It’s understood that Tunisia’s tourism industry really got going in the 1960s and over time, it has become one of the main sources of income for the country. Millions of people flock from all over the world and not only that – the country also attracts millions of domestic tourists each and every year. When you take a look at the nation in detail, the above really isn’t surprising. Tunisia is one of the few countries which can well and truly cater for the masses. It manages to combine climate, golden beaches, history and shopping and create something of an “all-round” experience. When you also consider the cost of Tunisia – visiting is an absolute no-brainer for most people. All of the above factors arrive at a much lower cost in comparison to other destinations and it means that since the turn of the millennium, tourism has boomed.
First and foremost, let’s not forget the Mediterranean-factor with this country. It means that tourists can bask in glorious temperatures, whilst sitting on any of the umpteen golden beaches that the country offers. Suffice to say ,there are some regions of the country which are more suited to the beach enthusiast than others. While we will take a look at some of the most prominent tourist destinations a little further down the guide, if you’re specifically looking for the best beaches in Tunisia the following regions will most certainly satisfy you: Djerba, Hammamet, Sousse, Mahdia.
Then, there is the history. This is arguably an even bigger pull for visitors; Tunisia has some of the most intriguing historical sites in the world and on the whole, these have been preserved fantastically well. This is where the country really comes into its own and if you’re the type of tourist who likes to lap up culture, sights and general history, there are countless attractions that can fill your stay. From the famous amphitheatre that has staged some of the most renowned movies in the world such as Gladiator, to ancient towns which have hosted the Star Wars set – many people don’t realise how much the country has to offer. The following attractions are seen as the most impressive in the country:
CARTHAGE: Founded by the Phoenicians in 814 BC, Carthage thrived as a maritime centre and later became the third largest city in the Roman Empire before being destroyed by the Arabs in AD 692. Although it is Tunisia’s best-known archaeological site, it is not particularly easy to navigate. The ruins are scattered over quite a large area in what is now an upmarket commuter suburb of Tunis.
Since a complete tour requires a whole day, it is probably more rewarding to make two shorter trips.
The best view of the whole site is from Byrsa Hill which was the heart of the city in Punic times.
Carthage’s key attractions include the Antonine Baths which – outside of Rome – were once the largest baths in the Roman Empire. Visitors are not allowed to enter the Baths but can study them from a viewing platform. Heat was provided by an underground system of furnaces and – very much like a modern day spa – there were a series of hot rooms, a cold plunge pool and the Roman equivalent of a Jacuzzi.
The Punic Ports, now little more than ponds, once provided berths for more than 200 naval vessels. Similarly, little is left of the Theatre of Hadrian which was built in the second century.
Tophet was used for child sacrifices. Urns have been unearthed containing the ashes of more than 20,000 boys aged between two and 12 sacrificed by the Carthaginians in the eighth century BC.
EL JEM: This small town 80km (city map) south of Sousse would be like dozens of others in Tunisia were it not for its giant amphitheatre – one of the country’s truly remarkable sights.
Only slightly smaller than the Colosseum in Rome, it is better preserved and seems much more imposing, partly because it is situated at the end of a street of modern houses.
Built between 230 and 238 in what was then the busy market town of Thysdrus, the amphitheatre could seat crowds of more than 30,000. Even if being built today it would be considered an impressive achievement but without modern construction equipment, the task must have been gargantuan. Blocks of sandstone were transported from quarries 32km (20 miles) away while water was carried 16km (10 miles) through an underground aqueduct.
The amphitheatre was used both for festivals and for dawn to dusk gladiatorial contests when petty criminals were pitted against wild animals in fights to the death.
DOUGGA: Tunisia’s best-preserved Roman ruins enjoy a lofty setting 96km (60 miles) southwest of Tunis. Formerly known as Thugga under the Numidian king Massinissa in the second century BC, under Roman rule Dougga had a population of up to 10,000. The site’s main attraction is its well-preserved Capitol built in 166 BC which is dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Its theatre, which could seat up to 3500, is still used by a summer touring company. Visitors with an earthy sense of humour may be amused by the rather cosy, horseshoe-shaped arrangement of 12 latrines in the Baths of Cyclops while the House of Trifolium is thought to have been the town’s brothel.
BULLA REGIA: Situated 72km (45 miles) south of Tabarka, Bulla Regia is another impressive Roman site. Its most notable feature is its underground dwellings which were used by wealthy residents to escape the summer heat. The villas were paved with beautiful mosaic floors, some of which remain exactly where they were created, undisturbed for centuries.
