If you think that Tunisia is purely for a beach holiday think again. Tunisia is rich in cultural sites. Come with me and discover the Tunisian UNESCO world heritage sites.
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Tunisian UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Tunisia has eight UNESCO World Heritage sites ranging from north to south they include a lake and a whole island. Carthage, home to Hannibal, some of the finest Roman remains you will see anywhere, the only purely Punic archeological site in the world and the fourth holiest city in the Muslim world. I have visited all but one of the sites, some of them more than once. My guide starts in the north and works its way down.
Disclosure: In the past I have visited Tunisia independently my most recent visit was as a guest of Discover Tunisia
Lake Ichkeul is the last remaining lake of a former necklace of lakes that ringed the North African coast. Thousands of migrating birds alight here on their journey between Africa and Europe. Between mid October to February the lake teems with birds. 60 types of ducks, storks and flamingos swim and wade around the lake. When I visited in early September swallows swirled around us, the air was alive with the song of “little brown jobs” as my father denominated small birds that were too small to see without binoculars. It is not just birds, a herd of wild Water Buffalo live in and around the lake. We saw them wallowing in the mud of the stream beds left in early autumn before the rain came.
Now you have to bear with the Environmental Scientist that I once was, for some interesting lake facts. Lake Ichkeul is unusual in that it is salty in the winter and sweet water in the winter. There are three eco systems within the Lake Ichkeul national park; lake (obviously), marsh and mountain. Four different species of bats live in the caves around the lake. Capers grow in profusion on the slopes of the mountain, I have never knowingly seen a caper plant and found them fascinating.
Visiting Lake Ichkeul
- Getting there: Lake Ichkeul is 20km from Bizarre and 80km from Tunis. Car is the only way to get there.
- Visiting Lake Ichkeul is probably best done on an organised trip or with a guide, you need a permit to enter the park. There is an information and observation point on the slopes of the mountain but a guide would get you to the best places to see all the flora and fauna.
Tunis Medina is the heart of the old city of Tunis. Indeed Medina means town in Arabic. It is a maze of narrow streets and alleyways. Within the Medina you will fine Souks, Palaces, Workshops, Hammans, Mosques, Madrassas and homes. Most come for the shopping souks, indeed non Muslims are not allowed to visit the mosques, and to soak up the atmosphere.
The best way to see Tunis Medina is just to wander. Make sure you have a paper map or download a map as getting a signal can be tricky in the narrow streets. We started our exploration from the Bab El-Bahr or Porte de France gate. Just wander where you fancy. Getting lost will happen but you will find your way again.
If you’ve ever fancied sleeping in a UNESCO heritage site then Tunis Medina is for you. Dar Ben Gacem, is a 300 year old house formerly home to a perfume merchant, that is now a 7 bedroomed boutique hotel right in the heart of the Medina.
Visiting Tunis Medina
- Tunis Medina
- Getting there: fly to Tunis-Carthage airport and get a taxi to the centre of town
- Don’t visit on Fridays and Sundays when shops and restaurants tend to be closed
Once upon a time I helped out on a production of Dido and Aeneas and was transfixed by the glamour of Dido and Carthage. I was saddened to learn from the the school’s copy of Encyclopaedia Brittanica that Carthage was destroyed and therefore not available to visit. Turns out that was wrong. Well sort of. Dido founded Carthage in the 9th century BC It rapidly became richest city in the Mediterranean at the centre of a spiders web of trade routes criss-crossing the sea. As the Roman Empire began to gain in importance, Rome and Carthage began to clash leading to the Punic Wars. Hannibal was born in Carthage, it was here that he started his epic journey with elephants across the Alps. Carthage itself was damaged during the first two Punic wars and burnt to the ground in the third. So far the Encyclopedia Brittanica was right. What I failed to read was that Julius Caesar was not about to abandon Carthage’s fabulous location for trade and rebuilt the city.
Nowadays Carthage is a suburb of Tunis. Ancient ruins surrounded by upmarket homes. Oh but what ruins. You need to set aside a day to see Carthage as there are 10 historical sites spread over quite a wide area. Start your exploration at Byrsa Hill. Here you can see ancient Carthage spread out before you. This was the site of the Acropolis and the necropolis. In time there will be a museum showcasing some of the many mosaics found in Carthage and with a full history of the site. In the meantime you will either have to make do with reading the sparse information boards or just guessing what it is that you are seeing.
