Trodden by the Berbers of old and raided by Barbary pirates, settled by the Phoenician Greeks, and then home to the mighty city of Carthage, Tunisia has a grand place in the annals of both the North African and European story. (After all, it was host to the only major rival to Rome across the entire Mediterranean basin for those formative centuries between the 800s BC and year zero.)
Add to that the mythical figures of Aeneas and Dido, along with tales of Arabic sultans and even Norman seafarers from the north, and it’s easy to see why this cut-out on the Maghreb is such a fascinating, culturally-rich place. Unfortunately, the great power struggles played out here have continued on into the modern age, giving rise to revolutions and counter-revolutions. Today, the government vies for control with hardline Islamists, there have been attacks on tourists, and FCO advice flits between cautious and uber-cautious. But when the dust settles and Tunisia stabilizes, it’s sure to take the breath away!
Lets explore the best places to visit in Tunisia:
1. El Djem
It doesn’t get much better than this for fans of the ancients.
Colossal arches and elliptical amphitheaters to rival even the Colosseum in Rome are what mark the horizon of famous El Djem.
Tagged by UNESCO, the city is a modern one built right atop an old one, with the occasional ruin of Roman homes and arcades popping up on the corners.
Many sights have been preserved thanks to the billowing dust storms of the surrounding Sahara, but a lack of large-scale archaeology means that the main attraction remains the huge Amphitheatre of Thysdrus.
Delve in and stroll the changing rooms of gladiators, or stand where ancient governors once did atop the fighting pits.
2. Houmt Souk
The undisputed jewel of Djerba island comes topped with the adobe domes of the Bordj el Kabir fort, which was raised in the 1400s and 1500s to protect the harbor on the Gulf of Gabes below.
Over the centuries, everyone from the Numidians to the Arabs to the Spaniards to the Ottomans have made their home in this tactical position on the edge of the Med.
Accordingly, history oozes from every dust-caked pore.
There are the traditional fondouks quarters of medieval merchants left in the Old Town.
There colorful pottery bazaars, whitewashed synagogues, Turkic mosques, and lively marketplaces selling olive oils and chickpea broths.
Still reeling from the horrific terror attacks of 2015, the seaside city of Sousse is now much less loud about its beauties.
But the beauties are there nonetheless.
They lurk between the tight-knit alleyways of the town’s historic medina; they ooze from the simple and elegant rises of the Aghlabite Great Mosque; they beckon from the formidable bulwarks of the old Ribat citadel above the place.
And away from the steaming Ottoman hammams and colorful Maghreb souks of the town proper, there are gorgeous beaches that sparkle turquoise blue, all fringed with luxurious hotels and palm-lined promenades.
4. Sidi Bou Said
You could be forgiven for thinking that you’d made the hop across the Med to the islands of the Greek Aegean as you enter the vibrant interior of Sidi Bou Said town, sat just 20 kilometers from bustling Tunis.
Yep, the sky-blue and whitewashed color scheme here is more than reminiscent of towns in Santorini and Mykonos.
However, this one’s interesting hues were actually started by the French musicologist Rodolphe d’Erlanger.
He first plastered the stucco walls of his home with the endearing tones in the 20s, and his palatial mansion at the Ennejma Ezzahra is a now a museum to his legacy.
Every trip to Tunisia should include a jaunt to the great desert of the Sahara, whose shifting sands and dry escarpments begin here in earnest.
And where better for a taste of the dry life than the adobe mud town of Tozeur? This oases settlement in the extreme south-west of the nation is a veritable masterpiece of Berber tradition.
For starters, it’s surrounded by swathes of verdant date palm blooms that rise straight from the ochre-hued earth.
And then there’s its medina city, with filigrees and carvings and brick artistry straight from the old arabesque world.
Pass under the great arches of the Bab el Bhar (the Port de France) and you’ll see both sides to this fascinating capital: the French side and the Maghreb side.
In the former, the so-called Ville Nouvelle, the traces of rule from Paris are all too evident.
There are wide, tree-peppered avenues.
There are coffee shops spilling onto the sidewalks.
There are grand cathedrals with Gothic elements.
And on the latter side of town; the African side, things take a turn for the arabesque.
Lively souks packed with kaleidoscopic fabrics crawl and sprawl over one another.
The shouts of hawkers touting spice echo, and the scents of tagines and mint teas mix with camel skin lamps and shisha pipes.
Nearly 1,500 years of history meets between the dust-caked desert hills around Kairouan.
A city famed for its long connection to the Islamic world, it’s been a center of Sunni teachings since at least the 7th century.
