From the great Sahara desert on the south to the stunning blue waters of the Mediterranean sea on the north, from the two thousand years old gladiators’s battlefield of El Jem to fascinating mosques from the Islamic school of architecture, the small North African nation, Tunisia, has got it all. With a good public transport system with rail and road, backpacking Tunisia is easy and a great way to know more about this country. In December 2019, I backpacked Tunisia for 8 days. Although you will need at least two weeks to cover everything here, even with a week most of the important places can be seen.
Other than Senegal, Tunisia is the only African country where Indians can go without a visa.
Arabic is the main language in Tunisia, followed by French. Know any of them and you are all sorted out. Most among the young generation speak English; so too cab drivers and workers in restaurants and hotels. Having said that, you have to keep in mind that there are a huge number of people who don’t speak even a word of English. There were countless occasions where I had to use hand signals, while taking public transports, asking for directions or even while ordering food from street vendors. The numbers were the most difficult part to understand, so you’d better carry a notepad and pen to avoid confusion while asking for prices.
Tunisian Dinar is their currency. 1 TND = $0.35 / €0.32 / £0.27
The railway network of Tunisia connects most of the major towns, bar southern towns like Douz, Tataouine and Tozeur. During my travel, availability of tickets was not a problem, since I always booked them a day in advance. You can check the Tunisian rail transportation website to see the timetable and fares for all their trains.
The state-operated buses also play an important role in transportation across the country but the most common way of traveling in Tunisia is the shared mini vans, locally known as the ‘louage’. The fares are always pre-paid and fixed for louages, so there is no need to negotiate it with drivers, but the major problem is that they won’t start the journey until the ride is completely filled. While louages get filled fast in major towns, the wait can go up to a few hours in smaller ones.
Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia, is the major hub for international travellers. Tunis –
Carthage International Airport is well connected to many European, Arab and African countries. Other major international airports are in Monastir, Djerba and Sfax. There are ferry services to Tunis from several seaports in Italy and France around the Mediterranean. Depending upon the time of your arrival there are a few places in Tunis you can visit on the first day itself. The entire city revolves around the grand Medina that is located at the center of the city. The narrow bustling market that surrounds the Medina, known as the ‘souk’, sells everything that you’d possibly want.
Tunis has a tram system that connects most of the important places in the city.
Sidi Bou Said & Carthage
One of Tunisi’s top attraction, Sidi Bou Said, which is their answer to Santorini of Greece, lies just 30 minutes away from Tunis, on the banks of the mesmerising blue waters of the Mediterranean sea. The light metro from Tunis Grande metro station is the best way to get there. If you stay near the city center, you can walk up to the metro station which is at the end of the Ave Habib Bourguiba road or else take a tram to get there. Tunis Grande metro station is only one stop away from the Barcelona tram station.
Get down at Sidi Bou Said station and walk for a few minutes to reach the beautiful white and blue painted houses that face the sea, which this place is famous for. There are many souvenir shops and restaurants on both sides of the street. While you are there, don’t forget to try their mouthwatering fish dishes. Some of them come with rice or couscous. No matter what you have, don’t forget to ask for the price before ordering. There are some very expensive items in most of their menus. The one I had cost me 23 dinar. It had rice and some salad, not to mention the bread and olives that comes with everything that you order in this country!
A few kilometers away from Sid Bou Said lies one of the most flourishing cities of ancient times, Carthage. Northern Africa was once part of the great Roman empire that stretched all the way from the Atlantic coast of Morocco up to Egypt and Carthage was an important trading hub in those times. Although what is left now is only the ruins of Carthaginian civilisation, like public baths and amphitheatre, it is worth visiting. You can take the same metro to reach Carthage Hanibal station, where most of the ruins are located or walk there directly from Sid Bou Said. With one common ticket you can cover all these ruins that are spread across Carthage.
Take the metro back to Tunis. Plan for the rest of the day, depending upon the time you get back. Anyone who has ever been to this city will tell you that Bardo National Museum, which shows cases Roman artifacts and Islamic medieval artworks, is a must visit. I still can’t believe I missed it! The museum is closed on Monday and on rest of the week it closes by 5 in the evening.
