Popular for its warm climate and golden beaches, the North African country of Tunisia has a wealth of hidden highlights that belie its small size. For a start, this lost corner of the ancient Roman Empire is littered with lesser-known classical sites – from the enormous amphitheatre of Thysdrus to the legendary ruined city of Carthage – making it a perfect destination for history enthusiasts.
Fascinating cultural and natural sights abound too – the warren of streets and monuments around Tunis' medieval medina, for instance, and the scenic Red Lizard train-ride through rose-red canyons and desert plains. With this in mind, I thought a round-up of the country's most marvellous marvels could inspire travellers to go to Tunisia for its historic cache, as well as its beaches.
The Romans built their monuments to stand the test of time. After defeating the Phoenicians – ancient traders originating from the Lebanon region – in a gruelling three-year siege, the Romans constructed the capital of their North African empire on the smoking wreckage of Carthage. The city's history stretches back into ancient myth. Virgil's epic tale The Aeneid describes the city, founded by the legendary Phoenician queen Dido, as a stop on Aeneas' voyage home. You can still see the ruins of this monumental city in the modern suburbs of Tunisia's capital, Tunis. Visible layers of archaeology bear testimony to the city's tumultuous history and you can explore a well-preserved amphitheatre, baths and the remains of two Phoenician ports that were reworked by the Romans.
Spreading out from their initial base at Carthage, the Romans flourished in Tunisia, leaving their mark on the landscape with more than 600 settlements, some that have never been excavated. The most significant of these – at Dougga, El Djem and Bulla Regia – could easily rival the antiquities of Greece and Italy, but are relatively unknown. No cultural tour of Tunisia could be complete without exploring at least one of these sites.
The ruins at Dougga, rising above the countryside south-west of Tunis, are listed by UNESCO as the best-preserved Roman small town in North Africa. Strolling around the town's mosaic-floored villas, theatre, baths and temples, and beneath its impressive triumphal arches, it's easy to imagine that this was a thriving town in its heyday.
Nearby, Bulla Regia is unique for its cleverly-constructed subterranean Roman villas, semi-submerged in the ground to escape the baking summer heat. Fantastically well-preserved, you can feel the drop in temperature as you descend into the lower rooms that look onto open colonnaded atriums.
Another impressive feat of engineering not-to-be-missed on a cultural tour of Tunisia, is the vast amphitheatre of Thysdrus in El Djem. Holding more than 35,000 spectators, it was the third largest of its kind in the entire Roman Empire. Once the scene of gladiatorial battles and chariot races, the arena now hosts summer concerts within its atmospheric tiers. If it looks familiar, that's probably because blockbuster movie Gladiator was filmed here.
Excavations at these sites have turned up countless works of art, sculptures and mosaics, many of which are exhibited at the fantastic Bardo Museum in Tunis. Housed in a magnificent former palace, the museum's exhibits include the only known contemporary portrait of the Roman poet Virgil and a mosaic depicting the ancient myth of Odysseus and the Sirens.
Beyond the classical sites, Tunisia is a scenic country with a surprising array of landscapes from the golden sands of its Mediterranean shores and the green pastures of its hinterland to the olive groves and date palms of its desert borderlands.
In southern Tunisia, rugged canyons criss-cross rocky desert tracts that give way to the rolling dunes of the Sahara. One great way to see this stunning landscape is to board the vintage Red Lizard train from the southern town of Metlaoui on a scenic 45-minute journey. Running along old mining tracks, the train dates back to 1910 when it was used to serve phosphate mines. Now, it makes a wonderful sightseeing tour, winding through the red and pink canyons of central Tunisia's Atlas Mountains to the green oasis of Redeyef.
If you dream of discovering a desert oasis, then you've come to the right place. Tunisia has a clutch of surprising southern oases that are much more than a mirage. The southern town of Douz, dotted with more than half a million palms, is often described as the ultimate palm oasis. It was once an important stop-off for trade caravans crossing the Sahara and is a great starting point for treks and safaris into the desert. Stop by the "Museum of the Sahara" to get a sense of the area's history, and if you are planning to travel in November or December, try to coincide your trip with the exciting 4-day International Festival of the Sahara.
While Tunisia's Mediterranean coast has become popular for European beach holidays in recent years, there are still some secluded beaches waiting to be discovered by more adventurous travellers. Just off Tunisia's eastern coast, the isle of Djerba is a secret paradise that's perfect for beach connoisseurs. Along the north-east coast, you will find glittering sand and turquoise waters reminiscent of Polynesia. It is thought that Djerba is the idyllic land of the lotus eaters mentioned in Homer's ancient Greek epic the Odyssey, where Odysseus' men forgot themselves and almost abandoned their mission home. The island features hundreds of archaeological sites that bare witness to a long history stretching back into the mists of time.
A special sight that often gets missed on tours of Tunisia is the superb medieval medina in Tunis, which UNESCO deemed fit for its World Heritage list. Stroll along the labyrinth of streets and discover palaces, mosques and monuments built by Berber dynasties dating back to the 12th century. In fact, the oldest mosque in the vicinity – the Mosque of Olives – is thought to have been constructed in the 7th century.
Quirky berber buildings
Tunisia is dotted with Berber settlements and dwellings that are truly unique and make a fantastic diversion for curious minds. Like the Romans at Bulla Regia, the Berbers chose to burrow underground to escape the desert heat in the southern town of Matamata. The resulting troglodyte houses are set in caves carved around open circular pits that serve as courtyards. Rounded doorways and passages lead away from the courtyard into cool underground chambers and carved stairs ascend to surface level. It's possible to spend the night in one of these quirky dwellings too at the Hotel Sidi Driss, which was used as a film set for the classic Star Wars movies, in which it featured as the home of Luke Skywalker on the planet of Tatooine.
In fact, Star Wars director George Lucas borrowed the name for his fictional planet from the Tataouine district, located further south, which also has some amazing Berber buildings that have the organic, curved quality of a Gaudi masterpiece. In contrast to the troglodyte houses, these fortified granaries, known as ksour, tend to be fashioned into high ground. Some of the best can be found at Ksar Ouled Soltane, which was featured in some scenes of Star Wars as the slave quarters where Anakin Skywalker grew up.
The ruined Berber town of Chenini, merging into hilltop ridges, is another great place to see this quirky architecture and explore the vaults, some of which date back to the 12th century. To see both ruined granaries and troglodyte houses, head to Douiret in the same region, where the now-tumbling structures are built into the mountainside overlooking a rugged and rocky desert landscape.