Cue the mighty rises of the Great Mosque of Kairouan: a UNESCO World Heritage Site that draws thousands of pilgrims to its prayer rooms and enclosures each year.
Once you’ve wondered at that amazing Aghlabid relic, be sure to wander the old medina and its whitewashed cottages, taste sweet Tunisian pastries in the bakeries there, and seek out the interesting Mosque of the Three Gates.
Most people will know Monastir for the great citadel fortress that bears its moniker.
And it’s true that the Monastir Ribat, topped with its crenulated parapets and red stone bulwarks, is unquestionably the major attraction in town.
(After all, it was one of the filming locations in the hit film Monty Python’s The Life of Brian). However, there are other things to see and do here, like trace the Muslim influence at sites like the Mausoleum of Bourguiba, or wonder up at the colossal city mosque (dating from the 1000s no less!).
UNESCO World Heritage fame marks the crumbling peristyles and age-cracked temples of Dougga out from many of North Africa’s other mighty ancient sites.
Once Roman, the remains of the entire city here are considered some of the best-preserved in the region.
Travelers come to gawp at the looming Doric columns of the Dougga Theatre, standing tall over the green fields of the Beja Governorate.
They come to walk the old cobbled Roman roads, or to see the relics of shrines to Jupiter and the Imperial Cult.
There are also bathhouses, soaring mausoleums, and in-tact sewer systems to encounter.
The very name of Carthage evokes romantic tales of Greek seafarers, figures like Aeneas and Dido from the heroic age, and stories of mighty battles on the Alps and Mediterranean Seas.
That all makes it easy to see why this sprawling ruined site just outside of Tunis is one of the most-visited attractions in all of Tunisia.
However, the centuries of Punic wars and Muslim invasions have left it abandoned more than once, and the remains of Carthage are not as awe-inspiring as some of the country’s other Roman treats.
It’s worth coming though, if only to stand where great generals in the ilk of Hannibal once did!
It’s hard not to be taken by the elegance of Sfax.
Old and eclectic, it bears all the hallmarks you’d expect of a city trodden by Sicilian kings and Spanish invaders, Barbary pirates and Ottoman imperialists.
Moorish traits pockmark the old Kasbah, mingling with Rococo and colonial elements, while the great city walls look like something plucked straight out of Aladdin.
Meanwhile, the gorgeous Place de la Republique is trotted by horses and carts, and the Sfax War Cemetery is a sobering reminder of the great struggles that occurred in North Africa between Allied and Axis forces during the 20th century.
It’s just a stone’s throw from Douz to the sweeping sand plains of the Jebil National Park – one of the great natural treasures of southern Tunisia.
So, it’s not for nothing that this far-flung town in the south is considered the gateway to the Sahara.
It’s home to purring camels, and weathered Berber tour guides who are eager to lead expeditions on humpback into the scorched wilds.
It’s worth getting in the saddle and following them, because wonders like the salt flats of Chott al-Jerid and the shifting Grand Erg await there!
Hammamet sits on the southern bends of the Cap Bon, enjoying the lapping waves and soothing salt-packed breezes of the Mediterranean Sea.
The town magnetizes visitors with its enchanting appearance, which comes as a curious mélange of Spanish, Sicilian and Castilian architecture, all balanced out by the ubiquitous Maghreb medina town of whitewashed adobe homes and palm-sprouting streets.
However, it’s the beaches here that really take the biscuit.
Head down to sun-kissed Hammamet Sud, where loungers meet jet skis meet sunbathers meet SCUBA outfitters.
Palm-peppered Zarzis (also spelled Jarjis) is a place that proudly touts its fringing of shimmering beaches and resorts.
Lined up all along the Mediterranean to the north and south of town, they are amongst the most popular of destinations for package holidayers in search of Tunisia’s medley of sun, sand, sea, and unrelenting desert heat.
The town itself is a modern, built-up place that hides the centuries of Roman and Arabic history beneath.
You’ll see grand mosques looming above the street corners, the occasional olive oil seller, and whitewashed villas shrouded by oases.
Matmata entered the field of public attention when it became the home of a certain Luke Skywalker in the stories of Star Wars way back in 1976. In fact, the spot is one of many in a long line of filming locations found throughout Tunisia, but might just be the most famous.
The backdrop for the iconic lands of Tatooine were the interesting troglodyte houses of the locals here, which are carved straight into the dusty earth and painted white to reflect the sun.
You can still see them, along with other cool examples of cave dwellings in the dusty surrounds of Gabes.