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What is there to do in Tunisia?

Classical sights

Though not as well-known as Greece or Italy's classical ruins, Tunisia has a whole host of fascinating antiquities for travellers to explore. The country's capital, Tunis, was once an important cornerstone of the Roman Empire, the site of Carthage and the famous Punic Wars. It was also the mythical realm of Phoenician queen Dido, said to have fallen on her sword after Aeneas left her to continue his voyage in Virgil's ancient epic story, the Aeneid.

You can still see the ruins of this monumental city in the modern suburbs of 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.

Beyond Carthage, the Tunisian landscape is littered with the remnants of the lost Roman Empire. Day trips to the classical ruins at Dougga, El Djem and Bulla Regia are perfect for history enthusiasts and the sites are far less crowded than their equivalents in Greece, Italy or even Turkey. Dougga, rising above the countryside south-west of Tunis, is 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.

Even more impressive is the vast amphitheatre of Thysdrus in El Djem, situated in the east of the country. The director of blockbuster movie Gladiator thought it suitably striking too, as it was used as a backdrop to several scenes from the film. Holding more than 35,000 spectators, it was the third largest of its kind in the entire Roman Empire. Climb the tiers that once overlooked gladiatorial battles and chariot races, and in the summer enjoy concerts within its atmospheric walls.

Another interesting place to visit, Bulla Regia in the north-west, is unique for its cleverly-constructed subterranean Roman villas, semi-submerged in the ground to escape the baking summer heat. Fantastically well-preserved, the lower rooms look onto open colonnaded atriums. To make sense of all this history, the beautiful Bardo Museum in Tunis is not-to-be-missed. Housed in a magnificent former palace, the museum exhibits countless works of art, sculptures and mosaics turned up from the excavations of Tunisia's classical sites. These include the only known contemporary portrait of the Roman poet Virgil and a mosaic depicting the ancient myth of Odysseus and the Sirens.

Must-see marvels

It's unclear who pioneered the idea of underground dwellings, but the native Berbers seem to have had the same idea. They chose to burrow underground to escape the stultifying desert heat in the southern town of Matmata. Exploring these odd troglodyte settlements makes a fantastic diversion for curious minds. The houses are carved into the walls of deep circular pits that act as courtyards, with doors and windows facing into the pit and stairs leading to ground level. You can feel the temperature drop as you descend into these dwellings and it's possible to spend the night in one too at the Hotel Sidi Driss. As well as offering a quirky place to stay, the hotel is popular with Star Wars fans as it was used as the set of Luke Skywalker's home on the fictional planet of Tatooine. In fact, Star Wars director George Lucas borrowed the name from the Tataouine district, located further south, which boasts yet more amazing Berber buildings.

Known as ksour, these fortified Berber granaries are built into high ground and 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. 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.

Aside from Berber architecture, Tunisia boasts a wealth of beautiful Arabesque structures including Moorish fortresses and medieval medinas. One special sight that often gets missed on tours of Tunisia is the handsome and labyrinthine medina in Tunis, which UNESCO deemed fit for its World Heritage list. Stroll along the little lanes and discover palaces, mosques and monuments built by Berber dynasties from the 12th century onwards. In fact, the oldest mosque in the vicinity – the Mosque of Olives – is thought to date back to the 7th century.

Scenic stopovers

In central Tunisia, rugged canyons criss-cross rocky desert tracts that give way to the rolling dunes of the Sahara. Boarding the vintage Red Lizard train from Metlaoui for the scenic one-and-a-half-hour round trip makes for a wonderful sightseeing tour, winding through the red and pink canyons of central Tunisia's Atlas Mountains to the green oasis of Redeyef. Running along old mining tracks, the train dates back to 1910 when it was used to serve phosphate mines.

Further south, travellers can discover a clutch of surprising desert oases that are much more than a mirage. Described as the ultimate palm oasis, the town of Douz is dotted with more than half a million palm trees and is a great starting point for safaris into the desert, whether on foot, by camel or in a 4x4. It was once an important stop-off for trade caravans crossing the Sahara and you can learn about the area's history at the local Museum of the Sahara. If you are planning to travel late in the year, try to coincide your trip with the exciting 4-day International Festival of the Sahara.

But there is a greener side to Tunisia too, especially in the north-western corner of the country, which has its own special microclimate. Known as ‘green Tunisia', the verdant landscapes around Tabarka and Ain Draham are perfect for nature lovers with plenty of hiking paths criss-crossing rolling cork tree-carpeted hills. The coastal town of Tabarka also has the added attraction of a wide golden beach and Genoese fortress that's ripe for exploration.

Coastal treasures

For fans of sugary sand and aqua-based activities, Tunisia has much to offer. The historic fishing town of Hammamet, for instance, was Tunisia's first tourist destination and has developed into a thriving resort. Fringed by a wide swathe of creamy sand that sweeps around the coastline, tourists can try all kinds of watersports here from windsurfing and body-boarding to jet-skiing and water-skiing. There are also diving facilities at some of the hotels if you would like to explore the underwater world. Known as Tunisia's ‘garden resort', Hammamet is peppered with citrus trees and olive groves, as well as fragrant jasmine, which gave rise to the name of the town's purpose-built tourist resort of Yasmine Hammamet. If you fancy a stroll beyond the beach, the town also features a charming medina with a 15th-century Kasbah in one corner and a small folklore museum in the other.

Another pretty tourist resort, Sousse, sits at the southern end of the Gulf of Hammamet and has a similar appeal. Its strip of seemingly-endless powdery white sand curves more than 10km around the coastline, backed by dozens of smart hotels and tourist facilities that include plenty of places to hire boats, snorkelling equipment or try motorised watersports. Despite the influx of tourism, the town retains an individual character, with arabesque buildings, a UNESCO-listed medina, Roman catacombs and a 9th-century mosque providing ample sightseeing opportunities.

Just off Tunisia's eastern coast, the isle of Djerba is a secret paradise. The glittering sand and turquoise waters of the north-east coast are reminiscent of the Caribbean. In fact, the island is thought to be 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. You can visit the island on a day trip from the mainland or better still, stay in one of the many hotels that line its sandy coast.

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