The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against travel to some parts of Tunisia.
It may be but a slim wedge of North Africa’s vast horizontal expanse, but Tunisia has enough history and diverse natural beauty to pack a country many times its size. With a balmy, sand-fringed Mediterranean coast, scented with jasmine and sea breezes, and where the fish on your plate is always fresh, Tunisia is prime territory for a straightforward sun-sand-and-sea holiday. But beyond the beaches, it’s a thrilling, underrated destination where distinct cultures and incredible extremes of landscape – forested coastlines, Saharan sand seas in the south – can be explored in just a few days.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Tunisia.
This sprawling maze of ancient streets and alleyways is one of the most impressive medieval medinas in North Africa and one of Tunisia's great treasures. It's home to numerous covered souqs selling everything from shoes to shisha pipes, as well as bustling cafes, back streets full of artisans at work and residential areas punctuated by grand, brightly painted doorways. Historic palaces, hammams, mosques and madrassas (schools for study of the Quran) are scattered throughout, many lavishly decorated with tiles, carved stucco and marble columns.
This Unesco World Heritage–listed colosseum was the second-largest in the Roman world (after Rome's); it was 149m long by 124m wide, with three tiers of seating 30m high. Its seating capacity has been estimated at up to 35,000 – considerably more than the population of the town itself. Built entirely of stone blocks, with no foundations, its facade comprises three levels of arcades. Inside, most of the supporting infrastructure for the tiered seating has been preserved.
Kairouan’s medina feels like it ebbs and flows to a different rhythm to modern Tunisia. Long protected by its monumental walls and babs (gates), most of it is given over to quiet residential streets that have changed little over the centuries, with modest houses sporting arches and shutters painted in bright blues and greens. Particularly atmospheric pockets include the small squares near the babs and the covered souq quarter just north of the main north–south pedestrian thoroughfare, Ave 7 Novembre.
Located inside the 11th-century kasbah, this museum showcases an extraordinary collection of 2nd- and 3rd-century Roman mosaics, one of the best in the country. Most of these embellished the buildings in ancient Byzacium (Sousse and surrounds) and depict scenes from daily life – the fishing scenes are particularly charming. Highlights include a richly coloured mosaic of Neptune standing in his chariot, drawn by two hippocamps, and another depicting Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, riding in a satyr-driven chariot pulled by tigers.
A 1km walk from the El Jem Amphitheatre (follow the signs), this museum showcases an exceptional collection of Roman mosaics. All are richly coloured, in excellent condition and sensitively displayed. Highlights include a gory array of scenes from the colosseum and multiple images of a drunken Dionysus. At the rear of the museum is the House of Africa, an AD 170 Roman villa from the heart of El Jem that was excavated in the 1990s and transferred here for display.
The main draw at the Tunisia's top museum is its magnificent collection of Roman mosaics. These provide a vibrant and fascinating portrait of ancient North African life. Also here is some equally magnificent Hellenistic and Punic statuary. The massive collection is housed in an imposing palace complex built under the Hafsids (1228–1574), and fortified and extended by the Ottomans in the 18th century. The original palace buildings now connect with a dramatic contemporary annexe, which has doubled the exhibition space.
Arguably the most magnificent Roman site in Africa, Dougga’s ancient remains – a Unesco World Heritage site since 1997 – are startlingly complete, giving a beguiling glimpse of how well-heeled Romans lived, flitting between bathhouses, the imposing Capitole, a 3500-seat theatre and various temples. The city was built on the site of an ancient Numidian settlement called Thugga, which explains why the streets are so uncharacteristically tangled. The 2nd-century-BC Libyco-Punic Mausoleum is the country’s finest pre-Roman monument.
Famed for its extraordinary underground villas, the Roman city of Bulla Regia, 7km northwest of Jendouba, offers a rare opportunity to walk into complete, superbly preserved Roman rooms rather than having to extrapolate how things once looked from waist-high walls. To escape the summer heat, locals retreated below the surface, building elegant homes complete with colonnaded courtyards and internal plumbing. Many of their fine mosaics remain in situ, though some of the best are now in the Bardo Museum in Tunis.
On the cultivated amber slopes of Mt Mekrima, the fascinating but little-visited ruins of ancient Uthina are the remains of one of the Roman Empire's oldest cities in Africa. Not much is known about Uthina, but the city had one of North Africa's largest Roman amphitheatres, enjoyed by its cosmopolitan residents in the city's 2nd-century heyday, and it's still the biggest draw for today's traveller.