Visit the Medina if you haven’t done that already. At night, take a walk through Ave Habib Bourguiba to know the pulse of Tunis. This city is a perfect fusion of the continental and North African style. My knowledge about Arabic food was limited to just shawarma (chawarma) and Kabsa but here I realised that there are tons of varieties in shawarma itself. There are many open restuants on both side of this grand avenue, where you can enjoy a nice relaxing dinner.
Metro ticket to Sidi Bou Sid – 0.700 TND x 2
Carthage ruins ticket – 12 TND (covers all places)
Sousse & Monastir
Sousse and Monastir are two glistening towns on the banks of Mediterranean coast, separated by only 20 km. The best way to get to Sousse is to catch the early morning train that goes to Gabes from Tunis station. The train leaves at 5.45 am and it is advised to book the tickets a day before as it can get sold out sometimes. You will reach Sousse station, located in the city’s heart, around 8.30 am. Hotel Paris is a great budget hotel to stay in Sousse with only a minutes walk from the main square, inside Medina. If you start right away after checking into your hotel, you can cover both the cities in one day. There is a light metro rail system (Sahel metro) that runs between Sousse and Monastir, taking roughly 40 minutes. The metro station in Sousse is located near the harbour.
The picturesque fort facing the sea, known as the Ribat, is the main attraction in the city of Monastir. Built over a thousand years ago, this sand colored fort is a gorgeous place to walk around, especially with the stunning blue waters of the Mediterranean lapping up on Qaraiya beach, only a few meters away, setting a charming tone. From Ribat take a walk to see the beautiful Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum. It is here that they cremated former president Habib Bourguiba, the father of Tunisian independence. After having lunch from a nearby hotel I took a public bus from near the metro station to get back to Sousse, costing a dinar.
The historical Medina, built during the flourishing times of the medieval Islamic period, surrounded by its city walls and fortification, is the primary interest of Sousse. You can enter it from many of its gates that are located in all directions. I bet you will find it hard to find a way out through its maze like structure once you get in. Inside the Medina, there are countless bakeries, jewellery, spice and clothing shops. Head to the archeological museum of Sousse next, where you can see amazing mosaic artworks that date back to 3rd century AD, a time when all these regions where part of the Roman empire. The spectacular mosaic art of Greek goddess Medusa is not something you want to miss. Dar Essid Museum, situated inside Medina, can be your next destination. It is a small but interesting local history museum that replicates a traditionally wealthy house in the old ages, with many colorfully decorated rooms and corridors.
I didn’t find the beaches in Sousse attractive like Monastir, yet the walk along the roads near the beach was enjoyable. There are a few restaurants on both sides behind the posh buildings of Habeeb Burguiba street that dishes out amazing grilled fish and couscous with mutton.
Train to Sousse – 10.9 TND
Ribat ticket – 8 TND
Sousse to Monastir metro/bus – 1 TND x 2
Archeological musueum – 5 TND
Dar Essid Museum – 5 TND
El Jem & Kairouan
Move away from the Mediterranean coasts to El Jem and Kairouan to see another side of Tunisia; more rigid, dry and culturally variant. You can cover both these places from Sousse in one day if you start a little early. The only trouble is that there is no direct transportation from El Jem to Kairouan. You need to come back to Sousse to get to the next place. The daily morning train to Gabès coming from Tunis is the popular way to go to El Jem. It stops at Sousse around 8.30 in the morning. Get on it for an hour long comfortable journey to El Jem. For louages you need to take a taxi to get to the louage station as it is around 2 kms away from the city centre and can cost up to 2 dinars.
The two thousand years old amphitheatre of El Jem is undoubtedly the most spectacular building in the whole of Tunisia. Listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, this Roman coliseum is the third biggest of its kind in the world. Walking through this giant building that witnessed many bloody fights in history was such an overwhelming experience for me. There is one small archaeological museum also near the coliseum.
Take the louage for your return journey to Sousse instead of waiting for the train. It is easy to miss the louage station of El Jem as it is inside a small street, so ask the locals for direction every 50 meters! Once you get back to Sousse you can take another louage to Kairouan from the same station. Like El Jem, Kairouan is also an hour away by road.
