Tunisia is a difficult country to judge. On the one hand, it is the most interesting country I have been in for quite a while – away from Europe which was becoming routine (if pleasant). Tunisia is warm, inexpensive, not crowded, and has excellent history On the other hand, I got sick three times in a month, struggled a bit with the language barrier, and constantly ran into small nuisances.
Let’s start with why you would want to visit Tunisia. The first thing is, it is warm most of the year – going from hot to a little cool when I was there in November and early December with rain bringing things to life. Tunisia has nice beaches. That seems to be the main tourist draw. For me, the amount of Roman history, and before that, Carthaginian, history was the biggest attraction. Another thing to consider is that it is currently the ‘most Western’ of the Arabic countries – offering much of the cultural sights of Arabic countries without as much of the culture shock.
Almost everyone I have talked to, including plenty of smart people, haven’t quite known where Tunisia is. It is on the African side of the Mediterranean, not too far away from Sicily and Italy. It is on European Central Time. It is very much an Arabic country, having been so since the 700’s and was generally semi-independent, excepting a period of 80 years of French colonial rule until the 1950’s that, excepting all the French speaking there, the current authorities seem to like to pretend didn’t happen.
I think the biggest concern of many visitors will be safety as in recent years both revolutions and terrorist attacks have occurred. Certainly, Tunisia is teeming with armed men. The president’s mansion was absolutely surrounded by guards (he seems paranoid). The famed Bardo Museum had been taken over by the military with armored cars on the lawn and is currently closed to visitors. The roads have police checkpoints in many places. It definitely gave the feeling of being on the verge of either terrorist attack or civil unrest. That said, the only civil unrest I saw was after several people on my flight in tested positive for covid at the airport. Dangerous? No, I don’t think so. But, if you are the kind of person who likes to worry about things, this isn’t the best destination for you.
Well, it definitely is dangerous for cycling in Tunis – between uneven roads, sand, air pollution, and crazy drivers. I did see some local cyclists about by Monastir, though. Running also is mediocre. Overall – not a place for sports. There is a bit of hiking.
Also, the food sickness and colds I had while there were definitely not coincidences but a result of a lack of food hygiene, a lack of masks and a fellow on the train coughing absolutely everywhere to a general lack of concern from everyone except me. Also the tap water made me a bit queasy, I think from excess chlorine judging by the taste. This is the only country I have been where I stuck to bottled water all the time, and I hate the waste of that plastic.
How about seat belts? Do you like those? Not in the taxis, many of them do not have seat belts, which with the crazy driving seems rather irresponsible. I shall also mention that I took way too many nauseous taxi rides (Bolt) getting around town. Sidi Bou Said, where I stayed, is lovely but not exactly in the heart of Tunis.
And there’s trash everywhere. In some cases in the countryside, entire fields strewn with plastic. I had a somewhat terrifying encounter with a massive stray dog early one morning. Lots of places look a bit abandoned. I was trying to catch a train and it was 40 minutes late in arriving. The internet is ridiculously slow (mobile data speeds are fine). And people smoke everywhere (including in most restaurants), which with the badly polluting cars means the air quality is often horrible. There are few parks or green spaces (some sandy places though). Did I mention that people are often late?
The locals seem to find their own food more fascinating than I did. It was fine, but unremarkable. Many people kept asking me how spicy things were, like it was going to be horribly hot and they were waiting for a reaction. It was definitely spicy, but not unusually so. They would have been much happier if I play-acted choking on the heat – maybe you should if you visit. The harissa was pretty good, in some places, and not so much in others.
As you can see, I have a long list of grievances. Yet it was also an extremely pretty country. There are beautiful beaches. Sidi Bou Said where I stayed (and which, along with La Marsa is where I would recommend living in Tunis) is lovely, and there are plenty of French patisseries. People are friendly and helpful, if rarely good at speaking English and with a fondness for wearing heavy winter jackets if the temperature falls past even 60 F (15 C).
