From the mighty ruins of Carthage to unknown Second World War cemeteries, here are the most fascinating historic sites in Tunisia that you can visit today.
Tunisia is an incredible destination to visit if you love history. In its early days, this North African region was home to Berber tribes, and then the seafaring Phoenicians founded Carthage in the 9th century BC. This maritime empire grew to become one of the most powerful in the Mediterranean, but ultimately, it clashed with Rome, leading to its utter and total destruction in the Punic Wars. Roman rule followed, leaving a legacy of architectural grandeur before Christianity was spread across the region. After the decline of Rome, Tunisia witnessed invasions by Vandal tribes and later Byzantine rule.
The 7th century heralded transformative changes with the Islamic conquests, giving rise to the cultural and religious influence that still endures. Tunisia then saw a revolving door of Islamic empires and dynasties, before Ottoman rule began in the 16th century, offering a semblance of autonomy even as Tunisia became part of a broader empire. The French established a protectorate in 1881, setting the stage for modern nationalist movements that fought against this colonial regime until independence in 1956.
This complex journey through time has left a fascinating confluence of Phoenician, Roman, Islamic, Ottoman, and French influences which you can explore when you visit the best historical sites in Tunisia today.
Table of Contents
The best historical sites in Tunisia
I’ve visited Tunisia twice now, and each time I’ve been absolutely taken aback by the sheer quantity of ancient sites you can not only visit but really immerse yourself in. The ruins of Carthage are almost humbling to see firsthand (especially when you know the destructive history of the city at the hands of the Romans in 146 BC!) while the amphitheatre of El Jem rivals the Colosseum in Rome; yet both times I’ve visited, there have been almost no other tourists around.
Fast forward a few centuries and the Islamic heritage begun by conquering Arab dynasties in the 7th century AD is just as impressive as the legacies left by the Carthaginians and Romans. I love nothing more than losing myself in the medinas of Tunis of Sousse, while the Great Mosque of Kairouan (which Tunisians claim to be the third holiest site in Islam) is built using marble salvaged from Carthage.
Tunisia’s historical sites are often overlooked, but with a total of 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites to explore, it’s difficult to fit everything into one trip. Base yourself in Tunis and you can easily visit Carthage and Sidi Bou Said, while a few days in Sousse makes it easy to visit sites like El Jem and Kairouan. Most of the UNESCO sites have guides available for hire at the door, although English-speaking guides can be rare to find (I paid just £10 for a one-hour, private tour of El Jem).
Tunisia’s historical sites are getting some much-needed love right now, too, in recognition of their increasing appeal. The Bardo Museum in Tunis recently reopened in September 2023 after a two-year revamp, Carthage National Museum is in the midst of a revamp, and the island of Djerba was just added to the UNESCO World Heritage list (again in September 2023, and I’ll add Djerba to my list of the best historic sites in Tunisia once I return for a third time and finally visit!).
1. The Ruins of Carthage
The ruins of Carthage, located near the capital city of Tunis, provide a rich exploration of both Punic and Roman history. The site was once the epicentre of the powerful Carthaginian Empire, which met its demise in the Punic Wars against Rome. Today, visitors can explore remnants of both cultures, including the Roman baths of Antoninus, Punic ports, and the Tophet, an ancient sanctuary. The ruins offer a window into the city’s former grandeur and its complex history of destruction and rebirth.
To visit Carthage, you can easily take a taxi or opt for public transport. The TGM (Tunis-Goulette-Marsa) train line connects central Tunis to the Carthage archaeological sites. The train journey takes approximately 20–30 minutes, and there are multiple stations near different parts of the ruins, such as Carthage Amphitheatre and Carthage-Byrsa. Once there, you can either explore the sites independently or engage the services of a local guide for a more detailed historical context. Carthage National Museum, and the archaeological sites themselves, are currently in the process of being upgraded, which should help to protect the ruins for posterity.
2. The Antonine Baths, Carthage
The Ruins of Carthage are split into several distinct sections (this was a large, ancient city, after all). The Antonine Baths are one of those distinct sections, and they’re among the most significant Roman ruins in Tunisia.
