Must To See in Tunisia

There is certainly a lot more to Tunisia than its gorgeous beaches. This is a country filled with contrasts and exciting cultures - explore the desert and ancient ruins, experience the souk, and immerse yourself in the vibrant coastal cities.


Carthage

Founded in the 9th century BC by the Phoenicians (or Carthaginians), Carthage was destroyed by the Romans in the Punic Wars and rebuilt as a centre for Roman administration. The city is situated near Tunis and although little of the original city remains, the site is still very evocative, with some interesting Roman structures. Most notable among the ruins are the the Antonine baths, which give visitors a good idea of what the Roman health spas were like, and an amphitheatre.

The Carthage Museum has a wealth of Punic (Carthaginian) sarcophagi, jewellery, daily artefacts and architectural models, providing an informative background history of the city. Not far from the main archaeological site is the Tophet cemetery, a macabre memento of the past: the Carthaginians sacrificed their first-born sons to appease the gods, and hundreds of strangely-decorated, inscribed stele stand as silent witnesses to the bloodthirsty Phoenician deities. The ashes of the children, along with their mothers' tears, are contained in urns.


Tabarka

Tabarka sits at the edge of forests densely populated with cork oak (cork is one of the region's main products), birch and pine trees. The Khroumirie Mountains loom in the background, swooping down into the sea, where they end with magnificent cliffs sculpted by erosion.

This part of the Mediterranean is full of coral, which fills the water with multi-coloured hues below the dramatic, rocky coastline, making the area a top destination with divers.

One of the landmarks of Tabarka is the rocky outcropping known as the Needles, eroded rock formations 20metres high, which sprout like monoliths along the coast. To add to the dramatic impact, a 16th-century Genoese fort perches precariously on a rocky island guarding the town from invaders from across the sea. The town has its own Roman ruins and a Turkish fort as well as long sandy beaches. Many people come here for activity holidays such as riding in the forest, hiking, fishing, sailing or diving, though it is just as easy to spend your time here simply admiring the magnificent scenery.


Dougga

Considered by many to be the foremost Roman site in Africa, the remarkably well-preserved remains of Dougga are set in a perfect location on a hill overlooking fields and olive groves. The ancient city of Thugga is believed to have been settled initially by the Numidians and expanded considerably by the Romans, who built their Capitol, temples, an amphitheatre, market places and various other public buildings and privately-owned houses, the remains of which are still much in evidence.

Though many artefacts from here have been moved to the Bardo Museum near Tunis for preservation, the site retains some impressive structures, which give a very good idea of a Roman city. Nearby Bulla Regia, though not as immediately attractive as Dougga, has hidden charms: it is famous for its unusual underground villas, built to keep the Romans cool in the heat of the summer, and sports some of the most beautiful mosaic floors in the country.


Tunis

Although Tunis is a large, sprawling capital, it has still managed to maintain a lot of its original charm and character, successfully combining an old town, or medina, with a modern city.

The medina remains one of the most beautiful and authentic in North Africa, its religious core being the grandiose Great Mosque, built in 732, and open to non-Muslim visitors. An uncontested highlight of a visit to the old city is the souk - narrow, labyrinthine streets lined with shops of artisans and merchants creating a cacophony of sights, sounds and aromas, and the shopping opportunity of a lifetime. You can find practically anything here from jewellery, carpets and silks to carpets, chechias (traditional red hats), leather and perfume.

No visit to Tunis is complete without a stop at the Bardo Museum, in the suburbs. The building itself is a showpiece of 17th/18th-century Islamic architecture, but the real prize is the world's best Roman mosaic collection. Of special note are Ulysses tied to the mast, resisting the call of the bird-footed sirens and spectacular scenes from mythology with gods and goddesses cavorting and pulling the strings that controlled human lives.


Sidi Bou Said

For sheer beauty and relaxation, nothing beats the laid-back charms of Sidi Bou Said, with its breathtaking panorama of Tunis bay and Carthage in the distance. The little shops and restaurants beckon to browsers and shoppers, and the whitewashed houses with turquoise doors and windows inspire photographers, artists and musicians from around the world.

Spend the day wandering around the town's cobbled streets and in the evening, sit at an outdoor café and try a flavoured water pipe or some mint tea.


Cap Bon and environs

This lush and fertile region with its gentle climate and top-class beaches attracts the majority of tourists to Tunisia looking for the proverbial sun, sea and sand. The resorts of Hammamet, Nabeul and Yasmine-Hammamet (a new resort with a 700-berth marina) cater predominantly to package tours, though the fabulous golden sands provide an obvious reason as to why this area has become so popular.

Hammamet though, not only provides great beaches; there is an atmospheric old quarter where you can still witness a fairly traditional Tunisian lifestyle. If you're looking to get away from it all, the small seaside town of Kelibia is more popular with Tunisian holidaymakers than foreign tourists, making it the ideal location for a quiet stay by the sea.

If you venture slightly further afield, you can find the Roman quarries at nearby Ghar El Kebir


Sousse

Sousse's history goes back to Phoenician times, though Romans, Byzantines and Arabs all settled here and left their traces on this city rich in culture, now a thriving modern commercial hub. Walking around the town, you will come across the small medina with its charming souk, and the impressive Sousse Museum housed within the kasbah, whose Roman mosaic collection is generally acknowledged to be second only to the Bardo in importance.

