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Tunisia has changed hands more times than a parcel at an eight year old's birthday party, but for us travelling folk that has some nice consequences. Phoenician, Jewish, Roman, Vandal, Arab, Ottoman and Spanish Muslim influences have each had their say in Tunisia's past.
Really, it's an attractive affair for any traveller who can handle the heat and wants some variety in their next trip. In the south, where the Sahara engulfs Tunisia, offer 4WD trips through the desert - not exactly an authentic caravan, but when you compare the air-conditioned climate inside the car to the pummeling heat outside, you won't be complaining. Carthage, Dougga and El-Jem are the most notable Roman ruins and you certainly won't be alone in visiting them. Nor will you be alone if you head to one of Tunisia's fine beaches. But any complaints will be erased quickly by the warm Mediterranean waters.
At the beginning of known recorded history, Tunisia was inhabited by Berber tribes. Its coast was settled by Phoenicians starting as early as the 10th century BC. The city of Carthage was founded in the 9th century BC by settlers from Tyre, now in modern day Lebanon. Carthage was eventually conquered by Rome in the 2nd century BC, a turning point which led to ancient Mediterranean civilization having been influenced mainly by European instead of African cultures. After the Roman conquest, the region became one of the granaries of Rome, and was Latinized and Christianized. The Romans controlled nearly all of modern Tunisia, unlike other modern African countries, of which Rome only held the northern coast.
Around the beginning of the 8th century the region was conquered by Arab Muslims, who founded the city of Kairouan which became the first city of Islam in North Africa. Tunisia flourished under Arab rule. Spain seized many of the coastal cities from the 13th century onwards, but these were recovered by the Ottoman Empire. Under its Turkish governors, the Beys, Tunisia attained virtual independence. The Hussein dynasty of Beys, established in 1705, lasted until 1957. From 1881 - 1956 the country was under French colonization.
In 1942-1943, Tunisia was the scene of the first major operations by the Allied Forces (the British Empire and the United States) against the Axis Powers (Italy and Germany) during World War II. The main body of the British army, advancing from their victory in Battle of el-Alamein under the command of British Field Marshal Montgomery, pushed into Tunisia from the south. The US and other allies, following their invasions of Algeria and Morocco in Operation Torch, invaded from the west.
Tunisia's first President Habib Bourguiba had much hands-on political experience, after many decades serving among the leadership of the independence movement. As the major figure of the Neo-Destour Party, he was instrumental in obtaining full independence for Tunisia in 1956. He dominated the government until his removal in 1987. Ben Ali became President of the Republic in 1987, and remains so today. His economic policies have emphasized a market orientation. His attempt at reapproachment with Islamist groups did not meet expectations. The ruling party was reorganized. Under his leadership Tunisia's economy continued to perform at a pace which yielded a moderate but overall steady rate of growth.
In response to the 2010–2011 Tunisian protests, Ben Ali declared a state of emergency in the country, dissolved the government on 14 January 2011 and promised new legislative elections within six months. But on that same day Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi went on state television to say he was assuming power in Tunisia. Ghannouchi announced the change on state television and said he was assuming presidential duties. Unconfirmed news reports, citing unidentified government sources in Tunisia, said that the President had left the country. He fled the country on 14 January.
Tunisia is situated on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, midway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Nile Delta. It is bordered by Algeria on the west and Libya on the south east. It lies between latitudes 30° and 38°N, and longitudes 7° and 12°E. An abrupt southward turn of the Mediterranean coast in northern Tunisia gives the country two distinctive Mediterranean coasts, west-east in the north, and north-south in the east. Though it is relatively small in size, Tunisia has great environmental diversity due to its north-south extent. Its east-west extent is limited. Differences in Tunisia, like the rest of the Maghreb, are largely north-south environmental differences defined by sharply decreasing rainfall southward from any point. The Dorsal, the eastern extension of the Atlas Mountains, runs across Tunisia in a northeasterly direction from the Algerian border in the west to the Cape Bon peninsula in the east. North of the Dorsal is the Tell, a region characterized by low, rolling hills and plains, again an extension of mountains to the west in Algeria. In the Khroumerie, the northwestern corner of the Tunisian Tell, elevations reach 1,050 metres and snow occurs in winter. The Sahel, a broadening coastal plain along Tunisia's eastern Mediterranean coast, is among the world's premier areas of olive cultivation. Inland from the Sahel, between the Dorsal and a range of hills south of Gafsa, are the Steppes. Much of the southern region is semi-arid and desert. Tunisia has a coastline 1,148 kilometres long.