THUBURBO MAJUS: Although it was first settled in the fifth century BC, most of the ruins at Thuburbo Majus are from Roman times when the town was an important regional trading centre with a population of around 8000. A sprawling site within an easy day trip of both Tunis and Hammamet, the best-preserved structures include the Forum, Capitol and Winter Baths.
KERKOUANE: Some 8km (5 miles) north of Kelibia are the remarkable remains of a Punic town. Destroyed in 236 BC, it was unearthed in 1952 and is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. There is an adjoining museum housing pottery, jewellery, wooden carvings and funerary statues.
SBEITLA: The most southerly of Tunisia’s major Roman sites, Sbeitla is noted for its massive triumphal arch just before the entrance and for its Forum built in 139 BC. A more modern structure on the site is the sixth-century Basilica of St Vitalis with its attractive baptismal font decorated with mosaics.
UTICA: Close to Tunis, Utica was once an important Roman port but now lies 11km (7 miles) inland. Its ruins include part of a once-massive public baths complex and the House of the Waterfall which belonged to a wealthy private citizen.
Food & Drink
Tunisian food is well prepared and delicious, particularly the authentic lamb or dorado (bream) couscous, the fish dishes, tajine and brik or brik à l’oeuf (egg and a tasty filling fried in an envelope of pastry). Tunisian dishes are cooked with olive oil, spiced with aniseed, coriander, cumin, caraway, cinnamon or saffron and flavoured with mint, orange blossom or rose water. Restaurants catering for tourists tend to serve rather bland dishes and ‘international’ cuisine, and visitors are advised to try the smaller restaurants. Prices vary enormously, and higher prices do not necessarily mean better meals. Tunis and the main cities also have French, Italian and other international restaurants. Self-service may sometimes be found but table service is more common.
Moorish cafes, with their traditional decor, serve excellent Turkish coffee or mint tea with pine nuts. Although Tunisia is an Islamic country, alcohol is not prohibited. Tunisia produces a range of excellent table wines, sparkling wines, beers, aperitifs and local liqueurs, notably Boukha (distilled from figs) and Thibarine.
In Tunisia, the theatre season lasts from October to June when local and foreign (especially French) companies put on productions and concerts. International groups appear at the Tunis Theatre and in the towns of Hammamet and Sousse. There are numerous cinemas in the larger cities. There are nightclubs in most of the beach hotels as well as in the big city hotels. Belly dancing is a common cabaret feature and lively local bands often play traditional music.
Special purchases include copperware (engraved trays, ashtrays and other utensils); articles sculpted in olive wood; leather goods (wallets, purses, handbags); clothing (kaftans, jelabas, burnuses); pottery and ceramics; dolls in traditional dress; beautiful embroidery; fine silverware and enamelled jewellery. Among the most valuable of Tunisia’s products are carpets. The two major types are woven (non-pile) and knotted (pile). The quality of all carpets is strictly controlled by the National Handicrafts Office, so be sure to check the ONA seal before buying. Shopping hours: Mon-Sat 0800-1200 and 1600-1900 (summer); Mon-Sat 0900-1300 and 1500-1900 (winter). Weekly markets: A source of good purchases are the markets which are set up on certain days in many Tunisian towns and villages. All the products of the region are displayed, including handicrafts, farm produce and secondhand goods. There are ONA workshops and stores throughout the country where visitors can buy items at fixed prices. ONA stores make a reduction of ten per cent on the price of goods purchased in foreign currency.
The following information is a selection of the main Tunisian festivals during the summer. A complete list is available from the Tunisian National Tourist Office .
Jun-Jul International Festival of Carthage, Tunis. Jul Aoussou Festival (International Theater Festival), Sousse. Jul-Aug International Festival of Hammamet (festival of artists), Hammamet.
Arabic in culture and tradition, Tunisia is nevertheless one of the more liberal and tolerant Muslim countries. The nomadic Bedouin still follow their traditional way of life in the southern desert. The Tunisians’ varied origins are shown in the architecture, crafts, music and regional folk dances. Tunisia has also developed an international reputation as an intellectual and cultural centre. Shaking hands is the usual form of greeting. Hospitality is very important and a small gift in appreciation of hospitality or as a token of friendship is always appropriate. Dress can be informal but should respect the conventions of Islam when visiting religious monuments, ie shoulders and knees must be covered. Outside tourist resorts, scanty beachwear should not be worn.