Tunisia is a small Mediterranean country in North Africa, tiny in fact. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in quality and variety. Tunisia is definitely an exotic land of diversity and color, influenced over its 3,000 years of history by the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arab Muslims, the Spanish, Turkish-Ottomans, and the imperial French. All of this heritage has produced a Tunisia that is both a blend of the Arab and a touch of European.
Geographically, Tunisia sits on the coast of North Africa halfway between the Atlantic and the Nile River. It is bordered by Libya in the southeast and Algeria in the west, and it faces the Italian islands of Sardinia and Malta across the Mediterranean sea. Even as small as Tunisia is, its landscape is surprisingly diverse. You’ll find the Dorsal Mountains in the northeast and the Cape Bon peninsula in the west. And further north beyond Dorsal is the Tell region with its rolling green hills and flat plains. Northwest Tunisia, on the other hand, is mountainous. The interior, meanwhile, features short-grassed plains while the south consists of desert and sand-dunes of the vast Sahara, which make up 40% of the country.
For such a small country, Tunisia does a great job attracting millions of visitors every year. This exotic land of spices and scents packs a real punch, offering not just breezy Mediterranean beaches and desert oases with hot pools out in the Sahara, but historic ruins like the remains of Roman Carthage, museums that retrace the country’s history with the Phoenicians, Romans, and Muslims, national parks that list among them UNESCO-protected Biosphere reserves, and stunning mountain villages like Takrouna that give visitors a window into traditional Tunisian life and culture. To top it off, the cuisine in Tunisia is gourmet, a fusion of French richness and Arab spiciness. And the people are friendly, warm, and fun, often hosting lively festivals in local souks. So, there really is nothing you won’t find in Tunisia – perhaps the perfect vacation if you can’t decide between Europe and Africa.
The earliest known inhabitants of Tunisia were Berber tribes. In 1,000 BC, the Phoenicians began settling the coast, establishing the city of Carthage around 800 BC. Carthage rose to prominence in the 6th century BC, becoming the dominant civilization in the Mediterranean. While founded and inhabited by Phoenicians, the empire that developed around Carthage was independent from the Phoenicians. Led by the famous Hannibal who is still recognized today as one of the greatest war tacticians of all time, Carthage engaged in a number of wars with Rome, crippling the Roman Empire a couple times. Eventually, Hannibal’s lack of support and reinforcements led to his defeat to the Romans and Carthage suffered through Roman rule until the 5th century AD when the Vandals took over.
In 500 AD, the Byzantines conquered Tunisia, followed by the Arab Muslims in the 7th century. The French Normans in the 12th century also briefly held the coastal areas of Tunisia. Spain also briefly seized the coast in the late 16th century, before Tunisia reverted back to the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, France colonized Tunisia and made it a protectorate of their imperial empire. After WWII, an independence movement in Tunisia that had started prior to the war took off. Autonomy was finally granted to the Tunisians after much initial resistance from the French government.
Today, Tunisia is one of the more western-friendly and wealthier of the Muslim countries, although its government has a reputation for human rights abuses and has denied citizens the freedom of speech at times. Women, though, enjoy a greater degree of rights than they do in other Arab countries.
Tunisia’s main lure is its golden beaches fronting the beautiful blue Mediterranean. Numerous seaside resorts line this 1200 kilometer coast. Hammamet, Sousse, Nabeul, Tabarka, Monastir, and Djerba are among the more popular destinations; they are packed with waterfront hotels and present a setting ideal for boating, sailing, surfing, scuba diving, windsurfing, fishing, and other sea sports. These resort areas also offer golf course and tennis courts. The peak tourist season is during the summer when festivals and concerts are held and activities are lined up at the various hotels.
On the historical side, Tunisia is scattered with ancient Roman and Phoenician sites as well as historic museums. The National Museum of Bardo in the suburbs of Tunis, for instance, is a “must”. It is set in a 13th century Hafside palace that was expanded in the 17th century, implementing an Arab-Moslem architectural style, which features cupolas, vaulted ceilings, and galleries. This museum houses the world’s finest collection of Roman statues, ceramics, and mosaics. The museum also features priceless artifacts that depict Tunisia’s history from the prehistoric era, to the Carthaginian era, to the Roman, to the Christian era, to the Muslim era.
Also worth visiting is the National Museum of Carthage on Byrsa Hill where you’ll find a rich collection of Carthaginian and Roman artifacts. The museum is located on the site of the main ruins of Punic Carthage, which was once home to over 400,000 people and heavily fortified before it fell to the Romans in 146 BC. South of the museum is the Punic Quarter, which is an ancient burial site. You’ll also find a two-hectare sanctuary nearby that once was used for human sacrifices, the Baths of Antonin, which is the largest Roman bath outside of Rome, and the Roman Theater, which dates back to 100AD and has a 5000-seat capacity. At La Malaga, there are two dozen giant cisterns that were once used as part of an aqueduct system; they attest to the genius of Roman engineering. Nearby, you’ll also find the ruins of a 2nd century AD Amphitheatre that once seated more than 50,000 spectators, and once witnessed the martyrdom of hundreds of Christians during the 3rd century.
Be sure also to visit North Africa’s only UNESCO designated nature site, Ichkeul. This habitat is home to unique fishes and more than 200,000 migratory birds. You’ll also find buffalos, wild boars, and jackals roaming the mountains, which bloom with bright flowers during spring.