For such a small country, Tunisia surprisingly has a lot to offer for the traveller, ranging from cultural to natural attractions. It has some good cities to visit as well and the old city of the capital Tunis is a real gem.
Kairouan is one of 7 holy cities of Islam and the religious hart of Tunisia, with over 100 mosques. It is an old city and its fortified wall structure proves this. Entering the old city (medina) through one of its gates is stepping back in time, although back in the old days tourists were probably almost unheard of, especially the lobster coloured one of today.
The place to visit old ruins in Tunisia, Carthage boasts an enormous variety of remains of different people/periods in history, like the Phoenician, Byzantine, Arabic and Romans. This archaeological gem can be found just northeast of Tunis, along the Mediterranean coastline, which gives the place some extra beauty.
Just like its counterpart in Rome, El Jem basically is impressive because of its simplicity alone. It may not be as well known as the Colosseum, but this amphitheatre is said to be about the same size. It is built around 230 A.D. and today is a very popular trip for people escaping the crowds at the Tunisian beaches. The town of El Jem is nothing much by the way, so spending the night here just is not necessary.
Tunisia, like Morocco is one of the best countries for beginners to experience the desert. The southern town of Douz is reached easily along a surfaced road from where a camel brings you to the sand dunes which form a beautiful yellowish sea to the south of the town. Douz itself is pleasant enough to wander around and has some good places to stay, including a hotel with views of the sandy parts of the Sahara desert.
Chott El Jerid is a mostly dry salt lake in the south of Tunisia, roughly between the towns of Douz and Tozeur. Although Chott means lake, it usually is a dry salty flat, but in winter after heavy downpours there sometimes actually is a real lake. That said, it still is best to experience the vastness of this area outside winter, with spring (May) and fall (October) being the best months when it's dry and warm weather.
Apart from the holy city of Kairouan, Tunisia has a wider collection of cities and towns which are very enjoyable to walk around and give an impression of everyday life, both outside and inside the medina (old quarter). The best examples are the capital of Tunis and Sousse, more south along the coast. Although the latter is smaller and more touristy (because of its beaches), it is also more quiet than the capital. The cities are linked to each other by a 2 hour train journey.
There are also so smaller cities to be found in Tunisia, which are just as great to just wander around, admiring the people, their way of life and the historic structures. Some cities enjoy having a large maze of small paths, like Tozeur and Douz in the south.
Part of the Star Wars series was recorded in Matmata, which instantly made it a popular Tunisian destination. Besides Star Wars fame, the area around Matmata looks like what you'd expect to see on the moon, with its barren plains, hills and craters. Temperatures can reach 50º C here and therefore some people are still living in houses beneath the surface.
The municipal theater in the heart of Tunis is the main venue of this festival, which is held in the Tunisian capital during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which can fall at any time of the year. In addition to the usual array of religious ceremonies that normally take place in Muslim cities during Ramadan, this festival also features international films and musical performances. Street shows and people dressed in medieval costumes spill out across the city.
Tunisia’s largest mountain oasis first hosted this annual March festival to commemorate the 100th anniversary of one of Tunisia’s most famous poets, Abou El Kacem Chebbi. The smaller Degueche child festival and El Khiyam tent festival take place at the same time as this celebration of Tamerza culture. Visitors can sample local food and purchase local crafts. The festival also features two animation shows, a local art show, film screenings, horse racing, and poetry readings.