One thing I will note is that, being an American, I definitely stood out and got attention (hair and eye color especially) far more than is usual. One day in Sousse, I dressed full tourist, and I got starred at by everyone. Rather unnerving, actually. Lots of people were trying to get me to buy things there in general, as happens. As you can see, I found it a bit annoying, but some people like the attention – so a great country for that, especially in the cities outside of Tunis where tourists outside of the complete package resorts are rare. Keep in mind that this is for a male, a woman would probably have received even more attention. I think a woman could travel here safely alone, but it would not be for the inexperienced.
I would say the quintessentially Tunisian things to see are: a medina, a ribat (a fortress), a beach, ancient Roman ruins, and tile decorations on buildings. Also just experiencing all the traffic and people out. You can see these at any of Sousse, Monastir, or Hammamet – while the locals might disagree, these cities are essentially interchangeable from a tourist perspective in my experience. I would recommend staying in one of those cities, or Sfax, if you want a more local experience. All of that can be seen in Tunis as well, but with more modern buildings and noise that completely change the feel of the place.
Carthage (right next to Tunis) is a must see in my opinion. Almost everything that is there is Roman, of which there is quite a bit. I was expecting more ruins from Ancient Carthaginian times, but the Romans appear to have been quite thorough in their destruction of the place – only the harbor remains which the Romans continued to use. The sites are all on one ticket but are all a bit spread out, and vary in quality. Sidi Bou Said is nearby, no ruins, but beautiful streets and buildings.
My favorite site in Carthage was the “Roman Villas” section which has an excellent street leading near the theater – it reminded me of Pompeii, but with an awesome view across the bay and not another person in sight. Another favorite was when I walked from there to the Basilique de Damous Karita through some brush and across a farm field – a farm field which if you look closely had pieces of mosaic and ancient pottery – somewhere beneath my feet were more ruins of Roman houses. Walk that in reverse and you can enter the Roman villas section without a ticket… I also liked the inner circle of the ancient harbor which was temporarily closed, but no one seemed to mind me sneaking in during the middle of the day.
El Jem Ampitheater is a bit of a drive from Tunis, yet it is just like the Colosseum in Rome with a few obvious differences: there was almost no one else there, and you can freely wander all parts of the structure including the underground structures. I followed some kids and started climbing on the upper third tier with nothing but a bit of ancient mortar between me and quite a high drop. The local museum also had an impressive collection of mosaics.
While in the area, I visited Kairouan. That entire area feels like traveling into another time – donkeys and horses pull carts on the road. People barter in Arabic. Buildings look timeless. Oh, and lots of trash. Not an important place to stop, but if it is on your way somewhere else it is worth a visit. I didn’t get down to the sand dunes and Tataouine of the deeper south, but I wish I had.
Another thing I may have to come back and see is Dougga and the greener parks and forests in that area of the north west. Even in the rainier early winter, the rest of the country was just too dry for me. One thing I found fascinating was that hiking hear Kairouan, there were what appeared to be richly built stone villages from previous times that had been abandoned up in the hills where once they could grow olives in plenty but now they are absolutely dry. I have read that the country had dried out in late Roman times (one of the reasons the Western Roman empire collapsed was a reduction in moisture levels in many important parts of the empire including Italy), and it was fascinating to see that in person.
Overall, I think one of the best things about visiting Tunisia is how authentic it can be. This is truly a beautiful place. It is also not a place packed full of tourists like many others. It is much cheaper than Europe, and quite accessible from there. The biggest problem, in my experience, was that just living there I was generally in much greater discomfort than other places I have been (the exception being staying at the hotel La Badira, which was amazing). That extra discomfort pushed juggling my work, travel, and athletic training to the breaking point, and it will definitely be too much for what many people want on holiday. But it is manageable, and if you come looking for a bit of accessible adventure and authenticity, Tunisia should definitely be high on your places to consider.