Baths of Antonius
To grasp just how big Carthage must have been head to the Baths of Antonius. Even now it is a massive complex. You can wander at will under arches and through buildings that were once the main public baths of Carthage. For me this was the most magical and impressive part of Carthage. Nowadays the baths are right next door to the Presidential Palace, so still close to power.
Once again massive. This cresent shaped port gives you an idea of just how important a trade centre Carthage was. Just over the way from Sicily, handy for Spain, convenient for Jerusalem, just a hop along from Cairo.
- Getting to Carthage, take a train from either Sidi Bou Siad or Tunis. The Hannibal stop is 10 minute was to the Byrsa Hill.
- Admission: One ticket covers all 10 sites, cost 12 TD
- Information is scant at all the Carthage sites, a guide would help you understand what you are seeing and help get around.
I first visited Dougga 30 years ago and it is still one of the most impressive Roman sites I have ever seen. Well, I say Roman. Dougga started life as Thugga, a Berber settlement, then it became the Punic capital. Next came the Romans and it is the remains of their city which you see. The site is huge, 160 acres in all. There are temples, a forum and a huge amphitheatre. All in a state of preservation that you can happily imagine living in the city. Most impressive and memorable of all for me is the theatre. It would have seated 3,500 people back in the day, sit in stalls and enjoy the view down to the stage.
- Dougga is about 110km from Tunis, to get there catch a louage to Teboursouk and then a yellow taxi to Dougga itself which will take about 2 hours in total.
- Once again signage is scant at the site but there usually guides available for hire at the entrance.
- Entry: 5TD
- When I visited I went on a day trip organised by the hotel I was staying in.
I loved Sousse Medina, you can see the bustling port from the gates and you immediately know that this is still a busy place of commerce. At the heart of Sousse Medina is the Ribat or fort, you can go inside and indeed climb its tallest tower for great views across the Medina. Elsewhere you can wander around the maze of small streets and alleyways where you will find food stalls, shops selling clothes and crafts and mosques. There are many tempting cafés and food stalls.
Sousse is a good place to stay when exploring Tunisian UNESCO heritage sites. A train that is quick, cheap and reliable runs from Tunis. Getting to El Jem is easy by train or louage and Kairouran an easy day trip via louage. There are many hotels in Sousse ranging from the typical package holiday hotels to small guest houses actually in the the Medina. We stayed in the Royal Kenz hotel in Port El Kantaoui just outside Sousse.
Visiting Sousse Medina
- Sousse is easily reached from Tunis by train with the journey taking just over 2½ hours
- Sousse Medina is in the heart of the old town
- Entry to the Medina is free but the Rabat entry is 5TD
Kairouan is the fourth holiest city in the Muslim world. There are mosques round every corner. Founded in 670 it was one the capital of the Umayyad province of Ifriqiya. The old city is surrounded by large walls. Once inside you are in a maze of small streets. The first time I visited we had a paper map (it was before the mobile phone was invented) and got hopelessly lost as we couldn’t understand the Arabic names, don’t worry though the town is small and you don’t stay lost for long. Souks and workshops bustle side by side with the mosques.
Great Mosque of Sidi Uqba
The Great Mosque of Sidi Uqba is one of the great religious buildings of any denomination, anywhere in the world. It is generally reckoned to be one of the first mosques founded a mere 38 years after the death of the prophet. It has a large open courtyard, surrounded by pillared galleries. In the centre of the courtyard is a large sundial. The minaret is the oldest minaret in Africa. Look at the horseshoe arch opposite the minaret, leading to the prayer hall … it is the first such arch in Africa. Take a look at the columns, they are all different with many of them having been bought here from the ruins at Carthage, recycling is not new. Non Muslims are not allowed in the prayer hall but you can look in. Dress modestly to visit the Mosque long trousers for men, head covering for women.
Mosque of the Barber
The Mosque of the Barber is actually the mausoleum of Sidi Sahbi, one of the Prophet’s friends. It is a beautiful building with marble arches and intricate tiling. How did the Mosque of the Barber get its name? Sidi Sahbi was said to always carry three hairs from the Prophet’s beard that he had cut himself.
Souks, Carpets and Water
Kairouan is not all mosques. Indeed the first time I visited we shopped extensively, got lost and then visited mosques. Some of the finest carpets in Tunisia are woven in Kairouan, you can see both work in progress and buy the finished product at the Governor’s Mansion. This is not just any carpet shop, it is worth a visit just to see the incredible interiors, if you do fancy a carpet the store is state run with prices on the back of each carpet. No haggling.