No known breed of horse has a longer history than the 5,000-year-old Arabian horses that are showcased during this June festival. The ancestors of today’s Arabian horses carried conquering armies across ancient Mesopotamia. An Arabian horse racing display is the main event of this festival’s first day, while the next two days are dedicated to an international Arabian horse show. Africa’s largest horse show also includes a craft fair featuring artisans from across Tunisia.
At no other time of year does the always-popular city of Carthage welcome more visitors than during this annual festival. Held in Carthage’s Ancient Roman 7,500-seat amphitheater, the festival starts in the middle of July and continues into August. The first International Festival of Carthage was held in 1964, but the event has since grown into one of Northern Africa’s largest entertainment festivals. James Brown, Louis Armstrong, and Ray Charles are just a handful of the legendary musicians who have performed here.
Like its sister festival in Carthage, Hammamet’s annual international festival is a celebration of music, dance, and other performing arts. For more than a month between July and August, this picturesque coastal community on northeast Tunisia hosts dozens of jazz and other musicians from around the globe. However, this is not longer just a music festival; visitors now also have roughly a dozen French theatrical plays to choose from.
This festival on Tunisia’s ‘island of lotus eaters’ starts in July, lasts until August, and attracts visitors from across the country and the world. Djerba’s Houmt Souk is filled with performances by local actors, musicians, and visual artists. One day of the festival is dedicated entirely to children’s entertainment, another day is dedicated to sports, and a third focuses on arts and crafts made by women. The 10-day Guellala Pottery Festival also occurs during this period.
Performers from 10 different countries take part in southern Tunisia’s largest cultural festival. Apart from a brief period during WWII, this festival has taken place every year in one form or another since 1938, and became international in 1991. Parades, poetry recitations, film screenings, and horseback riding and racing along southern Tunisia’s oasis are among the highlights of this festival, which starts in late November and extends into December.
Each December, Tunisia ends each year with its oldest and most famous festival. This Douz festival was originally named the Camel Festival when it was held for the first time in 1910. It has since grown into a four-day tribute to southern Tunisia’s nomadic cultures and traditions. Douz’s H’naiech Stadium hosts most of the main events, including camel marathons, Arabian horse racing, and traditional Bedouin wedding ceremonies. However, the most popular event of all may be the poetry contest, which is sponsored by Abdellatif Belgacem, a famous desert poet.
Although Tunisia is small, there are quite some differences regarding the weather. The northern part of the country has a mediterranean climate with warm summers and mild winters. Temperatures during the day are generally between 30 °C and 35 °C during the day and around 20 °C at night. Most rain falls during the cooler winter months and higher up in the mountains there is some snow possible as well, but usually not more than 10 days or so. The central parts are becoming drier and hotter, while in the south there is a desert climate, with only several days a year seeing some precipitation, usually in the form of heavy downpours. Temperatures in the south can rise to 50 °C but usually are somewhat lower.
Tunisair is the national airline of Tunisia and is based at Tunis-Carthage International Airport (TUN) near the capital Tunis. International destinations include those to and from Algiers, Amman, Amsterdam, Athens, Bahrain, Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Cairo, Casablanca, Copenhagen, Damascus, Dubai, Frankfurt, Geneva, Hamburg, Istanbul, Jeddah, Kuwait, Lisbon, London, Lyon, Madrid, Marseille, Milan, Munich, Paris, Rome, Stockholm and Zürich, among many others. Several French cities are served as well. About 20 other airlines serve the airport as well, mainly from Europe and Northern Africa.
Habib Bourguiba International Airport (MIR) serves Monastir and Sousse. Around 25 airlines serve Monastir, many of which are charter airlines which only fly here during the summer season of April to October. Some of the main destinations include Berlin, Amsterdam, Düsseldorf, Munich, Paris, Dresden, Warsaw, Zürich, Helsinki, Belgrade, Brussels, Manchester, Luxembourg, Malta, Tunis, Dublin, Bucharest, Aberdeen, London, Cardiff, Moscow, Lyon, Nice, Lille, Marseille and Geneva.
