Founded almost 4000 years ago, Tunis is said to be one of the most historic (and nicest) cities in North Africa. With only around 2.5 million people in the greater metro area, the city proper doesn’t have the congested feel of comparable cities in Egypt or Algeria. While it may not have as much history as Cairo or as many sights as Marrakech, there is still plenty to see and do in this cosmopolitan North African capital — or within a short drive.
1) Walk back through time in Carthage
The top attraction and probably most interesting thing in Tunis, Carthage has stood for thousands of years. Once in control of large swaths of North Africa and the Mediterranean, the Cartheginian Empire fell into decline after it was destroyed by Rome during the Punic Wars.
Famed for Hannibal’s legendary overland attack on Rome leading war elephants through the Alps, the ruins of this vast ancient power still stand in stark tribute to the city-state’s former splendor.
2) Get lost in the Tunis medina
One of the best things about North Africa’s Arab influence is the presence of medinas. The word itself translates to city or town in Arabic and most medinas are tightly spaced, walled in sections of the oldest parts of a place.
Tunis’ is no different and you can spend hours or days sipping tea in quaint cafes or diving headfirst into antique shops for treasures from centuries past.
3) Learn your history at Zaytuna mosque
This massive mosque is the oldest in Tunis and covers over one acre of land. Originally built in the 8th century, parts have been reconstructed over time. The 160 columns you’ll see on the premises were originally transported from Carthage and the mosque itself was one of the first centers of Islamic learning.
4) March into the sea at the Bab el Bahr
Known as the Sea Gate in English and Porte de France in French, the Bab el Bahr is the old city gate (one of several) that separates the ‘ville nouvelle’ from the old part of town. The impressive stone archway was completed in 1848 while still under Ottoman administration.
5) Get a tan at La Marsa beach
Another beautiful seaside town, La Marsa is located a quick 20 minute train ride from Tunis. While there isn’t a whole lot to do or notable sites, it is a relaxing place with plenty of good restaurants, old cobblestoned streets, and azure colored waters.
6) Get clean at a Hammam
If you’ve never been to a traditional hammam or public bathhouse, you’re in for a treat (provided you’re comfortable with having someone scrub you down completely in your undergarments). Popular throughout the greater Middle East, Tunis has several ones that date back hundreds of years. While it may be initially uncomfortable stripping down in front of strangers, you’ll emerge feeling reborn and cleaner than you’ve ever felt in your life.
7) Pretend you’re Tomb Raider in Sousse’s catacombs
Less than 90 minutes south of Tunis in the city of Sousse are 5.5 kilometers (3 miles) of underground passageways, tunnels, and caverns holding the remains of thousands of Tunisian Christian remains from over 1500 years ago. Only 100 meters (300 feet) is open to the public, but it’s still an interesting way to beat the heat and learn about the fascinating history of early Tunisia and Christianity.
8) Get back to nature in the Kroumerie Mountains
Located a scant 200 kilometers (120 mi) west of Tunis, the Kroumerie Mountains make a great day trip if you want to explore some more of Tunisia that’s not all beautiful Mediterranean coastline. The UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Dougga and Bulla Regia are excellently preserved Roman ruins set against the backdrop of this mountain and forest covered landscape.
Words by Derek Dias
Derek has lived, worked, and volunteered all over the world including Germany, Sudan, Singapore, and Denmark. Currently based in Kigali, Rwanda, he teaches English, works with street kids, exports Rwandan handicrafts, and freelance writes. He is frequently sidetracked by any type of street food, bourbon, punk music, and cats.