The 9th-century ribat, or fortified monastery, was originally built to repel Christian invasions as well as teach Islamic culture and is now open to visitors who can view the whole city from the watchtower. The Great Mosque is a handsome building dating back to the 9th century, its simple style lacking the elaborate decoration of many mosques.

For an alternative view of the city, the 5th-century catacombs contain almost 250 galleries that extend over five kilometres. In and around Sousse is a burgeoning tourist industry due to the lovely beaches just up the coast and foreign tourist-friendly nightlife.


Monastir

Famed for its beaches, Monastir has much to offer visitors apart from sea and sand, although you could be forgiven for not noticing.

Set in a beautiful coastal location surrounded by palm trees, the 8th century ribat recalls periods when a strong defence system was necessary to discourage invaders. Within the fortress is a museum housing Islamic art and artefacts, and a woman's prayer room. But the real draw of Monastir is the golden-domed Bourguiba family mausoleum, an architectural model of elegance and refinement. Here, the sepulchre of the father of modern Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, the country's first president, is prayed over by imams and visited by Tunisians and foreigners who come to honour Bourguiba's memory and gaze in awe at the opulence of the building.


El Jem

Dominating the whole town of El Jem is its huge coliseum, almost as large as its Roman counterpart, and in a surprisingly good state of repair. Built in the third century AD, the arena was one of the foremost locations in North Africa for gladiators to battle it out, with each other or against fierce four-legged opponents.

Underneath the arena, the wild animals' cages are still intact and you can follow the trail of the gladiators along the passageway leading up to the arena floor and easily imagine their fear as they prepared to battle to the death. The main area that is missing is one section of the walls, which was destroyed in the 17th century by the Turkish army shooting at rebels who were hiding inside the amphitheatre. Other than that, much of the tiered seating is intact and you can climb to the top tier for a bird's eye view of the arena.

There is not much else in the town of especial interest to tourists, though the local museum has some good examples of Roman mosaics.


Djerba

According to legend, Djerba was the seductive Land of the Lotus Eaters in Homer's Odyssey. Lying off the south-east coast, the modern day island still manages to seduce visitors with its beautiful beaches fringed with palm trees.

Surprising to many visitors is the ancient Jewish community (arguably the oldest extant Jewish community in the world) that lives on the island in two areas: Hara Kabira and Hara Saghira. The beautiful El Ghriba synagogue is the oldest and most famous in Africa, in May attracting visitors from around the world for the Lag B'omer festival, bringing the Muslim and Jewish communities together in celebration. The souks sell everything from carpets to finely-wrought jewellery and have lively fondouks, or caravanserais, in the centre.

The new Museum of Popular Arts and Traditionsis a must-see; through dioramas and living exhibits (with oil presses operated by a camel and opportunities to ride with a thresher), it is an informative introduction to Tunisian and, specifically, Djerban culture.


Chott el Djerid and Tozeur

The setting for the filming of "The English Patient", the south-west of Tunisia around Tozeur boasts old Saharan villages with adobe buildings and magnificent oases with huge palm groves, where palm trees wave in the gentle desert breezes or are bent and bowed by desert sand storms.

The town of Tozeur has unique, intricate architecture with geometric motifs and a lively weekly market and is perched on the edge of the enormous Chott el Djerid salt lake. By far the largest of the many salt lakes in the region, this "chott" measures an astounding 70km by 117km. Driving along these seemingly endless salt beds, dotted with isolated boats and sand roses, the external world seems to dissolve and one is left to contemplate the stark, white, crystalline landscape shimmering in the sun. The nearby towns of Nefta and Douz are also worth visiting.

Nefta is an important Sufi centre, and visitors can sometimes attend a mystical Sufi ceremony. The Thursday market in Douz transports you centuries into the past, welcoming robed Bedouins, Berbers and nomads of the desert who come to sell their livestock and handicrafts, while healers hawk traditional potions and tonics.


The Star Wars trail from Matmata to Ksar Hadada

Beyond Douz lie the great dunes of the Sahara desert. Jeeps and camels carry intrepid tourists into great desert adventures, leaving civilisation far behind.

Some of the most startling discoveries in the region are the sculptural arcades of the multi-level gorfas, which have been used for storage by locals and nomads since ancient times and the troglodyte dwellings, where people still live in graceful caves, cut into the stone of the mountains.

In Matmata, where the lunar landscape is dotted with caves, you can sometimes meet the inhabitants who may allow you to card wool or grind grain; for a real gorfa experience, you can even stay in one that has been converted into a hotel. The whitewashed gorfas will be familiar to Star Wars fans, as they were used in the original film and for die-hard fans, nearby Ksar Hadada also has gorfas used in the 2001 Star Wars prequel.

Other attractions in the area include the beautiful mountain town of Toujane, known for its handicrafts, Ksar Medenine with over 6,000 vaulted gorfa cells and the spectacularly evocative Berber village of Chenini perched on a hillside.