Still overlooked by many travelers, the capital of Tunisia should be in your travel list for many reasons: a location that allows to enjoy the Mediterranean sea and the Sahara desert while just 2 hours away from major touristic spots in Europe, a history that dates back to one of the most important icons in old history: Hannibal Barca; and a rich cultural life that has inspired artists like Paul Klee or Simone de Beauvoir.
But let’s get practical! This is what you are missing if you skip Tunisia on your travels:
Our top 5 in Tunis – Carthage must-sees
The Medina of Tunis dates back to the 8th Century, when the Central Medina was built, and was, under the Almohades and the Hafsids (from the 12th to the 16th century), one of the wealthiest cities in the Islamic world.
Today, the medina of Tunis is a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, comprising approximately 280 ha and 700 historic monuments, including the Zitouna Mosque, noble houses like Dar Hussein, madrassas, souks, public squares and even family cemeteries and military barracks.
It has retained its urban morphology through the centuries, as well as its architectural and architectonic features, without significant alteration, which makes it one of the best conserved in the Islamic world. And a great reason to visit Tunis if you ask me.
The Museum of Bardo became sadly famous a couple of years ago, when terrorists attacked and killed 22 visitors. But this is not the reason why it has made it to this list: it houses one of the world’s greatest collections of ancient mosaics (if not the greatest.)
The museum, established in 1888, is located in a traditional Tunisian palace built under the Husseinite dynasty, whose members governed Tunisia starting in the 18th century. So it is not only the mosaics that make a visit worth here, but also the palace itself with its decorated rooms and halls.
Its contents come from the Carthaginian, Roman, early Christian and Islamic periods. But its mosaics are especially renowned. Many of them are enormous, covering entire walls. Among the most important mosaics featured in the museum is the “Triumph of Neptune,” originally found in Chebba, Tunisia, dating from the 2nd century, and “Virgil’s Alcove,” showing the Roman poet with his muses (on the pic.)
Archaeological Ruins of Carthage
Another great World Heritage listing in Tunisia. They comprise the remains of Punic, Roman, Vandal, Paleochristian and Arab civilizations that lived in this area since the 9th century B.C.
Carthage was a great trading empire that covered much of the Mediterranean and was home to a brilliant civilization that is associated with the literary icon of Dido, the princess sung about by Virgil in the Aeneid. But also home to one of the greatest military strategists in history: Hannibal Barca.
It was also the third largest city in the Roman empire (by the 2nd Century AD), leading city in Christian Africa (4th Century) and a leading city under the Byzantine until the Arabs destroyed it in AD 692.
The major components of the ruins are the the Antonin baths, the acropolis of Byrsa, the Punic ports and tophet, the necropolises, the amphitheatre, the Malga cisterns and the archaeological reserve. They are all scattered through a residential area so you may need a car to go from one place to the other (or make use of public transport to major sites.)
If you don’t have much time, check the remains of Baths of Antoninus, which were the largest in the Roman world outside Rome, and the archaeological park next to it.
Sidi Bou Saïd
Probably one of the best places to admire the beautiful coastline of Tunisia in the Mediterranean, Sidi Bou Saïd is a perfect side trip without leaving Tunis capital.
It is home to the iconic traditional houses with white walls and blue doors, since baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger dictated in 1912 that all houses should be kept that way. His house is now home to a museum with a beautiful collection of musical instruments of the Mediterranean.
Cobbled streets, cafes overlooking the bay, traditional vendors of arts and crafts… it makes a great and relaxed visit outside the rush of the city. And picture perfect from the balconies at Dar el Annabi, Cafe Sidi Chabaâne, Djebel Boukornine, Café des Delices or Ras Qatarjamah.
Don’t forget to visit Café des Nattes, where intelectuals and artists used to gather for inspiration.
The Mediterranean Sea
While the most famous Tunisian beaches are not far away from Tunis and Carthage, you also have very nice options for sun & beach without leaving the capital. Most popular ones are Gammarth and La Marsa beaches and fishing villages (really close one to another), where Tunisians gather on the weekend and summer days, trying to escape from the hot Tunisian summer and the city rush.
When heading here, make sure to check the French Cemetery, Cafe Saf Saf (where water is pumped by a camel that turns around a wheel all day long) and Abdalliya Palace (National Monument.)
Water sports and golf are also a great resource here.
Some extra info
Moving around Tunis should be easy by public transport (we found taxi to be quite cheap). While most think of Tunis – Carthage a single city, the area covered is pretty big and not easily accessed by foot, so a car/taxi/guided tour is recommended. Specially if you are planning to visit the ruins of Carthage or sleep at LaMarsa and Gammarth coast. If you are not thinking on driving, most of them are also connected by public transport (metro – TGM).
How to get there
By car: Tunis-Carthage can be accessed by Highway from the most touristic spots in Tunisia.
By sea: Many Mediterranean cruises are going back to Tunisia now.