For Europeans looking to escape the cold, Tunisia is a great sun-sea-and-sand winter destination. Offering warm temperatures all year round, white sandy beaches, luxury hotels and a wide range of water sports, Tunisia offers an all-year-round escape. But taking time to venture away from the coast towards the desert, you’ll be transported to a dramatic landscape like something from another planet, which is why movie directors have chosen to shoot films for countless movies there, including Star Wars, Indiana Jones and The Gladiator. Tunisia is an Arabic country with a French/European twist- not only does it have miles of beaches, it has Roman remains, desert, sand dunes, salt flats, mountains, tropical oases, picturesque blue and white villages and Arabic medinas. Tunisia is a great base from which to explore the Sahara Desert and experience the North African culture.
Here are my top ten things to do in Tunisia.
1. Ride the Dotto train- Tunisia has many novelty forms of transportation, including this ‘Noddy’ train, which runs from Port El Kantaoui to Sousse. The trackless train drives on the road and is certainly a different way to travel and see the sights!
2. Go parasailing- If you hit the beach in Tunisia, there are Tunisians offering water sports everywhere, especially parasailing, which seems to be extremely popular. With parasailing you are attached to a parachute by a harness and pulled along by a speedboat, providing you with a nice view of the surrounding area from the air.
3. Buy a souvenir in Sidi Bou Said- This cute little blue and white village overlooks the Bay of Tunis and provides a picture-postcard photo opportunity. The most striking thing about this village is the colours; the striking blue doors and the bright white walls; the turquoise blue ocean and the purple bougainvillea are unforgettable. Walk along the cobblestone streets and haggle for a souvenir in one of the shops, or drink some mint tea in one of the cafés overlooking the Gulf of Tunis at the top of the hill. Sidi Bou Said has been associated with famous artists including Paul Klee, Gustave-Henri Jossot, August Macke, Louis Moillet and Saro Lo Turco, so it’s also a great place to purchase a painting.
4. Ride the Red Lizard Train- You’ll feel just like Indiana Jones as you step aboard the Red Lizard Train, called the Lézard Rouge in French. That’s because it was used in the Indiana Jones movie The Last Crusade, in which he fights on top of it. This famous historic train offers rides for tourists, running from Metlaoui to Redayef through Tunisia’s flat rocky desert. The train track was once used by mining trains to carry phosphates, and you’ll pass through the Selja Gorge before entering the mining areas in the mountains. The French antique train was built in the 19th century and is an attraction in itself, with its red wooden panels and old-fashioned carriages.
5. Ride a camel in the Sahara Desert- You can ride a camel in countries all over the world these days, but there’s no better place to do it than in the Sahara Desert. I went on an organised tour to Douz, which is known as “The Gateway to the Sahara” because it sits on the edge of the desert. We went just before sunset when the sun is lower in the sky, and were given clothes that made us look like Laurence of Arabia. The camel, known as “The Ship of the Desert”, is not the most comfortable of things to sit on, and they can spit! But the experience of riding a camel over the sand dunes as the sun goes down is magical. I’ve also never seen more stars at night than I did in the Sahara Desert.
6. Take a horse and cart ride into an Oasis- It can be hard to believe an oasis can exist in the middle of the dry, arid desert, but if you want to see for yourself you can take a horse and carriage ride into the lush oasis in Tozeur. The horses move incredibly fast, galloping through the oasis as you gaze upwards at the coconut palms, date palms and banana trees. If you’re lucky a local a might even demonstrate how to climb one of the palms with incredible agility.
7. View Salt Flats at Sunrise- You might be a little cranky when you have to get up before sunrise, but it’s worth it when you see the salt flats at Chott El Jerid as the sun comes up on the horizon. Chott el Jerid is the largest salt flat in the Sahara at 7,000 square kilometres and is said to be one of the most Mars-like places on Earth. It was also used in the shooting of the Star Wars movies.
8. Explore the Troglodyte Caves of Matmata- A trip to Matmata is definitely one of the highlights of any trip to Tunisia. Nestled into the landscape are over 700 troglodyte homes, dug into the ground to protect Tunisians from the desert heat. These cave-like houses are still inhabited by Tunisians and a family might even let you inside to take a peak. When I visited Matmata an old lady let us inside her home and I was incredibly surprised to find she even had a TV. Star Wars fans shouldn’t miss the Sidi Driss hotel in Matmata, which was Luke Skywalker’s childhood home on the planet of Tatooine in the movies.
9. El Djem amphitheatre- The El Djem Colosseum is one of the most impressive Roman remains in Africa and nearly as big as the Colosseum in Rome. When it was built in the third century AD it was the third largest Roman amphitheatre in the world and could seat 35,000 spectators. Tunisia seems to be a popular location for movies, and the El Djem amphitheatre was used for shooting some scenes in the epic movie, The Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe. Not only can you sit on the steps of the amphitheatre, you can also explore the underground basement area, where the beasts and gladiators were kept in cells. When a game took place, the gladiators and animals were raised from the cells below via a lift system.
10. Take a horse and carriage ride around Sousse- A horse and carriage ride around the edge of the Medina won’t cost you nearly as much as a horse and carriage ride in a city like New York or London! Haggle for a ride in one of these elaborately decorated carriages for a unique way to see Sousse. Of course no trip to North Africa would be complete without haggling for goods in the labyrinthine streets of a souk.