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Information on Tunisia Travel

TUNISIA

MUST VISIT IN TUNISIA

Sousse, Ribats & Beaches

The central section of Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast has some of the country’s finest beaches making it an attractive place to relax at the end of a tour. The area is also noted for its impressive chain of coastal fortresses (‘Ribats’) and historic old medinas.

Sousse (ancient Hadrumetum) Originally a Phoenician settlement is a popular resort town with wonderful white sandy beaches. The town’s impressive walled medina, Grand Mosque, and fortified Ribat date from the 9th century Aghlabid period and are best explored on foot. Sousse’s important museum is housed in the Kasbah and contains some of the finest examples of mosaics in Tunisia. Sousse’s extensive medieval souqs offer excellent shopping opportunities.

Monastir is located on a beautiful stretch of coast that is justly popular for beach holidays. In 46 BC the town was Julius Caesar’s headquarters in the war against Pompey. However, Monastir is now more popularly associated with Habib Bourguiba - the first President of the Tunisian Republic - who was born and buried here. Bourguiba’s impressive mausoleum with its 18 carat central golden dome dominates the city centre. Nearby, is the attractive and imposing fortified Ribat and the walled medina.

Mahdia is a scenic whitewashed town located on a narrow peninsula which juts out into the Mediterranean Sea. The town is named after Obaid Allah, the founder of the Fatimid dynasty known as the ‘Mahdi’, who moved his capital to Madhia in 916 to secure a strong point which it could be defended against his enemies. A walk through the historic town centre with its cafes and small shops usually begins at the heavily fortified Skifa el Kahla gate and continues past the 10th century Great Mosque to the imposing Ottoman period castle known as the Borj el Kebir.

Oases, Trains & The Sahara

 The landscape of south of Tunisia is characterized by arid mountains, rippling Saharan sand seas, and great expanses of brilliant white salt pans (chotts). Where water bubbles to the surface brilliant green oases of date palms form and are almost mirage-like in their fascination amidst the desolation.

Tozeur is positioned on the edge of the Sahara and is the largest oasis in Tunisia containing over 200,000 date palms – many of them of the highly prised Delgat Nour variety. Under Arab rule Tozeur became rich on the trans-Saharan caravan trade. The old quarter of town known as the Ouled Hadef reflects that wealth; its buildings constructed using yellowish bricks arranged in geometrical patterns and are full of history.

The Mountain Oases of Chebika, Mides and Tamerza offer some of the most dramatic scenery in southern Tunisia with date palms surviving in rocky clefts, and small streams and waterfalls creating an Eden-like paradise amongst the arid mountains. The villages were abandoned in the 1960s and have crumbled into atmospheric ruins. Several good hikes can be enjoyed in the area.

Lézard Rouge is a tourist train running from Metlaoui through a series of dramatic gorges to Seldja and back. The carriages were built in the 19th century and were originally owned by the Bey of Tunis. The Bey’s private carriage offers travel in some style but the rest of the train is rather ordinary. Seats are allocated on a first come first served basis.

Ksar Ghilane gives the visitor the best opportunity to experience the Sahara in Tunisia. This small and attractive oasis is located right on the edge of the great sand sea and is a world away from the crowds of Douz. A sunset camel ride over the dunes of the Grand Erg Oriental to the nearby Roman fort combined with spending a night under canvas (in an air-conditioned tent!) offer a quintessential Saharan experience.

Tunis & The Bardo

 Tunis is one of the great historic cities of North Africa and offers visitors an exciting mix of winding medieval souqs; attractive tree-lined boulevards, fine dining, and the magnificent mosaics of the world class Bardo Museum.

Tunis is an attractive capital city and has two distinctive parts: the French colonial part and the medina. The old walled town (medina) of Tunis is one of the finest in North Africa and is a joy to discover on foot. Its busy thronging souqs immerse the visitor in medieval Tunisia, all manner of goods ranging from gold, leather, carpets, perfumes, and household goods are on offer amidst an intoxicating oriental atmosphere. Fine Arab architecture sets the stage with notable monuments including the great Zitouna Mosque with its distinctive square minaret and fine re-used byzantine columns; the lavishly sculpted 18th century Torbet el Bey – mausoluem of the Hussenite rulers of Tunisia; the Dar Hussein Museum of Islamic Art which occupies a grand palace; and the many attractive madrassas and hammams. Outside the walls is the new town of Tunis, laid out by the French in the 19th century, with attractive tree-line boulevards, and fine colonial buildings.