Kairouan is also famous for Makroudh, diamond shaped semolina biscuits filled with date paste. Eaten warm with mint tea they are delicious. I took a box home where they were equally lovely cold with regular tea.
Ingenious Aghlabite engineers worked out a system of aqueducts from nearby mountains that bought water that was then stored in a series of vast basins. These are no longer used for drinking water but can be seen, you can get a fine view of them from the roof of the tourist office.
- Each time I have visited Kairouan I have done so from Sousse, the first time I took a Louage and the second a private car. There is no train or bus to Kairouan.
- Unless you are a Muslim heading to worship in one of the many Mosques Friday is not a good day to visit Kairouan as shops will be closed.
- Check to see that your visit doesn’t coincide with a Muslim holiday, Kairouan is a pilgrimage city and a million or more people visit the city on key feast days.
- We visited a few days before Mawlid, the city was festooned with flags and everyone was getting ready for the holiday. Sounds of the Koran being read floated out from every minaret. Three days later the city was full of pilgrims.
- The first time I visited lunch was a brik eaten in a cafe in the souk quick and cheap. If you fancy a longer lunch, the next time I visited Dar Abderrahman Zarourouk housed in a beautiful old house.
- Entry to the Great Mosque and five other site 5TD
El Jem was my first Roman amphitheatre. It remains the best I have seen. More complete than Rome, less crowded and cheaper. Built in the 3rd century AD it was the largest built outside Italy. 35,000 people could sit in its stands to watch gladiators and animals fight it out. You can clamber all over El Jem, up to the top most seats, down into rooms where the gladiators waited their turn. El Jem is here because it is at the cross roads in the midst of a wealthy olive growing area. Olives grew here when the Romans were here and you still drive through olive groves to get here.
Visiting El Jem
- Trains run to El Jem from Sousse (1½ hours) and Tunis (3 hours)
- The first time I visited I took a Louage from Sousse, second time a private car
- Entry: 12 TD
- Information is scant inside the amphitheatre, we asked for a local guide at the ticket office
Purple dye from snail shells was made at Kerkouane on Cape Bon north of Hammamet for 400 years. Then it was abandoned in 250 BC after an attack by the Roman in 250 BC. It was never rebuilt and is unusual (indeed unique) in that it is a purely Punic city, no Roman or later layers to be found. Abandoned in 250 BC during the first Punic War. The dye merchants liked their sea views as the city is right on the coast. You can walk around the streets clearly seeing where the houses were. Inside the houses it is easy to imagine them as homes with fire places and doors. One house has Tanit at the doorway thought to be an amulet to protect the inhabitants. Tanit was a Carthaginian goddess. Elsewhere the is a necropolis, a small museum shows the incredible detail inside the tombs but you don’t get to see it in real life.
- Kerkouane is two hours north of Hammamet, public transport doesn’t go there so your options are taxi or driving
- When we visited a small coach from a nearby hotel arrived with a guide
- There is a small museum and information boards but not everything is in English.
Djerba is the only one of the Tunisian UNESCO Heritage sites that I have not visited. In my defence it only joined the list in September 2023. Anyway it is a whole island. Legend has it that in 586 BC when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Soloman’s temple and laid waste to Judah and Jerusalem the Kohanim or priestly caste fled to Djerba. The island is still home to a large Jewish community with 14 synagogues on the island. More myths, a Greek one this time apparently Djerba was the island of the Lotus Eaters where Odysseus was stranded in a state of bliss induced from eating lotus.
- There are no direct flights from the UK the Djerba
- Djerba is now a holiday island with many hotels
A quick note about Louages
I have mentioned Louages as a means of getting to places. They are an intriguing mash up between a bus and taxi. Every largish place has a Louage station. There are set routes and fare just like a bus. Unlike a bus the Louage doesn’t leave until it is full, so you just turn up and wait. I never had to wait long. Take a read of this excellent guide to Louages in Tunisia from Claire’s Footsteps for a comprehensive guide on using them.
Things you need to know about visiting Tunisia
- Tunis is only a 2½ hour flight from London and in the same time zone
- Summer is hot in Tunisia, the best times to explore the UNESCO sites is Spring and Autumn, although the first time I visited was in January when jumpers were needed
- Tunisian Dinar is the local currency, you can only buy it in Tunisia. Changing unspent Dinars back into sterling is possible in theory it is tricky in practice, so don’t change too much. Cash rather than card is needed in souks and cafes.