Situated along the Mediterranean Sea coastline, Tunisia’s strategic location has attracted settlers and conquerors throughout the ages. Likewise, its proximity to the Sahara has also brought its people into contact with the inhabitants of the African interior.
Greek legend tells of a princess called Dido, who became the first outsider to settle among the native tribes of Tunisia when she founded the city of Carthage in the 9th century BC. Whether this origin story is true or not, Carthage nonetheless grew into one of the greatest cities of antiquity, inviting the wrath of the Roman Empire.
From then onwards, Tunisia would be conquered and ruled over by Romans, Arabs and the French Empire, before eventually gaining independence in 1956.
Tunisia’s long history has provided a fantastic selection of historic sites to visit. If you’re struggling with where to start, here are our top 10.
Carthage in North Africa was one of the most powerful cities of the ancient world, spawning the powerful Carthaginian Empire which dominated much of the western Mediterranean as an important – and resultantly affluent – trading hub.
Carthage itself was central to the history of the ancient world. Legend states that the city was founded by the Phoenician Queen Dido in the 9th Century BC and the ancient metropolis certainly rose to prominence over the next 500 years.
However, three long and brutal wars with Rome, known as the Punic Wars, eventually led to the downfall and destruction of Carthage in 146 BC. It is even said the Romans salted the earth so nothing more could live on the site of the once-dominant city.
Dougga in Tunisia is the location of the extremely well-preserved ruins of an ancient site inhabited by a series of cultures: notably the Numidians, the Punics, the ancient Greeks and the Romans.
The incredible state of preservation of Dougga combined with its mix of cultural influences led UNESCO to list it as a World Heritage site in 1997. Grand and full of fascinating sites, Dougga is one of Africa’s most magnificent archaeological sites.
Make sure you reserve a good few hours to wander Dougga’s impressive ruins amidst 70 hectares, including the theatre, an amphitheatre, temples such as those of Juno Caelestis and Saturn.
Enfidaville War Cemetery in Tunisia is a World War Two Commonwealth cemetery housing the graves of 1,551 soldiers who died in the course of the North Africa Campaign, particularly the Tunisia Campaign. Of these graves, 88 are unidentified.
The Tunisia Campaign was fought between Allied and Axis forces from 1942 to 1943.. The area in which the Enfidaville War Cemetery is located and the surrounding area of Tarkouna saw particularly fierce fighting near the end of this campaign, with most of those buried there having perished in the period of March to May 1943.
El Jem Amphitheatre (El Djem), also known as Thysdrus Amphitheatre after the original Roman settlement in this location, stands in the midst of a quiet town in Tunisia. This incredibly large and well-preserved Roman amphitheatre is El Jem’s star attraction and, unsurprisingly, draws visitors from around the world.
Despite the ravages of time, El Jem remains one of the most evocative Ancient Roman structures in the world and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. You might also recognise this ancient treasure from Monty Python’s film, Life of Brian.
The Medina of Tunis – the historic quarter of the capital of Tunisia – is a labyrinth of some 700 monuments and buildings, many dating to the period between the 12th and the 16th centuries.
The Medina of Tunis was founded in the 7th century following the fall of Carthage, but flourished in the 12th century under the rule of the Almohad Dynasty then the Hafsid Dynasty up to the 16th century, both being Berber dynasties. During this time, Tunis was a thriving centre of commerce and culture, the result today being an impressive collection of surviving mosques, palaces, and monuments.
The Sanctuary of Tophet in Tunisia constitutes the remains of a vast number of children’s graves dating back to the Punic period of Carthage. Historians have hotly disputed whether the Carthaginians practised child-sacrifice during times of serious hardship, and if so, how many of the graves at Tophet belong to sacrificed children.
Today this eerie site can be found near the Punic Port in Tunis, covering about an acre of land. You can walk among the stelae, viewing the inscriptions and carvings of the ancient grave markers under the shade of palm trees, sheltering from Tunisia’s hot summer weather.
The Bardo Museum in Tunis is Tunisia’s national archaeological museum and contains artefacts from throughout the country’s history.
The Bardo Museum’s building has a long history of its own, housed in an imposing palace complex. Originally built during the Hafside Dynasty in the 13th century, the palace was subsequently renovated in the 17th and 18th centuries.
From prehistoric items to Punic ceremonial artefacts believed to be connected with practices of human sacrifice and right through to art from the Islamic era, the Bardo Museum offers a great overview of Tunisia’s past and the development of its culture.
Bulla Regia is an incredible Ancient Roman archaeological site in Tunisia with a fascinating set of subterranean villas and other monuments.
Tunisia was annexed into the Roman Empire in approximately 46 BC, under Julius Caesar. Previously a Berber site, Bulla Regia flourished under the Romans who built a series of monuments and public buildings in the area, such as its amphitheatre.
Amongst the remains at Bulla Regia, there are its famous two-storey villas, with the lower storey located underground to protect its inhabitants from the elements. A further characteristic of these villas is the fact that many of them contain original Roman mosaics, still in situ.
Sbeitla in Tunisia was once a flourishing ancient city, the spectacular remains of which are among the best Roman ruins in the world.
This startling site, also at times known as Sufetula, thrived as a Roman settlement from the 1st century AD, in part thanks to its temperate Mediterranean climate, which proved to be ideal for olive-growing. This export helped keep Sufetula thriving long after many of her rivals collapsed, and the city turned into an important centre of Christianity by the 4th century.
Today, Sbeitla’s ruins hint at the great city that once stood here.
As the largest set of Roman thermae built on the African continent and one of the three largest built in the Roman Empire, the Antonine Baths were a huge Roman bath complex in ancient Carthage, Tunisia. Today, the well-preserved ruins are a popular UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The fascinating ruins of the Antonine Baths are certainly worth exploring and, with the picturesque sea as a backdrop, are surrounded with natural beauty. The overgrown garden contain other remains such as Punic tombs and a tiny early Christian funerary chapel with a mosaic floor.