Tunis’ Bardo Museum is one of the great highlights of Tunisia offering a world class collection of brilliantly executed Roman mosaics collected from sites across the country; wonderful sculptures in bronze and marble dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD; a paleo-Christian section; and Islamic collection. It is generally accepted that the Bardo Museum is the finest in North Africa.

Dougga and Roman Numidia

 Located in north eastern Tunisia along the fertile Mejerda river valley, the ruins of the great cities of ancient Numidia are some of the finest survivals from the Roman world.

Dougga (ancient Thugga) is arguably the most impressive Roman site in Tunisia and has a beautiful rugged rural location. It was the seat of a Numidian principality until annexed by Rome following the battle of Thapsus in AD 46. The site is extensive and notable buildings include the theatre which dates to 168 AD and once seated an audience of 3500; the very well preserved Capitoline Temple built during the reigns of emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus; the extensive honey-coloured temple dedicated to Juno Caelistis; and the astonishing needle-like Mausoleum of Ateban which rises to a height of 18 metres and is crowned by a small pyramid with a figure of a lion on top of it.

Bulla Regia was the capital of the 2nd century BC Numidian king Micipsa. In Roman times the cultivation of olives brought great wealth to the inhabitants, but also corruption. St. Augustine passing through Bulla Regia in 339 AD, complained of the moral turpitude of the population and the lurid performances in the theatre! The site is noted for the massive 2nd century public baths built by Julia Memnia and for its excellently preserved underground villas, built by the Romans to escape the summer heat. The villas contain some stunning mosaics.

Chemtou is the site of one of the most famous quarries in Africa which produced a highly prised yellow flecked marble. Chemtou’s interesting local museum documents the history of the once notorious quarry where slaves and felons were condemned to work in incredibly harsh conditions.

Hammamet & Cape Bon

 Hammamet and the coast to the south offer some of the best beaches in Tunisia; while the Cape Bon peninsular, a finger of land reaching up towards Sicily, is noted for its attractive countryside, the UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site of Kerkouane, and as a centre of pottery production.

Hammamet is noted for its fine sandy beaches and beautiful historic medina. Despite being inundated with tourists the small medina has retained its charm and offers visitors a combination of narrow lanes, pretty whitewashed houses, a fortified kasbah, small cafes, and waterfront restaurants. Hammamet’s popularity started in the early 20th century and it was soon drawing writers and artists such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Klee and Andre Gide. Paul Klee wrote in his diary in 1914: ‘the city is magnificent, right by the sea, full of bends and sharp corners. Now and then I get to look at the ramparts!’. The more exclusive hotels are located a few miles from the medina at Hammamet Yasmine.

Kerkouane is of supreme importance to archaeologists and has been given UNESCO World Heritage status on account of it being the most complete survival of a Punic (Carthaginian) settlement. The city was protected by a double wall and once covered over 50 hectares, but was abandoned for an unknown reason prior to the Roman conquest of Carthage thus ensuring the survival of its remains. Kerkouane was once an important centre of Murex dye production, a malodorous industry which may explain the unusual feature of a hip-bath in almost every house. Today’s visitor can see the foundation walls of the settlement’s houses which have been restored to knee height and are attractively located next to the sea.

