Often seen as simply a beach destination, Tunisia has a bucketful of surprising tourist attractions and things to do for those that venture off the sandy shores. This is North Africa wrapped up into one bite-sized package, with vast Sahara dunes, mammoth ancient ruins, and exotic cities that are home to a sprawling tangle of souks. Tunisia was Rome’s breadbasket, and the cultural riches the Romans left behind are more than enough reason to visit. But the history of Arab Empires has also bestowed the country with some of the region’s most beautiful examples of Islamic architecture.
When you’ve craned your neck at Kairouan’s minarets and played gladiator at El Djem, it’s time to head into the Sahara to sample the raw, empty beauty of the desert. The sun-soaked beaches of the Mediterranean coastline, fringed by palms and lapped by gentle waves, will still be waiting for you when you get back.
1 El Djem Amphitheater
The walls of the mighty Roman amphitheater of El Djem dwarf the surrounding modern town. This incredibly well preserved Roman relic is Tunisia’s big sightseeing highlight and one of the best examples of amphitheater architecture left standing in the world, reminding of Rome’s once-grand grip across North Africa. You can still walk the corridors under the arena, just like the gladiators did. Or, climb up to the top seating tiers and sit staring across the arena, imagining the battles that took place below.
If you’re looking for the picture-perfect beach escape, then the island of Djerba checks all the right boxes. The island town of Houmt Souk is the main point of interest off the beach, with an old town district that is a muddle of whitewashed houses. Houmt Souk’s shopping is an attraction in itself, with plenty of handicraft vendors for browsing and haggling opportunities off the beach. But it’s those sandy strips of shoreline out of town that is the island’s most popular highlight. Pristine and trimmed by date palms, the beaches are relaxing, get-away-from-it-all settings where summer daydreams are made.
Once Rome’s major rival, Carthage was the city of the seafaring Phoenicians forever memorialized in the Punic Wars. The atmospheric ruins of this ancient town now sit beside the sea amid the suburbs of Tunis, a warning that even the greatest cities can be reduced to rubble. The ruins are extensive but spread out, and if you’ve been lucky enough to visit ancient city sites such as Ephesus in Turkey or Volubilis in Morocco, which are well-preserved, Carthage can seem quite underwhelming at first. But these UNESCO World-Heritage-listed remnants are hugely important historically, and any tourist interested in North Africa’s ancient past shouldn’t miss a visit here.
4 The National Bardo Museum
Even non-museum fans can’t fail to be impressed at the massive haul of beautiful mosaics exhibited inside the Bardo. This is one of North Africa’s top museums, and it houses one of the world’s most important mosaic collections, all curated beautifully. It’s a showcase of the dazzling, intricate artistry of the Roman and Byzantine eras, with pieces cherry-picked from every major archaeological site in Tunisia. If you only have one day in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, this museum should be high up on your to-do list
5 Sidi Bou Said
impossibly cute, and amazingly photogenic, Sidi Bou Said is a clifftop village of petite dimensions that seem to have fallen off an artist’s canvas. Unsurprisingly, artists have feted this little hamlet for decades. The whitewashed alleyways, wrought-iron window frames, and colorful blue doors are Tunisian village architecture at their finest, while the Mediterranean backdrop is the cherry on top. This is a place to while away a lazy afternoon, simply soaking up the laid-back atmosphere and maybe indulging in a spot of shopping at one of the many local artisans and handicraft stalls.
6 Grand Erg Oriental
Tunisia’s vast Sahara covers much of the country’s interior, and the most beautiful corner of the desert is the field of sand dunes known as the Grand Erg Oriental. These poetically beautiful dunes are a surreal and gorgeous landscape of huge waves, shaped by the ever-shifting desert sands. For many visitors, this is an adventure playground for riding dune buggies and camel treks, but nothing tops the simple pleasure of sitting atop one of these mammoth sand mountains and watching the sunset over the Sahara.
7 Bulla Regia
Tunisia has no shortage of Roman ruins, but Bulla Regia near Tabarka is the country’s most interesting and intriguing site. Here, the Roman inhabitants coped with the harsh summer climate by ingeniously building their villas underground, which has left the city houses incredibly well preserved today. For history lovers, this is a unique opportunity to walk through actual Roman houses, with their walls still intact. It’s a glimpse of the residential life of the ancient world that you often don’t see.
With mosques, madrassas, and tombs aplenty, Kairouan has more than its fair share of monuments as the fourth most important city for those of the Muslim faith. The Arabic architecture here is truly inspiring, and the skyline is full of skinny minarets and bulky domes. But it’s probably the back alleys of the city’s medina that steal the show. With narrow, maze-like lanes lined with crumbling colorful houses, Kairouan’s old town has an enchanting, lost-in-time atmosphere that is a true highlight of a visit here.
9 Sousse Medina
Overlooked by the mighty fortifications of the Ribat and Kasbah, the medina in Sousse just begs to be explored. This lovely old town district is a warren of looping lanes, rimmed by whitewashed houses, and a shopping paradise with a tempting selection of ceramics, leatherwork, and metalwork on display. Away from the stalls along the bustling souk streets, the quiet and rambling back alleys, dusted in white and blue, are a charming place to dive in and sample local life.
10 Chott el Djerid
The moonscape surroundings of the Chott el Djerid are a storybook panorama brought to life; filled with shimmering mirages on the horizon and jigsaw puzzle pieces of blindingly white cracked land underfoot. This sprawling salt pan (most easily reached on a day trip from the desert town of Tozeur) is a desolate and otherworldly scene that wows all who visit with its stark and brutal beauty. A sightseeing trip here proves that nature produces much weirder landscapes than you could ever imagine.
Hammamet is all about the beach. This is Tunisia’s top sun-and-sea resort; a dreamy place dotted with pristine white buildings set beside a bright blue sea. The relaxing charms of this town woo all who come to sunbathe on the soft, white sand, with off-the-beach pursuits usually being nothing more strenuous than gentle strolls and a spot of shopping in the restored old town souks. It’s a no-stress kind of place that sums up the pleasures of Tunisia in one pretty package.
12 Monastir Ribat
One of Tunisia’s most photographed buildings and a film star to boot, the Ribat in Monastir is a bulky walled and exceptionally well-preserved fort. Looming over the harbor, the Ribat was originally part of a string of forts that protected the coastline, but today is one of the few still standing. Its defensive purposes may have long since faded, but this golden-stoned relic is now one of Tunisia’s most recognizable landmarks (thanks to it featuring in a few famous movies), and today, tourists scramble up into its bastion tower, rather than soldiers.