Constructed during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius in the 2nd century AD, these thermal baths were once a grand complex, reflecting the Roman emphasis on public bathing as both a social and hygienic practice.
Though now largely in ruins, the site offers a fascinating look at Roman engineering and architecture. The layout comprises frigidarium (cold rooms), tepidarium (warm rooms), and caldarium (hot rooms), showcasing the ingenuity of Roman heating systems.
3. Sidi Bou Said
Perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Sidi Bou Said is not just a visually appealing town, but a place steeped in history. Located just a few kilometres from Carthage, the town is noted for its unique Andalusian architecture, a medley of white-washed buildings adorned with blue doors and window frames.
Historically, it has been a haven for artists, musicians, and writers, drawn to its tranquil streets and inspiring vistas. As you stroll through the cobblestone lanes, you’ll encounter a mix of traditional Tunisian culture and a palpable sense of its artistic legacy. Art galleries, cliffside cafes, and artisan shops add to the artistic allure, while the sea views are exceptional.
Getting to Sidi Bou Said is straightforward. You can catch the same TGM train that also services Carthage. The journey by train takes around 30 minutes from central Tunis.
4. Bardo Museum, Tunis
The Bardo Museum in Tunis is one of North Africa’s most important cultural institutions, serving as a repository for a vast array of historical artefacts. The museum reopened in September 2023 with a much-needed upgrade after a two-year closure.
Housed in a 19th-century palace, the museum effectively encapsulates Tunisia’s rich heritage, displaying items from different epochs including Phoenician, Roman, Islamic, and Ottoman periods. Its standout feature is undoubtedly its extensive collection of mosaics, regarded as one of the finest in the world.
These works of art provide fascinating insights into Roman and Byzantine life, depicting everything from mythological scenes to mundane activities in the ancient world. The museum also has sections devoted to Islamic art, showcasing beautiful manuscripts, ceramics, and textiles.
Given its significance, the Bardo Museum should be high on the list for anyone interested in the diverse layers of Tunisian history.
5. The Medina of Tunis
The Medina of Tunis is the labyrinthine heart of the capital. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Medina stands as a testament to the Islamic influences that have shaped Tunis for centuries. The area is framed by ancient walls and is home to numerous mosques, madrasas, and palaces. Built in the 7th century AD, the Zitouna Mosque is a particular highlight, known for its grand courtyard and intricate tilework.
But beyond the monumental, the Medina is also a hive of commercial activity over a thousand years after it was founded by the conquering Arabs. Souks wind their way through narrow alleys, where you can find everything from spices and textiles to intricately crafted jewellery.
To visit, the Medina is easily accessible on foot from the central square, Place de la Kasbah. Walking is the best way to explore, but be prepared to lose your way at least once – it’s part of the experience. For those interested in diving deep into Tunisian culture and history, the Medina is an indispensable stop.
Read more: 15 Things to Do in Tunis, Tunisia
Situated on the northernmost tip of the entire African continent, Bizerte offers a blend of Tunisian tradition and Mediterranean influences. Known for its natural landscapes, the city is flanked by a scenic coastline, lagoons, and the Ichkeul National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Historically significant, Bizerte has seen various rulers, from the Phoenicians and Romans to the Ottomans and French, each leaving their mark on the port city. The old harbour, with its fishing boats and fortifications, gives a nod to Bizerte’s maritime heritage. The town also has several religious and colonial buildings, including the Ksibah Mosque and the Spanish Fort, which provide glimpses into its varied past.
To visit Bizerte, you can take a train or bus from Tunis, with travel times ranging between one to two hours depending on the mode of transport. The city provides a somewhat quieter alternative to more frequented tourist spots like Sousse, offering visitors a chance to experience a blend of natural beauty and historical depth.
Read more: 18 Best Places to Visit in Tunisia
7. The Phoenician settlement of Utica
Utica, located near the coastal town of Bizerte, holds a significant place in the annals of Tunisian and Mediterranean history. Founded by the Phoenicians in the 1st millennium BC, it predates Carthage and was a thriving maritime city in its own right (and possibly the first-ever Phoenician settlement to be founded in North Africa).