Kairouan is one of the holiest places in the Islamic world, ranked only after Mecca and Medina. With its rich architectural heritage, the great mosque known as Mosque of Uqba attracts thousands of visitors and pilgrims every year. A big Medina with its vast tiny narrow streets that looks like a maze surrounds the mosque and this is where the heart of this city throbs. There are plenty of local stores here selling their local goods and colorful carpets for which this city is well known. With its whitewashed buildings and blue color doors you may get confused that you have landed in Sidi Bou Said again! While you are at the market, don’t forget to try ‘Makroudh’, a small sweet cake which is their local speciality.
Train ticket to El Jem – 6.60 TND
Amphitheatre ticket – 12 TND
Louage to Sousse – 6.60 TND
Louage to Kairouan – 4.90 TND x 2
Mosque ticket – 12 TND
Douz is the gateway to the great Sahara desert in Tunisia. From Sousse, the easiest way to get there is by taking the direct bus that comes from Tunis. There is one in the morning and one at 11 in the night. The only weird thing about it is that nobody, including the city bus drivers in Sousse, had an idea about these services! Most of the people I asked didn’t even know where the long-distance bus terminal is. Without the Internet, I would have never reached the place. The bus terminal is on the southeastern side of the city and is nearly a kilometer further from the louage station.
The alternative way to reach Douz is a little tiresome. First you need to take a louage or a train (there is one at midnight) to Gabès, from there take a louage to Qibilī and then another one to Douz, as there are no direct service between Gabès and Douz. The louage stations in Qibili for Gabès and Douz are so far away from each other that you need to take a taxi to get across from one to the other.
Your North African trip won’t be complete without a desert safari in the Sahara! So the first thing to do upon reaching Douz is to book the desert safari. There are different safaris available to book, based upon your interest, budget, and time you have got. The one which I did was a night camping one where they take you into the desert by evening (not very far, maybe 5 km into the desert), you spend the night there in a small tent and come back next day morning. It cost 45 dinar. You need to take a 4×4 vehicle safari for a deep Saharan desert experience, which costs around 150 dinars. Most of these safaris don’t need any pre- bookings and can be arranged with the help of your hotel.
The lively open market of Douz is a fun experience, where you can practically get anything from vegetables to camels, provided you are fortunate enough to reach Douz on a Thursday, the day the market opens.
Bus ticket from Sousse to Douz – 25 TND
Desert safari – 45 TND + 10 TND tip
Douz – Tataouine
Things get a little tricky from here. There is no direct way to get to Tataouine from Douz, unless you hire a private taxi. Go to Gabes to take a louage that goes to Tataouine through Madinine – another major southern city. The morning bus to Tunis that leaves Douz at 10 am has a stop in Gabes, but by the time I reached the bus station, tickets were sold out. If possible, better book the tickets on the day you arrive in Douz to avoid this. Keep this in mind: the louage journey from Douz to Tataouine will take at least three rides with changes at Qibili and Gabes, and possibly will take your entire day.
It is the picturesque villages near the town of Tataouine that inspired George Lucas to create Luke Skywalker’s home planet ‘Tatooine’ in the Starwars movie. Take a louage from Tataouine town center to get to Ksar Ouled Soltane (20 minutes’ ride), one of the major shooting spots for Starwars. Native people of Tunisia known as Berbers lived here in desert houses on hills to escape from the invaders, especially the Arabs who conqured this region back in 7th century.
Head back to town and take another louage to Chenini to see the stunning village houses on the mountains. At one time, there were 3000 people used to live up here, leaving just a hundred now. Like Ksar Ouled Soltane, this place was a big shelter for Berber people during the time of unrest in the valleys. Budget travellers don’t have to look for another option than Hotel Auberge Alferdaous in Tataouine.
Louage Douz to Tataouine – 19.7 TND
Louage Tataouine to Ksar Ouled Soltane – 1.7 TND x 2
Louage Tataouine to Chenini – 1.5 TND x 2
Tataouine – Gabes – Tunis
Head to Gabes to catch the midnight night train to Tunis. The trains leave at 5 minutes past midnight and reaches the capital around 7am. If you still have some time left for your flight, roam around Tunis or head straight to the airport.
Louage to gabes – 9.5 TND
Train ticket Gabes to Tunis – 24 TND
Djerba and Matmata
If you got additional days, you can visit two more places in south of Tunisia, Djerba and Matmata. Djerba is a beautiful resort island that has direct access from Tataouine and Gabes. Matmata is a desert town famous for its partially underground Berber houses, featured in Starwars movie.