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Often seen as simply a beach destination, Tunisia has a bucket-full of surprises 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.
The walls of the mighty Roman amphitheatre of El Djem dwarf the surrounding modern town. This incredibly well preserved Roman relic is one of the best examples of amphitheatre 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
The moonscape of the Chott el Djerid is a storybook panorama brought to life, filled with shimmering mirages on the horizon and jigsaw puzzle pieces of blindingly white cracked land. This sprawling salt-pan near Tozeur is a desolate moonscape that wows with its stark and brutal beauty. A sightseeing visit proves that nature produces much weirder landscapes than you could ever imagine.
Hammamet is all about the beach. It is Tunisia's top 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 sunbath on the white sand, or stroll 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.
One of Tunisia's most photogenic buildings with its bulky walls, the Ribat in Monastir looks out to the harbour. Originally part of a string of coastal forts, this Ribat is one of the few still standing and has been grandly preserved. But it is now a tourist attraction rather than the town's defence. This beautiful relic is a definite highlight for history lovers and a famed landmark that deserves to be on every Tunisia to-do list.
If you're looking for the picture-perfect beach escape, then the island of Djerba checks all the right boxes. The main island town of Houmt Souk has an old town district that's a muddle of whitewashed houses. It is an attraction in itself, with plenty of shopping opportunities for those who want to get off the beach. But it's those sandy strips of shoreline out of town that are 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.
Impossibly cute, Sidi Bou Said is a cliff-top village with 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 colourful blue doors are Tunisian village architecture at their finest, while the Mediterranean backdrop is the cherry on top
Once Rome's major rival, Carthage was the city of the seafaring Phoenicians forever memorialised in history books about 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.
Even non-museum fans can't fail to be impressed at the haul of beautiful mosaics in The Bardo. This is one of North Africa's top museums and it houses one of the world's most important mosaic collections. It's a showcase of ancient world artistry that isn't to be missed in Tunis.
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, shaped by the ever-shifting desert sands. For many visitors, this is a playground for riding dune buggies and camels, but nothing tops the simple pleasure of sitting atop one of these mammoth sand mountains and watching the sunset.
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 colourful houses, Kairouan's old town has an enchanting lost-in-time atmosphere that is a true highlight of a visit here.
Overlooked by the mighty Ribat and Kasbah, Sousse's Medina just begs to be explored. This lovely old town district is a shopping paradise with a tempting selection of ceramics, leather-work and metalwork on display. Away from the souk streets, quiet and rambling back alleys are a charming place to dive in and sample local life away from the bustle.