Two weeks in Tunisia

I heart Tunis sign, Tunisia

It may seem as though Tunisia, perched on the northern end of Africa, is very far away and inaccessible, but really that’s not true! With nine international airports, and visa-free up to 90 days for many nationalities, getting in and out of Tunisia is not all that difficult.

Since Chris and I were already very near Tunisia geographically, we decided to take a GNV ferry from Sicily to Tunis. However, if you’re in Europe, many international airlines fly into the Tunis-Carthage airport as well as the other main airports of the country, including Lufthansa, Air France, Alitalia, Turkish Airlines, and Emirates. (Also TunisAir if you’re feeling really brave).

The tomb of Tunisia’s first President, Habib Bourguiba

We started our two weeks in-country in the city of Tunis. The Carleton Hotel provided a soft landing for us, at a very reasonable rate. This century-old hotel has friendly staff and an amazing breakfast. Our first day here was part of the Eid holiday, so we visited the medina and found it was almost empty, but a few shops were open. We returned the next day to experience it with a bustling crowd, and then went back that night for a tour with Salah, who we found on Guruwalk. We were really impressed by the small details he pointed out to us- embellishments and motifs we never would have noticed on our own- and the number of beautiful antique buildings he got us into, hidden behind otherwise nondescript doors.

Al-Zaytuna Mosque, built 698 AD, in the middle of the Tunis medina

It’s fairly easy to get around Tunisia, as long as you have a bit of patience. We wanted to visit some cities in the south, so we got a train ticket (24 Dinar/$8US) for one of the 3 daily trains departing Tunis and arriving in Gabes. From there, we got a collective taxi (called a “louage“) for just 2 Dinar each to take us to Matmata, which happens to be where they filmed several scenes from two of the Star Wars movies. It’s very easy to walk around Matmata and visit the Hotel Sidi Idriss- also know as Luke Skywalkers’s family homestead- on your own (1 Dinar entry), or you can book the hotel via their Facebook page for approximately $20 a night. The small town of Matmata actually has a tiny tourist information office, and they sent us with a guide to show us the Hotel Sidi Idriss, as well as a Berber troglodyte (cave) house, where we had tea and bread with olive oil with the family living there. Again, you can do all this on your own, but we enjoyed chatting with our guide and didn’t mind the 30 Dinar ($10US) fee.

Matmata is considered “the doorway of the Sahara”, so from there you can choose to head further into the desert to see other Star Wars filming locations such as Nefta, Ksar Hadada, or Ong Jemel, or you can rent quads and go out to the sand dunes, or visit an oasis. Since Chris and I use to live in the middle of the Sahara desert, we decided instead to head north to El Djem, a small city two hours north of Gabes. El Djem is home to the third largest Roman coliseum (after the ones in Rome and Capua). Seating 35,000 people, it was built by the African Emperor Gordion the Third around 238 AD. Entrance to the colosseum is 12 Dinar ($4US) and also gets you in to the nearby Archaeological Museum, home to dozens of mosaics and other Roman artifacts found in the town, which the Romans called Thysdrus.

From El Djem, it’s a quick one hour train ride north to Sousse. Since this train will already be in progress coming from the south, it will likely already be a) late and b) full. Be prepared to stand for a while, even if you purchase first class seats (5 Dinar), or ride at the end of the car with an open doorway, hobo style. At least there’s a nice breeze!

Chris is ready to ride the rails

Sousse is home to a pretty good sized walled Medina, and the second best archaeological museum in Tunisia. For the past year, the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, which shares a building with the National Assembly, has been closed due to politics. There are no stated plans to reopen the museum, so if you’re into history, geography, and archaeology, head to the Sousse museum. At 10 dinar entry, it won’t break the bank, and it only takes an hour or two to visit. You can spend the rest of the day or the evening in the Medina of Sousse, or hop on a louage to go the short distance to Montesir, another walked city on the coast featuring a ribat (fort).

Heading north once more from Sousse and Monastir, we took a louage to Hammamet, a beach town full of resorts near Tunis. You can find hotels in this town for anywhere from $25 a night in up to $400 if you’re super fancy. We are not, so we stayed at the Hotel Residence Romane, complete with pool and a somewhat “private” beach across the road. Even better, there’s a German bakery next door, so we were quite happy with our choice. They also have a tour desk, and can get you set up with a 2 day/1 night tour to Matmata, El Djem, and the Tozeur desert at a pretty reasonable rate.

The Residence Romane

After three days at the beach, we wanted to visit Carthage. You can take a louage from Hammamet to Tunis, and from there switch to their light-rail system. It only has a few stops, and one of them is quite close to the Roman ruins, while the next station is at the foot of the hill that the blue and white city of Sidi Bou Said sits upon. Both areas are worth at least a full day and an evening of your time, if not more. Another nice place to visit, very close to the ruins of the Ancient Roman theater, is the American North Africa military cemetery.

We enjoyed wrapping up our trip in the center of Carthage, staying in a small bungalow owned by a family that lives on the edge of Sidi Bou Said. Pro tip: we had a washing machine, so we were able to launder everything while we prepared for the next part of our trip. After one last stroll around the serene blue-and-white city, we were ready for our overnight ferry out of Tunisia.