbet el Hawa granted the female members of the royal family private access to the sea. While it currently stands in a state of neglect, its allure remains. Its white dome poised above the sea still enchants locals and visitors.
To truly immerse yourself in La Marsa's architectural charm, consider a visit to Marsa Cube, the residential neighbourhood west of the Corniche, the beach promenade.
Take a stroll through this area, where you'll discover elegantly designed homes of modest proportions—quite distinct from the flashy McMansions that are cropping up elsewhere.
These homes skillfully blend Islamic and modern influences, creating a harmonious fusion. Bathed in sunlight, their pristine white exteriors exude unassuming elegance and a distinct lack of ostentation, allowing them to seamlessly meld with their surroundings rather than overpower them. They embody the purest essence of Mediterranean architecture.
This architectural fusion is a recurring theme throughout the town, often evident within the same residence or public building. Traditional Tunisian features—such as arched doorways, ornamental tiles, and courtyards—harmonise with European neo-classical and Art Deco motifs.
Moorish geometric patterns and intricate detailing intermingle with Islamic domes and minarets. While much of the historical architecture remains intact, the booming population has at times sacrificed preservation for new developments characterised by brick and glass constructions.
Although today's population mainly comprises Tunisians, La Marsa's history is rich with diversity. In the past, it housed Muslims, Jews, Italians, Maltese, and French nationals. The Jewish community predates the French.
While many Tunisian Jews have since relocated to France and Israel, often due to pressure, the Keren Yeshoua Synagogue endures as a landmark representing a more inclusive and tolerant era.
Consecrated in the 1920s, its blue and white Moorish-accented architecture continues to captivate visitors. Legend has it that the Bey of Tunisia personally assisted in constructing the Teba, the platform from which the Torah is read.
The synagogue miraculously survived a close call from an Allied bomber during World War II. Adjacent to the synagogue was the Zephyr Hotel, which served as a Nazi command station during the German occupation of Tunisia. The American pilot, uncertain of his target, was guided by the Star of David atop the synagogue's dome.
While La Marsa is more crowded than before, a stroll along its Corniche, with the soothing sea breeze and the dazzling blue water, still evokes a calming ambience unique to this corner of the world.
If you find yourself in this Mediterranean town, here are a few must-visit spots:
Lyoum: Known for innovative fashion, including playful tees and well-crafted sweaters.
À Table: Offers artisan Tunisian goods like harissa, olive oil, jams, and bottarga.
Art Galleries: Explore local talent at TGM, Yosr Ben Ammar, ARCHIVART, and Alexandre Roubtzoff.
CULT Bistro: A standout dining experience with inventive dishes like miso-zucchini and prawn risotto.
La Maison: Upscale French cuisine within a mansion, with a striking black chandelier.
Le Golfe: Enjoy fresh seafood and Tunisian wine while taking in panoramic Mediterranean views.
Street Food: Saf-Saf's signature brick and traditional fricassee are a must-try, along with Fattoum's homemade Tunisian dishes.
Pure Juice: Savour rich flavours in locally made freshly squeezed juices.
Dar el Marsa: A popular hotel along the Corniche with seaside views, a rooftop pool, and a spa.
Four Seasons and Movenpick: Nearby options with outdoor cafes and stunning sunset views.
Boutique hotels like Dar Corniche offer a personal touch, comfortable rooms, and attentive staff.
The ideal time to visit is September and October, as the heat and crowds subside, and the fall weather becomes temperate while the sea remains warm.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a Washington, DC-based writer and civil rights advocate. His work can be found in the Washington Blade, Palestine Square, and other publications