Kairouan

 Kairouan is revered as the fourth most important holy city in the Muslim world behind only Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The city is Tunisia’s spiritual centre and has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kairouan’s foundation dates back to 670 AD when the Arab general Okba Ibn Nafi halted here, and as a result of divine revelation, designated the site as a holy place. As capital of the Aghlabid empire in the 9th century Kairouan became one of the world’s great cities. During this period only the town’s reputation for scholarship outshone its glorious buildings. Preeminent amongst the city’s monuments is the Great Mosque of Okba, one of the largest and oldest mosques in the country. Its exterior is dominated by fortress like walls and a towering square minaret, while the interior features an enormous central courtyard graced by 611 beautiful re-used Byzantine and Roman columns. A walking tour is the best way to appreciate Kairouan’s attractive medina and souqs and to see the city’s craftsmen at work. At the Bir Batouta a decorated camel draws water from a well which some say is that found by Okba Ibn Nafi in 670 and is connected with the well of Zam Zam in Mecca. Nearby, the Mosque of the Three Doors is noted for its elaborate external decoration. Located outside the city’s 8th century walls are the large reservoir-like Aghlabid pools which were intended to reduce Kairouan’s summer heat, and the lively Mosque of the Barber (also known as the Zaouia of Sidi Sahab). This ‘Barber’ a companion of the Prophet who distinguished himself by always carrying three hairs of the Prophet’s beard on his person.

Roman Central Tunisia

 Some of Tunisia’s finest Roman ruins are to be found in the central part of the country. Access is either from Kairouan or Sousse or when travelling from / to Tunis into central Tunisia.

El Djem (ancient Thysdrus) means ‘the place where the lions hide’ in Arabic, a distant memory of the ‘games’ once held in the city’s amphitheatre. It is a magnificent structure in a better state of preservation that the Coliseum in Rome. El Djem’s amphitheatre once held 30,000 spectators and has huge outer walls rising to a height of three stories. Below ground the visitor can walk through the tunnels and dungeons that once held wild animals, gladiators and criminals prior to them being delivered into the arena. El Djem’s museum houses a collection of mosaics that is second only to that of the Bardo.

Sbeitla (ancient Sufetula) was founded in the 2nd century AD and is located in the Tunisian pre-desert. The city’s substantial remains are built from a beautiful honey-coloured stone and include one of the most instantly recognisable views in the country: that of three well preserved Capitoline temples facing a Triumphal Arch of Marcus Aurelius.

Thuburbo Majus is situated amongst a beautiful rural landscape and probably originated as a Berber settlement. The town flourished as a market centre and provides a good example of a typical African provincial city. Thuburbo Majus’ principal monuments date from the 2nd century AD when it was given the privileged title of Colony by the emperor Commodus.

Maktar (ancient Mactaris) was founded by a Numidian king in the 2nd century BC in a spectacular mountain top location. The impressive ruins include a fine rectangular Forum on the south side of which is located the very well preserved Arch of Trajan; the attractive ruined Schola; and a Libyco-Punic Mausoleum in the form of a obelisk.

Matmata and Tataouine

 

The troglodytic houses of Matmata, together with the curious honeycomb-like granaries known as ghorfas, and the fortified settlements called ksour that proliferate in and around Tataouine, are so different to most known architectural styles that they look almost ‘alien’. This is perhaps why film director George Lucas was so taken with the area that he featured it in his Star Wars films as Luke Skywalker’s home planet.

Matmata: The curious Berber troglodytic houses of Matmata, or haouch hafera, were developed to combat the extremes of the southern Tunisian climate. The houses typically are sunk vertically into the ground to a depth of 7 or 8 metres and have courtyards opening onto the sky. Each home has a single sloping entrance which leads through a tunnel to a plastered courtyard which usually features two rooms cut into the rock. The origins of these houses is ancient and goes back to at least the 4th century BC.

Tataouine is a former base for the French Foreign Legion and makes an excellent centre from which to explore the dramatic gorfas and ksour built by the Berbers to defend themselves against the Arab invasion. The fortified village of Chenini has one of the most beautiful situations in Tunisia and is built on a cliff face with a very old and picturesque whitewashed mosque at its centre, while nearby Douiret has so many terraces of cave dwellings that the village has been compared to an ant-heap. To the north Medenine has some fine examples of the honeycomb-like ghorfas which have been fitted together into a defensive settlement, but arguably the finest examples of this style of architecture are to be found at Ksar Hededa – a site that was used by George Lucas in The Phantom Menace – and at the spectacular Ksar Ouled Soltane where the gorfas rise 5 tiers high.