Enfidha – Zine El Abidine Ben Ali International Airport (NBE) opened in 2009 and has become an important airport for the central coastal region since then, attracting more flights and adding flights which previously flew into Monastir Airport. Many airlines now serve routes from cities throughout Europe, and in 2011 several big airlines like Air Berlin, Tuifly and Tunisair will start operations as well.
There are no international trains to and from Tunisia.
Tunisia is the starting point of the central overland route through the Sahara. The most popular route and crossing is at Hazoua on the road between El Oued and Tozeur. You can cross by car, but you'll probably need an escort to travel further onward in Algeria. Other borders are not an option.
Shared taxis travel across the border with Algeria at Hazoua (see above). Although there are also buses from a number of Tunisian cities towards Libya (Tunis - Tripoli is around 10 hours for example), these can not be used by travellers (not being locals), you will need a guide/tour from Libya onwards.
Sevenair operates several daily flights between Tunis and the island of Djerba and several weekly flights from the capital to Tozeur, Sfax and Gafsa.
SNCFT operates the train network in Tunisia. The main route is north-south between Tunis and Gabès, stopping in places like Sousse and Sfax. One train per day branches at Mahres, south of Sfax, going to Gafsa and Metaloui. There are also branch lines to Bizerte and Nabeul (in the Cap Bon). Another train link is the Metro de Sahel linking Sousse to Monastir and Mahdia along the coast.
Tunisia is a good country to travel around by car and if you are from Europe, it is easy to bring your car on one of the many ferries from Italy or France. Otherwise, you can rent one at the international airports, major cities and many coastal resort areas. Most roads are paved and in good condition and there are well maintained road signs and fuel is available at frequent intervals. Valid national driver's licenses and sufficient insurance are required.
SNTRI operates an extensive network of bus connections between all major cities and regional towns. Minibuses and shared taxis provide services to even the most remote villages.
Ferries operate between Sfax and the Kerkennah Islands, and between El Jorf and Djerba.
Nationals of Algeria, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Austria, Bahrain, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Bermuda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Brunei Darussalam, Bulgaria, Chile, Côte d'Ivoire, Croatia, Denmark, Dominica, Falkland Islands, Fiji, Finland, France, Gambia, Germany, Gibraltar, Gilbert Islands, Greece, Guinea, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kiribati, South Korea, Kuwait, Libya, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malaysia, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Monaco, Montenegro, Montserrat, Morocco, Netherlands, Niger, Norway, Oman, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenadines, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States and Vatican City do not require a visa to enter and stay for up to 3 months.
Nationals of Canada do not require a visa to enter and stay for up to 4 months.
A landing visa (on arrival) is available for Australians.
For New Zealand, other African and Asian countries' nationals, a visa must be applied for at the embassy of coverage.
See also Money Matters.
The dinar is the currency of Tunisia (code: TND), subdivided into 1000 milim.
Coins come in denominations of 1,2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 milim, ½, 1, 5 dinar, banknotes come in 5, 10, 20, 30, 50 dinar bills.
Work issues are quite sensitive in Tunisia as job offers are limited even for Tunisian nationals.
The Bourguiba Institute of Modern Languages offers intensive summer sessions in July and August for anyone interested in learning Modern Standard Arabic or Tunisian dialect.
Arabic is the official language of Tunisia and one of the languages of commerce, the other being French - a relic of Tunisia's former status as a French protectorate until 1956. The dialect of Arabic spoken in Tunisia, similar to that in neighbouring Algeria and Morocco, is Maghrebi Arabic, which is nearly incomprehensible to speakers of the Gulf dialect, so don't be surprised if you don't understand locals even if you are competent in Arabic. However, all Tunisians learn standard Arabic in school, so most locals will be able to communicate in standard Arabic if needed. Almost all locals are bilingual in Arabic and French. French is the primary language of higher education, and is commonly used in administration, commerce, and the media. English is of limited use, but fine for use around tourist areas. Tunisians will often use what is known as code switching. This is when two or more languages are used within the same conversation, or even the same sentence. French and Arabic are used interchangeably.