Over time, Utica became an ally and later a rival to Carthage, ultimately siding with Rome during the Punic Wars. Today, the archaeological site reveals layers of its complex history, including Roman villas, a forum, and Punic tombs.
The site is scattered with mosaics, pottery shards, and the remnants of ancient streets, offering a textured sense of the past. One particularly striking feature is the Roman theatre, which could accommodate up to 20,000 spectators in its heyday.
8. The Punic town of Kerkouane
The archaeological site of Kerkouane, situated on the northeastern coast of Tunisia, provides a unique window into Phoenician civilization. Unlike other ancient sites that have layers of Roman or Byzantine occupation, Kerkouane is a rare example of a purely Phoenician-Punic settlement, uninfluenced by subsequent rulers.
Because of its exceptional preservation, the site has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status. Walking through the ruins, visitors can observe remnants of residential buildings, streets, and even a necropolis. The homes often feature courtyards, wells, and built-in benches, offering a glimpse into domestic life during the Phoenician era. Intriguingly, the city layout seems to follow a planned grid, indicating a level of urban planning sophistication.
To get to Kerkouane, it’s best to visit from Hammamet, where it’s possible to join a day tour from the resorts. If you’re intrigued by Phoenician history and culture, Kerkouane is an essential visit.
Read more: 14 Things to Do in Hammamet, Tunisia
9. The Roman Ruins of Dougga
Dougga is a compelling archaeological site located in the northwestern part of Tunisia. Often considered the best-preserved Roman small town in North Africa, Dougga offers a remarkable snapshot of ancient life. The site sprawls over 65 hectares and features a range of well-preserved ruins, including a theatre, temples, and a mausoleum.
The Capitol is a particular standout; dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, it symbolises the epic nature of Roman religious architecture. Dougga’s UNESCO World Heritage status underscores its importance as a repository of ancient Roman, Punic, and Numidian cultures, all of which have left their mark on this historical canvas.
Reaching Dougga can be a bit of a trek; it’s about a two-hour drive from Tunis, and public transport options are limited. However, the journey is well worth the effort for history enthusiasts. Once there, guided tours or well-placed informational signs can help contextualise the various structures, offering a comprehensive look at an ancient world suspended in time.
10. Enfidaville War Cemetery
The Enfidaville War Cemetery in Tunisia serves as a poignant reminder of the human costs of World War II, particularly the North African Campaign. Situated near the town of Enfidaville, the cemetery is the final resting place for soldiers who fought in the Tunisian battles that led to the Axis forces’ eventual defeat in North Africa.
The site contains more than 1,500 Commonwealth burials, including those of British, Australian, New Zealand, and South African troops. Each gravestone is meticulously maintained, often adorned with personal inscriptions, making it a solemn space for reflection on the sacrifices made during a tumultuous period in global history.
Visiting the cemetery offers a quiet moment to consider the complexities of war and the lives touched by it. It’s around a one-hour drive from Tunis, and the cemetery is generally open year-round. Whether you have a personal connection to the events or are interested in military history, the Enfidaville War Cemetery provides a sobering counterpoint to Tunisia’s otherwise vibrant cultural and historical attractions.
11. The Medina of Sousse
The Medina of Sousse, situated along Tunisia’s eastern coast, is an evocative blend of history, architecture, and culture. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Medina’s origin dates back to the early Islamic period, although the area was important even in Punic and Roman times.
One of its most striking features is the Ribat, an Islamic fortress with panoramic views of the city and the Mediterranean Sea. The Great Mosque of Sousse, devoid of lavish ornamentation, is a serene example of Aghlabid architectural simplicity. Apart from the religious landmarks, the Medina is alive with commerce. Its souks offer an array of goods, from leather items to spices, attracting both locals and visitors alike.
To get to Sousse, you can take a train or Louage (a type of local, shared transport) from Tunis, with the journey typically taking about two hours. Once in the city, the Medina is easily navigable on foot, with the Sousse Archeological Museum offering an opportunity to escape from the sun!
