Tunisian history is long. The Greeks claim the country was founded by the mythical Dido-that’s how old the country is. For a history chaser, you get to explore the ruins of Carthage, see amazing Roman temples, Islamic palaces and sqsques, and Ottoman fortresses. I had a fabulous time traveling around seeing Tunisia’s historic sites, and I can’t wait to share them.
When I got back from Tunisia in December, I was so enthralled with the beauty of the country that I did something I don’t normally do right away-I went through all of my photographs and edited every single one I liked. Typically, I just edit photos as I need them, but I knew I had seen so many amazing places that if I didn’t get the photos edited straight away, I would end up forgetting to share too many of the amazing places I had seen (including all eight Tunisian UNESCO World Heritage Sites)! The great thing about this editing marathon is that I can share some of my favorite photographs with you even though I’m still working on putting together the articles and scheduling podcast interviews.
I started my trip in Tunis, the packed-but-not-crowded capital city. Founded by the Libyans in the 9th century BC, it has been traded back forth for millennia among the Carthaginians, Romans, Aghlabids, Ottomans, French, and finally the Tunisians with their independence in 1956.
One of the main highlights for me was the phenomenal Bardo Museum, which is basically a history lover’s dream. It has relics from Carthage, amazing Roman and Byzantine mosaics, and its building is a former palace complete with stunning palatial architecture.
The Medina of Tunis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of several historic medinas in the country. You can see UNESCO’s description here, but note that this was only the 36th place put on the list! Of the 1072 (and counting) places under UNESCO protection, Tunis’s medina was recognized earlier than places far more famous.
Another one of Tunisia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Dougga is a preserved ancient Roman town and a great day trip from Tunis. While the site features Roman temples, arches, and other obviously Roman ruins, there is also a beautiful Numidian Mausoleum.
I visited the city as a day trip from Tunis, and I hate to say that I didn’t give myself nearly enough time to roam around.
Sidi Bou Said
As beautiful as Santorini, but less famous, Sidi Bou Said is a blue and white Andalusian seaside town a short train ride from Carthage. The town dates back to at least the 1300’s, but the emphasis on preserving its gorgeous color scheme dates to the 1920’s.
I originally had planned to use the city as a base only, and I hadn’t scheduled any time to wander around the town during the day. However, when I got there I quickly realized my mistake and rearranged my schedule so I could spend more time walking through the charming town.
These ruins were the main reason I chose Tunisia, and seeing Carthage shook me. While most of what’s in this UNESCO World Heritage Site is actually Roman from after Rome conquered Carthage, the Tophet of Carthage is a uniquely Punic site.
One thing I did not expect about visiting Carthage was falling in love with the gorgeous Saint Louis Cathedral. From the outside, you can tell immediately that this is a French building, but on the inside, the artwork is a mix of European and North African style.
Bizerte surprised me. First, it wasn’t on my itinerary for the day, but my tour guide brought me here to eat lunch before we started the long drive to Kelibia. Sitting next to the harbor, it’s easy to see why this should have been on my itinerary in the first place. Even though I only spent a few hours here, I got to see the medina, enjoy the harbor, and take in the fish market.
Utica was another Punic city like Carthage, although they turned against Carthage when the Romans came to Africa. During its time as part of the Roman empire, it was located on the shores of the Mediterranean, but now it is further inland.
Tunisia’s only natural UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lake Ichkeul is an important stop for thousands of migratory birds from Europe, who come to winter here and avoid the European cold. The lake is great for hiking and birdwatching. I skipped the hiking (yuck) and instead went to find a herd of African buffalo.
Cape Angela (Cap Engela) is the northernmost point in Africa. Even though getting there was a bit of a drive, it was worth it to stand on the edge of the continent.
Kerkouane on Cap Bon is another of Tunisia’s UNESCO sites, but this one is special. While Carthage and Utica are both Phonecian cities, they are mostly covered in Roman and Roman-era ruins. However, Kerkouane was abandoned by the Carthaginians after the first Punic War, so what’s left behind are only Carthaginian ruins.
Sousse is one of Tunisia’s most touristed areas, as Europeans use it as a beach escape. However, it’s actually a great place for history lovers to visit as well. It’s Medina is another UNESCO site, and its museum is chock-full of Roman and Byzantine mosaics.
I didn’t see the beach (December isn’t exactly beach weather, even in Tunisia), so I had more time to explore the historic sites.
The city of El Jem houses one of North Africa’s treasures-the second largest and best preserved ancient Roman amphitheater after the Coliseum. I visited as a day trip from Sousse and made sure to also see the archaeological museum a few blocks away.
The city of Kairouan is the fourth holiest city in Islam. Muslims can make seven pilgrimage’s to Kairouan in place of a pilgrimage to Mecca. The city’s Great Mosque is magnificent, although it’s the only mosque I visited where I couldn’t go inside (I could only go into the courtyard). The Medina in less touristy than the ones I visited in Tunis and Sousse.
I visited Kairouan as a day trip from Sousse on my final day in the country. I nearly skipped it, since by the end of two weeks I was a bit overwhelmed with seeing so much. I’m glad I didn’t, as it was an easy city to visit and very different than I expected.
Tunisian history is long, full of twists and turns, wars and conquests. But it’s also a stunning country, with picturesque cities and ruins wherever I went. I hope you enjoyed these photographs as much as I enjoyed editing them!
Which place are you the most curious about? Let me know below!