Tunisian cuisine is very much in the Northern African Maghreb tradition, with couscous and marqa stews (similar to the Moroccan tajine) forming the backbone of most meals. Distinguishing characteristics are the fiery harissa chili sauce, the heavy use of tiny olives which are abundant in the country, and the Tunisian tajine which, unlike the Moroccan dish of the same name, refers to a type of omelette-like pie prepared with a ragout of meat and/or vegetables mixed with herbs, legumes and even offal, enriched with eggs and cheese and baked in a deep pie dish until the eggs are just set, somewhat like an Italian frittata. Lamb forms the basis of most meat dishes and local seafood is plentiful. Pork and pork products are not widely available but can be found in some supermarkets and in some hotels in tourist areas.
Some typical dishes include:
There are lots of fine hotels in Tunisia, especially along parts of the coastline and in major cities.
You can also rent a furnished apartment. Some private people offer their own apartments for rent especially in summer.
Being a progressive Muslim country, alcohol availability is restricted (but not greatly) to certain licensed (and invariably more expensive) restaurants, resort areas and Magasin Général shops. Large department stores (Carrefour at Marsa/Carthage) and some supermarkets (e.g. Monoprix) sell beer and wine, and some local and imported hard liquors, except during Muslim holidays.
See also Travel Health
Proof that you had a yellow fever vaccination is only required upon entering Tunisia when you have been to an infected country within 7 days of entering the country.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Tunisia. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
Tunisia recently underwent a revolution and is currently in a contentious transitional period. While large-scale violence is not currently occurring, demonstrations do still happen from time to time, and are sometimes violent or/and broken up brutally. So consult your foreign office to check on current conditions before traveling to Tunisia, and do your best to steer clear of any large demonstrations that may occur while you are there.
Be aware that as of 2015, islamistic terrorists have been targeting tourists in Tunisia. In March 24 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis and in June a terrorist shot dead 39 tourists at a beach and a hotel in Sousse.
Travellers report problems being pestered either to buy something or for other purposes. Persistence is a major complaint. Some say that a refusal often results in a bad reaction, being hissed at is one example, but those who have been advised to refuse politely with a smile rarely complain.
Theft of belongings, even from hotel rooms and room safes, is widely reported and the usual caveats apply - keep valuables in a secure place (e.g. supervised hotel safe deposit), do not flash too much cash, and keep wallets, purses and other desirable items where pick pockets cannot reach them.
Public internet access is available in many cities and towns, usually using the Publinet logo. Look for a large purple sign with the Publinet logo. Access is usually 0.8DT/hour, and speeds tend to be quite low. You can also have 3G internet access through any cell phone carriers.
See also International Telephone Calls
Tunisia's international telephone code is 216.
Public telephones are available in all towns and cities and in most villages under either the name of Publitel or Taxiphone - in cities simply look around - there is at least one on every street. International calls tend to be quite expensive (DT 1,000/minute to call anywhere in the EU). There are three mobile GSM operators, private Tunisiana, private Orange, Tunisia state-owned Tunisie Telecom all offering wide mobile coverage (including some oasis in the Sahara). Rates tend to be quite low for domestic calls, but very high for international calls (around DT 1,500/minute). Ask for a carte prépayée for a prepaid SIM card.
La Poste Tunisienne is the national postal service of Tunisia. Services are generally very reliable and relatively fast as well, up to international standards. It usually takes less than a week to European countries and no more than two weeks to the USA or Australia. Opening times of post offices vary, but the larger ones in cities usually are open from 8:00am to 6:00pm Mondays to Saturdays and a few hours on Sunday morning (usually 9:00-11:00am). Note that in July and August, there are long lunch breaks (kind of like the Spanish siestas), closing between 1:00-5:00pm. Smaller officies in towns also keep slightly shorther hours, closing for lunch year round and only open during the morning on Fridays and Saturdays. Als note that during Ramadan, opening times might be different as well. Stamps can also be bought outside these times at small shops and kiosks selling postcards. For sending larger packages, you might also choose international companies like DHL, TNT, FedEx or UPS, which are about the same price but have better standards.
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