12. El Jem Amphitheatre
The El Jem Amphitheatre, located in El Jem not far from Sousse, stands as a magnificent example of Roman engineering and architecture. Constructed during the 3rd century AD, this colossal structure could once hold up to 35,000 spectators and is among the largest amphitheatres ever built by the Romans.
Uncannily resembling Rome’s Colosseum (but with none of the crowds), El Jem is remarkably well-preserved, with its imposing walls, corridors, and underground chambers largely intact. The amphitheatre was not merely a venue for entertainment; it also bore witness to the harsh realities of gladiatorial contests and animal fights.
Today, visitors can explore various levels of the amphitheatre, including the underground chambers where animals and gladiators were kept before performances. The site has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, affirming its historical and cultural importance. El Jem is easily accessible by train or Louage from Sousse, with the journey taking about one hour.
13. The Great Mosque of Kairouan
The Great Mosque of Kairouan, located in one of Islam’s oldest cities, is a seminal piece of Islamic architecture and a focal point of spiritual life in Tunisia. Founded in the 9th century, the mosque is a sprawling complex that encompasses a courtyard, prayer hall, minaret, and various ancillary chambers.
Its architectural elements, such as the horseshoe arches and intricate stucco work, have influenced Islamic building designs across the Maghreb and beyond. The mosque is not only a place of worship but also a centre of Islamic scholarship, reinforcing Kairouan’s status as a spiritual and educational hub.
Visitors can access Kairouan by bus or car, with the journey from Sousse taking around one hour. While non-Muslims are generally not allowed into the main prayer hall (this is often considered to be the third holiest city in the Islamic world), the courtyard and other sections of the complex are open to tourists.
14. The Roman villas of Bulla Regia
Bulla Regia, located in the northwestern part of Tunisia, is an archaeological site unlike any other. What sets this Roman city apart is its subterranean villas, a unique architectural feature developed as a response to the region’s extreme heat.
These underground residences come complete with open-air courtyards and intricate mosaics, showcasing a blend of Roman ingenuity and North African climate adaptation. The site also includes traditional Roman elements such as a theatre, baths, and a forum, allowing visitors to experience the diversity and complexity of Roman life.
Getting to Bulla Regia requires a bit of planning, as it’s around a two-hour drive from Tunis and public transport is limited. However, the journey is especially rewarding for ancient history enthusiasts!
Map of the best historic sites in Tunisia
Here’s a map detailing the locations of the best historic sites you can visit in Tunisia:
FAQ: Best historical sites in Tunisia
Here’s an FAQ on the best historic sites to visit in Tunisia:
Q1: How do I reach the Carthage Ruins?
The Carthage ruins are easily accessible from Tunis via taxi or the TGM train line. The site is around 20 km from central Tunis.
Q2: Is El Jem Amphitheatre still used today?
While not in use for its original purpose, the amphitheatre does occasionally host concerts and events.
Q3: What can I expect to see at the Medina of Tunis?
You’ll find a range of architectural styles, from palaces and mosques to souks and narrow alleyways, all within ancient walls.
Q4: Is Kairouan exclusively an Islamic historic site?
While Kairouan is primarily known for its Islamic landmarks, the city also has architecture and artefacts from various periods, reflecting a rich history.
Q5: Are there any special considerations for visiting Sidi Bou Said?
As Sidi Bou Said is a popular tourist destination, it can be quite busy, especially on weekends. Early morning visits are recommended.
Q6: Why is Bulla Regia different from other Roman ruins?
The site is notable for its underground villas, designed to offer relief from the hot climate, and contains well-preserved mosaics.
Q7: Is it possible to visit multiple sites in a single day?
While some sites like Carthage and the Medina of Tunis are near each other, most are spread out. A single-day visit to multiple locations would be rushed.
Q8: Do these sites have guided tours?
Most major sites offer guided tours, either through official guides or audio guides. Some also offer informational placards in multiple languages.
Q9: What’s the best time of year to visit these historical sites?
Spring and autumn offer pleasant temperatures and fewer crowds, making them ideal seasons for exploring Tunisia’s historical landmarks.