Djerba Island

 Djerba is justly famous for its wonderful beaches and is a perfect for relaxing by the sea at the end of your holiday with a little sightseeing. The island has an ancient past and was a onetime base for the infamous Corsairs Barbarossa and Dragut. Academics have also cited Djerba as being one of the possible locations of the mythical ‘Land of the Lotus Eaters’ of Homer’s Odyssey. What is perhaps less well known and more curious is that the island is home to one of the oldest of the world’s Jewish diasporas. A Jewish presence is thought to have existed on Djerba since the days of Nebuchadnezzar and the exile from Babylon in 587 BC. Testament to this is the Ghriba synagogue which was rebuilt in the 1920s but stands on the ancient site where tradition claims a Holy Stone fell miraculously from the sky. Nearby, at Guellala, the town’s streets are piled high with colourful decorated ceramics all for sale. Throughout the island there are fields of olive trees and swaying date palms, as well as pretty whitewashed villages and mosques with their characteristic truncated minarets. Djerba’s capital Houmt Souk is an attractive sleepy market town noted for its silversmiths, daily fish auctions, and medieval Spanish castle. At further attraction of the island is Djerba Explore, a well presented modern complex combining the stunning Lallia Hadria Museum of Islamic Art with a Crocodile park and examples of traditional Djerban architecture.

Tourist attractions

1 Carthage

The remnants of ancient Carthage - fabled wealthy seafaring city of the Phoenicians - lie scattered across the Bay of Tunis. The evocative tumbled columns and piles of marble rubble are bordered by a panorama of the Mediterranean Sea, which was so fundamental to the city's prosperity. Completely destroyed in the third Punic War in 146 BC, the surviving ruins pale in comparison to some of North Africa's other ancient sites, but this doesn't mean you shouldn't visit. With their seafront setting the ruins have an unbeatable, lost-in-time air. 

2 Bardo National Museum

The world's most renowned mosaic collection resides in this opulent palace in Tunis. Along with Cairo's Egyptian Museum, The Bardo is one of North Africa's two top museum experiences. Inside, room after room exhibits gloriously intricate and still vibrantly fresh examples of mosaic art that have been unearthed from sites across the entirety of Tunisia. The Sousse Room,Odysseus Room and Dougga Room have particularly impressive exhibits of this art form, but the entire collection is a treasury and is well worth an entire afternoon of browsing. The ground floor of the building holds some interesting non-mosaic exhibits with displays of the neo-Punic, Christian, and Islamic eras.

3 Sidi Bou Said

The elegant Andalusian-style seaside neighborhood of Sidi Bou Said owes its fame to three young painters. While living here in 1914, Paul Klee, August Macke and Louis Moilliet captured the beauty of its whitewashed buildings and blue doors on canvas. Sidi Bou Said has been something of a bohemian artist's quarter ever since, and is a favoured weekend hangout spot for Tunis locals. There are no tourist attractions as such (that's part of its charm), but you can't fail to be beguiled by the perfect white-and-blue streets, cliff side cafés and picture-postcard shoreline.

4 Medina District

Chock-a-block full of crumbling buildings found by weaving your way through a demonstration of ever-skinnier alleyways, the Medina (Old Town) district is Tunis' historic heart and is brimming with sightseeing potential. The main entrance gate, marking the end of the new city and beginning of the old is known as Bab el Bahr (Sea Gate). Built in 1848, it was known as Porte de France during the colonial period. 

5 Olive Tree Mosque (Djemma ez Zaitouna)

6 St Vincent de Paul Cathedral

7 New Town (Ville Nouvelle)

8 La Goulette (Tunis Port)

La Goulette is the port suburb of the capital and has been a place of strategic importance (controlling the harbour entrance) since time immemorial. In the reign of the Emperor Charles V, it was the most important Spanish possession in the eastern Maghreb. From 1574 onwards, the Ottoman rulers enlarged and strengthened the fortress built by Spain. La Goulette became a port only during the French colonial period, when the Lake of Tunis silted up and could no longer take ships of any size.